Disclaimer: Final Fantasy VIII is copyright of Square-Enix and no doubt assorted other entities. No copyright infringement is intended—this is simply a work of fanfiction.

Father Figure

What, exactly, was I here for?

"That's a good question," Kiros replied. I started, unaware that I had spoken it aloud. Over the past twenty-four hours—which is exactly how long it took for me to conceive the idea, make my whirlwind decision, arrange to get away, and then actually get here—that had been the question everyone wanted the answer to.

What, exactly, was I here for? It was a bad idea. I could feel it as much as I could feel the soft, sandy ground shift beneath my shoes when I stepped off the airship ramp. The scent of salt air assaulted my senses, and looking around the area we'd landed at, I realized just how barren Esthar really was—endless desert and rocky cliffs with a horizon line of dust. After around seven years, I'd almost forgotten what it looked like to see trees and lush greenery outside of climate-controlled, indoor environments.

This was a peaceful place, at least, if not what I was expecting. A quiet peninsula jutting off the Centra continent, an ideal location if you didn't want to be bothered, if not the best place in case of an emergency. There had to be a few rural villages or towns between here and there, but the closest thing to real civilization was probably Timber. Or Winhill, the traitorous little voice in the back of my mind echoed.

I didn't want to think of Winhill. It only depressed me.

And this won't?

But Winhill was why I was here. I had a lot of reasons to be happy when I thought of that sleepy little village . . . but just then I could only remember the bad things. Like walking back into her house—our house—and hearing everything echo around me. Seeing the dust I stirred with my footsteps . . . the clear sign that there was no life inside.

I sucked in a deep breath and forced myself back into the present.

The orphanage was not what fit my mental picture of an orphanage. I was thinking of some two or three story brick or wooden house with a swing set in the yard and maybe a slide or sandbox—though thinking about it, I guess a sandbox would have been a little pointless, considering they were surrounded by sand—and some shrieking kids running around outside. But instead I faced a split-level villa of light grey stone, with ivy climbing the columns that supported it.

There was a lighthouse at the very end of the peninsula, settled on the edge of a cliff, and with the sound of the ocean lapping at the rocky shore, I found it almost idyllic. There was a field of flowers on the opposite side of the orphanage, slightly out of place, but beautiful nonetheless. My journalistic side could appreciate it, and I soaked in every detail as if I planned to write about it. I glanced sidelong at Kiros. "Doesn't look much like an orphanage, does it?" I asked.

"Not really," Kiros replied. He paused for a beat, and I knew what was coming. "Are you sure you want to do this?"

"Hey, too late to back out now," I reasoned, attempting my typical carefree smile. Kiros wasn't convinced, because he continued to level his dark gaze at me very seriously. I faltered. "I've waited too long already . . . Kiros, this is his seventh birthday. That's six years of birthdays I've missed, I think I should be there . . ."

Before I could go into a tangent, Kiros interrupted, lifting a hand. "I think it's best if maybe Ward and I just stay on board the ship. You know where we are if you need us."

I nodded slightly, and shouldered the small bag I had brought with me—I wasn't planning to stay the night, but there were things in it I thought I might find useful. Kiros started back up the ramp, but I called out, "Hey, Kiros?"

My old friend turned back to look at me, lifting an eyebrow. "Yeah, Laguna?"

"Thanks," I offered weakly, for lack of anything else. I wasn't exactly sure what I was thanking him for. Being there with me over the years—he and Ward were like brothers to me—keeping me in line, helping me run a country, coming with me on this wild duck chase . . . or was it goose? I forget.

Kiros didn't seem to need a reason for my thanks, though, because he simply nodded. "Don't mention it," he responded, and started back up the ramp.

I stood there like an idiot until he was back inside the airship, then I finally looked back at the orphanage. Well, Loire, might as well go ahead and do it . . .

The only problem being, I wasn't sure what 'it' was. I didn't know why I was here. Was it just to see him and Ellone, as I had reasoned before leaving Esthar? I wasn't sure anymore. I wasn't sure that I could go into that orphanage, look my son in the eye, and then quietly step back out of his life. Ellone would understand, but he wouldn't. Things had quieted down in Esthar . . . maybe I could take them back with me, and finally do things the right way. Or would my son hate me forever, and want nothing to do with me, for being the father who had neglected him for the last seven years of his life?

I hadn't even realized I was walking while grilling myself with questions I couldn't answer until I found myself standing in front of the door, which unlike the rest of the place, was made of a heavy slab of dark wood. I swallowed, trying to force the lump down my throat, lifted my hand, and started to knock—

Only to be startled when the door swung open seemingly of its own accord and I was faced with the startled face of a woman who looked to be about my age, maybe a bit younger. She looked at me. "May I help . . ." she began to ask. Then she did a double take, and her dark eyes widened. But she was good, and she quickly hid the surprise. "Oh," she said, seemingly enlightened, as if I had told her who I was and my purpose. "You must be here for Squall."

I frowned in confusion. "I . . . yeah," I said weakly, feeling abashed. She obviously knew who I was . . . she must've been wondering at that moment just why I hadn't come earlier. Like seven years ago, when I found out my son existed. She hadn't spoken a word of reproach, but I felt my shoulders slump. "He's . . . he's still here?"

She nodded. "Come inside, Mr. Loire."

I stepped inside when she opened the door wider, and took a look around. It was a comfortable looking parlor, with toys scattered here and there, and in here I could see the signs of life I had searched for outside. "Call me Laguna, please. But, er, if you don't mind my asking . . . how do you know who I am?" I asked.

"It's . . . complicated," she said with a mysterious smile. "But I see a family resemblance."

I felt my face flushing. My left leg, already having stiffened a little on the walk up here, twinged painfully.

When I didn't respond, she closed the door and turned to offer a hand to me. "I'm Edea Kramer, the Matron of this orphanage. My husband Cid helps me take care of the children, but he's out at the moment."

I shook the proffered hand, and took a second to study this Edea woman. She was either really trusting, or even more perceptive than I initially thought, to tell me that she was relatively alone in a house full of children. "I guess you're wondering why I'm here," I said, struggling for the right words.

"I'm not surprised to see you here," Edea said frankly. "It's Squall's birthday . . . though admittedly, I had wondered when you might finally appear."

So there it was. At least she seemed to have a little faith in the fact that I would eventually turn up—she didn't think I was a complete failure, who would keep going on acting like he didn't have a son. Hyne, I really had to stop with this self-pity stuff.

"Um," I said intelligently.

Edea seemed to know it was awkward, because she took the initiative to wave me over to a doorway that looked out into the courtyard. I counted five kids running around out there, ranging around six to eight years old, two girls and three boys. As I watched, Edea pointed out each one, fondly ticking off names and attributes. A boy in a Stetson, riding a stick pony, "That's Irvine—he wants to be a cowboy when he grows up." A little girl in a yellow dress, running around beside him in a feathered headdress, "Selphie—she's Irvine's best friend." The other girl, a serious-looking and slightly older blonde who was intent on a book in her lap, "Quistis—she tries to mother everyone." A pair of arguing boys, a short blond with hair like a rampant chocobo and a bigger, older one, "Zell and Seifer—always fighting with each other."

That left . . . I paused, my eyes roaming searchingly over the courtyard. There, sitting up in a tall oak tree, a fourth little boy in a striped shirt, grass-stained knees drawn up to his chest. My heart ached at the sight of him. "Squall," I whispered.

"Yes," Edea replied, turning to look at me again.

I tried to be polite and face her, but my eyes were locked on the little boy in the tree. Squall. My son.

"He looks so . . . alone," I said, without meaning to.

"He's been that way since Ellone left."

"Elle," I murmured, forcing my thoughts momentarily away from the poignant, heartbreaking, and captivating sight of my only remaining blood relative. I had known that Ellone was here—it was how I'd known Squall would be here as well—but during that period in my life, Kiros had decided that Ellone was best left in the care of the Kramers, and I was in no state of mind to argue the point.

Esthar was a country torn by war, and I had been busy trying to install new leadership, dodge assassination attempts—though I won't deny that sometimes I didn't care if one of those bullets happened to hit me—and it was no place to raise a child. I was grieving on top of that, and that was why I reasoned myself out of trying to retrieve Ellone and my infant son. Kiros had also said that Edea could help Ellone with her strange and unique powers.

I paused, swiveling to look at Edea. "Where is she?"

Edea looked somewhat uncomfortable for the first time in our conversation. "She's not here," she said, though I'd figured that out on my own by now. "We—that is to say, Cid and I—had to take . . . measures, to ensure her safety." Her expression was serious as she looked at me. "But I assure you, Mr. Loire, Ellone is in a safe and secure place, where she can further develop her powers without the risk of being found."

I gave her a skeptical look, but she went on explaining about their arrangements for Elle, and I had to say I was actually pretty impressed. I hadn't had the Kramers pegged for strategic types, but it turned out her husband Cid had a military background, and what better place to hide someone than on a boat, which could move around as it pleased?

Edea and I kept talking for a while, until the children came rushing inside, chattering amongst themselves. Squall followed them slowly, at a distance, and though it was his birthday, one wouldn't believe it from his demeanor—most children looked forward to the day, with its promise of cake and ice cream, and presents. Many of the kids, upon realizing they had a visitor, wanted to know I was, no doubt finding this long-haired guy in khakis and flip-flops a little strange. I had my introductions with Irvine, Selphie, Quistis, Zell, and Seifer, taking note of the personality of each of them. Edea's assessment seemed to be right—Irvine was laid back, Selphie bubbly, Quistis mature, Zell energetic, and Seifer slightly sullen. He seemed suspicious of me, and as I turned to finally meet Squall, I found indifference in his eyes.

My son looked like the ghost of his mother. I knelt down across from him and held out my hand, trying to find some trace of myself in this quiet, thoughtful child. He had his mother's brown hair, and her wide, blue-grey eyes, but they had none of the same sparkle. He was distant, but as I looked closer, I could see little hints of what Edea had called a family resemblance: the line of his jaw, his eyebrows and nose . . . and that bit of stubbornness in his expression could've come from either of us.

"Hi. I'm Laguna," I said, introducing myself simply.

"Squall Leonhart," he replied solemnly, giving me a stiff handshake. On other children, his demeanor might have seemed precocious, but on Squall . . . it was as if he had been born old. I felt guilt flooding me for that.

"Do you have presents, Mr. Laguna?" I heard as I got back to my feet. Turning, I saw the rosy-cheeked Selphie standing there, looking up at me with curious green eyes. I was confused, but soon realized what she meant, as I noticed her pointing at my bag.

"Er," I said, thankful that none of them probably even cared whether or not I sounded witty.

"Yeah, do ya?" the chocobo boy—Zell—crowded in beside the little girl in the yellow dress.

"Now, now, children," Edea interrupted firmly, "it's not nice to harass our guest."

"What's he doing here, anyway?" the largest boy—Seifer, right?—demanded. He sounded angry, for some reason. I risked a glance at Squall, to see him glaring at Seifer.

"Mr. Laguna is here to visit for the day," Edea responded smoothly, without seeming to get mad at the kid. She was good—I could see why she had chosen this calling. "Now, why don't we all go wash our hands, and we'll have some cake and ice cream?"

A couple of the kids squealed energetically and bounded off, while the others followed along. Edea gave me a 'give it time' sort of look over her shoulder as she left for the kitchen. Unsure of what to do with myself, I loitered around the parlor I was standing in, idly examining the knick-knacks. An hour later found us having indulged in copious amounts of cake and ice cream—I realized I ate about as much as any of the kids, having felt uncommonly indulgent—and a few of the kids were sprawled about the parlor, where I sat entertaining them while Edea took care of some things around the house.

I was enjoying myself, but all my attempts at engaging Squall in conversation had so far been in vain. He was seated on the other end of the couch, where I'd sat down to try to talk to him, but then Selphie decided to plop down between us. For some reason, she'd taken a liking to me . . . not that I minded, but I had other things on my mind. Only I couldn't exactly tell a little five-year-old girl that I needed some alone time with Squall because he was my son.

Selphie was, at present, flipping through some old issues of Timber Maniacs, looking at the pictures more than actually reading. I'd brought them along because—on the off chance I actually summoned up the nerve to tell Squall that I was his father—there were pictures of me in there, and one of . . . his mother . . .

Of Raine. There, I forced myself to think it. But recalling her name made me feel all sorts of things, both pleasant and unpleasant. The way she scolded me. The way she frowned when she was trying really hard not to laugh. The way she smiled the night I gave her the ring. The way the wind had gusted around me when I stood at her grave. Raine Loire, Beloved Wife and Mother . . . I'd been surprised the people of Winhill actually accepted my last name as hers. They'd never liked me much, except one lady who ran the local flower shop. She'd been the one to tell me that Raine was dead, that day I returned.

"Are you a knight?" Selphie exclaimed suddenly, jarring me out of my thoughts.

"Huh?" I blinked and looked at the magazine. Oh. Eh heh . . . one of the more embarrassing jobs I'd taken up, there was a picture of me in my first—and only—acting gig, as a knight in a B-movie.

"You look like a knight in shining armor. Like in the fairy tales, when the prince goes and rescues the princess!" the bubbly girl decided, without waiting for my response. "I'm going to call you Sir Laguna!" She giggled with her proclamation.

I was flattered, even if, you know, the almost thirty year age difference there was kind of off-putting. I laughed and scratched my head, embarrassed, before turning to see I was earning a reproachful look from the Irvine boy.

"C'mon, Sefie," he said. "Let's go back outside and play."

I chuckled softly, watching them go back out the door. Hey, it wasn't every day I got to look like a threat to another guy's girl . . . forget the fact that I was old enough to be their father. I sighed softly, the amusement wearing off, and leaned back on the couch. I was now alone in the room with Squall and Zell, though the pointy-haired kid was lying draped across an armchair, holding his stomach, moaning about a tummy ache. Edea came soon to carry him off, and . . .

"So," I ventured, looking at Squall.

". . ."

Talkative kid. If he hadn't looked so much like Raine, I'da told Mrs. Kramer she'd made a mistake. Though discouraged, I wasn't one to give up easily. That was more or less how I got Raine to fall in love with me in the first place. I set my hand atop my left knee—in a vain effort to stop the twitching, sadly—and scooted a little closer to him.

"How does it feel to be seven?" I asked.

". . ." Squall replied, shrugging.

The kid was killing me. It was taking all the willpower I had not to do one of two things: a) run out of the room and back to the airship, demanding to take off back to Esthar immediately, or b) blurt out to Squall the truth of his parentage. Neither scenario worked for me much; the first one was the coward's way out, and the second one . . . well, at the same time, I was too much of a coward to do that, either.

I reached my hand into my pocket, not really giving much thought to it, but it was like something clicked—as if someone had switched on a light bulb inside my head—when I felt something cool and metallic there. "Hey," I said, "I have something for you . . . a birthday present, I guess."

Squall looked at me with disinterest. Any other kid would have at least shown the anticipation of a gift. I'm sure Selphie or Zell would've been bouncing up and down (well, maybe not Zell so much, given his current state), and even the more serious Quistis or passive Irvine would've been curious. I resisted a sigh and wrapped my fingers around it, then drew my hand back out of my pocket.

It took a few seconds before I folded my fingers back to look at the ring resting in my palm. It was dark silver, like pewter or steel, with the dull sheen of gunmetal. Etched into the band was a strange design, sort of a lion's head looking thing. This was Griever. The ring had been a Leonhart family heirloom; Raine had explained it the night she gave it to me. I'd protested taking something so important, and it wasn't like I needed a lover's token when I had my wedding band.

But she insisted anyway, and now I was thankful that she did it. Maybe she knew someday I'd need it, even if she had no idea it would be like this. Raine was always intuitive like that. It was a little bit of her heritage, and now Squall's heritage, left over from the days when the Leonharts had been more than modest entrepreneurs in a little rural town. I turned it over in my hand, and felt my heart do a similar flip-flop. Giving this away to Squall felt right—the Leonhart blood was in him, not me . . . my reasons for holding on to the ring were selfish. But it still hurt a little, giving up one of the last pieces of Raine I had left.

But Laguna, you have memories . . . what does Squall have?

I sighed, and offered the ring to my son, tentative over his reaction. "It's, uh . . ." I began, but to my surprise, Squall went from unimpressed to surprised.

"Griever," he said.

Now it was my turn to be surprised. "You know what it is?" I asked.

His expression became a little less open, the surprise dulling as he looked up at me with those intense blue-grey eyes. "I have a necklace," he said dolefully. "It's the only thing I have that was my mom's."

"Well, now you have this," I replied, holding it closer. I hadn't thought he might have the necklace . . . I only vaguely remembered that there was one. "Here, take it."

Still seeming skeptical of me, Squall reached out and took the ring from my fingers, sliding it over his own though he had to know it wouldn't fit.

"You'll grow into it," I said lightly, trying to keep my mood upbeat. He was a smart kid, I'd noticed that much even from what little conversation we'd had . . . if I suddenly seemed moody, he would pick up on it in a heartbeat.

"Where did you get this?" he demanded, catching me off guard.

It was a strange sensation—I felt as if I were the seven-year-old and he the adult in his thirties. "What?"

"Where'd you get it?"

I hesitated, nerves making my leg jump with an uncomfortable pang. I had a choice to make here. I could either lie to my son . . . or I could tell him the truth. I could tell him that I was his father, and then try to make my apologies as to why I hadn't been there for him so far. I could try to explain, and hope that he would understand, and strive for the remote possibility of forgiveness. I decided that the best thing was to start small and work my way up.

"I . . . knew your mom, Squall," I said slowly. "That's sorta why I'm here to see you."

He frowned, ever so slightly, just like Raine used to do when she was trying to figure something—or someone—out. I'd seen her look at me with that same frown a lot when I first landed in Winhill. He didn't say anything, so I went on, tripping over words that spilled out before I could even think of them properly.

"Your mom, she was . . . really nice," I went on. I could have slapped myself for not coming up with better things to say about Raine than that. Hyne, how I wanted to tell Squall everything . . . how could I really tell him about that sparkle in her eyes, though, or the way her smile was slightly crooked, or how her hair used to fall just so . . .

"She was pretty, and . . . she did a lot of good things for people. She cared a lot about everyone. And she loved you very much. Very, very much," I reiterated. That was something I could be sure of, even if she had died shortly after Squall was born. "And everyone loved her a lot. I . . . loved her a lot."

I almost choked after those last four words tumbled from my lips. But it was true—I loved Raine. I still did, and I always would . . . and why shouldn't he know it?

"It sounds like you liked her a lot, Mr. Loire," Squall finally said, after some deliberation over what I'd said. "More than my dad did."

My breath caught in my throat. What?

"If he'd loved her, if he'd loved me," he went on, each word causing another chink in my armor of self-composure, "then he would've stayed with us . . . wouldn't he?"

I hesitated, wanting to defend myself, but not sure how. Squall seemed to have enough problems with his father—with me—already, without me mucking things up more by telling him the truth just yet. "Maybe . . . maybe he couldn't stay," I ventured. "Maybe something happened, and he had to stay away, even though he really, really wanted to go back." I leaned forward, tilting Squall's chin up with my hand until he had to meet my eyes. "I happen to know that your dad loved your mom very, very much."

Squall gave me that thoughtful little frown again, and then he pulled back and shook his head. "I don't think so," he said firmly, his small hand clenching into a fist around the ring. "Maybe he loved her. But he must've hated me . . . I killed her," he whispered.

"No, no, Squall, no . . ." I protested, feeling tears prick at my own eyes as I saw his welling up. I blinked against the stinging sensation, and pressed on, "It's not your fault. These things happen, and you can't help it."

The expression on his face gave me the impression that my speech was one he'd heard a lot. And moreover, he seemed to have decided that none of it was true . . . that I was only trying to make him feel better.

"Then why didn't he want me?" he argued angrily. "They—they told me he wasn't even there when it happened."

My eyes widened reflexively at the feeling, like a knife stabbing me in the heart. He was right . . . it was my fault. If I'd been there—if I could have done something . . . I watched, horrified, as Squall jumped up and turned to face me again. "He didn't love us. He didn't want me. I hate him. I never want to see him! I hate him!" he cried, lifting his free hand to wipe away tears.

I got up, ignoring the pang that went through my left leg. I knew I had to do something . . . but what was there to do? He had said all that needed to be said, and seeming to realize a split second later that he'd had an outburst while talking to a man he considered almost a complete stranger, Squall wheeled around and ran off.

I stood there in his wake staring dumbly, feeling a strange quiver run through me. Of all the ways I had imagined this going, my inner optimism had hoped the whole time that I would be able to have a happy reunion with my son after all. But instead, he hated me . . . he hated me without even knowing me. Perhaps he hated me because he didn't know me.

The sound of his footsteps stomping up the stairs must have alerted Edea, because she appeared in the parlor a few seconds later, her face full of worry. "Laguna?" she asked.

I felt as if I were underwater, hearing her speak from the surface. I reeled, dizzy, and somehow forced myself around to face her. "It's nothing," I lied, before realizing the blurring of my vision was because . . . I was crying. I turned my back to her and wiped my eyes with the back of my hand.

"Look, I think I should go," I said briskly, unlike myself. "I had—I'd thought about taking him back with me. But . . . I think it's best if he stays here." Each word felt as if it were wrenching its way out of my throat, further extending the crack in my broken heart. "He has friends here. You've been a better mother to him than I could be a father. I . . . it wouldn't be right for me to take him away from what he knows, and Esthar's no place for a kid." I kept pouring out the excuses, using every one I'd ever thought of to make myself feel better over the years.

It never worked. I shook my head and looked down at my bag and the pile of Timber Maniacs Selphie had been thumbing through. I picked up the magazines and stuffed them awkwardly back into the bag, all but one. I turned back to look at Edea, blinking furiously and keeping my eyes on the floor as I held the issue out to her. "Give this to Squall for me someday, would you? There's a—a picture of Raine, of his mom, in there."

But Edea wasn't convinced. "What happened?" she asked.

"Nothing . . ." I evaded, but she seemed to have an uncanny knack to see right through me. Probably it had to do with however she knew I was coming in the first place.

"Something happened," she insisted.

"I—he hates me," I choked out, while willing myself not to say it. "My son hates me."

"Now, it can't be all that—" Edea began.

"It is!" I interrupted, something in me seeming to snap. "He thinks I abandoned him. And, hell, I did. For seven years. Hyne, I'm not fit to live, much less play father to anyone. I don't know what I was thinking in coming here . . . I only made things worse."

"Laguna," she argued, looking at me with serious eyes. I felt my own gaze begin to blur again, with the same scalding, hurt and angry tears. "Squall needs you. You're his father. He only knows what he's been able to guess for himself . . . and in an orphanage, children quite sadly come up with all sorts of reasons why they weren't 'wanted' by their parents. It doesn't mean any of them are true."

I shook my head again, sniffling. Hyne, I hated how weak I must have seemed to her . . . but at the same time it didn't matter. I felt like someone had pulled the carpet out from under me. I reserved the right to act like my world had ended. I just hoped for Kiros's sake I didn't start hyperventilating like I did the last time I was this upset, the day I found out about Raine . . .

Edea was frowning, but she relented. "If you really, really want Squall to stay here, he may . . . but please, let me ask you to reconsider it. Cid and I love Squall like our own son, but any of these children would love to know that they had a parent alive somewhere who cared this much about them."

I almost wavered, but I kept seeing Squall's angry and hurt face in my mind, hearing his words, I hate him . . . I hate him . . . IhatehimIhatehimIhatehim.

"He's better off here," I said again, "than with me." Than with a neglectful father who was too clueless to be there for him.

The rest of our conversation passed in a blur for me. I dimly remembered offering Edea money, but she'd refused to take it. I'd left her my address and the phone number of my private line, and asked her to please keep me as up to date on Squall's life as she possibly could. But I'd also made her promise not to ever tell him who the stranger that gave him his mother's ring had been . . .

And then I made one of the worst decisions I ever had, and walked out of my son's life, all while trying to convince myself it was for the best.


Author's Note: The angst abounds in this tale, and before anyone brings it up, let me make a few notes. First off, we are left with a pretty open interpretation of the childhood of Squall and the other characters. The Guardian Forces (the lovely gaping plot holes that they are) might have erased any memory any of them had of this happening, except perhaps for Irvine, and I'm not entirely sure why he'd bring it up, unless he just happened to recall Selphie being enamored of Laguna.

Secondly, I know, it's not a happy ending. Some things just don't have happy endings . . . and I'm not going to make excuses for Laguna or say I support his decision. He simply did what he thought was best at the time. Third and last, the mention of Laguna hyperventilating is a small plug for the fic Hidden Feelings, Hidden Fears by Annie-chan, which is one of my favorite stories on the site. Thank you for reading; reviews are much appreciated.