Foreword: Well, here we go again... In advance, I want to thank Bob and Vick for proofing and the years of friendship. Also, I want to give a special thanks to Optical Goddess for picking this out of my many 'unfinished' works for me to see to completion. Again, I thank each of you for your support; it means more than you could ever know.
After the Fall
Chapter One: Fortune's Hostage
When you wake up from the sunset, what comes next?
When the majestic white stallion, the one on which you were whisked away on, is now just grazing haplessly in the field. When you finally realize that your knight in shining armor, who seemed so fearless and dignified, is just a man beneath it all. When something you believed was perfect, was only perfect in your mind. When you reach that cruel moment where reality hits you with full force, wake up from the dream and then realize it was just that - a dream.
It's the fall that defines your path through life, for it's how you continue after the fall that defines who you are.
Some days are more testing than others, and some nights are an endless crusade. It's all an ocean, an infinite sea of remorse and you are caught alone, trapped within its current. Like the sailors hearing the siren's call, the regret beckons you within the darkness that accompanies the night.
You try, God do you try, to act like the fall never hurt.
But it did. It still does…
You try not to be bitter, you try to understand, you try everything… but everything is always just out of reach, and as the months pass on, you do better… but never 'well.' Your life moves on, and so does theirs, but you always dwell on the 'what could have been.'
Maybe some things are just never meant to be, and you have to accept that fact. And how do you know if you have survived the fall? It's when the past catches up to you, and you are able to look him in the eyes… and finally say goodbye.
"This… is… so…uncomfortable," she rasped irritably under her breath. "How am I supposed to be in this thing all day?"
"It's a wedding dress Selphie, it isn't designed for comfort." Quistis gave the young woman a stern look. "Now sit still or I'm never going to get your hair done."
The blonde placed one hand firmly on the bride's shoulder, while the other reached for the bobby pin that she'd been holding between her teeth. Parting a small section of hair, she twisted it around her fingertip, before using the pin to fasten her veil.
"Quistis! You just had that in your mouth."
"Deal with it Selphie," she replied sarcastically. "If my germs are the biggest thing you have to deal with today, consider yourself lucky."
"Gross… Quistis germs." A voice replied dryly from the doorway. "You have all the sympathy in the world from me, Selphie."
The women turned to see a lone figure walking into the room, wearing a long red gown. Her hair was slightly darker than they remembered, and large curls replaced its normally straight appearance. The sides were pulled back, fastened behind with a small group of scarlet flowers. A spaghetti-strap bodice fitted her upper body, and from the ballerina waistline, a chiffon overskirt flowed with each step. Selphie leapt from her chair, forgoing all proper wedding etiquette. She immediately ran over, tossing her arms around her friend enthusiastically.
"Yes, Selphie, I'm here. I'm here." The young woman answered, stating the obvious. She returned the hug gently, positive that at any moment a rib was going to puncture her lung from the excited girl's brute force. Selphie finally freed her from the death grip, still keeping her arm around Rinoa's shoulder.
"Nice dress." Quistis pointed at the sorceress' red gown.
"You too." She mirrored the gesture at the instructor's outfit. Rinoa feigned disgust, "I'm so embarrassed, the sales lady told me this was one of a kind."
"Come here." The blonde pulled her into an embrace, remembering just how much time had passed. The instructor wiped away a few stray tears from her cheeks, before taking a step back. Rinoa smiled knowingly, it wasn't something that had to be spoken aloud. They had grown close over the years, and now that one of them was missing, it never felt complete.
Rinoa had sworn she wasn't going to cry today, but sometimes fate kept its own agenda. It took everything the young sorceress had just to walk into the building, let alone think about the past. But years ago, the three had made a pact to be a part of each other's weddings, no matter the circumstances. Maybe it just was their teenage delusions of the future, or maybe it was a sign even they knew things would eventually have to change. It was just that back then, none of them had foreseen Selphie being the first to marry. But things do change. Lives change. Rinoa caught herself within the memories, and quickly tried to get this reunion back on a positive note.
"My God… You're beautiful."
Taking a step back, she took a good look at Selphie, who she'd never seen so elegant before. The ivory dress flattered her natural complexion, and having her hair pulled into a sweeping bun was very becoming. Small tendrils were curled lightly around her face, and small baby-breath and silk ribbons intertwined atop the netted veil. The gown itself was off the shoulders, and the ornate beadwork emphasized her petite figure. Rinoa wasn't sure if she had ever seen a more beautiful gown, or whether it was because one of her closest friends was wearing it. Yet, somehow, underneath the elegance, Selphie hadn't changed. Her energetic and positive nature outshone any amount of satin and lace.
"Thanks, just don't tell anyone, it might ruin my image. Somehow people don't want to hire 'beautiful' demolition experts."
"I still can't believe you talked Cid into an entire demolitions' program." Rinoa commented as the three slowly returned to the dressing area.
"I think secretly he likes to blow up things too."
Pointing impatiently at the chair, Quistis cleared her throat in aggravation. Selphie sighed heavily as she awkwardly sat back down in the 'seat of doom.' Truly, she considered that wearing a wedding dress was some primitive form of torture, and she wondered now why she'd opted for a traditional ceremony. Irvine's first thought of eloping in Deling was looking pretty damn good.
Before she took a seat of her own, Rinoa helped smooth out the fabric of the bride's dress. The dark haired woman couldn't help but laugh aloud, when noticing her friend had yet to put on the proper foot attire. The bride to be was running around in Chocobo print socks. It looked very Selphie, and she was glad that some things never changed.
"I'm so sorry I missed the rehearsal, I just couldn't get away," apologized Rinoa.
"It's no problem. You walk, you stand, and then you walk back… I'm sure you'll figure out that complicated program."
"I'll manage." She laughed. "You said I was walking down the aisle with Zell?"
"Yeah, don't worry, he'll escort you to where you have to stand." The green-eyed girl shifted, bouncing in the chair several times. Quistis groaned in aggravation as the veil she was attempting to fasten shifted to one side.
"Move again and I'm super-gluing this in place, got it deary?"
"Fine, fine Quistis… but I have to tell Rin about last night! It was so funny! Since you guys didn't show up… we needed stand-ins for the dress rehearsal. So, we dared Zell and Quistis to walk down the aisle with hotdogs… and they did it!"
"Oh, it was a dare!" Selphie explained as Quistis held her down with one hand. "We had eaten beforehand, and Irvine reminded Zell of his old hotdog fixation… Saying something juvenile along the lines of, 'I thought you would marry one.' Don't ask what got us to this point…did I mention the wine? A lot of wine? Well anyway, one thing led to another and we ended up bringing two hotdogs into the rehearsal. I guess you had to have been there."
"Um… yeah. Not really sure how I feel being replaced by meat byproducts, but I'll take your word on it." All three girls were giggling at the pure lunacy of the entire ordeal. "And did you say Zell's 'old hotdog' fixation?"
Quistis chuckled, recalling the countless hours they had spent teasing their friend. "Yeah, he actually became a vegetarian when he started dating Alexandra, so he's sworn them off."
"Wow. It must be love."
"Or insanity," counted Selphie. "The jury's still out."
"Wait… wait, back on the subject of last night. Quistis, how in this world did they talk you into walking down the aisle with a hotdog?" Rinoa raised an eyebrow, looking suspiciously at the instructor. It wasn't like her to go along with their childish shenanigans. At Garden, she was the one keeping the peace and acting the impartial referee.
"Yeah, well… again, that 'wine' thing came into play. I don't know… I just felt compelled to do it."
"Plus, we threatened to tell the Trepies about her escapades in Dollet that summer. I still have the mug shots!" Selphie put her arms up in front of her, acting as if her wrists were handcuffed together.
"Selphie, I told you the officer dropped the charges! It was all a misunderstanding… how many times do we have to go through this?"
"Until I believe it." Selphie winked at Rinoa. It was something the three had sworn to secrecy, but they still liked to hold the 'incident' over one another's heads. Although it really was just a case of mistaken identity, it was so much better the way that the guys had interpreted the facts.
"Great, well then… at least I don't feel like I was the only one replaced by a hotdog."
"Nah," answered Selphie absentmindedly, messing with some hanging beadwork on her dress. "Quistis is walking down the aisle with Sq-". She never finished the name, shutting her mouth as she looked at her friend remorsefully. "Sorry, Rin. I wasn't thinking."
"It's okay Selphie. I know he's going to be there. I'm just sorry that he wasn't at the rehearsal last night. I hope it wasn't because of our past."
"Rin, we don't know why he didn't show. But he'll be here today," answered Quistis truthfully. She set the comb down on the vanity, looking toward the young woman. She knew this day was going to be hard on her, and she had a newfound appreciation of her friend's courage to even show. She wondered if she could be that strong.
Rinoa smiled. "This day isn't about me… or him. It's about Irvine and Selphie, and that's all that matters."
The small buds of the cherry blossoms were just beginning to emerge from their dormant state. The vibrant pink and crimson blooms contrasted with the lighter, almost gray shades of the trunk. He had never looked at trees, or even thought about the flowering plants, but right now, this one held some unseen fascination.
He hadn't meant to see her… or at least so soon. He couldn't help but watch as she got out of the cab, and then he couldn't help but watch as she stood there, looking more beautiful than he ever remembered. The red bridesmaid dress was identical to Quistis', but somehow it stood out more on Rinoa - maybe it was the darker colored hair, or maybe it was just her. She wore a light jacket over her shoulders, and carried a single wrapped package under one arm. The spring breeze blew long curls over her face, and she tried hopelessly to keep them pulled back.
And there he was standing against the wall, just like some feeble, speechless teenager again. The only difference is that he was in his early twenties, and this time she wouldn't ask him to dance.
So all the young man could do was watch her. He knew her too well. Inside she was uncertain about showing up, combating a thousand mixed emotions. But Selphie and Irvine were her friends, and she regarded that bond as standing above any indignant feelings lingering towards him. For a day she would set aside their past, living in the present in honor of her friends.
It was as if he was in a trance, reliving the pain all over again. Last night he couldn't even show up… it was a bitter irony that she had missed the rehearsal too. Squall wondered if she'd at least come up with a more plausible excuse than his. He couldn't even think of one, opting to just leave a message that he was simply 'busy.' Damn, he loathed himself for being so weak, but he wasn't ready last night…he wasn't ready today.
For a second, his heart stopped mid beat. Rinoa looked towards the window, staring at something that caught her attention. Shit. She couldn't see him, could she? Could she sense him? Was it some sorceress – former knight connection that the textbooks neglected to mention? He would have run if his legs had found the will, but all he could do was stare like a prisoner seeing freedom draw nearer. She reached the end of the pavement and set the package down on the sidewalk. The heels' of her shoes sank into the grass; she looked more angelic with every step. His mouth felt like sandpaper, and his heart pounded like a jackhammer in his chest, as he continued to be entranced.
It was at that moment that she stopped at a nearby cherry blossom tree. The young man wasn't sure what she was doing; her actions ever left him slightly bewildered. She ran her trembling fingertips lightly over the bark, raising herself up on her tiptoes. It looked as if she was trying to take in the fragrance of the budding blossoms. From his vantage point, he could see the tranquility in her expression as she absorbed the surrounding nature. Was there something that he was missing?
He could tell she was still nervous, yet there seemed to be an aura of peace enveloping her. Maybe she just needed something soothing to get her mind off of… well, seeing him. For another minute, she stood wordlessly under the tree with her eyes closed, leaning her back against it for support, as the breeze caressed her body and the rays of sun touched their heavenly fingers to her face.
Squall wondered if she could possibly know how close he was. What would she think if she knew he was scrutinizing every small detail? The serenity ended too soon as she slowly retreated, grabbing the gift and heading toward the main entrance. It then dawned on him that, for the first time in two years, they would be under the same roof.
And so he stood.
Against a wall, alone, and discovering the splendor of the tree she had just taken time to appreciate. That was only one of their many differences, she was the type to stop and enjoy the majesty of the natural surroundings, and he was there to inevitably destroy it.
"Hey man, you going to join us sometime today?" Zell's voice brought him back into the here and now, although part of him wanted to stay in the 'there' and 'then.' "Irvine is just about to give me seventy-five reasons why marriage is better than bachelorhood, and then I'm countering each one with why it's not. We placed a hundred Gil on who can come up with the better list. Come on man, I may need you as back up on this one."
The commander shrugged agreeably. "Fine." He, himself, could come up with a thousand cons not to get married, but he only needed one pro….
"I still can't believe she talked you into it!" The martial artist exclaimed as he sat down on a small sofa in the center of the room. "I figured you'd be the last one to actually go through with this." Zell leaned back, clasping both hands behind his head. "And they called me a chicken-wuss."
Irvine laughed at his friend, so arrogant, so confident…so on the verge of being in his place. The sharpshooter knew they'd be attending Zell's wedding within the year. Hell, the martial artist had given up hotdogs, and that was a life-altering decision. Walking down the aisle couldn't be that far behind.
Irvine's tone was as serious as they had ever heard. "Zell... I know you still won't believe me, but I'm the one who wanted to settle down. I guess when you find your soul mate you just know it."
"Squall, who in the hell finds their soul mate at seventeen, huh?"
The commander could still hear her voice the day she left - so bitter, so resentful... so hurt. And he just stood there dumfounded, never finding the words to answer her question. What could he have said? All rights were relinquished with his mistakes.
It rained outside the day she left, and every day since then in his heart. Irvine and Selphie had found that conviction which they had lacked. Funny thing was, Squall would've bet those two wouldn't last in a relationship for more than six months. That is why the commander learned a long time ago never to bet. The odds were never stacked in his favor, no matter what cards he held in his hand.
"Come on Squall, back me up here."
"Zell," his tone was earnest, given the lightheartedness of the conversation. "You are as pleased for them as I am. It says something when two people can work out their differences, finding a common ground. And you can come up with a hundred reasons why he shouldn't get married, but it won't matter… he only needs one in favor."
"Squall?" Although glad for his comments, Irvine knew that whatever his friend was saying was coming from experience, and not from empty guidance. "Did she come?"
"You knew she would." He answered honestly. "Look… it doesn't matter. This isn't about our past, but about your future."
Zell moved his hands from his head, cracking his knuckles in the uncomfortable silence. It wasn't out of rudeness, but simply a nervous habit he'd acquired over years of using them as weapons. He was just as happy for his friend as the commander. In fact, nobody could imagine this not happening. Part of him wanted to try to keep the mood jovial, trying to focus only on the wedding.
"Hey guys, I'm going to go check on the girls. See what's going on." The blond stated before getting up.
As he left the room, Irvine stood and started putting on his tuxedo jacket. Both he and Selphie decided to keep the wedding away from Garden and its traditions. They each had treasured their time there, but also part of them wanted to focus on life after the military.
Irvine's ponytail was neatly combed and fastened near the base of his neck. It was one of the first instances in recent memory that the cowboy had been separated from his hat. It almost felt as if part of him was missing, for it was a material item that was just as much a part of his persona as his smile.
So there the young groom stood, wearing a long-tailed black jacket. The two other groomsmen were also adorning the tradition tuxedos, although not sporting the long tails.
"You really okay man?" Irvine asked as he straightened his collar.
"It's just seeing her again…" He stopped, realizing that he couldn't do this now. Not today.
"I know. I know. Time has a way of making things better. The scars will still be there, but maybe the hurt will be a little less."
"Damn it, it's never going to hurt less." He looked down, seeing the platinum ring encircling his finger. The sculptured lion seemed to glare up at him, reminding him of his failures. And that is why he wore it, a constant reminder of his job and of all it cost him.
The choice he made, the uncertainties that he could never overcome... in one moment of fear, frozen between two jobs, commander and knight, he took the one that would never be full of uncertainty, the one that would never abandon him...
Story Notes, Author's Warnings, and General Disclaimers: When I first started After the Fall, I had no idea the project I was about to undertake. Seven years and seventy chapters later, I have never looked back. I had no idea the impact this story would have nor the amazing feedback I'd receive. However, I wanted to point out that this story (in its current form) is nearly five-hundred thousand words. Needless to say, the word count alone should be taken into account before starting, but I also want to mention I have a certain writing style. A lot of people respond positively to it while other do not – but this is simply the way I write. Just like while I love drama and angst, I'm a person who loves comedy – these are equally as important factors of who I am. I only mention this because at time I am descriptive – again this statement isn't meant to deter you from reading nor encourage you, it's just something that I want to point out. When it is complete I have talked about doing an abridged version, cutting some repetition out as over a seven-year span it's easy to do so. Please know I'm aware of this, heck it's become a running joke with me, I'm just glad I've managed to follow the outline as well as I have. :D
Also very important, I love the characters of Final Fantasy VIII. I do my best to respect them – but all interruptions aren't the same and I understand that too. Squall and Rinoa are the central part of this but, in a way, Zell and Laguna have become just as vital as the story progressed. Again, I mention this to cover all bases - while Quistis, Selphie, and Irvine are in it and play a huge part, they are not central figures. Speaking of the characters, when I started this all rights belonged to Squaresoft, now its SquareEnix. Either way, suing me (like resistance!) is futile as I own nothing but a few action figures. But they're awesome action figures - all other money is used for the kids to play sports, go to collage, and mobile phone plans that include unlimited texting. They're both almost teens now, what can I say? XD
Last thing and probably the most important – I wanted to mention a few things that can sensitive topics – in the story there are adult themes and language throughout. There is also physical intimacy, although not overly descriptive; however, a non-edited version of that chapter is available at A03. There are also references to PTSD and, although I've done research, I've shied away from using an exact name; as this is a fantasy setting, I didn't want to use labels from real life.
So, guess that's it! Gah, that was way too formal sounding and not at all like me, but I did want to get that out there. This story has become a part of me – I had no idea how much when I posted that first chapter back in 04. While writing this I lost three family members and so I found that this was the best way I could express the emotions. The people in the FFVIII fandom have become my best friends; they've become my family. I just want to thank everyone who has helped me over the last eleven years, especially those who have taken the time to read, review, favorite, send PMS and emails, draw art, and so much that went beyond fanfiction. So thank you everyone.
I hope that I didn't scare you from After the Fall and you continue to read… trust me, there is a lot to go, but hey, one chapter down, right?