Chapter Eighty-Six: The Inner Light

It didn't take too long, but the four managed to hash out a new plan for the evening. The only thing that remained was for Laguna to tell Kiros the 'good news.' The President wasn't looking forward to that as history proved that his impromptu or improvised planning style usually didn't go over well. Kiros often found that he had to rearrange Laguna's rearrangements. On the bright side, Laguna could point out that at least this plan didn't involve vessels, oceans, sheer vertical cliffs or random acts of stupidity.

When Laguna first mentioned that he wanted the three to sleep aboard the multi-million Gil, high-security, state-of-the-art technological, secret-filled spacecraft, it went over as well as expected. No matter how much Kiros liked the three, they were security risks. It was his job not to be clouded by emotion and look at the security resumes that each brought to the table.

First, was the Commander of SeeD who was, for all intents-and-purposes, dead to the world. Not to mention that following orders seemed to be something Squall hadn't been doing very much of as of late, a fact he himself had admitted outright. The man had his own agenda which, first and foremost, included his wife. Kiros loved Rinoa, but she had her own baggage in the security department. She was still in fact the daughter of a high-ranking Galbadian General. The country was Esthar's former enemy and relationships between the two nations were strained at best. She was also a representative of Timber's government and a former resistance member but, most importantly, she was a sorceress - not an easy fact to overlook. Then there was Zell, who was… hyper and had an uncanny ability to touch random things, break random things, and then attempt to fix random things within a matter of minutes. It usually turned out all right, but when something contained lasers, bombs, and missiles, any rational person's mind would leap to worse-case-scenarios.

Of course, any of Kiros' objections were quickly overruled by the President. Honestly, maybe it was just the initial shock that Laguna had offered up the Ragnarok as Esthar's latest hotel but, maybe the President was right. The three had too much to lose – not that he thought they'd do anything personally, but being in charge of Esthar's entire defensive system, it was his job to think of 'what ifs.' It was Laguna's job to help him remember his humanity – not everything was a war and not everyone was a threat. The more he started to rationalize it, the more he realized that Laguna had been right all along.

The choice was actually quite efficient. Strategically, it honestly didn't come any easier – on paper, reaching Esthar Air Station was easier than sneaking the trio upstairs to the en-house suites or back to the Palace. During Esthar's reconstruction, engineers had added a secure underground transport to all major points of local government and Esthar's Airstation. Again, it was something else that Kiros had been against, noting that it posed a security nightmare, but the politicians had all decided that convenience outweighed the risk.

Kiros still believed he was in the right; then again, this was the same brain-trust that devised a way to poison its own water supply. At least he found that they could finally use the city's infrastructure to their favor; ironically, while also proving his point. If two or three people could devise a way to sneak people around without being seen, what could an enemy accomplish using the same tactics?

After the call, plans were immediately set in motion. Ragnarok's three overnight guests were on the move – most likely their last time traveling on Estharian soil. Laguna and Lauren served as their personal escorts while Kiros and Ward had gone ahead, securing a path. Thankfully, the lower corridors were relatively deserted after dark, especially approaching midnight. Even so, this was riskiest part of their journey but, it was a damn cake walk compared to their other options.

When they all met back up, Kiros ushered them on the train on the off chance someone would show up. He then relayed the most important points of the plan, outlining necessary items without adding superfluous information. He was all business and Squall respected that. Even if the two of them had butted heads recently, the commander recognized the man's skills; moreover, he recognized that Laguna was very lucky to have him as an ally and, more importantly, as a friend.

For full disclosure, Kiros continued the rundown, explaining that he'd already called in some of the Ragnarok's technicians. This was not only standard procedure, it was necessary for pre-flight maintenance. He also explained that most lived within walking distance to this building; they were likely to come here first, boarding the underground system to commute.

Because of this, he proposed that someone should remain at this station, allowing for a heads-up. It didn't take long for Lauren to step forward, eager to volunteer for that particular duty.

After that, the train pulled in from the station. Kiros and Ward sat up to the front in order to be the main watch out. Zell and Laguna were sitting about ten rows back, the newlyweds directly behind them. It was eerily quiet, save for the engine and the sound of the wheels turning below.

It seemed as though nobody wanted to speak.

Honestly, Rinoa didn't even know if she could. Her mind had been caught in a whirlwind, still unsure of what was happening. Right now, she was doing her best to stay out of the others' way. Mentally, very few things were registering. Honestly, even if her life depended on it, she couldn't recall what the boarding area looked like. It was like she was suffering from an acute case of tunnel vision, focusing on seeing only what was in front of her. She needed to snap out of this and collect herself - to be her own person again - and not some animatronic imitation. It wasn't until the train was moving before some of Kiros' had words clicked; it appeared that her brain was currently processing life about two minutes behind the speed of reality.

"Our technicians have designated work areas and shouldn't be near the crew cabins. However, for precautionary reasons, I'll be locking down your area of the ship. And before concerns are raised, yes… emergency exits are still accessible. Understand that this is a security precaution. Obviously, we do not want them recognizing you or believing that there are intruders aboard. These men are military. If they believe there's a security breach, they will use necessary force so don't put yourself in the line of fire."

Unfortunately, Rinoa knew exactly what that meant - they couldn't go nosing around the ship. Even with her tunnel vision, she'd still let her mind wander. Maybe it was nothing more than a necessary escape, but she'd secretly concocted this whole romantic scenario - the one where she and Squall retraced their footsteps until they 'oh-so-conveniently' ended up at the cockpit. Maybe it was best left a dream. They had a busy day in the morning, after all.

She wanted to scream as a form of release, but didn't. Again, she replaced the reality of tomorrow with the fantasy she'd created. For her sanity, she simply had to. She smiled softly, mentally picturing how fun it would be to re-walk the ass-backwards route they were forced to take because of the Propagators. Of course, that would be just to annoy her husband. Truth was that he'd been annoyed enough for both of them five years ago, but at least he got to kill things then. She sighed, maybe it was for the best after all.

Walking down memory lane wasn't such a good idea, but her thoughts had at least served as hopeful distractions. Speaking of distractions, she had to make an observation about train – it seemed as if Esthar had built a relatively-normal transit system. She believed their levitating tea-cups – or what Selphie dubbed the 'freaky floaters' - were both impractical and dangerous… Adel really was a very odd person.

The subway-like transport ride was short lived, but Zell found the brief trip mildly amusing - if for no other reason than it being a change in pace and, more importantly, it wasn't in a damn van. He also made a mental note to tease Selphie about fulfilling her 'lifelong dream.'

Okay, so maybe 'lifelong' was overkill…and fine, maybe even saying 'her dream' was a bit of a stretch too. Still, oh yes, there'd be jealousy; although his 'accomplishment' was nothing to be jealous of.

…But he'd still play it up.

Selphie Kinneas would rue all those jokes she'd made about him and hotdogs. Oh yes, Zell Dincht would embellish the last three-and-a-half minutes like they were the best thing ever. Just for shits and giggles, he would even follow Laguna's lead by 'transposing' a few other events just to make the build-up even bigger.

The story he'd tell would start with Squall taking him under his wing after being highly-impressed about his super-dooper people skills. He was now Squall's personal prodigy or protégé… or something that sounded equally as important and to celebrate, Sir Laguna bought him dinner. And since they'd already stayed at the Presidential residence, he invited them aboard the Ragnarok. To get there, they had to ride on a train reserved for VIPs. For the cherry-on-top of his hodgepodge of re-arranged facts, he'd end the story by saying that he sat directly next to "Sir Laguna" and they swapped emotional stories during the entire trip – ones that involved blowing up things. If this worked, Selphie would be so jealous that she'd never, ever ask him to be on another decorating committee.

Although Laguna had been sitting next to Zell, his thoughts were at the opposite end of the spectrum. He was thinking about his country, his people. He was thinking about the future of his family, his whole family, including the couple seated directly behind him. In a way, this train trip marked the beginning of the end but, Laguna was optimistic by nature, so he liked to think of this as 'the beginning of the new beginning.' Granted his statement outwardly didn't make much sense, but it did to him.

His future held hope again and that's the only sense that mattered.

As for Squall, he was personally glad there had been no talking as it gave him time to solidify his position. It seemed that they were putting a lot of thought into tomorrow too, so was he.

As the doors opened, Kiros and Ward went ahead, making a preliminary sweep. Getting into the cargo hold of the Ragnarok was a breeze - at least in comparison to all of the day's other endeavors. Since Rinoa and Squall were staying in the captain's quarters, their room was a level above, but Zell wouldn't be too far away. If needed, he could take the shortcut as there was an access hatch linking the areas. For the moment, they remained in the clear, but there was no need in tempting fate. Kiros decided the best course of action was also the simplest - divide and conquer. He'd remain in the cargo bay, holding his position. Ward would take on escorting Zell to his room while Laguna would lead the newlyweds to upper section.

Kiros played it off as if his choices were the most convenient for everybody, but Rinoa caught on. Actually, she made a fairly-educated guess that everyone had caught on. Letting Squall lead, she turned around, giving the aide an appreciative nod; he responded in kind, knowing at least two people now appreciated his all-too-transparent decision. Hopefully, Squall would too.

Rinoa continued a few paces behind her husband, smiling fully at the irony. If his goal had been to make a 'quick and painless' get-away, his objective had been met by enormous failure. Putting them with an emotionally-charged Laguna, who knew that tomorrow would be impossible for personal matters, was as far from a clean break as they could get. Her father-in-law would want to say his goodnights, goodbyes, and any other sentimental thoughts that randomly popped into his mind.

Even if her thoughts drifted elsewhere, her eyes had been drawn the ship's renovations. Still, she wasn't that far behind and could easily hear what Laguna was saying; not to mention, one couldn't really define him as 'quiet,' especially when being driven by emotion. Hearing him go on and on about the ship's improvements reminded her of earlier today.

She inwardly chuckled; it seemed that she and Squall couldn't get away from those who apparently had missed their life's calling as professional-grade tour guides. First, it had been Zell relaying his 'facts' about downtown Esthar (facts whose validity was dubious at best) and then it was Laguna with his "Presidential tour" of the Ragnarok. However, it seemed that he might've been a tad mixed-up at times and trying to impress his son was actually making it worse. Rinoa could tell that he actually knew key words and phrases, probably heard several times while being briefed, but putting that knowledge to practical use was… well, she loved him for trying.

However, it went beyond Laguna simply trying – far beyond.

Lagging behind, she was able to watch the way father and son interacted. She'd probably be chastised by both, but she'd go as far as calling it 'adorable,' another observation over the last few days that would never see the light of day. Plus, Squall would deny what he was doing; truthfully, he may not have been consciously aware, but he wasn't making corrections or purposely asking questions that couldn't be answered (at least, not correctly). Maybe he was too tired to care or maybe it was something more but, he was listening. If she had to guess, she believed that he was giving Laguna this moment.

Besides that, there was no doubt that Squall held interest in the Ragnarok itself. He'd always been fascinated with space, especially after their encounter; he considered it beautiful and terrifying. She inwardly smiled at the parallels – they were two words that could have also been used to describe him.

As she watched her new family, she wanted the best for them. They'd both suffered enough and while she emphatically believed that the future held no guarantees, it never meant that it didn't hold hope. Rinoa hoped a lot for their future, she also hoped that she and Squall could return Esthar - when one of them was no longer considered dead. Maybe for his birthday, they could come back and also visit the Ragnarok with some of the ship's technicians- learning about it would be the perfect way to preserve their memories while creating new ones.

"So um, this is impulse power unit, yeah," Laguna continued doing his best with the tour. "I know that we upgraded something impulsive. I didn't mean we were impulsive when we redid it, I meant it had impulse in the name."

"Propulsion is important." Squall replied feebly. To him, it was such a nostalgic feeling being aboard. A few years ago at his lowest, no amount of Gil or promises would get him to step foot on this ship. Now he would have gladly fought a new hoard of Propagators just to get the chance to relive these memories.

Unfortunately, the President had taken Squall's response as mocking; he didn't know his son well enough to see what Rinoa could.

Laguna tried not to let it get to him, but he couldn't help but feel deflated. He wished that he could explain things better and wow them with his vast knowledge of the ship. In reality, he must've sounded pathetic doing his best to remember what was what and what went where.

He wished that he'd stopped himself, but getting carried away tended to be an unfortunate habit. It's just he swelled with an overwhelming sense of pride on the subjects. In a way, it was also where his worlds intersected. Squall had played a vital role in the Ragnarok's return and so he connected it his son. It wouldn't make sense to anyone else, but he'd come to think that the Ragnarok was a 'gift' from his son, representing a second chance. It was Squall's courage that brought it back to him.

It wasn't about glory or the accolades that came with accomplishments. It wasn't money that made Squall jump into space. In that minute, it was all done for love. That's what brought the ship back to Esthar and that's why Laguna couldn't have been any prouder. Downstairs, Rinoa even reaffirmed how sentimental the spacecraft was to the both of them too. That's why Laguna became excited when he'd inadvertently stumbled on common ground.

Looking down, he stared at the metal-grating that formed the upper part of the floor. Sandwiched beneath that was a complicated series of pipes and wires - below that was a solid metal floor. Regrettably, whoever designed the ship didn't consult with Kiros as there had already been a few Laguna-related mishaps, ironically at least two of them involved dropping keys into the grating. Unfortunately, none of those keys were 'free,' although they were retrieved with a little effort.

Actually, the memory of losing the 'free key' on Lunatic Pandora always brought a smile to his face. Laguna discovered long ago that his confidence was found in the most unconventional ways – unlike that key nearly three decades ago, his confidence wasn't lost, just temporarily misplaced.

Smiling, he apologized while trying to explain himself. "Rinoa, Squall… um, yeah, sorry 'bout this… Guess it's no big surprise that I don't remember everything or, you know, anything. I really was told, but never took notes or anything. I didn't think I'd actually be quizzed on it. Okay, not a literal quiz, but it's because of you guys that the Ragnarok is home. So, I solemnly promise that if you return to Esthar, I'll get one of the real engineers give you the tour you deserve… I mean, that's if you want. No pressure or anything."

He tapped a nearby wall to make his point. "Let's face it, you both earned to have someone that's a little more knowledgeable than pointing and saying, 'you hit that big red button to blow up things.' Okay, maaybee I wasn't that bad, but I was bad."

Rinoa laughed. "Stop it. No, it wasn't that bad, although Selphie would've loved the tour with the red buttons of destruction. She sort of has an obsession with things that go boom. …But personally, I wouldn't have changed a thing. Not to mention, I thought our tour guide was quite charming. So, we're the ones who are honored."

Squall turned his head, feigning interest in a nearby control panel. He couldn't face them, especially Laguna. He saw that moment - that split-second - where Laguna's expression waned and his spirit faltered. Yes, he managed to bounce back. Squall had the impression that's what Laguna Loire spent most of his life doing - making the best out of a bad situation. For the first time that Squall could remember, there was a part of him that felt ashamed - not about what actually had happened, but about how things could have been perceived.

He found it uncomfortable, struggling to understand these unfamiliar feelings laced in guilt, knowing Laguna had taken his words the wrong way. While Squall hadn't meant the propulsion comment to come off as condescending – it had – and it was easy to see why Laguna had taken it that way. Honestly, based on last year's encounters alone, it was easy to see why Laguna had become crestfallen.

The reality was that history clouded the present. Opening his mouth, Squall stated to explain. "I wasn't… never mind."

His words ended as abruptly as they began. Now his failed attempt probably made him come across as an even bigger asshole, but it didn't matter. History couldn't be changed in a day, neither could years of perception.

Rinoa and Laguna exchanged a brief look, sharing in the momentary confusion. That had been… different. But it wasn't if they were following any chartered boundaries and pushing Squall would be detrimental. She felt this need to reach out to him, even if it was only a small gesture. Moving closer, she took his hand in hers, firmly wrapping her fingers within his; her husband didn't refuse her actions, but he also offered no response.

The mood had shifted, but she'd do her best. "Um, Laguna, I don't know if you were serious about touring the Ragnarok later on or not, but that's something I'd really be interested in. I mean, I won't speak for Squall, but we have so much history aboard the ship … And from what I've seen, she looks great. Her and I… well, we sort of went through, well, let's say a transformation together. When we needed her and she needed us and maybe a little worse for wear we all found our way home somehow. So, if you meant it, I'd at love to see how the rest of her turned out."

About eighteen months ago, he'd made a similar offer, although it had been more hypothetical then. The Ragnarok had just started renovations, but he thought she might have been interested - she brushed it off. He believed that, just like his son, she was a part of its rescue. That's why Laguna always connected her with the ship as well. Maybe the Ragnarok wasn't the only one adrift and it took one of them longer to return, but now they'd both found their way back home.

A genuine smile passed his lips as Laguna temporarily forgot about everything else. "A kindred spirit, I understand. The girl's all yours. Well, I'll be sure to throw in an actual tour guide… Then again, if you're wanting someone to point to random buttons that are either light switches or machine guns – hey, I'm your guy."

"Thank you Laguna - that would be amazing." Biting her lip nervously, she made a slight confession. "…I have to admit, I was disappointed when I found out that we couldn't look around the ship. I just had this crazy thought about spending time on the bridge."

Realizing that may have come across ungrateful, she corrected herself. Their host had been more than amazing already. "Oh, no, no… I mean, I totally get why we can't. There's no risk worth being safe, believe me. We'll hit the bridge next time for sure, it sort of has some very special meaning to Squall and I."

She was shocked to feel Squall's hand tense, but when she looked up to question it, she was unable to read his expression.

To Squall, while he completely agreed with everything she'd said, she'd inadvertently crossed into something uncomfortable. His boundaries were still deeply personal and while he was learning to loosen his grip in some respects, others were off limits. Memories could be stolen or twisted - that's why those particular memories were private and only shared with only her.

It was difficult for him to accept how easily she shared what he perceived as something intimate. She was completely in the right; he was the one who felt selfish hoarding memories but, for the last few years, that's how his mind survived. It would take him time, but he would be glad she opened up to others. For her, sharing their memories made her feel closer, as if she was sharing a part of herself.

"…Squall, is everything all right?"

He heard it; it was that familiar fear in her voice, the one she did the best to tiptoe around, afraid of stepping on eggshells. Now he'd managed to upset both his wife and his father in the span of just over five minutes. He was having on hell of a night. Why couldn't the Ragnarok have a fully stocked bar?

Massaging his temples with his free hand, he shook his head. "Nothing. Long day, we need to keep moving."

As they started walking again, Rinoa held back a step, pulling her hand away as they began. It probably wasn't the right response and neither was the fact that instead of just letting it go, she stared at his hand to see what he did. She wondered if he'd turn to stop, reclaim her hand, or if he'd play it off as if nothing happened. What she saw was even more upsetting - he made a quick fist before relaxing his hand.

She couldn't read too much into nothing. Of course, what she really needed to be doing was scolding herself for doing that in the first place. It was simple - he was stressed and she needed to respect his space.

Thankfully, Laguna had missed their exchange. He continued speaking as if nothing had happened - nothing except that Rinoa's accidental guilt-trip had worked and her plan to tell him not to feel bad backfired. This was Laguna and telling him not to feel bad made him feel worse.

"I'm so sorry, Rinoa. I promise that when this is over, you'll get whatever time you want here. I'll even have them bring the ship to you - consider it yours for a bit no matter where you are! Okay?"

She could go into the 'don't feel bad' thing again, but it would be redundant. So she did the next logical thing and it helped get her mind of off of Squall – she laughed.

"You know, I think you stumbled on to something there… consider it Esthar's new upstart business venture. See, if the country goes into a financial crunch, you're ready to go with Rent-a-Ragnarok. It's like a limousine or party bus service, minus the need for those darn pesky roads. Throw in a few kegs of beer and a commemorative t-shirt and it becomes a sure-fire hit that sells itself. In fact, I can already see Selphie lining up to be your first booking."

He couldn't help it, that was such an absurd idea that even he had to join in the laughter. Then again, under the right circumstances, he could totally see himself doing it.

"Rinoa Leonhart, you're hired as Rent-a-rok's marketing director. I even streamlined the name for you so it sounds like a class act now." Turning the final corner, he would have liked to say that he'd taken the most direct route, he should've been able to say that for security issues alone, but he couldn't.

He wanted these moments; even if he had to all but steal them. It was hard to say goodbye knowing that goodbyes changed everything. For now, he wanted to spend these last few minutes laughing with his daughter-in-law and being with the family that he believed was gone for good just a week ago.

Having fun, he continued to play along. "Think of it this way Rinoa, you've given Kiros, Ward, and I fallback careers. If this whole political thing takes a nosedive - we're good. Ward can fly the ol' girl up into space and then I can do my tour guide spiel. I'm sure that with the help of enough alcohol, even my pathetic abilities will become surprisingly believable. Kiros can be the on-board activity director. Poor guy will find himself throwing space-themed birthday parties or planning out-of-this-world family reunions… although we'll have to vote on bachelor parties because I'm pretty sure there's an expression along the lines of, 'what happens in space, stays in space'… or something like that, right?"

"Um, yeah… never heard of that one. Personally, now I'm a tad bit frightened to know exactly what was happening at the space station before it was destroyed. If you guys had a slogan like that, well some things are better left a mystery." Inside, there was a part of her who couldn't stop smiling; Laguna had called her Rinoa Leonhart like she'd been that person all along.

"Piet can be one wild and crazy guy. Trust me." Laguna ran his hand through his hair, trying not to think that with every word, they were getting closer to the inevitable conclusion – the end. "Anyways, tell Selphie not to get out her credit card yet, I don't think we'll starting Rent-a-Rok anytime soon, but the bird is all yours next time. You two have experience; I think I can talk them into letting you take guys take her out on a spin. I can play the 'I'm the President' card when I need to. Plus, then I can do that whole father thing and let my kids borrow the family vehicle, just remember the keys. Getting a locksmith in space is a killer."

She couldn't picturing the mental image of Laguna handing Squall the keys, lecturing him like a parent about the rules – things like reckless driving, insurance going up, and that the family vehicle wasn't meant to fool around in. She avoided eye contact with the aforementioned son, aware that he wasn't finding any of this amusing. It was good that he couldn't read minds, because then he'd really be upset with her right now. Not to mention that she was planning to completely break the last part of those rules she imagined, although 'messing around' would be a huge understatement. That was if he wasn't too tired or still in the mood after she spoke to him about tomorrow.

The atmosphere suddenly fell into an awkward silence. Squall had remained his usual quiet self, but Rinoa wished he would just say something. Still, she knew better than to push it, resigning herself to the fact that he'd probably already shut down for the evening, at least as far as his father was concerned. That's why it came as a shock when he spoke. It was said almost under his breath, but it was sincere.

"Thank you."

And inside, Squall had been grateful for the hospitality, but he was a little too tired and a little too unsure to expand on his words.

"Oh, yeah, guess I should've mentioned this – we haven't just been standing in a random hall, we're here." He pointed ahead to a smaller door with an empty name plate mounted to the side. Placing his hands in his pockets, Laguna nervously started shifting his weight back and forth.

"So, yeah, I'll be getting out of your hair soon enough…yep. And um, remember that although the section will be locked down… just secure the door from the inside, alright? Can't be too sure…. Plus, safety is Kiros' middle name and all. Okay not really… I actually think it's something like Francis or Francisco or something along those lines, but I prefer Safety. It fits so much better, so maybe he could legally change it… and I'm rambling."

Out of nowhere, Laguna found himself on the cusp of his most infamous habit 'triumphantly' returning. His right leg started rapidly shaking and it didn't matter how much he hoped they wouldn't notice - neither of them were blind…or deaf. The metal grating reverberated in time with his trembling leg. The newlyweds were one step away from the joys of experiencing a leg cramp firsthand. Because, yes, that's exactly what Laguna needed as nothing screamed 'emotional farewell' like hopping around on one leg like a drunken flamingo…. Which, ironically was his nickname during boot camp, but he'd rather not have the kids discover that random fact.

Pushing past the obvious physical impediment, the older man continued, shifting his weight on the other leg. "So, don't forget that we're meeting at 7:00 am. I'm honestly not sure who's all going to be aboard, but it'll be the skeleton crew. Kiros doesn't want to draw attention. Well, any more attention. Let's be real - flying in giant, tomato-red, metallic, dragon-shaped spaceship does pose some rather big stealthy disadvantages."

Nervously, he took his hands out of his pockets. He began rubbing them rapidly together and then just stopped as if his hands had literally frozen in mid-movement. Then it all hit him. Laguna Loire had worn his wedding ring for around twenty-four years, but now he hadn't worn it for around twenty-four hours. And yet, standing there, everything about not wearing it felt completely… right.

He missed it, but it was never missing as it was exactly where it was meant to be.

With that thought, he looked back to his children. He knew Squall would roll his eyes if he'd heard him say that, but he didn't stop to think about that. He didn't even pause to think about his shaking leg - the one that had stopped moving moments before. Smiling, Laguna realized that this wasn't goodbye, but rather the start of a new chapter in their lives, the pivotal moment where everything was destined to change.

"Well, guess that's about it. I'd better get back before Kiros thinks I'm lost and sends out a search party again. Hope you enjoy your stay at Hotel Ragnarok, continental breakfast will be served in the passenger area, but sadly the pool and hot tub are closed. Kiros and Ward won't let me build one yet… but just you wait until the Rent-a-Rok takes flight!"

And all the momentum that he'd gathered, all the confidence that he'd felt… it all crumbled like sand under his feet. He could say so many words, but he couldn't say the one he needed to – goodbye.

Humor was easy, but he didn't want to chance becoming overly-emotional over a silly little two syllable word. Laguna knew that as far as emotions went, last night had been all he needed; it was unexpected and perfect. Laguna had to remind himself that just because he felt as if he had over two decades of parenting to catch up on, Squall didn't need it. Squall didn't want it. What they had now wasn't conventional, but it was a huge step forward.

Rinoa, on the other hand, had absolutely no problems in expressing feelings right now. She knew that the next few months would place a strain on all of them. More than that, all of them would be bound by the secrets they were forced to keep. The needed to count on each other, knowing each other would be there. In fact, they were never alone – she believed Laguna needed to be reminded of this the most.

"Thank you, Laguna, not just for this, but for everything." Rinoa stepped forward. Not once did she stop to think about her actions – whether they were awkward, appropriate, or even wanted. She wrapped her arms around him, speaking from her heart. "Laguna, you are loved. You know how much I love you – as you said, we've always been family. If you need me, call – I'll be here in a heartbeat."

Hugging him tighter, she knew everything he was doing to himself. She knew all the responsibilities he insisted on taking. She felt the weight of an entire country as he carried its burden on his shoulders. She sensed his immeasurable loss and pain. And through it all, Laguna never lost himself or his positive outlook on life – he was a role model they should all aspire to.

"And now that you're officially my father-in-law… fair warning, I'm going to bother you sooo much more. Last night, I even download my copy of the 'how to be an annoying in-law' guide."

Laguna chuckled, "Wait, isn't that supposed to be the other way around? I mean, aren't I supposed to annoy you? I'm kinda new to all this in-law mumbo jumbo."

"Technically, I believe you are correct. I know that this may be difficult to believe, but I could never find you that annoying. Nobody who has a heart as big as you could ever annoy me." She felt the tears beginning to well up in her eyes as she patted his shoulder. "I better stop myself before my husband does that for me."

Luckily, Laguna found humor in that. "Good idea. I'm sure he's with the majority where the words 'Laguna' and 'annoying' are synonymous. I sorta have to agree a little… you're being overly kind; then again, I could always use a person like you in my corner… A person, by the way, who could never be annoying."

"You're both annoying, does that help?" Squall's voice held a hint of humor, although outsiders wouldn't have been able to decipher it. "And can we wrap up the love-fest before we're discovered? With me standing here alive and you two hugging like that…it'll lead to questions. Awkward ones."

"He's right. I mean about hurrying up… not about the annoying thing," she sniffed, pulling back. Even before the first word was spoken, she knew this would end in tears. She was trying to wipe them away as she continued, but it was to no avail. "In all seriousness, the next few months are going to be a strain for Squall and I… But that's nothing, and I mean nothing, compared to what you're facing. I know Esthar needs you, but you need to remember a few things too. Remember, it was Adel who was sick - don't you dare blame yourself for her actions – ever. Now, I'm going to get all sentimentally-annoying on you now, so fair warning."

Reaching over, she took hold his arm before resting her head on his shoulder. She knew that her tears were most likely staining his shirt, but she didn't care in that moment. "Laguna, if you need to talk, no matter the day, no matter the hour, don't hesitate to pick up the phone. Even though Squall and I aren't here - we can be here in a heartbeat. You are our family so don't you ever, ever dare forget that you are loved."

"I love you too, Rin," he replied softly. Like Rinoa, he knew that no matter how resolute he wanted to be, his tears were already a given. "I wish I could repay you for all you've given me, not just for last night but for all those years. Nothing in this world will come close… The best I can give you in return is my word. If I need someone no matter when it is, I'll call. That's a promise." As her head rested on his shoulder, he leaned his down so it touched the top of hers. "Rin, I don't know if I should say this, but I want you to know that I'm thinking of you. I'm sorry about your friend. I don't know how you're managing."

"Because of your son," she replied simply.

Nodding, he pulled away. Oddly, it was mentioning Zone that reminded him that they needed their space too. "Goodbye."

With a wave of the hand, he nodded before turning to leave. Now he hoped that he could get out of here without making some clumsy exit that ended in a full-out face plant. He hadn't made it two steps when he felt a hand grab his arm, but it lasted only briefly. Turning back around, he fully expected to see someone else standing there. His heart soared, becoming overrun with emotion when he saw his son standing in front of him.

"Thank you." Squall paused. For him, it was still uncomfortable, but he wanted to do this, "Not just for this, for everything."

" Anytime."

Laguna knew that with Squall, saying less said more. A solemn smile past over his lips as he turned back to leave. The President knew that their goodbye, minus a few hiccups here and there, hadn't gone too badly. No, not badly at all. Walking away from his children, by blood and by marriage, his thoughts fixated on their future. Fate willing, it was truly their own and their life together was still unwritten. For a man who'd become particularly hesitant of change in his later years, he believed that change had been the best thing to ever happened to their future tonight.

Nobody saw has his small smile turned into a full blown grin.

"He totally gets the annoying part from you," he thought to himself, having an argument with Raine as he often did.

"Hey, can't blame a guy for trying, right?" he sighed as he was being called out by a ghost. "Fine, Raine, you win… But without a doubt, the stubborn thing is completely from you."

Losing an argument to a memory wasn't something he'd openly admit, but it were these conversations that helped him get this far. It might've not been considered normal, but it was nice to have someone who gave him confidence, speaking with him anywhere or anytime.

Anytime. He repeated the word; that had been his only reply to Squall.

The response was also an open invitation to return to Esthar 'at any time.' For once, he believed that their coming back wasn't a matter of if, but rather a matter of when.

And whenever that was, he'd be ready.


If an outsider were to hear Squall's thought process, it would have been labeled as cold and callous… and that was using the upmost decorum. Being a military leader demanded being emotionally-detached when necessary; it was about survival – the sacrifice of the few for the needs of the many. The problem was, over the years, he knew that he hadn't perfected this ability, even if the rest of the world believed otherwise. He wasn't void of emotions; he'd just been forced into compartmentalizing them at an early age – it was about his survival. For over two decades, he'd done that for the most part.

…But there had been breaks in the façade, minuscule fissures that allowed some emotions to seep through. The most notable crack was the one that happened unexpectedly when he seventeen.

It was because of that ability – the cataloging and prioritizing emotions and needs - that when Laguna walked away, he couldn't dwell on it any further. Again, it would be callous to some, not stopping to wonder, or to worry, or to inwardly smile at the steps they'd made, but it was necessary. It wasn't that Squall didn't care but, in this particular case, the old adage rang the truest – out of sight, out of mind.

He reached his hand out to open the door, but stared at it for a second; it was an unlikely sense of déjà vu. Yes, everything had been replaced, but the Ragnarok's overall feel actually was more reminiscent of the Deep-Sea Research Center. It was an odd comparison as Esthar had claimed that facility and, of all logical things, was doing research at the research center, but he was taken aback that some of the elements had been incorporated into the Ragnarok. Then again, the ocean and space were virtual unknowns and the extreme pressure in both places was astronomical; the landscapes had their similarities.

So thinking about it, there was solid logic in their reasoning.

Then it hit him. He'd spent more time concerned about a door's design than he did about his father breaking down and believing that goodbye wasn't just a word but the manifestation of all his fears. That was the very reason Squall didn't say that word, wouldn't say that word– he wouldn't give it power.

That's why, in context, Squall's actions were mind blowing. He didn't hate himself for not saying goodbye; he hated himself for not following through with the process – he was a damn hypocrite.

Now he had to push that all out of his mind as Rinoa fidgeted behind him. Just because she wasn't speaking, didn't mean she wasn't communicating. She was anxious, or tired, but whatever it was, it was making her to move around. The metal grating became very telling as the new flooring certainly wasn't installed for its stealth capabilities. With this, sneaking past some of the Propagators would've been an entirely different challenge.

He opened the door, but remained firmly planted in his spot. With a quick visual scan of the room, he determined that it was actually a tad smaller than his old SeeD room, although it was meant to be in space, so this definitely had a one-up as far as the view went. The bed was a typical captain's bed, recessed so the edge was flush with the wall and had traditional storage compartments underneath. From here, it looked like it was a twin size, maybe a little smaller. Either way, it still held more appeal than the cold van floor even if they were going to be a bit of a tight fit.

As he looked around, he remained firmly rooted his spot - much to Rinoa's chagrin. She went back to her conversation with Laguna and officially decided that he was the annoying one. Unfortunately, anointing her husband with the (not-so) much-coveted title didn't make a lick of difference. He still didn't move, stubborn as a damn Chocobo.

Squall still held his ground; he was caught up in the room - regardless of the dimensions, this… it was perfect. He'd left a part of himself on this ship years ago, afraid that when he came to that crossroad, he'd take the wrong path and get lost. And maybe he did, but maybe it was also time to let this part of his past go.

For him, it wasn't at the graduation ball, it was right here. This is where it all started..

Of course, Rinoa was clueless to any of this – where it started, reaching a crossroads, and becoming lost. Honestly, her train of thought was more along the lines of concern. Maybe he'd suddenly forgotten how to place one foot in front of the other without falling flat on his face… then again, if he was flat, she could have at least stepped over him. Okay, she wasn't that concerned – it had been a very long day, tomorrow was going to be even longer and her stubborn, Chocobo-like husband still wasn't budging.

She was over this. Standing behind him, she crossed her arms and knitted her brows. Her foot tapped against the floor and now she was forced to try to tune out the annoying echo. Her impatience should've been extremely obvious, at least to her and the rest of Esthar, but it only made it apparent that her husband had graduated from being a stubborn Chocobo to being as clueless as a drunken Ochu.

…Definitely not a step in the right direction.

Inching forward, she poked him three times on the shoulder blade. "You know, unlike Selphie's attempt at setting the two of us up at FH, you're not that transparent. Just throwing that info out there… transparent – as in able to see through. So, do with that analogy as you wish, but to make it easier for you, I'll give you a hint - it's a hint."

He did an about-face so quickly that her body instinctively flinched. She thought that he'd reverted back into commander mode. He'd possibly mistaken her for a rebellious cadet but, in reality, she was actually a rebellious wife. However, she'd made it her mission to make sure he wouldn't forget that, even he'd figured that out, which was fine because he could hold his own.

"Impatient, are we?" He raised an accusing eyebrow.

"I'd at least like to attempt getting some sleep. Physically, being able to reach the bed is often considered helpful in that department. And before I forget, here's some unsolicited career advice for you - you don't make a good door or a good window, Leonhart."

"In? You want… in?" He looked as if he was confused by her request. "Here's a hint: how about asking?"

"Um, what?" Rinoa blinked a few times. Yes, she was tired, but she was currently living under the impression that she was awake. Stranger things had happened in life, especially in the last hour.

"Quit making things so damn complicated, Leonhart."

Jokingly, he referenced her earlier use of the surname as it was something they often did in the past. Honestly, besides the occasional 'Rin,' they weren't the type of couple who resorted to nicknames. Both considered calling each other either Leonhart or Heartilly their version of being playful. Of course, now that the name was shared, its impact had been greatly diminished.

She understood exactly what he'd meant. "Fine, you forced my hand. Remember, you made me say this… Seifer's Bestie-and-BFF-forever – can I please get into the room?" She faked coughed into her hand. "God, I feel sick. That physically hurt to say."

"That's it, you're in trouble now." Before she could offer a further rebuttal, he'd bent down and placed one arm around her upper body, while the other reached for her legs. In one fell swoop, he'd pulled her into a rather unexpected, romantic gesture. She let out a surprised yelp as her arms instinctively went around his neck. She purposely tried to maneuver herself so that she didn't make direct contact with his wound, although he certainly didn't seem to mind. Honestly, he'd never admit to pain even if it had been bothering him this entire time. Rinoa was fairly positive about one thing - Squall wasn't going to be Dr. Kadowaki's bestie at his follow-up examination.

"There's something important that I need you to know… and the words come from the bottom of my heart," he spoke firmly, his face exuding the seriousness that his tone implied. "Rinoa, in the abbreviation BFF, the second 'F' means forever. So, actually saying BFF forever is a redundant statement. And now, I feel a little ill myself…. but I love you enough for you to know this."

"I stand corrected," she laughed.

He sighed, but with smile. "… Wrong again. You're not standing."

"Fine," she huffed, "I'm carried corrected. Great. That doesn't even make sense… none of this does, actually. Wait… I shouldn't say that, because there's one thing makes sense through all the ups and downs. Thank you for helping me laugh. It means a lot."

"I know." He shrugged. It wasn't meant to be condescending, but there wasn't a single doubt in his mind that she was thankful; just as he was thankful that he could be the one here for her – an honor he wore with pride. Well, him, Laguna and Zell, they all meant something to her during this and he didn't want do diminish the roles of the other two in the least. They meant something to him too.

"By the way, just say you want in next time. Was that transparent enough?" he added sarcastically. Honestly, he hadn't been worried. Kiros mentioned that the mechanics didn't have business there and by now they'd secured the area after Laguna left. Still, it was better to err on the side of caution.

"Squall, I want in."

"Affirmative." His simple response corresponded with a firm nod and again, she noticed that he was radiating a rather intense commanderly vibe. To tell the truth, she believed that if his arms hadn't been otherwise occupied, his head nod would've been a full-blown salute. She really hoped that this was all in jest and not some weird SeeD version of caffeine withdrawal.

That problem would be dealt with at another time; their problem-level had already reached full capacity for the next twenty-four hours, next twenty-four years… whichever.

Taking his first step, Squall discovered that his grand, romantic gesture wasn't backed up by logistics. Thankfully, the problem didn't require an engineer or him going upstairs to grab the nearest Estharian rocket scientist. The solution was relatively simple, requiring only a minor adjustment. Slightly twisting, he tried his grand, romantic gesture again, but this time at a sideways angle; however, it had been downgraded to just a plain-old romantic gesture for having to put this much thought into it.

Clunk. The sound of her head hitting against the metal echoed worse than it actually was.

"Ouch," she laughed, reaching up to rub her forehead.

Honestly, if either of them would've stopped to think about the likelihood of success - this would've been the inevitable outcome. It was as clichéd as any attempt could get; now, it was officially stripped of 'grand' and 'romantic' and it was merely a gesture now. However, since she wasn't hurt, Rinoa easily admitted that this had been humorous; maybe the withdrawal from his super-SeeD powers was quicker than expected.

Looking down, he made sure she was really all right. "Maybe I should say that was retaliation for the Seifer's bestie comment but we both know it was an accident…or karma. Really. Either way, I'm sorry."

His sobering tone hadn't helped, but the minor throbbing had stopped. "Uh-huh, sure. Karma…good one. Be nice, I'm sure it's not too late to get this marriage-thingy annulled. Plus, word on the dating circuit is that Odine's back in the game. You know, a girl needs more than a guy with looks – we also look for men who understand the complex workings of how a door works… fashion sense is a plus too. And you know Odine's a fashion god, bet he could get me through the door."

"What the hell does that even mean?" He stopped to think about the possibilities of her sentence and then immediately regretted that decision. If that was some sort of sexual innuendo, he really was better off being left in the dark.

"Never mind. Some mysteries aren't meant to be solved." He deadpanned as they'd finally made it to the center of the room. Knitting his brow, he started to give her the visual once-over for his own piece of mind. "Rinoa, exactly how hard did your head hit against that door and do you want medical attention? I'm starting to believe you need it." As an afterthought he added, "Not Dr. Odine."

"Jealous?" she playfully teased, but he brushed it off.

Instead, he continued walking over to the bed and, unfortunately, his attempt at setting her down went a little awry. Because the bed was lower than a standard mattress, she came out of his arms a little harder than expected. Again, it was certainly nothing that would hurt her - his pride maybe - but not her. She'd basically rolled so that she landed on her stomach, burying her face into the pillow to mask her laughter. It was a matter of pride, and his was left just outside the door. It took her a moment to regain her composure, but she finally pushed around, laying on her back.

"You're really out of practice."

"Deal with it." Reaching down, he planted a chaste kiss on her forehead. "If you want Odine, I'm not going to stand in your way."

She smiled, dismissing it with her hand. "Nah, I'm good. Sounds like too much paperwork."

"Hmm," he replied, deliberately pressing his lips together, but she saw through the ruse, still able to make out the thin outline of smile. After continuing to stare at her, he shook his head before turning around to take care of the door.

Thankfully, the floor here was made of solid tile. He didn't think he could take listening to the sounds of the grating each time one of them took a step - not that either of them planned on pacing around tonight. After sliding the lock back over, he turned around and purposely took a moment for himself. Maybe Squall was being led by invisible riptides; it turned out that Laguna's emotions had a way of manifesting in other ways. There was so much he didn't want to think about – so much he should think about – but finality loomed on the horizon.

Tomorrow everything changed. For good or bad, the rest of his life began tomorrow.

Squall had this need to draw from this experience; to appreciate all the things in life that were easy to overlook. Right now, that translated into looking around the room. It was the chance to stop and smell the roses, which currently equated to stopping and looking at the wires on the ceiling. He had no idea where they went or what their purpose was, he just saw all the colors of the rainbow encased in clear tubes. They all served a purpose; they were all important working together cohesively. That was it. He had to stop himself, realizing that he was channeling Laguna right now. He wasn't thrilled, but the reality wasn't quite as scary as it was a month ago; if anything… he kind of liked not knowing what his next thought would be.

Yet again, overanalyzing that wouldn't be a good thing.

Taking a step towards a second smaller door, he had to admit that he really did like this ship. Why he believed that admitting things like that others would make him weak he'd never know. In hindsight, it didn't make sense; it didn't make him weak, it made him human. He pushed opened the adjacent door to see a small bathroom. It had a toilet, sink, and a small shower. Still, given that this was meant for outer space, a private shower while flying among the stars sounded like the ultimate luxury. Of course, having a semi-private shower sounded even better. Suddenly, he felt the oddest need to be specific - a shower with Rinoa sounded better. For some reason, the random need to restate the obvious made him inwardly groan – again, it was part of his parentage seeping through.

This trip wasn't about leaving the planet's atmosphere, but it didn't lessen his gratitude. He was glad to be aboard no matter where the spacecraft was headed. On the other side of the room, there was a large counter that ran nearly the entire length of the room. The only part where it was absent was in front of the large picture window. That had something better; it was a cushioned seat directly in the front of the glass. It was large enough to stretch out and it even had a few coordinating throw pillows. He refused to dwell on the fact that he'd actually noticed the matching throw pillows.

Looking beyond the cushions, towards the farthest wall, there was a large bag with a stylized Moomba design; it was a company logo that he'd seen before. He thought they made some sort of molded plastic products, but he guessed that Laguna just loved the Moomba design. It had his father written all over it. Thankfully, that wasn't a literal statement. Still, Squall knew it had to be a sack full of whatever provisions they were able to throw together so quickly. Again, the hospitality had Laguna's paw prints stamped all over it.

He had to admit this was really was a nice gesture. It all was. "They've really sunk a lot of capital into the renovations. At the core, it's the still the same ship, but it all seems so different."

"Different, but the same?" she asked, still lying on the bed. Rolling onto her side, she propped herself up on her elbow so she could look at him.

"Mmm."

The sound was meant as a form of agreement, but one had to speak the secret language in order to decipher its clues. It was also those clues that led her to the truth – he liked it here. There was a curiosity about him that was almost childlike. He was fascinated, wanting to soak in all of the ship's details; she soaked in details too, completely enamored in watching him – but that wasn't to say that she didn't share his interest in ship. In space, it was difficult for either of them to fully take in its pure grandeur. Honestly, when you believed that something was destined to be your tomb, it was very easy to overlook its splendor – at least that's how she thought of the Ragnarok five years ago. It seemed that every minute they found themselves faced with a new challenge back then - from running out of oxygen, to imploding, to exploding, or crashing, or being attacked by Propagators. Also, neither discounted the anxiety of just being alone together. Still, their first experience on the Ragnarok was a little more trying than the average date – years later they'd both jokingly gone to referring to it as their first date; the worst one ever, but it was also a way of coping.

To Squall being bombarded by unwanted emotions was just as scary as any ten foot dragon-insect-hybrid from outer space. Of course, Rinoa had her whole sorceress thing going on…it was still always there, even today, but she had to learn to joke about that to stop herself from going insane.

Squall took advantage of the window's cushioned area as he sat down. This was the first time he'd seen the new Esthar Air Station. They'd missed all this coming in from the freight entrance in the lower cargo bays.

"Tinted windows," he said out loud, tapping on the glass, "You forget how big the Ragnarok is until you see just how high up we are."

He was surprised when she joined him on the cushions. He hadn't even heard her get out of bed, although the fact that the floor was more conducive to sneaking helped – not that 'sneaking' had been her intent.

She rested against the window, looking down at the loading areas. "Even while docked, the view is still amazing… It's also way less space-y than last time."

"I've had my fill of space."

"Yeah…" she softly replied.

Both knew that his response was most likely a surface answer; he wasn't being honest with himself but, in this rare case, he didn't exactly know what honesty was. Just thinking about it, just picturing being up there again… there was a solitary beauty, just as breathtaking as it was deadly. Rinoa didn't push him and he was thankful for that; if anyone could understand the mixed bag of emotions, it would have been her.

Then he saw the reflection of the bathroom door in the window. It was probably one of the strangest connections he'd ever made, but in that second, he knew that the truth was buried there all along.

"I'd go back."

He'd made peace with one part of his life, but other parts remained unresolved. He continued watching a few workers waving someone over before a familiar friend came into view– Laguna.

"Rinoa, for years I didn't want to come back to Esthar because it was easy to associate my mistakes with this country. The group we were going after, not to give too much a way, was considered a terrorist threat to the government. I managed to associate their behavior with Laguna rather than my own. Where it took place – it shouldn't have mattered but I made it matter. And I can't escape space just like we can't escape looking up at the stars and honestly… I don't think either of us would want to. What happened in space, what could've happened… it doesn't make a difference where it was, just like Esthar. We can't stand here and say that the Ragnarok means something to us, but space doesn't."

"I'd go back too."

He let out a deep breath, knowing the difference between them. "Yes, but you would've gone back two years ago while I would've made an excuse to avoid it. Space, Esthar…it didn't matter. Call it whatever you want but it's still fucking hiding."

"You're not hiding anymore." Okay, technically he was hiding, but that wasn't what they were talking about.

"It's our hurdle to cross. If it's in my power, we'll find a way to get back."

She nodded in agreement, but then everything changed.

Rinoa knew that it was already past midnight and tomorrow was no longer an abstract concept that she could fool herself into believing it was. Laughing and smiling was coping, but she couldn't merely 'cope' to make it through the present - she had to come to terms with it.

It had been his words - hurdle to cross. He might as well have said burden to bear… or battle to fight… it was all the same. He meant that the only way to take charge of your future was to accept your past. The problem was that her past that it wasn't something behind her; it was something about to happen in a few short hours.

He noticed.

He noticed her behavior from the moment she stood; it wasn't with her carefree grace, it was ridged and robotic. The softness in her eyes had found a way to hardened as she looked beyond the Air Station. Following her line, he knew what she was staring at – just like he knew exactly where her heart and mind lay.

She might've been in Esthar, but her mind was in Timber.

She wasn't just in Timber, she was with her friend. Friend. It was impossible to stop using that term after a decade; one that's worth was greater than the span of ten years. Still, she didn't know what Zone was to her now, but she knew what he had been – although those memories had already started to blur, his past tainted by what she knew in the present.

She wished that friendships – or relationships in general – could be turned off and on like a faucet. Hell, that would've saved her countless sleepless nights in the past and even the emotional battle currently waging within herself. Her mind had no doubt about what he'd done, the unspeakable pain he'd caused, but her heart… it was the last hold out in the war. It still wanted to refer to him as a friend – just one who was ill and needed saving.

She'd felt this was before… and the whole of the situation became eerily similar in parts. She loved Squall, but it didn't mean that should favor him – both men where human and both occupied a place in her heart. Years ago, Rinoa was willing to do anything to save Squall and now Zone needed saving from the same enemy - himself.

But her mind saw it differently, refusing to acknowledge any parallels and quickly disregarded her heart's attempt at misguided sympathy. Squall had a breakdown and during that, the worst-case scenario took place. His was a moment that went beyond confusion; he went to a place where he lost himself – and even now found himself destined to watch every step he took in order to stay on the path. And Zone… his breakdown or illness – she couldn't define what it was yet when faced with so many unknowns – but whatever it was, nothing like Squall's. It was cold and calculated. He'd set up someone else to take the fall – and even if the other person was a monster, it didn't lessen Zone's guilt. He'd even made Rinoa into part of his alibi in the death of her former knight.

There were no words.

And that's why she hated herself for this but, her heart was always stronger than her mind. This was no different. She owed Zone something – maybe it was just the chance to live; the chance to look her in the eyes and explain the unexplainable. Most of all, she owed it Timber as this needed to be done without spilling blood. They had all suffered enough and losing Zone was going to hurt morale because he was one of them, even his father gave his dying breath for Timber.

That was why she needed to confront Squall now, to beg or plead if necessary. She didn't care who she had to speak with, be it her husband, Lauren, the headmaster, or anyone who would listen if she spoke loud enough. She was the best hope and she owed it to Timber – and yes, she owed it to Watts, herself…and even Zone.

Whatever reasons he had, they were his own, but he never believed in hurting others. He wouldn't want her to be hurt. Her heart may have been uncertain about so many of the newly-discovered facts, but she was resolute about this. She could talk to him tomorrow. She could get him to turn himself in. She could diffuse so many volatile variables in a flammable situation.

SeeD had asked things of her over the years and she never denied them. She left Garden when Cid thought it would be best. She didn't want to, but she did. To a lesser extent, they needed her help to find Sirtis… or maybe to do so in a timelier manner. She gave SeeD her help and now she needed theirs. She damn well deserved it. She had to be the one to talk to Zone. She needed to be there – he'd surrender to her. Most of all, she needed to find the courage to confront Squall about this right now. She wondered what would have been the best approach – was there any protocol for things like these? How do you ask your husband to let you be the one to confront his murderer about turning himself in?

However one does it, she hoped the answer would come to her right now.

-o-o-O-O-o-o-

Author's End Notes: I'm so, so sorry this story was neglected for two months. Honestly, I've been around promise! I've just been so busy working on Meaning of Resistance that it's been hard to balance the two. I don't mean that in a bad way, honestly, working on MoR has really helped me – I feel motivated again, it's just like when I first started writing ten years ago.

I think after awhile we all fall into a pattern and working on an AU has really, really been fun. All the fears I've had in the beginning… well, they're still there because I'm still not sure I can do it justice, but I'm having fun. Hey – I managed nine chapters in less than two months – knowing me, that says something! I think too it's because as this gets closer to being finished it's mentally difficult, I guess that makes no sense. I can't say that I can explain it myself, but… I can never thank everyone enough for the support, for the encouragement. Just knowing people are still following after all these years means the world.

On Facebook I'd asked if people would rather have an update now or a longer chapter later, most likely in January… but I'm glad I broke the chapter in half, even if it means going a chapter long. I know that there are a lot extra things, not so much this chapter as last, but those are all things I wanted/planned to get in – by the time it was over I wanted people to know about the background of the characters in this world I'd created. And here, I wanted to have a final goodbye between Laguna and Squall – I felt like it was part of their development. Hopefully, nobody wants to hit with a tuna.

Also, not sure if I'll get another chapter of Meaning of Resistance up before Christmas (have to say, it's been fun to write Seifer and Squall in the same story again, once Zell gets in there it will be a blast) but, wanted to say happy holidays to everyone! No matter where you are, no matter what you celebrate, I'm we all found common ground in the fandom. (Yes, husband would be rolling his eyes about this and fandom, but hey – he can be Squallish at times) So, Happy-Merry-New Everything!

I will do review replies for 85 tomorrow. I know it's out of order, but I didn't want to wait any longer to post this. If the world does end on the 21st, my goal was to at least get this darn chapter done! (Hey, my end-of-word-doomsday goals had to be achievable, darn it!)

-PS I wish everyone the best this holiday season and Happy New Year. This story will be finished in 2013. I promise, it's almost done – of course if I over think that I'll get too emotional. :)

Kristin (Ashbear)