"I'm sorry," she said.
Squall looked ahead, at the hallway curving away in front of him.
"We were going to wait, find a way to tell you ourselves," she began. "You shouldn't have heard it as a muttered rumor..."
He said nothing, and he was very still.
"Squall," she said, reaching for his arm.
He grabbed her hand in his before she could touch him. His grip tightened until she went white. "Where is she?"
"In the training center," Quistis whispered. "Angelo won't let anyone come near."
He let go of her hand and walked away down the hall. Nothing around him seemed quite real, but it just wouldn't go away fast enough.
The figures around him looked at him out of the corners of their eyes and lowered their voices, as if he couldn't hear them anyway.
"Does Squall know?"
"--at the dance, remember? How could she--"
"I talked to her yesterday, she was--"
"Does Squall know?"
There was something about the way the people moved that bothered him, but he didn't manage to pin it down until he was at the entrance to the elevator. Then he stopped, grabbing at his head, as the image overwhelmed him: the feeling of being a chunk of ice swept helplessly down a river, with currents twisting all around him and never letting him go.
The people-currents turned to stare at him as he staggered, awkward sympathy on their faces. He pushed the image away and, without looking back at any of them, stepped onto the elevator. He was going down.
The hallway outside the training center was crowded, but everyone pushed to the side to let Squall through. At the entrance to the training center itself, the crowds stopped. It took him a moment to figure out why. Then he saw Irvine standing off to the side, with Selphie opposite him, the two of them flanking the entrance. They didn't look inclined to let anyone in.
Squall didn't care. He walked right past them. Irvine hesitated, looked to Selphie for directions; she just gave him a confused, sad look.
Squall walked on by.
She was dangling from a tree just around a bend from the entrance, Angelo just below her feet, the rope snug around her neck. Squall cut her down and undid the knots. He touched her cool skin, quite detached as he checked for a pulse in her broken neck.
She had told him stories sometimes about princesses. He had taken it for granted that all princesses were simply shadows of her. Now he remembered one tale of the princess's lover waking her up from a sleep like death with a kiss. Of course, she was just asleep.
He kissed her. Angelo whined nervously, and nothing else happened.
He moved without letting his brain engage, getting to his feet with her lolling in his arms. Angelo whimpered at his feet, but followed him back to the entrance without protest.
He got there in time to see Dr. Kadowaki pushing her way through the crowd around the area without bothering with apologies. Quistis and Zell accompanied her, but she was the one doing the work. "Stop gawking, you, I'm coming through--now who was it who decided my day off would be a good time for a suicide attempt? I--"
She stopped at the sight of Squall with Rinoa in his arms. Her expression softened into worry for a moment, then went stern again as she strode forward. "Give me the body, Squall. Might as well do the usual tests, make sure there was nothing suspicious going on--"
"She didn't do it," Squall said, very calmly.
"Well, I suppose it's possible that someone poisoned her or something similar and then strung her up to snap her neck like that, but--"
Dr. Kadowaki gave him a long look, then just shook her head and reached for the body. "You might be right, but..."
"Nobody saw anyone but Rinoa come in here when--when it happened," Irvine said quietly, looking at the ground. "And there's no evidence anyone else was near that tree recently."
"She didn't do it," Squall started to repeat, but then he felt her weight lift out of his arms, and panic rose up inside him to fill the sudden weightless space. It strangled his voice, killing the words before they could escape his throat, and leaving only a profound emptiness inside.
He pushed Dr. Kadowaki hard as she pulled Rinoa away, and when she didn't fall, he reached for his gunblade. He'd cut Rinoa free of the doctor if he had to, just like he'd cut her free from the tree and the rope.
"Squall, no!" Selphie launched herself at him.
"Selphie, don't--" Irvine ran after her. From behind him, Zell started to follow, then paused, looked at Squall, and backed away.
Selphie slammed into his side, knocking him off balance as he raised his gunblade. He spun around, leveling the weapon on her now. Her eyes widened. "Hey! You're not going to--"
"He is," Quistis said. She'd barely moved from the entrance. Now she said, "Sleep."
The gunblade suddenly felt very heavy in his hands. He let it slide to the ground as the world fell away from him, and then he was on his knees, and then he was crumpled on the ground. Blackness closed in comfortably.
He was in a bed when he woke up, and for a moment he wondered if it might have all been a dream. Then he opened his eyes and found himself staring at the sterile environment of the infirmary. Just through the window of the room he was in, he could see a table bearing a body wrapped in white.
Squall bolted out of the bed and ran out of the room. He started pulling the sheet off of Rinoa, starting with her face, which was now very pale. He would have hacked the sheet off to make things quicker, but someone had taken his gunblade from him.
"Squall! You're awake!" It was Zell, who'd been standing guard at the door. "Uh--what are you doing? Hey, leave that there, what are you gonna do by getting rid of it?"
You're suffocating her, Squall said, or tried to say--he found his voice wouldn't work. He wondered if Rinoa had taken it with her wherever she had gone.
Wherever she had gone. He looked down at her pale face, touched her cool skin.
"Hey, Squall?" Zell said uncertainly.
Squall dropped the sheet and turned to walk away. Zell started to step in front of him; for his troubles, he got shoved roughly into the wall as Squall walked by.
There were a few nervous gawkers loitering in the hall outside of the infirmary. Squall ignored them. He walked through the halls of Garden, searching for something, he didn't know what.
From time to time people popped up in front of him. They tried to talk to him.
"Squall," Quistis said, stopping him near the library, "I'm sorry. We all liked her. I don't know why she did it."
She didn't do it, he would have said, if he were able to speak.
"Squall," Dr. Kadowaki said as he walked by the infirmary, "I did all the tests. Nothing came up. It really was suicide."
Of course it wasn't, he would have said.
"Squall," Selphie asked as he passed the cafeteria, "are you gonna be okay? We're all here to help you, you know."
No, you're not. You're all a million miles away from me.
"Squall," Xu said, coming down from the elevator, "Garden will take care of the funeral arrangements if you want."
I don't want anything but Rinoa.
He wasn't sure how many times he walked in circles around the lower level of Garden before he found what he was looking for. There was a flower growing out of the floor, and as he reached for it, it multiplied, spreading out over the cool metal of the structures around him until everything had been replaced by flowers. He was in the field outside the orphanage.
He sank to his knees in the flowers and looked up at the sky. "You can find me here," he said, speaking effortlessly. "Rinoa. I'm here. I'm waiting. Please find me. Rinoa?
He screamed until he found himself bent double, his forehead pressed against the flowers. Now, though, they felt more like dust on a cold stone floor. When he stood up, he could see that he'd imagined the flower field. "Rinoa?" he said weakly, without much hope.
He was in the art gallery of Ultimecia's castle. This time around, though, the paintings were different. The large one, right in front of him, was a picture of Rinoa, standing in the flower field and holding her arms out to him. He started to reach for her, then hesitated and turned to look at the smaller paintings.
They were less pleasant. One, labeled Caelum (Space), showed an image of Rinoa in space, the glass of her helmet shattered over her dead face. Another--entitled Somnus (Sleep)--depicted her wasted away into death on the infirmary bed, having never emerged from her coma. Then there was Bestia (Beasts), showing a bloodied Rinoa fallen beneath the claws of all the creatures they'd fought over the course of their time together. Lapsus (Fall) had her crumpled on the ground far below Garden, a tiny figure standing far above her, too late to save her. In Veneficus (Sorceress), her lifeless body had just been cast aside by Adel.
There were more, but Squall turned away from them, seeking out the one painting where Rinoa was alive. It had a title now. Rinoa. He reached for it urgently--and found his hand pressed on a painted gravestone with Rinoa's name slapped across it. He recoiled and spun around, only to be met with more images of death.
Squall turned and ran, fleeing through the corridors of the castle. All around him, broken and toppled statues had Rinoa's face. He stopped at the sight of two unbroken statues--but these didn't have Rinoa's features, they had Irvine's and Quistis's.
"I don't know what he's doing here," the Irvine statue said. "He just fell down and hasn't moved since. Hey, Squall? Are you there?"
The Quistis statue frowned. "I don't think we're getting through to him."
He shook his head at them and walked past--and the statues fell into disrepair again. Marble versions of Rinoa's face stared blankly up at him from where they lay cracked on the floor. The hall he ran through seemed unending. Finally, he stopped and opened his mouth to scream. And then he was in space.
It was strangely peaceful. Here, his muteness was only natural. There was no sound at all. There was no one at all, either. It was perfectly empty and perfectly safe, and he felt at home here. It was familiar. But--
It was cold, and he was alone, and he was at peace. And yet--
He could stay like this forever, spinning through the emptiness between the stars. Except--
He clawed uselessly at the emptiness around him, picked up handfuls of stars that felt like ice between his fingers. He wrenched the fabric of space open as if it were cheap velvet and threw himself into the blankness beyond. He landed face first on cold marble.
Then a cold hand settled on his shoulder. "Squall." It was a woman's voice--one he'd never heard before, but familiar nonetheless. "Get up. You can't stay here."
He staggered to his feet and looked around him. He was in a strange dining hall, hung with tapestries depicting ever-changing moments from his life. In the center of the room was a long table, set with plates, knives, and forks. No one was sitting there, but he could make out shapes in the shadows beyond it--something strange and semi-mechanical bound to the wall, and a dragon-like form at the very end of the table.
He reached back to push the hand off his shoulder, but it was already gone, and its owner was walking back to the table. She wasn't wearing much, and she was made of ice. "You're GFs," he said. It wasn't a question. "What is this place?"
"Where do you think it is?" Shiva said.
From behind the dining table, the dragon stirred. "This is where we live." He paused. "And where we eat."
Squall walked forward, his footsteps ringing on the hard floor. He picked up a knife from the table. "...eat?"
"Human thought," Bahamut said. "This is how we bond with humans, and how we survive in their heads."
"Memories," Shiva said quietly. "We eat memories."
Squall's hand tightened around the knife.
"Sometimes we just gnaw around the edges and shove them aside," she said. "Sometimes we eat holes in them, so you don't recognize them until someone points them out to you. And sometimes we swallow them whole."
Squall clasped the knife even tighter, but there was still no blood. "Rinoa," he said.
"We cannot bring her back to you," Bahamut said.
Squall shook his head. "You eat memories. Eat everything I remember of her. Take it away. Now."
"It doesn't work that way, Squall," Shiva said. "We can't pick and choose what winds up on our plates."
"I could do it," said the last shape in the shadows.
Squall took a step forward, then another.
"I can bring anything into oblivion--all you need to do is ask. The others serve humanity because it is a part of their nature. I do it because you've forced me into a cage so I have to. Otherwise, I would swallow you whole like everything else. By nature, I serve annihilation."
Squall started walking toward that figure. "Flowery. Who are you?"
"I am the ultimate. I am the last thing. I am space and I am emptiness and I am darkness. I am the void given form. I am the devourer."
"Eden," Squall said.
"That's what the human researchers called the ship they bound me to, and that's what I am when I leave your head. In here--in here I am Ultima."
"I don't care what you call yourself," Squall said. "Tell me how you can take the memories away."
"It's simple," Eden/Ultima said. It was still half-covered in shadow, though Squall was fairly close to it now. "Reach into your chest--like this, right under the left side of your ribcage--and pull out your heart. Give me that."
Without a word more, he reached for his chest, carelessly pushing fabric aside to get at the flesh beneath. His hand had just touched skin when a blast of ice knocked him back to the floor. Shiva stood in front of the shadowed GF. "I've been with him since the beginning," she said to it, "and I won't let you do this to him. Bahamut, help me out."
Enormous claws swept Squall up into the air as the dragon grabbed him and rushed him across the room.
"He would have given me what I wanted," Ultima said. "And I would have given him what he wanted."
"That's why I stopped him," Shiva said.
"It's too late, in any case."
The tapestries on the walls blurred by, and then he was being flung at the wall. He passed through it without resistance and found himself falling.
He never hit the ground. Instead, he fell into the sea. The great causeway rose up to one side of him, but the waves drew him away from it, splashing violently against him, but never quite dragging him down. He tried to hold onto rocks as they rushed by him, but his hands always slipped off them.
Up ahead, he caught sight of three birds perching on a rock and staring at him. The largest one said, "You guys hold him up while I hit him." Then it flew away.
"Got it!" said one of the others as it flew after the first.
"READY," said the last before taking off.
Something below the surface started slamming into his stomach. Squall gagged and started to sink. The blows continued, and now there was a familiar voice rising above the din of the sea in his ears. "You can't hide in your own head forever! Get up already! I don't want to keep beating you up forever--" A pause, laughter, and then the blows to his stomach weakened slightly, and the waves began to slap him hard on the face at the same time. "I mean, I do, but not if you're not there for it. You know what I mean, right, Squall?"
The blow that followed that question was the hardest yet. Squall started choking on seawater. The waters closed in around his head, and he thought: It's all over.
Something picked him up and shook him until all his bones rattled. "It's not over yet, fuckwit!" He was flung backwards, slammed against a wall.
A solid, dry wall in the corridors of Garden. He doubled over, aching, and began to retch. He was vaguely startled by the lack of expelled seawater, and even more startled by the distant twinge of hunger in his empty stomach.
"Maybe you shouldn't have hit him so hard, ya know?"
"I know what I'm doing here."
"...yeah, all right."
His throat burning, Squall looked up. Go away, he wanted to say, but his voice was still playing traitor. So he settled for giving Seifer a look about as warm and encouraging as a frost-coated stone wall.
It had no effect. Seifer leaned back against the wall opposite and crossed his arms. "So they tell me three things. One: Rinoa is dead. Suicide. Two: you've stopped talking. Three: before that happened, you said that you don't believe it's a suicide despite the lack of any evidence otherwise."
Squall pulled himself to his feet, though he had to lean against the wall to keep himself upright. He ached all over.
"I have a hunch," Seifer continued, "that number two above is why you haven't been whining at me to leave you alone right now. Lucky you, though, I'm here to help you out."
Yeah, right, Squall thought.
"You don't believe me? I am so hurt, Squall." He rolled his eyes. "The thing is, I'm not buying number one. I'm with you on number three."
"Yeah, I figured you'd forgotten," Seifer said. "I knew her too. Not as well as you did, but well enough to know--this isn't the whole story. So we're going to look into this. Doesn't matter what it takes, right? I'm sure we can dig up something."
Why? Squall thought. Why do you care?
Seifer gave him a long, measured look. "Come on, let's go. Fujin and Raijin have been getting together information for us to go through. We've got work to do." He turned and started off down the hallway. Squall, still gathering his silence around him like armor, followed after him.
"All right, people, listen up," Seifer said. "This library is being commandeered for research purposes by the Disciplinary Committee." He made a vague gesture at the hallway as he stepped in from the entrance. "Scram."
"Oh, come on, you can't do that," a student said, looking up from a bookshelf.
"OUT," Fujin said, walking over to him.
"But--ow! All right, all right!"
You didn't need to throw everyone out, Squall thought without much energy. He glanced expectantly at the others, but they were already setting papers and books down on the tables in the back. He followed, wondering just when the three of them had become investigators. But then, it didn't really matter--Seifer did what Seifer wanted to do, and the posse followed him, no matter what new hats they had to put on to do so.
"These are all the pictures of--of where it happened, ya know?" Raijin tossed down a folder onto the table. Squall didn't quite look at it.
"Logs of everyone who's been in and out of Garden in the past week," Seifer said, chucking a book at Squall, who didn't even bother trying to catch it.
Fujin pushed a stack of binders at him. "MONSTERS." They were marked as detailing the non-human inhabitants of the training center. "READ."
Seifer looked over at the stacks of research material, then leaned back and stretched idly. "Someone needs to go get some food while we're busy here. And make sure there isn't any information that needs to be beaten out of someone. I think I'll go do that while the rest of you go over all this." He paused and leaned down to peer at Squall. "Unless you want to go, Squall? Just say something if you do!"
Squall stared at him in mute rage.
"No? You sure? Guess I'm gone, then." He sauntered out of the library.
You're still an asshole, Seifer, Squall thought as he turned to the papers in front of him.
Squall wasn't sure how long he occupied himself sorting through the mass of files, or how many hours he spent bent over the computers of the security systems, or how many times he walked over every square inch of the training center. He would have ignored his hunger, except that eventually Seifer started hitting him and complaining about how useless he'd be if he fainted like a little girl because he hadn't had anything to eat.
He did, however, succeed in ignoring his fatigue. Until it crept up on him while he sat at a table in the cafeteria and dragged him down. He hadn't even realized that he was tired--he couldn't tell that time was passing anymore. When Rinoa was near, he'd always known as the minutes passed: she was what made them all worth it.
She was gone, and it didn't matter anymore. All that mattered was finding her killer.
He recalled little of his dreams--Rinoa's hands just a hair away from his, Rinoa laughing but not quite looking at him, Rinoa running away from him across the field of flowers. No matter how hard he tried, he couldn't keep up.
Then he was being kicked. "WAKE."
"I told you not to faint like a little girl," Seifer complained, looking down at him. "Guess that was too much to expect of you. Get up."
"READ," Fujin said, holding out a newsletter.
Squall stared at it blankly for a moment until it coalesced into meaningful information. He was looking at an issue of Occult Fan--specifically, at a blurry picture of something vague and white beneath the headline 'GHOSTS IN CENTRA FOREST.' He looked up at Seifer and the others questioningly.
"READ," Fujin repeated.
He looked back down at the newsletter and struggled to concentrate on the words. It all seemed so pointless, suddenly. And then a phrase leapt up from the paper in front of him.
Reports say that the ghosts don't just attack you--they seize control of your mind! Rumor has it that more than one adventurer has met his doom when attempting to test his strength of will against the ghosts...
He looked up again, his eyes wide.
"See," Raijin said slowly, "we figure--we can draw magic from monsters, ya know? So maybe someone else who's learned something about paramagic might be able to get some kind of mind-control spell from these ghost things. And..." He trailed off uncomfortably.
"The really funny thing is," Seifer said, "we've checked the records here. There should be mention of these ghosts--this place is supposed to keep up to date on new possibilities for paramagic. And there is an entry on a new type of monster in the Centra forests--but it's been wiped clean." He leaned forward. "I'm not giving you any extra guesses about what that means, Squall."
Someone's using those ghosts to get a mind-control ability, Squall thought. Someone with enough influence or skills to alter Garden's records.
He stood up and gestured: Let's go.
The clearing in the center of the forest stretched out around them. It seemed unconcerned about their presence. Only ruins had kept it company for as long as it had known; it was not going to acknowledge newcomers now. There didn't even seem to be monsters here, much less people.
Seifer ran out into the center of the clearing. "Hey! Ghosts! Get out here already, we're waiting for you!" He spun around, then scissored a hand through the air in annoyed disgust. Behind him, Fujin brushed dust off her hair and kicked irritably at the rubble next to her.
Everyone's on edge, Squall thought. He couldn't really see why. There was nothing to get nervous about anymore. Only the knowledge of what had to be done.
Then something gauzy and white fluttered at the edge of his vision. He whirled on it, gunblade at the ready, and before he was even entirely sure what was going on, he was slicing and hacking at the ghost. The blade went clean through it, and the monster--if that's what it was--reformed easily afterwards. He didn't care. He kept advancing on it.
Then it glowed bright white, and suddenly he found himself pressing the edge of the gunblade against his abdomen. The ghost had grabbed his mind with ease. The muscles in his arm tensed--
"Thundara!" Raijin said. The ghost sizzled and sputtered with electricity. Squall felt himself relax, though he couldn't yet move on his own.
"AERO." The blast of wind seized what was left of the ghost and spun it out over the ruins until it was nothing but fading strands of misty white. Squall took a deep breath and let his gunblade fall to his side again.
"Heh," Seifer said. "Guess that proves that."
Squall looked at him. What now?
"Back to Garden, ya know?" Raijin said. "Guess now we need to find who did it."
It was Xu who figured out how to set up the computer systems of Garden to give them what they wanted. Squall wasn't sure whether she'd been skeptical or not at their explanation, but she didn't object, didn't tell them to stop this nonsense and go home. Instead, she said, "We'll put out rumors that we've found a new monster in the Centra forests and are assembling information about how to draw from it. When someone tries to access and alter that information, the security systems will record everything about them. That should work."
Seifer leaned against the wall of the little control room they were in and grinned at her. "You're pretty good at this."
"I should be," she said.
He paused, gave her a closer look. "Hey. What exactly do you do at Garden, Xu? No way you're just a teacher."
She glanced at him for a moment, then looked straight ahead. "I'll leave the rest of the plan to you. Good luck." She walked out of the room, shutting the door neatly behind her.
"What now?" Raijin asked.
"WAIT," Fujin said.
"Pretty much," Seifer agreed. "We're going to go check to see if anyone tries to sneak into Garden physically. Squall gets to stay here and watch all this."
They left him alone, then. The room was small, but it seemed much too big with everyone gone. Squall suddenly couldn't bear to sit so docilely anymore; he got up and spun around to take in the rest of the room. It didn't seem quite real. He thought that if he stepped on just the wrong bit of floor, it might all fall down around him.
"Squall!" the computer terminal said in Rinoa's voice.
He whirled around to face it again, and there she was, pressed up against the computer screen from the inside. "Rinoa! What are you doing in there?"
"I'm trapped, Squall." She sounded so scared and so lonely it physically hurt to hear. "I traveled up the rope when they tried to kill me, and somehow I got stuck in here. Please get me out." She pressed her hands against the glass. "I don't want to be away from you any longer."
"I'm coming, I promise." He started prying at the panels of the computer--no luck. After a few minutes of completely failing to do more than loosen a few screws, he pulled out his gunblade and set to work hacking the panels open. Glass shattered, and somewhere in the distance, an alarm went off. Still, Rinoa remained trapped in the computer. He grabbed handfuls of broken glass, tossing it off to the side, ignoring the times when it slid through his gloves and cut into his palms. It didn't matter. Only she mattered.
Things had gone a little red and black at the edges of his vision when he felt restraining hands on his shoulders. "Squall! Snap out of it!" He tried to shove the offending touch away, but suddenly the hands moved, too fast for him to understand it all. Then he flipped through the air and landed flat on his back.
Xu stood over him, alarm smoothed out into tense calm on her face. "Is there any reason you were attacking the computers, Squall?"
He glanced back at the shattered monitors and gestured helplessly at them. Rinoa. But she was gone. There was nothing there but broken glass. She'd never been there in the first place.
Xu gave him a long, measured look. Then she reached down and pulled him to his feet. "Fortunately, we got a read on someone trying to hack the bait files before you smashed things up." He shook free of her touch and stood on his own, despite trembling slightly. "They're a transfer student from Galbadia Garden. I'll be taking care of her interrogation once Seifer and the others bring her in."
Squall stared at her. Then he turned and hurtled at the door--only to slam into it. It wouldn't open. "It's not likely that she's actually the one responsible," Xu said quietly. "But she might lead us to whoever it is. In the meanwhile, you need to get some rest." She lifted a hand. "Sleep."
People keep doing that to me, Squall thought in distant irritation as he fell.
This time when he dreamed of Rinoa, she was already far away. He never managed to get a look at her face. He woke sweating in terror with the fear that he had forgotten what it looked like--but he hadn't. He could still remember that easily. The GFs had so far not consumed her at all. He wasn't sure whether to be relieved or disappointed.
He was in his own bed this time. As much as he wanted to believe it was a dream, when he opened his mouth, he still couldn't speak. He turned over and pressed his face into his pillow, but with his eyes closed, all he could see was Rinoa walking away from him in the field of flowers.
He got up without really seeing the room around him, washed and dressed without really feeling the motions he was going through. When he looked in the mirror, he saw only emptiness behind his eyes. So he looked away.
It wasn't until he was out in the main hall that he stopped at a glimpse of the landscape outside. He ran over to the nearest window and got a better look, but it didn't change: they were on the coast of Esthar, with the vast city rising up in the distance. Squall spun around and ran for the elevator. He didn't exactly bother pushing people out of his way--he just ignored them. And still it took too long for him to get up to the bridge.
Xu was there, as was Quistis, although the latter was looking rather dubious about the whole thing. She straightened up at the sight of him, though. "Squall, how are you doing?"
He ignored her, instead going over to Xu and gesturing at the view outside. She considered it for a moment, unimpressed, and then said, "Let's go find Seifer and the others. I'll explain the situation then."
Quistis gave them a startled look as they both departed, but once again, Squall ignored her. He couldn't summon the slightest interest in how she felt right now.
"I spoke with the student we caught hacking into the bait files," Xu said. She wasted no time on formalities, or on recapping little details. "She didn't really know much about what she was supposed to be doing, but she could point us in the direction of her employers. She's in the pay of a Galbadian politician--and a little talk with the poltician revealed that he is mostly working for a politician from Esthar. Senator Laqueis."
Squall felt like he was clinging to a cobweb, asking it to support all the weight of his desperate grief. He didn't know just how much connection all these events had to Rinoa's death, but it didn't matter. He had to do something.
"So we're going to track down this politician and tear down his house or what?" Seifer asked, sounding a little too cheerful about the prospect.
"We don't need to be that abrupt about it," Xu said. "First we should make sure we have backup."
Oh, no, Squall thought.
"We should talk to the President and make sure he knows what's going on."
Squall slammed his head into a wall.
Xu slanted a sidelong glance at him. "But I think when we go to see him, he'll be busy. So we'll wind up talking to his aides instead."
So she did have a passing acquaintance with mercy, after all.
As it turned out, it was Kiros they saw. Squall said nothing, only watched the conversation from a few feet back. Still, he had the uneasy feeling that Kiros could read him anyway, as if his sudden muteness gave the man a window into his mind.
"Senator Laqueis would never do anything to threaten Esthar," Kiros told them. "He was in the original resistance movement to overthrow Adel."
"Guess what? There's a world beyond Esthar," Seifer said. "What about threatening that?"
Kiros paused and cast an uneasy glance off to the side. "Laqueis has become paranoid since the end of Adel's reign," he admitted. "It's hard to say what he might do if he thought there was a threat to Esthar in the making out there."
Seifer leaned forward and opened his mouth to speak again, but Xu stepped forward instead. "Where is he now?"
"He has an estate on the edge of the city," Kiros said carefully, "but like I said, he's paranoid. It will be very well-guarded and probably full of weapons he can use."
"No fun without a fight," Seifer said with entirely too much eagerness. Behind him, Fujin and Raijin exchanged brief but weary glances.
Squall sank back into the relative comfort of his own head as Kiros gave Xu directions to Laqueis's estate. He noted them, distantly, for his own use, but even as he did so, he felt the world drifting farther away from him. He made no effort to catch hold of it and bring himself back.
But as they prepared to leave, Kiros paused and looked hard at Squall. "We're all sorry about Rinoa, Squall. But if you go into this unprepared, and you're right about Laqueis's intentions...it'll be a suicide mission."
Squall only looked away and walked out.
It wasn't until everyone was gone that Kiros walked over to the nearest communications terminal, flipped it on, connected to his destination, and said, "Laguna, we need to talk about your son."
"So," Seifer said, grinning. "It looks like we're ready to go." He turned around, looking at the city around them, until finally coming to a rest and leaning on their car.
"Seifer," Raijin said, "maybe you should leave this to Squall, ya know?"
"AGREE," Fujin said.
Seifer glared at the both of them for a long, poisonous moment. Then he spun around and, before Squall could do anything, grabbed him. "You think I'm doing this for him? Because I want to help him get over his pet sorceress or some shit like that?" He tossed Squall aside, then glared off into the distance. "You realize--I never got a chance to apologize to her. I never got a chance to get her back from you, you bastard."
You never really loved her, Seifer, Squall thought. You only loved what she stood for between us.
"So I'm coming, too. Not for you, Squall, but for Rinoa. And for me. And don't think there's anything you can do about it." Seifer met his gaze with a fierce glare.
Squall considered this for a moment. Then he said, "Stop."
Seifer had time for his jaw to drop in indignant shock, and then all motion stopped for him.
"GRATITUDE," Fujin said.
"We'll take him back from here," Raijin said. "Good luck, ya know?"
I'm beyond luck now, Squall thought, but he nodded and turned to set off.
It was strange having his voice back. He'd expected it to be creaky with disuse, but it had only been gone for a few days--something he kept forgetting. He wasn't sure whether to be disappointed or relieved. On some level, he realized, he'd believed that Rinoa had his voice, and when he found it, he would find her as well. But she was still gone.
Squall forced himself to put these thoughts out of his mind as he approached Laqueis's estate. It was hard at first, but slowly his world narrowed to this one point: he would kill Rinoa's killer, and then everything would be right again. He knew it was a suicide mission. He didn't care.
Laqueis's yard was gated repeatedly. At each one, Squall pushed the buttons to ask for admittance, bringing his gunblade out at the same time in case he wasn't allowed in. It was almost disappointing to see that he was. Everything in Esthar was far too easy for him.
He found himself unable to entirely piece together how he got from the first gate to the main door. It had happened in a disjointed stream of events, like chapters in a dream. That was all right. Here and now, he was utterly focused, and that was what mattered. He knocked on the door.
"Identify yourself," a speaker next to the door said, just as the ones at the gates had.
"Squall Leonhart," he said again.
This time, there was a pause. When the door opened, it was not with the unassisted mechanical clatter of the gates. There was a man standing in the entrance hall: an unassuming man on the upper side of middle age, grey hair thinning, the only remarkable thing about him the keenness of his dark eyes.
"Laqueis," Squall said. He stepped inside. The door closed behind him.
The man smiled. "And approximately two dozen armed and well-trained guards surrounding this room. Yes. To what do I owe the honor of this visit?"
Like you don't know, Squall thought. "Rinoa."
"Oh, yes," Laqueis said. "The sorceress."
"Not 'the sorceress.' Rinoa."
Laqueis shrugged. "If you say so. Now, what do I have to do with the late sorceress?"
Squall stared at him. "You killed her."
"It was a suicide, Mr. Leonhart," he said, almost gently. "I'm very sorry for your loss."
"No, it wasn't," Squall said, "and you aren't."
Laqueis looked at him for a long moment. Then he sighed and said, "If you leave now, without attacking me, you won't be harmed. Will you do that?"
Squall stared at him again. Finally, he said, "Why?"
"Because nobody can touch you in this city," Laqueis said with some irritation. "The idiot President doesn't know what to do about you, so he just--"
"No," Squall said. "Why did you kill her?"
Laqueis raised a brow. "Knowing what I do about Esthar, its past, and what could become its future--how could I not?" He shook his head. "The idea came up over dinner with a Galbadian politician who was also worried about her. After seeing the way Edea so easily took control of Galbadia, he was concerned about what another sorceress could do--especially if she was the daughter of a significant government official."
Squall continued staring at him.
"I could have left it at that, let Galbadia deal with Galbadia's problems. But knowing her relationship with you, and your relation to the President..."
Realization began to trickle into Squall like ice building up in his gut.
"...in her position, it would have been far too easy for her to take over both Galbadia and Esthar if she so desired. And that must not be allowed to happen. If she were to die, the power would pass to someone in a less dangerous position. I did it for the same reason I do everything: for Esthar."
Squall looked at this reasoning from all sides, but all he could see was a convoluted web of fear. He didn't understand how it could possibly support the sheer weight of Rinoa's murder.
"You can still leave if you want," Laqueis said. "I'm feeling generous today."
Squall drew his gunblade and lunged.
Guards poured into the room, from doors he hadn't even seen before and from doors he had. Squall dodged their attacks and hacked at them without really seeing the blood, and still there were more. They'll kill me, he thought distantly, but not before I get Laqueis.
Except he wasn't really sure about that. One, two, maybe even three of these guards would have been no match for him, but they were very well-armed and very well-trained all the same, and they worked together well. A bullet tore through his side. Maybe it cracked a rib; he didn't know and he didn't care. The only thing that worried him was that Laqueis was slipping farther back down the hall.
Then a blade sliced into his thigh and he staggered and nearly fell. In the time it took for him to regain his footing, the guards were all upon him. No! I have to get Laqueis first--
The door burst open to let in a sudden burst of gunfire. The guards nearest Squall stumbled black. "Looks like we got here just in time! It's been forever since we fought like this, you know, I kind of missed it. Squall, get up and go for it, we've got your back!"
The guards still standing began to fall under flashing katars and the solid thwack of a harpoon. Squall just stared at Laguna.
"What?" Laguna looked genuinely puzzled. "Kiros told me you were going off on some kind of suicide mission. I know how you feel about Rinoa, but--I couldn't let you do that!"
Squall stared at him some more while blood spattered around them.
"Squall? Are you okay? Go on and fight!"
At that point, Squall slammed the flat of his gunblade hard across Laguna's side, to the satisfying sound effect of ribs cracking. "This is your fault! If it weren't for you, she'd still be alive!"
"What?" Laguna seemed composed of equal parts distress and utter bewilderment. "How?"
Around them, most of the guards seemed to have fallen now. Squall didn't care. "He was afraid of my connection to you and her connection to me! If you could have seen that and gotten rid of him earlier, this would never have happened!" He lifted his gunblade again for another swing, this time with the edge out. "And don't you dare tell me you know how I feel!"
"Squall, I never--"
A gunshot cracked the air, and the bullet buried itself in Squall's back. He sank to his knees.
"That's it, then," Laqueis said, lowering his gun. "I am truly sorry about that, President Loire. But he did attack--"
"It's not finished," Squall snarled, standing up and turning around. Laqueis gave him a startled look, and then Squall was upon him in a flurry of bright and savage blows.
When his body hit the ground, it was barely recognizable as human. Squall stared at it and allowed himself a moment of distant satisfaction. Then he fell over on top of it.
He was in the dark, and he was alone. "Rinoa?"
There was no answer, only the familiar emptiness.
"Drive, Kiros," Laguna said. He was covered in blood, and none of it was his own. "We need to get him back to Garden. They can take care of him there."
Ward gave him, and the near-dead body he carried, a measured look. "..."
"He says Squall's not going to thank you," Kiros said, "and he's right."
Laguna stared at his bloodied hands. "I know. Just drive, okay?"
He was in the dark, but as he turned around, pinpoints of light began to emerge. Stars. He was in space. He sank to his knees on a surface he couldn't see. "Rinoa, please."
The stars glittered coldly, and finally, Rinoa walked out from a cluster of them, making her way down to him on an invisible stairway. She reached down to gather him up, but he could barely feel her hands on his arms. "Rinoa..."
She shook her head and put a finger--which he almost couldn't feel--to his lips. There were tears in her eyes, sliding down her cheeks to become stars.
"I don't want to die," he told her. "But I don't want to live without you, either."
She didn't say a word, but he could tell from her eyes that she knew.
"They're not going to let me stay with you, are they," he said.
She shook her head again.
"I'm so cold, Rinoa. I feel colder every second. I wish we'd never stopped Ultimecia."
"He's still warm, dammit," Laguna said. "He's still warm and he has a pulse and he's breathing. It's gonna be all right." There was still blood all over him, but Squall had been delivered to the infirmary. It was over.
"But it's never going to be all right again," Kiros said quietly.
Laguna said, "It's not fair. Why couldn't he at least be happy with the woman he loves?" He tried to wipe his hands off on his pants, but the blood had started to dry. "He's not gonna want to see me. I'm going back to wash up."
But when Squall woke up, he was still cold.
"Rinoa," he said.
There was no response.