(Author's Note: I don't own Final Fantasy 8. Nor am I making money from this. At times I kinda wish both statements were false, but 'ey, that's life. The quotes herein are manufactured by me, the angst herein was manufactured by sleep depravation and OCR music, the opinions expressed herein are those of the characters and not of Nostradamus, you are not permitted to reverse-engineer this product, if you like the fic I'd love to hear you say so, all your base are belong to the crew of Serenity. Thank you, and have a nice day.)
"Simon Cray has a wonderful ability to look for answers to the most important of today's scientific questions in the most unusual of places, but his true strength... is his ability to see beyond the social constructions that enmesh humanity, to take the human being on its own terms and not within the framework of standard Galbadian or Estharan inquiry."
-Dr. Eula Mayne, review of "Treatise on Neural Thaumaturgy"
"Therefore, it is the judgement of this Court that despite his outstanding service to Galbadia and his many advances in the fields of parathaumaturgy and human cognition, on this Thirtieth day of May, 4086 Common Reckoning, Simon Fennec Cray is to be expelled from the Greater Galbadian Scientific Council and assessed a fee of 80,000 Gil. Additional punitive action may be warranted pending further investigation to determine his complicity in the hereafter enumerated crimes against humanity..."
-Galbadian Supreme Court Martial, ruling for case 86.24
"In the last months I've been accused of any number of things, not the least of which has been a staggering lack of respect for human life. Nothing could be farther from the truth. My respect is immense-without it, I would be unable to do what I do. It is profound respect which drives me to learn all I can-and to use that knowledge in pursuit of a better life for us all."
-Simon Cray, remark to the press, 31st May 4086
It was November 21st, nine months and five days since Ellone's funeral.
Balamb was cradled in a gentle cool, the first fingers of fall tempered by the wind that came in over the ocean. The sky was freckled with clouds, their shadows filtering down through the thin air to mottle the ground below.
An Estharan VIP transport slid to rest before the two gargoyles that marked Balamb Garden's entrance, sleek door pulling back to allow a man to step out. He was out-of-place in the refined air Garden exuded, dressed almost haphazardly in a denim coat and jeans, and gave the impression of either inexhaustible good cheer or inexhaustible nervousness.
Quistis Trepe, the article of professionalism, stood waiting as he looked around. No matter how many times he visited, he always seemed to impressed by Garden-hard to imagine of a man who lived his life in one of the most stunning architectural constructs in the world.
"Hello, Mr. Loire."
Laguna glanced over and smiled, answering with an automatic "Really! Call me Laguna!" that had never worked before, and wasn't going to work now. "How are you?"
"I'm well. And you?" She looked him up and down, wondering how she could avoid saying what neither one of them wanted said. "...are you visiting for long?"
"No-can't. Ah-just a day or so." He scratched the back of his neck. "I have business in Esthar. There's a bill signing tomorrow-"
Quistis nodded. "You're here under false pretenses, aren't you, Mr. President?"
Laguna jumped. "I-"
Quistis grabbed his luggage, an action which made the gallant side of Laguna's mind scream all kinds of protests. "Squall knows you're coming," she said. "You can't keep secrets from him, you know. He's not... exactly... excited to see you."
Laguna wilted at that. "He never is."
"It's been a hard week," Quistis apologized, leading him through Garden's open hallways. "We've had trouble on some important missions in Trabia, and then this news about Cray-"
Laguna shook his head. "I wanted to lodge a protest, but Parliament..." he started, trailed off, and started again. "If I had any legal grounds-he shouldn't be let out."
"Everyone in Garden feels the same way." Quistis lead him into the dorm wing, stopping at one of the unoccupied singles and keying in the administrative access code. "Squall had to issue a statement-an antiretaliatory statement. I can't help but feel that was the final insult."
"He shouldn't be placed in that position..."
"He placed himself there, this time." Quistis sighed. "He didn't want to feel like someone else was taking care of it because he couldn't. It's part of his job as Commander, and he doesn't believe he should get special treatment when a job is unpleasant."
"Cray doesn't deserve that kind of protection," Laguna grumbled.
"No," Quistis had to agree. "But Garden has to remain professional. We can't get political, and we can't get personal."
Laguna grimaced, looking away. "Trouble in Trabia?" he asked, manhandling the conversation away from the Galbadian xenologist. "I've been up to Trabia a few times. Nice place, if it weren't so cold."
"Well, once you take away the cold, I'm not sure what more there is to Trabia," Quistis smiled. "...Garden has some interests there, and there's been some disruption due to organized crime. A team was dispatched, and we got the trouble under control-but we didn't manage to wipe out the mob, which means we're likely going to have more problems down the line."
"And Squall's worried he's going to start a gang war?" Something occurred to him. "-I'm sorry! He's worried Garden's going to-"
"It's more or less already happened. Right now he's worried about Trabia Garden. If we had taken care of the mob earlier, there'd be nothing to worry about, but now..." she trailed off. "It always feels awful to disappoint him. He tries so hard."
Laguna shifted uneasily. "...he must be a really tough commander, huh?"
Quistis looked at him, wearing an expression Laguna couldn't place at first. It took him a moment to realize it was gentle amusement. "You might think so," she said. "But... no, he's not. He doesn't like fuss. I've never seen him get upset with a SeeD. ...which is what makes it so bad when we can't do something-he trusts us. He trusts us to do our best, and he doesn't expect that we'll fail, but he knows we might. And he won't explode at someone for something they couldn't do."
Laguna was grimacing-Quistis trailed off, looking down.
"I'm sorry," she said.
"No, it's-" Laguna forced a smile, tried for a laugh. It came out dull and wounded. "I just-"
"He thinks it's his fault," Quistis said-quickly, softly. "He thinks he could have saved Ellone, that-that she's dead because of him. Cray doesn't enter into it. Cray was doing his job. ...he thinks he failed her."
Laguna stared. Something in his stomach knotted-whether for Ellone or Squall, he couldn't say. Maybe there wasn't a difference. They were both part of the same tragedy. "He tried."
Quistis shook her head. "He tried harder than anything. But-the rules are different when it comes to him. He understands that we can fail, but he doesn't understand that he can."
Laguna's fake smile faltered. "How do you get him to tell you this?"
Quistis smiled back-a sad smile, now. "I don't. I figure it out. No one can talk to him about Ellone. We've tried-we've all tried, but he won't let anyone."
Laguna stared, uncomprehending.
"We can't talk to him about these things," Quistis emphasized. "He won't let anyone. I know he won't let me. I don't think he'll even let Rinoa, and she was right there with him."
"But... how can he not?"
There was a moment of terrible silence.
"I'll talk to him," Quistis said, "but it won't do any good."
"But you'll try, anyway?"
Quistis nodded. "I'll try."
Laguna smiled-a genuine smile, if not a perfect one. "That's all I can ask for," he said. "Thanks."
(This won't work) Quistis told herself as she rode the elevator up to the third floor administrative offices. (...this can't work. Really, it's somewhat ridiculous even to try. So there's no use getting my hopes up.)
Squall had been engaging in a kind of emotional cold war with his father ever since he found out he had one. When the news had come out there had been any number of factions levying pressure on him to reconcile-generally coming from the Selphie-and-Rinoa camp, though not unusually from Zell or even Irvine. No one knew exactly why the notion of reconciliation was so repugnant to Squall except possibly Squall himself-but, for whatever reason he had (or thought he had), he hung onto it with the force of an anaconduar crushing prey.
Eventually most people had figured out that their good intentions weren't helping and might have been making things worse and they backed off, leaving Squall's legendary stubbornness triumphant once again. Squall had been enjoying a long string of months relatively unmolested, with Laguna on the opposite side of the globe and Rinoa in Deling City. It wasn't easy to imagine that he would appreciate another intrusion into his familial life.
And even if he wasn't still at the stage where he'd snap people's heads off for mentioning Laguna, the last time talking to him about it had yielded a positive result was sometime just the other side of never.
Quistis's confidence was locked at zero for the upcoming encounter, but she had a soft spot for Laguna and even with the absolute certainty that they would all be worse off for it later, she couldn't tell him that she had given up already. So as the elevator doors slid open and she stepped out, she took a deep breath usually reserved for touchy missions and thought wryly that she might have wanted to bring some contact gear, or a couple of Protects, just in case.
Squall was shelving binders of mission reports, dispatches, and who knew what else, his jacket tossed carelessly onto a chair and his desk nearly buried in loose reports. Quistis cast the papers a disapproving glance. "I hope you're not planning on going through all of those forms yourself."
"Xu's back tomorrow," Squall said.
"I can send a couple of cadets up here to help you," she offered. "I really don't think data entry requires Xu's professional touch."
"Some of the information is restricted."
"They can help with the parts that aren't."
Squall considered that-and shrugged. "Sure. Whatever."
He took the next binder from the stack, turned it over a few times, and found no indication of what it was. Snagging a permanent marker from the pen cup on the desk, he flipped the book open.
"Is there something else?"
(...here we go,) Quistis thought. "President Loire is here to see you."
Squall flipped through the binder, then penned a brief summary on the spine. "I don't have time for this."
"He's the President of Esthar, Squall."
"Maybe he should go back to running it."
"He's also your father."
Squall slammed the file onto the shelf, turning to glare with one hand keeping his place in the row. "Thanks. I had forgotten."
Quistis was too used to getting those looks from her students, and never let herself be cowed. "Sometimes you do."
"You know he is. You rarely ever remember it."
Squall returned to his filing. "I spent seventeen years without a father," he snapped. "I don't need one now."
"Two years!" Quistis burst. "Two years, and you're still holding a grudge!"
"It's not a grudge. It's a fact."
"It's a grudge-and furthermore, it's not like you! Do you really want to show your worst side to your father, when everyone else sees the best? You know why he couldn't come after you! I'd think you of all people would understand commitment to duty!"
Squall turned back, a smile-that-wasn't quirking at the edge of his mouth. Of all the people Quistis had ever known, it was only Squall who could manage that look-who could strip all semblance of levity or good humour from the expression, leave it bitter and flat and empty without even irony. "Is that really the tack you want to take?"
Quistis did a quick mental backpedal, reevaluating her words. "Times have changed," she said, more softly. "Neither of you has to choose between each other and your career."
"And neither of us has to choose both." He grabbed another file, slid it up to join its peers.
"This conversation is over."
Quistis sighed. "I know."
"Is there anything else?"
She hesitated. "I'm covering for Instructor Onsen's literature course-"
"I know where to find you if I need you."
The only way for Squall to give a clearer dismissal would have been for him to scream "Get out!" Quistis knew enough to understand that there was nothing to be gained by staying. She walked to the elevator, and waited as it came.
When the after-hours bell to the bridge office rang, Squall glanced up at the clock and realized that it was later-much later-than he had intended to work. The illuminated panel read nearly 23:00-how so many hours had slipped away so quickly was something he didn't quite understand.
He hit the unlock button on the desk, half expecting Quistis to walk in to drag him off and demand he sleep. "Come in."
Instead, it was Laguna who stepped out of the elevator car, hands crawling over each other, into his pockets and out again, displaying all too well his nervousness.
Squall stood, scowling. "Mr. President," he said.
Laguna winced. "You don't have to call me that." He glanced over the desk, taking in the detritus of a day's bureaucracy. "I guess you were really too busy to see me, huh."
"Is there something I can do for you?" Squall didn't cross his arms. He didn't to anything that might break protocol. He was speaking to a state official, after all.
"I thought we could talk," Laguna said.
"Do we have something to talk about?"
Laguna stared. "...I'm not here on business, Squall."
Squall watched him evenly. "Then I don't need to see you."
He sat down, turning his attention to the piles on his desk, shuffling them into some semblance of order. Laguna's hands dropped, and he stifled a groan. "What? That's it?"
Squall didn't answer. Stacks of paper were forming on the desk, organized by some obscure criterion that only Squall fully understood.
"Squall, all I want to do is talk."
"I have nothing to say to you."
"Why not?" Laguna extended his hands in entreaty. "Any other people in our position-"
"Aren't us." Squall glanced up. "You've already said all you need to. All the important decisions have already been made."
"And that's that?"
"But it doesn't have to be-"
Laguna paused, searching for words. "...I'm sorry about Cray," he settled on.
"It was a Galbadian court decision."
"I'm still sorry." He shifted. "And pissed as h-"
"Stop apologizing for things you can't change," Squall snapped.
Laguna caught his breath. "So... we're back to that, then?"
Squall answered him with a glare.
Laguna shook his head. "Isn't there some way to make this easier?"
"It would be easier if you were dead."
Laguna stopped short.
Squall held his gaze for a long moment, then went back to organizing the forms on his desk. "It would be easier if I wound up in the Orphanage because you were dead, not because you couldn't find the time or were too distracted. This-is insulting."
Laguna cringed. "I made a mistake," he said. "I know I'm not perfect. I made a mistake for seventeen years. You have no idea how bad I feel about that. But-"
The piles came together, and the mess disappeared. "We're done."
Laguna approached the desk, and Squall slid around the other side and was making for the exit. Laguna brought a fist down on the wood, sending the papers shuddering. "Squall!"
"I don't have time for this," Squall growled-low, under his breath.
"Squall, a long time ago, Quistis told me something that... well, it didn't make sense until today."
"Quistis shouldn't be going behind my back," Squall said, turning. "This isn't her business."
"Quistis loves you! She loves you as much as Ellone did!" No-it wasn't his imagination, the way pain sparked in Squall's eyes. For a moment-just a moment-Squall didn't have an angry repartee, and Laguna grabbed the stillness. "She told me that for the longest time when you were growing up, you thought it was your fault Ellone left the Orphanage. That no one was there for you. It's-Hyne, if I have to tell you how dumb an idea that was-"
Squall spun back to the exit. "Shut up!"
"And I know you took it hard when she died-we all did, Hyne, how could we not?-and I know you were there, and it must have been horrible, and you had a lot of bad decisions you had to make and all the choices you had were bad ones-"
There was a moment of hideous emptiness.
"-and I'm starting to wonder if maybe the reason you won't even consider letting me off the hook is because you can't forgive yourself."
Squall's hand was on the elevator panel, just below the callbutton. His neck was bowed, his head lowered. He was absolutely silent.
"Well-I do forgive you." Laguna swallowed. "I can't hold it against you. Even if I wanted to-you did what you could. It wasn't your fault. Hyne!-you did everything you could! ...and I love you. And I have to forgive you."
Squall turned, very slowly. And Laguna recoiled-the hatred in Squall's eyes was staggering. He didn't look like a man-he looked like an injured monster, cornered and caught, hunted and hounded. His entire face was etched in taut lines.
"Did Quistis tell you to say that?" he asked. It was terrifying, how he didn't raise his voice. "Did she ask you to?"
Laguna stammered-unable to stand up to that stare and unable to look away. "No, she-no. I just-"
"You weren't there," Squall snarled. "You don't know what happened."
"Never talk to me about this again."
He slammed the callbutton, and the door opened. He stepped inside without a word, and wouldn't meet Laguna's eyes as the door closed him in.
For a moment, Laguna wondered if it wasn't better that way.
The next day dawned bright and early, sun breaking over Balamb's emerald fields in an unrivaled display of beauty. The full contingent of fall songbirds were out and their chorus was audible even through the glass of the high office, weaving through the air in a haphazard ecstasy.
Xu couldn't have said for sure, but it felt like the universe was trying to compensate for something.
From the headway he had made, visible from the moment she stepped into the office, Xu guessed that Squall must have been working since early that morning-and when the SeeD Commander couldn't sleep, it was generally a bad sign.
"Are you working on dispatches?" Xu asked. It was generally pointless to try to exchange pleasantries with Squall before oh-eight-hundred when his civility woke up.
Confirming the theory, Squall did little more than shake his head. "Garden operations. You take dispatches."
Xu nodded, and retrieved the appropriate pile. It was the usual assortment-she tagged the ones that would be approved as a matter of course, and laid them aside. It wasn't until halfway through the stack that she had to pause.
"There's a priority SeeD request coming in from General Caraway," she read.
Squall glanced over. (Galbadia's requesting SeeD assistance? That's... unusual.) "What is it?"
"...Cray is missing."
Squall's brusque motion through the dispatches hiccoughed. Transferring a rejection from one stack to the other, his hand shook in midair, paused, and only set it down as an afterthought. "Missing."
"Apparently Galbadia has something of an underground for military scientists," Xu explained. "They defect from the army corps, or they escape from custody, or they just make a run for it, which is apparently what Cray did. In the underground they can continue their research without Galbadian law interfering. Of course, Cray isn't our primary target. We're to apprehend him if we find him, but we're to actively track down a man named Regan Motulka. He's a major financer of the underground, and apparently he gets the money by selling any breakthroughs to the highest bidder." She tapped down the screen, glancing it over as it scrolled. "It doesn't say why they want him, but I'm guessing he's gotten ahold of something Galbadia doesn't want to get out. Cray isn't a priority, so I'm guessing it's not him-in fact, Galbadia doesn't seem that concerned with what happens to Cray at all."
(More than likely, they're hoping that he'll start up his research again,) Squall thought. (They could purchase his discoveries through the underground while maintaining the polite political fiction that he's a renegade and unsanctioned.)
"There's a group of cadets waiting for their SeeD exam," he said. "Send them."
"We'll need two SeeDs to oversee-"
The line of thought resolved itself. "...I'll go."
Xu hesitated. "We don't have any evidence that Cray will be with Motulka," she began carefully.
"I'll go." His eyes warned her not to imply anything. His tone brooked no room for discussion.
There was another moment's pause. "All right. I'll find another SeeD to accompany."
He regarded her silently for a moment, then nodded. If Xu thought she needed to send someone to keep an eye on him... well. That was immaterial. "Have them ready to leave in an hour. I'll finish dispatches."
Xu saluted. "Yes, sir."
Laguna wasn't in the habit of noticing ambient moods. It had never been his strong suit, and that had lead to all sorts of unpleasantness in meetings and on the Cabinet floor. But when he stepped out of his room, it would have taken physical unconsciousness to be oblivious to the tension in the air.
It nearly kept him from noticing that Kiros was approaching, an Estharan official in tow.
He blundered into them as he approached the main hallway ring, less startled by their presence than worried at the tension. "What are you guys doing here?"
"Cutting your vacation short," Kiros said, but it was obvious Laguna wasn't really listening. "Minister Caase is going to meet with you about South Side on the flight back."
Laguna had successfully singled out and stalked a cadet hurrying to his class, and pulled him aside. "What's going on around here?"
"Laguna-" Kiros began.
The cadet snapped to attention. "Sir! A teams been dispatched to capture Regan Motulka. There's a rumour that Simon Cray may be with him."
"Laguna, I can brief you on the news later-" Kiros began.
But now, Laguna wasn't listening to Kiros at all. "Cray?"
"He went missing, and is assumed to have gone renegade. Sir."
Laguna let go of his arm. "Is Squall-"
"Commander Leonhart is overseeing the mission."
"Thanks," Laguna muttered, and the boy saluted again and ran off.
Kiros tapped his shoulder. "You are not thinking-"
Laguna turned to look at his friend, eyes wide and terrified. "I have to find him."
"I'm sure he can take care of things..." Kiros trailed off. Laguna was shaking his head, gesticulating wildly.
"No! You don't get it! I have to find him! Or-" he didn't finish the sentence. "I just have to!"
"Laguna, you're the president! You can't just go running off on dangerous missions any time y-"
"Well, then I resign!" Laguna yelled as he bowled out the door.
Kiros exhaled, dropping his arms to his side. "I'm... fairly sure he didn't mean that," he remarked to the Minister of State.
It was an easy mission. The cadets could have handled it.
Squall oversaw the team as they cuffed Motulka and lead him up from the buried lab, took his pistol and the rudimentary paramagical traps as evidence. The spells that stymied the Galbadian task forces were easily defeated by a bit of clever junctioning, and three of the seven cadets assigned to the mission were looking at exam commendations already.
Nevertheless, the air hanging over the base was bitter and still.
Nothing rang right about the mission to Squall's mind. Everything had been mechanically perfect-textbook, even. But it was a surface-a scab. Something festered in the air, just behind and below what he could see.
He hung back as the team left the buried installation, unwilling just yet to walk back into the sun and dust of a Galbadian fall. The labs hadn't told him everything, and he wasn't leaving until they did.
He caught one of the cadets, told her to tell Quistis he was doing a quick check of the lab facilities. The cadet wouldn't dare to contradict him. She saluted, and carried the message out.
Somehow, unerringly, he walked back through the hallway, over the burn marks and weird shadows of stray magic, to Motulka's office. The team had taken all the papers that looked interesting, swiped the hard drive from the computers-
-but there was something in the room, still waiting after all their meticulous care, and he could feel it like eyes on the back of his neck.
The silence of the lab office closed around him like a fist, and made it hard to breathe.
He walked to the far wall. There was something odd about it-about the way the furniture in the room was arranged. Something the cadets would never have noticed, or thought important. But Squall had worked around hidden passageways before, and had a feel for where they would be.
It was a secure door, one seam at the room's corner and the other hidden in the shadow of a vertical pipe. The passcard access was in the crack between pipe and wall, only a very faint glow revealing its sensors.
(This lab is new enough that it could have been built for a specific purpose,) Squall knew. (Cray was supposedly the greatest scientific mind ever to come out of Galbadia. Cray's disappearance was too well planned and too well executed for a career scientist. This was premeditated.)
He extended two gloved fingers, letting the tendrils of a Scan spell play across the card dock. Then, very carefully, he let a Thunder begin to spark from his hand into the sensors, let a little stream of magic run loose.
The door unlatched, swinging a centimetre outward. He put his hand on the tiny ledge it afforded him, and pulled it open. A stairwell, new and sterile, greeted him beyond the doorway.
(The underground does have Cray. And they have him here.)
His heart was beating faster, painful contractions that shortened his breath. He could taste the adrenaline at the back of his throat.
He unhitched the codec from his belt, raised it to his mouth. "Quistis," he said. "I'm going to check on something in here. I'm ordering you to standby."
There was a moment's pause, and the codec crackled to life. "Roger. Don't be long," Quistis replied.
He switched the codec off.
(This is the most important thing I'll ever do.)
One hand on his gunblade, he stepped inside and let the door swing shut behind him.
The basement lab was brushed-metal and new.
The entire lab had the air of someplace half-moved-into-boxes were still stacked by the walls, and most of the equipment wasn't hooked up. There was a functional computer on the desk, half-hidden by microscopes and vials and nestled beakers and the like. Books half-filled a shelf otherwise filled with labeling equipment and office stationary.
An automaton sat in the corner, to all appearances a simple thing-it was wider at the base than the domed tip, had two manipulator arms and a grid of tool docks covered by half-globe plastic caps. It rested on tank treads, was crowned with a variety of sensors and lenses. (Specimen collection,) Squall guessed.
A large machine, something like a control seat with a light arm attached, sat by the wall and the faint impression of another secure door. Squall was trying his best to ignore the machine.
The automaton stood next to a set of shelves upon which rested books and records, mundane supplies like lens cleaner and extravagant materials like mystery fluid and moon stones. Squall approached them, looking them over as if they could tell him all the secrets he needed to know-
A concealed door swung open on the other side of the room.
On instinct, he ducked behind the shelves. Gaps in the clutter afforded him clear sight as a man slipped through, sealing the door behind him.
Squall stopped breathing. As silently as possible, he drew his gunblade.
The man was young enough-certainly less than forty. He had brown hair with a slight curl, and and overall officious posture to his thin frame. Rectangular glasses balanced on a thin jutting nose, concealing clear dark eyes behind flashes of glare.
Squall had been in charge of arrests before, and executions. He had lead a campaign that was nearly a war. He had seen all sorts of criminals, fought some, worked with others. He had come into contact with people whose crimes had even chilled him. But he had never looked on someone with a hatred so intense, so consuming, as he felt seeing Simon Fennec Cray.
The shelves were ludicrous as a source of cover. Cray halted when he saw Squall through the mess, frozen and utterly unsure what to do.
He circled out from behind the high shelves, keeping the gunblade at the ready angled toward the man's jugular.
(I have you, Cray.)
"Raise your hands. Slowly."
Cray did as he was told. His eyes were skipping over Squall-over the weapon, the look in his eyes. The scientist was afraid. Squall didn't blame him-but nor did he care.
(I have you.)
"...by the provisional authority vested in me by General Caraway of the Galbadian Military Administration Commission, I'm placing you under arrest," he said, forcing each word out of a throat that grew tighter with each syllable. "Turn around. Put your hands on the wall."
"Hhuh," Cray huffed, under his breath-rolled his eyes up, with a not-quite-smile of "Well, this was always going to happen." He glanced at Squall-considerably less afraid, now that it seemed he wasn't in immediate danger of execution.
I'll go along with this farce for now, his eyes said, and Squall didn't allow his own to answer them. But I'm Simon Cray, and won't be taken down by you.
He turned, and put his hands on the wall, glancing down at the floor-not in defeat, but in annoyance. Squall shifted his grip on the gunblade, unhooking a pair of cuffs from his belt. He walked up, keeping an eye on him for any sign that he might break and run or even fight.
Squall grabbed one of Cray's wrists, snapping the cuff on. He shifted his grip on the gunblade again, flipping the other cuff open-
Cray's foot snapped out, catching one of the desk's legs and upsetting it. The desk crashed to the floor, scattering equipment and shattering glass. Squall jumped and evaded the spray of materials, looking for anything corrosive or sharp-for the advantage Cray thought he was taking.
In the half a second it took him to realize it was a distraction, Cray's hand had hit a panel and everything in the lab powered on.
"D4-L3K," Cray snapped, voice hurried and urgent but utterly precise. "Voice authorization Cray. Program HUNT-9!"
The automaton in the corner moved.
It was fast-it was too fast, treads spinning with an unoiled wail. It barreled at him, too too swiftly-he didn't have time to dodge, didn't have time to brace himself, barely had time to send a Thundaga screaming at it that sloughed off its polished casing like oil-
(No!) his mind screamed, trying to dodge and run and strike all at the same time-(No! NoNoNoNoNoNO-!)
Dark stars eclipsed his vision as a hundred and sixty kilograms of adamantine slammed into him. The D4 spun on some concealed axis, treads whining as Squall scrambled to get out of its way.
(Cray worked in paramagical sciences-this isn't an antipersonnel weapon-this has to be designed for catching magical game-think! What do I do?)
A taze shot from one of the tool docks, shattering the plastic case, sparking as it flew toward Squall. Squall ducked and sidestepped, nearly caught in its way as it whipped back on its cable.
The D4 would be shielded against any paramagical attack he could muster, and if it was meant for big game it would likely be an adamantine shell-nothing his gunblade could mar. But there was an option-there was always an option-if only he could dodge long enough to find it-
A second tool dock shattered, letting fly a harpoon that passed barely beneath one arm and dragged back hard. His jacket was caught, and he let it tear off, but for a critical moment his balance was compromised.
The taze slammed into his side, dizzying him-he staggered, searching for footing in the mass of equipment scattering the floor-
His foot caught in the arch of a microscope, and his weight twisted down hard. Pain lanced from his ankle, sending him reeling to the ground in a crash-the D4 advanced on him, tools extending from docks to immobilize and slay.
He could see a faint shimmer around its base-the shield that protected it didn't protect it all the way down.
He sent another Thundara screaming at it, but it glanced the edge of the shield and deflected. The treads spun, and the automaton loomed nearer.
(Underneath,) he thought. (It's unshielded underneath!)
Not allowing himself to think, he shot one hand out along the floor as the D4 approached.
The treads were jagged and sharp-the points snared his arm like vicious hooks, snarling in skin and muscle, scraping at bone as his hand slid under the shield. Pain exploded in his mind, flooding his vision for a moment-
(No. Don't think. Don't wait. Do something!)
"Reflect," he heard himself say.
The spell burst between the D4's treads, sliding along his arm. (Meltdown,) he thought, lancing the magic through his arm, feeling it rebound and intensify caught between the two reflects-
The D4 jerked, letting out a metallic scream as its inner workings blinked out in a wash of magical energy. The tread ground to a halt, the entire weight of the damnable thing settling downward. Squall felt his bone bend-he tried to pull out his arm, but the weight and the treads had pinned it to the ground.
Blood was seeping from beneath the D4, slicking the ground, soaking his sleeve. Squall was trying not to think about where it came from.
Cray backed away, eyes scanning the mess of his lab. His enemy was trapped, but that didn't mean he was fool enough to approach-he knew a trained soldier when he saw one, and didn't have any illusions of being able to beat one hand-to hand even if he had the advantage by a limb.
Cray didn't have a weapon in the lab. A career scientist, he wouldn't have ever needed one. But he did have analytical tools-and, essential for the type of work he did, he had a vivisector.
Squall came to the realization in twice the time Cray did. By the moment Squall knew what was going to happen, Cray had swung up into the control seat and was powering up the tool.
A vivisector was a paramagical scalpel and blotting cloth. It could dissect a living subject in as little as three minutes, as long as five hours. Toramas and Behemoths and Ochus and Malboros had died under its lens. Squall had seen it in action once before.
Nine months before.
A vivisector had killed Ellone.
Topside, Quistis had sent the team on to Deling City and was waiting for Squall alone.
She was worried. Hyne knew what Squall was doing, but it was taking him too long-and she had been ordered to stay out of it. She was giving serious consideration to the thought of going in after him-but. There was always a "but." In this case, it was that Squall would hardly want her in it-and, when it came to anything harking back to Cray or Ellone, it became an issue in which no missteps were forgivable.
She had little to no idea why an Estharan VIP transport was tearing across the Monterosa Plains, but it wasn't exactly helping her relax.
The transport pulled up with a deceleration curve that was sickening even to watch, and the driver's door slid open before it had fully stopped. Laguna jumped out, armed and looking about as peaceful as a mother bear with missing cubs. "Quistis!" he yelped. "What's going on? Are you all right? Where's Squall? Why aren't you with him?"
The barrage was rather too much. Quistis shifted. "I've been ordered to standby here..."
"Yeah, no one's ordered me," Laguna said. "Do you know where he is? Can you tell me how to get there?"
"He was in Motulka's office last," Qusitis said. "I don't know what he wanted to check on, but he's probably not still there."
Laguna was already fidgeting. "How do I get there?" he asked.
Laguna's unease was making Quistis even more uneasy. "Through the entryway, down the hall to the left. It's the first office."
Laguna bolted without bothering to say thanks.
The air was still charged with paramagic and gunpowder-it was still too familiar a spell, and he had to force himself not to think of a warzone. He ran full-tilt through the hallway, and would have bodyslammed the office door with little thought had it not stood open.
Beyond, though, there was little cause for celebration. The office was empty and silent. Squall was nowhere to be seen.
Below, hidden in a niche not meant to be found, Squall was having trouble getting his mind past the though (It isn't fair.)
(Of course not,) he answered himself-less a coherent thought than a swelling sense of inevitability, a feeling that he had foreseen it all along. (It's never fair. Life's not fair.)
(But-it's not fair!)
The vivisector powered up with a loud and rising moan.
The D4 was like a manacle and ball, the vivisector like a guillotine. The irony was almost unbearable.
It wasn't supposed to be this way.
Cray was looking back and forth between Squall and the vivisector display, adjusting its aim and program with a pragmatic lack of malice. And Squall realized it was no wonder he had been able to take out Ellone, no wonder he had almost killed Rinoa-this wasn't a madman, or a murderer. He was a scientist. And this was one more step on the road to discovery.
Cray didn't look on him as a nemesis. Ellone and Rinoa had been nothing more than monsters to him-genetic aberrations to be caught and killed and analyzed. And Squall wasn't a spectre or an agent of justice or revenge-he was just a monster without scientific merit, to be eliminated so that the real work could go on.
Cray no more cared about him and his loss than he cared about rats in medical labs.
Select dissection program, the vivisector asked flatly.
"Humanoid. Major circulatory, with presets," Cray said.
A muffled thump came from the stairway.
Squall gave one more ferocious tug on his arm, almost blacked out as the D4's treads caught on joints and bones, shredding tendons and muscle. He couldn't feel the limb any more-it was all a confused jumble of pain and screaming nerves, pressure and metal and blood.
"Pre-lab. Commence now."
The scalpelpoint lit up, a sterile thin cyan. The status spray below hissed to life, slamming him with a dilute Break-his muscles froze up, his breathing slowed artificially.
Paralysis induced, the vivisector cooly said. Duration: three minutes. Primary incisions expose skeletal system. Secondary incsions expose heart and major vessels: aortic root, aortic arch, brachiocephalic artery, left common carotid artery...
The cyan blade, pure focused paramagic, leapt from the scalpelpoint and split his skin.
The cloth above his heart tore and smoked, the flesh separated. The blade cauterized the wound, flash-freezing it in place as what little blood escaped dissolved into a spray of acrid vapour. He tried to gasp in reflex-he couldn't move, couldn't make a sound beyond a low whimper that escaped without his volition, tugging at a diaphragm that wouldn't move as it should. His nerves screamed as they were cut and denatured, as the skin peeled back from the bone, leaving it dry and white and pale-
Cray's head jerked up-an instant before a hail of machine-gun fire slammed him back in the seat, opening his chest and tearing great gouges through his body. The scalpelpoint exploded in a spray of glass and crystal and bullets; its beam blinked out. Hardware error, the vivisector stated, and failed. Shutting down.
The paralysis let up.
Squall let out a moan that was nearly a yelp, free hand jerking up to his chest. Laguna was at his side before Squall had a chance to look up. He took in the situation, braced himself, and pushed the D4 upward and away, freeing Squall from its mass. It toppled over, clattering into the mess of papers and scattered equipment.
"Your arm..." Laguna began.
Haltingly, Squall pulled his injured limb toward himself, cradling it across his stomach. (...say something,) he told himself-but nothing would come. Not "I'm fine," not "It's nothing," not even a grunt and a "whatever." He could only stare dumbly at the mangled flesh, too cognizant of how he had been nearly killed. How he was nearly dead-gone, lost, just like that.
Just like Ellone.
Laguna's eyes were tracing from him to Cray's corpse to his own machine gun to Squall again, and his mouth twisted. He looked nauseated. "...can you walk?"
Squall closed his eyes.
"No. I can't." He kept his voice even-above the pain, above the constriction in his chest, above the tremors starting in his stomach and expanding from that deep epicenter-he spoke slowly, very slowly, so that he could speak at all. Deep breaths carried sound on exhalations that stumbled and skipped on the rough dam at the top of his throat. "I... twisted my ankle." Regulate your words by the rhythm of your breath- "I don't think I can stand. I'm-losing blood. I'll be light-headed."
Laguna pulled off his jacket. It wasn't sterile, but it was clean enough-Squall didn't move. Laguna fashioned a tight sling around the ruin of his arm, dredging up army training he hadn't used in two decades. "It's all right," he was murmuring, voice rising in-what was that? Fear? The danger was over-"You're gonna be okay. We'll get you to Garden, and if they can't take care of your arm there-well, we'll get you to Esthar-"
(Breathe.) Inhale, exhale. As long as he was breathing, he wouldn't come undone. The skin above his heart wouldn't split and peel back, exposed to the passionless gaze of the vivisector lens, his bones wouldn't crumble into mana and his blood wouldn't dissipate like breath. As long as he was breathing, he was whole.
"...it's not my arm." He was breathing-but faster, in jerks and starts. He was shaking.
Laguna reached out. His fingers closed around Squall's shoulder-he pulled him in, and his arms closed around both.
"It's all right," he whispered. "It's gonna be all right."
With Squall's face buried at one shoulder, Squall trembling in the rough embrace, he realized that this-this was something that a father should do. And Hyne knew what Squall might think of that, but-
(Dammit. Right now, you need a father more than anyone.)
And for a moment it didn't matter that Squall's arm was seeping blood or that his chest had been opened, because visible wounds weren't as bad as wounds unseen. Caught in a thousand fears, a thousand concerns, a thousand remembrances-he held his son and let him lose control.
Squall didn't want to go back above ground.
He didn't want to go back into the sun that was still so bright this time of year, didn't want to go back to his team and their watching waiting eyes, didn't want to leave the mess and massacre of Cray's lab. It seemed as if it was the only place he fit-another piece of forgotten debris, another corpse that meant nothing more than dead tissue in all the predictable patterns.
But there was no way to say this, no way to explain it. He walked, numbly, as Laguna led him through the halls and up the stairs.
Topside, only Quistis was waiting for them.
She didn't say anything. She didn't ask about Squall's mutilated arm, didn't demand an explanation or offer condolences she knew wouldn't help.
"Squall's hurt-" Laguna began lamely.
Quistis was already rummaging for the appropriate supplies in her pack.
Curagas and Regens knit together the torn flesh, holding it closed until real healing could take place. Quistis wiped the skin down with disinfectant, bound it with cloth, smiled so gently. "Kadowaki will fix it," she said. "Kadowaki can fix anything."
Squall didn't watch her at work.
She wrapped his ankle, taped a compress to his chest. "We'll get you to Garden," she said. "The team can take the rail back."
He stood with Laguna's help, and they walked the long, tortuous route back to the transport.
Quistis slid into the pilot's cabin without a word, leaving Laguna to help Squall into the passenger seats. The transport took off smoothly, heading down the long path back.
Squall sat like a broken thing, as if he would crumple or collapse but didn't know how. He stared at the floor as if trying to reckon it with the rest of the world.
Laguna almost couldn't bear it.
He tried not to look-he closed his eyes, turned his head. But he couldn't keep his eyes shut, and he always turned back-something in him was calling out for something to be done, something to be said. He just didn't know what. He never did.
But he had to try. He always had to-even as much as it always hurt.
"About Ellone-" he began, haltingly.
"I was almost in time."
Laguna looked at him, taking in the lines of his face. "I don't-"
"Ten seconds. I would have been."
Laguna stared. Squall didn't meet his gaze.
"...I saw her die."
"It wasn't your fault," Laguna whispered.
"I could have saved her."
"It wasn't your fault." He reached out again-
Squall jerked away. "You-chose to go after Ellone and leave me behind. I chose to save Rinoa first." We're both damned, his eyes said. It's our choices that damn us.
"...I was right, wasn't I?" Laguna's hand dropped into his lap. "You can't let that go."
"I won't forget it."
Had Laguna been far more eloquent, he would have said something to that. Something about remembering but moving on, about lessons learned and the future and the past-but he wasn't. All he could say was a mumbled "I'm sorry," even though he didn't know what it was he was apologizing for.
Squall didn't say "So am I." He didn't say anything. The resolution hung in the air, bitter and denied against the hum of the transport's engine.
Eventually Squall's head bowed, his eyes closed. Laguna caught him as he slid, laid him on the bench. His son's face was grave and motionless-if he dreamed, Laguna couldn't know.
The transport rocked as it headed to Balamb and the docks it called home. Laguna sat in the back, breathing in the silence as he sat with all the family he had.
Garden seemed to resonate with the transport's chill air.
Word spread quickly. Cray had been killed. It should have been bittersweet, like all revenge was-but Squall had walked into the infirmary without meeting anyone's eyes, one bandaged arm in a sling cradled to his chest as if it was the only thing that wouldn't leave him. And Laguna, perennial source of optimism and nearly indefatigable good humour, had followed him like a shade, looking as if the world were cracking around him.
Laguna followed Squall as long as he could, himself unsure of why. He wasn't quite an escort, wasn't quite a companion-he was just there, and needed to be there, because for almost two decades he hadn't been.
Squall didn't say a word to him. He hadn't said a thing since the transport. In the infirmary he had let his wounds talk for him, and now, approaching the solitude of his dorm, his silence was more eloquent and painful than any words he could have put together.
He keyed in his lock code and the door opened before him-and Laguna hesitated. Was this it, then? Was this all he could do, as far as he could go?
Squall stopped halfway through the doorway, and sighed. He turned back, looking at Laguna with what was almost regret.
"...I don't know," he said quietly. "How am I supposed to look at you when you didn't even try for seventeen years-and you killed Cray?"
Laguna colored, and opened his mouth to speak-
Squall looked down, looked away. "...thank you for my life."
Then he stepped into his room, and closed the door behind him.
Laguna wandered back into the main hallway ring despondent, unconsciously melding with and adding to Garden's symbiotic mood. Quistis was waiting for him, a gesture he always took for granted-but was exceptionally grateful for, now. He sunk onto a bench beside her, trying to smooth out his voice and failing. "What do I do?" he wondered aloud. "What can I do now?"
"Let him be," Quistis said.
Laguna jumped, staring. "But I..."
"Let him be." Quistis nodded toward the dorms. "He has to think things over."
"Huh..." Laguna tried to smile, thinking it would make the sound a laugh. Instead, he only grimaced. His voice came out forced and thin, vocal cords too tight to really function. "That's it, then?"
"Mr. Loire-" Quistis's eyes softened. "You've gotten so many admissions from him in the last ten hours, and you don't even recognize them."
Laguna looked at her, begging explanation.
"He talked to you," Qusitis said. "He told you about Ellone. From Squall, that's a staggering gesture of trust. And he hasn't told you off, or pushed you away-he's been trying to escape you for two years. And now he's not trying any more."
"He slammed the door in my face."
Quistis smiled. "I'm afraid that Squall isn't the type to forgive and forget," she said. "Usually when you can manage one or the other. Nor is he the type to make any kind of overture, or to commit even to the most tentative of things without excessive thought..." she sighed. "...he needs to think over what's happened-and, I assume, re-evalute any number of things. It's not an instantaneous process."
Laguna groaned. "...I didn't think it would be."
"It's worth it," Quistis said, glancing away. "It's worth not giving up on him."
"I know." He shifted, staring at the carpet between his feet as if it couldintervene on his behalf. "...how long do I wait?"
"I'm not sure."
He closed his eyes.
Laguna was still breathing steadily, but now tears were trickling down his face. They ran over his cheeks, down his jaw to hang on his chin before dropping-half-hidden by hair as he bent his head down, rounding his shoulders under the burdens of his grief.
Quistis reached out, twining her fingers around his hand. The gesture wasn't much-not compared to what he had gone through, what he had seen. But it was what she could offer and, for the moment, it was enough.
In his dorm, with the door locked and the lights on, Squall didn't look out the window to see night settling over the island. He sat at his desk, one hand cradling his face, blotting out half the world. After a moment his hand slipped down and tucked beside his ribs, palm pressing into the burn scar above his heart.
Cray hadn't been evil. Ellone had been anaesthetized-she and Rinoa both. She wouldn't have felt the vivisector's blade. That was a nightmare reserved for him alone.
She wouldn't have seen him stumble in too late, full of cares already, out of time because he wouldn't leave Rinoa behind, because she was dazed and frightened and who wouldn't have been and he had told her-he had told her just to stay close to him, and-
(I couldn't leave her.)
He'd have been damned, either way.
There hadn't been time. Not enough time to save everyone he'd wanted, not enough time to preempt or fix mistakes. And then it had been over, and there was no going back. Time slipped away. No matter how hard he held on...
Ten seconds. All he had wanted were ten seconds more-ten seconds not to squander, ten seconds to try as hard as he could, to challenge inevitability. Ten seconds. Not ten years. Not seventeen.
But he was still alive.
Nothing was fair. He was used to the fact of it. But perversely, there seemed always to be some little core of him that sincerely believed the opposite-that the world was fundamentally a good place, that it shouldn't hurt this much for this long.
The world was terribly unforgiving. No human could match that-no one could be as ruthless, as cruel. Not to another. Not even to oneself.
It was a question that had no answer-that had never been answerable. Squall knew this. He had known it for a long, long time. But he had never understood it so fully before.
Wrapped in bandages and scars, he closed his eyes and breathed deep in the onset of night.