Years after a star burned out, its light would keep shining. People would look up and see it in the sky, make wishes on it, look to it for guidance. But it wasn't real. The star was dead. There was only the light, the illusion of a star, like the impulse that keeps a muscle moving when there's no longer a mind to command it.
Standing in the ruins of Trabia Garden, Squall felt something like that.
He'd been to Trabia Garden once before, as part of Garden's survival training. The memories of it had mostly faded, images and scenes eroded by the years into the more clinical understanding that this was the treatment for hypothermia and these were the best ways to avoid it during a winter campaign, and all the other pieces of solid and reassuring truth that were so much more concrete and easier to hold than the tenuous echoes of memory. One image, though, remained clear: the sight of Trabia Garden, the smooth blue and white curves of it sparkling with frost and snow, the filigree circlet that crowned it jeweled with ice that captured the brilliant white light of a winter day until it seemed to burn with a cold inner fire and even Squall's breath caught in his cold-seared throat, awed and a little frightened by its austere beauty.
Nothing remained of that beauty now - there was only the broken arc of the fallen circlet, listing uncertainly in the air above the ruins, as a reminder of what it had been.
No one blamed him. Not even Selphie blamed him, and the brave face she put over her grief - like the brace faces the Trabian survivors put over their fear and desperation - only made him more conscious of his failure. The cadet who'd refused his guilt offering hadn't known it was blood money, but the apologetic gratitude with which she'd handed it back to him, insisting that Trabia Garden should rebuild with its own strength, had been condemnation enough.
No one blamed him, but only because no one knew it was his fault.
No one knew that it was his error, his momentary overconfidence that had allowed their mission to come apart and brought the sorceress's wrath down on him. No one knew that he could have prevented Trabia Garden's fall if he'd only fought to live, if he'd only managed to overcome pain and confusion and shame enough to come to one clear decision before the missiles had streaked overhead and made the decision for him.
No one blamed him because no one knew how he'd given up. And even knowing that, even standing in the midst of the destruction his failure had caused, Squall could find nothing within him except a cold, detached acceptance of his guilt.
It was only because they thought they needed him that he kept going. The pressure of their expectant looks every time they turned to him for a decision pushed him along. They already knew what they wanted from him; he only had to fill that space, go through the motions Garden's training had instilled in him, so that when he was gone he'd be forgotten or at least remembered for something other than this.
No one had to know that the real Squall had died chained to the wall in the Galbadian prison, suicide by insulted soldier, and that all they were following was the empty shell he'd left behind.
He found his eyes resting on Rinoa, watching as she shifted her weight back and forth from one foot to the other in an effort to keep the feeling in her toes, and wondered why she bothered. Numbness was better than pain, better than guilt. For his own part, he lifted his face to the icy kiss of the Trabian wind, let it bite at the exposed skin until he couldn't feel it any more.
But still his eyes lingered on Rinoa. She looked uncertain and uncomfortable huddled into the coat she'd borrowed from Balamb Garden's scanty stock of cold-weather gear. The coat was a warm, delicate rose color that stood out vibrantly in the midst of the greys of ice and rubble, and Squall wondered distantly if her discomfort was shame at being the only flower blooming in this frost-killed garden.
When her face turned toward him and her dark eyes found his, he couldn't look away, too stiff and numb from the cold to move. There was a wistful, almost pained sympathy in the way she looked at him that he didn't understand and couldn't guess the reason for.
He found himself wondering what she wanted of him, and what it was she thought she saw in the light from his burned-out star.