iii. lilies in the dirt

Thum-tha-thump.

She stands on the edge of a precipice, looking up at the stars.

Thum-tha-thump.

Heart beating, blood rushing, lungs expanding, contracting. Something else is there, something with the blood and the oxygen, something almost like the synapses in her cells firing. She knows what it is. She has spent seven years coming to terms with it.

"Rinoa...It's time to wake up."

You keep saying that.

She reaches one hand up and draws a line across the sky with her finger. The stars blur away under her touch, and so she takes a moment to experiment, dotting at the blurry patch where the sky used to be.

After a few moments of deliberation, some rearranging of the constellations, the sky is whole again. She moves one tiny star an inch to the left, and steps back to examine her work.

Why should I wake up? I'm already awake; moving, eating, sleeping–dreaming like this. Isn't that what being awake really is?

The Voice laughs, a throaty sound like a snake's hiss, like Eden is still junctioned in Rinoa's mind.

"Your naivety is impressive."

When Rinoa looks away from the stars to confront the voice, (I am not a child!) the ground beyond her little ledge of rock is a pit of fire, and her world is shaking apart, the stars expanding, expanding, expanding until they explode.

xx

She woke, fighting against a strangling white phantom.

"Rinoa?" Squall's voice, Squall's hands pulling hers away from the sheet that she had managed to tangle herself in, Squall. "What's wrong?"

When she could find her voice again, it faltered, and so she cleared her throat and tried again. "Nothing. A dream."

"About?"

"I don't remember." She settled back against the pillows, letting out a little hiss of discomfort at the motion, and Squall made the slightest shift toward the call button. Rinoa did not miss the motion. "I'm fine. I don't need anything."

"Are you sure?"

"You worry too much."

His mobile phone buzzed then, and he snatched the device off the small tray mounted on the side of Rinoa's bed. She watched his brow furrow, and tracked his path as he stood and crossed to the doorway. "Leonhart," he said quietly, and listened.

She studied his profile against the stark white of the door until she fell asleep again.

xx

The fire spell was junctioned. It would take very, very little magic to incinerate the whole stack of newspapers on her desk, Quistis decided, and touched the edge of the topmost paper with a finger.

"You'll burn the fucking building down, if you do that," Seifer commented, watching her from the chair on the opposite side, one closed fist propping his head up by his cheekbone.

"You'd rather I didn't?"

He shrugged. "Do it anyway."

Quistis withdrew her hand and turned her attention back to the glowing computer screen, where sixty-three new messages urgently demanded her attention. She selected "Delete all" and relished in the chime that the program made as it devoured her mail.

"I told you. I told you," he said, glaring at the newspapers.

A soft knock interjected his tirade, and Quistis gave permission to enter. A young cadet, probably only fifth year or so, stood in the doorway with a covered tray. She looked from Seifer to Quistis, ill-trained to disguise her unease. "Ma'am?"

"Here, just bring it here." Quistis tapped her desk with a sigh, and the cadet moved further into the office, stopping a foot shy of the desk when she found no clear space to set the tray down. Seifer groaned and lifted it out of the cadet's hands, dropping the delivered breakfast on top of the stack of newspapers with an audible thump and a clatter of dishes. "Dismissed," Quistis said, and the cadet saluted hastily, making a quick retreat for the door.

Quistis pulled the lid from the tray and set it aside, surveying the limp cafeteria salad with an air of dismay. "You're under Garden's protection, anyway," she reminded him as she tore the wrapping off of the plastic fork.

He snorted. "This is some sort of protection. I could move more freely after the war when everyone knew who the hell I was because of what I actually did than I can now because Martine's a bribing, lying asshole."

"We'll figure it out," Quistis said, tearing open a plastic packet of salad dressing and drizzling it over her lunch. "You'll just have to stay out of Galbadia."

The laugh that he emitted was not anything like a pleasant sound. "Like I would want to go back there anyway," he said. "I'd probably be chased down with pitchforks and torches the second I got off the train."

"Most likely."

He shifted in the chair, and sighed. Quistis focused her attention on a forkful of lettuce in the silence that passed between them.

"Go to ground, then, if it bothers you that much."

"Why should I? I'm innocent. Martine's the one who ought to be locked up." The chair did not slide back easily against the rough office carpet, and when Seifer stood, he caught the back of it with one hand to keep it from hitting the floor. "I'm going to the training center."

"Okay."

She let him leave without argument, and Seifer stalked down the hall toward the stairwell with his hands shoved in his pockets. Go to ground? What fucking ground? Of all people, Seifer Almasy knew that a man could run out of places to hide in the world.

It was bad enough that he had received a summons from Dr. Kadowaki that morning to come down to her office for a "talk." The nosy busybody. Truth be told, it shouldn't have surprised him that she had contacted him; Leonhart had probably mentioned that the knight had a few new screws loose.

He smacked the doorframe as he exited the stairwell in frustration. There had been enough counseling sessions, enough hours of psychoanalysis, when Dincht of all people had dragged him back to Balamb in handcuffs.

It was just a fucking dream. He didn't even know why he had felt the need to say anything to Leonhart at all. A Freudian slip, a subconscious desire, Kadowaki had called it. Maybe he should lay off the caffeine before bed.

He scratched his signature and identification number on the weapons check-out sheet, and the SeeD running the counter handed over a practice gunblade. Seifer hefted its weight in his hand and sneered at the SeeD, hoping to get a rise, a reaction, anything.

"You're cleared for an hour," the SeeD said instead, and turned his attention back to his terminal.

xx

He had not been expecting her, but when soft footsteps slipped into Rinoa's hospital room, Squall could not comfortably say that he was surprised by her presence.

"Hello."

He rose as she came closer, accepting her embrace without argument. "I didn't know you were coming," he said.

She was still in black, always in black. "Zell told me," Edea replied gently. "How is she?"

Squall sighed. "Fine. The doctors say she'll recover completely." He glanced down at Rinoa, at her dark hair splayed across starched white sheets, and was grateful when Edea did not disagree–she knew (they all knew) that no one recovered completely. Absently, he touched his shoulder, dress shirt masking a grim web of scar tissue. "Let's go to the cafeteria. I could use some coffee."

His matron nodded, and let herself be led out of the room. "I didn't mean to come without calling."

"It's okay." He stopped as they almost bypassed the elevators; the stairs were right there, and he was so used to taking them that he had almost forgotten that she was there. Squall pressed the call button and listened to the elevator whine to life. "She'll be glad to see you."

"If it's alright, I'll stay for a few days," Edea said. "If you want me to."

"You're always welcome to stay," he said, the sincerity in his voice genuine. "I can get you a room at the hotel, if you'd like."

"I can stay in Garden. Don't trouble yourself over it. I'll just use the old rooms–unless..." Her voice trailed off as her expression posed the unasked question. Squall shook his head. The apartment had been left alone when Cid had finally passed the year prior, kept open for Edea as she had mourned. Eventually, she had finally returned to Centra, and Zell Dincht went with her, taking his forced retirement in stride–Squall hated to admit it, but there was no use for a fighter with only one good hand. The rooms had remained empty, the doors kept locked and the code privy only to himself and Edea.

Descending to the hospital basement took far less time than he had anticipated, and he was briefly surprised when the doors opened with a soft ding. Squall followed her out, and touched her arm to guide her toward the small cafeteria.

"Tea?" he asked.

"That's fine." She settled herself in a table near the wall, smoothing her skirt across her lap as Squall made for the snack bar. The room was filled with quiet chatter, broken intermittently by some child's voice rising and the subsequent shushing. Edea folded her hands neatly in her lap and smiled gently at a little boy staring unabashedly from a nearby table.

"Here," Squall said, returning to stand in front of her, his body blocking out the child. "Careful. It's hot."

"Thank you," she murmured. He sat down across from her as she extracted the tea bag from its packaging to dip it into the scalding water. There was a subtle snap as Squall pried back the tab on the lid of his coffee cup. He drank with disregard for the temperature of the beverage, and a quarter of the cup had gone before it was set back down on the table.

"Almasy told me he's been dreaming like he did after the war," Squall said, and Edea flinched at the words even though she hadn't meant to. "Why?"

"I don't know."

"Why?"

"I don't know, Squall." Her voice was unerringly soft and placid, her body language anything but as the heat of the drink in her hands started to radiate out and burn her palms uncomfortably. She let go of the cup. "I don't know."

"Do you dream about it?"

"It? Ultimecia? The war, and the fact that my memories of the time are only half-remembered glimpses? I dream of it, yes."

He hadn't been expecting such a straightforward answer, she realized, when his cup stopped halfway up on its return voyage to his lips.

"I dream of it, and I always have. People dream, even if they say they've forgotten, even if they say they've moved on."

Squall let out a soft huff. "I was worried," he said, and the words were a confession. Edea reached across the cool plastic expanse of the table and touched his hand.

"Nothing will come of it," she reassured him. "Rinoa is stronger than I was; she won't give in, and she has a stable knight. What happened is pure chance, someone wanting to stir things up."

"I know."

"It will be alright." Her fingers smoothed the hairs down on the back of his hand, his skin warm and dry beneath her fingertips. "It will be alright."

The young commander sighed again, and with an inflection in his voice that nearly broke Edea's heart, he extracted his hand from beneath hers and reminded her, "I'm not a child, you know."

xx

The ground is cold beneath her feet, some distant part of her mind tells her, and Rinoa ignores it as she walks, oblivious to the questions, the voices that seem to come from far, far away that ask her if she needs any help.

She wants to see the sky, that's all, she tells them with a smile on her lips and it seems to be enough to get her by; she notes the way their voices flow like molasses, the way her limbs move through space as if she is swimming.

This is a dream.

The voice is telling her to go, go, go, reach the sky and the stars.

This is a dream.

There is a door in front of her, and so she opens it, surprised to find a staircase beyond, but descends like she is falling. The railing is solid under her hands as she pulls herself to her feet after a bit of a slip, and she keeps her grasp on it, descending to the next landing, and the next, until a bright green sign proclaiming "exit" slows her pace.

She opens that door, too, and braces herself for a world of fire and a night sky that has gone blurry with her touch.

There is no fire, but the air is warm against her skin and she surveys the sky.

This is a dream, and she can retrace the path of the stars.

The ground is hard under her feet as she walks, cool tile turning to cold stone turning to rough pavement, and so she keeps walking until rough has turned to damp grass, and there she stands, head back and her eyes fixed on the stars.

"Rinoa."

I like it here.

The voice is stubborn but so is she, a Caraway, a Heartilly, a Leonhart all wrapped into one.

Thum-tha-thump.

"Rinoa, it's time to wake up now," the voice tells her, and then strong hands are at her shoulders, guiding her back across damp grass to rough pavement to cold stone to cool tile.

Rinoa thinks that she doesn't like to be led like a child, and the voice in the back of her mind agrees.

xx

He hadn't realized it was her for a few minutes, standing there barefoot in the grass, her little blue hospital gown fluttering in the wind like the train of that duster she had been so fond of in the war.

"Rinoa?" he called, and Seifer frowned when she didn't even seem to notice him. "Rinoa, I don't think you're supposed to be out here..."

His shoes squeaked against the wet grass as he crossed the hospital's lawn slowly. "Rinoa?"

Her eyes were fixed on something overhead, and when Seifer glanced up, all he saw was stars. "Rinoa, come on. I don't know how the hell Leonhart let you out of his sight." He put his hands on her shoulders carefully, guard up in case the reflexes that she had picked up the war sprang from dormancy and she tried to punch him in the face or something.

It turned out that she went easily, moving with him back across the parking lot and into the lobby, where he signaled an orderly over.

"Look, I don't know which room she's supposed to be in–"

"Mrs. Leonhart?" The orderly took her from Seifer's grasp, and Rinoa's eyes shot open.

"No," she exclaimed, jerking out of the orderly's hold and pressing a hand to her forehead. Her face contorted, and for a split-second–

he saw black feathered wings and hair like a raven's plumage, and she was his queen

–Seifer shook his head, reaching out as Rinoa made to run for the exit. He circled an arm around her torso, his grip unforgivingly strong. "Rinoa, snap out of it."

She struggled against him, clawing at his arms and tearing at his skin before she finally registered his voice. Rinoa stilled, staring at him for a long moment before her dark eyes rolled back into her head and she collapsed like a rag doll in his arms.

"Rinoa!" Squall's voice, as near to panic as Seifer had ever heard it, carried across the lobby as the commander broke into a run. "What the--whathappened?"

"I don't know. You tell me. I found her outside."

"You're not even supposed to be here–Rinoa? Can you hear me? I need a doctor over here!"

Seifer backed off, hands out in surrender, and nearly knocked Edea over.

xx

"It's probably just a reaction to the medication– sleepwalking is a common side effect," the doctor explained, drawing back from shining a small penlight in Rinoa's eyes. She did not stir, and he tucked the light away into a pocket. "I don't think she tore anything open, but we'll keep her an extra day or so for observation, and change her meds to something with a lower dose."

Squall nodded.

"I really don't think we have anything to worry about, though," the doctor added cheerfully. "She'll probably feel a bit groggy when she wakes up, but that's to be expected."

There was something about the way the man had used "we" that irritated Squall, but he couldn't quite figure out what it was. He nodded again.

"Right."

"I'll be back in a few hours to check on her."

"Thanks."

The door shut behind the doctor with a soft click.

Burn the witch.