A/N: Hey, guys, here's the final chapter for you all. Most of my notes are at the end, but this is a little different from the rest and shameless advertising. I've took over the challenge community: w w w . fictunes-lj . livejournal . com. It's not just for fanfiction, but anything creative you want to do with it, for any fandom. It'd be great to have some people take a look and take part or pass on the word. Feel free go back to past playlists and I can post up for people who want to join in but don't have an LJ account.
Eyes On Me
Michelle Smith stood in the spacious entrance of the large mansion, waiting for the PA to return and show her through to the room for her interview. She bit her lip, unable to keep the wide smile from spreading across her face, but at least she wasn't grinning like a fool.
Any minute now.
Nerves and excitement bubbled in her gut as she pushed back a stray lock of blonde hair that had fallen from her loose bun. On the other side of that door was her hero, her inspiration, her role model and she had actually been granted permission - out of the millions of journalists, writers and fans - to interview him. What would he be like in person? Colder? Warmer? Would he be charming or awkward? She'd met plenty of men and women like him who were nothing like she would have expected, for better or worse.
The door she'd been watching opened and she quickly straightened up, trying to smarten herself up as much as she could. The serious, though not stern, looking man from before appeared in the doorway.
"Miss Smith," he greeted.
Her heart leapt and she tried to keep her voice controlled. "Yes?"
"Mr Leonhart is ready to see you now."
She mustn't shake, she reminded herself. Shaking would not help her walk, and it would not be a dignified way to start the interview off. Taking a deep breath, she prepared herself and strode past the man into the living room beyond.
The room was more…homely than she'd thought it would be, though not entirely sure what she had expected to begin with. A large ballroom lined with white marble, plush leather sofas and chandeliers hanging from the ceiling? Or an expensive designer room that had an empty feel of a showcase rather than a living space? Instead, the space she walked into could have been anyone's front room.
It was a good size — not too large, fitting everything comfortably. To the right-hand side stood a grand piano, one which dominated the room without crowding it. On the opposite wall was an open fireplace, empty and unneeded in the mid-summer heat. The mantelpiece was covered with photos, a theme that she found repeated all over the room, on any and every surface she could see, something that she could not help but find curious and odd. She recognised a few of the faces and could guess at others, but many also escaped her knowledge.
Opposite her were pair of large glass patio doors, letting sunlight from outside stream in and bathe the place with a warm glow. Not that it needed it; the entire place could not feel more like a lived-in home of a family. It was tastefully decorated in blues, greens and creams, but comfort and personality were never sacrificed in the name of style.
However, what caught her attention above everything else was in the centre of the room. Two large, cosy-looking, ivory sofas faced each other with a long coffee table sitting between them. From the couch facing her stood two people, a man and a woman. Her heart beat wildly and, for one humiliating moment, she thought that her legs would give way.
Michelle Joanna Smith, she mentally lectured herself, you're not some sixteen years-old fangirl meeting some teen heart-throb. Get. A. Grip.
Refocusing, she rushed forward and took the hand of the man in both of hers. Her heart gave a small thrill at actually touching him, shaking his hand.
"Gale Leonhart, thank you so much for seeing me. I can't tell you how much of an honour this is to be speaking to a musical icon such as yourself."
The elderly man chuckled, firmly returning her handshake though to mentally describe him as elderly hardly seemed appropriate. Despite being in his seventies, there was little to call elderly about him. The man seemed so full of life. Though his hair had lost its dark colour, there was nothing feeble about his body. True, he was on the short side, having only reached her height, but it still seemed to carry strength and energy within it. It held the broadness that came with age, but his face was the biggest give away. He didn't so much have wrinkles as much as lines etched in by worry, joy, sadness and happiness that betrayed the full life that he'd had. She wasn't surprised that he wore a pair of sunglasses, hiding his eyes from view, but she couldn't deny the curiosity she felt to see his sightless orbs.
"Not at all, your letter was very persuasive. It's a pleasure to finally meet you." His voice was deep and smooth, a rich baritone that she would be content to simply sit and listen to for hours.
The man let go of her hand and indicated to the young woman by his side. "This is my granddaughter, Iris."
Michelle turned to the young lady, no older than herself, looking like she was in her early twenties. She was a beautiful woman, but it suddenly dawned on her that she wasn't entirely sure why. There was nothing remarkable about her and yet her features — her dark brown hair, greyish-blue eyes, the slight roundness of her face and slimness of her frame — seemed to come together in just the right way.
"Please, take a seat," Gale indicated the sofa across from him. His hand sought out the armrest of his own chair, relying on that to find his seat again. The two women followed suit, Michelle smoothing down the back of her navy pencil skirt as she did so.
"You don't mind me recording our conversation, do you?" she asked.
"Of course not, my dear," he warmly smiled at her.
She reached into her handbag and withdrew the small machine, flicking it on. As she placed it on the table between them, a picture beside her hand caught her attention. She paused, looking at it. She recognised the couple — how could she not when everyone in Gaia did — but she'd never seen him like this before. Out of all the photographs she'd seen, there was never one with him, well, smiling. It wasn't a wide grin, but a genuine open-month smile and it seemed to make him all the more attractive. It was a wedding photo — the man was standing behind his wife, who was drawn into his embrace. One of her hands was rested on the arm round her waist while the other was clasped in his hand. Her head was rested against his shoulder as they gazed at each other, clearly unaware of the photographer.
"My parents," Gale supplied.
She looked up, startled. "How…?"
He chuckled. "I may not be able to see, but I'm not blind."
"Most people have a similar reaction to you when they see it," Iris explained, "It often catches guests' attention."
The blonde nodded. "It's a unique photo, there's not many of your father…" she trailed off, realising how rude she would sound by completing that sentence.
"Smiling?" he hazarded. She looked up to see if he'd taken offence, but nothing in his warm exterior gave it away.
She nodded and then mentally slapped herself when she remembered he couldn't see her. "Yes."
"He was a very serious man, very private. He liked to keep his personal life personal and hide it away from the rest of the world, presenting the public with a manufactured persona instead. The wedding photo's a favourite of mine, along with two family portraits." He lifted his hand to indicate to a large picture hanging over the fireplace, "My present family," and then he made a sweeping gesture to the mirror image opposite the first, "and my past family."
Michelle looked between the two, rather confused, before turning back to the happy man, uncertain as to whether she should say anything. "Erm…I'm sorry but, I think you've got that mixed up."
His smile faltered. "Really?" He scratched the side of his neck. "I suppose I was confused about where I'm sitting."
"Grandfather," Iris scolded, "You know very well where you're sitting and that you got the pictures mixed up." The pretty brunette turned back to their guest. "You will have to excuse his…quirky sense of humour."
"Oh no…I didn't realise."
Gale chuckled again; she was growing to love that rich deep rumble. "So many are uncomfortable by my blindness that I cannot resist the urge to tease them." She could just imagine the mischievous sparkle that should be present behind those shades. The musician leaned forward. "But don't be uneasy. I am not, so there is no reason you should be."
He leaned back again and she couldn't help smiling as he continued. "People don't understand why I surround myself with photos of my friends and family when I can't see. I tell them that I like the idea that they are watching over me. 'But you can't see them, so what good does it do?' they say. To which I reply, 'Oh, but I can,'" he explained before tapping a finger against his temple, "In here."
Michelle listened to the rich, velvety voice speak; it was almost hypnotic to hear.
"For example, take the past family portrait," he indicated back at the picture, the correct one this time, "It was taken at the end of August for my father's thirtieth birthday and we're in the garden at Granddad's country mansion. We're underneath a great oak tree and the entire family is there, even my mother's father. My mother is sitting on a high, protruding root and since that tree had a lot of them, I wasn't allowed near it on my own.
"On my mother's lap is my youngest sister Marina; she must have been two years-old at this point. Her hair, very dark brown, almost black, is tied away from her face in a ponytail on top of her head, but most of the strands are loose because they weren't long enough. Mari's wearing a white summer dress, having just changed it for the photo; it would have been covered in dirt otherwise. Mother is also wearing a summer dress, but one with thin straps and it's dark blue. Around her neck is a chain with two rings on it. She always wore them and by the time I was five, I knew every line and detail. Her hair's a bit longer than it normally was, down to her mid back, though she does look a little younger than a woman who turned twenty-nine a few months previously. She looks very good, as does my father.
"He's standing to her left, a foot or two away from my mother, in front of the trunk in a dark red shirt – a birthday present from my sisters and I. Speaking of which, he's holding my other sister, Cascata, who is approaching five here. See how tightly she's hanging onto my father? She adored him more than anything else in the world. Even followed in his footsteps too," the last few words were laced with a sad undertone but as Michelle turned to her host, the inflection disappeared and so had her thoughts on the matter as he happily continued his description of the portrait once more.
"She has brown hair, just like Dad, but with our Mum's dark eyes. Her hair is long — she didn't cut it short until she entered Garden's Secondary Education and Training program. Oh, and the dress she's wearing over her trousers, she loved that dress. It has buttons all the way down the front and cats along the bottom. When she grew too big to button it up, she wore it as a jacket until that didn't work either and she was forced to pass it onto Mari.
"On the other side of my father is my aunt, Ellone, sitting on the root right by the trunk with a hand on Dad's shoulder to keep herself steady. She's wearing a white, sleeveless shirt and dark blue jeans. In front of her is her son, Elan — he and Cascata were very close. He's only a year older than her and they would always play together during visits. He lived with my family for a few years. He was tempted to join SeeD for a while, and so he stayed with my parents while he went to Balamb Garden, but decided that he wasn't cut out for that kind of life before he took the exam. His father is beside him and Ellone with short blond hair, smart but casual clothing. He was a doctor, worked for Garden for a short while in the special recovery unit, but he was only there for four years."
"Now, behind Elle, between her, my mother and father is a boy — that's me."
Michelle grinned at the smiling boy in the centre of the photo. "You look like your mother."
Gale chortled. "It seems to run in the family. My daughter looks more like my wife and both my parents are supposed to look more like their mothers than their fathers, who are standing on either side of me in this photo. Laguna is on my right, holding one of my hands and placing his other hand on top of Elle's head. He may have retired at this point…no," he corrected himself after a moment's pause, "He's about to retire, but he does so after his thirtieth year as president, which is the following year, but this day was the beginning of a good eighteen months. You see his hair? He never had that any shorter or got rid of the earring and the dog tags. You notice how causally he's dressed? He'd wear that to work. He was completely different compared to my other grandfather who's on my left, behind my mother. He's dressed down for the day — just a white shirt and dress trousers — but then, he did normally wear his military uniform. He has one hand on Mum's shoulder and the other resting on my back to make sure that I don't fall backwards."
"You all look so happy," Michelle said, her eyes lingering over the picture.
There was a rap on the door and Gale called for the knocker to enter. The man from earlier strode in, a tray in his hands which he sat down on the low table between them. The one side had a cafetiere and a teapot, both full and undoubtedly hot. Beside them were three cups and saucers staked up with a jug of milk and a pot of sugar, while on the other side there was an arrangement of cake and biscuits.
"Thank you, I'll call if we need anything else," Gale said to the man before, turning back in Michelle's direction, "Please, help yourself to anything that takes your fancy."
Iris shifted forward and set a cup and saucer before everyone. "Would you prefer tea or coffee Miss Smith?"
"Coffee please, and Michelle is fine. Milk and two sugars, please."
She poured the coffee and then made one for herself. "Grandfather? Tea as usual?"
"Yes, but only one sugar this time."
She watched the granddaughter pouring the drink and she started to turn her eyes back to the photo above the fireplace when her eyes caught something behind the cushion the younger Leonhart leaned against. Her eyes shot back to the woman, who was currently guiding her grandfather's hand to the cup, and then back again to check that she was that she wasn't seeing things. She tore her gaze away so that she wasn't caught staring and took a sip from her drink, hoping to hide her expression behind the cup. She guessed she must be dealing with Leonharts after all.
"Are you a musician, like your grandfather?"
"Oh no, I'm a writer, much like yourself though a very different genre." She elegantly picked up her drink, sipping it. "I do play a little flute though."
Gale smiled proudly, carefully setting his cup down and reached over to pet her on the knee. "She's just had her first novel published — a delightful children's story which was a best seller in Galbadia." Michelle quickly raised her cup to take another sip, hiding her smile. She didn't know many children's story writers who sat with a gun neatly tucked under a nearby pillow. "Despite all that, she's living here with me. She's rather attached to me it would seem."
Iris smiled at her grandfather. "He keeps me sane; with no partner and my brother in SeeD, I think the best thing for both of us is to keep each other company."
"Your brother is a SeeD?"
"Yes, along with one of my cousins, though my brother is in the Medical Division."
Michelle turned to the older man. "Was your father disappointed that you couldn't join SeeD, Mr Leonhart?"
"I think he was more glad than anything."
"A SeeD's life is hard — a simple mistake can result in anything from a scratch to death. It also weighs heavily on the soul. I've never had to take a life, and for that, I am glad and I think that my father was too. He certainly wasn't disappointed — he was proud of what I'd achieved in my life. Most people assume he must have been though, as they tend to assume a lot of things about the kind of man and father he was without any basis. Ignorant and foolish judgements, but that is how people judge those in the public eye, assuming that their public face is how they act in private, for good or for bad.
"No, few people know of my father's true opinions and feelings, even I can't be sure at times. As I said, he was a very private man. I do know he didn't raise me as a man ashamed of his disabled son. He loved and cared for me, learned to read brail alongside me so that he could teach me how to read. I have several very fond memories of sitting on his lap as a very small boy, my eyesight all but useless, as we read a book together. I still remember how big and strong his hands were as they covered mine, guiding my fingers along the markings.
"He was very patient with me and it was a favourite activity of mine when I was very young. I would play music with my mother and read with my father — there seemed to be a very clear divide in that regard. I even preferred having bedtime stories with him as I loved listening to his voice as he read the stories while I lay in bed and I'm very sure he enjoyed reading to me. He always used to ask me if I wanted a bedtime story no matter how busy he seemed to be. To me, that was a sure sign that he wanted to do it. Though Granddad would always be everyone's favourite since he had a talent for imitating all the voices and intuitively knowing how to read them in the perfect way. I'm sure that even my father would listen to him read from the doorway.
"After he helped me master brail, my parents and tutor were confident that I could keep up with lessons. So with a few special allowances and aids, I joined classes with other children my age."
"At Balamb Garden?"
"Yes. No matter what else they do or your thoughts on the morality of that organisation, they do have some of the best education in the world."
"Was it difficult being with other children?" Michelle asked, reaching for another biscuit.
"Was I bullied, you mean? I was the son of the famous Squall Leonhart, SeeD commander, and Rinoa Leonhart who, though it wasn't publically known until five years ago, was a sorceress. Would you dare?"
The blonde smiled. "I guess not."
"Oh, there were whispers round the classroom, but no one addressed them to me directly. A few children were even drawn to me. I suppose I was lucky that one of my parents happened to be very intimidating. However, it soon became very clear that I had little interest in the world of Garden. I had grown to love music, encouraged by my mother from an early age. Even if I did have my eyesight, I doubt I would have chosen a life of fighting. I was very different in that respect to my sisters, especially Cascata. She was born to be a SeeD and I sometimes think that she got my share. Her love for my father helped fuel her ambition as his opinion was worth more to her than anything else." The old musician turned his head in the direction of his granddaughter. "Iris, could you get the photo of Cascata from the mantelpiece? It's the third from the right, between Marina and your baby cousin."
The young woman stood and made her way over to the photos, plucking one off, even pausing for a second as she took another one as well. She handed the first to Michelle before sitting down again.
"That's Cascata just after she made commander," she explained.
The woman in the photo had a powerful aura about her. She had her father's serious expression, but there was a small turn of her lips and a sparkle in her dark eyes. She was a pretty woman who, as opposed to her brother, took after her father in appearance. Her uniform was pristine and her short brown hair fell to just brush her shoulders. In one hand, she carried…
"Is that the Lion Heart?"
"Yes," Gale replied, "my father gave it to her when she became commander. He taught her how to wield a gunblade and she was an excellent magic user as well, she got that- and her temperament - from our mother. In many ways, she was perfect for SeeD, but she worked very hard for it as well. She used to train with my father in the back garden. I used to be able to hear them from my bedroom. She was talented, brilliant even, and she knew it. She hated it whenever a boy who was just as good as her appeared on the scene because of that. She would get so angry each time he got the best her and my father would shrug it off and tell her it would help her grow. However, I remember discussing the matter with Dad. He was rather glad for the turn of events because suddenly Cas was forced to admit that she could be beaten. 'An arrogant SeeD is a dead SeeD,' I remember him saying, 'and Cascata needs someone to bring her back down to earth and make her realise that this isn't a game before it's too late. I'd hate to lose her over something as foolish as pride.'"
Michelle looked down at the famous figure in her hands. "She died in The Battle of The Giza Plains, didn't she?"
Gale's voice was heavy when he spoke, "Yes, she did."
"I'm sorry," she said, wanted to kick herself for her insensitive comment, "I didn't mean to bring up such a painful memory."
"No," he discarded her apology, "There is no need to be. It is silly it pretend that it never happened and a dishonour to her memory if I were to do just that. I was told that she was magnificent out there; her fight saved the battle though it took her life. She left behind a very young son."
"My father," Iris elaborated.
Michelle looked between the two of them. "So, you're actually a great-niece, not granddaughter?"
"Yes, she's not my granddaughter, but I don't consider her any less than those who are. When my sister died, I took in her son, Storm, and raised him."
"Storm?" Michelle lifted an eyebrow.
"Yes, I'm still not sure if it was done in honour of my father or just to annoy him. Her pregnancy was the only time that their relationship was strained. I think she may have been angry that my father wouldn't just tell her if he wanted her to keep the baby or not. I wasn't there when Mum discovered my sister was pregnant, I was long-since married by then, but Cas spoke to me afterwards about it. Though I suppose 'spoke' is a little generous, ranted would be more accurate. She didn't understand why Dad wouldn't just say what he would prefer her to do and it was difficult in beginning to make her understand that this was her choice to make, not his — he couldn't, and wouldn't, tell her what to do. Our parents stood by her and helped her all the way through, telling her what she would need to buy and do to prepare, despite how tense those few months were. After the birth, things settled down again. I even think my parents enjoyed having a grandson around. They both took care of Storm when Cas was away on missions or working, though they both wanted her to leave SeeD. Every now and then, my father would push the subject a little. Of course, she would just bite back that he could hardly lecture her on the matter when he was still in SeeD and doing missions after she was born. It didn't matter to her that, unlike our father, she was a single parent."
"Do you mind me asking who the father was?"
Gale sighed. "I wish I knew. To this day, nobody does — she refused to tell anyone, not even our father which frustrated him to no end."
The thrill of a mystery ran through Michelle as she tried to think of possible candidates for the other biological parent. "Maybe he was the son of an old, or present, enemy?"
"Maybe," but the musician didn't sound too convinced, "but if it was then I'm surprised she would have been so secretive about it. She may have adored Dad, but she was strong-willed and knew he would forgive her. We all knew that he loved and respected us all too much to let something so petty ruin our relationships with him. She acted more like she was ashamed of it, afraid that she would never be forgiven."
"So you honestly have no idea?"
"Oh, we all had ideas, some more likely than others, but it's very difficult to know who it really was. You see, she gave birth nearly a year after she was freed from her capture in Centra Ruins and eight months after she was released from the recovery ward. You see the dilemma? Too late to be a result of anything done to her while she was in captivity, and I'm sure unspeakable things were done to her, but too soon to be after she returned to society. One would think that would narrow the list down, but it did not, she had many guests while she was in the special recovery ward and Storm was not premature." He sighed. "My sister was a very talented, exceptional woman, but she did not have the happiest life. It was short, but not sweet. To die at twenty-five…"
"It's a good running for a SeeD," Michelle tried to lighten the man's mood a little, which seemed so heavy at that moment.
"But a poor running for a life," he countered, "It is a sad thing when twenty-five is considered a long existence. That is the way with SeeD though. The majority of deaths occur within the first year of a SeeD's career. After that, the rate dramatically drops. About forty percent of SeeDs make it beyond twenty-one and those tend to be the best. Some carry on going, others quit, a very good number become teachers instead and some continue to live very full lives."
"I had no idea. I didn't think they would be allowed to continue after a certain age."
"If all SeeDs were young, spry teenagers, they'd be rather easy to pick out, don't you think?"
"I suppose," Michelle admitted.
The man continued, "Besides, some jobs are better suited to a more mature individual and it would be foolish to throw someone away with years of experience in evading death. As sad as it is, I think that only death could have pried Cascata away from SeeD. Not even having a son could convince her to move on; it can be a very addictive lifestyle."
Iris broke in, handing Michelle the second photo that she had taken from the mantelpiece. "This is my father and grandmother, six months before her death."
Cascata stood in what appeared to be a garden, a boy of perhaps three on her hip. From all that had been said, she wasn't sure what she would see in the picture, a cold woman maybe. It wasn't the case. The young woman didn't radiate warmth and love, but it was there in subtle shades. She held her boy close, her head resting softly against his. Michelle wasn't sure if it was just the moment the camera had caught or the reality of the time but, the sparkle seemed to have left the woman since the last photo and something hard and worn was left in its place.
"She looks like she really loved your father," the blonde commented.
"I like to think she did," Iris replied, taking the photo back.
"She did, she loved her son very much," Gale confirmed, but something hung in the air after his words. As though he had cut himself off, stopping himself before he said too much. The words 'but not as much as she loved SeeD,' seemed to ring round Michelle's head.
Michelle took a sip of her coffee to dispel her thoughts; it really wasn't her place to put her words into his mouth and make judgements on a woman she had never met before.
"But your other sister is living a long life, right?" she asked, trying to stir the conversation back to happier topics.
"Ah yes, Marina is as fit as ever. She even managed to fend off a couple of muggers with her handbag last week. Retired now of course, but she was the first headmistress of Esthar Garden for…twenty years?" Iris confirmed the detail before he continued. "She normally spends her summers here, but her eldest has just had a baby boy."
"I read about that in the papers last week — the first baby born on the lunar surface base."
"Mari's children always seemed to have been drawn to space; her youngest has just set off on the Space Exploration Program, the trial run so to speak. I think it owes a great deal to the fact that Mari's second husband was heavily involved in the E.S.P. and so some influence on them was to be expected. He was a great man, Arthur Holmes, we were very happy to see her remarry."
"It must have been a huge blow to lose her first husband only a couple of years after losing Cascata, especially as a suicide."
"Mmm, yes, very tragic," though his tone implied otherwise, "I suspect his past actions finally built up and took revenge."
"His SeeD work?"
"It does happen. It happened to Elessia Kinneas. One does things as a SeeD that drags down the soul." He took a sip of tea and continued. "However, I was thinking that more personal influences that had built up led to his eventual...suicide." She wasn't entirely sure what to make of his statement but once more, the dark undercurrents that lingered in the words and tone were transient, swiftly replaced with the older man's usual cheery tone. "She moved on after his death and joined Garden again, but as an instructor instead; I don't think she could have returned to missions. Eventually, she reached her most famous post as first headmistress."
"I wasn't aware she'd left SeeD."
"Marina was part of the Med. Division, which was her speciality. She often accompanied Cascata on missions as the healer in the group. She was our sister's support during The Battle of Giza Plains and tried to prevent the inevitable. After your sister dies under your hands…well, one can hardly blame you for leaving."
"Why did she return?"
"There was nowhere else to go or to do with her life, and a desire to help other youths from dying before their time. It has a habit of dragging you back or holding you in, perhaps because of the community Garden creates, the addiction to danger or simply because it's hard to move on and do something else with your life after you've trained so long for that one thing. Though we would have preferred to see her go into another occupation, we were just happy to have her back in our lives. She'd done a bit of a disappearing act on us for two years and was almost impossible to contact during that time. We were all so caught up in Cas's death and what to do with Storm that we hadn't noticed her slipping away at first. When we did notice, Father eventually ended up having to take up the trail after the rest of us initially tried contacting her and failed. Took him two months to track them down again and he did little else during that time. When he did find them, her first husband just said that she wanted to be alone for the time being.
"She was withdrawn, quiet, barely left her home and spent as little time as she could with others. On top of the bereavement of one child, my parents also had to worry about their other daughter. Dad tried several times to persuade her to come and stay with him and Mum, even if it was just for a few days, but each time she refused, saying that she needed to stay with her husband. I think he was one step away from taking more forceful measures after I'd heard him talking about possible ways around the situation several times, mostly with Grandfather or Mum. It was clearly a constant worry on his mind since he seemed to spend more time with his own thoughts than ever then. 'Daughters,' he used to say, 'Why did I have to have daughters?'
"Of course when her husband eventually died, that ended the problem. Though she was hardly in the best frame of mind during that time; grieving and lost, she had no idea what to do. My father took care of all the arrangements for her and she eventually got back on her feet again, returning to Garden."
A heavy silence filled the room while Iris filled their guest's cup with more coffee.
"I'm sorry," Michelle began, "We've gone quite off-topic and brought up bad memories for you."
She was surprised to hear that wonderful laugh of his once more. How could a man who had lost so much continue to laugh like he had?
"Actually, I would say that we are rather on-topic. Sometimes it is important to go as wide as it is to go deep and when you get to my age, doing either of those things is bound to bring up unpleasant memories. I can hardly object to disturbing the past when that is what I agreed to discuss with you."
"Thank you," she said, once again trying to steer the conversation back onto happier matters. "It must be strange to have such a different career track compared to the rest of your family."
"A little," he admitted, "my education was completely different to that of my sisters and my father and my lifestyle was worlds away. Though things do filter through between our lives, it's hard to completely separate them."
"When did you leave?"
"It happened when I was approaching twelve. I knew I wanted to be a musician and obviously that wasn't going to happen in Garden so we had to look for schools that would help me reach that goal. This led to the obvious — Galbadian Empire School of Music, G.E.S.o.M, but it was half way across the world from my parents and they weren't happy with me being so far away. I was very determined though, knowing it was the best and that it was what I wanted. We'd danced around the subject for months and they had even briefly considered moving to Deling City, but for several reasons, that was unrealistic at the time. Then during a visit to my grandfather's, he came up with the perfect solution."
"You moved to live with General Caraway."
"Exactly," he gave a sharp jab of his finger to emphasize his point, "Grandfather Galbadia-"
He grinned across at her, "That was our names for them — Granddad Esthar and Grandfather Galbadia."
A small giggle escaped her. "How appropriate."
"We thought so. Sometimes we would not even bother with 'Grandfather' or 'Granddad,' even after they'd both retired. Grandfather was always used for Galbadia and I'd become very close to him. As much as I loved Granddad and as wonderful as he was, those years I spent with Grandfather could have never been replaced or matched."
"Wasn't it hard being so far away from your family?"
"No more than it was for the boarders and, unlike them, I was living with my grandfather so at least I got to see my family every day, figuratively speaking. G.E.S.o.M was one of the best things that happened to me, I met long-life friends, several I'd worked with later in my career, developed my skills and met my amazing wife." The man's smile became melancholic. "As you can imagine, I was quite the stir being the blind son of Squall Leonhart. Everyone wanted to meet me and ask if I was really the famous SeeD's son, all eager to befriend and rub shoulders with me, but not her.
"She turned up one day during a practice session and asked if I was Gale Leonhart. I said I was, barely acknowledging her as I expected the usual tirade that would follow, but she just rushed forward and asked if she could listen to me play. She'd heard the teachers talking and wanted to hear me for herself. After I played, she asked me to help her. You see, my wife was never much of a pianist, but she had the voice of an angel, as I'm sure you've heard."
"Naturally. I was very sorry to hear that she passed away last year."
For the first time during the course of this meeting, the man truly looked old and marred by grief, showing how fresh the wound was.
"She is greatly missed. She was an exceptional woman, not just vocally, but also in strength and love. I'm not sure if I would have made it through these past months without Iris, having taken such good care of me." The young woman rested her hand on his, a small smile forming on her lips. "My wife was the only girl that I brought home that Grandfather Galbadia liked. He hated all of the others, brushing them off as gold-diggers or girls looking for the limelight. Once it was clear that Galbadia liked her, I knew I had to take her home to meet the rest of the family.
"She spent a week during the Spring Holidays with us in Balamb, came over several days after me if I remember correctly. It was one of the few times which I remember my father actively trying to be friendly and social with someone, though I suspect this was in part due to my mother warning him 'not to scare the girlfriend away.' All things considered, it went well, though Dad was very clearly not comfortable with having to keep a conversation going. He tried, particularly in the beginning when he picked her up from the station and drove us home, but after a day or two, he just left it all down to Mum when he could. I think it was also partly down to unease as well. After trying to keep his family life as private as he could, it was probably…off-putting to have a stranger in the house, even if it was his son's girlfriend. I think he was perhaps unsure how to act around her at first, but eventually he relaxed and got along well with her. However, he never connected as well with my wife as my mother had. I think there was just too little for them to relate over, but he liked her, which was very good. We worked so perfectly together that we created a career out of it. I performed with her in the Young Musicians' Festival the following year, which led us on-track to success."
"It was three years later, Grandfather," the young brunette pointed out.
He frowned. "Are you sure?"
"It was the same year as the Timber Conflicts."
"Ah yes, you are right as always, but it hardly matters. A director approached us, asking for permission to use one of our tracks for a film which happened to become a huge success. We were on the rise after that, though 'Tina' and 'Counting Rhyme for Another Summer' still remain my favourite compositions. They may not be the most dramatic or complex but they hold a very dear place in my heart."
"They are beautiful pieces; 'Counting Rhyme' has such a sense of melancholy. It's why it's always been a favourite of mine; it really feels as if you are reflecting on your life as you play."
"It is always a pleasure to hear that my emotions are coming across in my music, especially with instrumentals."
"How do you go about capturing those feelings?"
"I can show you if you like?" He slowly placed his cup down.
Michelle's breath caught in her throat, realising that he was offering to play for her. "I wouldn't want to trouble you…," but she didn't sound convincing in the least.
"Nonsense - my passion is never a trouble," and with a small grunt of exertion, he pushed himself off the couch.
Iris was by his side in a second, a soft hand by his elbow to guide him, not that he seemed to need it; the path was clear and he moved with the confidence of a man who knew his surroundings. Assuming she was expected to follow, she stood and grabbed her recorder to take it with her. She looked at the beautiful instrument before her, one which had played so many iconic songs over the years. It was more tantalising and awe-inspiring to her than The Lion Heart itself.
"This was your grandmother's piano, wasn't it?"
"Yes, it had once belonged to Julia, but when my mother was pregnant with me, Grandfather passed it onto her. This instrument gave birth to my love of music. As far as I can remember, I would sit and listen to my mother play, first at the foot of the piano and then by her side. I still remember the day I asked her to teach me and my destiny was sealed from that moment on. Once my fingers became familiar with the keys, I knew that there was no other life I wanted."
She placed a hand on the smooth surface, taking in the beauty, craftsmanship and the loving care it had received for over half a century. This truly was his heart and passion, the centre of his life. On the wall beside them hung many photos of friends and family, as if he was tying his two loves together. There was no music on the stand, but beside it stood two cuddly bears, one mint green in colour and the other pale yellow. The green one was well-worn, its fur patchy and threadbare in places. In contrast, the yellow one looked as good as new, though perhaps a little faded. A small hospital tag was tied around one yellow arm and she could just about make out 'Ami' in cursive handwriting. She frowned, not recognising the name as one of his relatives. Perhaps she was a still-born? No, it would have been in the papers if an international star had lost a child.
"Who's Ami?" she asked.
He looked up. "My twin."
Her eyes widened. "Twin? I had no idea you had a twin," and then she remembered the family portrait over the fireplace. "Ah," her tone slipped into understanding.
"She was only alive for fifteen minutes or so outside of the womb. Not long at all, not long enough for me to form any bond or attachment to her, but I do feel as if it is important to remember her. I was lucky — she was not. It does make me wonder sometimes what my life would have been like if she had lived. Which was how the beginnings of 'Tina' came about," and to illustrate his point, he began to play. "My birthday has always been a strange time; it was never just a happy day because it also marked her death. We would come here every year to visit her grave at my mother's strong insistence. I think that was why they originally built, or perhaps rebuilt, this house. Her death affected them greatly, especially my father. He was always very quiet on my birthday.
"When I was only a few years old, my mother decided that she wanted to have another child, but my father did not want to risk it. They danced around the subject for what felt like months until it all came out one night. I think it must have been the only time I'd ever heard my parents fight. Oh, they disagreed and argued at times, like all couples do. They held no qualms about voicing their opinions, they discussed matters calmly and respectfully, but they never really truly fought about anything, except for that time. I could hear them in my room as they shouted, Mum saying she wanted another child and Dad saying he didn't want to risk it. For a child who wasn't used to such things, it was quite the disturbing turn of events. It would seem that Cascata's life was always set to be a turbulent one."
The music under his fingers suddenly stopped and he smiled. "I'm sorry, 'Counting Rhyme' it is. This was composed just after my first grandchild was born. I sat here and started thinking about the birth of my children and then of my own life and childhood," he started to play, the nostalgic melody filling the air, "the passage of time and all that had happened to lead to that moment. An old man reflecting on his life. It has been a good life, I cannot deny that. It's been punctured by loss, grief and drama, but no life can escape these things. No, I've had my fair share of sadness, but as a whole, it has been full, rich and with more love than I could have asked for, despite what some people may have you believe."
Catching the meaning behind the off-hand comment, she asked, "It must have been frustrating to hear people talking about your father?"
"Generally, I was very proud of my parents. When people spoke of them, they did so with awe and respect — it's difficult not to regard people as such when they have 'Saviours of Time and Space' on their CV. People saw him as a hero, but that didn't necessarily mean that they saw him as a loving father. I went through stages. When I was very young, it upset me greatly, but as I grew up, I also grew used to it. The opinions were not something that bothered me so much. However, as my career was thriving, I found it irritating once again, especially when I played in music halls, performed with orchestras and briefly branched into musicals.
"Whenever I did one of these, my parents would always be there on opening night and I would meet them afterwards. Occasionally, they would come backstage and sometimes they we would meet me in the bar, but the former was more common. In the bar, we could hear the whispers of other people and it would make my father uncomfortable which made me angry. Even after so many years, people were still so ignorant, but as long as the gossiping and thoughts remained just that, it was more of an annoyance than a problem."
"Did it ever go further?"
"Oh yes. Cascata and I were kidnapped once." He stopped playing, but his hands still rested on the keys. "SeeD kept it all very hush-hush, of course. It would hardly look good if it was known that their commander's children were kidnapped right under their noses. I must have been six or seven at the time and Cascata was around two. It was one of the most terrifying experiences of my life. An anti-SeeD group who decided SeeDs did not make fitting parents took action and aimed high. We were taken across the world. My sister clung to me and cried to be taken back home and I had no idea what was happening, just that we had been abducted. They tried to be kind, but it was not something we were interested in when all we wanted was to go back home. We did discover that Cascata and I make quite the team when the need arises." He flashed a mischievous grin. "We mounted a dramatic escape attempt, getting quite far but ultimately failing.
"We were rescued by my father in the end with several of his friends. I could hear them long before they came bursting into our room. I remember him shouting at our captors, sounding furious which made me a little scared that he would be angry at me as well. Silly thought to have, isn't it? Naturally, he wasn't. He just held onto us so tightly and wouldn't let go. I don't even remember what he said or how he sounded, I only remembered feeling safe again."
Michelle tried to put it in context of everything else she knew about the star's family and background. "Was that why your father left Garden originally?"
"You're very close, but not quite. Sometime after that incident — maybe a few weeks or months later, I can't quite remember — I was awoken in the middle of the night by my father returning home from a mission. I could hear my sister calling, so I made my way out of bed and followed the sound of their voices. I could not see what was going on, all I knew was something had happened that was scaring my sister. Then my mother appeared in the room and everything went into chaos.
"She'd seen a lot in her life, but waking up to find her daughter crouching beside her husband who was bleeding to death is something you cannot easily prepare for. Needless to say, she was rather frantic. I don't remember much about her reaction, but she must have called the medics. What I remember was my father noticing me and calling me over. He pulled me close and told me how much he loved me. I'm not sure if you can appreciate how terrifying those words were in that situation. It scared me more than anything else in the world, though I doubt I really understood why at the time. My father really believed he was going to die that night and he had a choice: to go home and say good-bye to his family or miss that chance and go to the med-centre to die alone. It must have been quite the wake-up call for them and I don't think my poor mother could take another incident like it."
"Then why did he join again?"
"Officially because Quistis Trepe was killed in action, as she was headmistress at the time. Normally she wouldn't have taken a mission in that position, but…well, I don't have an answer as to why she did take the mission. Garden was left in desperate need of a leader, someone who could fill the gap and lift morale. It just happened that he stayed for longer than intended. Unofficially, I believe he was bored, not ready for a life at home. He still trained, kept himself sharp and even did the occasional favours, but he was restless. He was not like Zell who was more than ready to leave SeeD when his eldest was born. He needed the work and he was content to return as commander, even if he wasn't taking missions any more. It wasn't a simple decision to make, but my father did not find escaping such a large part of his life easy." His expression shifted into a thoughtful one and he leaned back slightly. "My father remained with SeeD for another decade."
"A little less," Iris corrected.
With a tilt of his head and a small wave of his hand, he accepted the comment, but with the air that implied that this was not an important point. "A little less than ten years then, but they weren't completely smooth, there were several times he nearly left, especially after the news of his relation to Granddad Esthar got out. That was a tense time. To the outside world, it seemed as if he didn't care, but he did. His private life was on the front page every day for weeks and his suitability called into question. He hated being the centre of gossip and he detested people trying to pry into his personal life. The only thing that saved him from having to resign was that Granddad had already retired."
"I hear that Commander Leonhart and President Loire were very different."
"On many levels they were, but when you dug down, pushed away all those outer layers to get to the core, they were similar in many ways, though I have no doubt that my father took after his mother. They got along very well, though they were never as tight as Elle and Esthar, but I believe they were close. I remember them talking long into the night during visits. When he and Elle were here, they would sit by that fire until well past my bedtime. I have no idea what they would discuss, but I know that he trusted and confided in Granddad. He was very upset when his father died; they were here at the time, talking together. He became more withdrawn over the following few months and Elle was never quite the same again.
"However, from the stories I've heard, Granddad lived a very good, full life. To be honest, I'm surprised he lived as long as he did from all that I'd heard he'd gotten himself up to in his younger days. I'm very glad he did. He saw three of his great-grandchildren in this world, which makes me happy. I was especially so when he'd met my first born, Raine. She was named after his wife and he'd been deeply moved by the gesture, though it did mean that he spoiled her more than the rest."
"I've always wondered about that," Michelle ventured, "why Raine and not Julia?"
Gale smiled. "Tell me, have you ever listened to Eyes On Me?"
The blonde laughed, thinking back to her teenage years. "Of course, I listened to it for days on end during my first crush."
"And there you have your answer. Julia will always be remembered for decades to come — her songs played, covered and released in Galbadia and throughout the world, but what of Raine Loire? Perhaps in the history books as a footnote, but her name is just about forgotten to all but a few. She is just a woman who died giving birth to the hero of SeeD in a small, insignificant village in the middle of nowhere. She died without her husband and before she could see what would become of her son. That is why I named my daughter after her, because I felt that in some small way, she should live on. She was alone for a long time, but at least she won't rest alone."
Michelle leaned forward, a small spark igniting within her at the last confession. "So President Loire isn't buried at the Presidential Memorial?"
Gale's smile remained in place. "My Granddad rests where he should be resting."
She could have punched the air in triumph, her long-time suspicions confirmed. "I knew it! I knew he wasn't buried there-" she hesitated a moment, realising how inappropriate the comment probably sounded, "Sorry, I'll keep this to myself."
"Thank you. That would be appreciated. At the moment, it is believed that the grave next to his wife is empty and his name was merely written under hers as a token. I would rather avoid more drama in my life. They deserve to be together now when they couldn't be in life. Unfortunately, the Estharian government disagreed and so we had to resort to more covert means to ensure that'd rest in peace together. Like Grandfather and Grandmother Gabaldia, and my own parents and sisters."
She smiled. "And were they covertly obtained as well?"
He chuckled and shook his head, but it was Iris that answered.
"There was no need — people simply assumed the wrong thing."
"So where were they buried?"
The old musician turned his head in the vague direction of his granddaughter. "Shall we show her?"
Iris looked up at Michelle and the blonde noticed something powerful flicker through the young Leonhart's eyes as she examined the woman before her. Not for the first time the writer wondered if there was more to this woman than the children's novelist. She wondered how much she took after ancestors and in which ways.
"I think we can trust her," she said at last with a smile and a nod.
"Then let us go for a short walk."
Standing, he let his granddaughter take his arm. Their guest didn't move though, looking uncertainly between her hosts.
"I couldn't intrude on something so private."
Iris looked over her shoulder. "I see no harm in just one person visiting the family."
"I think my mother would be happy with some degree of variety, I dare say that it must be boring having the same people visiting."
She hesitated, unsure if it really was the right thing to do. "If you're certain you don't mind."
"We wouldn't have offered if we did," and the young Leonhart gave her a dazzling smile, leading her relative to the patio door.
She fell into step with them as they walked, enjoying the warmth from the descending summer sun.
"They're all buried in your grounds?" she asked as they moved further away from the house and tended gardens.
"You think it's morbid?" he asked bluntly.
"No," she blurted, feeling embarrassed, "I just don't know many people with a graveyard in their back garden."
This time, Iris laughed. "I'd think it's creepy, but they aren't on the grounds. They're out in the meadow."
"Ami was buried here first," Gale explained, "I believe my parents wanted somewhere peaceful and I am given to understand that this place held a special place in their hearts. When Cascata died, it seemed right to bury her here as well, right with her older sister and away from the battlefield. It was only natural for my parents to follow suit, as I suspect I will do as well. My wife was also buried here, though I suspect Marina will break with tradition and rest with her husband in Esthar."
The headstones came into view and she could not help but dwell on the amazing people beneath the earth before them.
"The two most-famous SeeD commanders, the last known sorceress and a famous singer… what a remarkable group of people. You must be so proud to be from such an amazing family, such large figures in culture and history."
"I am, but it isn't really how I see them because these are the masks that people have given them to raise them up to something more than human, to heroes and symbols. I do not remember Grandfather Galbadia as the army general, but rather the man who would listen to me practice in the evenings as he sat at his desk and worked. To me, Granddad Esthar was not the man who overthrew Sorceress Adel, but the man who would tell the most amazing stories. I don't think of my mother as the last known sorceress, but as the person who would guide my fingers over the piano keys as she was teaching me the notes. I don't think about how my father was the great soldier, but about how he used to crouch down to my height, even though I couldn't see it, and speak softly to me.
"When I remember Cascata, I don't think of the war hero, I remember how she tried to make breakfast in bed for my father, failing miserably of course, when she was five. I don't remember Marina as the first headmistress of Esthar Garden, but as the little girl who used to steal her favourite food from other people's plates if they were too slow to eat them," he leaned towards her and added in a low tone, "And I have reason to suspect that she still does this.
"You see, these are the memories that stay with us and when you get to my age, they are the moments that you remember above and before everything else. These little fragments hold no importance to anyone but ourselves and those we shared them with, but they stick with us and warm us from the inside. We don't remember them all the time, but they are always there because these are the moments that make someone who they are, what transforms them from a mere symbol to a person with a life, a passion and a personality. It is why our family is our family. Perhaps I see the world through rose-tinted glasses, but I am an old man and I see no harm in letting me have my peace."
They came to stand before the gravestones, polished black with gold lettering, each with the names of the deceased, but it was the centre one that caught her attention – it was one slightly larger than the rest, with a stone angel draped over the top. 'Squall and Rinoa Leonhart' was carved into the rock in cursive writing, the dates of their deaths barely days apart. A simple phrase lay in the centre: 'No longer to fear loss, but to find joy in reunion.' It was an odd statement and she struggled to place it into perspective with everything she knew about the heroes, but it felt as if she was missing a key piece of the puzzle.
They stood there in silence, reflecting on the oddities of life, how one could rise so high and then be reduced to nothing more than a story to pass onto others. Yet, there was something peaceful about the moment and she couldn't help but appreciate the honour she had been given. Not only because she was able to visit the final resting place of leading figures, but because she'd been able to hear so much from a first-hand source who had been normally so reserved in his later years.
"Do you mind me asking why you agreed to this interview?"
"Two reasons, my dear. First, I believe that you really are a true fan and it is always a pleasure to meet and speak with those who admire my work."
"I am. I've followed you ever since I started learning to play the piano; I was just never good enough to carry on my hobby as a career. It really is a great delight and honour to speak with you like this."
"This is why I think you'll treat what I tell you with the respect and care it needs."
"Your second reason?"
"After I am gone, which I fear will not be long now, I wish there would be someone to remember the more personal side of my family, especially my father's. I want people to remember more than just the name and deeds, to know what was behind the public persona. I'm not sure if he would have liked that or not, but it is important to me that people know and remember. I want people to know that Squall Leonhart was not only a great champion, but a good man and a loving father."
The air around them was still as the stranger absorbed this moment before Gale continued on, turning round.
"Well, let's return to the house — I feel the sun setting so dinner must be ready soon. Naturally, you will join us and if you need to stay the night, then that can be arranged too. We can continue our discussion as we eat; I have a lot more to tell you. I think it would be quite delightful on the patio this evening. It reminds me of when my son announced his engagement…"
Iris smiled at Michelle, letting her know that it was time to go. The brunette slipped a hand through her guest's arm and together they walked back to the house, leaving behind the graves of legends, musicians and the forgotten. Those who had lived their lives to the fullest and those who had it snatched away from them before they had the chance. All lay together, equal in death, waiting to be reunited with loved ones, never to feel the grief and joy of life again, but only the peace of death.
Oh wow, that's it. I've actually finished this fanfic. I can't quite believe it, it's been about three years now since I've started it, thinking this would be something on the side that no one would be interested in, but the feedback and support it's received has blown me away. It's really been amazing and I never thought it would be this popular (or this long actually). So thank you so much to EVERYONE who took the time to write a review. Especially to my regular reviewers: Sorceress Rinoa Heartilly, cheerlygal, Lartovio, Ronin-ai, gleamfang, Maloire, Niqsta, OhJay, Artemis Fowl II and Takayu who bared with me for so long. Also a thank you to everyone who read, fav'ed and alerted this fic, you've made it by far my most popular fic :D I would really love to know what everyone, new people as well, thought of this fic as a whole and as a chapter.
Also hats off to Emerald-Latias, who was the wonderful and fantastic beta reader for this, helping me get the most out of this story. Especially with this chapter.
If you enjoyed this, then feel free to take a look at my other works and please let me know what you thought of this. I'm happy to hear both what you liked and didn't like.
Thank you all once again. I hope you see you around.