seven

The shower beats down hard on her shoulders, hot water forcing tense muscles to relax, if only for a moment, but the rhythm of the water does little to ease Quistis' mind.

The International Council for Garden Institutions is not going to just wave away Xu's report, even if the commander has returned, perfectly healthy. Darker circles under his eyes, yes, but he had appeared intact when he answered the door.

("Have you decided, then? What you're going to do?"

"I don't know," he says, and she can see Rinoa lingering in the background, just over his shoulder. "Just- I can't do this now, Quistis."

"If not now, when?")

When-when-when.

The words drum against the tile floor of the shower, a steady beat. She reaches for the faucet; the silence is overwhelming and is only broken when she wrings out her long hair, sending water dripping staccato to the floor.

There's still dampness on her cheeks, and she wipes off her face with the towel.

xx

He dreams in fits and starts, half-remembered glimpses of figures in black and promises left unfilled, of women in red and blue. He drags Rinoa to Adel, a thousand times, a million times, an endless loop of a moment.

He dreams of a girl with white-gold hair and horns, and when she turns in her scrap of velvet dress, the witch wears Quistis' face, sharp red tears streaking down her cheeks.

Kome, she whispers, and the word rattles around in his skull, even after his eyes snap open and he is staring at the ceiling instead of her face.

It's raining outside, beating against the hull of Garden with an offbeat rhythm that should be soothing. There is a thud of something, like thunder. Quistis' side of the bed is empty.

When he pads on bare feet out of the bedroom, she is sitting at the kitchen table in the darkness with her face in her hands, and he thinks she might be crying.

Seifer squeezes her shoulder gently. "You want some coffee?"

She exhales sharply, and nods into her hands. When he flicks on the light to find the filters, it throws her into sharp relief against the plain wall, her hair loose around her shoulders, her posture bowed, defeated. As he waits for the coffee pot to do its duty, he spies a square of black plastic on the floor; it's her cell phone, which explains the thud.

"No luck?"

She shakes her head, and pushes her hands through her hair, tucking some of it behind her ears. "They won't talk to me."

Seifer stirs in some cream into his coffee and half a teaspoon of sugar into hers, and carries both mugs to the table. Quistis wraps her hands around hers and stares into it.

"Maybe Leonhart'll come to his senses. Or Xu will."

She laughs, a despairing sound that dies as quickly as it escapes her lips. "Do you really think he'll give her up to Garden? Once word of this gets out, every SeeD will be after her for the glory of avoiding another Time Compression."

There is a rumble of real thunder outside, and the rain beats a harder tempo against the windows. Quistis slips out of her chair and carries her coffee to the window in the tiny living area. Seifer ambles after her, taking a seat on the couch. She watches the storm; he watches her. The next bout of thunder rattles the pictures on the wall, and he counts off four beats before the lightning explodes.

He sets his half-empty mug on the end table, then stands, crossing to her in a single long stride. She leans back against him when his arms slip around her waist. She is not fragile- she is the strongest person he knows- but he is occasionally surprised by how small she is, even after so many years. "We'll figure it out," he says, with more confidence than he feels. She nods, and he leans a little to press his lips against the side of her head.

When-when-when?

The word echoes in his head, and it isn't his voice saying it.

"What?" Quistis murmurs, and Seifer realizes that he has frozen, his arms locked around her. She twists in his grasp, looking up at him out of the corner of her eye.

He relaxes. "Nothing."

xx

They come in the hours just before dawn, when Squall is dozing with Rinoa in his arms. There is an old movie playing on the television, one she has seen before. It is not loud enough to mask the sound of the lock being overridden.

She has been waiting for them- she has felt them coming for a while now, walking down the hall in a tight formation. There are six of them, she knows. She does not know them well enough to name them.

There is a storm raging outside.

She squeezes her husband's hand, tightly, just once. It is enough- he rouses quickly, instantly awake, a habit bred of training and reflex.

"What?"

"Shh," she whispers, and he focuses on the silence, frowning as he hears them, just barely audible above the storm. Their footsteps are dulled by the carpeting that starts at the door, but they are coming.

He slips out from behind her, and she can feel him sorting out his magic. He has one spell left, a thunder class, no good in a tiny apartment. He calls it up anyway, and motions for her to stay still.

Five, four, three, two-

They burst through the door, all in black fatigues, all armed, all coming for them.

"Trust me," she whispers, and grabs her husband's hand. She runs for the windows, a solid glass wall, and with a silent prayer- pleasepleaseplease- the glass is gone for a breath. She drags him through the hole, the soldiers on their tail, and Rinoa releases the magic just in time. There are soft pops in the air and the windows shatter.

Squall swears and ducks, stumbling as he keeps hold of her hand, but Rinoa runs, runs, runs.

The sea is a swirling black nightmare, waves building and cresting and erupting upon the sand. The wind whips around her face, tearing at her thin nightshirt, icicle daggers against her face.

"Wait!" Squall yells over the storm, but Rinoa drags him forward. She can hear the soldiers behind them, screaming their names, firing bullets that find only raindrops and empty space.

The knowledge is there, sitting at the back of her mind, begging to be drawn upon, and Rinoa concentrates on it, harder than she's ever focused on anything in her life, and she can feel everything slow down to a crawl, melting around them.

Trust me.

She squeezes her eyes shut, holding Squall's hand fast in her own, and when she opens her eyes again, they are in a flower field, and the storm has stopped.

xx

They are nowhere, and he is terrified of it

(he remembers walking, walking, walking forever)

but suddenly they are through the space between.

The silence is a shock after the storm, after screaming to Rinoa over the roar of the sea. Squall squints against the brightness, the blue, blue sky.

"Rin-"

She turns to him, the breeze sweeping her soaking wet hair back from her face, and smiles. Then her knees buckle, and Squall dives for her, catching her before she can hit the ground.

xx

No!

The sensation slams into her, and Quistis drops the mug in her hands. It thuds hard against the carpet, spilling hot coffee across her toes, but she cannot care about that now.

Seifer catches her as she sags, and she holds fast to his arms. The feeling is unbearable, overwhelming, and she thinks she might drown in it.

"Quistis!" He is calling her name, demanding to know what's wrong, what's going on, but all she can see is a vast blue nowhere, and she is vaguely aware that she is sobbing.