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Devotion

Love is too young to know what conscience is. -William Shakespeare



i.

Rinoa Heartilly awoke as a scream clawed its way up her throat.

No stopping it this time, Rin, a tinny little voice in the back of her head said. I'm surprised you held on this long. You've always been a screamer, Seifer and your Daddy both said so. Of course, that was for different reasons, but it really does prove the point, doesn't it?

Rinoa did not scream. A low, muffled groan emerged as she clamped her fingers over her mouth, teeth sinking into the heel of her hand. Tears of pain and terror formed in the corners of her eyes and she reeled for a moment, struck by vertigo, adrift in the dark with nothing but her own barely restrained terror to keep her company, breath coming hard and fast like she was fucking or dying or both.

For the first few days, she had thought that it was a nightmare, some barely-remembered thing that stalked the jungle of her sleep, nourished on her fears, pouncing on her and tearing her to shreds before fleeing as she awoke. She'd suffered more than her fair share of those in her life, especially after her mother had died, and she still remembered waking from them, screeching in fright, her father's hand on her shoulder, reassuring in the dark. Just a bad dream, Rinoa, he would say (he never called her Rinny, not once, but that was okay because it made him special), just an imaginary monster, go back to sleep.

I can't, Daddy, she thought, and suddenly she was five again, alone, a blanket of darkness pressing in on her so close and hot that she thought she would suffocate. I can't, because I'm not afraid of what I see when I'm asleep. I'm afraid of being awake.

It sounded ridiculous even to her, but it was undeniable. She wanted to scream every time she woke up not because she had dreamed, but because, as the veil of sleep was yanked away, her horror bloomed anew, its buds opening in the darkness, forcing her to realize again and again that it had all really happened. Timber. It had all happened just as she remembered - no hysterical errors, no imagined moments, no illusions. Just reality, cold and hard and sharp, unmerciful, like the edge of a gunblade-

(PLEASE man she doesn't know anything, I swear, she fucking-)

STOP.

Rinoa sat up, her hair falling in sweat-snakes around her pale shoulders. She brushed it away, looking down at the platinum-blond strands distastefully. In the last month, it had already started to grow out, the roots returning to their regular color. In a few more months, it would be completely back to normal, unlike so many other things.

(Would you?)

Moonlight slanted through the slats of the blinds, casting dim stripes of radiance across the bedroom. The digital clock across the room announced the time with precise, straight, military numerals: 2:53. She hadn't even been asleep an hour, then. She didn't even remember going to sleep; she must've just dozed off.

Squall slept curled up beside her, facing toward the window, his form only a vague mass in the dim room. He breathed quietly and deeply. He hadn't always been like that. When they were first together, he used to snap awake at the slightest noise, fumbling for his gunblade, throwing his arms out in defense. He trusted her enough now to allow himself to sleep fully and deeply. When she had first realized the reason for his increasingly deeper slumber, it had touched her more than any of his fumbling but sincere words ever could have; now, she was just glad that she had not woken him.

Looks like the two of us have swapped sleeping styles, Squall. She reached out a hand to touch his cheek, striped by the light of the window, then-

(Black Asphodel)

pulled it back, sharply.

It's not fair, she told herself. But it didn't matter if it was fair, it mattered that it was true, and it mattered that that song, that stupid, dirty-

(Would you?)

The voice echoed in her head, sweet and resonant and condemning. Female, slow and soulful and flowing like honey. Rinoa's stomach lurched.

(Would you, could you?)

STOP IT.

Rinoa took a deep, shuddery breath, forced herself to be still. Calm. The numerals on the clock shifted.

3:00.

Squall's thoughts were quiet; the slow steady buzz of a sleeping mind. She was glad that he could not hear her own in return.

There were many things about the bond they now shared that she did not know. When it had started to form, for example (she thought it might have been that night in Balamb when Squall, drunk as a skunk and acting quite unlike himself, had grandly declared himself her knight and she, giggling, had tapped him on the shoulder with her heel before pulling him into bed, but she wasn't certain), or how strong it might someday become. It seemed to grow exponentially; she hadn't even realized at first that the tiny cues she was getting about his emotions were coming from more than womanly intuition, but now she could sense his every change of mind without even trying.

It was obviously a one-way exchange, as Squall had remained as oblivious as ever. She had never known quite how to tell him that she could see inside his mind. He had been alone for so long that he was still barely comfortable talking to her about his feelings, and she didn't know what he would do if he knew she could see them. Stopping was not an option - she could no more stop listening than she could cut off her own head. The only way she knew for sure that the bond would be severed was if one of them died.

Some people might have been bothered by that, but she had only ever been pleased. Squall, after all, fascinated her because she was exploring uncharted territory, and as long as he had nothing to hide, he had nothing to be afraid of. She wasn't a petty enough person to begrudge him the occasional lustful thought about a woman passing in the street, and she had thought that had been the only kind of secret he ever would've kept from her.

That was before Timber. That was before her castle, so perfectly constructed, had come tumbling down, pitching her from its highest windows and dashing her upon the ground before collapsing atop her.

The sound of the breakers rolling up along the beach was soothing, and she knew if she stood up and walked to the window, peered through the slats, she would see the ocean below the cliff, lapping at ice-white sand, sparkling in the moonlight. It would be beautiful. It was beautiful.

It's great, Rin, Selphie had said, a grin lighting up her face. She had leapt up from her chair and spread her skinny arms wide, talking in an excited voice as she twirled in place. It's just the place for a vacation, you guys are gonna love it! The sand warms up in the daytime and holds the heat all night, you can just roll all over it if you want. And Irvine and I certainly did when we had our week off!

But she knew Selphie better than that. She'd seen her hide her emotions behind that cheerful facade before, and she was doing it as she spoke then. What was that behind her eyes? Regret? Fear? She didn't know. She didn't want to know. If she knew, then maybe she would know how she felt herself.

Selphie... how would you feel...

(I've got rights, you can't)

(Would you do it all?)

STOP IT.

The ceiling fan droned like a lazy, dying insect. Rinoa sat in the dark, legs crossed beneath her on the bed, and listened to the steady, soothing noise. Time seemed to pass in strange, jerky bursts, brief moments of clarity strewn haphazardly in the morass of her thoughts.

Thought.

It wouldn't leave her alone. She wanted to think of her friends or her father or that ice cream stand at the hotel or how she was due for her period tomorrow, anything, anything but the one thought that kept running through her head, over and over. The more she thought about it, the easier it got to think about, as if it were becoming well-worn as time passed on, wearing its jagged edges slippery and smooth as it tumbled in her brain. Like an old, broken record, stuck on repeat, wearing itself down to dust.

She knew whose record it was.

(Could you do it all?)



iii.

The woman who met them at the train stop looked young enough to be a Garden student and walked with almost as much military precision. She was slim and wiry, barely filling her blue Timber Republic uniform, a beret cocked atop her close-cropped brown hair. Rinoa found a smile creeping onto her face despite her general distaste for battle and the military. The Timber uniforms had always looked so cute, so, well, quaint, and the fact that she had never seen a Timber soldier actually fire a weapon during all her time in the occupied city helped preserve the image of harmless decorum.

The woman made her way onto the platform, weaving through the disembarking passengers with ease. Rinoa could not help noticing that the crowd was thin, consisting mainly of harried-looking business people, those who lived in bedroom communities south of Timber.

"Where are all the tourists?" Rinoa asked no one in particular. "Even when Timber was occupied, there were more people than this."

"War isn't good for tourism, Ms. Heartilly," the female soldier said, stopping in front of them, her back ramrod straight. "We got our share of rubberneckers at first, but it only takes a few bombings to send that type fleeing back to where things are much less... interesting."

As the woman extended her hand in greeting, Rinoa noticed something different about the uniform after all; a white band circled her left arm, emblazoned with a stylized black owl, talons extended. She shook hands a little uncertainly, not liking that owl, or the strength in the soldier's grip, or the battle-scarred Galbadian rifle slung over her shoulder. This woman didn't look like a play soldier at all; Rinoa could have told that from the appraising look in Squall's eyes alone, from the low warning buzz she felt in the back of her brain.

Squall shook hands quietly. The buzzing faded. She wasn't a threat.

"Commander Leonhart, Ms. Heartilly." The soldier nodded at each of them. "I am Major Grant. I wish to welcome you to Timber on behalf of the president and General Staff of the Second Timber Republic. It's my job to transport you to your hotel suite, answer any questions you may have along the way, and make your stay as comfortable as possible."

"Thank you," Rinoa smiled. "I hope my coming hasn't been a bother... I know you only paid for Squall."

"Quite the contrary, Ms. Heartilly. We're happy to play host to such an important figure in Timber's fight for independence. I'm sure your presence here will boost morale significantly."

"Well, er..." Rinoa bit her lip, one hand trailing through her peroxide-blonde hair. "I didn't do this for fashion's sake. I was hoping to not draw too much attention." That was mostly true, though Selphie and she had had quite the time bleaching her hair, staying up way too late, giggling like girls five or six years their junior and stuffing themselves with chocolate while they played the who'll-get-married-first game.

"Don't worry, Ms. Heartilly, no one knows you're here yet. The brass are planning to unveil you in a few days."

"Public relations," Squall adjusted his sunglasses, his voice low and bitter. "I had my fill of that at the end of the last war. We're here to do a job, not put on a show."

The major shrugged. "Not my place to say just what they'll have you doing, Commander. I'm just the chauffeur. And speaking of, we should be making our way to the jeep now. Far be it for me to criticize your disguises, but your faces have been plastered all over the globe for the better part of two years and I'm sure neither of you wants to be mobbed."

As the young woman led them quickly down the platform stairs and across the cobblestone square, Rinoa let her eyes wander for the first time. Timber reminded her of the major's uniform - it still looked the way it always had, but there was something different there, too. Something in the way the people moved, almost as if they were scuttling, something in the way they made way for Major Grant, in the trash-strewn corners, the graffiti sprayed across the walls

"Quiet," Rinoa looked down empty, littered streets. "There used to be more traffic here."

"We've banned civilian transportation in the central city for the time being," Major Grant said. "Most civilian transport was commandeered by one side or the other in the last few wars, anyway, and it allows us to prevent incursions by the rebels. They used to love moving forces using civvy vehicles."

The jeep that waited for them around the corner was a low-slung lump of metal, painted a tired, weatherbeaten brown. Rust spots covered its surface in a pattern that looked almost deliberate.

"Haven't seen this model much," Squall remarked as he held the back door open for Rinoa. "The GAMV-4 hasn't been mass-produced in fifty years."

"It may not be pretty, but it'll work," Major Grant said, sliding behind the wheel. As the engine turned over on her third twist of the key, roaring like a sickly lion, dark cloud of evil-smelling smoke spurted from the tailpipe, stinging Rinoa's eyes. "We make do with what we have here, Commander."

"As long as that's not what you're doing with me," Squall said. He was quiet for a moment as Major Grant turned the jeep in a tight U. "Paying for a single SeeD operative, requesting me by name, allowing Rinoa to come along, and putting us both on television. That sure sounds like you're making do to me."

"I'm not at liberty to comment on that, Commander." Major Grant's voice was clipped and tight now, all warmth fled behind the bulwark of military authority.

They rode in silence for a few minutes as the jeep rolled through the outskirts of town. Some of the cafes and shops along the way were still open, crowds of people huddled around their tables like desperate beggars, but nearly as many were boarded over, their facades shattered from some type of explosion, she guessed. Rubble littered the streets, brooded over by crumbling buildings. It looked like the city had a bad case of dandruff.

Rinoa almost laughed at that thought, until she saw the group of children standing down one of the alleys, their eyes sunken and hollow. The largest held the corpse of a slat-ribbed dog by the tail, dragging it along behind him. They were shouting about something, some kind of game, she guessed. It was only when they leapt on each other and the jeep turned a corner that she realized they were fighting over the dog.

Rinoa reached out to grab Squall's arm, drawing strength from his silence. He'd undoubtedly seen far worse, but she, she- "This is... terrible."

"Not as bad as it looks, Ms. Heartilly." Major Grant drove them past the shell of a hotel. Fire had gutted the building; the windows stared blankly down at them, rimmed with sooty stains like dark tears. Slogans were sprayed across its gray surface in red and black paint, screams frozen in time against the concrete: THE REVOLUTION WAS NOT IN VAIN/AS LONG AS ONE TRUE OWL REMAINS, DIE REDS!, GALBADIA'S DOGS. A giant red owl dominated the wall, wings spread wide. Someone had hurriedly painted over it with a black X.

"These past two years have been rough, but most of the city is ours again, and the Reds have been rooted out of the surrounding provinces. They're down to desperation tactics, terror bombings and the like. The good guys are winning."

"Doesn't look like it." Rinoa's voice was quiet. "Doesn't look like anyone's winning. I've never seen Timber like this."

Major Grant looked back over her shoulder as she took them around a corner, passing the shattered, burned-out hulk of a bus. "Then I guess you really haven't been here in a while."

The slight edge of accusation Rinoa heard in the woman's voice should have angered her, she guessed, but all it did was hurt. She had sworn to fight for Timber's independence once long ago, but then she had met Squall, and the idea had rarely occurred to her again. She had always assumed beating Ultimecia would be the hard part; after that, the world was bound to sort itself out right. But it had been months and months and Timber looked worse than ever, and she hadn't done a thing to fix it.

Maybe that man- but she couldn't call him that, not in her heart of hearts - maybe Daddy was right. Maybe I was just a stupid little girl playing at being a soldier, just to rebel against him. She felt tears pricking at the corners of her eyes and angrily blinked them away. Well, I'm not a stupid little girl. I'm a sorceress now, and I can change everything if I want. All I have to do is try.

She turned suddenly to Squall, who was taking in their surroundings quietly. "Squall, why are you so mad about what the major said? Maybe we really can help if we go on TV, maybe it would give the people hope, maybe-"

Squall closed his eyes and sighed, but only for a moment. Then they snapped open again, traversing the mounds of rubble for any threats as they passed.

"Rinoa... how can you be so-" he stopped. "I keep forgetting you're not a SeeD. Do you know the first rule of any SeeD op?"

The corner of her mouth curled up in a grin. "Live hard, work hard, play hard?"

His frown deepened, and she felt a rill of frustration run through his mind. "No. The first rule is: in fast, out fast, no noise."

Rinoa wrinkled her nose. "Sounds like Seifer."

His eyes narrowed, mind prickling at the thought of her and Seifer no matter how she might phrase it, and she felt a stab of annoyance intermingled with contrition. Someday, he'd get over that and grow a sense of humor.

"It means that the enemy should never know he is fighting against a SeeD until he faces him or her in battle," Squall explained in a weary tone. "The enemy should be given no time to prepare, no warning, no chance to lay an ambush. A SeeD does not announce his or her presence. A SeeD lets that presence speak for itself."

"An admirable goal on the battlefield, Commander," Major Grant offered, her words almost lost in a sudden roar of the engine. "Doesn't work so well in politics. They're all about making a show."

The jeep turned a corner into the city's central square. Row after row of military vehicles lined the open space, patrolled by guards with dogs that didn't look anywhere near as friendly as Angelo. As Major Grant eased the jeep in between a pair of heavy looking armored vehicles, Rinoa noticed that the giant TV was looping the same text over and over again: THE REDS ARE AMONG US - SUPPORT THE TIMBER REPUBLIC - JOIN DEFENSE FORCES TODAY - WE WILL BE VICTORIOUS - THE REDS ARE AMONG US.

Squall looked up at the sign, and Rinoa felt something ugly thrash in his mind. "SeeD is not a political organization."

"No?" The Major's smile, as small and hard-edged as the rest of her, scored across her face in a tight arc. "That's the best one I've heard all day."

"Garden will accept any employer," Squall said as they got out of the jeep. His mind was sparking with annoyance, and Rinoa knew he wouldn't have bothered to argue if Major Grant hadn't touched a sore spot. "SeeD does not align itself politically."

Major Grant locked the door and took the lead, guiding them through the rows of vehicles. "But SeeD has really made a political difference in the world. Assassinations, guerilla warfare. You telling me none of that counts just because you don't believe in it?"

Squall said nothing, his mind crackling now. The major seemed not to notice, growing almost cheerful as she led them down a winding side street and through a security checkpoint.

"You know, growing up, I always wanted to serve in Timber's army. I guess the desire formed before I realized what a joke we were under Galbadian rule, but the urge stuck. I was already out of the academy when the war of liberation broke out and we tossed out the Galbadians. It was a short war."

The streets they walked through now were cleaner, but even the buildings here looked battered, and there were even fewer people moving about, most of them in military uniforms.

"After the election, when the brass were trying to flesh out the recruiting and the Reds were already making trouble, they started offering a bonus to get people to join up with the Republic Army. This guy I went to high school with joined up with us. He was still as big a waste as he had been back when he used to look at dirty magazines in the back of class. He didn't care about the Republic, he just needed a job. A few weeks into the Civil War, the Reds had cornered the two of us in a gas station just a couple blocks from here. The rest of our squad was dead. He wanted to give up. Said it wasn't worth dying for a paycheck."

"And?" Rinoa was, despite herself, caught up in the story.

"He yelled for them to stop shooting and went out. The Reds had him drop his gun and put a hot one through his forehead. I held out for a few more minutes until reinforcements arrived. Walked away with my skin intact, and a promotion to boot."

Squall nodded, and she felt a wash of understanding sweep over him, although she still couldn't understand herself. She was still getting used to that sensation, one of the more frustrating she'd ever encountered.

"So..." Rinoa let the word hang, hoping for an explanation.

"Don't get me wrong, Ms. Heartilly. I'm sure all your friends at the Garden are good at what they do. But all else being equal, and sometimes even not, there's nothing more deadly than someone fighting for a cause they truly believe in. I'm just surprised SeeD doesn't understand that. I guess it's good for us that it can't. If a SeeD did have a cause to fight for, there's no telling what they could do."

But they do, Rinoa realized. Their goal is to destroy the sorceresses. Me.

It was sweltering, but she suddenly she suppressed a shiver, twining her arm with Squall's. At least she could always count on one of the SeeDs to protect her.

My knight.

It was a feeling she had never really known before. She had known people that would fight alongside her, or even over her, but never for her. That was altogether uncharted territory, but she could think of no man who would fight more ferociously and seriously to defend it.

I never thought I'd be a cause, she thought, a smile breaking through her sour mood.



iv.

The rooms that the Timber Republic assigned for their use were surely among the best in the city, a suite of cherry-paneled rooms that had housed numerous visiting dignitaries including, just maybe, Vinzer Deling himself. The balcony had a view of half the city, and from it Rinoa's eyes could follow the tiny veins and arteries of Timber's streets all the way through its outskirts and into the countryside. She sat there as the sun crept down, legs stuck through the railing, hugging the bars and kicking her feet in midair and looking over the city she'd once fought to free.

>From the twentieth floor Timber still looked postcard-pretty; distance and the afternoon haze bleared the scars and pockmarks on the old stonework buildings, giving the city the look of an old woman hiding her blemishes under mountains of makeup. It almost worked. The people moving below were little more than colored dots, and they could be anyone, living any kind of life.

As the day had worn on and she waited for Squall to return, she had given them names, made up stories about their lives to kill the time. They were boring stories, but good ones, the kind you never read about in books, because nothing bad ever happened in them. From up here, those stories could still be true. From up here, she could still believe in them.

She was selfishly glad that the balcony did not face north, where the TV screen scrolled its endless stream of war slogans, where plumes of smoke still rose from the Old City beyond the river.

That would've ruined her stories.

It won't have to. I'll fix it somehow. I wasn't given this power to sit on my butt all day and do nothing.

None of that changed the fact that she had obeyed when Squall told her to stay here while he met with the president and the General Staff, lurking on the balcony like a wallflower at a dance, spinning happy fantasies and doing nothing to make them come true.

"Rinoa, have you been out here all day?" Squall never made much noise, but if she hadn't been thinking so intently about Timber, she might have sensed his approach. She was getting better and better at that all the time. One more feature of the bond.

"No, of course not." She gripped the bars tighter. "That'd be stupid."

His hands on her shoulders, rubbing gently. "You're sunburned."

Of course he would notice.

"All right," she said, shrugging in annoyance and discomfort, shaking his hands from her burning skin. "Your dopey little girlfriend sat out in the sun all day staring into space like the blonde she has become until she was fried to a crisp. Satisfied?"

He helped her stand, taking her under the arms where it wouldn't hurt, pulling her up against him, cradling her in his arms. His face was in her hair, his breath warm on the back of her neck.

"Not unless you tell me why."

"Squall..." She felt herself sagging back against him, and part of her, the part that had just insisted on fixing everything wrong in the world, hated the way he always made her melt, like a princess in a fairy tale, but the rest of her loved him for it.

"When you said you were coming to Timber, I didn't... I didn't think... how could I not know about this? I promised Watts and Zone and all the rest that we would free this place... and then... I forgot all about it as soon as I left."

"You were busy." He said it with no trace of sarcasm, and she could hear and feel the undercurrent of pain. She'd left because she'd met him, and he was afraid she would hate him for it.

"Yeah, for a while. I guess... I just never thought... I heard there'd been a war, and Timber was free, and I thought there was no need for me to come back. Maybe that man was right about me."

"Rinoa- don't-"

"I just want to do something, Squall." She turned to face him, her sunburned arms wrapping around his neck, forehead pressing into his own. She realized with annoyance that she was fighting to keep from crying.

"Please. Let's go on TV, take some pictures, something, anything. That SeeD rule doesn't have to apply all the time. We could do so much good by just standing up and-"

"That's not why they called me here," Squall said, voice tight and even. In the back of her mind, she felt his thoughts locking together, forming a wall. He wouldn't cave on this. "They might have gotten the idea now that you're with me, but that's not why I'm here. And neither of us is going anywhere near the press until I complete my mission. That rule exists for a reason."

"But Major Grant said the Red Owls were beaten, that they're desperate-"

"A desperate enemy is the worst kind, Rinoa." He released her and turned away, looking out over the city. "The enemy with nothing else to lose will take any chance. If they find out we're here, we, you, instantly become a target."

Rinoa crossed her arms at his back, wincing slightly at the pain that flared in them. "I can take care of myself."

Squall's shoulders sagged slightly; he slumped over the railing, arms dangling. "Rinoa. If something happened to you, I couldn't-" He stopped, and she knew he was wrestling with the words again, like he always did when he talked like this, as if he were forced to chip each one from stone.

"I'll do anything to keep you safe, Rinoa. Anything. If that means making you mad at me for a few days, then so be it. I don't care about the Republic's image. I don't care what kind of photos they want to take. I care about you."

She took a step towards him, voice rising, shrill. "Then don't you care about what I want? Squall, don't you understand, I feel-"

"I should never have brought you." His voice was flat, low. He wasn't trying to provoke her. He never did. It was a simple, bald statement of fact, and that made it a million times worse.

"Squall, I-" Oh God, here come the waterworks, don't cry, get mad, get angry, tell him off, don't cry, don't CRY- "I'm suh-sorry-"

He turned, eyes widening as he noticed her reaction, and then she was in his arms, his fingers trailing through her bleached hair, his frozen thoughts melting into regret and his own clumsy kind of love.

"Rinoa. I didn't mean it like that. It's- they told me something they'd been holding back. Let's go inside and I'll explain."

"...'kay." She sniffled against his shoulder, tears drying up, relieved. The thought of Squall resenting her hurt more than anything she could imagine, and she knew then, in a way she had never felt before, that he was an inseparable part of her now.

She had always wanted him, from the very first moment she saw him leaning against the wall in that SeeD uniform, that brooding look on his face. She had wanted to make him laugh, to open him up, to crease that face in a smile.

And it had worked. Squall was so different these days, so much more open. It was hard for him, she knew, but she was happy to help him along. Every look or word they shared felt like a victory. It felt like she had found a hidden vault full of treasure and got to look over each and every piece before she passed it on to the rest of the world. There was something new to learn about him all the time, and usually she was the first one to ever know it. She wanted to know it all.

For all of her life, people had been trying to make Rinoa feel special. Her father had doted on her, bought her everything she could have hoped for, surrounded her with luxury. Seifer had satisfied her every thirst for adventure and teenage debauchery. Zone and Watts and the rest of the Owls had called her a princess. But Squall was different. He made her feel special just by existing. No one else could do that.

Now, she knew that she needed him as much as he had ever needed her. She needed him because he loved her, because he didn't care that she was a sorceress, because he was her knight and because he was Squall, with all his flaws and his imperfections, and she could never love anyone else the same way. She never wanted to.

A few minutes later, they both sat on the suite's enormous bed, Squall perching on the edge with a laptop balanced on his knees, she curled up behind him, peeking over his shoulder, arms wrapped around his middle. She had fetched a bottle of aged Galbadian wine from the surprisingly still-stocked minibar, but soon forgot it as Squall began to call up images on his screen.

"Okay, Rinoa." He took a deep breath. "I'll start at the beginning. As you know, even as the last Sorceress War was still winding down, Timber staged a revolution against Galbadia."

"Yeah. It was fast, right?"

"Yes. Galbadia was still reeling from their losses and no one in charge was in the mood to try to hold on to their extended possessions. General Caraway signed the accords himself." Her brief grunt stopped him for a moment, but then he continued. "Timber held its first elections only a month later. The winner was one Jonas Marshall." A picture popped up, revealing a tall, broad-shouldered man, his uniform bulging only slightly with middle-aged paunch.

"I know him!" Rinoa blurted, peeping over Squall's shoulder for a closer look. "I didn't even remember his name until just now, though. I never thought he was the one who'd won the election. He was a high-up minister in the government when the Galbadians were in charge." She paused for a moment, a grin creeping onto her face. "I wrote the word 'dickhead' on a poster of his face once."

Squall's shoulders jerked up in a brief laugh, but when he began to speak again, he was using the tone he always did for a mission briefing. It made her feel a little weird, but hearing it like this while they were both in bed and she was holding him tight also made it seem pretty cute.

"Needless to say, a significant portion of the population was not pleased with the results of the election, especially those who had been most active in the resistance before the revolution. They accused Marshall and his followers of rigging the elections in an attempt to retain the power they'd held under the Galbadians. In turn, Marshall and his supporters claimed that the heads of the opposition were anarchists who wanted to completely overturn the social structure of the state. He wasn't entirely wrong. These... differences led to the Timber Civil War."

"And that's when they all started using the colors."

Squall nodded. "At first, both sides tried to adopt the traditional flag of Timber, but that produced too much confusion. Eventually, Marshall's opponents chose to change the old symbol, painting the owl red to symbolize the blood of the true revolutionaries who had fought for Timber's independence all along. Marshall's forces kept the owl as it had been. The armies on either side became the Red Owls and the Black Owls."

"The media's said almost nothing-"

"The Black Owls were very careful to control the flow of information outward. Their access to the mechanisms of the state made them far more effective propagandists than the Reds. All along, they've painted the conflict as merely an anarchist movement with no legitimate grievance. Whether it's true or not, it's working. Major Grant wasn't lying when she told you that the Red Owls are on their last legs."

He tapped a few keys, calling up the map of the city. The vast majority of it was shaded black, only a single spot of red staring out from the northernmost and oldest part of the city like a malevolent eye.

"The Dollet Dukedom was originally supplying the Red Owls with weapons and training. The Black Owls managed to cut that tie with economic pressure, and once the flow of weaponry stopped, they began to retake the provinces that the Red Owls had seized in the first days of the war. Now all that's left is the pocket in the Old City. They've been surrounded, all supplies cut off. The Old City has been shelled every day for weeks. The Republic's intelligence suggests that there are only a few hundred Red Owls still fighting at all."

"Horrible." Rinoa buried her face in Squall's back, breathing him in deeply, wishing for a world as black and white as she had once believed it to be. Neither of the sides fighting this war sounded very good to her. "But then why do they need us? Why did the Black Owls hire you?"

Squall's voice lost its Garden Commander timbre, becoming low and slow and halting. "Partly because of the legitimacy it would lend the regime once I'm finished here. But mostly, because they want me to... stop someone."

"Oh... Squall... you mean... kill them?"

His voice was wooden, his muscles suddenly stiff under her cheek.

"It wouldn't be the first time. You know that." She tried to touch his mind, but it was burning, roiling. Something was moving in there and she wasn't sure she wanted to get a grip on it.

"Only Ultimecia, right? But she was bad..."

"So is this target, trust me."

She did, and she didn't ask the question that sprang to her lips. Would it matter? Would it matter, Squall, if who they asked you to kill was the nicest person in the whole wide world? Would you still do it?

(Would you do it all?)

(Would you, could you?)

Don't, don't please don't, don't- Rinoa squinted her eyes shut and thought of his arms around her, his hands on her breasts, the look of wonder in his eyes when she took him inside her the first time, his laugh. His voice: Rinoa, I love you.

I love you, Squall. You're a good person, I know it. I couldn't love you if you weren't.

"The Red Owls have a new leader. In the past three weeks, the Red Owls have launched a number of devastatingly effective sorties. The government is keeping this fact under wraps, but the last dozen operations have successfully gutted an entire battalion. The Black Owls don't have that many men to spare. The leader operates at the forefront of his own attacks, wearing a red hood and facemask." He stopped for a moment. "They have pictures, videotapes. He's one of the best fighters I've ever seen. His moves are a match for the best SeeDs I've known. They call him the Red Death. From some old story, apparently."

Rinoa nodded, brushing that fact away. She'd hated that story, skipping to the end so she could finish her homework and go out with Jill and the others. Something else tickled at her mind, and she recalled yesterday's conversation between Squall and Major Grant. Was the Red Death good because he cared about Timber, or because he didn't?

"So he's new. But where did he come from? Maybe... could he be a SeeD?"

"No. I checked the SeeD rosters both before I accepted the mission and again just now. No one else is serving in Timber on either side of the conflict. Multiple SeeDs are working in Galbadia, a handful are serving as on-site security for the FH Merchant Guild, and Xu has been doing private bodyguard work in northern Dollet for several months, but none of those jobs have anything involving Timber in the mission profiles. If they had, we never would have taken this mission at all. The Garden database exists to ensure that no SeeDs will ever face each other in combat."

"Then who?"

"I don't know," Squall admitted. He frowned his adorable puzzled frown, the gears of his mind turning fruitlessly. "A SeeD dropout, a Galbadian Spec Op, somebody hopped up on Esthar combat drugs. It doesn't matter. I don't want them to know you're here."

Rinoa raised her eyebrows. "You really think they're a match for a sorceress? I could snap my fingers and roast 'em on the spot." She demonstrated - the first part, at least - with a grin.

"But you won't." He set the computer aside, turning to face her, burying his face in the hollow of her neck and shoulder.

(Would you?)

"No." She looked down at the bed, running a hand across high-thread count Dollet sheets absently, her voice low and tremulous. A year ago, she would never have imagined hearing that criticism from anyone, much less the most important man in her life. "I can't."

(Could you?)

You could, Squall. But you haven't. I know it. I know it and I love you, I love you so much that I don't care, because you're more than what they made you, you're mine now, and I can make it better, I can-

"I love you." And then his lips were on hers and his hands were trailing through her bleached hair, twining there, pulling her head back. Rinoa moaned into his mouth, taking his weight, letting him bear her over, climb atop her. She could feel his mind thrumming against hers, his heart surging in his chest.

He never used to do this - she still remembered the first few times, his rapid breathing, the way his hands were all fumbling hesitation. She had been filled with wonder and not a little sadness, remembered thinking, He can cast every spell in the book, wrestle a GF into shape with his mind, swing that gunblade around like a feather, and he can't bring himself to undo my bra...

But that had changed. His hands slipped the straps of her dress off her shoulders, his lips sliding down her throat, cool now against her burning flesh, and they hurt, and she didn't care. His fingers left trails of pain on her drum-taut and peeling skin, and she didn't care, and the bottle of wine tipped over and clattered to the floor, and she didn't care, because this was Squall, and he wanted her, and she needed him, now.

"Yes," she said when he pushed inside her, and when she felt his thoughts meld together into just one driving, insistent urge, and then again when he called her name, his voice hoarse, and then again and again and again, gasping it, screaming it.

Yes, yesss this is something they never taught you, I did, this is something they can't give you, this is something they can't take away, only me, yes, only me and only you and yes yes YES

They dozed afterwards, his head pillowed between her breasts, his body molded to hers under the thin sheet, his mind sending glittery bursts of afterglow-pleasure through her own. Rinoa shivered slightly, struck by a sun-fever chill, letting her hands trace the contours of his body, touching one scar after another, reading them like a roadmap. A puckered hole where a hot round had torn through his bicep, a tiny half-moon cut where a piece of shrapnel from an exploding Galbadian robot had pierced his belly, the horrible expanse of twisted flesh on his chest where Edea's ice shard had impaled him, and, of course, that neat little slash between his eyes, courtesy of the other man in her life.

So many. Daddy doesn't have this many, and he's more than twice Squall's age. It's not fair.

She heard her father's voice then, telling her that life wasn't fair. It was one of his favorite refrains. She guessed it was true, but that didn't make it any better to think about. She had known Squall and the others lived brutal lives before she had met them, she had met them because of those lives, but that didn't make accepting the results any easier. She loved the man, not the SeeD, and she wished the one would stop making such an impression on the other, inside and out. Not that she would say anything; she could keep quiet, keep it under control.

(Would you, could you?)

A series of explosions rolled across the city, war-thunder, and she knew, somewhere, that there was blood, but not here, not now. There were only scars, and they were old dead things, and they meant nothing. Nothing at all when she had him here with her, living and breathing and tickling her chest with his slow, quiet breathing. Not when she could feel him soul-deep, not when they had traveled and saved and made a world together.

(Could you do it all?)

"Yes," she whispered to the still room. "I can."



v.

Rinoa frowned at herself as she applied the last of her mascara, leaning dangerously over the counter in the bathroom and trying not to poke herself in the eye - again. The mirror was huge, and she felt all but lost in its surface. She could barely see what she was doing, and she was probably wrinkling her dress in the process, and it wasn't even a good dress, just that pale saffron number she'd picked out in Balamb, and it looked better on Selphie anyway, and it wasn't the right color for this hair, which looked awful, so cheap, her roots growing out of it already, what had they been thinking-

Nothing's ever good enough for you, Rinoa, her father's voice chided.

Shut up, Dad. She tossed her mascara away, took one more look at herself in the mirror, smoothed her short skirt against her pale legs. The flushed, peeling blemish of her sunburn had vanished overnight, and she hadn't even had to consciously use her powers. One more perk of being a sorceress, she guessed.

I wonder when I'll get bags under my eyes. She grinned wickedly at herself in the mirror, eyes crinkling, cherry red lips -oh what would Daddy think of those- peeling back from white teeth. Maybe never.

A sharp knock at the door. "Ms. Heartilly?"

"Coming!" Rinoa said around a mouthful of hairpins. She shoved the last few in desperately, pinning her hair up in a crazy snarl that she hoped would pass for fashion. The result really didn't look at all like Quistis's, but she guessed that was okay, since Squall had never been interested in her, anyway.

She opened the door quickly, not even taking the time to check through the peephole like Squall had insisted. Major Grant waited outside, still in her uniform, back straight and shoulders squared. The woman gave her an appraising look, one dark eyebrow quirking up.

"Well, Major, what do you think?" Rinoa suddenly felt giddy, her blood all fizzy champagne. She spun in a tight circle, the skirt swishing against her thighs deliciously.

"Not a look I'd try to pull off, Ms. Heartilly, but it looks nice on you." Major Grant averted her gaze uncertainly, and Rinoa noticed again her slim boyish hips, her flat chest. "Are you ready to go?"

"Yes," Rinoa shut the door behind her, turning the key sharply and storing it in a purse that was far too small to be for anything but show. "And call me Rinoa, please."

"If you say so." Major Grant's smile still looked as regimented and wary as the rest of her. "Now we'd better get moving, the car is waiting and it's a long walk."

They walked down the thickly carpeted hallway side by side, combat boots and open-toed pumps alike kicking up more dust than they should have. Vacuuming all the way up here was probably the last thing on anyone's mind except hers, and she sure wasn't going to volunteer for it. And it was hardly the only thing wrong with this place. The elevator still wasn't working, and after a couple of flights full of silence, the long journey down the stairs became absolutely unbearable.

"What's your name?" Rinoa asked at last, face a little flush, focusing carefully on placing her feet on the steep steps. "I mean your real name, not your rank." The last word left a bad taste in her mouth.

"Oh." The major shrugged, started down another flight of stairs. "It's Leslie. Not that that's important."

"Of course it's important!" An uneven expanse of wood caused her to do a brief stutter-step, but she regained her balance. "Are you going to be at the President's Mansion tonight?"

"No... I... have duties elsewhere. Commander Leonhart requested that I come along to pick you up, though, so I was temporarily reshuffled."

"Oh. Well, thank you." Rinoa blushed a little. Don't be ridiculous, Rin, you did have a General for a father, after all. Majors don't get invited to state functions.

Squall hadn't sounded happy about being invited on the phone, either. President Marshall had assured him that the dinner would be small, an intimate affair with only a few ministers and high-ranking officers present, but even so he didn't trust that there wouldn't be leaks. Still, the Timber Republic had paid extra for the assignment, and technically such an appearance could count as an objective to be fulfilled. Once the truth was out, he would just as soon have Rinoa with him as waiting back at the hotel, and so there had been the call, the hurried, panicked primping, and the major. Squall and the others would be coming by in a car shortly; apparently he trusted Major Grant -Leslie- enough to let her walk Rinoa a block to the traffic-accessible sector of the city center.

As if I couldn't do that myself. I used to joyride down these streets every night. And what glorious nights they had been, her raven hair streaming out behind her in the wind, laughing and drunk and free, tearing up and down the pavement with hell behind them, making statements with shouts and defiant spray paint slogans. But it wasn't a game, it wasn't-

They went out a side door, emerging in a quiet, narrow street, one of the numerous offshoots of the city's main boulevard. The streetlight overhead still burned an electric purple, casting down a spot of light, but most of the ones down the way had been broken out or simply stopped working - the street was a patchwork of gaudy light and impenetrable shadow.

The night was hot and breathless, offering them no relief after the grueling trip down the stairs. Rinoa held her arms out, fanning them at her sides in a motion she knew must look ludicrous but nevertheless seemed desperately necessary. She hoped she wouldn't embarrass herself by staining her dress with sweat, but hope was all she could do, helpless in the grip of the wet, muggy heat that had plagued the city for their entire visit.

Mission, Squall's voice corrected in her head.

Timber had never suffered such a heat wave in her memory, and the sweltering was made worse by the proliferation of flies. Worst of all were the fat green horseflies, the same kind she had always shrieked about as a child whenever she visited the stables. Their loud buzzing and piercing bites had often come perilously close to ruining even the fun of a pony. Now, she just tried very hard not to think about what they might be eating, where they might be growing.

Major Grant took a few steps out into the darkness, her eyes sweeping the city. "The car should just be a couple of streets over, and we're well within the Green Zone, so we should be fine. Commander Leonhart was going to come over to get you himself, but the General Staff wants to keep him close for the moment. I-"

"Nevermind, Ma- Leslie. He explained to me over the phone, I'm sure it will be - owww!" As if thinking about the horseflies had summoned them, one of them suddenly bit the side of her neck, sending an icepick stab of pain through her. "Stupid flies-"

Reflexively, she raised a hand to touch the bite and felt- felt-

Metal?

Wha-?

Her fingers were wrapped around something cool and metallic. She tugged absently, as if in a dream, and it slipped out of her flesh: a steel dart, one end sprouting an almost comical tail of brown feathers. "What's-"

Major Grant turned to face her, eyes widening, mouth forming an "o" of surprise, and it should've looked funny, her serious face all alive for once. She shrugged her rifle from her shoulder, thumb flicking over the- the- safety, and-

A puff of air, another horsefly bite on her thigh, another fluffy dart sprouting out of her flesh. Rinoa took a lurching step forward, arms flailing, the night blurring before her eyes, and then everything happened very fast.

They slid round the corner, darting through patches of light and shadow, bodies flickering with transient illumination in a way that reminded her suddenly languid mind of dancers at a Deling City rave. The impression was only reinforced by their appearance - a confusing smear of red headbands, red armbands, red logos sprawling across ratty jackets, red face paint spreading its wings across their cheeks - no quaint uniforms for these Owls, no neat tailoring or color coordination.

Their stubby little guns chattered, spraying the pavement with choppy lines of gunfire. Chips of asphalt and ricocheting bullets whined around her.

"Down!" Major Grant gave Rinoa a hard shove, but that was hardly necessary, because her legs were already going rubbery, spilling her to the pavement in a graceless sprawl. Her head smashed against the lightpost, and the pain that shot through her skull jarred her from her stupor for a moment. She blinked her eyes and saw the major step in front of her, heard her rifle open up, deeper than the ones the Red Owls carried, stitching a line of bullets across their advancing forms.

The first went down right away, bowled over by the force of the bullets that tore through his head, but the second kept moving forward for a few moments before lurching backward, body jerking from repeated hammerblow impacts, shimmying in a crazy death dance, sprawling to the pavement, twitching like in that old song, the one where you danced till you dropped dropped dropped and you still couldn't stop. A third howled like an animal as his left thigh exploded in a volcano of blood and meat. He ran on until his leg figured out it didn't have the stuff to work any more, slipped, stumbled, rolled to a stop in the gutter, still screaming shrilly.

Rinoa could feel a panicked scream thrashing inside the cage of her chest, but it was surrounded by numbing warmth, a fly trapped in amber. The world drifted in and out of focus. She heard her own blood roaring through her ears, crashing through her veins and arteries at a million miles an hour. A second's concentration brought her magic to her fingertips, but as she reached for it, it slipped from her grasp. If she could just stop for a second to-

Another one, she thought, When did that happen? The dart quivered in her chest, right below that tiny birthmark Squall liked to find with his tongue, pulsing with her frantic heartbeat, riding the swell of her rapid breaths. Very distantly, she could hear Major Grant -Leslie- screaming into her radio for backup, reporting their locations.

A figure slipped out of the shadows in front of Rinoa, warping in her drugged vision, nightmarish and strange like something from the Modern Art Exhibit in Deling, all slender, sharp angles and impossible proportions. Its bodysuit was black, the cloak and hood that draped it red, and its face - its face-

-and its cloak made her think of that story, that stupid old story, her head was filled with nothing but stories and songs these days-

O grandma what big eyes you have

Huge glassy eyes eclipsed its face, nestled above an almost dainty hooked beak. Where flesh should be was only an expanse of short brown feathers, almost like the ones on the darts. Rinoa opened her mouth, partly to scream in terror and partly to warn the major, but her tongue felt like it was mired in honey.

Major Grant must have heard its scuffing footsteps on the concrete. She turned, swinging her rifle around, but the Owl only stepped forward, one hand seizing the stock and forcing the barrel up at a stark angle. The gun barked, jerked like a living thing, spraying bullets into the air over the Owl's shoulder, gouging more chunks out of the already battered building behind them, and surely someone must hear, Squall must hear, why didn't he come, why didn't they come help-

The Owl's other hand pistoned forward, slamming into the little major's gut, the force of the blow bending her wiry body almost double. Three faint, shrill whistles, three red holes blooming across the woman's back as her entire body jerked. Time got slow and warm; they always said that it froze, but it didn't, it stretched, like elastic strained to the breaking point, quivering, tense. A hot shell casing rolled over Rinoa's bare ankle, leaving a burning black smudge, and she thought, insanely, I've broken a heel.

Time snapped. The major's eyes widened, blood welling from her mouth. There was a hiss as her bladder emptied, darkening the crotch of her quaint little uniform, trickling down her legs in obscene rivulets, and somehow that was the worst part of all, somehow the indignity of it seemed worse than all the earlier violence. She moaned wordlessly, her hand slipping from her gun as she fell backward onto the pavement, rolling onto her side and giving Rinoa a hellishly perfect view of her big, brown eyes.

Once, her father had tried to bond with her by taking her and Angelo to the woods near Deling on a camping trip. Those woods were tame, the monsters from the last Lunar Cry having long learned to stay away, and he thought it would be a good way to get closer to her. For once he was almost right, and it really was pretty fun until she and Angelo had decided to explore. She'd lured him from the safe paths with praise and sweets, and that was why it was all her fault when he had stepped in that old bear trap. Rinoa still remembered the way he'd bitten and torn at first his leg, then anyone who tried to help him, how his eyes had rolled and pleaded for help even as he went mad in the grip of steel jaws.

The major had Angelo's eyes now, full of dumb animal fear, and daddy wasn't here to pull her out of the trap, and Rinoa couldn't move, couldn't even think, what had they done to her, what-

Major Grant's hand reached out to Rinoa, fingers splayed, entreating. The Owl stepped over it, straddling her prone form - which seemed so pitiful now, so crumpled and small, the body of a child - the smoking barrel of its gun angled downward. In that moment Rinoa knew she would never forget that motion - the coldness, the terrible mechanical efficiency of it. The gun whistled once more; the major's cheek jumped against the asphalt, her animal eyes bulging and then going blank. Her arm fell, her hand still flopping uselessly like a beached fish, fingers twitching wildly on the pavement.

Major. Leslie. Leslie's blood had landed on her skirt; it caught and held the streetlight, three perfect round bloodruby drops.

I'm going to dinner tonight, Rinoa thought as the world swam around her and the major's corpse twitched. None of this can happen because it'll ruin my dress and I'm going to dinner tonight.

Rinoa's head was leaden, her neck muscles watery. It took all she had to look up. The Owl stood over her now, gazing down at her with huge, empty eyes that warped the illumination from the streetlight, growing huge, eclipsing everything else in her vision.

The forests are gone, but the Owls still remain, a giggly little voice said in her mind, and then she heard the screeching of tires, and gunfire in the distance, and what was left of her snapped forward, her mind humming with electricity, sending out one last, desperate plea.

SQUALL! SQUALL HELP ME PLEASE HELP ME SQUALL I NEED-

Something heavy slammed into the back of her head with triphammer brutality. Glitter exploded across her vision and then she knew only darkness.



vi.

"-knew the risks."

The first thing Rinoa was aware of was the pain, throbbing insistently in the back of her skull like someone had jammed a meathook in her head and left her to dangle. Her thoughts were blurry and confused, and she wondered if it was just another hangover. She could deal with that; she'd had plenty of those during the Summer of Seifer, after all. But just how much had she drank-

"Fuck you!" This voice was louder, deeper than the first. "We don't leave our own behind."

A moment's silence. Then the first voice again, high, muffled. "He couldn't even stand. There was no way we were getting both of them through that tunnel, especially not down two men. If we hadn't taken her, it all would have been for nothing."

"Then we should've waited, tried it again. I lost three friends out there, good soldiers, and we gained one useless bitch in return."

Her mind was clearing now, and she remembered the last events with razor suddenness, vivid images flashing across her eyelids as if it were still happening. Major Grant's hand, the useless leg of the thrashing Red, the huge, impossible eyes of the Owl, but that at least must have been some kind of hallucination- but even if it was, it had killed the major, and she was here, and she was surrounded, and what were they going to do to her-

Rinoa bit back a hopeless moan, mind racing, extending. Squall. Please. She couldn't feel anything through the bond, but that wasn't unusual. Unless he was right in the room with her, any impressions she got tended to be fuzzy at best. Still, she concentrated as hard as she could, trying to send him her need. He was her knight. He had to feel something, somehow.

And I'm a sorceress. She reached out for the power, trying to coax out the warm ball of creation and destruction that beat under her heart. Nothing. Not like last time... it was there then, just... slippery. Now it's gone. Gone. She felt her heart lurch painfully. What am I gonna do?

The first voice spoke again, coming from somewhere behind her.

"This "useless bitch" is the only known Sorceress in the world. She's so important to Wallace over there that he rearranged all my plans to ensure her capture. All I did was make sure it went off without a hitch. You don't know what she and Leonhart are capable of. We were lucky to get off as light as we did, and if we'd botched that operation, we damn sure wouldn't have gotten another chance. It cost a fortune to prepare those silence darts alone, and your man Wallace is running a little low on funds these days. In fact, the only mistake I made was leaving Winston alive to tell them where we-"

A third voice cut in: young, male, commanding. "That's enough, both of you. Vince, Winston was dead to us the minute that Timber bitch shot his legs out from under him. If he's still alive, he'll do the Red Owls proud. He won't talk. And last time I checked, Red Death," he rolled the word around in his mouth contemptuously. "You were here on my paycheck, following my orders. I've played it your way as far as I'm going to. Wear your little masks, organize your little missions, do your little voodoo, but don't forget that I'm in charge."

"For about another week, you pathetic little tinpot shithead. Nothing in the job description says I have to like it."

Rinoa opened her eyes a fraction, enough to at least see what hellhole they had drug her into. The light was unbearably blinding to even her slitted vision, and she shifted her head slightly, still drowsy with confusion. She realized through a haze of other aches and pains that her hands were bent uncomfortably behind her back, lashed together with narrow cord. Her feet were numb; more of the cord bit into her legs at mid-shin, binding them to cool metal chair legs.

A shrill voice from the corner. "She's wakin' up!"

"Let her." The muffled voice again. "She's not going to hurt us." Rinoa felt something thump her crossed wrists, heard the faint clang of metal. "Not with a pair of these things on."

Doctor Odine, Rinoa thought, filled with a sudden burst of anger at him, at Esthar, even at Squall's dad Laguna. Adel hadn't been a good sorceress, but maybe if everyone stopped dreaming up ways to hurt the sorceresses, they'd also be more inclined to leave everyone else alone.

Rinoa opened her eyes in earnest now, blinking them until the brightness diminished enough for her to see. She was tied to a chair at one end of a long, narrow room. The light that had blinded her came from a row of broad windows to her left, dusty and cracked, many of them broken and hastily plugged with scraps of cardboard and old newspaper. On her right was a low wall of raw plaster, cracked and wet, the red TIMCO letters painted on its surface faded to a pathetic pink. The room's high ceiling was all but gone, reduced to a skeleton of tiles and burned out fluorescent lights draped with tufts of insulation that dangled like torn, decaying flesh.

Several thick concrete columns thrust up through the room; her eyes followed them up through the roof to the next shattered floor, and the next, through steel frames and dangling wiring all the way to a patch of bare gray sky. A heap of unsorted and ruined clothes lay in one corner, and an armless, faceless mannequin stood in profile against one of the distant windows, still wearing the tattered remains of a green dress, dark patches of mildew standing out on the fabric. The room stank of mold and damp and sweat: a musty, rotting, wild smell that had no place in the city.

Her stomach roiled, from hunger or nausea or fear. She took a shuddery breath. Be brave. Be brave. Squall, please hurry.

"The princess awakes at last." It was the loud, deep voice, but the man who spoke looked far too small for it. He paced the room in front of her, thin, birdlike shoulders hunching under a tattered leather jacket. A tattoo crawled down the right side of his face, reminding her of Zell for a moment, but Zell's was well-made, cute, even, and this was just a stupid sloppy Red Owl, shaped with blurry lines, its color faded almost as much as the logo on the wall.

Noticing her gaze, he turned sharply to face her, mouth curling up in a sneer that deformed the owl even more. "Got anything to say for yourself?"

"Who are you people? What do you want?"

"Shut up," from the woman crouched in the corner. She squatted over a bucket, her tangled and dirty brown hair held back by a red headband, her pants around her ankles. A hollow, metallic hiss drifted up from the bucket as she urinated. No one else in the room seemed to notice or care.

Rinoa averted her gaze, focusing it on her own lap, where Major Grant's blood had dried to ugly black smears. "You asked me to talk."

The loud man, roaming ever closer, suddenly slammed a fist down on the arm of her chair, shaking her violently. She tried not to flinch.

"I asked you if you had anything to say for yourself, bitch. I didn't say anything about answering your fucking QUESTIONS!" He was screaming now, his face only a few inches from her own, his breath hot and rank in her nostrils. Spittle flew from his mouth, misting over her lips, her eyelashes.

You've faced way worse than this, don't be scared, don't be scared. Oh but she was, she was, because she'd never felt this helpless before, not even when they took her at Esthar. At least then they'd done that because they were scared of what she could do. These people seemed too wild and ferocious to be afraid, and she was totally at their mercy.

Then a slim-fingered hand was on her shoulder, the touch strangely light, almost comforting if she'd been anywhere else. Here, a soft touch seemed even worse than a cruel one, and she found herself breaking out in gooseflesh at the thought of what it might mean.

Squall. I'm here. Hurry.

"That's enough, Vince." The muffled voice again, the one they called Red Death, the Owl. Why was he being kind to her? Good cop bad cop, just like all those shows I used to watch back in Deling, all just pretend. He doesn't care about me. He just wants me to like him so I'll talk.

"I'm tired of hearing what's enough from you, Red. You ain't my boss." Nevertheless, the tiny, ferocious man backed away, leaning against one of the concrete columns and glowering sullenly at her.

He's afraid. From what she had seen, he had every reason to be.

A young man sprawled across one of the windowsills, his form mottled by the dust-streaked light that beamed into the room. He was clad in a red version of the uniform the major had worn, a shock of black hair sprouting under his red beret. He was different from the rest, she could tell that at first glance - a sign that all the social functions her father had dragged her to as a teenager weren't entirely useless.

The others, aside from Red Death, looked like what they were: fighters on the losing side of a nasty war, tired and hungry and hanging on to everything by their fingernails. This one was neat and polished from combat boots to porcelain doll face. As he rose Rinoa saw that his way of moving was also unique: precise, subtle, aristocratic. She would have bet a good chunk of gil that she'd never see him peeing in a bucket, and he probably wouldn't have looked out of place at the state dinner last night.

"Ms. Heartilly, having been a resistance fighter for so long yourself, I'm surprised you can't recognize your brethren when you see them." The young man smiled at her, bowing with mock theatricality. His voice was even different from the rest, oily and plastic and sugary, with a touch of some accent she couldn't quite pick out. "I am Wallace, and these are my associates. We are, quite simply, patriots."

"We're the real Timber Maniacs," Vince said, stretching his arms over his head. His grin was missing more than a few teeth.

"I thought they wrote newspapers." Rinoa's voice was quiet, her thoughts bitter. I bet you weren't even born then, you dumb jerk.

"Hell of a lot of good it did them, too." Vince had a steel-handled straight razor in his hand. He flicked it open and shut over and over, probably in an attempt to scare her. It worked. "Words never change nothing. Even the greatest of the Maniacs, Laguna-Fucking-President-Loire, figured that much out. You didn't see him trying to talk Adel off her throne. You only deal with sorceresses one way - by bashing their fucking heads in."

The hand on her shoulder tightened slightly, the briefest of squeezes.

"You wouldn't say that if I wasn't all tied up." Rinoa felt a spark of anger rising, and she fanned it desperately, hoping the flames would keep the fear away. "I'd-"

"Yeah, right." The woman in the corner zipped her pants, leaned back against the wall. Her eyes, small and mean like a ferret's, bore into Rinoa's. "You won't do shit. You never did. You think we don't remember? All you ever did was play around making plans you were never gonna go through with. As soon as you got the power to really do something, you just walked away. This was all a game to you."

"That's not true!" Stay mad, stay mad, and it was easy now, because she really was, they sounded like her father, like Seifer, like everyone who'd ever criticized her for wanting to help. "I did all I could."

"Bullshit," the woman pursed her lips at her and spat, actually spat, no one has ever done that to me before, do people really- "Those men your dead Timber bitch shot? They did all they could. You, they called a princess, and that's just what you acted like. You never wanted to get your hands dirty."

"So- so what?" Rinoa's heart fluttered in her chest, and she realized she was more mad than scared for the moment, and more hurt than mad. That's stupid. These people are killers and they kidnapped you, what do you care what they say? "You think the only way is to be a killer like you? You're mad I didn't bomb a bunch of innocent people to prove a stupid point?"

"What my dear associate Juliet is trying to say, Ms. Heartilly," Wallace said, plastic grin still tacked to his face, "Is that when one fights for an ideal, one must do so with the attendant amount of... dedication. Passion."

Juliet. What a pretty name for such an awful person. It reminded Rinoa of her mother's name, and she found herself thinking once more of the song they'd heard on the way to Timber.

(Will you?)

Please... Squall...

Wallace turned around, gazing out the window over row after row of smashed tenements and rubble-strewn streets, speaking with the tone of a well-rehearsed actor. It made her more sick than the stink of this place.

"I'm not a native of Timber, you know. I'd never even visited until I came here to study in college. But I came to care for this place, to hate what the Galbadians had done to it. And when I saw the chance to change things, I took it. However and whenever I could, whatever the consequences."

"I love Timber, you see. Not what it is," and here he turned for a moment to pull a wry face, indicating the devastation outside. "But what it could be. What it should be. And I care enough about that ideal to do whatever it takes to realize it. So do my associates here. We're fighting for love, like all those great romantics of old. That's why the Black Owls can't stop us, no matter how many of us they kill. They're pathetic hired thugs, fighting for the easiest choice, burying their heads in the sand with those Galbadian lapdogs rather than sitting up and looking at the world around them. They have no passion. That's why they can't understand why we just won't quit."

Wallace turned again, pointing at her casually, lazily. "That's what's wrong with our friend 'Red Death,' and it's what's wrong with you. You simply don't love enough."

Rinoa thought of the major's story. She might have disagreed with Wallace's accusations about the Black Owls, but she had said much the same thing, and Rinoa wondered now if she had done things just as bad as him for what she believed in.

(Would you do it all?)

(Could you do it all?)

(Would you, could you?)

That's not what love is. You don't know anything. She didn't consider herself an expert on much, but after what had happened to her in the last year, she knew all about love, she had lived it all the way down to her bones. Love could solve any problem, but not with bombs or guns or blood. You didn't have to fight for it even if you could die for it, it just was and you just knew it and it could change people, not just kill them. It was about making something beautiful, not destroying it. It was about life, not death. It was about-

Squall. I'm a sorceress.

I don't care.

-trust.

"You talk real pretty, Wallace," Vince said. He and Juliet shared a brief glance. "For a man that's been fighting with us maybe a month."

Wallace shrugged. "Last time I checked, that was when you started winning."

"Not 'cause of you," Juliet said, nodding in Rinoa's direction. Red Death remained silent.

They don't like Wallace either, Rinoa realized. They think he belongs here about as much as they think I do, but they need him. Maybe I... but she wasn't Quistis, who could have figured out how to turn them against each other, or Selphie, who could have lulled them into a false sense of confidence, or Squall, who could've bludgeoned them down with the sheer force of will. She was just Rinoa, and she felt nothing but helpless and alone.

"Oh, you know Red. Only in it for the money. My money. And when the Garden pays up for Ms. Heartilly here, there'll be lots more to go around. Enough to open up channels with Dollet again, enough to pay for a dozen 'Red Deaths.' " He winked at Rinoa. "And then, you'll get to go home, my dear, and live your lukewarm little life with your ridiculous little sociopath of a boyfriend, and won't everything be right with the world."

He reminded her of her father then, condescending to her like a child, and it sent a fresh rush of anger up from her chest. She could feel it burning in her face, and she knew her cheeks were just as red her sunburn had been. She wasn't the one who thought love meant killing people. She didn't prance around in a phony uniform, pretending to be something she wasn't. Wallace was the one who was a toy soldier, playing a violent little boy's game, never understanding who he hurt.

"It doesn't matter. You're still going to lose." She glared at him. "All of you are stupid. All you do is sit around and complain and make up plans to kill people, and it doesn't solve anything. It just makes everyone hate you more."

The slim fingers bit deeply into her shoulder. Vince flipped his razor open again, turning the blade so it could catch the light, moving toward her with purposeful steps. He can't do anything to you, Rinoa told herself, remember that. She almost forgot when she felt the side of the razor press against her cheek, so cold it burned.

"I oughta cut your face off, bitch." But he wasn't, he wasn't, and he was backing up already, and she was seized by the foolish, reckless urge to get back at him. She hated him, his mean little eyes and his loud voice and his crummy old leather jacket and yes that's it.

Rinoa smirked, wrinkling her nose in the same way that used to drive Daddy crazy. "If you're going to cut something off, why don't you start with that ugly pink tattoo?"

Vince laughed, a short, rough bark that was all for show. "Thanks for the tip, there, Rinoa. I got a little something for you, too." He stomped off to the corner, and Rinoa flicked her eyes over to check the reaction of the others. Neither Juliet or Wallace seemed surprised at his outburst. He probably did it all the-

The contents of the bucket splashed into her full force, driving the breath from her lungs, soaking her to the skin, plastering her hair against her scalp. She gasped, shivering with the suddenness of it, feeling it drip from her bangs and trickle down the back of her neck and down her shins, and then the stench hit her and it was piss and she could feel it in her eyes and on her lips and soaking her dress and her panties beneath and then she was sick, so sick, her stomach heaving violently, her entire body thrashing in its restraints.

Rinoa tried to turn her head, but she wasn't fast enough; she vomited all over herself, splattering her breasts, her dress, her legs, on and on, even after her stomach had emptied itself and could do nothing but spasm. The cords cut painfully into her legs as her body twisted, her fingers clawing uselessly at the air. That was when she heard them laughing.

She had never felt so dirty, so cheap and ugly and degraded, and she realized that even after her vomiting had stopped her body continued to quiver and lurch. She was crying, not the dignified tears that accompanied a sad movie or a fight with Squall, but the deep, helpless sobbing of a child, so hard it felt like her heart was ripping loose from her chest, and it wouldn't stop, it wouldn't stop, she wanted Squall and she wanted a shower and she wanted to go home.

please please help me someone please-

Soft cloth pressed against her face as the figure behind her shifted position, allowing her to see him for the first time. The Red Death still wore the same cloak, the same blank-eyed Owl mask. She knew he had killed Major Leslie and he was probably the worst of them all, but as he swabbed her chin clean with the edge of his cloak, she could feel nothing but a sense of raw, desperate gratitude so strong that it almost made her sick all over again.

"Hey," Juliet said. "I think Red's sweet on her."

Rinoa gazed up at him. She could see nothing in the giant, glassy eyes but her own face, bruised and slime-streaked and red from crying. Her eyes were the worst, puffy and swollen, full of obvious fear. How had she thought she could make them think she wasn't scared when she looked like this?

"I suppose it's a possibility," Wallace said, unperturbed. "Just don't get too attached, Red. One way or the other, she's not going to be around long."



vii.

The day wore on, the hours grinding by in sullen silence. After a time, the Owls' amusement at her condition mercifully faded, replaced by the duties of the day. They ate a meal from battered cans at one point, squabbling among themselves for the choice portions. Rinoa was offered nothing and was in no mood to eat anyway. After a while, she realized she had to pee and at last did so where she sat, hating them for reducing her to an animal, hating herself for the relief that flooded her when none of them noticed and laughed.

Red Death spent the day out of her line of sight. After his earlier gesture, and Wallace's comment, he had said no more.

Red light slanted into the room as the hours crawled by, climbing the cheap plaster wall beside Rinoa, spreading her distorted profile across its surface. She stared at it quietly, ashamed of her earlier breakdown, afraid of a worse one, her mind focused on reaching him.

Squall.

The light slid back down the wall in a retreating tide as twilight set in, casting the room in wan gray tones. At last Juliet and Vince stopped their fiftieth wordless game of Triple Triad and left the room. When they returned five minutes later, a faint hum throbbed through the building and the few bare bulbs overhead had sputtered to fitful life, bathing the room in a sterile white light that made them all look sickly, turning their flesh waxy and pale, transforming their eyes into deep, hollow sockets.

A crackle from the tiny radio in the corner, and Juliet was there, sliding on a headset that had been haphazardly repaired with duct tape. She listened for a moment, head cocked, then barked: "Affirmative, going silent till all clear."

Before she had even put the headphones aside, she was shouting to the others, snatching up Major Grant's rifle from the corner. "Wallace, southern observation post has one bogey moving north, looks like an old prop job. Refurbished cargo, probably. If they'd had anything better they would've been using it on us before this."

Squall. Hope kindled inside Rinoa, burning fiercely and painfully in her chest. It has to be. She couldn't feel his mind, not yet, but it had to be him. She redoubled her mental efforts, closing her eyes, trying to picture the place where they kept her. I'm here, Squall. Hurry.

Wallace tossed aside the book of political quotations he' d been thumbing through and snatched up his little machine gun. "Kill the lights." The room was plunged into darkness as Vince flicked the wall switch and Wallace hurriedly moved to pull thick drapes in front of the window. "And put out that fucking cigarette, Vince."

A few minutes later, she heard it: a low drone cutting through the night, moving ever closer to their position.

"Ain't got a lot of airplanes over on their side these days," Vince's voice drifted out of the darkness somewhere in front of her. "They must really think you're special, Princess."

"That fucking thing's coming right for us," Juliet flicked the safety off her rifle with a click. "Winston squealed."

"No way!" Vince said. "He wouldn't-"

"If he did, there's no way they're getting her back alive," Wallace's voice was matter-of-fact enough to make Rinoa shiver. "Now shut up."

And then she did feel something, just a tickle, but it was there. Squall's mind was broadcasting with ferocious intensity, order and chaos mixed together, a cage of discipline holding back a red blur of anger, fear, and something else, something she didn't recognize at all. He was furious, he was afraid, but he was coming for her, and he had a plan.

And something else. Something alien, smelling of ozone and rainstorms. Quezacotl. She couldn't read him like she could Squall, and he was just as oblivious to her presence, but she was glad Squall had decided to junction him.

The drone spiked to a roar, and then the plane was passing over them, the briefest blur of light and motion against the dark backdrop of the sky. It did not stop, slow, bank for a second pass; it simply continued north, as if it had no interest in them at all.

Partly from the stories he would tell her and partly from the things she gleaned from his mind -and that wasn't all you found in there, was it, Rinny, and she shivered in the house on the beach- she would see how Squall's plan had unfolded. How he had put the big, ungainly transport plane on autopilot, how he had climbed out the top hatch and onto the wing, wind flapping his jacket against him and tugging at his hair and cutting across his face as he waited for the plane to pass over the battered steel skeleton of the department store.

He had spread his arms and let himself fall backwards off the wing, his dark clothing making him all but invisible against the night as he twisted in free fall. He'd reached inside to where Quezacotl perched on his mind, giving a quick command. The first brief burst of wind magic straightened his descent; the second had stopped it entirely, leaving him clinging to the front of the building, leg draped across the top of the giant O in its burned-out neon TIMCO sign like a Galbadian cowboy astride a bronco. Then, he had started down, picking his way barehanded like a spider through a maze of rusted steel girders, shattered concrete, and dangling wires as the wind tore at him.

All of that came later.

Then, she only heard the plane pass over and beyond. Despair welled up in her throat, clogging her lungs, leaving her breathless and hopeless. NO he can't he can't he's got to FIND ME. She felt the shameful wet prick of tears again and bit down on her lip until she tasted blood, hating herself for letting them see her like this. I'm a sorceress, we're not supposed to- wha-?

Though the sound of the aircraft's engine had diminished, the intermingled flow of fear and anger and blackest determination still sizzled across the surface of her mind as fiercely as ever, stronger, getting stronger by the second-

He's still here. Rinoa tried her best to look thoroughly miserable, which wasn't really very difficult at all, surrounded by people who would as soon shoot her as look at her, her own filth filling her nostrils. At least they couldn't see her in the dark, but that meant Squall couldn't, either.

Be careful, Squall. She closed her eyes for a moment, trying to visualize the room and the people in it as it had been when the lights were on, sending their images to him. She had no doubt he could wipe the floor with Wallace and his cronies in a split second, but Red Death was something entirely different, and if Squall didn't know he was here-

A loud explosion tore through the silence, and her eyes flew open. Juliet scrambled over to the headset, fumbling for it in the dark before slamming it against her ear. It was only a few seconds before she spoke again, her voice rich with triumph.

"Affirmative." She dropped the headset. "Got 'im! Pair of Marquis missiles, fired by our guys two streets away. They watched, nobody bailed."

Vince whooped loudly, flipping the lights back on in one quick triumphant motion. Wallace's reaction was more subtle but even more sickening. A watery smile, a faint nod of the head at Rinoa.

"Looks like the Black Owl Air Force... such as it is... is down one more joke of a plane. And your boyfriend won't be dropping in on us any time soon."

Rinoa looked down into her lap, praying he wouldn't read the hope that had to be in her face.

"I don't like it," Red spoke at last from his position by the window. "That was too easy. Whatever else you might want to say about the Black Owls, they're not stupid. They wouldn't throw away one of their aircraft in a useless gesture like that."

"Who cares?" Vince said, glaring behind Rinoa. He had given up on Triple Triad and resumed his hunched position against the column. "Wouldn't be the first dumb thing they've done. Hell, maybe this bitch's boyfriend decided to steal one and go on a solo rescue mission." His face was too blunt to manage a smirk, but he tried anyway. "The things people'll do for love."

Wallace still stood with his back to the window, gun in hand. "Vince may have a point," he said in a tone that suggested this didn't happen often. "Timber's not the only variable in this equation, after all. But it hardly matters now either way, does it?"

"You don't know him," Red insisted.

"And you do?" Wallace's left eyebrow crept slowly up his forehead, as if by accident. "By all means, then, why don't you introduce yourself to Rinoa here and-

It wasn't much of a sound; the faintest of clatters somewhere beyond the plaster wall. To Rinoa, it sounded like it could have been anything: a rat, a bird, something blown loose by the wind. She'd never been the curious type about strange noises at night; she preferred to wait them out with her head under the covers. Some part of her wanted to do nothing more right now, just to shut out the world, just to be safe in his arms.

Squall, is that you?

By the time Wallace held up a hand for silence, Red Death was already halfway to the door, angular body bent low like a stalking cat. He turned his expressionless face back to Wallace for a moment, giving a sharp hand gesture before slipping soundlessly through the yawning doorframe and into the darkness beyond.

Keep talking, Wallace mouthed to the others. Then, loudly. "Idiots. You think they would've learned their lesson after the Battle of Monroe."

Vince did not seem to understand, but Juliet picked up quickly enough. "Maybe that arms deal with Galbadia went through. Might give them a little more guts if they've got more planes to throw around."

Rinoa felt a jolt of raw adrenaline through the bond, so strong that her own veins hummed, her own heart surging painfully. A sudden mania seized her, burning away her conscious thought, driving the breath from her lungs. He was in danger, he was about to be killed, she had to DO SOMETHING DO SOMETHING

"SQUALL!" The scream tore out of her before she even knew it was there, fueled by her anger and fear, like the loud shrill cry of a bird. "SQUALL THEY KNOW YOU'RE HERE LOOK OUT LOOK OUT!"

Even as the words left her, she realized with a shock that the emotion she had been feeling was his own, spiking into feverish intensity with the need to rescue her.

It all happened in the space of ten seconds.

Wallace had taken a single step away from the window when it exploded behind him, spraying the room with glass and chunks of old newspaper. An arm covered in black leather locked around his throat, biting deeply into his windpipe. He only had time to thrash once before the heel of Squall's other hand came in from the right in gesture of casual brutality, smashing against Wallace's temple with the full force of Squall's body behind it. Wallace's neck gave with a wet, gristle-choked snap, his head slewing sideways, eyes going wide, froth bubbling from his mouth. The gun slid from his grip, clattering to the floor between his kicking heels. As Squall released him, the body fell to the floor, landing with the crunch of broken glass and the slap of raw meat against a counter top.

When did I learn what falling bodies sound like? The thought ran through her mind so quickly it was almost subconscious, and there was no time to dwell on it.

Vince dove for his gun as Juliet leveled Major Grant's rifle, firing wildly in her panic. Bullets screamed through the air, ricocheting off concrete columns, lodging themselves in the cheap plaster, shattering windows. Squall sprang sideways, lean legs propelling him one step ahead of the gunfire as he ran along the room toward her.

Before Rinoa could even properly register what was happening, Squall slid around the column in front of Juliet and leapt forward. His arms swept up and behind his head before he sent the gunblade slashing down in a glittering arc that caught and then scattered the room's antiseptic light.

It seemed nothing but a brutal overhand blow until the last instant, when Squall twisted his wrists, letting the edge of his weapon slide slowly and smoothly across Juliet's throat. Rinoa had a momentary flash of a concert in Deling City Park, the violinists drawing their bows across the strings, before a sudden gout of blood burst from the woman's neck and destroyed the illusion.

Juliet's hand tightened spasmodically on the trigger as she fell, stitching the floor with a useless spray of gunfire. Her head slammed against the makeshift table with a solid thunk, toppling it in a geyser of Triple Triad cards. They fell around her, fluttering through the air like crippled birds before alighting on her motionless form.

"Jules!" Vince lurched at Squall, his gun forgotten in his grief, razor swinging. The two men slammed together with the liquid-silk sound of steel parting flesh.

Another sound I've learned.

"I got you, you motherfucker!" Vince screamed, and Rinoa saw to her horror that he was telling the truth. He'd swung his razor in a wide, clumsy arc, but it had still managed to carve a neat channel through the shoulder of Squall's jacket and the flesh beneath. Blood welled up as she watched, vanishing against the black backdrop of the leather. "I got you, I got y-.... oh."

Vince staggered away from Squall, the razor clattering on the floor as he tried to use both hands to hold in his guts. While he'd aimed high, Squall had gone low, the edge of his gunblade carving through the other man so keenly that he hadn't even felt it. Even a glimpse of the wound was almost too much; Rinoa felt hot bile burning her throat, held back only by the iron grip of her fear. Later, she would be sick, she told herself, later, and how very, very right she had been.

The fight had gone out of the Red Owl, along with most of his blood. He kneeled next the fallen body of Juliet, one hand stroking her cheek tenderly, their blood mingling.

"You... you didn't have to... why'd you hurt her?" His voice was quiet now, body shaking with strangled sobs. "She was... why'd you...ohhh it hu-"

Squall spun on one heel, his gunblade slamming down on the base of Vince's neck and severing his spine in one smooth, efficient stroke. The little man pitched forward, his body falling across Juliet's, Squall's blade sliding smoothly out of his flesh as gravity parted them.

Squall spared him only a glance before turning to face Rinoa, his blade snapping up to rest on his uninjured shoulder. His mind was a cage of ice, so cold it burned her when she touched it, and inside, something was still rattling the bars in its frantic haste to escape.

"Rinoa." His stony expression softened as he noticed her bruises, the stains that covered her. "Are you all right?"

"There's one more, Squall!" Her voice burst forth in a sudden blurt. "He's the one who-"

"I know." Squall's eyes were locked on the doorway where Red Death now stood, gun in hand. "I thought he'd be here."

"Squall," The Owl took a step into the room, long, thin arms swinging at his sides, the gun pointed at the floor. "We should talk."

Squall's mental cage shivered again. "I'm here to get Rinoa. And to kill you. What's there to talk about?"

In answer, Red Death reached up with his free hand, folding the hood back, slipping the mask off and tossing it casually aside. The face beneath was porcelain white, delicate in an almost artificial way, all sharp angles from pink lips to tilted eyes. It was a face she knew.

"A lot," Xu said.

Rinoa could not believe what she was seeing for the first few seconds, her surprise mingling with Squall's in the back of her mind. Then, she was filled with a hot, fierce anger. She and Xu weren't that close - and they never would be, given her distaste for military discipline and the other woman's fascination with it - but they spoke when they passed in the halls, saw each other on nights out, and there had been that time she'd gotten too drunk in Balamb and Xu had helped her stagger to the cab and Xu had seemed all right then but Xu had stood there while they covered her in filth and threatened her and Xu had killed the Major and-

-would Squall do the same thing, if he were on a mission? But Xu couldn't be on a mission, or Squall would've known-

"I don't understand." Squall shook his head slightly, never once taking his eyes from Xu. The thing that prowled behind the cage of his mind was wary now, watching a fellow predator it expected to pounce at any moment. "You're not supposed to be here, Xu. You're working in Dollet."

Xu gestured with her free hand toward Wallace's corpse. "For a family of Dollet aristocrats, the Wallaces have particularly revolutionary tendencies. I was a month into the bodyguard assignment when that idiot over there decided he wanted to shake things up in Timber."

"Why?"

She shrugged her narrow shoulders. "Honest revolutionary fervor. A stake in the Dollet arms industry. Both. I don't know. Whatever the reason, they wanted me here, and the elder Wallace had paid extra for on-site operational command. I didn't have much of a choice."

Rinoa's ribs seemed to contract; her breath came in short, rapid gasps, her lungs struggling in the narrow confines of her chest. Mingled anger and fear throbbed through her head with each frenzied pulse of her heart. She did not know at first why she should feel so angry now that it was over, but then she realized Squall's own anger was feeding hers, seeping through their connection like hot tar, miring her mind until all she could feel was fury.

"So that's why you did this?" The words spilled from her mouth in an uncontrollable stream. "That's why you shot me, and killed Major Grant, and let them treat me like this? Because he paid a little extra?"

"Rinoa, I'm sorry," Xu said, but her eyes never left Squall and the glittering razor edge of his weapon. "I didn't know you were going to be part of the plan until this week. Wallace heard you were in town from one of his government contacts and ordered the operation. I protected you as best I could under the circumstances."

"They scared me," Rinoa said. "You scared me. I thought- I thought we were friends."

"Rinoa, we-" Xu's voice stiffened, military authority bolstering the temporary weakness in her defenses. "This is business."

"No it's not," Squall said with the weary voice of a man twice his age. His shoulders seemed to sag a little under the weight of the gunblade, but Rinoa could read in his thoughts that it was a ruse. "Your mission is over. Your employer is dead, your assets in the field destroyed."

Assets. Rinoa let her gaze trail across the corpses of the Red Owls. Was that really all they were? All the major had been? All Squall and Xu were? A series of distant explosions tore through the air, followed by the faint chatter of gunfire. Rinoa turned her head to look, and even Xu's eyes flickered over to the windows for an instant, but Squall continued, unperturbed.

"The Black Owls obtained the position of at least half of the Reds' strongholds in the interrogation. They're launching their biggest attack since the start of the war, and with the knowledge they have, they will win. The war is lost. Let Rinoa go, leave, and we'll consider both our missions to be at an end."

Xu looked at Rinoa for a second, making the possibly fatal mistake of taking her eyes from Squall. A moment's indecision, but only a moment.

"No."

"Xu-"

"His father has the contract. He's back in Dollet, and this isn't over." Xu took a step back, her gun hand twitching ever-so-slightly. Rinoa almost shouted out a warning, but then realized that if she had noticed such a thing, Squall certainly had. But Xu wasn't ready to do anything bad yet; she was still talking, using words instead of bullets, though what she said hurt almost as much.

"I won't hurt her, Squall. They were just bluffing. They never had any intention of killing her; she's the only bargaining chip they had. I promise I won't let anyone hurt her, but I can't give her to you. Not now, not until the contract runs out. It's only another week. "

"Xu," Squall's voice was acid, the frozen cage an island in the violent red whirlpool of his mind. His forward step closed the distance between them again. "Let her go, now. What the hell is wrong with you?"

Xu took another step back, her finger curling into the trigger guard of her gun. "I can't," she said, and for a moment her voice carried a tone of manic stress before she brought it back under control.

"I can't. They'll know I survived and she escaped. They may be running low on funds, but they still have plenty of influence. Squall, they'll tell people. If the SeeDs don't keep their word, they'll be no good. No one will trust the Garden. It will ruin our reputation. We'll be finished."

"I don't care," Squall all but snarled, and Rinoa felt hope swell within her. He's not a soldier, he's a man, and he loves me more than that place. "Let her go."

"The world needs the Garden," Xu's fingers tightened on the gun's grip, her eyes narrowing. "I need it. I won't let you destroy it, not like this. Not for no reason-"

"The most important reason," Squall said. The anger drained from his mind, coldness sweeping back in, a mental blizzard streaked through with iron snowflakes. When he spoke again, his voice was loud, ringing, formal.

"Do you see me, Xu?"

That doesn't make any sense. Of course she-

"Squall, it doesn't have to be like this." Xu's expression faltered.

"Do you see me?"

"Yes." The word was chipped from ice.

Squall slipped the gunblade from his shoulder, gripping the hilt firmly in both hands. "Do you know me?"

"Yes." Xu raised her gun, both hands wrapped tightly around the grip. Light trailed down the cylinder of the silencer in a searingly bright line.

The howling wind scraped along the side of the building with a million ragged fingernails, sweeping in through the shattered windows, tossing the dangling, naked light bulbs almost playfully. The shadows of the SeeDs cavorted wildly on the walls.

"Do you oppose me?"

"Yes."

"Do you refuse me?"

They circled each other slowly now like a pair of vultures over a kill, wary eyes flickering between weapons and faces. The silence stretched out, and Rinoa opened her mouth to ask them just what the hell they were doing, to beg them to stop it because it was scaring her all over again, to do anything and then Xu spoke at last.

"Yes."

Their steps were faster and shorter now, bringing them closer, two wolves each seeking to sink their teeth into the other's throat. Rinoa could feel the suspicion prickling through Squall's mind. He knew that Xu wouldn't break the rules of the exchange, whatever they were, but his body didn't trust this knowledge; it had to prowl, to move, to prepare for a deceitful attack. Xu's body was no different.

They circled again, eyes locked together with an intimacy that would've sent jealousy stabbing through her at any other time but only served to terrify her now.

Squall spoke first. "Seen."

Sweat beaded on Xu's brow. "Known."

"Opposed."

"Refused."

Squall twisted his grip, sliding the gunblade into a guard position before him, its bright surface mottled by the blood of the Owls. "One may live."

"One may live," Xu echoed him. Her eyes were unreadable, lost in the darkness of their hollowed sockets.

"One must die." Squall stopped circling, taking a few steps back toward the plaster wall. Opposite him, Xu stood before the shattered bank of windows, wind tugging at her short, sweat-slick hair.

"One must die." Xu's voice sounded as cold as Squall's mind felt, and something inside Rinoa wanted to scream.

They're not going to, they can't-

A fat moth fluttered around the closest bulb, throwing its own shadows over them, the soft sound of its body striking the glass audible in the deadly silence.

Xu's hand seemed to tremble for just a moment before steadying itself. "I accept the Black Asphodel."

Squall nodded. "My regrets follow you to the grave."

Just like that, it started.

Xu's gun gave three sharp, shrill whistles. Holes appeared in the wall behind Squall with puffs of old plaster as he threw himself sideways and down, rolling for a second before regaining his feet and sprinting. Xu ran parallel to him, her pistol held sideways in one slender arm as she fired, her bullets nipping at his heels and gouging vicious wounds in the floor and wall.

Squall dove behind one of the room's concrete pillars, temporarily shielding himself from Xu's gunfire. Xu backpedaled, taking almost casual aim before firing three shots upward. Each shattered a light bulb, plunging the room into blackness.

The darkness pressed against Rinoa's eyes, swallowing the world. Weak moonlight filtered in through the shattered windows, but it did little to illuminate the room. Xu and Squall had both melted into the shadows effortlessly, aided by their dark clothing, and she could hear nothing at all; not a single rapid breath or scraping footfall. It was as if she were the one who had died, instead of- instead of-

How can they be doing this? What do I do? The thought of shouting for them both to stop crossed her mind and she quickly stifled the urge. If she did, she might make it worse, or distract Squall, and that would get him killed.

Would you rather he killed Xu? Her mind refused to answer that question, not that she could think with Squall's own scalpel concentration jabbing into her thoughts. His tension vibrated in her head like a plucked guitar string on the verge of snapping; she could almost feel his heart beating alongside her own.

The seconds stretched out, punctuated by the chatter of distant gunfire. As her eyes began to adjust, she could pick out small details... the columns closest to her, slight patterns of light and darkness, and -

THERE

Squall's thought echoed her own as she spotted a swatch of red in the far corner. A rapid patter of footsteps, the sound of a blade whistling through the air, and then the explosion as Squall pulled the trigger, accelerating the blade to supersonic speeds. The flash of the shaped charge brought the room into sudden orange-tinted relief, sending jagged icepick shadows racing across the floor and walls. A single cartridge as thick as her wrist ejected itself from the weapon's revolver mechanism, seeming to hang suspended in the flare of light.

The top half of the dressmaker's dummy flew across the room as if yanked on an invisible string, flipping end over end, dragging the cloak along behind it like a scrap of tattered flesh. It slammed into one of the still intact windows, torpedoing through it with a crash. The light that streamed into the room through the fresh gap illuminated Squall, still standing next to the bottom half of the dummy, gunblade held horizontally.

The lower half of the dummy fell, clattering on the floor just as Xu leapt down from the stripped ceiling, landing on her feet, gun held before her in both hands. She raced toward Squall, legs pumping, gun whistling shrilly.

Squall barely had time to dodge, diving to the floor as bullets whined through the air above him. Xu continued running, adjusting her aim, and he was forced to roll to the side, flopping onto his back, dropping his gunblade as her bullets tore up the floor where he'd been only moments before. Then she was straddling his prone form, the tip of her gun pressed against his forehead, finger tightening on the trigger.

NO!

Click

Squall's arms snaked up, his hands grasping Xu's shoulders and pulling her sharply down. His forehead smashed directly into the center of her face, breaking her nose with a crack. Both of them reeled backward, Squall falling to the ground again, Xu staggering, dropping her gun, her nose fountaining blood. Before she could recover, Squall's left leg knifed upward, knee slamming into her crotch viciously. Xu expelled all the air she had in her in one loud whuff, body slumping forward before a final sweep took her legs out from under her, sending her to the floor in a headlong crash.

Rolling to one side, Squall regained his feet, snatching up his gunblade and lifting it over his head in the same motion. Grunting with exertion, he swung the weapon in a vicious overhand arc toward the ground, pulling the trigger violently.

Click

Without the accompanying explosion, the swing wasn't fast enough; Xu braced her hands against the floor and pushed herself up and backwards, body contorting itself in impossible ways as she reverse somersaulted out of the way of the strike. She followed the momentum, regaining her footing and retreating towards the opposite corner as the gunblade tore a huge gash in the floor. She moved as quickly and precisely as ever, but her fatigue was starting to show, her shoulders heaving, her mouth open to suck greedy breaths.

"Out of bullets too, Squall?" Xu's voice was flat, stuffy, wet with her own blood.

Before Squall could reply, she sprang from the shadows at him, the rifle that had once been Major Grant's in her hands. Juliet's last burst had drained the gun's ammo, but the bayonet on its tip was as sharp as ever and Xu made full use of it, emerging from the darkness with a flurry of vicious stabs. She put the full weight of her whipcord body behind each strike, lean arms darting in and out smoothly, the tip of the weapon lost in a blur of motion.

Squall gave ground, moving back towards Rinoa, blade and body twisting frantically as he parried and dodged the relentless thrusts. Most he managed to bat aside or sidestep, but some got through, scoring wounds against his body that flared briefly through the bond: a long, shallow gash across his left thigh, a deeper cut along his right side, numerous nicks on his forearms.

Now that her weapon had tasted blood, Xu pressed the attack with desperate, wounded ferocity. Squall met her, and behind them on the wall shadow puppets danced a merciless and deadly dance.

Xu ducked low under Squall's swing, came back up with a sideswipe from the butt of her gun. Squall snapped his head back, the weapon missing his nose by mere inches, and brought his own blade around in a horizontal slash that was meant to take Xu's head off. But she was fast, even now, so fast, twisting her wrists and catching the gunblade in one of the bayonet's grooves with a screech of metal and a spray of sparks. The gunblade quivered, snared in the bayonet's metal teeth. Xu held the rifle sideways, pinning it there with a white knuckle grip, balancing gracefully on one leg as the other rose, preparing to deliver a vicious kick to Squall's kneecap.

Squall's face was contorted with effort and rage, lips peeled back from his teeth like a snarling dog, but his eyes were cold and hard and flat, and when he spoke, it was in his briefing voice, formal and informative, and it didn't sound cute any more at all.

"I left one chamber empty."

The gunblade screamed and split the world in half, blossoming into a sun before Rinoa's eyes. She shut them reflexively, hot air smashing against her face like a fist, scorching her eyebrows, searing away tears of pain. The roar seemed to consume the world for a moment, but through it should could hear Xu's frantic screaming. It was an animal sound, the wailing of an infant, full of nothing but raw pain and anguish.

Rinoa opened her eyes and was almost sick all over again.

Xu's rifle lay on the floor, still gripped tightly in her hands, its bayonet scattered around it in a spray of steel fragments. Xu herself had taken a few steps back, holding the bloody stumps of her arms in front of her face, screaming and screaming and screaming until Rinoa thought the sound would drive her mad. She staggered blindly away from Squall, ramming into the wall. She scrabbled madly at if for a moment as if she were trying to tunnel through, leaving crazy red smears. When she turned around, her gaze met Rinoa's, and Rinoa realized that her eyes were the same as the major's, as Angelo's, wide and horrified and full of frantic animal energy.

All for me, Rinoa thought, as Xu slid down the wall, trailing crimson across cheap plaster. By the time she slumped to the floor, she was no longer screaming. Squall's mind thrummed and hissed like a griddle, still hot with the effort and thrill of combat. This was... all for me.

The world went gray, fuzzing out before her eyes like the image on a bad TV. Dimly, peripherally, she was aware that Squall was sheathing his gunblade, tending to his wounds, probing for Xu's pulse, but she could only think of the look in the other woman's eyes, the brutally efficient way Squall had killed her, his gunblade sinking into the back of Vince's neck. She had fought alongside him before, but that had been against monsters. She had never imagined it could be like this, so brutal, so quick, so mechanical.

Squall was behind her now, his gunblade (and it would be splattered with Xu's blood now, too) sawing carefully at her bonds. Her wrists were so numb that she did not know he had freed her from the Odine bangles until she felt the magic flowing back into her mind. She moved her wrists around in front, rubbing them together, flexing her fingers, looking down at her lap.

"Squall... you killed Xu." Her voice sounded distant and syrupy in her own ears.

"I know." She could feel a touch of regret in his mind, but below that, a tide of warmth rising. "She wasn't going to let you go, Rinoa."

"She didn't... hurt me..."

"And if they'd ordered her to?" He crouched in front of her, his fingers warm on her knees. "I couldn't take the chance, Rinoa. Not with you."

"Squall..." Her fingers traced the outlines of his face, lingering on the circular burn that the barrel of Xu's gun had left on his forehead. Her gaze followed them down, over his other wounds - new scars now. Those are all for me, too. She had never imagined that their love could have such a heavy burden, that it could hurt him like this. And Xu...

"I couldn't, Rinoa," he said again. "I thought I'd lost you, and I- I just couldn't think of anything else to do."

He hugged her, not caring that she was filthy, and she felt her arms tighten around him almost of their own will. She pressed her powder-burned face into his shoulder, smelling him under the blood and sweat, and she knew that no matter what, he was still Squall, and she still loved him. She had wished for him to come to her rescue, and he had, risking his life for her, throwing himself in harm's way. A knight to the end, guided through the dungeon by nothing but the raw, pure force of their love.

"Squall..."

Later, she would think that she could have taken that much. Forgiven him for Xu, and the cover-up that followed, and the violence he had visited on the Red Owls. There hadn't been much choice, and they were as unwilling to budge as he had been, and they really might have killed her, no matter what Xu said.

That would have been tolerable. Not perfect, not even close, but enough. If it had stopped there, their lives would've gone back to normal sooner or later, as soon as their wounds healed and their memories faded.

But as she embraced him, the relief and love that flooded his mind lapped up against the icy cage, eating away at it, and the thing within burst through, racing through the bond, leaping and snaring her mind. The bond had never flared with such intensity, never brought her such a clear rush of emotion and imagery and recall in one moment. It was as if someone had drilled a hole in her skull and poured his memories in, filling her brain until it was overflowing with images that spilled into her eyes.

Understanding was almost instantaneous, and as the images flickered before her vision and Squall whispered against her neck, breath warm in her ear, Rinoa realized that she was fighting back the urge to scream, to thrash, to run as fast and as hard as she could.

His arms didn't feel the way that she had imagined they would. They gripped her tighter and tighter, trapping her in a cage of flesh. Squall clung to her like a drowning man, and it should have been romantic, but it hurt, and she couldn't breathe, and Xu's blood was all over both of them, and she could see the corpses of the dead Owls over his shoulder, and it was wrong, it was all wrong, it wasn't supposed to be like this-

"I love you."

Rinoa slumped against him, muscles giving way in exhaustion and numb horror. Outside, artillery screamed. The building trembled on its foundations, chunks of masonry and loose bulbs crashing to the floor around them.

"We have to get out of here," Squall said, pulling her to a standing position. But it was no good; after all that time in the chair, her knees refused to lock, and he had to hold tightly to keep her from falling. His thoughts were all tender concern now, but they seemed distant and faint, unreachable beyond the arms of the thing that held onto her mind. That was showing her things she never could've imagined in her worst nightmare.

"Xu..." The dead woman's head lolled unnaturally on her neck, her dead, glazed eyes seeming to accuse Rinoa, throwing her own words back in her face. I thought we were friends, Rinoa. Don't leave me here like this for the dogs and the bugs. Don't treat me worse than a dead animal.

"No time. They wouldn't understand anyway, Rinoa." Squall lifted her again, placing his arms under her knees and back as if he were preparing to carry her over a threshold.

And then she thought: Maybe he already has.



viii.

"What was it like?" Selphie wasn't even looking at her, concentrating on spinning a spoon on the tabletop.

Afternoon sunlight streamed into the cafeteria, staining the reflective white tabletops a bleary, dreamlike orange. At this hour of the day, with most of the students in classes, the place loomed cavernous and quiet, row after row of immaculate tables standing in silent precision. Rinoa, Selphie, and Irvine sat in a bunch at the end of one of them, the other two talking way too loudly and laughing over the occasional joke, she brooding and silent.

"What?" Rinoa's mind felt like it was wrapped in cotton wool. She scraped her fork across the surface of her plate, spreading its contents around listlessly.

Apple sauce. The most deadly mercenaries in the world, and they're eating apple sauce. She would have laughed at it once. Now all she think about was-

(please don't-)

STOP

"Being rescued by the man you love, silly!" Selphie's foot gave her a playful kick under the table. "It's every woman's dream, you know, the whole knight-in-shining-armor thing. So romantic."

Irvine leaned back in his chair, putting his feet on the table, tilting his hat down slightly to shade his face. At that moment he looked every inch the Galbadian cowboy she'd dreamed of marrying as a girl. "I thought you preferred all your knights in birthday suits."

"I'll kill you!" Selphie screeched in half-delight, half-horror as she leapt out of her seat to smack the brim of Irvine's hat, sending it tumbling to the floor. Both of them went for it at the same time, colliding in a tangle of scuffling, flailing limbs.

Rinoa usually joined them in their ridiculous behavior; she was, after all, the person who had once run three laps around the Quad, holding the latest copy of Pupurun above her head to keep it out of Zell's desperately clutching hands. But that had been before Timber, before the things she had seen and the things she had learned, and all she could do now was stare dumbly at them, Selphie's last line hanging tenaciously to her thoughts.

How would you do it, Selphie? How many ways did they teach you? Do you go for the throat? The eyes? How many times

(PLEASE)

have you

(she doesn't-)

done it

(anything wrong)

already?

(STOP STOP STOP)

"Rin?" Selphie's voice held a note of concern now, which was particularly ridiculous since she was now wearing Irvine's cowboy hat, brim cocked at a rakish angle. She and Irvine were back in their respective seats, breathing heavily, faces flushed and sweaty. "Are you-?"

"It was really fast," Rinoa's voice came out in a rush of air, and she let it, aware that she was babbling, wanting to stop but finding herself unable. "I didn't even... know what was happening, I guess... until it was over. It was... he was... one of the Owls got cut in the belly. His guts went everywhere."

"Gross!" Selphie screwed up her face for a second before dissolving into giggles.

"Yeah..." Rinoa studied her reflection in the surface of the table. She saw Vince again, kneeling over Juliet's corpse, Squall cleaving his spine in two with one merciless stroke. She saw Xu standing over the major, shooting her with the same brutal efficiency. She heard Selphie giggling over the kind of thing that still kept her up nights, biting back screams, and she felt something thrash like an eel in her belly and she thought she was going to be sick.

"Rin?" Selphie's hand rested on hers, like it had a hundred times before, when they had gone shopping together or walked into town or sat up all night stuffing their faces and bemoaning the men in their lives and their hopeless cluelessness. But it was different now; her touch felt dry, papery, feverish, like she was burning up with some disease. Rinoa felt the sudden urge to jerk her hand away, afraid she might catch it.

"Nothing, okay. It's nothing, I'm fine." She forced her chair away from the table and stood to go.

"No, you're not." Selphie's hand tightened on her wrist. Rinoa could feel the strength in those fingers, slender but wiry, like bands of iron. She knew the rest of Selphie's body would be the same way - not an ounce of useless fat, all carefully shaped muscle, steel cables under soft flesh - funny, how she had noticed that about the female SeeDs all along, but never thought about what it might mean.

"What's wrong?" Selphie asked again.

In that moment it all clicked into place, jumbled jigsaw pieces fitting together to show her something she had never wanted to see before: that her friends were weapons. Raised and trained, honed in body and mind until they could kill someone with a flick of the wrist and then laugh about it a second later, grown together in a Garden that hid their strangeness and strengthened their resolve. Teenage energy and murderous intent all twined up together.

You want to know what's wrong, Selphie? What's wrong is I'm starting to think my friends are all crazy, and the fact that they can't even see it makes them the scariest people I've ever met.

Irvine leaned over the table, face furrowed with concern. "You've been acting really weird lately, Rinoa."

Shut up Irvine, she thought. You're the one that tried to shoot your own mom. The manic laugh that tried to bubble up in her chest was swallowed by the horrifying truth of it all. If Edea hadn't stopped that bullet, she would be dead by Irvine's hand, and if that thought ever kept him up at night, he didn't show it.

Maybe nothing bothered them, maybe Squall shouldn't have even bothered to hide the realities of Xu's death deep in the files, maybe they all would have just shrugged and said part of the job. Maybe if they had been in Xu's position they would have killed the major and then stood by when the Owls scared her and maybe they'd already done something worse that she didn't even know about, something just as bad as Squall and maybe they didn't even care-

I can't love the man and not the SeeD. They're the same. They're the same and they always have been and they always will be and I can't do anything about it, I can't, I CAN'T-

"I was scared!" Rinoa screamed, all her emotion bursting forth in a torrent. I still am.

Yanking her hand free from Selphie's grip with a painful wrench, she stood up and bolted from the table, ignoring Irvine and Selphie's shouted pleas for her to return and the stares of the students in the room, ignoring Zell's puzzled greeting as she bumped into him in the doorway, ignoring everything, her world shrinking to tunnel vision and telling her to run, run.

Rinoa didn't stop until she had locked herself back inside the room she and Squall shared, but the thing she was trying to get away from was already waiting for her there. She slid down the door, giving in to her tears, but it still wouldn't go away. It clung to her like a parasite, sucking her dry, popping out at the worst of times, rearing its ugly little head and screeching the truth to anyone who wanted to hear and anyone who didn't.

She didn't. She had never wanted to hear anything less, but it battered at her with relentless intensity, screeching at the door until at last she let it in just to be free of the noise. Then she lost herself in its horror for a time before shutting it out, starting the cycle over again.

She couldn't clearly recall much of the rest of the month. It was a haze of half-remembered nights out, desperate-cheerful faces, and wooden lovemaking with Squall, all blending together in one sickening blur like vomit swirling in the bottom of a bucket. She didn't even remember who had first suggested this vacation, or how Squall had arranged it, or even the trip here. All she could think about was- was-

(PLEASE)

The thing she had seen in his mind was always with her, even now, especially now, in the quiet droning darkness of the beach house. It lurked in her head, chasing snippets of her mother's song round and round. And even as she thought of it, even as Squall dozed beside her and the waves pounded the surf, it came back to her.

The images were still just as fresh as the first time, due to a hellish feature of the bond that some ancient sorceress had undoubtedly designed to be helpful. The memory drove her closer to madness every time she touched upon it, but it refused to be denied. She had only to think of it, and it came back to her just as it had in that moment when Squall had first embraced her in the rotting department store; she felt again every sound, smell, sensation, as if she had experienced it in his skin with him.

The surf faded from her ears, the room growing blurry, dilating, and-

(They left you, Winston. Don't know why you're sticking up for someone that'd leave you with a busted leg-)

-she felt herself-

(It was more important to grab her. You already know that much and I'm not telling you fuckers anything else.)

-slipping away, going-

(I wouldn't be so sure about that. Commander Leonhart has offered to assist us in this operation due to his personal stake in the matter.)

-back to:



ix.

Green tile, shining dully under harsh fluorescents. Old, flaking wooden table and chair. It looked more like someone's tacky kitchen than an interrogation chamber, but that image was ruined by the man that sat in the chair, hands tied to the arms, face much paler than the bloody bandage he had wrapped around his thigh. His eyes were dull and empty, his mouth set in a determined line as he glared at Squall.

The man was talking, his voice soft, but still forceful.

"Oughta be in a hospital. You shot my leg, you sons of bitches shot my fucking leg-"

"Shut up." Squall's voice echoed threateningly off the tile. Rinoa had never heard him speak in that voice before, low and raw like everything pleasant had been torn away. "Tell us where they are. We know you know. Things will go much easier for you if you cooperate."

"Fuck you," the man gave a short, pained laugh. "I'm not telling you anything."

Squall went to work.

Screams echoed and rebounded off the tile, but Squall didn't relent, pressing his thumb deeper into the seeping hole underneath the bandage. The bound man thrashed, his hands clenching uselessly at the air behind the chair, heels drumming out a rapid tattoo on the floor. At first, he had lunged forward to bite at Squall; now, one of the guards stood behind the chair, one arm wrapped tightly around his throat, the other around his forehead. It looked like she was giving him the same hug Rinoa had seen Selphie give Irvine a thousand times, and it would have been funny if not for the way he twisted and fought and sprayed spit everywhere, if his chin had not been red with blood from his split lip, if he were not screaming so much, so loud.

Squall's thoughts and voice were ice, all business. He didn't enjoy this, she could feel that much, but it didn't hurt him enough that he would stop, either. The Red Owl's suffering was nothing more and nothing less than the means to an end for him, and that was almost worse, especially when she considered what that end was.

"Where did they take her? Where are the Red Owl bases?"

The man coughed, took a shuddery breath. "Fuck. Yourself."

Squall slammed his fist down on the man's wounded leg, causing muscles to spasm alarmingly under his skin like writhing maggots as his body tried to twist in agony. The chair gave a tortured squeal as the man's movements strained its old and rusty bolts.

"You fuckers," the Red Owl gasped. "You dirty fuckers, you think you can beat the answer out of me? If Garden hasn't responded to our offer by midnight, that bitch is so fucking dead. Just like you Galbadian-loving-"

His monologue was interrupted as Squall punched him in the face, and when he began to talk again, teeth came out along with his words, falling into his lap in runnels of blood.

"You think I can't hold out that long? I've spent my whole life in this country... long enough to know I'm as good as dead anyway with you assholes running things. Might as well make it worth something."

Squall turned sharply away from him, hiding his frustration and growing fear. He was helpless; if the man didn't break, Rinoa would die; there was no way he could convince the Garden shareholders to turn over such an exorbitant ransom for a sorceress, and General Caraway no longer had the money or resources to match it. He thought of Rinoa then; the way she could always pull him out of the dark places and make him smile, the way she smelled, her awful taste in television shows, her laugh. He thought of all those things and burned with a need and an intensity that could have consumed a planet.

That feeling touched Rinoa more than anything ever had, and it made all the things that came after so much worse.

The thought of losing her to the whim of the Red Owls infuriated and terrified Squall. The two of them had viewed the entire world together from space, and then they had saved it, past, present, and future. He was her knight. She had taught him what it meant to be a person again, shown him how empty his life of predictable and hostile security had been. Without her, he was nothing, and now that he had found her, he couldn't bear the thought of losing her. He would kill the man across the table in an instant to save that. He would kill every last Red Owl. He would-

The steel door across the room opened to reveal a young soldier, his face pale and pockmarked and twisted with disgust as he noticed the man in the chair and the blood: on the floor, the wooden surface of the table, Squall's hands.

"Uh-" the young man stammered, "We ran him through the system... name's Winston Walter. Lives in the southern suburbs, around Greenville. One previous arrest for shoplifting back during the Occupation, but nothing else. Unemployed. Only person we turned up was a woman staying at his place. Identifies herself as Mia Jones, doesn't seem to know why she might be here."

The woman the two soldiers pulled into the room was tall and skinny, with stringy brown hair that hung in limp tendrils around her long, pale face. She wore a long-sleeved and ratty green jacket over a pale pink nightdress, bare pipe-cleaner legs peeking from under the hem and ending in a pair of slippers. It was almost funny for a second, but as soon as the woman saw the man across the room, her face lost its expression of bewildered confusion, finding horror in its place, her mouth hanging open in shock.

"Winston, baby, what's-"

Squall took one of the chairs resting against the wall and kicked it, sending it screaming over the tiles toward her. When she did not respond, the soldiers flanking her pushed her roughly down into the seat. She offered no further protest, sitting with shoulders hunched and legs pressed together, hands folded protectively on her lap, shaking.

"Mia Jones, you are here under suspicion of terrorist activities against the Second Timber Republic," one of the soldiers said. With his broad, fleshy face he would've passed for someone's kindly uncle if it hadn't been for the venom in his gaze. Rinoa wouldn't have known herself, but Squall's mind informed her that the golden owls on his collar made him a colonel. "Your... associate, Winston Walters, was injured earlier tonight in a terrorist attack that resulted in the death of one of our soldiers. As treason is an offense punishable by death, I urge you to share whatever information comes to mind."

Mia - no, the woman, Squall was trying with an icy and unassailable determination to think of her only as the woman - looked into her lap for a moment, blinking. Then she raised her eyes to Winston, taking in the extent of his injuries.

"Look at me!" the fleshy-faced man bellowed, and Mia flinched as if she had been struck. She turned her head, gazing up at him, her bright green eyes already wet with unshed tears.

"I don't know what you're... why... Winston wouldn't do anything like that. Why's he hurt?"

"Injuries sustained during the capture," the man answered blithely. "Now answer the question."

She looked as if she did not believe him, but she didn't dare challenge the claim. "Winston isn't a terrorist. He's, he- he doesn't have a job, but he used to be a carpenter, until the war- but that- it doesn't matter, he's a good man and I don't know why you're lobbing these accusations, but-" and her voice grew stronger, surer, like a weary, lost traveler that had at last stumbled onto familiar ground. "But- both of us have rights as citizens of Timber, and we can request-"

"You, Ms. Jones, are not in the position to request anything." The smile that spread across the colonel's face was flat, greasy. It reminded Rinoa of Wallace.

"She doesn't know anything about this," Winston cut in thickly. "I never told her anything. I met her before the war and first I didn't want her to worry and then I didn't want her to know. She's a librarian, for fuck's sake." His last sentence sounded more desperate than angry, and Rinoa wondered if some deep part of him knew what was going to happen even then.

Squall's mind tingled with annoyance and impatience; Garden had taught him to recognize liars, and the woman was obviously as clueless as she claimed. Asking her questions about terrorist operations was a waste of precious time. God only knew what they were doing to Rinoa in the meantime - his Rinoa- his sorceress.

The Timber soldiers looked at each other uncertainly, and Rinoa knew she would never forget that at that moment, Squall was the one that stepped forward, wordless, eyes frozen and steely. The others looked at him, fear surfacing on their faces like late-blooming flowers as they suddenly understood. They quieted and stepped back, avoiding those eyes, and he knew and she knew that they were his.

Squall was not part of their command structure. He had no right to be here, no legitimate authority, no role but that of a paid asset. He had nothing but force of will, mechanical intensity, brutal focus, the things Garden had beaten into him all the way down to the bone. He had a toolbox of every torture technique that had been used in the last five hundred years, and they all boiled down to the same thing: the willingness to hurt someone else to achieve your goal.

It was enough.

The major had been right. There was nothing that could stop a SeeD with something to fight for, and Rinoa had given it to him. His insides writhed, his love for her a goading hot poker, turning impatience into fury, fear into hysterical rage.

(Would you, could you?)

(Will you?)

(Did you?)

Squall moved to Mia's left side, resting a hand on her shoulder, his face like a death mask in the stark fluorescent light. The woman turned to look up at him briefly, then back at Winston, as if he held the answer to all of this. Little did she realize that he did, and she was the key.

"Tell me where Rinoa is," Squall said. "Now."

"I already told you she doesn't know," Winston said, tossing his head against the Timber soldier's grip. He saw something in Squall's eyes, then, and his own opened wide, voice rising into shrillness. "Please, man, she doesn't know anything, I swear, she fucking-" His words were violently cut off as another of the soldiers stepped in front of him to gag him.

"I know she doesn't," Squall said. "But you do."

Squall didn't even turn as his hand slammed into the side of Mia's face with a sound like a gunshot, tossing her head sideways in a spray of spit and blood. Only his eyes tracked to follow her as she slid from the chair, landing with a thump on the floor, spindly legs splaying out across the tile. Across the room, Winston roared something into the gag, but Squall could tell from his eyes that the action had only made him angry. He needed to take it further.

For a moment Mia looked up at Squall with an expression of numb horror, as if she could not believe such a nice young man had done such a thing. A long red gash stood in sharp relief against the pale flesh of her left cheek. She raised a trembling hand to touch it, and when she held her fingertips in front of her face and saw the blood, the tears in her eyes started to overflow. Her voice quivered.

"Why... why are you-"

Her words wilted into a pathetic scream as Squall's fingers clenched in her hair. He pulled her to her feet with one savage yank, hurling her back into the chair. The side of her thigh slammed against the rim of the seat and her legs collapsed, pitching her awkwardly sideways, but before she even had time to react, Squall hit her again.

The slap looked almost casual, but was hard enough to burst her lip, drenching her chin with blood. He hit her again, and again, and again, and again, the blows ringing and echoing, swallowing the sounds of her wailing and Winston's muffled screams.

Beads of crimson clung to her face and his, splattered their clothing. His fingers were covered in blood, and Rinoa was deep enough inside his mind to feel it, warm and sticky, and the concussion that went up his arm with each blow. They were cold, mechanical, Squall measuring each strike to cause the most pain for time and effort.

Worst of all was the hot string of thought that wound through his mind like a burning strand of copper, repeating itself with the same force as his measured blows, holding him together during something even SeeD conditioning hadn't completely prepared him to do. If he didn't do this, Rinoa would die. She lingered in his mind, and her face, her words, her smell and feel and being drove him onward, brutally, unstoppably.

I love you, Rinoa,he thought, and his heavy boot connected with Mia's shin, leaving bruised and bloody flesh in its wake.

I love you.

-and his knuckles struck the already swollen left side of her face, bursting open the first cut and opening up a new one above her eye-

I love you.

-and a snail-trail of blood trickled from her ear-

I love you.

-and at last she raised her skinny arms, flailing blindly, trying to protect her battered face, moaning wordlessly. Squall's arm snapped back for an instant before he drove it forward, fist tunneling deeply into her unprotected gut. Her screams thinned and vanished as the air was expelled from her lungs, and when he stepped aside, she fell forward out of the chair, retching, landing on her hands and knees on the tile floor.

Mia had never been pretty, but now her exposed flesh was bruised and bleeding, her face a ruin of bruises and cuts. One eye had completely swollen shut, the other reduced to nothing more than a thin slit surrounded by puffy, bruised flesh. Blood dripped from her nose and mouth and her left ear, a sign he'd probably partially deafened her. It hadn't been something he'd intended, but his mind deemed it an acceptable result. Anything would be, for this. For her.

I love you.

"Please." Mia looked up at him, her torn lips forcing out the word through choking sobs. Spasms rocked her narrow frame almost as much as his blows had. "Please..."

Beg with a stone. Batter your fists against iron. Talk to a wall.

Squall's kick was swift and brutal, his foot burying itself under her arm. He felt her muscles spasm, her ribs creaking and giving way as she rolled over onto her back. A strangled sob escaped from her lungs and she pulled her arms and legs in, curling up tight on her side as her body made one last, desperate, instinctual attempt to protect itself.

That's it. They're done. The voice that went through Squall's mind was low and gravelly and certain, the voice of SeeD conditioning. Rinoa hated it.

"You can stop this any time," Squall said, turning to look at Winston as a pair of soldiers pulled Mia back into the chair. The man had been screaming through the gag for the past few minutes. His face burned with the effort, tears of rage and frustration rolling down his cheeks. "Tell me where Rinoa is."

A voice from behind him; the flabby-faced colonel. "Tell us where the Red Owl bases are."

The guard behind Winston yanked the gag away, and his whole body surged forward, straining against the chair.

Winston's voice broke. "I'm sorry, Mia. I'm so sorry, baby, I-"

"RINOA!" Squall screamed, slamming his fist down on the table, cutting through Winston's words.

He hesitated for a moment, a mere fraction of a second, but it was enough for Squall's instincts to pick it up. "I don't know! They don't tell me shit. I can tell you some places I've been but I don't know where she is. I don't know all the bases, I don't know anything. Just please don't hurt her anymore, she didn't do anything wrong."

"Besides fucking you," one of the Black Owls jeered.

Across the room, Mia could only wail in response, crumpled in her chair like a broken marionette, right arm curled tightly against her chest. She had pulled her knees up under her chin, skinny body collapsing into itself like a card table. One of her slippers had fallen off, and her hair stuck up in crazy tangles. And all those things, such a liability anywhere else, only made her a more effective demonstration.

"You're lying," Squall said simply. He mouthed instructions to the soldiers behind him, who looked at him, some with resolve, some with horrified understanding. They all moved to comply, fearing him more than they feared following his orders.

"Please don't," Mia said again, struggling against the hands of the Timber soldiers as they fell upon her shoulders. Rinoa thought she might have fought harder if she could have seen the inside of Squall's mind at that moment, brittle and hard with cold calculation.

"Don't. Don't." When they yanked backward, ripping off her jacket to expose her bare, angular shoulders and her pale arms, she did start to fight, thrashing helplessly for a moment before one of the soldiers stopped her short with a jab in her wounded ribs. Rinoa could not see inside her mind, but she knew what the other woman was expecting now, one of the same things she'd feared so strongly when the Owls had had her.

What Squall was thinking of was worse.

Another soldier grabbed Mia's left arm and pulled, stretching it out on the table in front of her. She immediately tried to jerk it back, but the soldier maintained his grip, forcing her wrist relentlessly back onto the hardwood surface. Another moved around to her other side, jamming a knife under her chin.

"Quit fucking squirming," he said. He was the one who had jeered earlier, and his eyes shone with a wet, sick gleam. "Or I'll cut off those goosebumps you call tits."

She did.

Squall looked down at the table for only a moment before turning away, but even after it had strayed from his vision, he could remember every detail. The way Mia's long-fingered hand splayed across its surface, the pattern of dark hairs that peppered the back of her arm, the mole on the webbing of her thumb. Such photographic recall was another mark of his SeeD training, as was the resolve that surged through him, and the speed with which he drew his gunblade, turning, slamming it down before anyone else in the room had a chance to react.

I love you.

Rinoa's first thought was that the sound of the gunblade's razor edge clattering against the wood was exactly the same one she remembered from her childhood, when her mother, ever the glamorous superstar outside, ever the domestic inside, used to chop vegetables on the butcher block in their kitchen.

Her second, as Mia looked down at the gushing stumps that had been her fingers and started to scream, was: This was all for me.

Squall reached down casually, opening his palm and sweeping the severed fingers off the tabletop as the nearest soldier stepped back in shock, releasing the woman's arm. Mia jerked her hand back, howling and shrieking like she had lost her mind. And maybe she had, because Rinoa felt a little crazy herself as she watched Squall's quiet, mechanical deliberateness.

All for me. Just for me.

Rinoa had believed earlier that blood was everywhere; as Mia's hand continued to spurt, she realized what a naive thought that had been. The blood shone like cheap lipstick under the fluorescents, smeared across Mia's face, her nightgown, her legs, the floor, the table, the soldiers holding her, the gunblade- the wall, how did it get on the wall-

Someone has made an awful mess, Rinoa thought, and felt a frantic sob tearing at her. And all for me.

(Would you?)

(Could you?)

Mia thrashed hard enough to slip from the grasp of the soldiers, sliding free and falling to the floor again. She screamed and writhed on the tile, rolling over onto her stomach to shield her wounded hand. As the soldiers around her took a step back, Squall turned away from her to face Winston.

The Red Owl's face was a frozen mask of horror. He was still trying to scream, but had forgotten to breathe. Only a thin stream of air emerged from his mouth, a hiss lost in Mia's much louder cries.

Squall's voice was scarcely louder, as cold and firm as the edge of his weapon. And in its own way, it was a weapon; his words, delivered in a monotone that revealed the depth of his conviction, cut not only the Red Owl but Rinoa as well.

"She still has one hand. Now stop wasting my time."

And Winston opened his mouth and this time there was no hesitation, no half-truths, almost no pause for breath as he talked and talked and talked, screaming, babbling, his words falling over each other in a confused torrent that she could barely understand. The first thing he told them was where Rinoa was, and once Squall heard it, once he saw in the Owl's eyes that he was telling the truth, he was moving for the door, his mind restructuring itself, the memory of the torture locked away in a cage of icy determination, Mia and Winston all but forgotten.

"Hey... uh... Commander Leonhart-" One of the soldiers asked. "Are- are you done here? What do you want us to do with them?"

Squall didn't even turn around. His mind was already racing to Rinoa's rescue, pulling his body in its wake. The Red Owl and his girlfriend no longer mattered. There was no way that the Republic could leave the prisoners alive, not after this. They would certainly be killed... eventually. But he didn't have time to say that, and the Black Owls behind him knew it already - they were just scared enough of him not to do it until he said so. Arguing would change nothing, would only serve to carve away his precious time.

Mia - the woman - writhed on the floor, whimpering like a lost child. Squall stepped over her without even looking down.

"Whatever."



x.

The image fuzzed out, replaced by a patchwork of light and shadow, the sound of sea sliding over stone, his quiet and deliberate breathing. The clock glowed in the corner like a baleful eye. 3:05 A.M.

Five minutes. This was all only five minutes. The memories, the experience, the rush and fall of hope and horror and crushing reality. Five minutes.

One thousand four hundred forty minutes in a day. She had always been good in math, though she couldn't write worth a damn. Her father had told her that she should consider engineering when she went to college but that was ages ago, before she had run off to Timber to play a soldier, before she had met a real one. Seven days in a week. Three hundred sixty-five days in a year.

Her life stretched out before her, not expanding but contracting, every minute wrapping itself around her, straightjacketing her more tightly. Her mind and her reality felt like putty, pulled and warped into strange shapes that she could no longer even hope to recognize, and every now and then she thought she was going absolutely crazy, because otherwise why could only she see how terrifying everything and everyone around her was?

And then there were the voices.

It's not fair, some part of her complained in the high, reedy voice of her eight year old self. He loves you. He really loves you. None of those boys in Deling did and especially not Seifer. All you ever were to them was something to fuck. I don't even know if Daddy did, he tried, but he always saw too much of your mother in you, just looking at you hurt him somehow, but Squall's different, he cares, he's your knight, don't you see?

Mia spoke back, Yes, he loves you. You want proof, just look at what he did to me. Maybe one day, if I wasn't dead, because I am, you know, Squall might not be responsible for that but he gave it his blessing, I'd find a man to cut the fingers off an innocent woman for my sake. It's the kind of thing every girl dreams about, just ask your friend Selphie.

That's right, Rin! Selphie bubbled. That's the kind of thing that makes you really know they care. That's devotion, you know? Why just yesterday Irvine shot Edea in the head for my birthday and afterwards I really blew him to smithereens if you know what I mean-

I love you, Rinoa. Squall's voice. It's the kind of love you only find in fairy tales. I'd kill my way across a continent for you. I'd like to spend the rest of my life murdering for you. It's only natural. Remember when Seifer tortured me? That's the kind of thing a knight does for his sorceress.

She wondered if it were true. Maybe all those horror stories were motivated by nothing more than love. But that didn't matter. That was even worse. She didn't want to be the person that caused things like that to happen. She didn't want love if it was about- about-

(Please)

Would you? Julia sang in her mind, before lapsing into the same tone she used to scold her with when she caught her sneaking cookies or writing on the walls. If not, I guess you must not be a true romantic.

You simply don't love enough, Wallace added, his voice flat and strained because of his broken neck.

You won't do shit, Juliet rasped through the red ruin of her throat. You never did.

You're only doing this to rebel, her father's voice was flat and accusing.

Irvine: You've been acting really weird lately, Rinoa.

It's not fair, the tiny voice whined again. What do you want me to do, act like he never did it? String them on a necklace?

Not a look I'd try to pull off, Ms. Heartilly, Major Grant said. But it'd look nice on you. Her voice trailed off uncertainly and Rinoa noticed again that Xu had blown her head off.

"Stop it," Rinoa whispered urgently, and that was a bad sign, a really bad sign, because it was bad enough to hear voices and it was even worse to argue with them. "It's not my fault, it's not, I didn't do anything wrong."

Besides fucking him, the Black Owl jeered. And come to think of it, you're still doing that. Not enjoying it much these days, are you, but he doesn't seem to notice, maybe he likes it when you just lay there and take it like one of those corpses he's so good at piling up-

And that was it; she threw herself from the bed, racing across the thickly carpeted floor to the bathroom - white tile, at least - and soon found herself crouching over the yawning bowl of the toilet, her stomach heaving relentlessly.

Rinoa vomited for what felt like forever, losing her Dollet Rock Lobster dinner and her breaded prawn with orange lunch and what felt like most of her stomach. It felt like all the bad things in the past month were pouring out of her along with the bile, but when it was over and she lay there on the floor, quivering with weakness, arms still wrapped around the porcelain, she could still feel that eel in her gut, its thrashing only momentarily quieted by her body's outburst.

Her left hand was still draped over the rim of the seat, so pale it was scarcely noticeable against the porcelain. She looked at it and thought of the last time she had vomited, tied to a chair, dripping with piss, disgusted and degraded and filthy.

The ring on her finger was the finest gold, topped with a multifaceted Centra Sapphire that had gleamed like something from another world when he had slipped it on her at the restaurant tonight. It made her feel even dirtier, and she could not help wondering if Mia had ever wanted a ring like this. If she had been tortured and killed just because she had chased after a ring like this. If Squall realized the irony in sliding a ring on one finger and slicing off five others all in the same month.

Rinoa's stomach lurched again, and she was filled with the sudden compulsion to tear the ring away and flush it with everything else, but that wouldn't be nice at all, that just wasn't the thing the princess at the end of these stories did.

They live happily ever after, she thought, pushing herself up and flushing, turning on the sink. One thousand four hundred and forty minutes at a time. Every day a new adventure, a new discovery.

She splashed her face clean, shivering as rivulets of cold water trickled down her neck. Finding out things about Squall didn't seem like pulling treasures from a vault anymore. It was more like dredging corpses from the bottom of a lake. Corpses that stared at her with dead, accusing eyes. Corpses that talked.

And I look like one too. She had lost fourteen pounds, something that would have thrilled her any other time. Now, looking at her naked reflection in the mirror, she was reminded of her mother's body in those last few months, as the disease had consumed her.

Maybe she had caught something from Selphie, but it hadn't toughened her up - it had only carved away, sharpening her curves to harsh angles. She could see the stark outlines of her pelvis, and above faint shadowy smudges high on her tummy that she knew marked her ribs. Her cheeks were sallow beneath baggy eyes, and her collarbone jutted up in sharp relief against her shoulders.

And he still tells me I'm beautiful.

That's love for you, her mother's voice informed her. My goodness, all this he's done for you and you're still not satisfied. It was love that allowed him to find you, you know. Just not the way you thought.

Squall was stirring when she returned to the bedroom, the sleepy morass of his thoughts clearing enough for him to look blearily up at her and ask. "You okay?"

No.

"Yeah... just too excited to sleep, I guess." Her legs felt like they were made of wood, but she managed to make her way across the room and slide under the covers beside him. Her entire body fought the sensation, as if each individual muscle were attempting to draw away from him on its own.

"Sorry." He moved aside to let her in, nuzzling up against her side. "I'm too tired to do anything else right now."

Good. Sex with him was repulsive and mechanical, reminding her morbidly of a play-acted murder. She heard Mia's cries in his every moan, watched his hands trailing over her body and saw them dripping with blood, felt the soft touch of his lips on her neck and wondered if her were going to rip her throat out with his teeth.

Don't be ridiculous, Julia chided. He only hurts people for you.

At least he didn't notice anything amiss. She would have expected him to be able to tell the difference these days, but apparently a faked moan or two was enough. Or maybe he'd never paid that much attention. It was hard to tell. It was hard to remember anything that had been, surrounded by shattered fragments of what it now was.

Run, the whiny little voice urged as he slipped back into slumber beside her. But that was no answer. She couldn't run from this. Even if she fled to the far corners of the world, the bond would still be between them, unbroken and unbreakable, the result of an action as blindly reckless as all the rest she'd taken to get her here.

And if she did run, what would she do? What could she tell him then? That the Garden was worse than the sorceresses? That it needed to be destroyed? That the thought of being around any of them, especially him, filled her with terror and disgust?

What would she be then, but another crazy old sorceress lurking in the darkness, a story to scare children with?

Maybe it's always this way. With sorceresses and their knights, and with everyone. Maybe that's what love really is about. Maybe you were just lucky enough to see what it's really made of. And so early in life, with so many years ahead of you-

(Would you?)

-scenic murder sprees in Winhill country, atrocities on a reasonable travel budget.

(Could you?)

Will there be children? Oh yes, the apple of their fathers' eye. I hope they don't misbehave - not likely with the kind of training they're going to get.

(Would you, could you?)

You will outlive him, you know. Sorceresses live a long time. But eventually you'll get lonely and find someone else. And it can happen all over again.

(Will you?)

No, she thought desperately. I can't, I can't, I can't. Please, I just wanted to be loved, please.

(Please, please)

And you are, Julia's voice was smug now.

Squall edged closer, his thoughts all drowsy warmth. Rinoa shivered at the touch of his breath, staring unblinking at the clock across the room. Bold red numbers scorched the truth into the surface of her frantic mind. 3:15 A.M. She bit her lip and tried not to scream as the chorus of voices in her head started up again

One thousand four hundred forty four

Marry me, Squall said. I love you. I love you. I love you. I love you. I love you. I love you.

Seven

I love you. I love you. I love you. I love you. I love you. I love you. I love you.

Three hundred sixty five

I love you. It's the kind of love you only find in fairy tales. I'd kill my way across a continent for you. I'd like to spend the rest of my life murdering for you.

Forever.

In that moment, Rinoa felt the mask slip and shatter, knew that if she were still standing in front of the mirror, she would see her mouth sagging open in numb horror just as Mia's had. That those crazy animal eyes she had seen in Xu's face, in Major Grant's, in Angelo's would be staring back at her.

She wondered if he would notice. She wondered if he would care. She wondered if she were going to lose her mind, like they all had in those last moments, when they were-

When they were-

Squall shifted in his sleep, sighing. His arm curled around her chest, light, gentle, crushing her with the weight of murder, torture, rape, genocide, love.

When they were-

The word emerged from some old and musty cupboard in her mind, fluttering there weakly as she lapsed into an exhausted slumber that she wished would never end.

Trapped.




(ii.) Epilogue: The Train to Timber

The cassette wasn't in the best shape, and the voice that emerged from the cabinet stereo to fill the train compartment was warbling and tinny. Distortion crackled in the background behind the jazz saxophone and cello as the sound skipped in and out.

Rinoa didn't care; her mother's voice always sounded wonderful to her, and this song was her favorite. After Julia's managers had rushed her through a series of bad singles and a truly abysmal second album, people had begun to think of her as a hack, a one-hit wonder. "Devotion" had been a stunning comeback, a deep, soulful piece of music that had silenced the critics and proven once and for all that Julia Heartilly was truly the Next Big Thing.

Rinoa loved it. "Eyes on Me," was a bittersweet song, but "Devotion" was about the pure power of love to bring two people together. It was a song that represented her mother's triumph, and her own.

"I still don't understand why you didn't buy a newer version of that," Squall said from his position on the compartment's single plush couch. He was lying down, his head resting against the arm. His eyes were closed, but it was mostly for show; the only time he'd fallen asleep on one of these trains was the time Ellone had put them under, he had told Rinoa earlier, a trace of a smile on his face.

"Duh." She turned from the stereo to face him and he opened his eyes a bit to watch her move to the music. "This is a first edition of the album! It has sentimental and nostalgic value."

"Ah," he said, and fell silent. Of course he didn't understand - the Garden was in a constant state of technological change, always providing its SeeD agents with the best in updated technical equipment. In just the last year alone, contact with Esthar had brought a slew of new conveniences.

Still, it was better than "Whatever."

"I'm glad you understand." Rinoa giggled as she moved over to the couch and sat beside him. He reached an arm up to stroke her back idly, and she took his face in her hands. He let her. It had taken so long for him to let her.

Light crept in through the windows as the train emerged from the undersea tunnel into the sun again, drawing ever closer to its destination. So far, it had been a quiet, uneventful trip - no one bothered them in the first class carriage except a few well-meaning attendants, and Squall seemed positively mellow.

Despite those things, perhaps because of them, Rinoa could scarcely contain her excitement. She hadn't been to Timber in months, not since it had become a republic, and she couldn't wait to see what kind of changes they'd made.

"What about you, Squall?" she asked. Her voice was coy, teasing, bubbling with barely restrained energy. "Would you do anything for love?"

He shifted a bit, the way he did when he was uncomfortable, and she didn't need the flare of warmth that flickered across the bond to know he was feeling a little ridiculous. "Did you read that in a magazine?"

She leaned down, smoothed the hair back from his forehead, brushed her lips across his. He tasted and smelled good, leather and mahogany. "Nope. Unlike some people, I don't have to read something to know it's true. That's the point of love, isn't it? It's bigger than you or me. It's bigger than anything."

"I guess."

She aimed a playful punch at his chest. "You're hopeless."

He snared her wrist with SeeD precision - a reflex after all those years of training, she supposed - but his grip was light, and he smiled up at her. "You think so?" He gave a short tug, pulling her down on top of him. "Are you sure?"

By the time the loudspeaker crackled and told them the train would soon be arriving in Timber, she had decided that he wasn't so hopeless after all.

~August 4, 2005~

Would you? Could you? Would you, could you? Would you do it all Could you do it all Would you, could you? Will you? Did you? Do it all For our love? -Julia Heartilly, "Devotion."

PROTOCOL #24-A: BLACK ASPHODEL

Garden Intelligence and Administration endeavors at all times to maintain order and discipline in SeeD Operations. SeeDs are highly trained and specialized mission operatives, meant to conduct a wide spectrum of operations in a broad range of theaters. According to Garden Code Section B Paragraph Two, no SeeD is to be assigned an operation that, according to provided parameters, will place him or her in conflict with another SeeD. Though at times such encounters are unavoidable, the first priority of both SeeDs, upon realizing that there is an opponent in the field, is to announce their presence to that opponent and then withdraw, if possible taking up different positions in the broad field of conflict. If this proves impossible, only one option remains. For a SeeD to attempt to take the life of another SeeD, the Black Asphodel Protocol must be invoked and verbally acknowledged. Invocation of the Black Asphodel declares an explicit willingness to kill or be killed by the opponent. It is not a step to be taken lightly, and indeed in the history of Garden has never been invoked. The protocol begins... -From The SeeD Handbook


All That Glitters Is Cold 2 Fanfic Competition
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