The first thing Rinoa heard was screaming: piercing, panic-stricken hollers and yells that shot down her spine and curled her insides. She was running through the fog, yelling out for the sources of those screams. She didn’t know whose they were, but she knew they were in trouble, and something deep inside tugged at her to help them.
It was like this every night, and both in consciousness and in sleep, Rinoa didn’t understand what that something was. But there was no time to question it.
Her boots smacked against the dirt path, the fog and the landscape passing by her in a rush. It looked like the Centran landscape, with its orange-brown cliffs piercing high in the sky around her. She paid little mind to the scenery.
Where are they? her mind screamed. Where are who? that small part of her conscious asked, the part that was rooted in reality.
On the horizon, a blanket of darkness emerged, so overpowering and overwhelming that it made Rinoa’s legs quake from the pressure. It stretched out across the night sky, enveloping everything in the vicinity. Rinoa pressed on, a powerful instinct leading her in some direction.
Suddenly, a group of people huddled together appeared, standing on shaky legs before the darkness. Rinoa called out to them. One of the faces turned and yelled something to her, but she couldn’t quite hear. Another one reached out a hand towards her, and she reached back, trying to fight through the darkness and its overbearing weight to get to them.
The darkness suddenly shuddered and then converted into a shape, just beyond where the group was. It was in the form of a human, a man from what Rinoa could tell, wearing a heavy cloak. She couldn’t see his face, but the fear that gripped her was terrifying. She hadn’t felt that way since the confrontation with Ultimecia nearly two years earlier.
Despite the fear that threatened to paralyze her, she sprinted past the group (Why didn’t I look at their faces? Who are they?) and stood in front of them, arms outstretched. “Don’t you dare!” she screamed at the man.
He took a step towards her. His hand extended, and a ball of magical energy formed in the palm. “You cannot save them from their fate, the destiny that you had a hand in creating. Besides, it’s time you returned your powers.”
“Returning” a sorceress’ power could only mean one thing for Rinoa. Terror nearly made her immobile, but she was determined not to let him harm the ones behind her.
Footsteps resounded behind her, and then a figure ran past. She saw a glimmer of something, a pendant she knew too well. Her heart lurched, and as the magic fired, the figure braced itself in a defensive stance. Suddenly, she went from being the protector to the protected.
Worried shouts came from behind her, and Rinoa screamed a name that didn’t reach her ears before everything around her shattered.
“Rinoa!” Squall’s arms came around her, and he shook her lightly, trying to get her to wake up.
She thrashed and flailed, fighting against his hold, mistaking him for the dark man. “Get away from them!” she screamed, still half-asleep and in the world of her dream.
His strong hands kept her arms pinned to her side so she couldn’t harm either of them with a stray fist. “Rin! It’s me, Squall. Wake up!”
His voice finally broke through, and she woke with a jolt. Her eyes cleared and met his cobalt blue. “S-Squall?”
He sighed in relief, and held her closer to him. “You had another nightmare.” It wasn’t a question.
“Yeah.” She leaned her head against his chest, grateful that her knight was there for her during these recurring nightmares. “I’m sorry I woke you.”
He shook his head, dismissing her apology as he threaded his fingers through her hair. “Was it about the same thing?”
She nodded, her cheek rubbing against his skin as she clutched his Griever pendant. “Yeah. A little more happened this time.”
He nudged her forehead with his nose. “Wanna tell me?”
“Tomorrow. With the others. I just wanna get some sleep now.” The only good thing about these nightmares was that they only happened once a day. She never fell back into them after the initial dream. She had begun purposely taking naps in the middle of the day, just so the dream was over with and she could actually get some sleep at night. But she hadn’t gotten the chance to nap earlier, so as brutal as the nightmare was, it came as no surprise to her.
Squall didn’t say another word, but he didn’t need to. His arms around her, his beating heart, and just his presence were enough for her. She fingered his pendant, and something inside twisted as she remembered the figure who wore the same one. She was sure it wasn’t Squall, though. It didn’t look like him, not exactly. The figure she had seen was a little skinnier than he was, and his hair was darker.
The question of who it was bounced around in her head, and Rinoa was sure that the query would keep her up all night. She shifted restlessly several times, but eventually, exhaustion won over her worry and she fell back into slumber.
All the signs of a nightmare were always open for everyone to see in the morning. Rinoa detested that fact. Even so, knowing her friends, they would know something was wrong, even if she was able to hide it.
The six of them sat together in the cafeteria the following morning. The slight bags under her eyes and her atypical silence spoke volumes. She poked at her eggs, but her mind was elsewhere. It was focused on the boy that ran to defend her, and the group of people behind her, scared but stoic in front of that dark man.
Who were they, damn it?
“How bad was this nightmare?” Quistis asked, snapping Rinoa out of her thoughts.
Rinoa twitched, nearly knocking her tray over onto the floor. Squall placed a hand on her shoulder, steadying her. Despite his aloofness and his wariness of public displays of affection, he had been less reluctant to display them recently. Rinoa mused for a moment just how far he had come along in the past two years. He supported her seamlessly and took his role without falter, whereas once he would have been like a deer trapped in headlights, wondering what he should do and how.
When her rumination passed, she met Quistis’ stare and thought over her question. “Bad, as usual. But more happened.”
Selphie perked her head up, and her mouth formed a little “o.” She left her fork sticking out in the middle of her omelet and asked, “Really? What happened?”
Rinoa described the dream she had, from the screaming to the group of people to the dark man, and then, of course, the boy who threw himself in front of her, wearing the Griever pendant.
“Griever?” Quistis looked to Squall, the only known wearer of the lion’s visage. “Are you sure, Rinoa?”
She nodded. “Yeah, I’m sure. It was the only distinct thing I saw.”
The entire table fell silent, at a loss as to what to say. Squall looked pensive, and Rinoa saw him unconsciously poke his own chain at one point. Selphie and Irvine were looking at each other, trying to come up with the answer together without saying a word. Zell eyed his breakfast warily, for once his appetite seemingly diminished. Quistis had her arms crossed, and she wore the same look she had whenever she was checking over her students’ work.
“Weird,” Zell finally concluded, taking a bite out of his bacon. “Definitely weird. And this has been going on for, what, two weeks now?”
“The timing is odd,” Quistis murmured. “If I remember correctly, your first nightmare was about two days after Seifer came here.”
Seifer had returned to Garden a little over two weeks ago. It wasn’t a permanent return, as he stressed, but the fact was that after two years of little contact, no one had expected him to ever set foot inside Balamb Garden again. His following actions had been just as odd: he had asked to see the Headmaster immediately, and then they talked in his office for over two hours. Although Squall was still Commander, he hadn’t been informed of what the meeting had entailed.
That particular aspect was bothering the Squall. “I noticed it, too. I can’t blame the dreams on Seifer; it’d be ridiculous. Still, I want to know why he came back. He’s still hanging around Balamb.”
Selphie nodded. “You know, I saw him by the train station in town the other day.” She set her fork down again as she continued, “And the strangest thing happened: he actually went up and talked to me. I didn’t mind or anything. I couldn’t get much out of him about what he was doing, but he did ask if we were all okay.”
“Did you tell him about Rinoa?” Irvine asked.
“No, actually. I didn’t think of it at the time.” She glanced around the table at everyone, but her eyes then remained fixed on Squall. “Do you think we should tell him?”
“What the hell?” Zell slammed his fist into the table. The impact shook the table and nearly knocked over some plates and cups. “It’s Seifer! We don’t need to tell him squat! Hell, I’m pissed Squall hasn’t been told about what’s going on. Why hasn’t the Headmaster said anything?”
Quistis waved her hand, motioning for Zell to calm down. “Look, we may be overreacting. The business Seifer has with Headmaster Cid may be personal, although with his behavior and Rinoa’s dreams, it does seem a little unlikely now,” she added with a frown.
Rinoa glanced over at Squall and gently rubbed his arm. “You look determined.”
He looked down at her and gave her a half smile. “I am. I’m going to have a word with Cid later. I’ll tell him about what’s been going on with you. Maybe he’ll be more willing to talk then.”
“Go for it, man,” Zell encouraged with a pumped fist.
Irvine nodded, and tipped his hat. “Wish you luck. Cid’s been pretty tight-lipped about this.”
Squall shook his head. “I don’t care. If it’s about Rinoa, I’ll get it out of him.”
“Gonna use the ‘I’m a knight and therefore have a right to know about anything pertaining to my sorceress’ card?” Selphie whispered.
Squall met Rinoa’s gaze for a brief moment. He squeezed her hand, and said, “Whatever works.”
The elevator chimed, and the doors opened. Squall stepped out, and walked down the short hallway to the Headmaster’s office. His door was cracked open, signaling he was in. Squall knocked lightly before stepping inside.
Cid looked up from his desk and smiled. “Squall, my boy! Come in. I was just looking over the upcoming quarter’s budget. Fascinating material.” He pushed his glasses back a little. “Really, I’d rather be watching a Blobra mating ritual than this.”
Squall stood to attention in front of his desk. “Sir, although I’ve never had the opportunity to watch Blobras mate, I understand.”
Cid snorted out a laugh. “There’s that dry humor Rinoa keeps insisting you have. How is she, anyway?”
Squall hesitated, and despite his effort, he let uncertainty pass through his eyes for a moment.
Cid set the pile of papers down on his desk. “What is it?” he asked. “Did something happen?”
“No,” Squall interrupted. He took a deep breath, and then pressed on before Cid could interrupt. “Rinoa’s been having recurring nightmares since Seifer came back.” He gave the Headmaster a hard look. “I wouldn’t call that a coincidence, especially considering that Seifer’s been asking Selphie about all of us, he’s been hanging around Balamb for no apparent reason, and so far I’ve been given no explanation.”
Cid sighed, and pushed the papers to the side. “Squall-”
Squall and Cid looked towards the door, where Seifer was standing. The former rebel leaned against the threshold with his arms loosely crossed. “If Rinoa’s affected, then he needs to know.”
“Seifer.” Squall didn’t know what else to say. He hadn’t seen his rival since the Ultimecia War had ended and Seifer had taken off for parts unknown. What did one say in such a situation anyway?
Cid leaned back in his chair. “Squall, you need to understand. The reason I haven’t told you anything yet is because there isn’t much to tell.”
Squall narrowed his eyes. “What do you mean?”
Seifer rolled his eyes. “Exactly like he said. We don’t know much.”
“Know much about what?” Squall said through gritted teeth.
Cid and Seifer exchanged glances before the older man began, “Nearly three weeks ago, Seifer was approached by an unknown man wearing a cloak. He asked for Seifer’s help. He also mentioned something about looking for a particular sorceress, is that right?”
Seifer shrugged. “Yeah. I told him to fuck off, and the next thing I know, I was sent straight through a wall.” He rolled his right shoulder like he was trying to flex out some soreness. “For a guy, he had a lot of magic power.”
Squall frowned in concern. “Where is he?”
“Hell if I know.” Seifer lifted up his hand, which was wrapped in bandages from the wrist down. “After I got treated for my injuries, I came here.”
“Instinct. He said something about looking for a sorceress. Rinoa was the first one I thought of.”
Seifer’s words and his concern surprised Squall, but he didn’t show it. He merely nodded in thanks. “And nothing more has been learned?”
“No,” Cid said, pushing back his glasses as he sighed, “nothing. It’s hard, since we know so little. Has Rinoa been seeing this man in her dreams at all?”
“Yeah. She couldn’t make out a lot of features, but he was wearing a cloak, too. This man,” Squall turned to Seifer again, “he didn’t say anything about also looking for a group of people, did he?”
Seifer shook his head. “There are others involved?”
“She didn’t see the man in her dream until last night. All the nightmares before involved a heavy atmosphere of darkness and a group of people.” The cloaked man, the group… they all had to be connected. Squall was sure of it. “She said she was pretty sure they were young, maybe our age or a little younger.”
Seifer furrowed his brow. He leaned against the wall, his battered gray coat ruffling against it. “I don’t know,” he said.
Cid addressed Squall. “Did these people do anything? How did Rinoa react to them?”
“She wanted to protect them. She’s always running towards them, and they’re always screaming. She finds them standing in front of this darkness, like they’re facing it down…” Squall thought of the boy who rushed to protect her, the one who wore Griever around his neck. It was certainly frustrating not knowing who he was, but for reasons Squall couldn’t explain, he also felt concern.
He looked back at the Headmaster, who seemed perturbed when he trailed off. Squall shifted on his feet and hesitantly added, “Normally, they just huddle together. But when the man appeared in this dream, Rinoa was trying to shield them from him. One of them ran up when he was about to attack her. He was also wearing this.” Squall pulled at his pendant.
Seifer leaned over to see. “And it wasn’t you?”
“No. She said she was sure it wasn’t me.”
“Well,” Cid said after a moment of silence, “Ellone will be here in two days. I contacted your father-”
Squall grimaced at the term. Even after two years, he still had a hard time accepting the bumbling Laguna as his father.
He heard Seifer snicker at his grimace. He shot him a glare, but his rival merely smirked in return.
“-and told him the situation.” As a measure of precaution, Cid shot Seifer a warning look before continuing, “Ellone is going to try and send some people back to that moment, to see if there is anything we missed. It’s a shot in the dark, to be honest, but she wants to help, and she misses all of you.”
Squall smiled slightly. With the rough two weeks he’d been having, seeing Ellone would do some good. “It’s worth a try. I think the more people she can send back, the better. That’s all the more perspectives to see it from.”
“I agree,” Cid said. “So, I ask you to inform Rinoa and the others about this. Seifer,” His eyes glanced over to ex-knight. “I know you’ve been in contact with Fujin and Raijin. They will be of help, too. We can’t pull strangers into this, so it’ll be up to the nine of you.”
Squall nodded and saluted Cid. “Thank you, sir.”
All that left him was the small matter of explaining this to his friends.
The next two days passed by in a blur. Naturally, everyone was just as confused and worried about the mystery man and his encounter with Seifer, and naturally, everyone was excited about Ellone coming to Garden. It helped quell the tension that seemed to hang in the air every time they discussed either Seifer’s meeting with the man or Rinoa’s dreams.
Between Squall’s regular duties as a Commander, the broken nights of sleep, and worrying about the new situation, he felt he barely had time to breathe, let alone think much.
To make matters worse, Seifer was also filling his thoughts. As much as he didn’t want to, Squall had to indulge those thoughts. It was hard to ignore a rival of nearly a dozen years, after all.
Squall had had a feeling they would meet again at some point, but he was expecting Seifer to be his same old self: the cocky, self-confident, unconcerned, slightly immature and headstrong man who would make plenty of snide remarks to him and try to spur him into a fight.
Yet, the man he was faced with in Cid’s office was very different. He still appeared self-confident, and he certainly got his kicks in at Squall’s expense, but his motivations and demeanor had changed. He was the one who wanted to tell Squall about the mystery man. And there was a level of respect that had not been there. Maybe if he had been asking Cid about the matter as Garden’s Commander, Seifer would have made some retort. The deference seemed to be aimed at his position as a knight. Seifer’s exact reasoning behind it was unknown to Squall, but he certainly had noticed it.
It was brought up at breakfast on the day of Ellone’s arrival. Out of curiosity, Quistis had asked Squall how Seifer was.
“Different,” Squall answered.
Rinoa clapped a hand over her mouth, stifling giggles as Zell, Irvine, and Quistis gave him deadpan looks.
“Description, Squall!” Selphie demanded with a pointed finger aimed at his chest. “You can’t just say he’s changed and not say how!”
Squall scratched his head with one finger, his mouth downturned in thought. “He’s more… calm. More laidback. He actually told Cid to tell me about what happened. He…”
“Actually gave a damn?” Zell suggested after Squall faltered.
“Yeah. He’s always been passionate, but this is different. There were plenty of opportunities for him to get under my skin. But he didn’t.”
Rinoa looked pensive. “A lot has happened in two years. There’s no telling where he has been or seen. And that’s a lot of time to think over the past,” she said, her tone becoming quieter as she progressed. “I just hope he’s been taking care of himself.”
“Yo!” From the other side of the cafeteria, Raijin was calling out to them, Fujin trailing behind him. “Hey, guys. She’s here.”
“Awesome!” Zell leapt out of his chair and pumped his fists. “We haven’t seen Sis in months. This’ll be great.”
Irvine chuckled as he stood up as well. “You do know this isn’t some social call, right?”
“Pfft. Well, yeah, but this should be pretty easy, right?”
“Come on,” Squall said. “Let’s go before Zell overexcites himself or something.”
Rinoa giggled when Zell glowered at Squall, and she took her boyfriend’s hand in hers. “You’re excited, too. Admit it.”
They gathered in the Headmaster’s office. Ellone was sitting in one of the chairs, chatting away happily with Cid, Seifer and Edea. She turned her head when the door opened and beamed. “Everyone!”
There were plenty of waves and “hellos” exchanged, depending upon the excitability of the person. Ellone got up and greeted each one of them. She gave Squall a secretive smile, and patted him on the cheek. “How are you?”
He nodded. “All right. How are you and Laguna?”
“Oh, well, all right.” She saddened a little, perhaps because of his consistent habit of calling Laguna by his first name. “It’s been pretty quiet in Esthar lately.” She glanced over at Rinoa, and smiled again. “How are you?”
“I – I’m good!” Rinoa said quickly.
“You don’t need to be so nervous in front of me. I can never have enough little sisters.” She ruffled Rinoa’s hair. “After how well you’ve taken care of Squall, I could never think any less of you.”
“God knows he needs it.” Seifer grinned that same cocky smile Squall had once known so well. The Commander almost found it nostalgic, or would have if it wasn’t so irritating.
Quistis raised a brow, but there were hints of a smile. “Ah, there’s the Seifer we know. Welcome back.”
Zell scratched his head. “Two weeks later. Nice to show your face.”
“Chicken-wuss.” Seifer sighed dramatically, although the smirk never left his eyes. “Wish I could say the same. Still swatting flies?”
Zell immediately went on the defensive, bunching his fists and glaring at him. Quistis slapped her forehead, and Selphie huffed.
“Seifer,” Edea said gently but firmly, “Zell, enough. We’re here because of a serious situation.”
Both immediately backed down. No one, not even Seifer, dared to disobey her.
Cid stood up, and nodded to all of them. “Now that we’re all here, we can begin. All of us, I believe, have been briefed on the situation. The six of you,” He motioned to Squall and his friends, “have been sent back via Ellone’s powers before. I know the rest of you haven’t. Simply, what will happen is Ellone will take your consciousness and bring it to a point in the past. You’ll essentially be a neutral third party in witnessing the event. It’s a bit of a strange experience, from what I’ve been told, but you’ll be fine.”
Seifer, Fujin, and Raijin nodded. “Fine,” Seifer said. “Let’s just do this.”
Edea placed a hand on Ellone’s shoulder. “Are you sure you can do this? Send nine at once?”
“We’ll all be okay.” She motioned to the nine she was sending back. “You might want to spread out a little. I wouldn’t want anyone to knock their heads together when they fall unconscious.”
Fujin and Raijin exchanged skeptical glances. Seifer backed up and sat down against a wall. The others also sat on the ground, making sure to keep distance between them and their neighbors.
“You’ll be hearing a ringing sound, and feel tired.” Ellone clasped her hands together. “Everyone ready?”
They nodded, and Ellone concentrated. Nothing happened for a moment, and then nine sets of eyes began to droop. One by one, they fell unconscious as they collapsed on the floor, and the whole room went silent.
A fist clenched behind the long sleeve of a dark cloak. He stepped onto the platform, glancing at the device below him before looking up at the sky. I finally made it back far enough. Now I can try it. He let his consciousness spread out and felt Ellone use her power. He had taught himself how to break into her powers through the help of Junction Machine Ellone, and it was for this exact situation that he had practiced and trained for. This is the perfect chance.
Despite some scares, mainly that dratted sorceress being able to glimpse into his plans, he almost had success in his hands. All he had to do was hijack into Ellone’s power, steal the connection to those minds he so avidly hated, and then perform the spell. He had tried to bring Seifer into his ranks, since he had helped her once upon a time, but the former “knight” (I can’t believe she gave him that title. How could she do that to – hell, what am I thinking? Now’s not the time for this.) had refused to help. His loss, the cloaked man mused.
He smiled in triumph as he pushed his consciousness through into Ellone’s powers. Let the chains of time break free.