The Ragnarok was already asking permission from Esthar air control to land when Laguna arrived at the landing pad. One of his aides was talking into a headset, a finger pressing his earpiece as he tried to drown the hum of the engines. Ellone's shawl was flapping in the dry wind, and she had one hand shielding her eyes as she observed the airship. "I've always wanted to ride it," she said, and Laguna gave her a fond look.
The craft landed smoothly -- it was surprisingly quiet despite its age, that's Estharian technology for you -- and he saw Squall making his way down the ramp, squinting a bit against the sun. He couldn't see the other two SeeDs who were supposed to be with Squall -- Laguna had understood that Selphie and Zell had been assigned to a mission somewhere in the Shennard Hills, and they would be dropping the three of them off at Winhill. Squall looked like he was going to wave back, or perhaps extend a hand for a handshake, when Ellone threw herself at him, hugging him tightly. He staggered back a step before steadying himself, startled by the tactile show of affection, before giving her an awkward pat on the shoulders. She let him go after a while, and he was absently straightening Ellone's shawl before he moved away.
"It's good to see you, Sis," he said, not quite a smile on his face, but he seemed more relaxed than he was before. He glanced up the walkway and Laguna saw Zell was standing there, a hand raised in greeting.
"Oh, wow, this is really great." Ellone was almost skipping up the steps as she went to where Zell was standing. "Isn't this the most wonderful airship ever?"
Zell banged the control panel near the entrance with the heel of his hand. "It's almost twenty years out of date, Sis. Laguna must have better ships in his fleet."
"Nothing like this one, though," Ellone said, giving Zell a quick peck on his cheek. Zell beamed at her. "I'm glad you guys don't mind giving us a ride."
Laguna shook his head, hiding his own smile. "Elle, you practically twisted their arms for this." Ellone gave a negligent wave of a hand at that, her attention already on Zell.
"Nah, it's not a problem," Zell said. "And Selphie would be happy to pilot this thing anywhere."
Laguna glanced at Squall, who gave a slight shrug. Ellone ignored them both and headed towards the interior of the ship. Behind him, he could hear one of the aides conferring with Kiros, both of them (despite conversing in whispers) sounding exasperated.
"Aw, come on. You guys worry about everything. Can't you see how excited Elle is?" He gave them his most charming grin. "Besides, how dangerous can it be with three SeeDs and Ellone around?" Kiros gave him a look that Laguna easily interpreted as 'you owe me one'. Ward wasn't the only one who communicated silently. The aid said something about inspecting the ship, and Squall favoured him with a stony look. The man took a hasty step back. "You sure you okay with this?" he asked Squall, who nodded, and turned to escort him towards up the ramp. "Just like old times, eh?"
His son shook his head, and this time he actually smiled. "Whatever."
Perhaps this vacation idea of Ellone's wasn't a bad one after all, he thought, as they made their way towards the cockpit, Zell and Ellone's voices carrying towards them, Zell telling her something about some martial arts class he was teaching. From the sound of the engines, it seemed like Selphie was already going through the start up sequence -- she really wasn't wasting any time. Quite possibly she just wanted to get away from Esthar air control -- those guys could be a prissy lot. They passed by the windows and Laguna could see air strip pulling away from them and gave a relieved sigh. Squall glanced at him, a sharp, questioning look in his eyes.
He gave an expansive shrug. "I swear, they don't trust me to go anywhere alone. It's like they expect me to cause trouble anywhere I go."
"When is it that you don't?" Squall retorted, more out of habit instead of having any heat behind it.
Laguna sighed again. "Won't be surprised if they're actually sending some security people to keep an eye on us. Don't know why they think they need to do that, 'specially with you around." Squall seemed startled at first by the casual compliment before brushing it off, though Laguna thought he was rather pleased by it. They entered the cockpit to see Zell talking to Selphie, who was at the controls, while Ellone was looking at the disappearing city below. The Salt Flats were glittering in the afternoon sunlight, brighter even than the sea. She seemed more pensive than excited now.
He still couldn't quite believe they had let Selphie pilot the ship. "Hi Selphie," he said in greeting. "Good to to see you again."
"Oh, hey, it's Sir Laguna!" She swivelled away from the controls, smiling brightly. Laguna gave a yelp of surprise, wondering how she could just turn away from all those buttons and gauges and ominously blinking lights. Zell immediately spun her back.
"Hey! Put it on autopilot or concentrate," he said, trying to reach for a switch. Selphie slapped his hand away, her attention back on the console.
"Autopilot's no fun." Laguna could hear the grin in her voice even without her facing him. "Can't do a no hands loop the loop with it on."
Zell looked alarmed. "Hell, no. We're not gonna try that one again. She's nuts, y'know," he grumbled, looking at Squall for support. Squall ignored both of them -- even Laguna could tell that the bickering was routine.
"Don't be mean, Zell," Ellone admonished. "I'm sure Selphie knows what she's doing." She slipped into the co-pilot's seat, looking at the gauges with interest.
"Yeah!" said Selphie, sticking her tongue out at Zell. She flicked a switch, and Laguna felt a slight dip in altitude before the airship straightened itself, which hopefully meant that Selphie had switched to autopilot. "So. Tell us. What are you guys planning to do for the next few days?"
Laguna looked at Squall, who shrugged. Ellone looked at both of them and shook her head. "Okay, I'm sorry to have tricked the two of you like that, but otherwise neither of you would've agreed to come with me." Laguna opened his mouth. "Both of you. Together." Laguna closed his mouth again. He didn't have anything against it, not really, he just didn't think it was necessary to drag them to Winhill for a little family reunion. Squall rubbed his forehead, clearly more agitated about the whole thing than he had let on.
"Well," said Selphie, either oblivious to the tension or trying to ease it, "now that you've managed that, what do you plan to do?"
"I'm not sure -- visit Raine's grave, I guess. Take a look at the pub, look at the flowers. I just wanted the see the old place again." She give a winsome smile. "And, somehow or other, get these two to stop working."
Zell gave a snort. "Good luck with that -- I don't think 'vacation' is in Squall's vocabulary." Squall shot him a glare but didn't say anything.
"At any rate," Selphie said, "we'll get to Winhill in about three hours, maybe? Probably faster if I switched autopilot off." Her tone was perfectly innocent, but Zell was already shaking his head no, and Laguna took the hint.
"Uh. Autopilot is fine by me. There's no rush, really."
"If you say so!" she said, all sunshine and cheer, before turning to Ellone. "So, Sis, you want me to show you how this thing works?"
Ellone's eyes gleamed as bright as Selphie's. "Oh, yes, that will be wonderful."
She would be demanding flying lessons next, he just knew it. "We're doomed," Laguna muttered.
Squall gave him an odd look before glancing at the console -- probably making sure autopilot was really on -- before addressing Laguna. "You can take the lift back down to the passenger room -- it's more comfortable there than sitting here watching Selphie." There was a hint of a smile in his eyes, though his voice remained nonchalant.
It was enough to catch Selphie's attention, even when she had her back turned to him. Sometimes Laguna was envious of how well Squall's friends knew him. She turned around and narrowed her eyes at Squall. "You know what that makes me really mad?"
"What?" Squall asked, crossing his arms.
"Sometimes I can't tell whether you're being mean or just yourself," she huffed. Zell was grinning now and Selphie turned her glare on him, but it was not fazing him one bit. Squall was surprisingly good at keeping the equilibrium of his team without actually interfering.
Ellone laughed. "Oh, don't mind him, it's just a front, you know." She caught Squall's eyes. "I'll join you two later? Zell's going to give me a grand tour of the airship."
Squall seemed taken aback. He clearly hadn't expected to be removed from the cockpit. "While I trust Selphie to get us there safely," Selphie gave Squall a suspicious look at that, "what am I supposed to be doing down there with Laguna?"
Ellone began to tick things off her fingers. "Talk. Catch up on things; talk about work if you have to. If you run out of subjects -- The Trabia Peace Summit is coming up: discuss. Play cards -- Laguna's awful with the Plus rule. Admire the view."
He glanced at Squall, who looked back at him, nonplussed. He couldn't be used to people ordering him around, though he conceded this one gracefully enough. "We could use the Same rule and not talk about any summits?" Squall offered. "Though I doubt you can win with Same either." His hand was firm and steady on Laguna's back as he ushered Laguna to the lift. Ellone's laughter followed them as the lift moved downwards.
He discovered that Squall's prediction was accurate, as always. He shook his head in disgust as he lost another round. Squall took Laguna's Buel card without much thought; his mind seemed to be elsewhere. "Any idea what Ellone wants us to talk about?" Squall asked, absently choosing another four cards from his deck.
"I have no clue," Laguna told him. He watched as Squall placed the Buel card back on the grid, wondering whether he had any chance at all of winning it back.
Squall flicked him a glance. "I haven't been ignoring your calls or anything, have I?" Last time Ellone had went on a tirade when they had went down to Balamb, going on and on about how it couldn't be that difficult to pick up a phone and call them. It had been a sight -- the students were quite in awe of the slight woman who had managed to shout their commander down.
Laguna thought about it. "Well, there was that time when you put my call on hold and then forgot about me---
"There was an emergency in the Training Centre at the time."
"---aside from that, no, I've got nothin'."
"Maybe she really does just want a break from Esthar?"
"Maybe, but she chose Winhill. I would've chosen a seaside hotel somewhere." Laguna frowned, placing an Adamantoise card on the grid. He must be understanding the rules wrongly again, or playing using the wrong one -- it almost looked like he was winning. "She must want something else." Squall was quiet as he considered that, but he didn't reply. He placed a Bite Bug card down beside the Adamantoise. Laguna scratched his head. "You sure you're using that one? That means I win, see?"
Squall looked down at the grid, startled, before giving a sharp bark of laughter. "Damn, you're right. No, I'm not taking the move back. Serves me right for not paying attention."
That didn't seem like Squall. "Is everything okay?" he asked, retrieving the Buel card from the grid and not bothering to choose cards for the next round.
"Just tired. We had a batch of new recruits and some students transferring from Galbadia Garden last week, so more work than usual."
"More paperwork than usual, I bet," Laguna said with a snort.
"I dump those on Quistis and Xu, usually," Squall said, a glint in his eyes, and Laguna laughed. "It's nice to get away from all that, though."
Laguna's gaze strayed to the table and the preoccupied way Squall was toying with his cards. "I'm done with Triple Triad," Laguna announced. "You can challenge Ellone when she comes down -- she's a lot better than me."
"You just want to end on a win," Squall accused, pushing aside his cards and the grid. "And I don't want to play Ellone; even Quisty has a hard time winning games against her."
Laguna grinned. "Better you than me," he said. "I'm getting a drink. You want one?"
"Sure." Squall stretched and reclined in his seat, stifling a yawn as he did so. Laguna didn't even bother to ask what he wanted. When he returned, Squall had drifted asleep, chin resting on his chest, his hair a mess obscuring his face. Laguna smiled and sat across him, his gaze flickering from Squall to the clouds and back to Squall, as Winhill grew nearer.
Winhill looked much like it did the last time he visited. Still sleepy, still tucked in its own corner of the world, not realising that time had passed by. They had rooms at the Flower Restaurant, which, like the rest of Winhill, hadn't changed much. Squall seemed to be more intent on frowning at the cobblestone streets. Ellone was looking around, exclaiming at the changes; small, most of them: a new clinic next to the town hall, new signboards for the now slightly busier streets. Laguna probably wouldn't have noticed any of them if he didn't have Ellone with him.
They visited the old pub, which was open even though it was mid-afternoon, and it was still cool and dim inside. The interior had just been repainted, though everything else looked pretty much the same. The new proprietor smiled when they entered. Laguna didn't know why he was surprised someone else was standing behind the counter, but he was. And it was strange, coming back. He kept thinking that people would still resent him and look at him sideways, curious about this stranger who was part of the Galbadian army. Apparently there were more visitors to Winhill these days, but it was nothing like Dollet or even Balamb. He only half-listened as Ellone talked to the woman, and the half-lies she told about being the daughter of a second cousin twice removed of the previous owner, here to visit after being away for years.
"We have the loft to ourselves," she said, looking around. "They sure made some changes to this place." She moved her hand across the counter top, almost a caress. "It still feels like she polishes it every day." Laguna didn't know what to say. Squall was running a finger along the whorls in the wood, looking almost lost. "Come on," Ellone said, latching on to Squall's arm and dragging him towards the stairs. "It's no longer a living space, the owner says; it's more like a lounge for people to sit and talk now."
Squall followed her without a word. Laguna lingered for a while, trying to think of something profound and couldn't think of anything at all. He followed them upstairs, the steps creaking familiarly under his boots. He froze in surprise when he reached the upper floor. There were flowers everywhere. Vases full of flowers, planters hanging from the window ledges, potted plants by the sofas. Laguna shook his head. Raine had liked flowers, but she hadn't really been one to have lots of them in the house. Too much maintenance, she had said once, before handing him a broom and telling him to sweep the floor.
Ellone started to laugh. "Oh, no. Even the flower shop was never this crowded with flowers." Her laughter faded into a sigh. She sat down on a chair, tilting her head to look at the sunlight streaming in through the windows. "I know I shouldn't be surprised things have changed, but I am," Ellone confessed. "Winhill doesn't seem like a place where things change, does it? I sort of expected it stay the same forever."
"Nothing stays the same forever," Squall murmured, almost too quietly to hear.
Ellone shook herself. "There used to be beds there," Ellone said, pointing to one corner, "and a small wardrobe there, but then when Laguna and Raine got married, they moved some of the stuff around." She grinned suddenly, all mischief and childish glee once again. "I got my own room then. I used to wonder why."
"You know, you were probably---" Laguna began, gesturing at Squall, and the boy gave him a wary look. He caught on pretty fast, colour creeping up his collarbone, then to his face, and he cut Laguna off before he could continue.
"You probably don't want to finish that sentence." He never intended to, but it was fun to get a reaction from Squall every now and then.
"Why shouldn't he?" Ellone asked, putting on her best innocent expression. Squall looked flustered -- a first! a point to Laguna! -- and Ellone started giggling. "Never mind, never mind; I was just teasing." She looked around the loft again. "I wonder what happened to that stuffed rabbit that used to sit on the dresser over there."
Laguna couldn't remember it at all. All of them were quiet for a moment. Squall sat on the sofa and looked around the room, eyes flitting from the skylights to the patches of sunlight by the windows. "You sure remember a lot, Sis." He sounded a bit sad, and Laguna wanted to say something comforting, anything, but nothing came to mind. Ellone moved to perch on the armrest, and startled Squall by ruffling his hair.
"Yeah, but half of it is not . . . really memory; not the way you remember things, I guess," she said, brows drawn together in concentration. "I see it over and over, and rarely as myself. It's like experiencing the past as someone else, through someone else, and I'm powerless to stop things, or change what has happened."
"Not exactly typical," Squall said, offering her a small, apologetic smile. "You have other people's memories, I can't remember mine." Laguna was surprised when Squall glanced at him, eyebrows raised. "Pretty messed up family you have."
Ellone had never sent him into the past; just Squall's consciousness into his past. Just thinking of it made Laguna's head hurt. Ellone said that she had tried to send her own consciousness to the past, into Laguna's, though he had to admit he had never noticed. He had noticed Squall's presence almost immediately, though he can't say whether it was because it was Squall, or simply because he had been junctioned to GFs at the time.
He cleared his throat. " I have a good memory."
Ellone scoffed. "You can't even remember the date most of the time."
"Hey," he protested, half-hearted. "What does that have to do with anything?"
Squall seemed to be considering something, a slight frown creasing his brows and an intent expression on his face. Raine used to have that same look when she had something on her mind, or when she had something to say to him but she couldn't quite find a way to get it through his thick skull. "What is it?" Laguna asked.
He shook his head. "Nothing. Just thinking."
"Squall, we wouldn't know what you're thinking if you don't tell us," Laguna said, wondering, not for the first time, whether he was supposed to be a mind-reader to understand the boy.
Squall gave him a piercing look at that, abruptly standing up. For a moment, Laguna thought he was going to storm out of the room. A sudden trill of a phone startled all of them. Squall reached for the phone in his back pocket, snapped it open with more force than necessary. "Sorry, that's mine. It's probably Xu or Quistis asking about next week's training schedule." He strode towards the stairs without looking back.
Laguna watched him go. "What did I say this time?"
"Triggered some memories, I think." Ellone was sombre now. "Rinoa used to say that every now and then."
Laguna sighed, burying his face in his hands. "Ah, hell. How am I supposed to know these things?" Ellone touched his arm in gentle sympathy. "I don't know, Elle. Sometimes we get along fine, sometimes I don't understand him at all."
"That's probably the same with parents everywhere," Ellone said, all practicality and logic, and Laguna had to smile. They left the pub after a while, nodding at the owner's invitation that they drop by for a drink later.
They headed back to the Flower Restaurant, where dinner later that evening was a muted affair. The call to Garden didn't seem to be just a pretence -- Squall was still arguing with someone over the phone, although Laguna didn't think it was Quistis he was talking to. He excused himself from dinner even before they started, and neither himself or Ellone tried to make him stay. Laguna returned to his room feeling irritated at himself, at Squall, and the world in general.
Ellone was poking at the files he had placed on the small table in the room. He slid into a chair and picked one randomly. "I really don't understand why you brought these files." Ellone gave them the same look she would have given at the moldy take-away in Laguna's fridge. "It's supposed to be a break from work."
"Might as well get these done. It's not like I have anything else to do this evening, and it's your fault anyway, choosing such a busy time."
"It's always a busy time," Ellone replied, automatic, and Laguna didn't bother to argue. They've had the same conversation too many times. He started scanning the page, trying to make sense of the summary. It was some redevelopment plan for the eastern district, making space for a new hospital and an upgrade to the highways. He could almost swear that he had seen the same report a couple of months ago. He was halfway through it when he started yawning, and after a minute he couldn't focus on it at all.
He stood up and wavered a little. "Uncle Laguna?" It was Ellone, and she sounded far off. He was a bit surprised that she was beside him in an instant, steadying him.
He waved her away. "I'm just a little--" He tried to stifle a yawn as he stumbled towards the couch. He managed to drop himself into it without falling to the floor. "--sleepy."
"It's been a long day," Ellone said, and there was something in her voice that immediately sent Laguna's parental senses on high alert, "you probably should rest a bit." He expected her to make a joke about how old he was getting but he couldn't quite focus on her voice any more. He closed his eyes and fell asleep almost instantly.
It was cold. He wasn't sure where he was. There was a lighthouse in the distance, gloomy and foreboding in the misty twilight. The lights flashed at regular intervals, but it didn't look like it was enough to cut through the impending darkness. He wondered how the ships were supposed to see it. He continued to throw pebbles into the sea, counting each one. He was up to twenty-four.
(Where am I? he thought.) He shook his head, trying to clear it. This was his secret hiding place, of course. No one else knew where it was.
Twenty-five. Twenty-six. His hands were clammy. He wiped them on his shorts and picked up another stone. Twenty-seven.
Someone was calling his name. "Squall!" He dropped stone number twenty-eight to the ground. "Squall? I know you're hiding down there! Come back up here -- the tide is coming in." He scrambled up, sand sticking to his knees, and started climbing back up towards the promontory. True, the tide was coming in, but he knew it wouldn't come in this high; he'd hidden here throughout the night before. "Squall!"
"I'm coming!" He hurried up the last few metres and some of the bramble caught his arm, and he shook it off angrily. A girl was sitting on one of the stone steps leading up to the flower field, and he immediately felt glad she came to find him and sorry for making her worry in the first place.
"Elle," he said, part greeting, part apology, and the girl tilted her head, her expression one of mild puzzlement. She would be puzzled; he almost never called her by name. "Sis," he corrected himself. "I was gonna come back in a bit, you didn't have to worry."
"It's getting dark," she replied, "and I can worry if I want to." She saw the scratch on his arm and blew a noisy breath out of her nose. "See, that's why I worry."
He just stood there, shuffling his feet. "Sorry."
She made some sort of comforting sound as she carefully brushed away the dirt around the scratch. "It's not very deep. I'll clean it up and bandage it when we get inside, okay?" He nodded. It was completely dark now, with only the two steady beams from the lighthouse illuminating the landscape, and the warm, faint light in the orphanage where Matron was probably fretting because they still weren't in for dinner.
Ellone was kneeling in front of him so she could meet his eyes, both of her hands gently gripping his arms. (She was older now -- seven, maybe -- and he had enough sense now to separate his own thoughts from Squall's and he was still struggling with the fact that he's in Squall's head, and Squall was all four-and-a-half and unhappy and resentful that he had to share his sister with everyone in the orphanage.) There was a slight frown creasing her face instead of the usual smile. She had been distracted lately, thinking grown-up thoughts. "Squall, listen," she said, and she sounded solemn and a little sad.
There was that sigh again, soft and knowing. "I might not always be around, you know?"
"You won't? Why?"
She dusted her knees before pulling him towards the steps to sit beside her. She put an arm around his shoulders and held him close, and he didn't resist at all. "Sometimes . . . people need to leave. Not because they want to, but because they have to, or -- what's that phrase Mr Kramer sometimes uses? -- extenuating circumstances make it impossible for them to stay."
He snuggled closer to her. She hugged him, tucking his head under her chin. "Like my parents?"
Ellone hesitated for a moment. "Yes, like your parents. They would have stayed with you if they could, you know that."
(I'm sorry I left. I'm so, so sorry.)
He could tell she was surprised. She pulled away slightly to look at him. "For what? You haven't done anything wrong," she said as she ruffled his hair. He didn't like that, not really; it made him feel like a little kid, but he thought that Ellone probably found some comfort from doing so. "But if something happens, you'll be okay without me. You'll have Matron, and all your other friends, and I'll be thinking of you. Always." She pulled him back for another hug. "Okay?"
He couldn't imagine his life without her, but he didn't want her to worry. "Okay." His voice was muffled against her clothes, so maybe she couldn't hear how close he was to tears.
They sat there for a few moments longer before Ellone stood up. She pulled him to his feet, holding his right hand, careful of the scratch. "Let's go home. Matron will be worried."
(I love you, Squall.)
"I love you too," he mumbled, and Ellone gave him a brilliant, beautiful smile as they made their way back to the old stone house.
He woke up feeling disoriented. It was dark outside, and with no bright lights polluting the sky it seemed like there were thousands more of stars, and they seemed closer and brighter. He rubbed his eyes, trying to remember when he had decided to lie down on the couch. He wondered where Squall was and whether he should go and talk to the boy. There was a rustle of papers from the table, and he stiffened in panic, but he only spotted Ellone sitting there, head bent under the warm glow of the lamp, going through one of the thick green folders that came from the Ministry of Home Affairs. He sat up, stretching to get rid of the crick in his neck. God, he must be getting old.
"Elle, what are you doing?" he asked, trying to stop yawning and not succeeding.
"Forging your signature," she replied, inordinately cheerful. "You're on vacation and you don't have to do this. And your handwriting's awful enough -- no one will be able to tell the difference."
He struggled to find appropriate words. Surely Raine and Edea had raised her better than that? "Ellone. I need to read those proposals before signing them."
The girl waved the pen -- his pen, the one Squall had given to him as a father's day gift last year, muttering something about being under duress -- at him. "I've read them, and I know as much as you do what's going on. More, maybe." She bit her lower lip and with another look of intense concentration she scrawled on the paper in front of her. "It's difficult to make my writing look that bad," she explained. Laguna just gaped at her. "I should run for office next election. You can make me Minister for Home Affairs."
He closed his mouth. Gaping was no good; Squall had told him once it made him look like an idiot. "And where should I put Kiros?" he managed.
"He can be vice president. And he can take Finance. You make a mess out of that portfolio anyway." He blinked at her. He didn't feel like he was up for a verbal spar, and Ellone always won anyway. She put the file aside, and he watched as she stepped away from the small table and walked towards him. "Do you feel better?" she asked, her voice cautious. "How was your nap?"
He frowned, not really sure what had happened. "I'm fine. I just felt very sleepy."
"Yes. Like faeries had come over and sprinkled you with dust, maybe?" She wasn't making much sense. She was watching him very carefully; he remembered that look from when she was little -- when she had done something that she knew would get her into trouble, she would watch him and Raine like that, trying to gauge how they would react. Laguna wasn't sure how he was supposed to react -- his head still felt fuzzy and he knew he was missing something.
It was those awkward conversations with Squall, he decided, and that odd dream. "You're beginning to make as little sense as your brother someti---" He stopped short, the pieces falling into place. Ellone was staring at him with those large brown eyes of hers, her expression a strange cross between defiance and apology.
"Elle!" he exploded, coming to his feet. The girl winced. For a moment he forgot that she was a grown woman, remembering instead the fun-loving child who once had the horrible, horrible idea of going out alone exploring the monster-infested fields of the Winhill bluffs to pick flowers. (She had meant well -- she had wanted Raine to have the most beautiful flowers for the wedding.) "I know you're just trying to help things along and I appreciate that, but Squall will be furious!"
"Well, I had to do something! Besides, Squall wouldn't -- doesn't -- remember any of that."
Laguna felt all his anger dissipate. "He doesn't?" He felt tired, suddenly, completely deflated.
Ellone shook her head, and Laguna thought she was on the verge of tears. Her voice remained very even, though. "He doesn't remember a lot of things."
Laguna dropped back onto the couch with a groan. "I don't know what you want me to do, Elle. Why did you make us come to Winhill?"
She sat down beside him, her left hand restlessly plucking at the armrest. "I didn't really have a reason. I just thought, I don't know, maybe Squall wanted to learn more about Raine, and about you. He'd never ask about your past, otherwise."
Laguna shook his head, not comprehending. "Why would he?"
"Everyone wants to know where they're from, who they are. You must have felt like that, sometimes?" She twiddled her fingers. "Even I know about my parents, even though they died when I was barely a toddler." She took a deep breath. "And he has a chance to know; not like the other kids, not like Sefie or Zell or Irvine."
"Then why doesn't he ask?" He knew it was a stupid question even before it was completely out of his mouth.
Ellone's expression was one of studied patience. She didn't give the answer he had expected. "He doesn't want to upset you, that would be my guess."
"He doesn't want to upset me," Laguna repeated, not quite able to hide the incredulity in his voice.
"Despite that indifferent façade he puts up, he really does care about you, you know."
"Yeah. Yeah, I guess I do. Well, I never thought he'd want to know more about some silly Galbadian soldier."
Ellone gave an exasperated sigh. "He wants to know more about his father. And I think he feels bad sometimes that he couldn't remember anything of Raine or more of me or the orphanage. Knowing something -- anything -- of his past makes up for it."
He fidgeted. "But it's not his fault. If anything, it's mine."
He must had said something wrong again, because now Ellone was glaring at him. "You know what I'm sick of?"
"You still blaming yourself for leaving us behind. I don't blame you, Raine never blamed you, and I don't think Squall does either. You can't keep shouldering that burden forever. What you need to do is talk to him -- he'll listen. I'm not playing mediator between you two." Ellone got up and headed for the door, leaving him alone with his thoughts.
He rubbed his face, wondering why he kept getting lectured by this girl. He could hear Ellone talking to someone in the hallway, her smooth, polite voice carrying from the door into the sitting room. "If you're looking for the president, he's not available right now. I think he's sulking. And that costume is horrible, as well as your accent -- how in the world did you manage to become an undercover agent?"
Laguna groaned and threw himself back into finishing his paperwork.
He woke up late the next morning, and when he checked at the front desk, he discovered that both Squall and Ellone had gone out. He grumbled to himself while eating his breakfast, trying to figure out where they could have went.
He wasn't surprised to find Squall in front of Raine's memorial. He was just standing there, the wind blowing at his hair, his hands loose fists at his side. Laguna thought of clearing his throat or saying hello or doing something just to let Squall know he was there, but he spoke before Laguna could do anything.
"Why did you come back?" His voice was almost to low for Laguna to make out the words. "There's nothing left for you here."
He looked around at the green fields and the flowers and the blue, blue sky that stretched on and on. He loved this place, but Squall was right -- Esthar was home now, and there were only memories left here. "Forgiveness, maybe," he said, remembering how he had almost resented the gentle tone of Ellone's voice when she had told him that Raine had never blamed him, never. "I would have asked it from you, but it always seemed too much." There. A bumbling sort of apology if there ever was one, but he couldn't think of anything else to say.
Squall turned around to look at him, a slight frown creasing his forehead. "For what?" he asked, unknowingly echoing Ellone. "You did everything you could."
"I still feel like I abandoned you, you know." He searched Squall's face, but the boy was calm, unfazed.
"I don't know how you could even think that. If you hadn't left, you wouldn't have found Ellone. I don't think you could have lived with that." His eyes drifted back to the name carved on the plaque. "I don't think that's what she would have wanted."
"You make it hard for a man to feel sorry for himself," Laguna grumbled, and Squall smiled at that.
"Laguna," Squall began, and he was quiet for a very long moment that he thought that was all Squall was going to say, "even if you think you made the wrong decisions, it still doesn't make everything that happened your fault. And even if it were---" Laguna looked at him, still startled despite everything, but there was no censure in Squall's steady gaze, no blame, "---whatever you think you did wrong, if you think you need my forgiveness, you have it. And you'd have hers as well, I think. Besides, you are here now, and that's more than enough."
Laguna stared at him for a moment, words stuck in his throat, before he started laughing. Laughing was better than suddenly bursting into tears, at any rate. He could tell Squall was bewildered by the sudden change of mood. "Well. You certainly inherited that practical side from Raine. And Elle, too, though god knows how; she's not even biologically related to you." He smiled, and Squall blinked at him, looking absurdly young and completely confused. They just stood there for a while, Squall seeming content with the silence and Laguna with no idea at all what to say. He could just feel his leg cramping up. "D'you know where Elle is?" he asked.
Squall was about to answer when a sudden call for help cut through the air. Squall started, his hand automatically going to his gunblade. "That's Sis," he said, sounding, for the life of him, actually surprised that Ellone had managed to get into trouble. He broke into a run, and Laguna rushed after him. He cursed himself for not bringing any weapons, and a quick check showed him that he only had a few spells -- a random collection of Fires and Blizzards and Thunders -- on him. He had never been terribly good at paramagic, even when he had faeries in his head.
They found Ellone standing in a clearing filled with wild flowers, fending off a Lefty with a pole in her hand. Laguna groaned. He hated those things. A Righty and a Vysage was bound to show up in moments, and the whole set of them were just downright creepy. A wave of Ellone's hand called a crackle of magic and Fira erupted, and Laguna shielded his eyes against it. "Oh good," Ellone said, noticing them, "I could use your help." Another blast of magic and the gigantic hand faltered, and Ellone actually looked pleased.
"Doesn't look like you need much help," Laguna said wryly, despite his heart pounding too loud and too fast in his ears and his mouth was too dry. He was desperately wishing he had his machine gun with him even though he hadn't used one in years.
"With that kind of attitude I can believe you are related to her," Squall muttered, casting both Protect and Shell over all the three of them.
"Oh, that 'let's rush into danger and wait for people to rescue us' thing. I'm glad it's not genetic."
Before Laguna could think of a clever retort, Squall had headed into the fight, his gunblade cutting into the Lefty. It tried to grab him, but he easily jumped out of its way. "Couldn't you have just made a run for it?" he asked Ellone. "And what are you doing here?" He sounded more exasperated than angry. Laguna imagined he used the same tone talking to cadets wandering around after curfew.
"Taking a walk."
Squall gave her a disbelieving look. "Really. Most people do that within the town limits."
Ellone's next Fira blast finished the Lefty off and it disappeared into thin air. "I thought I'd find you guys here. Besides, the view is beautiful. You can see the sea, and maybe even the Humphrey Archipelago on a clear day."
There were monsters attacking them and these two were having a conversation about scenic views. No wonder he was getting grey hairs. "Elle," he interrupted, "this really is not the time or place to be sentimental."
Squall hit the monster again with his gunblade, pulling the trigger in quick succession. "Doesn't seem like that's working very well, does it?" Squall muttered, almost to himself. Laguna wasn't sure what Squall was about to do -- it looked like he was concentrating on casting some high-level magic, or perhaps summoning a GF -- when a spell from the Vysage struck all of them, and he staggered instead. The Righty moved for a slap in Ellone's direction, and Squall pushed her aside, not getting enough time to defend himself.
"Squall!" he cried out in alarm. Ellone had stumbled out of harm's way just in time, looking a little dazed. He wasn't sure what had happened -- it looked like Squall had taken a blow to the head and had fallen, unconscious. Laguna quashed the urge to run to his side to make sure he was all right, keeping an eye out on Ellone as she fended the Righty off. "Ellone, keep your attention on that thing!"
"Um. Uncle Laguna? I can't see." She was swiping at the monster randomly, and Laguna started cursing to himself. "What happened to Squall?"
"Shit, this is bad." He was trying to cast an Esuna on Ellone while keeping Squall in his line of sight. Only now she looked anxious, and Laguna thought it was because of Squall and not the grotesque creature wanting to eat them for lunch. He really should try to get the kids get their priorities straight one of these days. Ellone glanced around when her vision cleared, and gave a cry of horror when she caught sight of Squall. Laguna sent a flash of Thunder towards the monster; it didn't seem to affect it at all. "Can't you Cure him?" he asked, trying to figure out how to get closer without getting hit himself.
"I'm no good with healing spells," Ellone said crossly. "Seriously, just because I'm a girl, everyone thinks I can do restorative magic."
"Okay, okay! You stay out of range and I'll try to get to him -- I have some potions on me."
"Don't you have some sort of brilliant strategy against this thing?" Ellone asked, and this time she was smart enough to duck away from the array of status changing spells the giant head spewed at them. He couldn't tell whether or not she was being sarcastic. "You used to patrol this place!"
"That was more than twenty years ago!" Desperate times called for desperate manoeuvres, or something like that. He dashed towards where Squall laid crumpled on the grass, barely getting out of the way of the Righty's next attack. He considered his options. He could try dragging Squall away (it's not like a giant face in the earth could chase after them, could it? Laguna honestly couldn't recall) or wait here and try to heal Squall while Ellone's spells killed the monster (which was taking way too much time and potions worked slower than magic to heal).
He picked up Squall's gunblade, a tiny part of his mind marvelling at the craftsmanship and the weight of the weapon. He wouldn't be able to wield this one-handed, the way they had been taught in boot camp. In fact, he wasn't sure he'd be able to wield it at all. Hacking the monster to death was not an option, then. He dropped by Squall's side, a hand going to his neck to check his pulse, when a foreign mind swept into his.
I am Shiva, and I am of ice. Do you require my powers?
Laguna gasped at the sudden connection and the accompanying chill. The world was suddenly blanketed in snow, white and crisp. There were ice crystals around him, silver diamonds glittering ominously, almost blinding in their brightness.
"Where am I? Who are you?
I am within your mind as you are within mine. I am what you call a Guardian Force.
A GF. Great. Another thing he had no idea at all how to handle. "Can you help me? There are monsters, and Squall and Elle--" His mind stalled again, and he whirled around. He couldn't see Squall and Ellone anywhere.
She seemed amused. How easily distracted you are. The boy had no problems at all accepting me -- he was detached, distant, absolutely calm, even though it was his very first junction and he knew not what to expect.
Glacial, Laguna thought, that was the adjective was. He suddenly missed having Kiros around correcting his vocabulary. "Will you help me?" Laguna asked again, and this time there was a chime of laughter.
At least you are wise enough to ask for my help instead of commanding me. Very well. Summon me, and I will come.
The presence faded, and he blinked in the sunlight. He was still kneeling beside Squall. Ellone's voice startled him.
"Uncle Laguna! Is he all right?"
"Yeah, I think so." He stumbled to his feet, making sure Squall was out of the way. "Elle, stay where you are, okay?"
He heard Ellone's protests, faraway and indistinct. He wasn't even sure he was doing it right, when the world faded, just for a moment. He saw her then, a pale blue figure encased in her throne of ice, power radiating from her in sharp, cold shards. She was more beautiful than anything he could have imagined. He could almost feel the moisture in the air crystallising -- there was ice glittering everywhere. The field was covered in it, the grass, the flowers, the monsters. She opened her eyes, pinning Laguna with her cool gaze, before blasting the monsters with a bright blow of light, shattering the ice around them. The monsters disappeared with the ice, nothing left behind but a couple of wizard stones and a faint magical crackle in the air.
"Thank you," he said fervently. "Thank you very much." He thought he heard her laughter again, but it was faint, and fading away.
Ellone was staring at him like he had grown a second head. "You summoned a GF," she said. He couldn't remember her ever looking more shocked.
"I really did, huh." There was no sign at all he had summoned her -- not a single shard of ice, not a drop of water. The whole thing had an odd quality of a dream, already drifting away.
He felt really, really cold. He knelt before Squall again and this time he reached out to take hold of his wrist to check his pulse. He seemed to be breathing fine, but the blood from the wound made Laguna shudder. He had more spells with him now -- probably transferred everything along with the junction when he took the GF. He was amazed at the stock of magic Squall had -- he would've tried using Holy on those monsters if he had been in the right mind to do so. He cast a Cura on Squall, and Laguna could feel the cool, soothing glow of the spell and Squall began to stir. He glanced towards Ellone, noting that the girl had sat down hard on the grass, her face white and her shoulders trembling. He threw a Cura her way as well, just to be safe.
Squall groaned and opened his eyes. Laguna could have wept in relief. "Are you all right?" he asked, as the boy's eyes focused on him.
Squall tried to nod but ended up wincing instead. "Yes." He considered something for a moment before adding, "my head hurts." Laguna almost laughed.
"No kidding. A good thing you have a hard head." He pushed some stray bits of hair away from Squall's face, and surprisingly, Squall let him. "You probably have a concussion. And a horrible bump on your head, and maybe a headache for a few days." He was babbling, he knew it. "But it's healed now. Everything's gonna be fine," he said, knowing that he was talking to Squall like he was five and not a veteran SeeD and the saviour of the world, but he couldn't stop himself.
"You're not going to ask me what my name is?" Squall sounded absolutely serious. He didn't shrug off Laguna's hand, still holding his wrist. His pulse was steady and strong.
Laguna blinked, taken aback. "Should I? Would it have changed in the last few minutes?"
Something like a smile lurked at the corner of Squall's mouth. "No, but that's what Dr Kadowaki always does." He pushed himself up to a sitting position, and Laguna knew better than to force him to lie still. He looked better already -- exhausted, with dark circles under his eyes, but not like he was going to bleed to death right there on the grass. Just the thought of it was enough to make Laguna shudder. "Is Ellone all right?"Squall asked, squinting as he turned to look at her.
He forced himself to pay attention to what Squall was saying. "Yeah, she is." He shivered. "You scared the hell out of me and her, though. We should get you checked out," he told Squall, trying to suppress another shudder. "Both of you."
Squall was looking at him strangely. "Are you okay?"
"Me? Right as rain. It rains a lot during the springtime around here." He shivered again, looking up at the sky. It was a very bright day. He thought he could still see the ice glittering around him, reflecting and refracting the sunlight.
"Laguna." Squall's voice was sharp. "Are you sure you're all right?"
"'s very cold." He could feel Squall twisting his hand out of his grip, before taking hold of Laguna's shoulders. For a moment he thought Squall was going to shake him. His hands were really warm. He saw Squall's eyes go distant before he snapped back to the present moment.
"Laguna," he said slowly, "why do you have Shiva junctioned?"
"Yeah. T-that. I couldn't think of what else to do, I'm not sure how I transferred the junction. I don't think she likes me much, I just wanted to save you." Now he was sure his teeth was chattering. This was absurd. Squall was the one who got hurt and he's the one falling apart. "T-that was crazy. Awesome. But crazy." He was rambling again, he knew it. "How the hell do you guys do it?"
"It gets a bit of getting used to," Squall said. There was a trace of worry in his voice. "Laguna, it's okay. Just let go of the junction."
"I'm tryin'," he grumbled. He was startled when Squall leaned his forehead against his and Laguna almost pulled away, but the grip on his shoulders were firm and he trusted Squall knew what he was doing. Squall closed his eyes in concentration and without warning Shiva was free from his mind and, probably, back in Squall's. He still couldn't stop shivering, though. "How did you do that?" he managed to ask.
Squall's eyes went distant again. "I don't think she wants to stay with you," Squall said, the amused tone of his voice not quite hiding his relief. "Usually we transfer junctions the other way 'round -- the one holding it hands it over, but she seemed willing enough to leave."
"Okay. Good. That was a bit more than I could handle."
Squall smiled. "I thought you were supposed to be fearless. And reckless, too."
"When it involves you, it scares me very much, thank you. Don't get hurt ever again."
Now Squall was definitely amused. "I'll try my best."
Ellone came stumbling towards them and plopped down on the grass beside Laguna. She seemed better off than either of them, all things considered. "And where did you learn those spells?" Squall's voice was mild enough, but Ellone winced.
"Well, I was raised by a sorceress, what did you expect?" She made a face. "Besides, there's nothing much to do in Esthar, so I borrow books from Dr Odine's library now and then."
"Nothing to do aside from doing my work for me, you mean?" Squall gave both of them a disapproving look. "It wasn't on purpose -- she forged my signature," he complained, and Squall's eyebrows climbed to his hairline at that. Ellone didn't look at all sorry. Laguna changed the subject hastily. "I didn't know Odine lent books to people."
Squall looked at Ellone from the corner of his eyes, probably only now noticing how capable Ellone was when it came to getting her own way, and how little effort it took her. "While I'm glad you can take care of yourself, you really shouldn't be using something so dangerous." Ellone gave an unladylike snort. "But seriously, though? Fira?" Squall asked.
"Elemental magic is easier than the other ones," she said. "Besides, it's easier for me to throw potions and echo screens and remedies than casting Cure."
Squall sighed. "I'd disagree, but I don't think I'm up for a discussion on that particular topic right now."
Laguna shrugged. "It suits her -- considering all those fireworks she's so fond of. And she was a rather destructive kid. And stubborn as hell."
Ellone lobbed a wizard stone his way, hitting him harmlessly on the arm. "Mean, that's what you are, Uncle Laguna. Really mean."
Laguna picked the stone up and handed it to Squall. "Maybe you can give this to your GF to refine. I owe her one." Squall took it, looking bemused. He didn't ask what happened with Shiva, though, and Laguna filed it in his mind as a subject to bring up another day. "I'd rather," he told both of them, "have faeries in my head instead junctioning straight to the GF."
"Probably best if you stayed away from them altogether," Squall said mildly.
"True," Laguna said with a sigh. "Too much paperwork has made me soft." Ellone giggled at that. "We probably should go back now. Go have a drink or something."
"It's not even midday yet."
"Let's just stay here for a bit," Ellone said, flopping down to lie down on the grass. "The grass is soft and the weather's warm; what could possibly go wrong?" Laguna looked at her and burst into laughter. Squall just shook his head.
"Next vacation," said Squall firmly, "we'll go to the beach instead. I heard there's a pretty nice island resort off the coast of Timber."
Laguna smiled. "Yeah. Next time." That was good enough.