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Garden hadn't changed much—of that, Fujin was certain.

The lack of change was welcome though, considering the circumstances. Consistency hadn't really been a staple in her life these past couple of years; moving apartment to apartment, jumping job to job, living hand to mouth. Truthfully, the only constant in her world was instability, with the exception of Rajin, who was more like an extension of her own body and thus couldn't really be factored into the equation.

So Fujin supposed she was only certain of two things: Rajin's undying loyalty, and Garden's ever present aura of prestige and power. The image was carefully crafted right down to each individual shiny nail—sleek, shiny, uniform; the epitome of a fine tuned war machine. If she were trying to offend though, she'd make a comment about Galbadia's obvious design superiority—it's dark coloring and maze-like layout felt a bit more ominous. That place even put the fear in her, and Fujin didn't scare easily. Maybe it was the circumstances at the time though; Seifer waging a hellish war under the influence of the sorceress, with her and Raijin caught in the crossfire. Fujin couldn't be certain.

She honestly wasn't going out of her way to try and offend anyone today, though it was obvious that her general presence was offensive. Admittedly, she'd taken the place by surprise when she strolled in unannounced this morning, but they hadn't really given her much choice with Xu refusing her many phone calls. But Fujin also knew that Xu's opinion wasn't really the one that mattered. All she needed to do was catch the right ear, and in order to do that she had to either pass through or bypass Xu altogether.

Fujin supposed she understood—she was a convicted criminal. An accomplice to the bombing of Trabia, guilty of kidnapping, of treason; the list of legal grievances was long, and the list of personal grudges even longer. Of course she understood.

Despite that understanding, Fujin made just one last unanswered call before leaving Fisherman's Horizon yesterday to make the lonesome journey to Balamb, leaving Raijin behind in the apartment they rented together without as much as a note to explain. He'd only try to stop her or worse, make her sit through one of his blubbering goodbyes. This choice would make him a nervous wreck—and could potentially alter his life forever—but the decision to leave was easy, given what was at stake.

Banned from the Garden system, ordered to stay miles away from Rinoa Heartilly and Edea Kramer, and if in breach of that could be dealt with how Garden saw fit. It wasn't that Fujin couldn't recall the sentence the Global Council had passed down or that she couldn't picture the many things that "how Garden saw fit" could encompass—she understood the risks; anyone at Garden could shoot her on sight if they wanted. Fujin could very well die today, and the scales of justice would stay hung at a steady, even keel.

Seifer was worth that risk, though. If Fujin was told she'd have to endure the sorceress experience and its fallout time and time again in exchange for Seifer's freedom, there was no question: she'd follow him to hell and back all over again, suffer the heartbreak of it, be convicted and exiled; apartment to apartment, job to job, hand to mouthRight hand to whatever god they asked her to believe in, she'd do it every time.

She marched down the halls of her old home knowing this misery would be over soon one way or another. They'd either help her, or she'd ask them to shoot her on the spot if they said no; she didn't want to live another second if he wasn't living alongside her.

The look on Xu's face when she spotted Fujin inside Balamb Garden's gates was hard to read at first. Did she jump a little in surprise, or was it fear? Fujin couldn't help but find that a little comical, considering she'd came in unarmed and that at least thirty SeeD and students stopped to gawk as she made the long walk from Garden's entrance to the directory. Hell, the entire first floor seemed to stand still, and Xu—perched on the stairs as she spoke to a young cadet—didn't even realize it until Fujin's boot touched the step. Seifer would've been proud to see Fujin—a little wisp of a thing (Seifer's words, not hers)—striking fear into the hearts of mercenaries just by merely by passing through.

At least, he would've been proud until the moment Fujin put her hands up in the air, surrendering to Xu willingly without even being asked. If he'd seen that, he'd only feel even more sorry for everything he'd done.

She tried not to picture that handsome face of his as as Xu ordered a few of the gawkers to restrain her. But his visage appeared anyway—his lips drawn in a tight line, the corners slanted downward, his green eyes narrowed and his shoulders broad shoulders squared; the muscles along his arm tensing as his fingers flexed on the hilt of Hyperion—ready to strike. Ready to protect and defend. It was so vivid it was almost tactile. She failed so miserably at not imagining Seifer that Fujin almost didn't realize Xu relaying the scene over the phone to what had to be Garden's young headmaster: the one and only Squall Leonhart.

Xu held a white-knuckled grip on the handset as the voice on the other end instructed her to clear the second floor classroom and sequester the interloper there. More than likely to give Squall and his core group of advisors—Timlitt, Trepe, Dincht, Kinneas … and Heartilly—enough time to assemble and discuss. They already knew why Fujin was here; no reason to waste time. Seifer's sentence was scheduled in just over a month and since she couldn't stop time … well, Fujin was very obviously here to beg for his life.

Pale fingers tensed and stretched in the spots just above her kneecaps, her palms sweating so thickly she could feel it through the light fabric of her pants. Civilian clothes. That treasured old blue uniform of hers was long gone now—lost somewhere in the six-month window she'd been held at D-District Prison, or at least that's what they'd told her. Fujin was convinced it was just a tactic to make her feel more vulnerable when they released her back into the world.

She supposed it worked. She was reeling when she walked out of D-District—cautious, questioning, nervous, defenseless. And then there was the simple fact that Seifer's absence left an unbridgeable chasm within her; a phantom feeling that something that was supposed to be there was missing. Even now, through oceans, sand, concrete, and bars … she swore could feel him.

Best not to think about any of that nowThis was her last shot, and she couldn't be irrational and blow it. She needed a clear head.

Fujin could only sit and wait for the heads of Balamb Garden to finish deliberating, and pray that she didn't fall apart in the interim. Her heart was racing—the same resounding rhythm it beat out the day Seifer was sentenced to die. She and Raijin were banned from the proceedings, but were lucky—in the loosest sense of the word—to be able to watch the entire trial play out on television; the communications systems were up and running—the work on them expedited, just so the world could bear witness to the conviction of the monstrous sorceress' knight.

Oh, hadn't all of that been the most brutal thing she'd ever endured? To know where he was, and to know that he needed her, and to be able to do nothing at all? Fujin could only sit on the threadbare couch she shared with Raijin and listen to that drumming beat and the sound of her own sobs as she saw Seifer led into the court; his eyes darting around the room to catch a glimpse of them. Looking for her. Knowing that if he laid on eyes on his friends, that it would probably be the for the very last time.

He'd known all along, he just never had the heart to tell her. Such a gentle action for the man who'd become the monster in all their nightmares. But it hadn't been him—not really—and Leonhart had to know that.

The verdict was always going to be guilty, but the courts still crucified him for show—witness after witness telling stories of murder and mayhem; all the things that she knew happened but that still didn't seem possible. All things that Seifer barely remembered, some making his eyes grow wide and causing them to mist over. Fujin broke when she saw thatSeifer, straining to bite back tears in front of a room of people, in front of the world? She'd been the only one to see him that way—how dare they do this to him now, after everything he'd been through? How could they not understand?

Surprisingly, the core orphanage group—Squall, Selphie, Zell, Quistis and Irvine—all refused to testify. Rinoa, on the other hand, didn't disappoint. The young sorceress regaled the world with an hours long saga, detailing every event that occurred from the fateful day she met Seifer Almasy to the day he threw her to Adel.

That part of the trial was painful to relive. Rinoa caused a rift between Seifer and Fujin that summer—the summer that this whole mess started—and it felt doubly terrible to hear it remembered with such a one-sided slant and used against him. HimOf all peopleWho was nothing but good to Rinoa that summer. She spent enough time with him to know that this madness wasn't in him—that Seifer would never do any of these things willingly. The knife was already in his back. Did she really need to push it in deeper for spectacle?

But even that wasn't as painful as hearing the judge enumerate all of Seifer's crimes, and hearing herself listed as one of them. Coercion of Balamb Garden cadets Fujin Sanada and Raijin Kazeno via threat of death.

Until that moment, Fujin was under the impression that the last stand she and Raijin took against Seifer—as he dug his heels in deeper with Ultimeca and slipped the farthest away from her he'd ever slipped—was relayed by Leonhart and his cronies to the powers that be. That somehow, that little display lightened the burden of their sentence. No one told her that Seifer took all the blame. For everything. Sure, she and Rajin committed crimes at his command, but they did so willingly. He hadn't threatened them, and when they wanted to walk away he let them go.

It wasn't the only crime he'd falsely confessed to, and of all the things he'd done under the sorceress' spell, this was small in comparison; it certainly wasn't the crime that tipped the scale to guilty. But under the weight of shock, Fujin still felt responsible. She felt like she should be with him in that cell. No sorceress had her mesmerized; Fujin chose to follow him, and help him, because she loved him ruthlessly … and there was no one to blame for that but herself.

She was furious. What gave him the right to rob her of any responsibility? Of any ability to save him? What made him so bold as to think he could choose to die without her?

Thatratty old television set she and Raijin scrimped and saved for didn't stand a chance when Fujin rose up from the couch in a blind rage and pushed it to the floor; the regret of the action setting in as instantly as the glass shattered and Seifer's face broke apart with it. Raijin had to take to the street and pawn what few possessions they had and buy another one that same day; she hadn't really left him much of a choice—she was sobbing so hard at the thought of not seeing him that she could barely catch her breath.

"Fujin." Her hands balled into tight fists at the sound of her name being called coolly through an opening door. Her eyes darted upward to find former Balamb Garden headmaster Cid Kramer, strolling into the classroom coolly with his hands clasped behind his back, leading the procession of heroes behind him—Selphie, Irvine, Zell, Quistis … and Squall. No Rinoa in sight, though Fujin reasoned it was for legal reasons. "Apologies for keeping you locked up here like this. We had no other choice, you understand." The others were stone-faced, with the exception of Zell who grimaced when she caught his gaze.

"Tsch. Lucky Xu didn't kill you on the spot." He scoffed, barely above a whisper. Quistis shot him her best instructor's warning glance and he backed down immediately, his gaze falling to the floor and his cheeks flushing at being admonished by the pretty instructor Trepe. Apparently the group's dynamics hadn't changed much.

"AFFIRMATIVE." Irvine arched a chestnut eyebrow at her self-imposed way of speaking; apparently being back within the walls of Garden made her revert to old habits. How could she forget that they all heard her pivotal speech to Seifer? Fujin swallowed the lump in her throat, and started again. "I mean … of course I understand. Being locked in a room is better than being shot on sight, I suppose."

"I suppose it is." Cid sighed and walked to lean against the edge of the desk at the head of the room, with the others following suit and fanning out around him. Squall continued to bring up the rear, lost in thought with his arms crossed over his chest as he slowly walked to the edge of the group to take his place beside Quistis. "So, how have you been?"

It'd been ages since anyone but Raijin asked her how she was doing. Leave it to Kramer to ask one of the dark knight's accomplices how she'd been lately. As if what they'd done was equivalent to getting her caught with her hand in the cookie jar in Garden's cafeteria, and they could all just breeze by it with a slap on the wrist and move on. Fujin honestly wasn't sure whether she wanted to punch him or hug him.

"Hyne," Irvine interjected, placing a hand on his hip and throwing his hand up in exasperation. "Can't we just skip the pleasantries and get down to business? We all know why she's here."

"Irvine, there's no harm in—"

"No, he's right." Squall piped up from the side of the room, looking reluctant to get involved but feeling duty bound to cut Cid off again. Fujin hadn't the slightest idea how the hierarchy of Garden worked now—whether Cid Kramer was still on board in an advisory capacity or as something more official. The only thing that was clear, as all eyes darted towards the voice and waited for their leader to speak, was that Squall was running the show … no matter how much he very clearly didn't want to.

"You're here because of Seifer." Squall stated plainly, crossing his arms over his chest as he faced her. "I'm just not sure what you want from us."

Despite the longstanding rivalry with Squall, Fujin always admired his no-frills approach. She operated that way herself for the most part. It dawned on her once, back when they were still children in classes and Seifer was complaining about how unfair it was that Squall's stoic nature made him a more likeable student (stated more along the lines of: he doesn't have the balls to speak up and challenge people, that's why they like him more than me), that she actually possessed many Leonhart-esque qualities herself. How odd, that Seifer seemed to like those qualities in her and abhor them in Squall. Fujin supposed Seifer's treatment of the two hadn't been all that different. Squall was competition, while Fujin was a conquest—winning and control were always at the heart of the matter.

"Even if we wanted to help you, his sentence was passed down by the Global Council—we don't have any footholds there." Quistis shook her head, the phrasing and the action signaling that she'd at least been amendable to the idea of getting involved. "Esthar and Galbadia signed an armistice agreement just so it would be easier expedite his trial. He did ..." Quistis turned to Selphie, who kept her gaze fixed on the floor. No doubt remembering Trabia. "He did unspeakable things and the whole world wants his head on a platter."

"He didn't do them." Fujin growled lowly, biting back at Quistis more harshly than she'd intended.

"Hey! Watch the tone. Just because Xu didn't end you doesn't mean I won't." Zell stepped forward, flexing his gloved hand and cracking his knuckles.

"Zell." Squall flattened Zell's anger with the stern directive; the blond freezing in place at the utterance of his name. As her crimson eye narrowed and glared at Zell, Fujin couldn't help but notice that Leonhart had come into his own—Seifer would be disappointed to know that Squall turned into the leader that he'd always wanted to be.

"It wasn't Seifer." Fujin pressed on, locking her own gaze with Squall's and ignoring the others altogether. "I mean … it was Seifer, but it wasn't. He was there sometimes, and sometimes he wasn't. And when he was there it was confusing for him because she was Edea."

"It wasn't confusing for us." Squall responded, his voice void of emotion.

"But you weren't possessed by her, and she didn't give you the memories." Fujin looked away from Squall then, reminded of those moments during the war when Seifer came out of the sorceress' haze, bewildered at what was happening around him and breaking down in front of her. "She gave everything back to him—every single moment from the orphanage; the only mother any of you ever knew. It's more complicated than him physically being there. You of all people should know that."

Squall's eyebrows raised in recognition of Fujin's implication—that he'd had his own consciousness transported somewhere else, and that his own girlfriend had been possessed by the sorceress too. They should all understand, to some degree.

"I never said it wasn't complicated. We were conflicted about the whole process." He shrugged his shoulders and quickly glanced at his comrades. "You probably know that the five of us never testified."

"Was that supposed to be a favor?" Fujin grimaced, her voice wavering a bit as Squall touched a raw nerve. "A shred of honesty about it from you would've helped his cause."

"Well if we're pointing fingers here," Irvine chimed in from the other side of the room, "you should look in the mirror darlin'. You could've done something to control that maniac."

"Go to hell." Fujin glared at him, her voice rippling with a low rage, her body snapping towards him.

"I said watch it. I swear to Hyne I'll lay you out cold." Zell darted forward at her quick action, cracking his knuckles again.

"Don't be ludicrous. She's not even armed." Quistis sighed, exasperated; the pragmatic instructor was getting irritated with the unproductive turn this was taking.

"We didn't teach you to maim the defenseless, Zell." Cid interjected himself once again, chastising Zell. The spiky-haired blonde stepped back with a grumble, and silence fell over the room as the group waited for Squall to respond.

"We didn't testify because we couldn't be impartial. We were all too close to it—to Edea, to Seifer, to the governments involved, to everything. And we all come down on different sides of this issue anyway." Squall looked around the room to his friends again, each of them giving him an affirming nod before turning their gazes to the floor; their differing opinions on Seifer's guilt seemed to be the only thing they could agree on. "Everyone was biased enough as it was; we wouldn't have added any more clarity."

"What about Rinoa?" Fujin glowered, her eyes feeling hot at the remembrance of her testimony.

"That was her choice, and it was the wrong one." Squall conceded, irritation flashing on his face at the mention of it. "The weight of the Galbadian General's daughter's testimony isn't lost on me. I know what that did …" His voice trailed off, unsure of how to apologize on behalf of the woman he loved while also supporting her decision. "The rest of us were trying to be fair."

Fujin laughed out loud at that, drawing a look of shock from the group; she couldn't help herself. At every turn, Squall was trying to justify his inaction; trying to blame it on anything other than his own feelings—that he'd hated Seifer all his life, and couldn't stop hating him … even now, with one foot in the grave.

"What's so funny?" Selphie inquired, miffed by Fujin's response.

"All of this." Fujin doubled over, her stomach clenching violently and her throat growing tight as she sucked in shallow breaths. "Your silence condemned him—do you think that's fair? "No, this was about you, Leonhart. You didn't do anything. He's one of you and you didn't do anything to help him. The righteous Squall Leonhart making an ethical exception, just because you can't get over your own pride."

"Fujin you're overstepping—" The anger started to build in Squall's voice, but was quickly abated as tears streamed down Fujin's cheeks the laughter turned to sobs.

"Fujin, don't." Quistis stepped out of line with the others but was stopped short of kneeling down beside her by Zell's firm grip on her arm. They exchanged words too quietly for Fujin to hear through her own grief; Zell winning the argument as Quistis stayed locked beside him.

"Do you think I'm so egotistical that I'd want this for him?" Squall asked, shocked to see Fujin this emotional, and by her thinly veiled accusation. Fujin ignored him, frantically rambling as they all looked on in awe at the mess she'd melted into.

"Edea walked free, Rinoa walked free, Raijin and I walked free." Fujin shook her head, the tears still streaming down her cheeks. This was the last thing she wanted to happen in front of them. "But Seifer? No one even gave him a chance! He was possessed by Ultimecia. He never would've done any of this if he wasn't, and you know it."

"That's just it Fujin—I don't know it." Squall's hand was at his hip now, his voice dropping an octave deeper as he defended his actions. "I can't say that I know for certain that Seifer was possessed. That he wouldn't have done all this on his own. He's always been hot-headed; he's always been difficulthe's always been dangerous. You know that better than anyone."

"Exactly—I know him better than anyone." She pressed a desperate pale hand to her chest to emphasize just how deeply her knowledge of him went. "And if you can't be certain of his guilt one way or another—if you don't know for certain—then how can you just stand there and not act? How can you …"

It took all the strength she had to get this far; the resolve to make the journey, coming to terms with risking her own life, and the embarrassment of seeing them all again for the first time since her sentencing. Every last ounce of self-respect was gone, and every last bit of energy wasted. But it was this word, that she'd only thought but never utter out lout for fear it would come true, that made her fall to her knees on the floor.

"How can you just let him die?" She asked aloud, shaking with grief, as a pair of gloved hands were laid on her shoulders. "I can't just let him die."

"She's having a breakdown, man." It was Zell Dincht, big-talker that he was, with a pang of guilt in his voice and his hands pressed gently to her shoulders to hold her upright. "Now I feel bad."

"I can't let him die," Fujin muttered again through her tears, her hand flying up to grip Zell's—only to ground herself; only to get some stability; only because she didn't have anything left to hold onto. A loud gasp came from the other side of the room, and all eyes but Fujin's turned to the bouncy brunette whose mouth hung agape at her discovery.

"Oh, my holy HyneYou and Seifer?" Selphie marveled, her aqueous clover-colored eyes misting over in sorrow. "You're in love with him, aren't you?" She pointed a finger at Fujin, in the gentlest accusatory way. "You're in love with Seifer Almasy!

Chapter Text

Drip. . . Drip . . . Drip. . .

The leaking water of the broken pipe running along the ceiling was a welcome sound, as the shy sunlight peeking between the thick, black, cast-iron bars flickered across his skin. The warmth spread over him and with it a small smile unfurled on his lips.

He squinted his eyes and grimaced. The slightest movement of his face was enough to send shooting pain throughout his body. He was, admittedly, in pretty rough shape these days. The sharp metal of his shackles cut into his wrists, and his tired legs sagged underneath him, causing all of his weight to rest on his arms, which were being sliced mercilessly by the sharp steel.

It was all he could do to not moan from the pain; all he could do to not weep in agony when he felt the cool metal slip slowly into his skin. But he would never let them have the satisfaction; he would never let them know that just blinking put him in nauseating pain.

He often felt himself reeling toward giving in ... giving up, but remembered the faces of the guards and their taunts about him "not lasting a day in this place," challenging him to live. Too bad they didn't do their homework, because everyone knew that Seifer Almasy always accepted a challenge. It would've been quicker if they'd dared him to die.

At this point, he was almost wishing they had. . .

Just concentrate . . . just concentrate on the noise and you won't think about it. He lulled his mind to an otherworldly peace, as he tried to block the tenderness of his skin from his thoughts. But how much longer could he ignore death's icy breath creeping down his neck? He'd be damned if he knew, but there was always hope in trying.

Clenching his eyes closed tightly, he focused on the sound of the dripping water as it fell into a shallow puddle now forming on the floor. He ran the sound through the valleys of his memory, searching for anything to compare it to, anything to make him forget the pain he was in right now. Pulling the past from its permanent hiding place, he searched for something significant; something to make him able to feel the damn blood running through his veins and the beating of his heart weakly against his chest.

Drip. . . Drip. . . Drip. . .

He opened his eyes slowly, as the recognition of one particular memory flashed behind his jade eyes. It was one of his best. Painfully, another grim smile crept onto his face.


The salty seawater slapped against the weathered boards of the Balamb docks, causing them to shift and creak under his body with the rolling of each wave. A stark-white seagull sailed gracefully through the hazy morning sky, and settled on tall wooden post that jutted out of the water beside him.

Seifer sighed, not exactly thrilled to be awake this early on his last day of freedom. But he couldn't sleep, couldn't slow the cogs in his mind from turning and processing information he wasn't supposed to know, and wasn't supposed to be worrying about right now. He wished they'd never heard it. That he could be taken by surprise. With a shaky hand he pulled his trench coat around himself tighter, trying to shield himself from the cold breeze . . . and the cold-heart of the world.

He was Seifer Almasy; he wasn't meant to be in a cage...

His mind tried to process to the impending reality of Estharian soldiers slinking in to capture him. His shoulders quivered slightly. He hated to admit it, but he was scared. Scared of being put away, scared of what they would do to him, and scared of leaving his friends behind. He would have to go quietly when they came after him. In truth, he wasn't strong enough to handle them now—Ultimeca had done a number on him. He was too weak after the war, even with Fuu and Rajin by his side. If he went quietly at least they wouldn't get hurt trying to save him.

He inhaled a deep, shaky breath, which was edged with the threat of tears. He brushed the emotion away as best he could, and tried to focus on something else.

Speaking of my comrades . . .where is she? He frowned in annoyance that he'd been left alone to fret and worry. He ran an unsteady hand through his golden hair, and stared absentmindedly into the distance.

It had been a rough night for the Posse, after turning on their scanner and picking up a broadcast from Esthar to Galbadian forces, stating in static-clouded voices that they would "have Almasy at sunrise."

Automatically, the bulky bronze member of the trio jumped up from his seat on the carpeted floor and panicked. The stealth silver member began to plan an escape—her slender fingers gathering provisions as she played each step out in her mind. Seifer sat stunned, watching in disbelief as his friends still tried to protect him. Even after all he'd done, Fujin was barking at Raijin to pack some clothes and food, while she gathered their weapons and calculated the number of deaths they would inevitably cause this time around. She ran her hand over the hilt of Hyperion, before unsheathing the weapon and offering the handle to Seifer. It was a symbolic gesture that had been accepted many times before, but this time . . . his golden skin wouldn't touch the metal he loved so much.

"Seifer?" She questioned, her crimson eye hazing over. He shook his head and guided hand to drop Hyperion to the floor.

Vibrant jade eyes burned into fading crimson, and in an instant, Fujin fled the room.

And since then he'd been down here on the docks waiting for her to return. Waiting to apologize like he had to Raijin, waiting to explain. He was waiting to tell her it wasn't her fault, to tell her it was for the best and that it was what had to happen, so that they could escape him and have a better life.

Of course, life without Seifer was like trying to breathe underwater for Fujin, and he knew it . . .and that was why he was waiting . . .

To make sure she would remember to live her life when they took him away.

Timid steps padded along the wooden boardwalk, hesitantly scuffing the coarse boards as they approached him. Had he not known her for so long, he would have thought his hunter had come early. But he could recognize her gait, the weight she put into her steps and the sound she made scraping each grain of wood. It was methodical and precise, cautious and. . .

"Seifer..."

. . .beautiful

He turned his head slightly to catch a glimpse of her out of the corner of his eye, forgetting everything but how much he would miss her. He moved his hand from his lap, motioning for her to come sit with him. She obeyed gladly, stepping forward and lowering herself down beside him.

"Seifer, I—" she started to speak, but he caught her by the waist to pull onto his lap, cradling her gently and nuzzling his head against hers. He ran his hands through her hair, and choked back tearful gasps.

"Fujin," he fought to not sound weak, to not let the vulnerability show in his voice. "If anything happens to me, I want you to know that I—"

"No." Her voice was stern, as she clutched his shirt in one hand and pressed the other to his cheek, forcing him to look straight into her crimson orb. "I won't let anything happen to you." Her voice was calm as she leaned forward to wrap her arms around his neck, and whispered in his ear.

"Say it when this is over. I won't hear it right now, not as a goodbye, not as some damn finality. We're not ending Seifer . . . you're not ending." He broke down then, sobbing as she kissed his cheek and murmured comforts against his temple, and ran her hands lovingly through his hair.

She always  was  better at controlling her emotions than he was.

"Fujin. . . I'm scared," he whispered quietly. "I've never been scared of anything. What's gonna happen to me?" He whispered again, asking himself more than the woman clutched in his embrace.

"Nothing Seifer, you'll be alright. You're invincible . . ." She pulled away, and moved her face close to his so that their foreheads were touching. Her hand continued stroking his hair, and she touched her nose to his, positioning her lips to hover over his own. He closed his eyes, not wanting to open them up again, for fear she would be gone when he did.

"I'll never let them take you away from me forever. No matter what Seifer, I'll get you back. I promise you."

And then she slanted her mouth against his, and he enveloped his arms around her, drawing her as close as he possibly could. Her warm lips and the feeling of her body pressed against his—the curves and angles of their bodies completing each other—made him realize how much he didn't want to leave.

How much he wanted to live.

When the soldiers came, Seifer kissed Fujin one last time before helping her to sit on her own. He stood tall and proud before them and showed no emotion as they pulled him away from her, and she shouted curses that he couldn't hear. He stared intently at Fujin and raised his chin in defiance as they handcuffed him and read him his rights. She stared back, her expression blank but her eyes filled with grief.

And as they dragged him away, Seifer swore he saw a tear flow down her cheek.

She really did still love him after all that he'd done . . .


Keeping his eyes closed, Seifer relished the memory of his last day of freedom, the day he realized he still had something to live for, something that meant more than his own pride . . . and his own life.

Down the corridor, the muffled cry of another prisoner made Seifer wince. It would be his turn soon, his daily beating from the warden of the D- District Prison. He would usually silence his mind and wait anxiously for his torturer to arrive. But today, Seifer held on to the thought of a promise made that had gone unanswered.

He had no doubt that Fujin would come for him. After all, she was a warrior. A solider who never left a man behind . . . and he was her general, the most important man on the battlefield. He just hoped it wouldn't be too late.

"ALMASY!" Seifer's train of thought was broken with a yell and a hard kick to the stomach. He choked back a gasp of pain and coughed. His whole body throbbed in pain.

"Well, well, you are awake!" The Warden exclaimed, lifting Seifer's sagging head with his chunky, manicured hands. "And aren't you lookin' pretty today." He snickered, examining the black eye and split lip that decorated Seifer's face.

"Oh Augustus," he panted the warden's name, trying to catch his wind from the blow. "Just because my beaten ass looks better than you is no reason to get violent." Seifer forced a chuckle, knowing he'd get repaid for that comment.

"Oh, are we a smartass today Almasy?" The warden kicked Seifer in the stomach again and then pulled a black club from his frayed belt, swining it with powerful force across Seifer's face.

"Shit. . ." He whispered, breathless from the onslaught. Crimson blood dripped from his nose onto the dirt covered floor beneath him.

"Now what was it you were you saying about me?" The old man sneered grabbing Seifer's face roughly and squeezing it in his hand.

"Well you hit me so hard I don't remember." Seifer mumbled, as he spit a mouthful of blood onto the floor in front of the Warden, who raised his club again.

Seifer's mind went blank as he let his head fall to watch the puddle of blood forming on the floor ripple with each new drop. The crimson reminded him of Fujin's eye. He didn't notice when the club came swooping down on him again, and he didn't even feel it connect with his skull.

Rendered unconscious, Seifer's body fell limp.

Chapter Text

"Squall."

The lion lifted his gaze to meet the chestnut colored eyes of his father's Presidential Aide, Kiros, staring at him pensively. He murmured a quiet acknowledgement of his presence, and went back to sorting the papers that littered his lap.

"Your fa—" Kiros hesitated, uncomfortable with the terminology. He started again. "Laguna will be with you shortly." Squall nodded, the chiming from the dangling chains around his neck being the only response that he gave to Kiros. He was uninterested in making conversation with a man that blindly respected Laguna Loire.

"Well you're welcome Squall." Kiros sighed, as he turned his broad shoulders and stalked down the carpeted walkway, muttering something about him being as stubborn as Laguna as his form disappeared through the sliding door. Squall quirked an elegant chestnut eyebrow, before turning his attention back to the paperwork in his hands; his leather covered digits bended the corners with restlessness.

Could he actually be nervous about seeing him? He pressed one warm, gloved hand to his forehead, massaging his temple with his thumb.

Clearly he was. The word 'father' sent shivers down his spine for Hyne's sake.

As cool, calm, and collected as Squall Leonhart could be, and as unemotional as he had been his entire life, his father was a touchy subject . . . a touchy subject that got poked with a pointy stick almost constantly since he had met the man. Squall actually felt emotion around his father . . . what sort've emotion he wasn't sure (although, it was usually anger or pure embarrassment), but there was a feeling that would sneak into his mind, and settle in the pit of his stomach like a ball of fire whenever he saw Laguna.

Damn sneaky emotions . . . He cursed in his head, as he shuffled the papers into a neat stack in his lap. You can never tell if they're real, if what you're feeling is real. He sighed, and stared at he paper, each white edge aligned perfectly.

This is real. He ran his fingers over the surface of the paper. It has structure, substance, it doesn't change on a whim, never takes you by surprise. It's something you can touch, something you can trust. He thought back to the scene the day before in his office, of Fujin on the floor sobbing for Seifer's soul.

How can you trust something you can't see, something you can't feel with your hand, something so unpredictable. Emotions fly off on tangents, objects stay in the form you always knew the to be in, or always expected them to be in.

Almost as if on cue, the sliding door to the quiet room swished open, sending a gust of air towards him, pulling the papers from his lap and scattering them around the room in a white whirlwind.

Very funny, he thought sarcastically to himself, as he followed the flying objects in the air with his eyes.

"Squall!" A jubilant voice shouted from across the room. Squall closed his eyes, his dark eyelashes brushing against his cheek.

Very funny indeed. He stood, and began to group the still airborne parchment.

"Oh, shoot, I'm sorry buddy, guess I need to put up a warning sign in this place huh? 'Beware the gusts of wind!'" Laguna laughed heartily at his joke, and walked toward his son to help collect the papers. Squall sighed, and shuffled what he had gathered between his hands.

How about 'beware the dead-beat dad that makes corny jokes'? He marveled at the fact that this man was his father. . . although it hadn't exactly been genetically proven yet . . .

It wasn't until Laguna shoved him back into the red velvet chair, and pushed the papers messily back into his hands, that Squall actually realized he had to speakto the man.

"Thanks." He mumbled, feeling awkward as he fixed the papers with an identical pair of steel blue eyes staring down at him.

"Well . . .you're welcome son." The words rolled oddly off Laguna's tongue, obviously uncomfortable and forced, but meant to please and not to cause the discomfort that they had. A thick silence followed—neither knew what to say. After all, what can you say to someone you don't even know, but whom you're supposed to love unconditionally?

Laguna scratched the back of his head; the classic signal that he was feeling uncomfortable. Squall blinked, and then tilted his head meet the eyes of a familiar stranger.

"I need your help." He stated plainly, his face not flinching. Laguna was slightly taken aback by the lack of small talk, but was glad he wouldn't have time to make a fool of himself.

"Anything." He gushed, almost too quickly, kicking himself for his eagerness. But Squall has asked for his help—his son needed him, for the first time in his entire life. Squall was asking for help from his father.

Squall stood from his chair and pushed the papers to Laguna, his gloved fingers briefly touching the palm of his father's hand.

"Anything?" He mimicked.

"What is all of this Squall?" He questioned, and took note that the boys name was easier to swallow than the word 'son.'

"This," He began, as he crossed his arms over his chest, and adjusted his weight to rest on one leg, "is Seifer Almasy's file. Everything from his Balamb Garden transcripts, his history in the Sorceress war, his psychoanalysis, and finally, his sentencing to D-District prison." The deep lines on Laguna's forehead were emphasized when he raised his eyebrows, making something inside Squall's body snap when he realized exactly how much time he'd missed with the man.

"Okay, and . . .?" He stared in confusion at the paperwork, flipping each page after wetting his finger ungracefully with spit.

"I've read it a thousand times since yesterday morning. I've gone over the thing with Zell, Rinoa, Quistis, Irvine and Selphie. I've gotten counsel from Cid and Edea, and I've read each page on my own; analyzed the contents to no end." His voice was breathless for a moment, as if he was close to letting the stone crack and revealing an emotion to the one man he knew he shouldn't.

"Well, Squall that's um . . .great. Why, may I ask, are you reading his file again?" Laguna was confused, and with good reason. After all, Squall had just barged into the presidential palace without explanation. He never claimed to be good at verbally explaining things.

"I want you to read it." He began, lifting his eyes to meet Laguna's, with a hint of desperation in his voice. "And I want you to tell me, to point out to me a specific point in which the Seifer from Garden, seems similar to the Seifer that stood beside Ultimeca." Squall shook his head, and waved his arm dismissively at the paperwork in Laguna's hands. "Because I can't find any evidence that he was himself—that he wasn't under mind control . . . and I've found a hell of a lot that proves that he was."

Laguna stared at Squall disbelievingly, still not understanding fully what he meant.

"Squall, are you saying . . .?" Laguna questioned him, moving a step closer to his son.

"That I believe Seifer's innocent, and that I need your help in getting him free."

"Squall, it's not that easy." Laguna sputtered, taken aback. He clutched the papers in his hands as his mind reeled. "I can't just send out an order and have him out of D-District, it doesn't work that way. Seifer was tried and convicted, and there isn't any way around it."

"You're the president of Esthar, you help make the law." Squall said, through gritted teeth.

"We have codes we follow here Squall, laws we abide by. This isn't Balamb Garden, I can't command something and have everyone go along with me. D-District is a multi-national prison, remember? And so is Seifer's sentencing." He explained slowly, as if Squall was a silly child that had made a cute misunderstanding about life.

"Fuck the other nations!" Squall lost his temper, his voice rising as his arm dashed out into the air in defiance. "Seifer is a man that I grew up with and that as much as I've hated him . . ." he paused, not sure how to end his sentence. He looked into Laguna's eyes, unfamiliar yet identical to his own, and malice filled him to the brim. "At least he was part of my life." The words, said barely above a whisper, cut his father like a knife.

"Squall don't—" but Laguna barely had time to speak.

"Don't offer me any excuses!" His face was red with anger, and his heart pushed against the cavity of his chest, with his pulse racing in his throat. "This is important to me, important to a lot of people back home. And I came here because I need your help." He calmed his voice, as he stepped back from Laguna, whose eyes were large and shining in awe.

"Do you have any idea how much I didn't want to come here? How much strength it took for me to step off my plane knowing I'd have to face you? And here you stand, telling me you can't do anything to help me, and you haven't even tried." He suddenly had a flashback of him standing awestruck before Fujin, as she fell to the floor in tears. He'd acted just as his father was acting now...

"Listen, I know I haven't been the nicest person to you, and you really can't blame me for that . . .but the only way we're gonna get past this phase is if I can trust you. Now, I've come to you for help. I've traveled across the damn ocean to ask my father for help, and you can't let me leave here without trying something, because if you do I will never be back again." His eyes were stern, and held a truth that frightened Laguna to the very core of his being.

Laguna laid his hand on top of the papers, as his eyes stayed connected with Squall's. A certain understanding passed between them, as Laguna motioned to a large conference table across the room.

"C'mon. Lets sit down and look these over and see what we can do." And as Squall stalked past him, believing he had won the battle, Laguna couldn't help but feel he was the victor.

Squall had called him father . . .

Chapter Text

"Name please." The low-pitched voice echoed down the hallways of D-District prison and through Fujin's ears.

"I'm Raijin, and this here is Fujin, ya know." The tall, bronzed colored man replied lightly, with a goofy grin plastered on his face.

"And who are you here to see?" Squinting his brown eyes and ogling the odd pair, the guard pushed himself up in his chair and leaned forward.

"Seifer Almasy!" Rajin cried with glee, clasping his hands, his smile growing even wider than before. The guard's eyes grew wider also, in complete awe that someone's face could stay in such a position for a long period of time. When he recovered from the shock of Rajin, he adjusted himself in his chair and pretended to check a clipboard on his desk. He then looked up at them, and his mouth curved into a small smirk.

"Sorry, that prisoner isn't allowed visitors." He replied curtly, and returned to doing paperwork at his secretarial desk.

"IS WHEN HAVE PERMISSION." Fujin growled at him, and slammed a letter down on his desk, signed by Laguna Loire. Eyeing the parchment carefully, he turned his gaze back to Fujin, scowling as he twisted the paper in his fingers.

"Wait here." He grumbled, as he pulled his hefty body from the chair and picked up the handset of a beige phone that was hanging on the wall.

"Hey Warden, yeah Tony here. There's a couple of people here to see Almasy ... yes sir ... yes I know, but they have a letter of clearance from the President Loire." He folded the paper, and examined the signature, trying to decipher if it was the real thing or not.

And it truthfully was. Apparently Leonhart had proved that he had a heart after all, and pulled some strings with Laguna so Fujin could make contact with Seifer at least, and let him know that they hadn't forgotten him. She tapped her fingers impatiently on the metal desk, the noise distracting the guard on the phone. Smirking, she tapped her fingers faster, and watched as the guard huffed and turned his back to her.

"Alright boss, if you say so." He hung up the phone, and stalked back over to the pair, muttering under his breath in annoyance.

"C'mon, I'll take you to him." He pulled out a wallet and directed them to follow him though a pair of huge, gray doors. He led them down a plain dreary corridor, with only a few doors staggered across from each other. There was no noise around them, except for the determined clanking of Fujin's steel- toed boots on the cold tile, and the quiet breathing from their mouths as the trekked down the endless hallway. After rounding a corner at the end, they were face by another set of double doors, where two stoic guards stood; keeping careful vigil of the prisoner they hid.

"Only one at a time." The guard spat, as he waved to the other two guards to move so he could press his walled against a scanner on the wall, causing the heavy doors to open. "And don't try anything funny, or we'll slap you in the cell with him." He scowled at Fujin and Rajin, and turned to saunter down the hallway and back to his desk.

"YOU FIRST." Fujin patted Rajin's back and smiled grimly. He wrapped his arms around her small body and trapped her in a tight bear hug, before running anxiously through the doorway, with one of the guards following him.

Fujin shuffled her feet for a moment, feeling the remaining guard's eyes burning into her. She never liked being looked at; it felt like people were sizing her up and trying to figure out how easy she'd be to ambush and kill. But that was just SeeD training ... the way they'd taught them all to think. Always be weary; always be suspicious, trust no one. It was the code she lived by, and the code that saved her life countless times.

"So, you know Almasy?" The guard's question made her cringe. She hated small talk, especially pointless small talk.

"NO. JUST HERE FOR SIGHTS." Her voice dripped with sarcasm, as she folded her arms over her chest. The guard smiled at her, flashing perfectly white teeth between his pale lips.

"I'll take that as a yes." Fujin scowled and stared at him for a moment, before rummaging through her pocket and finding a cigarette. She pulled a lighter anxiously from her other pocket, and lit the slender light object, rolling it between her fingers as she raised it to her lips.

"Do I really need to tell you that there's no smoking here?" The guards voice was edged with humor.

"ASS ..." She muttered, not too quietly. She threw the object carelessly on the floor and snuffed it with her boot.

"So ..." The man began, as he watched her stash the lighter away in her blue blazer. "What are you here for? Trying to find a way to sneak him out?" The guard tapped the cold wall with his knuckles. "This place is a fortress, ain't no way you could escape these walls." Fujin laughed quietly, and shook her head at the man.

"DONE BEFORE." He eyed her, and then looked through doors window, and motioned to the numerous guards patrolling the hallway.

"Well, security isn't as lax these days." He paused and turned back to the platinum haired girl, smiling as he scanned her with his blue eyes. "Besides, you and your friend are no Squall Leonhart."

"YOU STUPID—" Fujin began, with anger boiling in her veins. He cut her off however, and continued speaking calmly.

"Hell he couldn't even escape this section now without knowing its layout. This is the new sub level, most of its underground." He pulled looked down the hallway, and saw that Raijin was walking solemnly back down the corridor.

"What they do to the prisoners in this place ... you just wouldn't believe the things you see here." Fujin watched him carefully, as his face was set with the disgusted remembrance of some thing he obviously wished he'd never witnessed.

"CAN IMAGINE." She offered.

"In a minute, you won't have to." His eyes connected with hers, and sent a rush of fear through her body. Pulling his gaze away, he looked back down the hallway, seeing the guards search Raijin once more before he was able to leave.

"I met a man once, back when I trained at Galbadia Garden," He said distantly, as he watched the guards question Raijin, "Towards the beginning of the sorceress war." He looked back to Fujin, and smiled. "A blonde man, tall guy who wore a white trench coat. He radiated the word warrior." He turned his head away from her, and stared off into space. "I was training with an older cadet that'd been hasslin' me ever since I'd known him, a real asshole that would do anything just to get on my nerves." He chuckled, and adjusted the black belt that around his waist, which was weighed down with a heavy gun. "It was the first time that he'd ever challenged me though and I'm glad for that, because if I were any less experienced he would have killed me." He laughed heartily then, remembering the fight vividly in his mind. "I was so sure he was gonna kill me, standing above me with his damn sword. I'm not so sure that he wouldn't of." He coughed and adjusted the tight collar of his uniform. "But then that man I told you about, the warrior, he appeared out of no where and just sent the kid flailing across the room, like some sort of rag doll."

The guards down the hallway were almost finished with their interrogation, and were getting ready to send Rajin down another corridor to wait at the entrance. The man standing before Fujin watched them with scorn. "You know what he said to me after he helped me to my feet? He said that men like my rival would never succeed in our world; that their arrogance would consume them, and that men like me would become greater and stronger. Then he just walked away." He smiled and looked back to Fujin. "I've always remembered his words, because they did make me stronger. I'll never forget that man ...but then again, neither will the rest of the world, will they?"

"No ..." Fujin softened her voice. "They'll just always see him in different light." He nodded knowingly, as one of the guards down the hallway motioned for him to let Fujin through. He waved back, and turned his body squarely to her.

"You may pass."

Her heavy boots echoed against the floor, each step a second of opportunity in the guards mind. As she pressed her pale hand to the door, he wrapped his fingers around her arm.

"You know, this place isn't a complete fortress." He began, as he glanced nervously around the room. "There are some weaknesses, like the vent system. If anyone were to get a floor-plan and climb through it, they'd see it leads to the boiler room, which is unguarded almost all the time." Fujin looked through the window and scanned the corridor, her eyes falling on one of the vents in question. "And in the boiler room, there's a passage through the sewer that's used by the employee's for emergency evacuations. If you follow it correctly, it leads right to the surface, right near a large temple just outside this place. People could sneak in and out of here easily of they knew of it ..." Fujin nodded, and looked away from him with a small smirk on her lips.

"Good thing no one does ..." She whispered, and started to push the door open. The guard released his grip on her arm, and a huge smirk crept onto his face.

"Yeah ... good thing."

Chapter Text

Fujin felt like she was floating—like Pandemona was pulling her body from the cold gray floor to speed her journey down the hallway. She passed door after door in the seemingly endless corridor, feeling farther away from the one door she wanted to enter. Each step was a century, each breath a millennium, and every time she thought of her golden knight, infinity was added to her journey.

But there was a certain advantage to this slow motion process of her mind. At Garden, students were trained at an early age to scrutinize their surroundings and use their observations to their advantage, and right now she found it easy to soak in all of the details around her.

She noted that there were four guards present standing in pairs at each end of the hallway—all were armed with high-class rifles and black stun guns. Each one had a headset that most likely enabled them to make contact with the security control center, and one carried an equipment pack on his back. She assessed how difficult it would be to kill them if it was ever needed, and decided that it would be a risk to do it alone. Making a mental note to bring two people if she ever decided to annihilate four security guards, she continued her analysis of the passageway.

Her crimson eye fell upon a control panel that was conveniently placed across from Seifer's cell. It had three large buttons; a green one that read "open," a blue one that read "close," and a red one that had no label but was instantly dubbed the alarm trigger. There was also some form of keypad and monitor on the control panel that Fujin identified as the computer she'd use to hack into the main system of the prison, if needed. Fujin smirked a little, realizing that all of her years at Garden hadn't been a complete waste of time.

As she neared Seifer's door, one of the guards opposite the entrance to the hallways came forward to the control panel, and turned his plump face to speak to the other guards.

"Hey guys, is this thing up and running yet?" His large arm motioned towards the computer behind him.

"Yes sir, the computer is working fine right now. The men on the last shift fixed it after they got in trouble for letting that other guy go through without using it." The guard grimaced, and turned back to Fujin.

"Who are you here to see?" He questioned, as he pressed some sort of code into the computer and opened up a strange program.

"SEIFER ALMASY."

"Ah, you must be Fujin Sanada." She narrowed her eyes and watched him open a file, creating a new file with her name on it. He then returned to the program, and typed in the command 'Record.'

"Keep your voice down, all right? Hyne." The guard reprimanded her for her usual abrasive tone, as his chubby fingers typed in a password to start the program.

"What is this?" She questioned

"It's none of your business. Answer the questions and don't say anything else or I'll send you right back out of here, got it? Or do I need to get rough with you?" The guard flashed a lecherous grin and a husky laugh. Fujin clenched her teeth.

"First of all, are you concealing any sort of weapons?" The man looked her over, staring intently at her chest. "Be honest now, or I might just have to frisk you. That would be a shame, now wouldn't it?" The guards standing down at the end of the hallway chuckled, making Fujin turn a light shade of pink as she pretended to ignore the comment.

"No, I am not concealing weapons." The guard turned to the machine and made sure that it was recording.

"What is the nature of your visit today?"

"Seifer is a friend of mine ... a very good friend, you might say," The guard chuckled and Fujin continued. "And I just wanted to be with him as much as I possibly could before you kill him." It pained her to give away any type of information that implied they were closely involved. But, it made a good cover.

"Well, well, well. Didn't take you for Almasy's type little lady. You don't seem sinister enough. But maybe there's a whole different side to you that I'm not seeing, eh honey?" The man licked his dry lips. "I think you're going to be disappointed baby. But hey, if he can't get it up I'll be here waiting for you." She scowled as he winked and turned to press the button to open the door of Seifer's cell.

"NOT MAN ENOUGH FOR ME." She spat. The guards down the hall laughed at the insult.

"Well, my guess is he won't be either. You're free to go in ... I can come in with you if you want. We can give him a show." He moved out of her way slowly, being sure to brush against her in the process. She didn't bother moving-she didn't want to give him the satisfaction.

All of the guards laughed heartily, as Fujin walked slowly into the room.


Black combat boots tapped hesitantly on the linoleum floor, trying to seek out a safe place to step, and finding it impossible because everything was as dark as the farthest reaches of space. There was one small window in the room, but it was covered with a makeshift curtain that didn't allow light in. The darkness might not have been so horrible had it not been for the fact that it was so cold in the small room that it felt liked she had stepped into an arctic cave. Fujin crossed her arms securely over her chest, and whispered a name into the air, praying that she would get an answer.

"Seifer?" She could see her breath as it emanated from her mouth in misty clouds, and noticed that in the far corner of the room, there was another person breathing. She took one step forward, and hesitantly spoke again. "Seifer?" And a shiver went down her spine as she heard the voice she had been longing to hear emit huskily through the stagnant air.

"F-Fujin? Is that really you?" Slits of green eyes peered through the shadows, sparkling like emeralds as they tried to distinguish a familiar profile against the darkness.

In that moment, his voice was the sweetest thing she'd ever heard, even if it was tinged with the tone of a weary solider that'd been fighting a losing battle. Even if it was completely different from when he'd been taken away. Before he had been so full of hope and confidence, but now ... he sounded defeated. She'd never heard him like this before, not even when the sorceress reprimanded him for losing against Squall. But it didn't matter, just as long as that voice of his could grace her ears for a few moments...

With only a quiet uttering of prayers to Hyne and the noise of labored breathing to lead her, Fujin moved closer to him, her eyes hungrily searching to see his skin through the heavy darkness. She couldn't count how many nights she'd dreamt of this since he'd been gone; the reunion of two souls that should never have been separated in the first place.

Her pupil dilated, growing large and commanding in the center of her crimson orb as she strained to separate his image from the darkness. She remembered the barred window that she saw when she came in, and walked precariously to it, she ran her fingers over the makeshift curtain and readied herself to strip it from the window. Would he really be there when she removed it, shining like a god in the shy sunlight? And if he were there, could she run her hands over his flesh and feel his soft skin beneath her finger tips...or was this just another dream? Her pulse raced as she clenched the fabric in her fist and gave it a soft tug, letting it float like a feather to the floor. She tilted her face so that the sun kissed her cheek, and her gaze moved back to the corner where she heard him breathing before. And she sank to her knees, covering her mouth to stifle the scream that escaped her pale lips.

That was not her Seifer. There was no way that the man chained to the wall, with his wrists and ankles covered with blood and his abdomen gouged and bruised, could be the man she was looking for. Her eyes followed the cuts and droplets of dried blood upward.

When she recognized the familiar stern jaw line that she'd traced countless times with her lips, her heart sank. It was, indeed, her Seifer, shackled to the wall like an animal. He was thinner, the bones in his jaw more prominent ... all of his bones we more prominentNo, she wasn't dreaming. This was a nightmare.

"Sorry Fuu, I didn't really get time to freshen up." Her pet name rolled off his lips with a low tremble, no matter how hard he tried to disguise it with a bitter humor. "It's not as bad as it looks, really." He raised his head, wincing in pain as it caused his entire body to sway and grate against the metal cuffs at his wrists. His forehead furrowed and he strained to distinguish her against the light, only being able to see her platinum hair shining like diamonds under the faint rays of sun.

"Hyne above Fujin, come closer. I swear I'll go mad if you stand that far away any longer." His voice was a desperate plea edged with some other familiar gruff passion, begging her to move forward.

The slow scraping sounds of her boots as they dragged against the concrete floor were something that he would remember for the rest of his life and associate with the sweetest salvation. Pebbles rattled along under her toes, and were strewn towards his bare feet. Through them, he could already feel her warmth.

Her body moved closer, shielding the light from his sensitive eyes, rendering him immobile and senseless as each step brought more of her into view; her ankles, thighs, waist, chest, until she stopped, and knelt down before him. His heart felt so still, he couldn't tell the had one at all.

Her pale face shone like a beacon within the confines of his dark prison. Her cheeks were flushed and her crimson eye watered with the sight of him, no doubt in horror and disgust with the shell of a man this place had reduced him to. He was embarrassed and regretful about her seeing him like this. All the same, he was eternally grateful to whatever force brought her here today.

"I knew you were coming soon. I could feel it. You're still beautiful." Seifer stated with his voice shaking, fighting the tears and the never ending pain that surged through his body. "I was afraid I'd forgotten your face. It's so hard to remember things here." He stilled as she moved her hand upward, extending her pale index finger and running it over the bridge of his nose to gently trace a bruise that went down to his cheekbone. His lips released an airy gasp from the soft contact, and he couldn't help but close his eyes and relish the feeling of uncalloused flesh sliding sweetly over his own.

"You too." She uttered quietly, moving her free hand to the pocket of her blazer and pulling out handkerchief, wetting it with her mouth and trying futilely to wipe a few spots of blood off his battered face. Seifer winced as the cloth came in contact with his split lip, and chuckled a little at her words.

"Fuu, you don't need to pretend for me. I look like I've been run over by a truck." He lowered his face in shame, and clenched his fists. She shook her head, and let the cloth fall from her grasp to the blood stained floor so she could cup his face in her hands.

"No—you're perfect." She leaned in to press her lips to his cheek, and moved to brush her fingers through his unruly hair, leaving a film of grease and dirt on her hands. The contact made his stomach burn and his mind reel with the sheer want of having those soft lips touch his own, and to have those gentle fingers caress his skin again.

"Kiss me, Fuu." He murmured his need shamefully into the darkness, quiet and huskily low like a forbidden secret, as he craned his neck so he could rub his stubbly face against her soft pallid skin. "I know I'm filthy, but please don't make me beg." His voice was void of all pride, stripped of all confidence and arrogance. He was already begging, pleading with her to restore some of his dignity and give him the remedy he needed to wash away the painful traces of rough contact that lingered on his skin.

She wrapped her arms around his torso, gently applying pressure and lifting him up to relieve the stress on his arms, and pushed him slowly against the wall as he groaned his gratitude in her ear. She pressed herself to him, happy to find that he was still large and still had weight and substance to him. She leaned against him to and moved her arm underneath his to grasp the rusted hook that held his chains to the wall to get better leverage.

It was painful at first. He hadn't moved in so long that every muscle in his body contracted. He had to clench is jaw to stifle a yelp that tried to escape his body, but it was well worth it to take the weight off his arms and get the metal shackles out of the cuts on his wrists.

"Does this hurt?" She murmured, noting that his face had hardened.

"Only my pride."

It was spoken only a decibel above a whisper, and it barely graced Fujin's ears. But when he uttered that phrase, it broke her. Not only had they took him captive, tortured him, and treated him like dog, but they took away the one thing she never thought he'd lose ... his pride. She tilted her face over to gently press her lips to his, and his entire body shook underneath her.

His mind went blank the second he felt Fujin's mouth upon his own. How long had it been since he'd had her like this, in the quiet security of their world where nothing mattered but the feeling of skin on skin? Far too long, he was certain of that. When she parted her lips and allowed his tongue to explore her mouth, mixing the taste of sweet honey and the bitter tang of blood from his bottom lip, he was sure he would shatter. But, he'd already fallen apart when she walked in anyway.

When she finally pulled away, he felt like a part of his soul had wrenched itself from his body, wanting to be with her more than wanting to stay with him. He honestly couldn't blame it.

"Seifer, we have things to discuss..." She whispered breathlessly in his ear, after kissing his temple.

"Mmm?" Her breath so close to him made him shudder.

"We're getting you out of here." He blinked, confused.

"But how? I've already been sentenced. Fujin, don't waste what time we have left together trying to save me. There are so many other things I can think of doing. Not sure how we're going to do it ... we can get creative." He smiled against her cheek, but she pulled back and placed a pallid finger against his bleeding lip, in no mood for jokes.

"We've got SeeD on our side, and the President of Esthar. You're getting out. Legally or ... by other means." Her tone was deadly serious, and soaked with determination. Seifer opened his eyes wide in disbelief. SeeD, on their side?

"Are you telling me that Squall...?" He couldn't bring himself to finish the sentence. His rival, the one man in the world who should want him dead more than anyone else, was trying to rescue him? He didn't know if he should feel happy or resentful that Fujin went to him and asked him for help.

"Yes, he even orchestrated this visit." She could tell he was unsure about being rescued by the knight in shining armor, afraid that it was out of pity and that he just wanted to look like the bigger man. Fujin knowingly rubbed his shoulder, and kissed the nape of his neck.

"Does it matter Seifer? All I want is to have you back." She shuddered at the thought of his death sentence actually being carried out. "Don't be upset with me for going to him for help."

"There's a catch, isn't there?" He could sense it now, the nervousness that fluttered in her chest as her fingers idly stroked his collarbone. If she hadn't been so close he might not have noticed, but there was something in the was that she was soothingly caressing his skin that made him feel she was trying to comfort him before she spoke the words.

"If SeeD helps you ... helps us ... we have to go back to Garden."

And suddenly Seifer felt weaker than he ever could have ever imagined...

Chapter Text

"Zell, settle down." Quistis raised her hand to massage her temple in an attempt to alleviate her headache. "All your jostling is making me dizzy."

"Sorry Q." Zell slowed his pacing to an awkward standstill and put his hands in his pockets so he wouldn't involuntarily start punching the air. Q? He winced at the nickname. As if they were bros. Shit, he and Squall were pretty tight now and he hadn't even given him a casual nickname.

Quistis only quirked an eyebrow and shook her head, shifting her focus back to the cockpit door o of Ragnarok as she waited for what would be on the other side soon enough: Squall Leonhart.

The commander was currently off-ship meeting with Laguna to broach the topic of negotiating terms for Seifer's release—a conference-table talk; nothing dangerous in the slightest. But, because Laguna was Squall's estranged father and the two of them hadn't exactly reconciled anything yet, Quistis was quietly preoccupied with the damage the meeting might have on Squall's psyche.

While Zell doubted the damage ran that deep, he hadn't really put much thought into it because Squall never talked about it. Like most people, Zell didn't make a habit of going around asking deep personal questions. Ya got those abandonment issues worked out yet, Squall?

All matters Squall were an entirely different thing for Quistis though. She never stopped watching him, waiting for him; her analytical mind quietly calculating the daily shrinking statistical anomaly that would need to occur for Squall to look back at her. Which sounded sad, but worked out great for Zell in the long run—whatever increased the statistical anomaly that Quistis might look in his direction...

The prospect of that happening was pretty grim though, despite that super awkward public confession she made in Trabia during the Ultimeca days. It was a pretty raw-nerved day, so no one judged her much for it at the time. In one fell swoop, they'd failed to save Trabia, learned they grew up in an orphanage together, found out that Seifer also came from said orphanage and that the woman who was like a mother to them was their enemy, and that Guardian Forces were basically eating their brains. If Zell were ranking the days of his life, that one rated pretty low; even lower than the days when the cafeteria ran out of hot dogs, and those days sucked pretty bad.

In retrospect, it was still pretty ballsy of her to talk about loving Squall that day, when they all knew his thing with Rinoa was happening. Sure, it had been followed up with a claim of possible "sisterly" love. But in the days that followed, as Rinoa very clearly became the center of Squall's universe, it was all too clear that Quistis was still trying too hard to be okay. She did a fairly good job of dealing with it, ratcheting it down during the rest of the mission—save for that one moment at the orphanage where she made a thinly veiled comparison between Rinoa being allowed such easy access to Squall's world, and her own failure to be granted the permission. That had been a little hard to watch.

But now that the battle was won and their lives were theoretically slowing down a bit, the gang was left with a lot of time on their hands. They weren't spending their days bopping from town to town chasing a sorceress, or spending their nights talking strategy from their hotel beds or in the cockpit of the Ragnarok. The battles were all easier—so easy they were almost tedious—and the missions seemed routine and wholly non-impactful. They'd already won the big fight—what was left after that?

Shit, in the two years since the Ultimeca deal went down, this thing with Seifer was the most interesting their world had been for a while. Zell wasn't very proud of being excited by a potential jailbreak mission to get Seifer, of all people, free. But he hadn't been back to D-District since they were locked up there by the asshole.

The adrenaline that came with that capture and then getting free … Zell knew it would pale in comparison to Ultimeca, but getting back in there might just scratch the itch.

Anyway, the point was that they all had a lot more time on their hands to think, and Quistis seemed to be occupying her time with rethinking her stance on not loving Squall pretty hard. And worst of all, Rinoa knew it … and things were getting pretty awkward.

Everyone was staying cordial enough though, no thanks to Squall—who didn't seem to care or notice that there was a growing rift. Hell, when Squall doled out assignments, he seemed to be purposely putting himself on overnighters with Quistis pretty often….

… Not that Zell was paying attention. Or rather, not that he wanted anyone to know he was paying attention …

Sure, it was a little fishy … but Squall didn't seem like the double-dipping type. Zell wasn't even sure Squall even thought Quistis was attractive. But it wasn't far-fetched for Rinoa to assume that he didQuistis was drop dead gorgeous and made many a girl not in the original Orphanage Gang jealous.

Hell, that was one of the many reasons Zell and Melanie broke up—there'd been so many fights in the break room of the library about him always rushing to Quistis' side, volunteering to go on missions or instruct extra courses with her. But unlike Rinoa, Melanie had plenty of reason to be jealous—Zell did, in fact, find Quistis to be very attractive … and smart … and funny …

Poor Mel, Zell thought to himself, as he watched Quistis craning forward in her chair to inspect the navigational system to keep herself busy—the glow from the screen illuminating the elegant arch of her neck. She never had a chance and deserved a lot better.

Zell was head over heels for her when it all started—she was kind and funny, and offered the sort've lightness he was looking for after the whole sorceress ordeal; when he was still drunk on the victory and just wanted someone to celebrate with. Most of all, she worshiped the ground he walked on … and as shitty as it sounded, after going what they went through … Zell thought he deserved that just a little bit. He and his friends were heroes after all; they'd saved the whole damn world—wasn't that something to be proud of?

Six or so months in things started to change, and it wasn't even Quistis that did it right away. It just wasn't enough that Mel was pretty, and sweet, and thought he walked on water. None of it mattered, because she couldn't understand what he'd been through. Zell couldn't either until he had time to sit with it; until the war and the victory celebration came to a halt, and the bitter emptiness set in.

"Zell, would you mind coming over here for a second?" Quistis asked, her hand grabbing at her neck instinctually to seek out the glasses that usually hung there by a cord. "I'm double-checking the nav system and I'm looking for Winhill, but I'm having the darndest time finding it on the map. My eyesight's getting worse I'm afraid."

"Sure." Zell glided towards her eagerly and hovered just off to her right, bending down so that he'd be at eye level with her. He chuckled when the screen came into view.

"No wonder you're not finding it. Was Irvine on the 'rock recently?"

"Yesterday. Why, what's so funny?" She tilted her face towards him, but her gaze was met with Zell's arm stretching out in front of her.

"Looks like he got bored." Zell tapped the screen on Winhill's coordinates and Quistis arched an elegant eyebrow.

"Whack-Off Hill." She read flatly, and groaned as she pressed her temple again. "Glad he's putting his skills to use. I don't even know how to fix that."

"Well, he was probably countin' on that." Zell laughed again, and rested his hands on her shoulders. "Want me to take over? He did this to me and Selphie before right before we flew Matron to the orphanage a month ago. Ha, you should've seen Selph tryin' to explain to Matron what a …" Quistis looked over her shoulder at him, her eyebrow still arched. "Uh … never mind. Anyway, I think I know how to fix it."

"No, no. I'll work on it. I'm sure he'll do it again—I should probably know how to correct them." She turned her attention back to the screen. "Plus, you're not supposed to touch anything navigational on this ship for a very long time. Squall's orders.

"Yeah, yeah I know. Squall's orders." His voice skipped an octave higher to playfully mock her. "I don't think the punishment fits the crime."

"Of course you don't. You never do." Quistis sighed as she continued to type. "You could've wrecked the ship. You might've died."

"Ehhhh, we don't know that for sure. Hey, go to settings on the next screen. I think it's there." Quistis murmured in acknowledgement and followed his instructions.

"Zell, Ragnarok is not meant for swan diving and you're not made of rubber. You could've died … and you know what, Squall would be pissed to find you standing this close to the navigation. You should probably step back."

"Fine, be that way. But when you figure it out you may want to take a look at Trabia and the Deep Sea Research Center, too." Zell chuckled again and squeezed her shoulders before stepping away, while a deep frown graced Quistis' lips as she read the screen.

"Poor Selphie. Irvine has a mind dirtier than Esthar's red light district." Quistis sighed, as she navigated the interface in search of a fix. She paused, and turned over her shoulder again, this time with a smirk gracing her lips. "Or maybe it's 'congratulations, Selphie'?"

"Heh," Zell chuckled again, but let his gaze fall to the ground—he was pretty sure he was blushing. "Definitely congratulations—they're not the most bashful neighbors, and Selph's not a quiet woman."

"Oh, I remember." She turned around again, getting back to the task at hand. "Kadowaki's Office? The intercom incident?"

"OH RIGHT!" Zell exclaimed, running his hand through his hair. "I forgot about that … man, they've really been living life to the fullest. Pretty sure they've done the deed in just about every room at Garden."

"Mmmmhmmm. And every nook of this ship too." Quistis nodded in agreement, as she continued to type. "Hyne, maybe I should just leave these alone. They should probably just rename it 'Whack-Off Hill' anyway—it might help with tourism."

Zell chucked again at that and leaned back against the cool metal wall, crossing his arms over his chest as he watched her work. She was funny lately—another side effect of Ultimeca. The war made Zell a bit of an adrenaline junkie, and encouraged Selphie and Irvine to succumb to their urges and just go at it like rabbits around the clock. Squall was unchanged, obviously. But Quistis …. she seemed to be the lucky one who gained a sense of humor. Apparently jumping into compressed time put life, and taking it too seriously, into perspective.

"So, about your Ragnarok flying ban." Quistis called out to him, her gentle voice bringing him back to the present. "Are we ever going to talk about why you chose to take our best ship out for a joyride and set a vertical course pointed towards the ocean …. or?"

"Uh …" Zell leaned deeper against the wall, wishing he could disappear into it, before clearing his throat. "I don't know … I just wanted to test her limits. Make sure she was air-worthy still."

"Zell." Quistis flashed him a doubtful look over her shoulder. He sighed and uncrossed his arms to crack his knuckles. He hated talking about this with people—especially her.

"Listen, you already know why. I don't wanna get into it right now. Especially not with Squall coming back."

"Did you ever go to see that doctor?" She pivoted her chair towards him, deciding to abandon her work with the navigation system for a moment to give him her full attention. "The one in Deling that Kadowaki recommended?"

"I'm not a head-case. I don't need a shrink." He waved her comment off. "You guys don't go to one, why should I?"

"Because we're not endangering ourselves." She stared at him, her gaze switching from neutral to concerned.

"Yeah well tell that to Selphie," He laughed nervously as he tried to change the subject. "Irvine might just fuc—"

"Zell."

Hyne, the way she said his name like that—the single word and the weight it carried; as if she could see into the very core of his soulHow was it that Quistis knew him best, and still didn't see that he was over the moon for her?

She crossed her arms over her chest and crooked her head to the side; her thin blond eyebrow quirked again as she waited for an explanation.

"Hey, I'm doing a little better with it all … you know, excluding this recent incident. And really, I was doing our dear commander a favor; the capacity of this scrap pile really needed to be tested." He kicked his heel against Ragnarok's well-worn metal. "I don't need to see anyone. I appreciate the concern though."

"Squall would be furious if he knew. Not to mention the fact that I'm not interested in scraping you off the walls of this ship. Honestly Zell … you're scaring us all lately." Quistis leaned toward him earnestly, her eyes overcome with a gentle worry.

Zell would never admit it out loud, but she was right to be concerned—he was going off the rails just a little lately. He was missing the high of feeling invincible pretty badly these past few months and he just could not shake it. He absolutely took Ragnarok out one morning earlier this week and flew her full speed directly at the ocean. That second he pulled up, just before her nose touched the water, felt like nirvana. It wasn't the first time he'd done it, and he would've gotten away with it this time too, if Nida hadn't just installed a whole new set of gadgets on the thing that let Garden track the 'rock's every move. Apparently his nosedive had caused quite a stir on Garden's bridge. Rumor had it that even Squall looked worried as they all watched the ship plummet on Garden's radar—it made Zell feel all little warm and fuzzy to know that Squall cared that much.

"You're not gonna tell him are you?" Zell froze, realizing that if faced with the choice, Quistis would probably betray his confidence over keeping something from their commander. She sighed and spun back around in her chair.

"No, I won't. But only if you promise to come find me before you pull another stunt like that. If it happens again, you'll be forcing Squall's hand."

"I know." Zell kicked his heel against Ragnarok again, remembering the meeting Cid requested with Squall to discuss Zell's behavior and the growing concern that he was 'dangerous.' Cid had stepped down from his position as leader of Garden during the war, and that hadn't changed. But Squall decided to create a board of directors in the leadership vacuum left by the death of NORG and the deposing of Martine. Cid was the first appointee … and sometimes the guy still acted like he ran the place.

Anyway, apparently when your hands are your weapon of choice and people think you're getting a little unstable, said people get worried that you're going to snap and use your weapon-hands to murder them. There'd apparently been a few students complaints submitted, and Selphie had unwittingly confided in Matron about Zell's well-being … and course, a little pillow talk between Cid and Edea was all it took. The kids were not alright.

Zell was threatened with a suspension in the wake of the recent incident, and Squall was pissed—the board was just a sliver away from sidelining one of his best instructors and forcing him to rework the whole year's mission rotation. The prospect of being forced to spend six months living with Ma back in Balamb Town while he was working through all of this was enough to make Zell want to toe the line. But Squall's anger … that pretty much solidified Zell's decision to at least make an effort. Though he supposed finding himself on the other end of Lionheart would be a bit of a rush….

"Zell?" Quistis asked again, and Zell's eyes darted upward to find her turned back around to face him. "I'm not trying to be cruel. I get it—we all do. I … just want you to be safe."

Her soft tone, and the thought of Quistis wanting him to be anything at all made Zell's throat tight. Absolutely, Quistis. I'll do whatever you want.

"Yeah, okay … sorry, I didn't mean to worry you. Or anyone, really." Especially you. "I won't do it again, I promise."

"Promise what?" A gust of wind and the whirring sound of an opening door interrupted the conversation. Squall, looking uncharacteristically disheveled and agitated, stepped into the room.

"That he's going to play a game of Tripe Triad with me when we get back home." Quistis volleyed expertly.

"You finally got over losing your Eden card to her huh? Took you long enough."

"Hey man," Zell protested. "That card quite literally had my blood, sweat, and tears all over it. Quistis didn't even fight Ultima Weapon—no offense, Quistis."

"None taken. I can just look at your card all day long and imagine what it was like." She made a face at him and Zell caught Squall chuckling. Since when did Squall chuckle?

"Alright, alright you two." Squall walked closer to Quistis, leaning against the wall to the right of the cockpit door. His brow knitted when he looked at the screen she'd abandoned. "Wow. What'd Winhill ever do to you?"

"Nothing. This was Irvine's doing, obviously."

"Ah. Well, that explains this one." Squall leaned across her and tapped on what used to be the Deep Sea Research Center. "Glad to know he has some free time on his hands. I'll be sure to send him on missions with some paperwork to get done on the commute."

"Yowza," Zell tugged at the collar of his coat. "You're not messing around lately." Squall grimaced, but didn't entertain the comment.

"So?" Quistis was never one to wait for an answer, and she was especially adverse to waiting now. "What was the verdict? How … how was it?" Zell knew that Quistis meant how was seeing your father Squall? But their friend would never answer that question … at least, not in front of Zell. Who knows what he and Quistis ever talked about when they were alone…

"He's agreed to help us plead our case to the Global Council." Squall crossed his arms over his chest. "We're going to put forth a motion to reassess Seifer's designation as a war criminal, and go from there."

"Go from there?" Zell repeated. He was a little disappointed that Laguna agreed to get involved—it didn't bode well for an exciting prison break.

"First and foremost, we're trying to do this legally." Squall reasoned, his eyes gazing past them both towards the neon lights of Esthar. "The council members will meet, and apparently I'll be in charge of presenting a case to them. Which is fine, because Laguna is less eloquent than I am."

"And if that doesn't work?" Quistis asked, her chair twisted towards Squall now, with her knees just a few inches away from him. It made Zell's heat sink a little to see her so enraptured with him.

"If that doesn't work … then the three of us sit down with Selphie and Irvine and decide how important it is to us to save Seifer's life." Squall shrugged, looking directly into Quistis' eyes. "And knowing us, I know how that's gonna go—we may as well prep plans to infiltrate into D-District now."

"Rinoa." Quistis whispered, before shaking her head and saying the name louder. "You … you forgot Rinoa. She'd obviously be involved in that too."

"Oh, yeah—of course. Rinoa too." Squall nodded in agreement, and abruptly pushed himself from the wall and walked by them both. "In the meantime, let's head back to Garden. I need to sit down with Fujin and Raijin. Go over their old testimonies with them, make sure they're prepared to speak in front of the Council if need be." Squall walked to the pilot's chair and took a seat.

"Will Edea need to be involved too? You know how much she hates talking about it all." Zell asked, his eyes trained on Quistis as she gazed at Squall.

"Maybe. Maybe not. Depends on how far it goes." Squall started to flip a few switches as he prepped for flight. "Hey Zell, I know I told you not to come near the controls, but since Quistis is busy erasing Irvine's dirty work from our nav system—will you come co-pilot with me?"

Of all the things Squall was good at, flying the 'rock was not one of them. Zell figured it had something to do with his friend finding the ship derelict in space, full of Propagators, and the traumatic experience of having to figure out how to get it back to the planet so he and Rinoa didn't die out there. Maybe, just maybe, the great commander had been affected by all of this in some way too.

"Booya, baby!" Zell punched the air, and practically hopped into the seat.

"Yeah, yeah. Just don't mention this to Cid. Or anyone at all. Can't look like I'm playing favorites." Squall relinquished the controls to Zell. "Quistis, set the course for home."

"Sure thing … just one more sec—ah ha! There we go!" Quistis spun around in her chair, this time to look at Zell, with a victorious grin spread across her face. "Gentleman, we're back to having Winhill on the map. Take that, Irvine Kinneas. Though it was a creative trick, I have to say."

"Who would've thought that Quistis Trepe would appreciate one of Irvine's dirty jokes?" Zell mused, completely enamored with her bright eyes and enigmatic smile as he eased Ragnarok away from the city.

Chapter Text

What was it that her mother used to say to her when she roused her from bed each morning? Something to do with the weather … something about a smile?

The words didn't come to Rinoa easily anymore, so instead of straining to remember she sighed and gazed out the window, her eyes trained on the landscape that was zipping by as streams of rain scattered along the glass.

The train was moving slowly today due to construction on the route between Deling and Balamb, but it didn't bother her one way or another. The final destination was less than desirable, and besides, Rinoa had grown fond of trains over the past couple of years. The days of traveling with the gang on them during the fight with Ultimeca were a distant memory, but even now she could feel the comfort of the comradery they all felt, and the warmth that spread over her as she grew closer to Squall. Come to think of it, trains were something of a symbol in their relationship—this whole thing started when she plotted to take over Vinzer Deling's train, and then of course the steely Squall Leonhart traversed the tracks from Fisherman's Horizon all the way to Esthar with Rinoa on his back. That was quite the story to hear when she finally woke up—she'd been pretty sure he loved her after that.

Would he do the same for her now, or was he growing tired of carrying her?

A squeal of laughter came from the cabin behind her, causing Rinoa to jump in shock before she rolled her eyes and turned her attention back to the slowly passing landscape. Selphie and Irvine, naturally. The two of them were all over each other while she'd been in there, so Rinoa decided to 'get some air for a while' and leave the two lovebirds alone before they just did it in front of her. Sounds like they were taking advantage …

Rinoa was happy for them, truly she was. But the ease with which they settled back into normalcy and completely sank into each other struck a slight jealous chord in her. For a while she'd tried to convince herself that they were just using each other as a distraction—surely they were suffering some sort of repercussions from all of this. Selphie's entire home had been blown apart—there was no way that girl was doing okay.

How caught off guard she'd been when they invited the gang out to dinner a few days ago to announce their engagement. Selphie was over the moon about it, and Irvine just couldn't take his eyes off of her. And the ring? Hyneit was bigger than one of Shiva's glaciers. The expensive champagne flowed and the well wishes commenced—everyone was surprised it happened so soon but not surprised that it happened. Those two were meant for each other—Selphie made Irvine a better man, and Irvine kept the buoyant girl grounded. They were a perfect match.

The night hadn't been entirely joyous though, no matter how happy they'd all been for Selphie and Irvine to start a life together. It couldn't be avoided. Their friend's commitment to each other left a palpable question on the group's collective mind, heightened by Rinoa's eyes misting over as she shed a few 'tears of joy' for the happy couple: How did Selphie and Irvine manage to get engaged before Squall and Rinoa?

It was a valid question. So much so that Rinoa decided to ask Squall about it herself when they got home later that night. Well, not so much ask with words as drunkenly wail—entirely inconsolable and unintelligible, mind you—into the cushions of their plush blue sofa. Squall, like a good and noble boyfriend, sat with her and rubbed her back in the bathroom as the night's drinking caught up with her. All he could say was that he was sorry. Between retches, tears, and being disappointed that expensive champagne tasted the same as cheap champagne coming back up, Rinoa could only ask him over and over again for what, Squall—for what? He didn't answer, and Rinoa couldn't guess. She was between … what was it that people always said? Oh, right. A rock and a hard place.

Ugh, her memory was terrible lately. She wasn't sure it would ever recover from GFs, and even though Odine told her it wasn't possible Rinoa still wasn't entirely sold on the fact that her sorceress powers didn't have the same memory loss effect as GFs. After all, it was a presence that lived in your body—wasn't it possible for it to do the same thing?

The train jostled on a rough section of the tracks and she lost her footing a bit. She stumbled towards the window and her nose gently tapped the glass—her hands stopping her from falling forward face-first. She grimaced at the bad luck, and casually glanced around to be sure no one else noticed her folly as she straightened out her SeeD uniform. Fucking train. Fucking UltimecaFucking Squall ….

The internal outburst made Rinoa's eyes grow watery again, but she pushed emotion aside and steadied herself as the train rocked once more. She couldn't see Caraway with puffy red eyes—it certainly wouldn't help him take their request regarding Seifer more seriously.

How like Squall, to send her away on a mission like this in the middle of what was going on between them? Anything to prevent another talk about feelings.

Honestly, Rinoa was a little relieved when he left in a hurry to meet with Laguna in Esthar today, and tasked her, Irvine and Selphie to go meet with General Caraway in tandem. Only because they hadn't really talked about the night of the engagement dinner yet and Rinoa wasn't ready for a conversation about it. After all, this could very well be the one … she struggled to hold back the tears again.

What she wouldn't give to remember those words her mother always said to her right now … what she wouldn't give to just remember her face, her eyes, her smile. Sure, she had pictures of her … but she wanted her face imprinted in her mind, or her voice etched in her ears every time she heard a melody. Everyone said she had such a beautiful voice. She'd been so young when her mother died, Rinoa could only remember fragments of her to begin with. She'd hoped those fragments would come back in full clarity when she unjunctioned her GFs, but there'd been no improvements so far. The prospects were pretty bleak, at this point.

With melody and memory gone, she supposed she'd need to relent and ask Caraway about her when she saw him, though she hated the idea of him knowing she needed to hear about her mother for a little pick-me-up. Their rocky relationship hadn't improved drastically since the end of the war, but at least he was making an effort—they were making strides. Still, some part of her resented the fact that she had to rely on him to remember Julia. Rinoa was, apparently, still having trouble with the idea of letting the past go.

Could it be considered a past if she didn't really have much of a history with him? He'd been an absent father, to say the least. Always buried in his work one way or another—whether it was political maneuvering, training cadets, or attending conferences. At least there'd been no shortage of apology gifts. In place of memories with him she had beautiful dresses and fancy presents from faraway places. Any class our course she wanted to sign up for she was encouraged—she never wanted for any material possession; never wanted for anything that money could buy.

It was glamorous, but it was also empty. In fact, it was downright dreadful when Rinoa realized what was happening. Her mother was dead and her father barely knew she existed. In place of fond memories of her childhood, Rinoa could only vaguely remember obsequious Caraway Mansion staff members doting on her with false adoration (fueled by a good paycheck).

The people who lived in her house were in their own world—made to feel like the help by Caraway and therefore not very interested in genuinely befriending his daughter. It was torture—she felt like an outsider in the walls of her own home.

Rinoa hated Caraway for the longest time because of it, and not in the casual way where you flippantly say you hate something and don't meant it. She swore really hated him. Enough to run away from home and head up a faction in the Timber resistance movement—a huge thorn in the Galbadian Army's side for a couple of years. Guerilla warfare was probably more severe than typical teenage rebellion. It wasn't until some point after the war, as Rinoa finally came to realize that Caraway held the key to the memories she held most dear because he'd loved Julia too, that their relationship started to improve a bit. It was Squall, in his succinct and straight-forward way, who reminded her that Julia was one thing she and her father had in common. Just like Raine for Squall and Laguna.

If anything, Rinoa thought that shared pain would bring them together. But what sort've thing is pain to have in common, anyway? Maybe they'd been doomed from the start.

No, it wasn't hate that was making Rinoa dread seeing Caraway in Deling today. Oddly enough, the idea of visiting Deling and going to Caraway Mansion was sitting with her just fine. Honestly, she felt more at home there than she did at Garden lately. The original orphanage gang had left her out of a few meetings regarding lobbying for Seifer's release, and had consistently done the same with other missions—at this point, too many to count. The omission from this one was particularly painful though, because they'd been so deeply entrenched in Ultimeca together. Yet … none of them asked her how she'd feel about Seifer being free—not even Squall. It seemed a little insensitive, since she was the one Seifer threw to the sorceress, who'd arguably endured the most at the hands of Ultimeca, and the only one who suffered a stigma afterward. While the rest of the group were celebrated and regarded as heroes … everyone was skeptical of Rinoa.

Anyway, Rinoa wasn't looking forward to seeing Caraway today because she was a basket case right now and she wasn't sure she could rein herself in if he said just one thing that rubbed her the wrong way. Unfortunately, she didn't have much more time to prepare—he was meeting them at the station, and the platform was visible in the distance. Rinoa could see a large dark car with bright blue plates parked on the plain. He was already waiting for themhow fatherly of him to be so punctual.

With the trip coming to a close, Rinoa moved from her perch at the window and banged on the metal wall of the cabin.

"Wrap it up you two. We're about two minutes out." She heard Selphie's breathy laughter followed by what sounded like a protest from Irvine, and some additional muffled sounds that both made her feel gross for listening and utterly heartbroken that they had what she couldn't manage to get back to. That laughter … those sounds … that protest. Squall used to be that way; insatiable, incorrigible, undeterred—unable to take his eyes off of her.

How had they gotten to this point? If he found her into the depths of the cosmos, why couldn't she find him now? But it couldn't be all her fault—he was the one who was turning away from her.

As the train lurched to a stop, Selphie and Irvine emerged from the cabin. Selphie was disheveled and sweaty and Irvin was in a pink-cheeked daze.

"Heya!" Selphie sidled up next to her as Rinoa quirked an eyebrow and led them out of the cabin. "We were just … getting our weapons ready. Irvine's gun was stuck in the holster."

"Sounds clinical," Rinoa smirked and turned away from her friends. "Nice try Selphie."

"C'mon Selph, Rinoa wasn't born yesterday." Irvine interjected as he slung an arm over her the petite brunette's shoulder and looked Rinoa squarely in the eye. "I was making sweet, sweet love to my bride-to-be in that there railroad car, and I don't care who knows it."

"Irvy!" Selphie elbowed him and her face flushed.

"He's right Selphie. I'm pretty sure they could've heard you in the Deep Sea Research Center." Rinoa rolled her eyes as they neared the exit.

"I'm so embarrassed. I can't believe we got caught." Selphie covered her face and Irvine only laughed loudly.

"You weren't so worried about it a few minutes ago half-pint." Irvine muttered and as Rinoa turned her attention away from them, she could hear her brunette friend chastising the Galbadian cowboy. A grin spread across her face, despite how sad it made her when she compared the scene to her own life. Rinoa loved Selphie like a sister now—in fact, before the tryst on the train occurred she'd even asked Rinoa to be the maid of honor in her wedding—she was genuinely happy for them.

"So your old man is waiting for us?" Irvine craned his neck as they waited to step onto the platform. "Can't wait to sit down with him and talk about Seifer Almasy—that should be a treat." Something gave Rinoa the impression that Irvine wasn't quite on board with the 'free Seifer' movement either—probably because he'd blown up the only real home his fiancé had ever known. Just that one small thing.

"Hey, speaking of your old man, are you two getting along any better, or are ya still—"

"Hey!" Selphie interrupted, slapping his arm lightly. "What a question to ask, nosy. Rinoa don't answer that."

"Nothing's changed." Rinoa turned to look at Irvine briefly, her voice flat and tired, emphasizing the fact that she didn't really want to discuss it. Irvine held his hands up at Selphie in defense.

"What? I was just wondering how awkward we should expect this little meeting to be."

As Selphie quietly chastised Irvine, Rinoa spotted Caraway standing near the bottom of the platform, and somewhere inside of her something snapped. Maybe it was the fact that his salt-and-pepper hair had a little more salt in it, or that he seemed a little bit smaller—more fragile—in that uniform of his. Maybe it was the fact that she felt alone, and that he was the only person in the world who had to love her, no matter what. Maybe it was the fact that Squall chose to leave her side again, and she felt scared, helpless, confused and betrayed by everyone. Her list of grievances was long, and her sources of comfort shallow.

As Rinoa approached him, with Selphie and Irvine in tow, Caraway smiled wide. Rinoa smiled back at him and offered a small wave, genuinely glad to see him.

"There's my girl. A smile so bright she brought out the sun." He held his hand out in the air to indicate the rain stopped, and Rinoa's throat grew tight.

There's my girl; I need your smile to wake up the sun. That was it. Rinoa could almost hear her voice …

One minute Rinoa was on the platform, and the next thing she knew her cheek was pressed to the General's shoulder. Tears streamed down her face as she clutched him in a tight hug.

"What on earth is the matter?" Caraway asked, as his arms wrapped around her in kind—surprised by gesture but more than welcoming any sign of affection from his daughter. He couldn't remember the last time she'd hugged him. "Was the train all that bad? " Rinoa shook her head and suppressed the urge to sob.

"No, dad …" Rinoa gasped, pulling away from him and wiping her face. "Everything's okay … I'm just really, really happy to see you."


"So, are you actually going to say something about how it went?"

Squall bent down to pick his jacket off the floor, beating the leather with the back of his hand to shake away the thin layer of dust that settled on it. He took a moment before answering the question, a monologue running through his head about the obvious pitfalls of collaborating with his estranged father to free Seifer Almasy.

"It was less than ideal. This whole situation is less than ideal." That was the most he wanted to expound on it, because there genuinely wasn't much else to say—this entire ordeal, from inception to the nebulous mental spaces they all ended up in was less than ideal.

Squall wondered, briefly, if either Laguna or Seifer felt the same way. Surely Seifer couldn't be excited about essentially being under house arrest at Garden—a pariah where he once ruled the roost. If there was one thing Squall learned from all of this, it was that you could never flip a switch and go back to the way things were. For him it was meetings, responsibilities, everyone in his business, and the consistent weight of the world on his shoulders in place of only worrying about himself. For Seifer, it would be shame as a permanent placeholder for pride …

… If not for Fujin, Seifer would probably prefer prison.

Laguna, on the other hand … Squall wasn't sure how many levels the man had, or if his optimistic disposition could even register anything less than ideal. Squall figured he must take after his mother …

"Well excuse me. You obviously needed to relieve some tension, so I just figured I'd check. Don't worry, I won't ask again."

He finished buckling his belts and turned around to face her in the process, not realizing that his tone came across as rude. He still needed to work on that. Tone was apparently important, and all the more so when you threw in the burden of stature and power. Squall realized he could say the shittiest thing in the nicest way and no one would bat an eyelash. However, if he sounded the least bit irritated everyone got bent out of shape.

"Sorry." Squall sighed again, and reached a hand out to touch her face briefly, tucking a few strands of golden hair behind her ear. "I didn't mean it that way."

"I know, but still." Quistis straightened out her skirt and fastened a row of recently loosened buttons on her vest, the movement pushing Squall's arm aside. "You basically pounced on me. I wasn't expecting this …" Her voice trailed off, and she crossed her arms over her chest, tilting her head to the side and gazing down at the floor. "I thought you were done."

Squall had decided to end this thing between him and Quistis just two days ago. Same as he'd decided the month before that to end it, and how she'd decided the month before that to end it. Yet here they were again—Squall requesting Quistis' help fixing insert random mechanical object here in the hangar, and Quistis obeying without a hitch knowing full well what would happen. Collectively, they'd been sleeping together for just over a year now … starting out with just one time, and then another time, and another time. And now? Hell, Squall couldn't even keep track if he wanted to. In terms of physically fitting together and suiting each other's needs, nothing else compared. Not even …

… No, he couldn't actually compare them in that way. That was unusually cruel.

Anyway, it wasn't without its pitfalls—this thing they'd started was punctuated with bouts of deep self-loathing on both of their parts. But it didn't feel worse than the even more deeply entrenched trauma they lived with … it actually made that feel better. For the most part, rendezvous with Quistis were a highlight for Squall.

It started not too long after the war ended, when that feeling of needing to be alert at all times wouldn't disappear. The phantom threat of danger and needing to protect everyone from it—especially Rinoa, who was still a sorceress and therefore a potential ticking time bomb—broke him.

Squall succumbed to what Quistis would later diagnose as panic attacks for the first time in his life. They were sparse at first, and mostly occurred in the privacy of the suite he shared at Garden with Rinoa, locked in the bathroom with the shower water running to drown out any sound he might make. He hid those moments from her—the one person he was supposed to share things with—because he was determined to handle them on his own. No need to burden the others; he'd withstood torture—he was strong enough to get through it on his own.

But apparently Squall's might was no match for mental flaws of this nature; the episodes started to seep out in public places—the pivotal one occurring when Squall was flying Ragnarok with Quistis on board. She'd found him doubled over at the helm, the ship drifting off course towards Esthar's skyscrapers. His hands, strong with years of combat training with the deadliest of weapons, wouldn't loosen their grip on the controls. She'd tried to snap him out of it gently, but when it didn't prove fruitful she slapped him across the face. Squall's subconscious responded by shoving her across the room.

A mentally unsound commander is an untrustworthy commander, and seconds after he snapped out of it Squall immediately planned on turning himself in. Even if he hadn't wanted to he was sure Quistis, being such a stickler for protocol, would whisk him to the conference room when they got back to Garden. Soon after that he'd be seated next to Dr. Kadowaki as she sadly listed all the reasons why he was unfit for duty to the board members. Everyone counted on him … and everyone would be disappointed.

But as Quistis nursed a sprained wrist in the pilot's seat, and Squall wallowed in guilt beside her for administering the wound, she came up with a plan to protect him—not even asking if he wanted or needed her to. They'd pair off for all of his missions until he felt better, and she'd sneak him to Deling City to see that shrink of Kadowaki's, if he wanted.

It felt nice to be in someone else's hands; so much better than the urgency to fight. And so the flawed commander became further flawed as they spent all of their time together, forgoing the psychiatrist and vigilantly protecting his secret.

It was all downhill from there. Quistis adored him, and didn't expect much from him—she was strong all on her own and didn't need him to be that for her; it was the perfect mix of circumstance and environment and timing and … everything … for a clandestine relationship to bloom. Quistis took Squall's mind off of things, lifting the burden of that squeaky clean reputation he'd garnered, and understood how to manage his penchant for solitude well—she'd been doing it for years. She didn't need anything from him.

He knew it was irresponsible to be doing this with a someone in their circle of friends. Someone who Rinoa saw daily, and suspected but could only wonder about for fear the accusation would fracture their tight knit group. It was irresponsible to allow Quistis to have this, knowing full well that he'd become so deeply embedded in her heart the inevitable separation would be agony for her. It was irresponsible to develop a soft spot for her that made the thought of separation a little like agony on his side, too. The responsible thing to do would've been to see the psychiatrist, to let Quistis bring him there before this all started …

But being irresponsible felt so good. Squall supposed he'd been the one to start it … he hadn't fully realized that until now.

Wouldn't Seifer Almasy laugh if he knew that the great Squall Leonhart—who challenged the sorceress and saved the world, and was well-respected for his outstanding character and fortitude—was forced to his knees by the demons in his own mind, and chose to have an affair as a salve?

"I had a long day. I … don't have a better explanation." He leaned in to kiss her, which he used to make a point of not doing too often so the waters didn't get too muddied—this had started out as a purely physical thing, not an intimate one. But the longer he spent with Quistis, the more complicated it felt for him. Contrary to popular opinion, he wasn't made of stone.

"That's a good enough reason." He could feel her smile against his lips as her hand pressed against his chest. "You should probably zip up your fly. Zell's not very observant but why risk it?" Squall kissed her once more, surprising her and himself with the repeated gesture, and took a step back to follow her zipping directive.

"Back to the cockpit?" Squall asked, throwing on his jacket.

"Sure. Glad I could help." Quistis quipped sarcastically as she smirked at him. Squall offered her a brief smile in return.

"I'm sorry. I know I said I wouldn't. This is the last time." She shook her head at that, and pushed herself from the wall to stand beside him as they strode towards the hangar door.

"Says the guy who's now probably only kissed me a total of five times since we've been doing this. Something tells me you'll be back." He stopped in his tracks and quirked an eyebrow at her acknowledgement that something new was happening—that Squall might just be reaching a point of no return.

"Really? Is that all?" She stopped a few paces ahead of him as he spoke, and turned to face him. "Didn't know you'd been counting."

"Hard not to. It's so rare it's surprising." He was struck, suddenly, by the hue of her blue eyes and the small smile crept onto her face with a pink blush.

"Here." He outstretched a hand and pulled her close. "Make it six," his lips found hers again in a whisper, and he was glad to find that she'd parted her own to allow the kiss to grow deeper. Squall snaked his arm around her waist and pulled her back into the belly of the hangar, finding that he needed a few more minutes of being the closest he could come to normal, with flaws and failures and secrets—to feel human, and not be put on a god-like pedestal.

"What about Zell? We've been gone a while." Quistis asked, breathless. She was apparently the only one out of the two of them who could remember other people existed lately.

"Nothing makes him happier than flying this ship. Trust me, he's not thinking about anything else."

It was irresponsible to take the risk… but Squall was positive he didn't want to be responsible for one more goddamn thing.