Into Esthar

BY : Chemotaxis
Category: Final Fantasy VIII > Yaoi - Male/Male
Dragon prints: 999
Disclaimer: We do not own Final Fantasy or any of the characters in this story, nor do we profit from writing this story.




~ Chapter Eleven - Thrown Back ~



[Room 226, Skyway Inn, Chimera District, Friday, 17th of October, 4:12 pm]

Squall had given up on falling asleep ages ago. He'd gotten only a few hours of sleep since Wednesday and the fatigue was starting to settle bone deep. He'd gone without rest for far longer periods under much more straining circumstances, yet he felt more tired than ever as he looked out of the window of his small hotel room.

He no longer knew how long he'd been leaning against the back of the tatty armchair, his gaze averted from the alarm clock. He had set it on the off chance that he would actually fall asleep at some point during the evening and be late for the appointment with Rinoa come morning. As he had pressed the buttons, a sudden thought had stilled his hands. He could simply not show up. For a brief moment he had considered the cowardly idea, before his fingers had started moving again, sealing his wake up call to a morning he wished didn't have to come.

He didn't know what to expect, how it would happen. Maybe he didn't even need to be there for Rinoa to break the bond and the request for his presence was some strange kind of courtesy. Most people seemed to value breaking things off face to face, but he found such a preference strange. When someone left, it hurt either way, but having to watch them walk away seemed unnecessarily painful.

He'd rather keep the memory of her smiling face untainted, her hazel eyes lighting up in wonder and gentle exploration as she had placed cool hands on either side of his head, the first touches of her mind so incredibly soft against his. Like ink dripping into water, her thoughts had gently curled and laughed and reveled, before smoothly sinking into him and infusing him with a pleasant presence. One moment he'd been alone in the world; the next her voice had wordlessly whispered to him from within, her lips curved into a smile as she had given him a promise of forever.

Would it feel like the reverse of that? A slow untangling of thoughts and soft whispers, a gentle pull away and then nothing? No forever after, no longer a knight. It would be strangely ironic, for it to be that simple. He knew better than to expect something more dramatic than that when the returning pattern of his life seemed to be that people walked out of it with astounding ease.

He wished he could be angry with her, but knew that would be unfair. She had tried harder than he ever had, had invested all of herself into making things work, while most of the time he hadn't even been able to hug her without being halfhearted and uncomfortable. Even he knew that was supposed to be elementary relationship basics.

Even though his memory was somewhat muddled and that early Thursday morning at Seifer's place only came back to him in fragments, he could still remember the moment of realization clearly. He didn't understand love. Rinoa loved him. He had thought he returned those feelings, but in the end it seemed he was only capable of some semblance of intimacy when drugged out of his mind. He was even more dysfunctional than he had originally thought and to refuse to let go of his bond with Rinoa would be beyond selfish. He had no right to tie her to someone like him.

He could no longer maintain that their failed relationship was unrelated to their bond as knight and sorceress, that those were two separate things and that the end of one didn't necessarily have to mean the end of the other. Prolonging their bond had hurt Rinoa. There was nothing platonic about it; it was invasive and personal and probably the closest he'd ever get to someone knowing about the skeletons he kept hidden in his closet, the kind of things he imagined only lovers knew.

As much as he hated the drug induced moment of insight where irrational and painful longing had made him reach for the bottle, he now at least had an inkling of why Rinoa couldn't stand to feel his mind and thoughts any longer. She must have realized a long time before he had that this kind of unbalanced relationship wouldn't last.

He would miss her. Maybe not for the right reasons and maybe not as much as he should, but enough to dread the next day. His life had had a certain sense of stability with Rinoa in it; he had never truly been alone. With her gone, he wondered how easily he would be able to settle back into the kind of life he had led before the war.

If he could at all.

Brow furrowing at the unwelcome thought, he told himself he hadn't become that weak. It might take some getting used to, but he had done it before. He would manage again. That's what it always boiled down to in the end anyway: self-reliance. Never place any expectations or hope in anyone other than yourself. Silently, he swore that this would be the last time he'd have to learn that lesson. Whether the fault lay with others or more likely, himself, he was done with coming back for more.

With a sigh, he tore his gaze from the view he had stopped taking in a long time ago and rubbed his right temple where a dull headache was starting to build. He really needed some sleep, but his thoughts wouldn't give him any reprieve. Moving to sit in the armchair, he leaned back and tried to think about the practical side of things instead.

Arrangements would have to be made. First, there was the penthouse to think of. Whether Rinoa would like to keep it or move somewhere else, he would offer his support. It would give him peace of mind to know Rinoa wasn't wanting for anything. He wouldn't leave her without any other option than to return to her father in Deling City without a Gil to her name. General Caraway might never have approved of him much, but the man would never be able to accuse him of abandoning his daughter. His pride wouldn't allow it, nor his sense of responsibility. He'd always be there if she needed his help.

He also needed to inform Balamb Garden that he would be moving back, single quarters. The prospect of having to break the news to Quistis wasn't a pleasant one. The woman seemed to feel entitled to know about what was going on in his life and was far more stubborn about the matter than the rest of his friends. The moment she found out about any of this she'd have an apoplectic fit, one he didn't want to witness. He could only hope the others would take it in stride and refrain from prying. Loire would find out soon enough from Odine, since the doctor operated under strict observation of the president and always updated the meddling man on Rinoa's condition after her appointments.

Mood darkening at the thought of all the unwanted opinions and good advice he'd have to put up with, Squall decided that contacting Garden could wait. He didn't put it beyond his friends to rally together and come to Esthar for moral support, so he'd just tell them once he arrived back at Garden, not a moment earlier. For all they knew he was enjoying his leave and he preferred to keep it that way.

Letting his head drop backwards, his eyes trailing to the ceiling, he thought about moving back to Balamb. During his leaves, he would be able to resume his daily schedule of training. Zell could teach him hand-to-hand combat techniques on a more regular basis. His visits to the presidential palace would be reduced to a minimum. He'd live by the ocean again.

He tried to draw consolation from those thoughts, but knew that no matter where he lived, there would still be unpleasant reminders everywhere. He'd still have to return to Esthar for work, especially now that the talks concerning Esthar Garden had started, and every single time his thoughts would wander to the two people who would be so close by yet out of reach.

Garden was even more riddled with memories. There was the table in the cafeteria that had been his and Rinoa's spot, the bench at the main entrance where she always used to wait for him to come back from missions, all the little corners and hallways where she had stolen a quick kiss. There was the clearing in the training centre where he and Seifer used to spar, the tree at the quad that had several deep cuts carved into its bark by Hyperion, the slight dent where Seifer had slammed him into the metal door of one of Kadowaki's medicine cabinets.

All the traces Seifer had left behind, they had already been bothering him since the war, but until now his feelings had been mixed whenever his eyes fell on something familiar and a memory surfaced. He had quickly dismissed each one of them with an upset thought to the blond bastard who managed to mess with his head even when he wasn't around. He had been too angry and confused to admit to himself that he missed those times that would never come back.

After what had happened the past few days, that would be different. He knew the truth now, wasn't angry anymore, but it wouldn't stop the questions. Now more than ever he'd just be plagued by all the "what if's" instead: a worthless trade.

There were so many instances, so many junctures where he could have interfered, had he been more observant. He'd always known that Seifer hated any and all authority figures at Garden, bumping heads with them on a daily basis. He hadn't known, though, how out of place Seifer had felt at Garden, how the blond had planned to never come back the moment he had set out for Timber. Ultimecia had had nothing to do with that choice.

He wondered when such thoughts and plans had started to take root in the arrogant leader of the DC, who lived to perpetually annoy his instructors and strut the hallways of Garden like he owned them. When had Seifer given up on becoming a SeeD? Thinking back, he knew it had been naïve of him to think that the blond would simply try the SeeD exam a fourth time.

That time, just after the exam, he had simply stood by as Quistis and Xu had lashed out at Seifer and condemned the choices the blond had made as team captain. He hadn't spoken up in Seifer's defense, hadn't voiced his thoughts or admitted how it had seemed unfair that Seifer needed to take the blame for something he had been guilty of as well.

It hadn't been the blond's supposed authority over him, that had made him agree so easily to checking out the communication tower. He had simply been tired of remaining idle while battle was going on elsewhere and hadn't needed to think twice before following the blond. In retrospect, Seifer had made the right call; that order of retreat should never have come.

He could have appealed to Quistis; as smitten as she had been with him at the time, he could have convinced her to put in a good word for Seifer. He could have spoken up himself. Even if the ultimate choice hadn't been up to Cid, but more likely NORG's Garden Faculty, it still might have bought Seifer another chance; could have delayed the blond's plans to leave and make for Timber.

Timber, where everything had gone to hell. Any point after that would already have been too late; Ultimecia had already sunk her claws into her knight at that point. But even late rescue would have been better than none at all. So many times when he could have dragged Seifer away from the battle field, with force if necessary, back to Garden, but instead he had raised Lionheart.

For the first time he felt like he could understand what had driven Ellone to do something as irresponsible and reckless as sending them into memories of the past, without any regard to their lack of consent or whether it was safe. He understood, now that he had that same unbearable wish to do things over. Even if he could only change one thing, it would be enough; he would make sure Ultimecia would never take Seifer.

He tried to imagine it: a life where Seifer had never left Garden and had become a SeeD instead of a knight. The scenario had been so easy to envision once, when they hadn't known anything of war and spent their days trying to outdo one another. Getting missions and gaining rank would simply have been a new way of continuing their rivalry.

Stilling mid-thought as he realized the pointlessness of his thoughts, Squall wanted to snort at himself, but no sound came. He knew there was no changing the past, yet he couldn't stop thinking about it, about that now lost future of rivalry, something that had seemed like an absolute certainty during his cadet years.

Nearly three years had passed since those days, his life far different from anything he had ever expected. He wondered what his seventeen-year-old self would have to say about his current predicament. He probably wouldn't be very impressed with his distress over a girl and even less so with him obsessing over Seifer.

Sighing, tired of the vicious circle his thoughts were trapped in, he pushed up from the armchair and glanced at the alarm clock. 4:48 pm. A little over sixteen hours left. With every hour that passed by, he felt his restlessness grow. This was one countdown he wasn't ready for, and he wished he could summon the indifference his younger self had warded off the world with--a shrug of the shoulders and a noncommittal "Whatever."



[Darroze Building, Elvoret District, Friday, 17th of October, 4:48 pm]

Squall's thoughts were restless, had been so ever since last night. Observing silently from a distance, just outside of his awareness, Rinoa didn't draw near. She didn't need to in order to feel him, which was all she wanted. Only a distant hum of his distraught state of mind filtered through; it hadn't stopped since yesterday, telling her he hadn't had any sleep since then either.

She ran her fingers through Angelo's fur, petting the dozing dog with slow strokes as they sat together on the fluffy carpet of the guest room her friend, Cecilia, was letting her use. Slumped against the foot end of the bed, head tilted back listlessly, she allowed herself these last few hours to drink in the presence of her unaware knight. She needed it, even if it wasn't exactly the most healthy thing to do. Cecilia had tried to coax her out of the small room with bribes of treating her to her favorite restaurant or catching a movie, but nothing could have tempted her away from the last glimpses of Squall's mind.

Part of her wanted to feel his distress, wanted the reassurance that this was hurting him too, but she knew she was only fooling herself. It was probably not even her he was thinking about.

Another part of her wanted to rush to his side and say she hadn't meant any of it, that she wouldn't let him go. She knew he would forgive her if she did. He was too loyal for his own good.

Every hour that dragged on, every twitch of unrest that reached her through their bond made it increasingly difficult to remain idle. She hated this waiting. When Odine had told her he couldn't see them until Saturday, she hadn't protested, deep down hoping that Squall would try and change her mind before then, plead with her.

He hadn't.

He hadn't even answered her phone call that Thursday morning. She'd felt his mounting distress and had started to worry, in spite of everything he had put her through, everything he had forced her to feel. She had called out to him then, only to feel a jolt of panic as he recoiled from her. The outburst of uncontrolled emotion that had followed the voice mail she'd left him had nearly floored her as she slumped to her knees and sobbed uncontrollably with the weight of their combined distress.

His emotions had rolled through her with force, too many to be able to label them all, but she had understood the underlying current of it all. Shattering realization. She knew then that there was no turning back. There was no point in trying to save something, when neither of them believed in it anymore. She had mourned with him for their end, for what they couldn't ever have. And then there had been nothingness, a big void as if Squall's turmoil had suddenly been snuffed out. She had fallen asleep not much later, exhausted.

The next day, not too long after Seifer's phone call, there had been a short but potent bout of rage, stunning her from her own anger with the ex-knight. She could only really ascribe such blind fury to the blond's handiwork, the timing too conspicuous for it not to be related to the fact that Seifer had just phoned her. Another, obvious implication was that Squall had still been with Seifer at the time, that he had spent the night with the blond. To conclude that the choking hurt she had felt the night previous had also been because of Seifer wasn't that farfetched an assumption.

She had almost reached out to Squall then, had almost called to ask what the bastard blond had done to him.

It was also then that she had realized something else, that Squall hadn't learned to block his emotions from their bond as skillfully as she had. Maybe he had only ever needed to shield minor thoughts or slight inner turmoil from her. Maybe it was only now that the wall he had carefully constructed around himself was starting to crumble, or maybe it was the Avalanche like Seifer had said. She couldn't tell for sure, but she knew cutting their bond was more necessary now than ever. She would go mad if she had to go through another night like Wednesday. She wasn't sure she'd be able to keep from ripping the inhibitors from her wrists and retrieve her knight a second time.

She didn't know what was more painful, the inescapable fact that Squall had slept with the ex-knight or the depth of the emotions Seifer invoked in him. To realize that his feelings for her paled in comparison, that they had never even been profound enough to cause more than a ripple in the surface of the bond they shared... She had always known this but to have the harsh truth presented to her like this was more than she could handle. It was cruel. His elation, his arousal, his unconditional trust, his absolute surrender. She had finally felt exactly what she had craved for so long, but none of it had been for her. She wondered what Seifer had done, what was so different about him for Squall to fall like that.

She didn't want to think back to her very first time, an experience shared with the blond boy, but she did. She found nothing there that shed any light on what had happened, any reason for Squall to prefer someone like Seifer over her, except perhaps the realization that Seifer wasn't straight, confirming her longstanding suspicions. Sex with Seifer had been awkward and the way he had stopped halfway through hurtful, the blond making some excuse neither of them had believed. At least Squall had responded to her touch, his body's reactions honest enough for her not to have been worried about his actual preferences.

But she hadn't been able to get Squall to accept those touches, to accept such intimacy. Not like Seifer had. Apparently patience and love didn't pay off in the end, but drugs and forcefulness did. Should she have been more demanding, less accommodating? She was afraid to find out what Squall really liked in bed, for him to have responded so strongly to Seifer, a man who had tortured him. If the blond hadn't lied over the phone, then why had Squall taken Avalanche? In the ex-knight's presence?

She grit her teeth at the turn her thoughts had taken, at just how messed up everything had become. She was comparing them and was trying to figure out where she fit in it all, how she compared to them. There had to be some explanation, a reason why she had such unlucky and self-destructive taste in men, why it could never be her.

Jaws clenching as she tried not to cry again, she resisted the urge to blindly throw anything she could get her hands on out of frustration and vandalize the room that wasn't hers. Instead she took a deep, shuddering breath and pushed up from the floor. She needed some distraction after all.

"Come on, Angelo. Let's go for a walk."

Perking to attention at those words and the familiar dog leash that appeared from one of the drawers, Angelo enthusiastically shot up from her spot on the carpet and moved to wait by the door.

"You need some air too, huh?" she asked, smiling weakly as she fastened the leash to Angelo's collar. She hoped a walk in the city would at least keep her mind from wandering to her two exes together in bed. There was something strangely therapeutic about drifting through an uncaring crowd, one large avenue after the other, just one among the masses, just one of many problems. Nobody would turn in wonder at the sight of a silently crying girl and her dog. She needed that kind of numbness if she wanted to feel Squall without actually thinking about him. It had worked in the past, maybe it would now too.



[Odine's Laboratory, Chimera District, Saturday, 18th of October, 8:47 am]

As he pulled into the parking lot, Squall tensed in the driver's seat the moment he spotted Rinoa. Amidst the morning bustle of scientists and assistants arriving for work and moving from building to building, she was impossible to miss seated to the side of the entrance steps, her arms folded around her knees. Nobody seemed to notice her, huddling from the cold, but he couldn't tear his gaze away. The wind was wildly tossing her long raven hair, obscuring her expression from sight.

As he maneuvered his car into the nearest parking space, he tried to will himself to calm down. This close, she would be able to pick up on everything. If they were going to do this, he needed to keep strong. One moment of wavering, of weakness, and he would only make things harder on both of them. He knew her compassionate nature would cause her to hesitate the moment she noticed anything less than resigned determination in him, just as he would hesitate the moment she expressed any form of doubt. He couldn't allow that. It was this weakness that had kept them tied together this long.

Killing the engine of his car, he took a moment to relax his expression and posture before getting out. He felt like running, every fiber of his being opposed to what he was about to do, but he simply closed the door and crossed the parking lot. Rinoa had already spotted him and rose to her feet, otherwise motionless. Looking into solemn hazel eyes, he felt like he was walking towards the edge of a cliff, the inevitable fall one of his own making.

Rinoa seemed so fragile in that moment, her eyes glistening and blinking against what were maybe tears or maybe just the sharp wind. The slight redness to her cheeks and the way her coat and scarf were pulled up high around her neck told him she had been waiting outside for a while.

"You should have waited inside," he said as he arrived at the steps.

Meeting Squall's gaze, Rinoa would have smiled at those words if it weren't for the circumstances that had brought them there in the first place. He was the picture of composure, his voice even and noncommittal, but she could feel the stir of restlessness underneath it all. For him to tightly keep his guard even then was both typical and infinitely sad.

"And risk you heading into Odine's office, before we have a chance to talk?" she said softly, only managing the slight teasing tone to her voice out of habit. She had immediately noticed the dark smudges under gray-blue eyes, confirming her suspicion that he had hardly had any sleep, but she refrained from comment.

"Come on," she said, taking him by the arm and ignoring the slight frown that appeared on Squall's face. "There won't be any people in the garden right now."

"Odine will--”"

"Odine will be busy setting up his gear and machines. He won't mind us coming in a little late." She knew Squall didn't ever appreciate being whisked off to a secluded place for private conversation, but some things were more important than him feeling uncomfortable.

Met only with determination in Rinoa's eyes, Squall yielded. He had known a talk would be unavoidable the moment he had spotted her waiting on those steps. He was fairly sure he wouldn't want to talk about anything she had to say, didn't see the point of these face to face conventions where people bared their hearts to each other one last time.

He let himself be led down the little path all the same, the arm hooked around his and the close press of Rinoa's body strangely comforting in that it let him know she at least didn't hate him for what had happened. And though he dreaded the conversation to come, he welcomed the resulting delay.

Glancing sideways, Rinoa briefly met Squall's even gaze before quickly looking away again. She could feel his apprehension more clearly now, the unusual sensation chiseling away at her own courage and her resolve to get answers out of him. She wasn't sure if she even wanted to know.

Spotting a bench to the side of the garden, she softly tugged his arm. "Let's sit down over there." Maybe the words she wanted to say would come more easily if they didn't have to look each other in the eye; some much needed distance as they sat side by side and tried to voice things that left them too exposed.

A small nod was all she received in reply. When they reached the bench, she untangled their arms and sat down, waiting as Squall reluctantly followed suit. Silence stretched between them, and she knew Squall wouldn't be the one to break it. She tried to arrange her thoughts, organize the questions that weighed heavily on her mind. If this was to go right, she would need to keep accusation and hurt from bleeding into her voice.

Had she been braver, she would have lifted the shield she had placed in between their consciousnesses, allowing them to convey in thought what they couldn't put into words. But that would mean setting herself up for more heartache than she could stand, so she resigned herself to stunted replies and awkward misunderstandings.

"I'm ashamed of how I behaved at the club," she started, deciding that was as good a topic to begin with as any. Squall needed to know this wasn't going to be about her blaming him. "I was drunk and upset. I didn't mean to tell you like that."

Hearing the unexpected apology, Squall didn't immediately reply. He didn't care anymore how he had been told he was no longer needed. There was no good way to break news like that, and the outcome would have been the same in the end. Besides, he was guilty of much more shameful behavior than her.

"It doesn't matter," he said evenly, dismissing the unnecessary apology.

"It does to me," came the quiet reply. When only silence followed those words, Squall glanced sideways. Rinoa's fingers were fidgeting nervously before she pinned her hands between her knees, a thoughtful look to her eyes. He braced himself for what she was about to say.

"Seifer said he was there, at the club," Rinoa started hesitantly, an instant surge of unguarded emotion reaching her through the bond, before Squall promptly quelled it. She could practically feel how all the blood had dropped from his face, but no response came.

"...He said he was your friend, but he probably just didn't want to tell me--" he was seeing you. "...his name."

Comfort zone instantly breached at the mention of Seifer, Squall struggled to remain in place when he wanted nothing more than to walk away from the turn the conversation was taking. He knew that to some extent Rinoa deserved answers, but Seifer had already run his mouth to her, and he was afraid to ask just what she had been able to discern from the bond. He didn't know what was left to say, why she had to bring it up.

Seeing and feeling Squall's inner turmoil, his features darkening as he kept silent, Rinoa was at a loss as to how to proceed. She needed to understand what was going on between him and Seifer.

Seifer had said it was just the one time, but the blond could easily have lied. She didn't know what to believe when she couldn't even figure out why Seifer had called her in the first place. His explanation had made no sense; a torturer didn't care about his victim, didn't plead with such sense of urgency. It had been strange and unlike anything she had come to expect of the blond, yet she had trouble interpreting it as him trying to rub salt in her wounds.

When it became obvious Squall wasn't going to say anything anytime soon, Rinoa decided to forego subtlety. "Did Seifer tell me the truth?"

Squall's frown grew at the blunt question. He didn't want to think about Seifer at all. It was irrelevant to the matter at hand, had nothing to do with their bond, yet Rinoa wouldn't let the issue go.

"He had no reason to lie," he answered truthfully, hoping that confirming what Seifer had told her would be the end of it.

Rinoa needed a moment to process the curt statement and its underlying implications. It meant Squall trusted Seifer to have told her the truth. Though, recalling the very hard to ignore flare of anger she had felt through the bond right after the blond's call, she guessed it was probably something more along the lines of Squall not appreciating Seifer telling her the truth.

Or maybe Squall simply didn't have a clue about the absurd things Seifer had said. She had a hard time imagining any scenario where Squall would willingly do... what Seifer had claimed. "So..." she ventured, her voice reined in carefully not to betray how the words hurt her, "you accepted Avalanche from him." If she got even the slightest inkling that the drugs had been forced on him, then Seifer would be in for a world of pain.

"Was that a statement, or a question?" Squall asked coldly.

Rinoa knew those words hadn't been meant as an invitation for her to clarify herself. If it wasn't for the mounting distress she could feel brewing beneath each tersely spoken syllable, the sharp rebuttal would have rendered her speechless. Already she had managed to put him on the defensive.

"This is Seifer we are talking about," she said, struggling to keep her voice even and the disbelief from her face. "Last thing I remember, the two of you were trying to kill each other. This is not norm--" The mix of anger and sorrow that struck her from Squall's side of the bond caused her to freeze in astonishment, the words dying on her lips mid-sentence at the realization that his anger was directed at her.

The sharp gasp of surprise cutting short what Rinoa had been about to say, followed by the release of a deep trembling breath, told Squall he needed to get a grip, fast. Unclenching his fingers and forcibly relaxing the rigid set to his shoulders, he repeated to himself that she didn't know what she was talking about, that none of this was her fault. Opening his eyes as he took a calming breath, he turned to look next to him, instantly regretful at the sight of Rinoa's shocked expression, her eyes moist with unshed tears.

"...Rinoa."

As the wave of emotions receded, Rinoa tried to process what had just happened. "I-I don't understand," she finally said weakly, meeting Squall's gaze. "...I don't understand any of it."

Why was he always so weak to her distress? Watching Rinoa's pleading eyes, the confusion clear on her face, Squall averted his gaze with a deepening frown. What Seifer had told him had been told in confidence, he knew that, but right now Rinoa still believed Seifer was a war criminal and had most likely come to the conclusion that her knight was fucked up enough to sleep with one.

"Ultimecia used him," he finally said quietly, hoping Seifer wouldn't fault him for telling Rinoa. "He didn't want to be her knight anymore than you wanted to free Adel." She didn't need to know, however, that he had only learned this after the Avalanche and the sex.

"...How can you be sure?" came the uncertain reply, Rinoa's doubt clear in her voice.

"It doesn't matter how I know," he said firmly, dissuading any further questions. "I'm done talking about this."

Swallowing any further words, Rinoa fell silent. It wasn't exactly easy reconciling Squall's stunted explanation, if it could even be considered that, with her own experiences of the war. Watching Seifer turn against them, against her, had been awful. The blond boy she had had a hopelessly naive crush on that one summer, had stood before her a knight, demented and unfeeling as he had thrown her to Adel's feet.

He had hurt Squall even worse than he had her, yet here Squall was, saying with such profound belief that it hadn't been Seifer's fault. She knew Squall wasn't the type to easily be lured into believing lies like that; if anything, the war and his time as commander had made him into an excellent judge of character.

He believed this, and more importantly, it mattered to him a great deal. She knew for certain now that the turmoil she had felt from him the past few days had indeed been because of Seifer.

She didn't know what to make of it. Even if it was true, could she ever be magnanimous enough to set aside the memory of days of torture? What kind of switch had Squall flipped in his head so that sleeping with Seifer became acceptable? She had seen some of his nightmares, had seen what Seifer had done to him. Either he had a ridiculous capacity for forgiveness or he cared more for Seifer than he had ever let on.

As far as she knew, all they had been before the war were sparring partners, rivals with a sense of mutual understanding at best. She had seen this grow into mutual resentment and even loathing during the war. None of it made sense.

When Rinoa didn't say anything for long moments, Squall allowed himself to relax a little. Hopefully his firm dissuasion had steered things back on track, whatever that was, and away from the unpleasant topic that was Seifer. He needed his composure more than anything; the only thing he was willing to discuss was their relationship, their bond.

"Are you two--"

"No," he interrupted the sudden question, nipping it in the bud. Looking sideways at Rinoa's frowning face, he could see the word "but" form on her lips and he immediately reiterated. "No. Either you find something else to talk about or we go inside."

Stiffening at his own words, he fixed his gaze in front of him. He hadn't meant to speak so callously, didn't have any desire to go inside at all, but his patience was starting to run thin, making him more harsh with Rinoa than he wanted to be.

As Rinoa looked at Squall's solemn expression, the toll the conversation was taking on him bled into her and wore her down just as much as it did him. The taut thrum of off-key emotions and bitter thoughts ran wildly just beyond her side of the bond; somehow she knew she would only have to extend her finger and dip it through that deceivingly calm surface to make him snap, to invite all of that hurt onto herself.

Her expression softened, her heart tight in her chest as she let go of the question she had wanted to ask. Squall probably wouldn't even be able to explain it, confused as he seemed. Maybe he and Seifer were involved now; most likely they weren't. Maybe their brief encounter had been enough to discover entire new ways of hurting each other, and that was all it would ever be. Maybe Squall would be able to tell her about these things some day.

She didn't want to go inside yet as Squall had suggested, so she sidled a bit closer to him instead and lowered her head onto his shoulder, uncaring of what he'd think of the gesture. They'd have their whole lives to be apart, so for just a little while longer she would be selfish.

As Rinoa settled against him, her head resting against the crook of his neck, Squall briefly closed his eyes at the unexpected gesture. In that moment their impending separation felt more real and a much heavier burden than ever, and he could only hope that when everything was said and done they would still be able to sit with each other like this. Neither of them said a word as he placed an arm around her trembling shoulders.

They sat there for a while, neither of them willing to end their silent goodbye. It was easier to be more honest with his feelings when sharing them in silence, when he wasn't being pressed for answers or provoked into speaking. Telling her he'd miss her would seem hollow somehow, a waste of pointless words. This moment of drinking in each other's presence one last time felt infinitely more meaningful.

He didn't move away his arm when she finally started to calm down, the quiet sobs and soft tremble of her smaller frame coming to a still. A last deep inhale of breath tickled his neck before she slipped out of his hold, his arm falling idle to his side as she wiped at his neckline with her sleeve, mumbling a soft "sorry" for the wet mess of tears she'd left there.

As he watched her try and collect herself, her hands moving to wipe at wet cheeks, he felt his protective urges stirring and remembered the decision he had made the day before. He knew it wouldn't go far as to make her feel better, but at least she'd know she wouldn't have to worry about things like rent. "The apartment is yours if you still want it," he said, meeting her gaze. "If not, I'll pay for a new place."

Rinoa blinked in surprise, distracted from the many thoughts running through her mind. Hyne, he was serious. Taking in the earnest look to gray-blue eyes, she wondered if she should have seen this coming. It wasn't exactly something she had expected or would ever have asked for.

"There's no need for you to do this," she said, shaking her head softly in disbelief, unable to help the slight upward tug to her lips. Only Squall would be so stubbornly dependable. "I don't plan on being a burden to you."

"You're not a burden," came his instant reply, said with a frown and such gravity that Rinoa's lips curved upwards a little more.

"And you're too loyal for your own good," she replied wistfully, knowing his offer was inspired by genuine concern, not pity or guilt.

She looked around her then, world and time falling back into place around them. She didn't know how long they'd been sitting there, but Odine had probably already finished his preparations. Her heart sank, but she knew she couldn't delay any further. She had asked all she dared; had committed his scent, warmth, and feel to memory. She was as ready as she'd ever be.

Seeing Rinoa's expression take on an edge of determination, Squall resigned himself to what would come next. She stood up and wordlessly waited for him to follow. The moment he did, her gaze moved away from him and settled on the path in front of her. They walked back to the entrance without meeting each other's gaze in silent agreement that they would need the detachment from then on.

After the morning rush of staff members arriving for work, the parking lot and entrance were quiet when they returned. Inside, the hallways were empty apart from the occasional assistant running an errand, the only sound the distant hum of machines behind closed doors.

As they entered the lift that would bring them to Odine's private lab, Squall started to feel the same discomfort he always did when visiting the "Laboratory." If not for Rinoa, he would avoid coming here like the plague.

The lift whizzed by different floors, the enclosing field of energy allowing brief glimpses into long, brightly illuminated hallways and the odd engineering level, dark and filled with machinery. Usually, Rinoa would already have snuck a hand around his. He'd always figured it had been an unconscious gesture on her part caused by unease. A sorceress and a SeeD Commander didn't have anything to fear from the likes of Odine, but that didn't make a routine check up with the man pleasant. So for the duration of every one of those lift rides, he had held her hand.

But her hand never came. She stood at an appropriate distance, her arms held idly by her side as she kept her eyes on the floors flashing by.

The lift slowly came to a halt at their destination, and as Rinoa walked out in front of him, Squall wondered just how many of those little, stolen touches she had managed to desensitize him to over the years. How many of those brief moments would he only notice once they were gone?

Walking into the large room that made up the main part of Odine's personal lab, Rinoa could hear the man rummaging around somewhere in the back, beyond another set of doors. "He's in the back," she said, turning around to find Squall watching her distantly. As their gazes met, he seemed to start from his position just outside the lift. A small frown immediately found its way onto his brow, as he walked past her and made for the doors in the back.

She curbed the urge to ask if he was alright, the question pointless when he hadn't ever answered it truthfully in the past. And she'd really rather not have to hear him say he was "fine" just then.

Following after him, they walked into the back room, where Odine had apparently been setting up twice the amount of monitors and machinery she was used to. Even with her bangles on she could feel a strange pressure shrouding her, like static messing with her magic. If she took them off, she was certain she'd be able to see the magic seals Odine had set up across the room; maybe even disable them.

Looking at Squall, the strangely inward look to his eyes told her he had noticed as well and was mentally checking the limits of the magical restriction. Reminded of how he hated not being in control, she hoped he was prepared for the inevitable lack of control in what they were about to do.

"Why the anti-magic field?" Squall asked evenly, directing his question to a large piece of machinery in the far corner of the room. He watched as Odine's head popped up from behind it, before the scientist stood up completely, a far too eager expression appearing on the man's face.

"Ah, zere you are!" Odine exclaimed, rounding the machine he'd been working on. "Perfect. Vonderful! I hav almost finished adjusting ze equipment." With those words, he picked up a strange device and hurried over to a small monitor, immediately fiddling with buttons and settings. Squall had a suspicion the man's tendency to never answer his questions right away was a deliberate one. It grated on his nerves.

"Why the anti-magic field?" he repeated, his voice slightly less even. "Is it necessary?" It wasn't a very potent interference, not nearly as unyielding as some of the ones he'd experienced during his missions. Shiva would be able to push through it with some effort.

"Ah yes, ze zeals," Odine said with a slight nod. Keeping his eyes on the monitor as he tampered with it, his hand waved briefly to the room around him. "Zis room will have to do. I did not have enough time to zeal a space as large as ze examination room."

Finishing the monitor's adjustments and moving on to another, he continued his explanation. "Ze zeals are a precaution; as strong as I could make zem wizout hindering ze bond and Miss Heartilly's ability to lift it." Turning around after calibrating another set of machines, he met Squall's gaze unfazed, his voice conveying he hadn't missed the tone to Squall's repeated question.

"Zey are necessary as ve do not know how Miss Heartilly vill be affected by zis." Odine's expression didn't hide his excitement as he added in afterthought, "...nor how it vill affect you, Commander."

Starting into action again at his own words, he began double-checking the adjustments he'd just made. "To collect data on such a rare phenomenon iz unprecedented! It iz a vonderful opportunity to learn more about ze nature of ze bond."

Walking past them, out of the door, his enthusiastic prattling grew faint as he started to rummage through papers in the other room. "...It iz a peculiar thing, zis bond. Not unlike a junction, but not quite ze same--"

Mood turning darker with every word that left Odine's mouth, Squall started to tune him out. He was only one breath away from walking out of the laboratory, his jaws clenched in frustration.

"We need him, Squall." Rinoa's voice pulled him out of his irritation, his gaze drawn to her resigned expression. "It's the only safe way to do this."

"I know," he agreed grudgingly. They couldn't risk a lapse in Rinoa's condition, and Odine was the only one with the means to intervene if anything went wrong.

Following Rinoa's gaze around the room, studying the machines lined up along the walls and the two chairs placed opposite each other in the middle, he couldn't help but note the vastly different setting from when they had bonded. It had been just the two of them, outside on a windy day and without machines or doctors breathing down their necks. It had happened without premeditation, had grown between them almost organically, but would die in this gray lab room. It set his hairs on end.

When their gazes met, Rinoa knew they were thinking the same thing. To have things end like this was the last thing either of them would ever have expected. She could feel Squall's growing agitation, his discomfort with the laboratory and Odine worse than she had anticipated. With a soft sigh she moved to one of the chairs to sit down.

For her, doing it in this location was necessary, precautions aside. To have a third party nearby would force her to keep strong and keep on track, the unwelcoming atmosphere of the lab carrying the feel of finality she needed not to waver. Like rain accompanying a funeral, it suited the gravity of what needed to be done.

One arm cradling folders and documents, Odine walked back into the room and spotted Rinoa already in place. Casting a pointed look at Squall, he wordlessly urged the commander to sit down as well. "Ve shall soon commence ze zeparation."

At the unspoken order, Squall narrowed his eyes, but when Rinoa's pleading gaze met his, her head shaking slightly to deter him from what he was thinking of, he suppressed his urge to provide the doctor with his blunt opinion. Sitting down on the metal chair across form her, his unease grew tenfold as Odine rolled two identical machines into the room and placed one by each of their sides. Another larger machine was maneuvered into place by Rinoa's side, one she was clearly used to, as she strapped her hand into it herself with practiced ease.

It pained him to see Rinoa like that, reduced to nothing but a science experiment. It reminded him of how she'd been locked up amidst machinery, her body lifeless in the cryostasis chamber at the Sorceress' Memorial. Seeing how used to this kind of procedure she was, he wished he could take her away from it all, just like he had back then. To think most of the equipment was probably for Odine's sake, not hers, only fueled his frustration.

After one last, pleased look at his equipment, Odine took post next to the largest monitor. "Zat concludes all of ze preparations," he said, before eyeing them eagerly.

"Everything iz set up. Additional zealing and emergency procedures are on stand-by." Directing his words to Rinoa next, he continued in a deceivingly courteous tone of voice, "You may begin, Miss Heartilly."

Nodding almost indiscernibly, Rinoa took a moment to collect her courage, unable to suppress a sliver of panic as the point of no return presented itself. There was no manual for what she was about to do, no documents or accounts from history on how to break a sorceress' bond. She would have to do it on instinct, just like when she had bonded them. The fact that Squall wasn't the least bit calm wasn't helping matters.

Swallowing thickly, she brushed softly against his mind, careful not to intrude. "You're too worked up," she said, her voice coming out thinly as her usual tact with words failed her. It was impossible to tiptoe around their feelings and keep focused on the task at hand at the same time. "Try and empty your mind."

When dark eyebrows furrowed in response, Squall obviously trying to do what she had asked, she could feel his thoughts go strangely rigid, as if forced into restraints. It wasn't exactly what she'd call emptying one's mind, but she'd have to make do.

"I-I'll try and do it quickly," she reassured, hoping she would be able to follow up on her promise.

No answer came, not even a nod. Squall just kept in place, his entire posture tense and his face expressionless apart from a slight frown. She knew he was focusing on what she had asked of him, yet she wished he wouldn't listen so easily, that he would somehow slip and inadvertently show how much this was killing him.

Shaking the bitter thought, she slowly started to weaken her mental shields in some places and strengthen them in others. It would be easier if they didn't have to feel each other's pain on top of their own, despite her irrational thoughts only seconds earlier.

Squall sucked in a slow, deep breath as he felt Rinoa begin to stir just outside his reach. He couldn't tear his gaze away from her expression of painful concentration, her eyes closing as she moved her mind against his. It felt surreal that they were really doing this. He was unable to do anything but watch as she started to gently push and test his barriers, her lashes trembling against her cheeks and a small crease appearing between her eyebrows.

"Ready?" came her breathless whisper.

Incapable of voicing his consent without the words sounding weak, he tried to open his mind further instead, immediately feeling exposed because of it. Rinoa understood, though, and slowly slipped shallow tendrils of her mind into his. He wished he didn't have to notice the purposeful, methodical way her touch moved through him, so different from the comforting caresses and soft inquiries he was used to. He couldn't sense her emotions and knew it was because she wouldn't let him.

She dove deeper then and swarmed out within the shell of his being, careful to shield herself from him as she gently recoiled from the accidental touches his mind reached out with. He couldn't control any of it. His hands clenched around the armrests of his chair at the strange sensation of having an absence of Rinoa moving around within his head. This wasn't how it had been before.

This was wrong.

Suddenly, the absence tugged sharply at something rooted deep within, causing him to grit his teeth. Given no time to process what had just happened, his eyes snapped shut and his breath froze as another tug came, harsher this time. The last coherent thought forming in his mind was the realization that this was it, before blinding white pain shot through him and crippled his mind.

Careful, as gently as she could, Rinoa pulled a fourth time at the knot that lay at the base of their bond, the core root where she had first settled into Squall's mind. Finally, it loosened and a void blossomed within her, painless but gaping wide. The distant echoes of brief shock were the last thing she could feel from her knight, before those disappeared as well. They sank away into the void, as if swallowed up by deep murky waters.

Opening her eyes, desperately needing to see he was still there before continuing, she had to blink to clear her vision. She couldn't tell when she had started to cry.

A lump grew in her throat as she watched those stark, pale features, crinkled into a faint grimace. It was the only outward sign that he was even feeling anything, his reactions disappointingly subdued when she couldn't stop from trembling herself, the void within her tearing wider and wider.

"Ze process isn't complete yet, miss Hear--"

Snapping her head to the side, narrowing her eyes, she wordlessly conveyed her need for the doctor to shut up. Just in time she pulled back her magic from flowing out to Odine, the sudden beeping from one of the machines and the painful grate of the seals against her mind stunning her out of her urge to lash out.

Reeling herself in, she took a deep breath and refocused her attention on Squall. Exhaling slowly, she closed her eyes once more and resumed the gentle pull at the complicated weave of their bond.

Just a little bit more, she whispered into Squall's mind, apologetically, even though she knew he couldn't hear her anymore.

At the returned tugging, moving faster and faster, Squall's mind was turned into an open, raw wound. Every nerve in his brain, every thread linking him to Rinoa was snapped loose, too sudden for each new loss to register with him separately. What once had been a taut connection, strongly tying them together, was now an untethered rope, whipping mercilessly in the wind. Increasingly disoriented, he could only watch as the cut link frayed into a thousand different strands, each one lacerating more deeply than the last.

A jolt of worry ran through him then; not his own and not coming from the absence moving within him either. Cold and soothing, it helplessly drifted through his mind, distraught as it followed the trail of damage.

Shiva.

Upon his recognition, she surged towards him, so worried, so concerned. He couldn't tell what was happening anymore, couldn't collect his thoughts when next thing he knew he was drowning, a hook digging deeply into his flesh but the line cut. Thrown back into the water, thrown away and drowning.

He fled into Shiva's arms, her ice wrapping around him tightly and securely. Yes, they would escape together. Please.

Upon junctioning the whipping instantly stopped, every raw and loose end forcibly frozen into place. Slowly remembering who he was and who the absence had been, he uncurled the painful white-knuckled grip he had on metal armrests. Taking a few seconds to assess that he was still sitting upright, in his chair, breathing, he realized that Rinoa was gone.

Gone.

Trying to snap him from his shock, Shiva was urging him to move, to flee to a safe place where she would fix him. He wanted to tell her that he wasn't broken, but pain throbbed unrelentingly against the inside of his skull, a cold sweat breaking out on his skin.

"Squall?" Rinoa's voice; soft, shaky. He realized his eyes were still closed. The understanding that he couldn't let Odine and Rinoa see he had junctioned followed soon after. He needed to leave.

"I'm fine," he managed, surprising himself as he managed to push up from the chair. He opened his eyes to a wall full of machines. Somewhere to his right, Odine was hurrying from one piece of equipment to the next, all the while giving a running commentary. "Vonderful! If I am right in interpreting ze readings, my zesis iz correct. A bond iz indeed a form of junctioning! Ah, ze implications! Zis opens up entirely new avenues for my research!"

If it hadn't been for the pain pounding away at the back of his eyes, he would've snapped at the doctor. Moving slowly, he hoped to disguise how the room seemed to be swaying and messed with his sense of balance, how the floor suddenly pulled away an inch beneath each of his footsteps.

"--uall..." The hum of machines grew louder and more aggravating with each passing second, almost drowning out Rinoa's words. "Squall."

Stopping in his tracks toward the door, he let his eyes travel along the floor, to where Rinoa was still sitting on one of the chairs. Remembering to hide the silver glow to his eyes that would betray his junction with Shiva, he kept his eyes lowered, his gaze stopping its ascent and lingering where Rinoa's quivering hands were resting on her knees.

"...You're leaving already?" Her voice sounded thick with the effort of fighting back tears; almost too faint against the backdrop of heartless machinery and the fanatical doctor's monologue. Her trembling hands started to move from their perch, as if they were going to reach out to him. Quickly, he reaffixed his gaze on the exit, needing to escape.

"At least let Odine check if you're--"

"He has all the readings he needs," Squall immediately replied, his words reverberating unpleasantly inside his head. Everything sounded like an echo, distant yet sharp at the same time, making it near impossible for him to think straight.

"Zere are plenty of tests zat could add to our understanding of zis phenomenon, Commander," Odine immediately cut in, before reeling in the eagerness to his voice somewhat. "...to better determine treatment, should ze necessity occur."

"No," Squall bit out, immediately regretting the volume of his voice and the accompanying shake of his head. As the ice in his mind shifted slightly, its grasp on the pieces of the broken bond slipping for a fraction of a second, bile rose at the back of his throat. He could sense Shiva's panic. He needed to get out of there. If he stayed much longer, they would notice.

"I'm going."

Willing his legs to cooperate, he walked to the door, ignoring how shards of the bond were pressing into his mind and cutting his ice goddess. They could handle pain. He knew how to force himself into motion, into battle, even when his body had already been pushed beyond its limits several injuries earlier; he'd learned that a lifetime ago.

"Would you wait, please?" A hint of anger filled Rinoa's weak voice.

"A follow up of your condition iz highly recommended," Odine immediately added, walking up behind him. A paper bag was pressed into his hands. "Zese pills vork to help combat ze symptoms of abrupt unjunctioning of an unfit host viz a GF. I prescribed zem years ago, ven I vas vorking viz para-magic research."

"Symptoms? What symptoms?" he heard Rinoa ask in worry. As her raised voice slit through his skull, he clenched his hand around paper bag, crumpling it in his grip. Every second of delay was one too many.

Odine continued his explanation, ignoring Rinoa's questions. "Considering ze nature of ze sorceress bond I hav just uncovered, zese symptoms may arise. Zey also may not." The doctor's white lab coat moved out of Squall's peripheral vision, the man's footsteps leading back to a few machines by the far wall. "I advise you keep ze pills viz you and zat you contact ze laboratory every twenty four hours."

Squall couldn't care less about Odine's concern, but the non-committal "whatever" he was about to speak died on his lips as Shiva started to flicker within him, everything in his mind starting to dislogde into a crippling cycle of lashing and freezing.

"Squall, promise me you'll do this," Rinoa said softly, pressing him. "...and call me too, once a day."

Managing a nod, following it with a clipped "fine," he walked out of the room and into the elevator. He could hear Rinoa call out to him, but her words didn't register anymore. All he heard was the rush of his pulse in his ears, fast and erratic. The distance he crossed, the slight raise of a trembling arm to push the call button, the few steps that moved him into the elevator; each and every motion was steered by Shiva's urgency, her ice sliding through his veins and muscles, willing him to move and flee.

As floors whizzed by, his eyes could no longer follow such fast movement, the blaring overhead light of the lift burning into his retinas. His thoughts disintegrated, his entire world shrinking and sharpening into the sole sensory input of pain. He was still walking, cold wind now moving abrasively against his clammy skin. Shiva seemed to be falling away, her concern growing dim and distant, or maybe it was himself that was being pulled under? Darkness enveloped him as a door slammed closed, his body obeying someone else's orders. The last things he felt before conscious thought eluded him altogether was the rumble of a car engine and the aching realization that he had lost something for ever.



A/N: Thanks to the lovely Aera for all her amazing edits and for coming up with a great title for the chapter! Also thanks to everyone who reviewed the last chapter - much appreciated :)



 



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