"Mr Leonhart? Ms Leonhart?"
"Dad? They're here."
He opened his eyes and looked up at the young woman stood in front of him. She looked nervous, still unsure of herself in the uniform so new it almost shone in the Esthar light, still starched and scratchy in all the wrong places. As he stood and winced at the pain in his joints he saw the girl step forward to help before catching herself and standing at attention. He could have swore… He searched his memory for the name of the officer and it came easily. Even if the Lionheart had been a museum piece for years and his body had receded with the long march of time his mind, at least, had stayed with him. "You're Yasu? I remember meeting you once at the capital, after the First Diaspora. You weren't in a uniform back then of course. Overalls maybe." He gave a small smirk as he grasped his cane and rose, and grasped her hand as she held it out to him.
The girl coloured slightly. "Yes sir, of course." A short intake of breath he could well recognise as an order remembered. "Grandmo- the dowager duchess asked that I give you her love."
" Given, tell her I said hi. And now you're one of the Selphie's bright young things?"
"Yessir, the president asked that I escort you to the others."
They walked through the rotunda that had been built into the surface of the ancient structure, after legions of awed schoolchildren and careless tourists had finally done enough damage for something more permanent and sturdy to be built. Between the rows of grasses and flowers that had grown into and around the ancient building, the long and unstoppable march of nature had finally reached across the blooming continent and cracking the steel canopy open like an eggshell to smother it with life. It had taken decades but Balamb Garden finally lived up to its name, and only the smooth marble stone remained pristine among the flowers that covered every surface. Squall had taken pains and not a little exasperation from children and grandchildren to ensure it stayed that way. He paused as he passed it, taking off a glove and running a hand across the smooth surface. His daughter had asked him once why the name s of all the fallen Guardians hadn't been engraved on it and Squall had felt a pang as he had lied. The memories seemed to reach out from the rock and squeeze his heart and suddenly he found himself lightheaded.
Mira Leonhart stirred beside him, looking at him with concern as Yasu Nuo looked back. "Dad?"
He shook his head and walked past the engraved stone, leaving behind a smudged fingerprint as he did so. "Just old ghosts kiddo."
She frowned at the idea that he would still consider a child even as she had children of her own, and he noticed how much like Rinoa she looked. Just one thing she had inherited from her mother. "If you're not feeling up to it we can always go-"
He waved away her objections. "I wouldn't miss this for the world." The metal shell of Garden ended before him and opened up onto the plains, the grass that had fought and encroached and finally beat back the dead salt of the old world waving gently in the sea breeze. He could hear familiar laughter in the distance, and figures stood around the railings that led down to the beach. One turned and smiled as he approached and even though the black hair had faded to silver over the years the eyes still held their own fire. "Hey, love."
Selphie smiled. "Glad you could make it in the end." One hand unconsciously rubbed the ring on her finger. Even in the years after she had never once thought of removing it. "A little late though, everyone else is already here."
"Hey old man."
Squall nodded at Zell before walking up to the guardrails and looking down over the beach. Small shapes ran across the sands, or sat intently before masterpieces of sandcastles. As he watched one of the running children tripped, and lay there for a moment before picking himself up and running to the blonde woman who stood serenely in the midst of the chaos. As if sensing his gaze Siren looked up towards the group and waved.
"Still beautiful," Selphie said, and only those who had known the president the longest would have caught the vaguest whiff of jealously in her tone.
Rinoa laughed softly. "Still waiting in hope."
"Hyne willing she'll be waiting a while," Mira muttered, and then gasped as she realised what she had said. "I didn't mean to-" The woman glanced across at Rinoa put a hand on her daughter's shoulder. I know. Squall knew that Sorcery was always something that would be between the Leonhart women and he didn't inquire about it. One of the kids, barely old enough to walk, looked up towards the adults before going back to tottering across the warm sands after the shining green bauble that hung just out of his reach and Rinoa tutted in annoyance. "What, no time to say hello to his grandparents?"
Mira laughed as she let go of the handrail and walked down the stone steps. "Children have other priorities mom." She met Siren halfway up and took the small child by the hand as the two went back down to the shore with the other grandkids, and Siren stood beside her old friend. The golden pendant flashed in the midday sun as perfect as the day it was made over half a century ago, and Squall wondered how much trouble she went to to keep it pristine and safe from the sea air.
"You're looking well."
"Don't kid me Siren."
"Well-preserved, then." Siren glanced over at Selphie as the Estharian President tapped her watch. "It's starting."
As if on cue the first light bloomed on the horizon. Squall raised a hand to shield his eyes as a second sun rose from the Esthar horizon, the artificial fire of the engines scouring across the last of the salt plains, kept pristine and dead to serve one final purpose before the greenery would be allowed to reclaim it. He could hear the gasps of the children and adults as they came up from the shore to watch, as the ship rose up and up, past the clouds and into the blue skies above. Squall took his grandson's hands in his own as together three generations of family watched humanity ascend into heaven.
Two smaller pillars of flame rose in the far distance chasing the first. Squall bent his head towards Yasu, whispering as if somehow his voice would disturb the smooth ascent of the departing. "Support ships?"
"The Leviathan and the Eden. Seed banks and database backups. Life and knowledge, you might say."
They would have liked that. Squall nodded as he watched the three ships disappear into the sky, leaving behind only the gently-drifting pillars of ash, soon to be washed away by the spring winds.
Selphie grinned as Carbuncle settled on her shoulder, none of her vigour lost. "They're headed out as far as they can go, to the closest habitable world we could plot for 'em. Crew and seeds and embryos and everything we laid hands on. Odine said we'd send ships to the stars, well we've sent the whole world in a bottle, just uncork at destination and add water."
Siren shook her head and Squall could detect some small sadness along with the amazement. "You were right all along, you never needed us."
Selphie refused to be brought down from her cloud. "Hey, by the time the Loop ends this little planet will be just some backwater in the galactic village. I bet whoever's left down here will be glad of the company."
Squall looked around at Rinoa. "Hmm?"
"We did it."
He gripped his wife's hand as he looked up into the sky, the soul of man already free of the pull of gravity and headed out, taking mankind to the stars like petals scattered across the ocean. He felt a hand grip his trouser-leg and looked down to see Quistis staring up at him. She had her mother's nature but her namesake's eyes. "Hello there."
Squall ignored Mira's sigh and picked the girl of no more than a handful of years up and placed her securely on his shoulders. "It's a spaceship."
The girl stared up raptly at the space the three ships had occupied, the contrails already blooming out and spreading across the plains beyond. "S'going?"
"To the stars."
As with all little children Quistis had the innate ability to follow any chain to its conclusion, regardless of how long that might take. "Why?"
Squal smiled. "It's a long story," he said quietly.
The girl perked up. She liked stories. "Whas' called?"
He could hear Rinoa laugh as he put Quistis back down on the ground, the girl already too heavy for his old shoulders. The soft pattering of footsteps were to his side as Siren brought up the other children from the beach. She smiled and nodded once as he sat down on the bench, Rinoa at his side, Selphie and Zell watching tolerantly from the railings as he began to talk.
She turned and stared back at him, balanced perfectly on one foot, as he climbed after her. The faint grin on her face only infuriated him as he fought back tears from having a giant stone boulder slam into his gut.
"What, you think I'm gonna think you're a big girl if you cry?"
He forced a laugh through clenched teeth. "You know what they say, we're supposed to have gotten over that by year one. Big bad third-years don't cry."
She stared at him with piercing eyes. "The lion wept at the death of his sister."
"Mythology majors can cry all they want. Journalists are tougher."
He panted with effort as he clambered over the rocks after her. Meri easily outpaced him over the loose stones and shale and not for the first time since they had made landfall he found himself looking up enviously at the casual confidence she exuded as she stared down at him with a cocky grin and emerald eyes. Eyes that had held him rapt since the first time he had found them across the quad of the university, drawn to them like a moth to a flame. Whatever she had seen as she had stared back he hadn't discovered yet but he was in no hurry to find out. Now though, climbing precariously across the rocky shores of this blasted continent, he was perhaps a little, a tiny bit wondering whether he should have just found a more conventional friend.
Oh come on Galen everyone does their thesis in Dollet. There's not a single piece of stone or citizen in that blasted city that hasn't had at least a dozen pages written about it or interviewed a million times. I want to go somewhere we can make a name for ourselves before we're forty and half-dead from travel. I want to go somewhere we can tell people about.
And I know just the place.
He had suggested taking a needleship to Whiteorb or Frontier but she had mercilessly overridden any off-world suggestions. Which was how he had had one day awoken on the first day of his final year and found himself on a two-seater hover, bound across choppy seas for the Eilands, with only curious dolphins and a windswept and grinning Meri for company as they headed across the reefs that surrounded the island chain.
Meri if you just wanted to look at the coasts you could have taken the skyhook up and rode the orbital rails for a few hours. You know, like everyone else does.
No. There's some really cool stuff out there, just waiting for us to find it. Trust me.
There's nothing out here except rocky islands and the cordoned zones, he had said patiently.
None of his arguments had deterred her as she stared off at the horizon with a smile on her lips and a gleam in her eye, and he had been unable to break through to whatever secret she was hiding.
Slime gave way to rough dust and pebbles as they cleared the high-water mark and clambered over rocks that had laid exposed to the harsh winds and weather of the islands for centuries. Meri clambered over them easily, almost skipping across the rocky plateau. Galen on the other hand had found himself in serious danger of falling and breaking something until the girl had taken pity on him and shown him the indented – almost carved in fact – rocks that had been worn smooth and stable with age. He wheezed as he hauled himself over the ridge and stood next to her, looking down into the centre of the island, and saw- "Wow."
Meri looked askance at him and smirked as she saw the look of wonder on his face. "I know right?"
His feet slipped on the surface of the valley as rocks and moss turned to grass and soil beneath him. He shifted uneasily to avoid stepping on the blooms below his feet as before him flowers bloomed in every direction. Galen had grown up in the rocky Centran heartland and he'd never seen so many colours together outside of his books. There was nothing slipshod or natural in the flower-fields though as wide slashes of solid colour ran together from the edges of the caldera, running together and merging in scattershot fields of mixed blooms and forming loops around the trees that rose majestically from the ground. The entire effect reminded Galen of old pictures of the ancient Dollet gardens. Meri was saying something as she wrapped an arm around his and led him down across a path made out of smooth stone, the grey almost hidden by the glare of the light coming from the reflections. "Meri this…this is amazing. There's no way this kind of layout is natural."
Meri smiled gently at him. "An old friend keeps it safe. They remind her of home, she says."
"Who'd build something like this all the way out here? Who lives here?" The Eilands had been cautionary tales for centuries, generations of parents had raised families on what monsters came out of them to eat disobedient little children, older generations on stories of vanished hovers and missing-person reports. Hell his parents brought him up on stories of evil demons coming from under the earth to get him for not eating his peas. Of course his mother had prayed to the Eight as well so...
Galen was jerked out of his reverie in more ways than one as Meri grabbed his hand and propelled the two of them across the gentle slope, onward toward the next rise. Questions popped in his mind like bullets as the flowers seemed to respond as they passed, straining forward as if the two of them were some miniature sun and they desperate for sustenance.
"This was a peninsula before it was an island chain!" Meri shouted gleefully as she ran up the next hill. "My mother used to bring me up here all the time. Look!" He followed her pointing hand towards the top of the next hill, and thin rods outlined across the sky. It was only as they finally reached them that he realised they were nothing more than rusted steel poles, covered over with creepers and roses, and he leaned against one as he got his breath back. Out of the corner of his eyes he could see the flower-fields go on as the ground levelled out and sloped down towards…
They remind her of home, she says.
"No way. I don't believe it."
Meri looked at him with a smile on her face. "Oh, what?"
"You know damn well what it is I won't believe!"
It sat there, at the centre of the valley, the streams of flowers running down and flowing towards it. Not even a shell of a building, more line rough lines rising up from the ground that the vines and blooms had covered before it ever had a chance to be completed. Even though it was a mere skeleton he could still see the shape underneath, rotten steel held together with nature's wires. The segmented shell that he had seen in the picture books every night and in every storybook his parents had ever read to him stood out clear as day, and he almost sank to his knees as the flower-fields whirled around and finally came to stop in a spiral of colour at the centre of the steel beams. His voice was a croak in his throat. "How did you know?" He stared at her in amazement, and in his head he could hear a gleeful voice shouting hell with exams just give me tenure right now.
They met her at the centre of the spiral and he just stood there mute and dumb as they talked for a few seconds, and then his heart stopped as Meri turned and gestured for him to come down, and the women looked up at him. Even at this distance he could see her eyes, like twin sapphires.
The eyes were even more hypnotising up close, a blue that seemed to bore through his soul. "You must be Galen? Meri told me about you." His mouth vacillated between open and closed as he tried to think of something to say that wouldn't make him sound like an idiot. Nothing came and he had no choice but to just stand and listen as the blonde woman who could not be who Galen knew she was threw out her arms to encompass the Garden spread around them. "Do they still tell the tales?"
"Yes," he breathed.
She smiled radiantly. "Good. Don't be smug." This last to the grinning Meri who sat cross-legged on the soil staring at the two.
A small flint of cynicism remained in Galen's soul however and clawed its way up past the joyful shouting of his inner child. "You two set this whole thing up didn't you?"
The young girl smiled as her fingers idly traced patterns in the dirt. "I always wanted to wipe that smug smile off your face whenever you talked crap about the old books." She smiled in triumph. This was a won argument with no possible comeback.
The woman smiled tolerantly at the pair. "Is that the only reason?" she said in her soft melody.
"I really like him. I've been trying to get it through his head but he's pretty dumb."
Galen stared from one to the other to the gardens, trying to take in everything as his brain tried to process what he was hearing. "I…wait, you do?"
She spun on one heel and looked out over the fields of the caldera. The wind had picked up and a rainbow of petals flew through the air. "I'm an old woman Galen," she said quietly. "I've waited a long time, for something…for someone that was promised long ago. I think I've realised though, maybe we're each waiting for the other to make the journey." She looked at him with a depth that would have put his harshest professors to shame. "I swore once I'd chase her footsteps across the sands of time. Maybe I just need to unburden myself before I can take the first step after her."
I wish I'd brought my Reader, or my penmike, or even just a damned notebook.
"Tell us a story Siren," Mira whispered. From the first time her mother had taken her to visit the strange sad lady on the magical island she had asked it every time.
My god. My god it's really her. "I want to…I mean…tell me everything."
She turned and locked eyes with him. "That could take a while."
He grinned and wondered what incredible karma he must have won for him to deserve this. He felt movement to his side and glanced to see Meri next to him as he settled down on the ground before the tall blonde. "I'm not going anywhere."
It was only later as he realised the sun had almost fallen below the horizon and his mouth was parched dry that he realised how long it had taken. Time had fallen away as he had used all his skills to etch her words in his memory, until finally she had smiled softly and said.
"That's all." She turned to look out of the window. "I promised an old friend I would keep their memories alive, as he promised once. I've done that now." The red of the sunset washed over her, painting the room with a warm light. He had to strain to hear her next words over the ocean and he knew he'd never tell another soul.
Is it enough?
"You're going to need a name for this if you want to publish you know," his friend, maybe more, whispered in his ear, her breath tickling against his skin.
The sunset light pierced the clouds and coated the island in rays, almost seeming to shine through the woman as she spoke, and as she opened her mouth to speak he could see the flowers through her, as if only some tenuous connection kept her within the world. He had the impression she wasn't speaking to him, or to Meri, but for some distant figure only she could see.
From the grainy surface of the shore he sighed for the tenth time in as many minutes. His jacket whipped across shis body and he looked up in sudden concern, Minder already scanning the area around for anything untoward. You still had to be mindful of the wind this close to the Omega Point, no telling what had been travelling on the winds since the Castle had departed for who-knew-when. His grandfather had told stories about things that had turned up on the high tide, followed inevitably by the old man's wife coming in and telling him to stop telling nasty stories to the kiddies. Not that the kiddies had minded, they had drank it all up and asked him to tell them again. Myths and legends, except hey had been real.
Now, standing on the shore as the wind came in from the coastline, grass on the uplands around the ruins still black from where massive chains had once sat anchoring an obscene thing to the earth. He sighed again and spoke one word into the sky: "Time."
He glanced sideways as the numbers and dials formed beside him, bright lines forming out of the airborne machinery that had covered Home for more than a century now. The beyond-small creations responding to the needs of the planet's inhabitants before vanishing back into unseen dust on the wind to awaiting the next instruction. To someone who had grown up on a colony world it was more than a little creepy.
In response to his effortless mastery over the machines the small girl beside him raised a hand. Without speaking or making any other gesture fire bloomed on her palm and spread in whirling patterns n front of her, and she gave the smug grin a child does when it demonstrates a skill it knows an adult cannot match. Look what I can do. The tiny manmade machines were no longer alone in the air. The disappearance of the Castle had brought other, older particles back into the world. Children born on Home were beginning to show signs of being able to use the power it brought with it. It flowed through the minds of man, slowly building up and waiting for the time when it would be strong enough to respond to their desires
The sea churned.
I am cold.
Rough stones drag against my skin as the crushing cold picks me up and carries me with it. I feel something beneath me, hard and solid after nothingness, and I scrabble at it as the cold tries to drag me back into the depths. I resist, fighting off the dark as my hands slide against the floor and my fingers find stones and sand to grip. I can feel cold all around me and I rise up, the sheer effort of it almost exhausting me and sending me back down.
Suddenly the cold gives way above me and as it recedes away again I rise up and my head breaks through and as I gasp I feel wind against my skin. I try to open my eyes and all I see a bright orange-and-red cover on the sky my mind is telling is called dawn. The effort is too much, too much, and I crawl forward and collapse onto the sand, safe from the cold and dark.
I see the two as they walk up, the black boy coming closer as the girl stares at me with shaking hands as if desperate for someone to hide behind. Behind them there is colours, and for a second I wonder if I have truly gone anywhere, until my vision clears to a rainbow vision of white shining towers in the distance, a place that I remember even though all else has departed. Olesia.
"Olesia?" I must have said it aloud because the man is shaking his head, and for a second there is a nameless terror in my heart when I realise he heard, before some fragment of memory tells me there is nothing to fear anymore. What that fear was I cannot remember.
Another slice of the part rises and makes itself heard in the chaos of my head. I try to raise one hand feebly to point behind him at the shining city. "Guard…Guardian city."
He kneels down and brings me up from the ocean onto my knees and holds me to him, and I can't find words or thoughts for what I feel as he whispers in my ear. "No. Look. Our city. New Esthar." His black-and-gold uniform presses against me and as I see the embroidered white-and-black emblem on it everything flows back, everything, and suddenly I'm shaking in his embrace.
"We know you, Shiva. We've been waiting a long time, those of us who kept the stories alive, so we could be here for you when you came back. Look." He raises a hand, and pale blue fires and symbols flow down on it. "Not magic, machinery. We can make miracles now, with our own power, without shortcuts. We don't need them, we've left the cradle." He gently pushes me away and our eyes meet. He looks so much like him, I wonder how much time it has been. "There's a message passed down, from someone you once called a sister. We've kept it safe for you:"
"'They no longer need guards. Be their companions instead.'"
And I realise what his words mean and I cry into the sands of my new life.
As the ocean finally releases its hold, and I am free.
Shadows in Light