Second and final part of this mini-fic. My favourite part, 'cause it has my fave character in :3 Thank you for the reviews.
'All the hate coming out from a generation
Who got everything and nothing, guided by temptation
Were we born to abuse, shoot a gun and run
Or has something deep inside of us come undone?
Is it a human trait, or is it learned behaviour
Are you killing for yourself, or killing for your savior?'
'Savages' – Marina and the Diamonds
- Part 2: Monsters -
It began when she found an unmarked file on Squall's bedside table, and when curiosity got the better of her, as it inevitably did when it came to Rinoa.
Files on Squall's bedside table certainly weren't an unusual occurrence. As much as she berated him for it, he often took his work home to study difficult cases just before bed. She usually managed to coax him away using shameless girlfriend tactics, but nonetheless it irked her that there seemed to be no barrier in Squall's mind separating work time and recreation time, and she was pretty sure the only thing Squall qualified as 'recreation' was training. Which was understandable to an extent, as he did live and work under the same roof, but Rinoa would have liked to fall into the latter category, considering she was his girlfriend and everything…
Anyway. Nothing particularly out of the norm here. But this file… This file was different. It was unmarked. Unlabelled. That was weird, because Squall was perhaps the most banally methodical human being on the planet. Where her side of the bedroom looked like a glitter grenade had exploded and left a war zone of fashion magazines, nail varnish, hairbands, discarded clothes and stuffed toys, his side was immaculate. Spotless. Insultingly military. In other words, Squall would never leave a file unmarked. Doing so could possibly instigate some kind of breakdown in his tidy, pristine Squall-mind.
The file caught Rinoa's eye while she was (reluctantly) cleaning her side of the bed one day. It was early morning; she was about to go for a jog and Squall was in the shower, and the single, thin file was sitting innocuously on his bedside table.
Thoughts of things like client and student confidentiality and general privacy invasion did cross her mind, and while they were fleeting sentiments at best, it was enough to cause some hesitation before she lifted the front of the paper file and looked inside, but evidently not enough to stop her.
Maps. There were maps inside. Maps of every major city, town and small settlement. Notes had been scribbled on the side in red pen; nothing notable, mind. But some had huge red crosses right across the maps and 'NOT HERE' scrawled alongside them. Rinoa frowned. What was Squall looking for?
She flicked through a few more maps and found several of Deling City. She recognised the districts. Squall had circled several neighbourhoods and question-marked several more. At the back of the file there were reports from an external espionage company. Why was Squall using agents that operated outside of Garden?
She leaned over to read the reports, but was stopped short by a whip-snap of annoyance across the Bond. She didn't need to turn around to know what had caused it.
"You don't need to clean up my stuff."
Rinoa turned around and tittered sheepishly. Caught red-handed. It was useless hiding anything from Squall. She wondered why he'd bothered to supply her with the alibi of cleaning. Perhaps because he didn't want to be questioned on the subject. But why?
"Oh, um. Sorry. I just wondered what was so important that you had to take it home with you." She laced her tone with subtle accusation as a crude diversion tactic.
He grunted, but chose not to rise to her baiting. "It's a… personal project of mine."
She waited patiently for elaboration, and he surrendered with a sigh.
"I'll tell you later, okay? When I know more."
Good enough. "Okay. Don't keep secrets from me though. You know I'll just find out anyway." He gave her a look and she waved her hands. "I meant with by uber detective skills. Not the sorceress stuff."
That won her a small smile and he disappeared back into the bathroom to get dressed.
Her gaze lingered on the file a moment longer. A phrase Squall had scribbled across one of the reports burned in her mind.
Article 20; Line 162: 'Sometimes it is best to hide in plain sight'
The flight to Deling City was an uneasy one. Xu was fuming over the fact Rinoa was there at all, and was once again making use of Garden's private jet (she hadn't been best pleased to discover Rinoa had been using it for shopping trips to Timber), but Squall insisted that she couldn't very well take a separate plane and he wanted to keep her close during such an important political event. Xu pointed out that in doing so he reinforced the public's much misconstrued opinion of Rinoa being a delegate of Garden, especially considering the fact she was travelling in their plane with its Headmistress and Commander on the way to a public affair that definitely did not and should not involve any kind of sorceress.
Well, tough luck, Rinoa thought savagely. Because I think it's a good idea and Squall agrees.
Even though the war had ended, tension was yet to disperse between the Gardens, solely Galbadia and Balamb, and the nations didn't fancy being caught in the middle of any conflict between them. So a truce and ceasefire was arranged indefinitely: The Olive Contract. It stated that the Gardens would never again be pitted against each other under any circumstance, which included cadets crossing paths during missions, or full scale attacks involving missiles etcetera.
Rinoa thought it was a brilliant idea, but then again she considered any peaceful operation a good idea. And she decided it would be a fantastic opportunity to show her face during the pre and post media scramble to demonstrate she was an advocate of peace and didn't intend to mobilise B-Garden and take over the world any time soon. And because she strived to stay neutral, she intended to make a public donation to the restoration of T-Garden, as the last sorceress blew it up.
The plane trip provided a moment of peace before the chaos in Deling began. On the row of three seats facing Rinoa's sat Squall, who was mulling over the brief that outlined the upcoming meetings. Away from the scrutiny of the public eye, he'd shrugged off the tailored SeeD jacket and now slouched like a true teenager, wearing a plain white t-shirt and black slacks. His expression was so placid she wondered how he dealt with all the fame and responsibility without cracking, and not for the first time she felt a simultaneously rush of protectiveness over her boyfriend and knight, and a rush of hatred towards Cid, for throwing the closest thing he had to a son into a role that should have gone to someone double Squall's years.
In the corners of her mind she could always feel Squall, always hear him, but mostly he lingered in a place just outside the periphery of her thoughts, like the droning of electrics in a bedroom, entirely unnoticed unless consciously acknowledged. Sometimes his thoughts grew loud enough for her detect. Sometimes she was hit by blasts of strong emotion, so palpable as to cause her to question which of them had spawned it. Other times she could hear him – really hear him – when he channelled thoughts into her mind using their newly forged Bond.
He took their Bond in his stride, much as he did with everything else tossed negligently his way, but he made it overtly clear that he did not like her being in his head. She didn't push him either, and allowed him his privacy. It made the moments when he allowed his feelings to cross over their Bond all that more special, anyway.
Feeling playful, she prodded him over the Bond. His thoughts were a studious white noise, the kind she recognised from when he was engaged in monotonous office work. Boring, emotionless processing. She prodded him again, and when he glanced up she feigned ignorance, staring out the window at the vast sprawl of urbanisation below, peppered with lights twinkling in the night.
When he went back to reading she opened the Bond and was about to hit him with something evocative and inappropriate, just enough to catch him off guard and maybe leave him a bit ruffled, when something snagged her attention. She frowned.
There was something interfering with their Bond. It fizzled quietly in the background, like static on the radio.
What is that? She pressed her forehead against the window pane and stared down at Deling City. Is it coming from down there? It feels… it feels like…
A sharp twang across the Bond brought her back to focus, and when she looked opposite Squall was worriedly frowning at her.
What is it? he asked across the Bond.
Can you feel that?
Oh. She frowned out the window again. As they flew further into central Deling, the interference faded. Don't worry. It was probably nothing.
For Rinoa, nearly everything in life was double sided. At its simplest? Black and white. Good and evil. Light and dark. But it was far more complicated and certainly never so clear cut. Garden for example: the faculty involved with public relations strenuously portrayed Garden as the polished peak of modern warfare. The cadets were squeaky clean; they were drug tested on a monthly basis, smoking and drinking was not permitted, and at the age of fifteen the girls were obligated to have an implant in their arms to prevent pregnancies. Romance in general was dissuaded, especially between cadets. And the students excelled academically; they couldn't afford not to. Anyone who didn't excel was expelled. It sounded harsh to Rinoa, but Squall explained you couldn't afford to be slow or stupid on the battle field, because being slow and stupid would inevitably get you – and others – killed. Garden was saving them through means of expulsion, he defended.
But then again, Squall was raised in Garden and had been thoroughly brainwashed by it. In particular, Rinoa was somewhat mortified to learn that they were taught sex education at the age of six. Squall said it was because any kind of ignorance was weakness and when they needed to learn a hundred ways to kill a person, suddenly sex seemed comparatively tame. Garden numbed them to things like death and sex and blood because they didn't want an army of teenagers who were distracted by lust, or were squeamish, or got upset over the premature passing of their friends and colleagues. But Rinoa was horrified that Garden so brutally scrubbed away any residue of innocence in its cadets. Because in Garden's eyes, ignorance wasn't the real weakness; innocence was.
Of course, this wasn't portrayed to the public; only the shiny, pristine, athletic, A-grade cadets were ruthlessly paraded as poster children for Garden. People like Quistis, for example. These were people you could depend on, who stood above the mundane masses like gods, golden and powerful and intelligent; the absolute pinnacle of society. You need to deal with a monster infestation? Call SeeD. You need liberate your town from military occupation? Call SeeD. You need a weapon specialist for an assassination? Call SeeD.
The catch? Money. SeeD didn't come cheap. Not unless you knew the right people, anyway. SeeD lingered in the undefined grey area between the public services and military, perhaps set apart from them simply by the fact their services didn't come freely (and that they lacked patriotism, morals and decency, as her father liked to scathingly remind her).
And so Garden unintentionally spawned a dark side. There was a gap in the market: people needed people dead, and those people didn't have money, and they couldn't go to public services or the military, and they didn't want to get their hands dirty. So cheap alternatives cropped up all over the globe. Illegal mercenary groups that worked in exchange for cash or drugs or sex or power. Like Garden, they were politically neutral and fickle, with not enough ties between them to be classified as 'gangs' in their own right. There only pledge of loyalty was to money. But they killed, oh yes, and they were terribly, terribly dangerous. Albeit with a lack of expertise and finesse that the legal mercs boasted. Perhaps that's what made them so dangerous?
There was a nest of them in Deling City, and they hung out at the Pits; a grubby, stinking arena-slash-bar in Downtown Deling. It was here, on a concrete floor littered with broken glass and splatters of vomit and blood, and sweating men in leather, and shady men with shifty eyes, and drug-addled revellers, and the drunks and the prostitutes, they gathered and they fought. In the pit: a hole in the floor of an abandoned papermill that served as an illicit fighting arena. People gathered on the walkways that were strung up by rusty chains around the factory, or they crowded around the edge of the pit, throwing down abuse and drink and spit with equal gusto.
Two fighters, usually two illegal mercenaries, were pitted against each other is a reckless show of macho. It was advertising of sorts; the winner was probably the man you wanted to hire for your job. The loser could be cannon fodder or a scape goat. Bets flew across the arena and extortionate amounts of money exchanged hands. Fights broke out regularly; people died; stabbed or shot or beaten. And the winner would walk away with perhaps ten thousand Gil in their pockets, depending on the odds or how good they were at cheating.
And it was here Rinoa found herself one night. Alone amongst the savage crowd, ducking underneath sweaty pits and rancid beer breath and thick smoke that carried the sharp tang of something illegal. Past those too drugged to stand, who hunkered in corners and stared through glazed eyes like sick dogs. Past the scantily clad hookers that yelled louder than the men, who brawled and jeered and waved their wads of cash under the betting clerks' noses.
She threaded through them, trying to remain inconspicuous in a conspicuous crowd, wearing tight leather pants and a scuffed shirt and a pair of sunglasses that weren't uncommon here when one wanted to hide the telltale signs of being high. She continued until she came to a space on the crowded walkway, some thirty feet above the ground floor and pit respectively. A good view.
She squinted down at the pair of fighters mingling with the crowd below. Her heart pounded in her chest. She bit her lip and gripped the metal railing with both hands, suddenly feeling a bit light headed.
The man had crept up on her like a snake. He wore a cheap tie and bowler hat that marked him as a betting clerk. And of course the obligatory black eye. They were everybody's best friend and worst enemy, depending on the odds you'd picked when the results came in.
Rinoa's initial disgust at the whole idea smoothed into mild amusement. She bobbed a shoulder. "Sure. Eight hundred Gil on the one on the left."
"Eight hundred…?" The man blinked at her. Then he smirked. "Heh. You're a risk taker. I like that. The odds ain't good on him. You sure?"
Rinoa smirked. "Make it one thousand."
The man whistled, then laughed, and took the money from her and handed her a ticket. "It's your grave, kiddo."
There was the sound of a bell ringing from the bar, and the crowds surged forward towards the pit. The noise increased. Already people were scuffling, yelling abuse. Money was hurriedly exchanging hands. Tension thickened the air into a heady soup. Down below, somewhere from the throngs, the fighters emerged. They dropped onto the mud packed earth of the pit, shoved by the onlookers. Rinoa squinted down at the pair.
One was a blocky specimen, hair clipped down to his square skull, muscles too large to be natural, crisscrossed with angry looking veins. His jaw was undershot and there was a grisly scar running from his hairline to his right eye. He clenched and unclenched his great fists, jerked his shoulders, barked unintelligibly. To put it shortly: he was distinctively twitchy; he was a Psycho user.
Since residing in Garden, Rinoa had heard tales of Psycho. It was a performance enhancing drug brewed from a concoction of illegally acquired magic and weird chemicals, like bleach and rat poison, that when injected into the body worked as both a steroid and a magic stimulant. It forced the body into a Limit break-esque state, granting the addict a huge boost of strength and power, at the cost of putting immense strain on the body, and of course all the usual side effect of any questionable drug, most notably inexplicable incontinence, fits of rage, hallucinations, madness, and an early death. Squall in particular held the existence of Psycho with deep disdain, disgusted by this 'cheats' way of acquiring strength, as he put it.
This man – The Bull, she heard from somewhere along the walkway – was an obvious Psycho user, and he was high as a kite right now. Cheat or no, Rinoa would have been frightened coming across him in a fight. He probably outweighed her by one hundred pounds of pure muscle and if he managed to get hold her, she didn't doubt he could – and would – break her arm in one of his huge, hammer-like fists. She wondered if they called him the Bull because of his bulk, or because of the way he huffed and snorted, paced restlessly back and forth, rivets of sweat running down his bare back. She heard (again along the walkway) that he was undefeated, and all his opponents had been beaten to near death before his victory was declared.
Any sane person would have put money on him. But then again, she doubted any of them had come across his opponent before. But Rinoa had, oh yes. In fact, she'd known him quite well, once. Known him well enough to know she'd have been a fool to bet against him.
Seifer Almasy was perhaps the polar opposite of the Bull in all respects. He was tall, yes, but he was muscled like a true fighter, lean and fit as any Garden cadet; that hadn't changed. He'd grown a beard, she noted, and his hair was longer, tied into a knot at the base of his skull. Probably in an attempt to conceal his identity. After all, he was the most wanted man on the planet. Because of that she could forgive how he hid among his own kind: the traitors and the murderers and the bullies and the savages. The only people who wouldn't butcher him or hand him to the authorities on the spot.
While the Bull raged and paced and spat meaningless rabble in his face, Seifer stood unfazed with his arms crossed over his bare chest, breathing even. He wore a bored smirk, but his eyes never left his opponent. Rinoa imagined he was already assessing him, looking for weaknesses, strategizing the way Garden had taught him too, both disarming and antagonising his opponent with a brew of confidence and quiet. That's what Squall would have done. Rinoa begrudgingly admitted that he and Seifer probably thought much alike, because that's how Garden had moulded them.
Physically seeing him for the first time since the war summoned a whirlwind of emotions that whipped her so furiously she could barely formulate them into thought. Before she could try, the bell rang again and a great roar went up in the crowd.
The fight had begun.
Testament to his name, the Bull charged forward without preamble, one great arm extended like a horn. Seifer stepped easily aside and the bigger man tumbled past. The Bull turned and lunged at him, swinging his other arm, and Seifer ducked, stepped aside, tried to sweep the Bull's legs out from underneath him with a deftly placed kick, but it only worked to stagger him; he was solid. Too cocky, as usual, Seifer had just expected it to go to plan, and in that moment of surprise the Bull landed a hefty blow to his ribs that knocked him off his feet instead. The crowd bellowed, but of course, Seifer wouldn't allow himself to fall to the floor. Too shameful. Instead he used the momentum of the blow to twirl, regain his footing, just in time to dance past another mindless charge. Seifer rebounded off the wall and used the propulsion to crack his elbow into the Bull's exposed kidney. The crowd's screech of rage chorused the Bull's, and the stocky man reached around to try to grab Seifer while he was within reaching distance. Much to Rinoa's surprise, Seifer didn't try to evade the grab, but allowed himself to be yanked around. The Bull retracted his other arm, a bone-breaking blow aimed at Seifer's face, but the blonde smirked and got him first. Matching him in height, he launched forward and cracked his forehead against the Bull's nose with enough force to save him from the Bull's grip and a punch to the face.
The Bull staggered backwards in a spray of blood. The crowd booed and heckled Seifer; someone threw a glass bottle, aimed at his head, and in a sudden burst of alarm Rinoa involuntarily launched an invisible projectile of magic that deflected it away, where it shattered against the concrete wall of the pit.
Seifer glanced at the bottle in surprise, and that was all the Bull needed. He used his full weight to shunt Seifer against the wall, then repaid Seifer's last hit by cracking him on the jaw with his elbow. The crowd hissed in response, more than a few spectators reaching up to massage their own jaws in sympathy. Seifer sank down the wall a little, no doubt stunned by the severity of the blow, and the Bull seized his chance for an easy victory and raised his great fist again.
But of course, Seifer wasn't an ordinary opponent. After all, he hadn't been an ordinary cadet. He had been exemplary at everything; an exemplary fighter, an exemplary student; a real wonder child, if not for his terrible attitude and delusions of grandeur. But the bottom line was: the Bull had no idea who he was up against.
Years of honed instincts spurred Seifer into movement as he ducked at the last minute. The Bull's blow met not the expected impact of skin and bone, but hard concrete, hard enough to shatter his knuckles. He barely had time to roar in pain before Seifer punched him in the stomach, doubling the bigger man over, then he twirled again, gripped the Bull's head, and rammed it into the concrete. The Bull grunted, staggered, blood dripping from his cracked crown. Seifer finished the job by smashing his knee into his already shattered nose, and the Bull hit the floor unconscious with a shuddering thump.
Seifer had won.
The crowd erupted in a frenzy of volcanic emotion. Fights broke out. Seifer was hailed with rubbish and abuse and money and praise. People cheered and celebrated and screamed their fury to the rafters. The bookies were overrun with people wanting their money, or people disputing their losing bet. Security swarmed over the crowd with practiced familiarity, protecting the bookies and spraying tear gas at those too overzealous.
Rinoa stared down at Seifer, who stood in the middle of the pit quietly triumphant, blood smeared up his cheek. She was buzzing from the adrenalin, her emotions see-sawing between relief and irritation and disgust.
Without warning, he turned and looked directly at her. They stared at each other for a moment, and she thought she felt a press against her mind, though it was fuzzy and strange. Then he turned away, hoisted himself out of the pit, and disappeared into the crowd.
Rinoa was drawn to a spot in Deling in the same manner as she had been drawn to the Pits. She followed the peculiar trail of magic like a bloodhound, and was inexplicably lured to a small café in the Industrial District. It was here, sitting at a booth in the corner furthest from the window, Seifer was waiting, mulling over a magazine and a mug of black coffee. He was completely unsurprised when she appeared at the table, didn't even bother to look up from the magazine, just made some infuriatingly arrogant gesture for her to sit down – like she needed his damn permission!
She opened her mouth to speak, but he beat her to it, flattening the magazine against the table and tapping a page with his index finger.
"I knocked you up."
Whatever she was going to say was shunted right out of her mind. She frowned at him, shut her mouth, and then opened it again. "What?"
"That's the word on the streets nowadays." He started to read from the article. "'Sorceress turns to ex-boyfriend and runaway convict for comfort. While current boyfriend and Commander of SeeD, Squall Leonhart, is working hard to secure peace between Gardens, Sorceress Rinoa holds secret dalliances with her ex-partner, Seifer Almasy, and now a source close to the pair reveals she might be pregnant – but who is the father?'"
Rinoa leaned across the table and snatched the magazine up, scanning the article furiously. "Who said that? Who would even write that? Gods, I hate these stupid gossip magazines. Where do they even get this stuff? Like, who would even say that? As if I would ever come crawling back to you."
Seifer gripped his chest and feigned a wince. "Oh, stop, my aching heart can't take it. Think of the baby, Rinoa."
She threw the magazine at him. "Oh, shut up. Why are you reading that stuff anyway? It's a girl's magazine."
Seifer snorted and swept the magazine onto the chair next to him. "It's intel. They couldn't be further from the truth, which means people still have no idea where I am."
Rinoa thought of Squall's scribbles on the maps, the reports. "Unimportant people, maybe."
Seifer stared at her narrowly, then shrugged, and pointed at the paper cup opposite him. "You still like that disgusting chocolate crap?"
Rinoa wilted grumpily. Of course he'd remember something like that. He'd even remembered she liked cinnamon syrup in her mochas; she could smell it from here. Her favourite. "No," she lied. "I'm – I'm not here to have coffee with you! I'm… I'm so… I'm so… mad at you."
He stared at her, then spread his arms on the table top. "And?"
"Well – I – you – I'm so angry with what you did. To me. To everyone. I'm so… mad."
He raised his eyebrows. "That's it?"
She felt a wave of rage lift from her belly and expand in her chest; hot and roiling and sickly. The café seemed to darken for a moment and everything went strangely still, as if time itself had ceased in the shadow of Rinoa's fury. The people at the other tables were frozen and pale like corpses, their chatter turning into a strange sort of white noise. She leaned slowly over the table, eyes fixed on his. Her voice seemed to resonate from a different plane. Shadows shifted around her face like black feathers.
For a split second the bravado faltered and she glimpsed some semblance of fear, though perhaps not of her, but of a memory. A memory of Her. But that slip of emotion was quickly smothered, and he leaned back into the booth, sipped his coffee and shrugged. "Shit, fine. Vent on me, see if I care. I'm here, ain't I? S'wat you wanted, yeah?"
The café went back to normal: light and full of life, and Rinoa straightened and blinked. "What? I, um. I don't know. I guess."
"I didn't go looking for you," he pointed out. "So. What'dya want? An apology? An explanation?"
Realisation hit like a slap to the face: she had no idea why she was here, or why she'd sought him out in the first place. So she sat down and sipped her mocha and stared moodily at the table top for a few minutes. At length, she said, "I guess I just… wanted to see how you were."
He stared at her with a carefully blank expression, the kind of expression Garden probably taught him to wear, the sort that didn't give anything away. Well, Rinoa was kind of an expert at deciphering blank expressions: she was dating the king of emotional vacancy.
"I'm not checking up on you or anything," she clarified. "Don't get me wrong, I wasn't worried. You can take care of yourself. And I don't expect an apology for… for what you did. Not from someone like you. Because I doubt you're even sorry. And I've learnt enough about Garden and I know enough about you to understand why you did what you did, so I don't need an explanation either."
His blank expression hardened around the edges. "Well, clearly you've got me sussed, Little Miss Perceptive. If you're such an expert on my life then why the fuck are you even here?"
She bit her lip. Truthfully? Maybe it wasn't about him at all. Maybe it was about herself. "I… I think I can…"
Rather than telling him, she reached across and felt for the alien, indistinct feeling that flitted around her mind. She found it easily enough, and she tugged it, pushed it, manipulated it.
She didn't realise how much she didn't want it to be true until he confirmed it with a wince and a pained, "Don't do that."
She recoiled in horror, releasing that strange tendril like it had caught fire in her hands. "Oh gods."
He said nothing; just nonchalantly sipped his coffee.
"What is that?" she breathed. "What is that?"
He shrugged. "Just leftovers. You know, residual recycled shit."
"What do you mean? Gods, be clear, I have to know, you can't just –"
"Calm down, would you? Fucking Hyne, can't you figure it out? All of you – "he waved his hands ambiguously in the air– "are connected. All stemmed from the same piece of power that lived in Hyne. Like shards of a broken mirror. So it stands to reason that – "
"You are not my Knight," Rinoa seethed.
"No, I'm not," he agreed reasonably. "But I was hers, and you're connected to her, and you have a piece of her power inside you, and so I'm connected to you too. Nothing like… you know." He shrugged. "But it's there, ain't it?" He added sardonically, "Maybe that's why you want to 'see how I am."
Rinoa stared at him with open-mouthed horror. Her vision was going a bit swimmy around the edges. "What does this mean?"
"It doesn't have to mean anything; it is what it is. Just because Ultimecia's dead doesn't mean that the sorceress-knight bond has disappeared; there's still a lot residual magic lingering inside of me."
She eyed him warily. "Like what?"
He looked past her, almost pensively. A very un-Seifer like expression. She wondered how much the war had changed him.
"Just… you know. I don't have a good concept of time nowadays. And my memories are… Like I… Sometimes I see things in the future, or the past, or maybe a different strain of the present or…Well. I can't explain it."
He was lying; he could have explained it perfectly. For some reason she knew that. Probably because of the weird second-hand Bond they had. Like she had with Squall. It made her feel sick to think about it; the very idea that the precious, intimate Bond her and Squall shared could be replicated by someone like him. "Try."
His expression sharpened. "Why should I? You've got your own shit to think about."
"Like how I'm a sorceress now?" she countered acidly. "Hm, I wonder whose fault that is?"
"For what it's worth I am… sorry about that. For what I did to you personally." Neither his expression nor tone was contrite, but from across the Bond she could glean the faintest flicker of something akin to remorse. Nowhere near as much as was warranted, and she reckoned he was more sorry about the fact he'd ruined his own chances at a relationship rather than the suffering he'd caused her and countless others.
But it was better than nothing, and more than she'd expected from him. So she sighed testily and waved a hand. She couldn't force regret out of him, but the least she could do was forgive him. She wondered if she would have been so lenient a year ago, before she'd really learned about Garden and Bonded with Squall.
The understanding had blossomed following the first monumental step in her and Squall's relationship: the day she told him out loud for the first time that she loved him. His reaction had been strange, because he'd known anyway that she loved him because of their Bond; but he had been completely thrown off guard. He had just stood there floundering in a well of confusion and alarm and pessimism. And it was then the reality of his upbringing had been exposed: Squall had never been told that he was loved. He'd had no mother or father or siblings, no one to show him unconditional love. Though he'd hate to hear it, Rinoa was overwhelmed with pity for him – for all of them, Seifer included. She treasured the few memories she had of her mother: how she'd held her while she cried after scuffing her knees, reading stories to her at bedtime, telling Rinoa, without prompting, that she loved her. And even though she and Caraway didn't have a great relationship, she knew he loved her, and would always love her no matter what she became or who she was, sorceress or no. And she loved him, in her way, no matter how much of a dick he was sometimes and despite her being loathe to admit it.
So the fact that Squall – and Seifer – had grown up with nothing even akin to unconditional love made her want to cry. They'd had Edea and Cid, but what were they? Detached pseudo mother-father figures and teachers and frightening powers that put guns in their hands and taught them to fight, and erased their memories, and bleached away their innocence and emotional stability. Garden was the only moral guidance they'd had, and with no relations to do proud the pair created their own standards and expectations and relied on nobody but themselves for comfort and strength – because who else was there?
Well, Squall and Seifer had each other. That and Garden were some of the few consistencies throughout their lives. In an odd way, they were like brothers; they were family. So it stood to reason that Squall would worry about him and wonder where he went, and in turn Seifer harboured no resentment regarding Squall's success.
It made Rinoa sad that their choices had drawn them apart. Broken the closest thing to a family they'd ever known.
Seifer was trying to understand what she thinking about across the Bond. She could feel him prodding her in a totally brusque, inconsiderate, arrogant Seifer-way. But their Bond was barely a Bond at all, just smoke drifting in the ether after a forest fire, so she could easily turn him away.
"Seriously, though," he pressed. "What are you doin' here?"
She primly bobbed a shoulder. "Squall's been worried about you."
"Fuck off with that sentimental shit."
"Well, you can tell Commander Puberty that I'm just peachy and to mind his fuckin' own."
There was definite annoyance and defiance in his tone, but mostly because Seifer didn't like the thought of anyone checking up on him, least of all Squall. She smiled a little. "I'll be sure to tell him."
Seifer glared at her, then grunted. "Gee, thanks. And while you're at it you can tell him that he's welcome to my sloppy seconds."
She lobbed a sugar packet at him and he caught with his weird Garden reflexes. She wondered why she'd bothered looking for him at all.
It was understandable that bringing up the subject of Seifer within the Orphanage Gang was difficult; at best it resulted in responses that were explosive, bitter and usually fruitless. Rinoa hadn't known Seifer during his time at Garden, but from what she scrounged through gossip and popular opinion was that he'd reigned as some kind of pseudo head boy and infamous bully. Squall's feelings towards him – which she glimpsed through their Bond – seemed to be an accurate reflection of everyone's opinion: he was respected as a fighter, generally disliked by the student body, instructors and faculty members alike, whom he shunned and provoked, and was generally perceived as some kind of Garden immortal, sitting untouchable above the other students, protected by his own ability to excel at everything (except being nice) and by Cid's misplaced and poorly expressed affection towards his sort of son-pupil. Or whatever the heck Cid thought he was to the students.
Rinoa secretly thought Seifer and Squall would have turned out a lot better if they'd been adopted. Had a normal education. Been raised by people who showed them unconditional love. Had jobs that didn't involve killing people for money. But this is the way the world was, so there you had it. Seifer and Squall both were thoroughly disturbed individuals, even though she was working hard on the latter to get him towards something resembling normal by social standards.
And Seifer? Well. The moment she'd seen him in the Pits, she knew she wasn't going to be rid of him. Wouldn't let herself be rid of him. Would he have willingly disappeared from her line of sight forever? Maybe. He was too proud to seek her out, even if he was a tiny bit sorry, and he never wanted to look like he was crawling back to Garden. Rinoa thought he was far better off away from Garden, anyway.
But the truth was, after everything he'd done, she still liked him. No, not like that. Not like that ever again. She loved Squall, and whatever she'd once felt for Seifer (if it had been anything at all) was nothing more than some stupid, girlish whimsy, before the world had shoved her hard into the realms of adulthood and Squall had come along.
But before everything, during the Summer they'd spent together in Deling, she'd really liked him. By the sounds of it, she'd seen something in him that maybe Garden hadn't. Perhaps he'd let his guard down outside of the establishment, and she glimpsed what was underneath all the bravado and bullying that defined him in Garden. Cid had always had faith in him too, always given him chances, but to better his own perverse goals. Seifer had been his burden. Cid had thrown him into the Garden system with gusto, treating him (and Squall) as guinea pigs for his Big Plan. He wanted Seifer to succeed because that meant Garden had succeeded. Plus, Seifer was his responsibility; Seifer couldn't be expelled – where would he go? Garden was more than a school to him: it was home.
Cid aside, Rinoa saw something in Seifer too, and hated to see that potential – the ambition, the passion, the bravery and strength – wasted away just because he'd messed up. Sure, he'd really really messed up, but Rinoa was a firm believer in second chances. He wasn't bad, he was just misguided, and she would get him on the right path even if it killed her. Which, actually, it might do, considering Seifer had just a little bit of crazy running through his veins.
But. Explaining that to the Orphanage Gang? Never going to happen. Technically, Seifer was part of the Orphanage Gang too, and maybe they might forgive him with time, but he wouldn't be welcomed back. Knowing Seifer he would likely spit on any form of welcome, anyway. But regardless, they wouldn't like that Rinoa had made contact with him again.
So. She kept it a secret. Even from Squall, which was hard. She intended to tell him eventually, but it was a difficult subject to broach, and having to explain the weird second-hand Bond they had… Rinoa didn't even want to think about how that would go. Even if he conveyed a front of stubborn teenage apathy, deep down Squall was fiercely protective of Rinoa and proud of their Bond. If he knew that Seifer, of all people, had glimmered an understanding of what they had… he wouldn't be happy.
In the end, the whole issue was taken out of her hands. Not surprising, considering Seifer usually took matters into his own hands anyway.
The numbers on the flashing digital clock had just tipped over midnight, and Rinoa was wide awake in the dorm room, sitting at the dining room table. There was a shaft of stark light from a lamp behind her, throwing shadows about the room. It was silent, other than the usual whir of Garden's inner flight mechanics.
Rinoa was turning a bangle over and over in her hand. The most recent addition to Doctor Odine's growing magic-suppression armoury. It was designed to suppress her magic, make them inaccessible, and leave her entirely vulnerable.
It didn't work.
And the thing was: Rinoa told him that it had. Yesterday, in Esthar, she'd willingly participated in the experiment. A lab assistant had hooked her up to a bunch of ambiguous machines while men took notes on clipboards and personalogs, and then they'd slapped the bangle on her. 'Bangle' wasn't even the right word any more. It was actually a strip of flexible metal that when applied with force to her limbs would wrap around and secure itself. It then released a constant series of quick-fire pulses to the part of the brain that controlled magic manipulation, and worked as an inhibitor to stop the brain from sending its own pulses which in turn wielded the magic.
Theoretically. Odine wouldn't tell her any more than that, but it didn't matter because it didn't work. For all their fancy machinery, they'd had no idea the state of her magic. So when he asked her to demonstrate a few spells, she pretended she couldn't. Instead, she just released a splutter of blue sparks and a poof of smoke, like a faulty car coughing fumes out of the exhaust. And it had worked. Odine had presumed her magic was suppressed.
So why had she lied? Rinoa was beginning to understand that the world didn't like sorceresses. Understandable. Everyone was expecting her to turn. But what if the world turned on her first? What if Odine suppressed her powers and she couldn't protect herself or, more importantly, the people she loved?
She wouldn't let Esthar get the upper hand.
She was abruptly drawn from her thoughts by an inexplicable ripple of magic. She placed the bangle on the table and frowned at the darkness.
Her voice was quiet and puny in the dark. The pulse of magic came again. It felt… familiar.
The air in front of her shimmered. She blinked, and in that time the air split; it came apart at some invisible seam, tearing as easily as wet paper. The rip in space opened; one minute she was looking at her apartment and the next she was staring down an alley bathed in early morning light, strewn with litter and dark brickwork streaked with grime and smoke.
And a familiar face.
Seifer fell through the opening and landed on her apartment carpet. Behind him, the tear shuddered, then zipped back up with crackle and a strong tang of coppery magic.
Rinoa blinked down at him in surprise.
He said, "Sorry to drop in on you like this."
She frowned. "Are you trying to be funny? And you're not sorry. You never are."
He rolled onto his back and she realised he was out of breath. "Spare me the lecture," he rasped. "You're my last resort, okay? I wouldn't have… wouldn't have done that if I… if…" He coughed and blood splattered on the cream carpet.
Rinoa was up from her seat in a flash and kneeling at his side. "What happened?"
"Bastard had a knife."
"My opponent. Fucking cheat -"
"Ugh, you and those stupid pit fights. What did you think was going to happen? And why are you here? Go to the hospital!"
He gestured vaguely to his face then his hand flopped heavily down at his side. "You think I'd be layin' here right now if I could? I wouldn't walk outta there a free man –"
"Well, it's as much as you deserve."
"Hyne, turn me in, then!" he snarled. "What are you waitin' for, huh?"
Rinoa hesitated, then sighed. She tucked her hair behind her ears. "Where are you hurt?"
"Stabbed me in my… my chest – " He coughed again, spat up more blood.
She nodded. "Alright. I'll see what I can do. I've been in healing classes so…"
"Just hurry up."
She bristled, then smoothed down her irritation with concentration. Healing was far harder than offensive magic, but she'd been working hard to perfect her techniques because she didn't want to hurt people. And she didn't want to be known as an aggressor. She wanted to be remembered for doing nice things, good things, for helping people. So it made sense that she would focus on her healing abilities. As it turned out, sorceresses were good at that.
She closed her eyes and from behind her lids there was a soft golden glow of magic. She felt for the lifelines that strung Seifer together, and for the damage caused by the knife, and then she began to knit him back together. It was a slow, tiring process.
As the raspy quality of his breathing subsided, she ventured to ask, "How did you do that?"
"Do wha – Oh. The teleporting?"
"It's pretty simple, actually. I can show you –"
"I know how to teleport," she cut him off tartly. "I mean how can you do it?"
He went quiet, but eventually replied, "She left it in me. The knowledge. I just know."
"Anything else she 'left in you' that I might need to know about?"
He said nothing, and she knew not to push it.
Whether it was coincidence, bad luck or he'd sensed the rise in her magic levels, Squall chose that time to return to their apartment. Rinoa considered shouting out to warn him, but the jolt of fear across their Bond served that purpose. He flicked the light switch on and stood motionless in the doorway for a long minute, eyes coolly assessing the scene.
"Surprise," Seifer said flatly. "Miss me?"
Squall stared at him from a while. His thoughts were fickle across the Bond. Then his gaze turned to Rinoa. The emotion intensified, then sorted itself into one of utter trust. It made her glow with relief.
He said to her, "We'll talk about this later." And to Seifer he said, "I have an hour's free time on Wednesday. Do you wanna spar?"
Seifer looked at him hard for a moment, then snorted and stared at the ceiling.
Rinoa suppressed a grin.
Months later, she lounged on the couch in Seifer's small two bed apartment on the outskirts of Deling, wilting in a late Summer heatwave. The aircon was a droning chorus to the sounds of Seifer pouring drinks in the kitchenette behind her. The TV was on mute, but the images of a recent failed usurpation in Timber flashed across the screen. Rinoa regarded it with growing irritation, and behind her a light bulb flickered and burst.
"Can you not do that?" Seifer snapped. "That's the third light bulb you've burst this month."
"How do you know it's me?" she countered. "Might just be… I dunno… faulty electrics or something."
"I know it's you," he replied matter-of-factly. "If it bothers you that much then turn it off."
"No, you fucking tard, the TV."
Rinoa crossed her arms and pouted. I won't turn it off. I won't ignore what's happening. Just because Garden won't let me get involved doesn't mean I'll just forget about it.
Seifer plonked a glass of iced tea in front of her then collapsed into the adjacent armchair, a beer balanced against the arm. He stared at her narrowly. "Somethin' on your mind?"
"What makes you say that?"
"You're being less annoying than usual. You're never not annoying. Is it about what that magazine said?"
"What? What did it say?"
He poorly hid his grin around the top of the beer. "Said you're gettin' fat."
Rinoa baulked, then swallowed down her petty anger. "No. And I don't care, actually. A magazine last week said I was too thin, so there's no pleasing some people." A touch snidely, she added, "Squall likes me just the way I am anyway, and his opinion is the only one that matters."
Seifer snorted, then drank from his beer and half-interestedly watched the TV. Rinoa tapped her fingernail against the glass of her drink, listening to the ice tinkle.
At length, she said, "Are you happy?"
"Fucking Hyne, I knew it was gonna be something –"
"Just answer the question!"
"Yes, I'm happy."
She raised her eyebrows at him.
"What? Yes. I. Am. Happy. Okay? You want me to dance and sing about it or something?"
"Why are you happy? How can you be happy?" She gestured at his small apartment. "Is this what you envisioned for yourself? Spending your days hiding in here and emerging at night like some weird anti-hero to fight in the Pits?"
"Hey, I make more money there than I've ever done in my life."
"And what do you spend it on? Clearly not furnishings."
"Well, excuse me for not needing a penthouse mansion, princess. Believe it or not, the average person can get by without a yacht and a pony."
"But how can you be happy?"
"Because I'm free," he spat.
Rinoa fell quiet. Of course. It was, perhaps, one of the reasons she'd liked Seifer in the first place: he was a rebel by nature. It was the very reason he hadn't slotted into the Garden system, because Garden took away his freedom of choice and tried to placate his innate defiance. Having been brought up in Garden, he'd only ever been presented with a single path: to become a SeeD. Seifer had never truly wanted to be SeeD, because that was boring. It was expected of him. He strived to be something greater, something unexpected, something that Garden hadn't carefully constructed to fit him. And perhaps his first life-defining choice presented to him was when Ultimecia had offered the opportunity to break out of Garden's mould, to finally walk a new, different path that he had chosen himself. Was it the right choice? Perhaps not. But Rinoa found she couldn't resent him for seizing the opportunity, and Garden had never done a good job of teaching its cadets the difference between right or wrong anyway, and had barely brushed the concept of devotion.
Now he was free of the strict, boring routine Garden dictated. He could choose what he wanted to eat, choose when to get up in the morning, choose how to manage his time, choose his own career path. Even if he was wasting his time, it was his time to waste.
Rinoa appreciated that, but she didn't like seeing him squander his talents. "So what are you gonna do with the money you make then?"
Seifer drank from his beer and shrugged. "Shit, I dunno. Buy an anti-sorceress security system? I reckon Esthar must be on its way to inventing something like that. You cross a threshold and get shot down by lazers. Need that for my apartment."
Rinoa smiled wryly, thinking of Doctor Odine. "All I'm saying is, you owe people a lot. You messed up a lot of lives. I think you should put something back into the community."
"Oh, come on –"
She hardened, and the ice in her glass cracked and split apart. "Seifer. You will listen to me. I'm not asking you. As sorceress to knight, I'm telling you. You are not sitting around wasting your life away. You're going to make up for what you did."
He rolled his eyes and scratched his beard. "It wasn't me half the time, anyway. You know that."
"Yes, I know what she did. Toyed with your thoughts, your memories, manipulated you into fulfilling her whims. But. You wanted it. You were open to it, to her. You wanted the glory, the infamy. You're not entirely unaccountable, so you must burden part of the guilt." She jabbed a finger at him. "And most of all you owe me. You're indebted to me, Almasy. Probably for the rest of your life."
"Alright, alright, I get it already. What'dya want me to do? Pick litter? Volunteer at food banks? I can't exactly get involved in public relations. I'll be fucking shot on sight."
"There is something you can do for me." She smiled sweetly. "You might even enjoy it."
They were sitting in a Balamb café when they heard the news. The whole Orphanage Gang was there to witness it, even Squall, who had somehow managed to slip away from under Xu's watchful eye to have some well-earned down time. The café was pretty modern by Balamb standards (painfully backwards by Deling's) and had a sprawl of white tables on a mosaic floor, with wicker cushioned chairs. It also had a few TVs mounted on the walls, and from one nearby the World News played on repeat.
Quistis cut off the conversation (well, Selphie's jabbering about the upcoming Garden Festival to an uninterested Squall and Zell's account of a Civil War in Dollet pre-Adel) by jabbing a finger at the TV screen, delicately arching an eyebrow, and saying, "Hey, what's that about?"
The gang stared at her, then turned to the TV as a unit, straining around on the backs of their chairs.
The news was playing scenes from Timber. A prim reporter with a twang to her accent that suggested she was from Winhill stood before the scene in a tight navy suit. She held a microphone in one hand and gestured to the scene behind her with the other.
" – new front in the rebellion effort against the Galbadian regime. Details are yet to be confirmed, but what we understand so far is the resistance members infiltrated the Galbadian base using tactics that are – according to our witnesses – undeniably military. Allegedly, one of the men broke into the base under the cover of night and somehow secured entry for the rest of the group. The Galbadian squad was caught off guard. They were surrounded, disarmed and tied up. Miraculously nobody was injured, but the resistance group stole their weapon stock and damaged the A66-TZ Tank inside, rendering it useless."
Selphie leered at Rinoa over the top of her Hazelnut Latte. "Is this the Owls, Rin?" she said, with no small amount of accusation, albeit playful.
Rinoa blinked at her guilelessly. "You know the Owls are out of commission. After the war Galbadia really set to securing Timber. What with their strained resources, they can't afford to lose Timber now. The Owls couldn't stand up against them. Not alone anyway."
The reported continued, "The tactics used by this resistance force suggest that this is an entirely new faction that's appeared, or an older faction led by a newcomer, presumably someone with a background in military training. There are rumours of a pair of spray painted feather wings left on the tank's side, but nothing yet to confirm this."
This time all eyes fell on Rinoa. She shrugged. "It's not me! I've been with Squall the whole time!"
"She has," Squall confirmed.
"Whatever, man," Zell said. "You'd say anything to keep Rin outta trouble."
Squall levelled a stern look at him. "I'm telling the truth. She knows better than that."
Rinoa punched him lightly on the arm, slightly ruffled by his patronising undertone.
"All this reporter can say," the woman went on, "is this might very well be the upper hand the Timber resistance has been pining for, and might finally give the Galbadians a fight to remember. A fight that could hand Timber its freedom. I'm Jane Neway and this is Timber News."
When the report finished, the group fell back to discussing the more mundane and upbeat parts of their lives, but Squall glanced sideways at Rinoa and rattled the Bond curiously.
Rinoa caught his gaze, winked and stuck her tongue out. Harmless on the outside, but he managed to garner something from her mind. Whatever he saw he kept to himself, but offered her a nod and the faintest of smiles.
Rinoa looked up at the TV screen, thought of the spray painted wings, and grinned.