Disclaimer: I make no claim whatsoever to the characters or world of Final Fantasy VIII, which is the property of Squaresoft/Square Enix.


A/N: This chapter references a few things from chapter seven (also chapter two), so you may want to go back and skim-read if it's been months since you read it. Or not, of course... Up to you!


Chapter XVIII

To name a witch is to invite her presence.

"Rinoa," he whispered to the empty room.

She did not come. If only Kiros' old Centran adage had been anything more than superstition, if only Squall's ties to her were still intact, if only...

Squall crawled out of his sweat-soaked blanket, across the reed mat floor to the window-frame. He pushed the wooden shutter to one side, letting the morning sunlight stream in. It stung his eyes.

Ellone was already out in the garden, kneeling over a bushy tea plant. Squall watched her pick enough cuttings to fill a small basket, rubbing each leaf between her fingers, testing its readiness to be plucked. The harsh sun was kept away from her face and neck by a battered straw hat, the kind peasant-wives wore. Squall always found it faintly comical. It made her look like a wizened little old lady, even though she was not yet thirty.

Ellone would not care, of course. She had never given much credence to the opinions of others, much less those of her brother.

When Ellone had fled the castle as a girl, she had been offered a home by Raine's elderly aunt, now seven years dead. The aunt had been a spinster, and something of a recluse, but a proud Leonhart lady to the core, and she had taught Ellone how to tend to the sprawling gardens of the Leonhart estate. Squall could grudgingly admit his admiration for his sister's skills. The lands of his ancestral home thrived under Ellone's hands. He was grateful, in fact. She had created a green haven for him to retreat to whenever castle life had got the better of him, over the years. This time he could barely see the green; color did not meet his eyes, only bleak, washed-out grays. Ever since the night the Bond to his Sorceress was sundered, Squall saw the world through a dull haze that neither the bright blue sky nor the verdant bamboo thicket could penetrate.

Still, it was far preferable to be here than the castle. There had been so much... noise there. Squall had immediately found that he could no longer stand to be among his men, even Zell, whose good-natured attempts to pierce his lord's shell had made Squall want to curl up and wither away. Ellone's nagging was hardly any better, but she was mercifully busy for most of the day, leaving him to spend his waking hours in silence. In solitude. Not that Squall craved solitude; he hated his own company more than ever, truth be told. It was simply that he could not bear to be around anyone else. To be talked to. To have concerned eyes watch over him as he lay and stared, blankly, out into nothingness.

It could not be helped. A piece of his spirit was now numb, irreparably lacking, since the connection to Rinoa had been severed. The initial pain—the physical agony, an unearthly fever and searing headache—had eased after five or six days spent shivering in his bedroll at Ellone's house. What was left was merely... emptiness.

He nudged the sliding door to the garden open, and stretched his legs onto the stone step. The sun brought an uncomfortable heat to the bare skin of his feet within moments.

"I was just coming to drag you out of your room."

The scraping sound of the door had brought Ellone over to inspect her brother's condition. She peered down at him from under her straw hat, gloved hands on her hips.

"It seems your heart is on the mend, brother. Good."

He looked up at her questioningly, shielding his brow from the sun.

"This is the first morning you have risen of your own accord."

"It does not mean that I am mended."

Squall shifted his body to lie down across the step, and let his eyes wander past Ellone, his blurred gaze traveling across the garden to the thick bamboo grove towering above, leading up to the densely forested mountain that stood behind the Leonhart estate. He had climbed it as a boy, together with Ellone and his aunt. Squall remembered how a wild boar had darted across the path in front of him, and he had wailed in terror, scaring it off into the undergrowth. Ellone had fallen about laughing, and carried him on her back until the sobs no longer wracked his small chest.

Ellone stepped across him, poking the small of his back with her foot. "How much longer must it take, then? You're not the first man to spurned by a woman, and you won't be the last."

"I have already told you it was far more than that. I was her Knight. She tore me asunder."

His sister ignored him, tutting as she shook out his damp blanket and folded the cotton pallet away. She patted the blanket a few more times, and deciding it needed more than airing, bundled it in her arms and disappeared into the house.

When she reemerged, she held a cup of hot tea in her hands, which Squall took without words. He sipped at it, and tasted nothing.

Ellone squatted at his side and gazed out across the garden. He knew she was appraising every vegetable bed, every tree and bush, and compiling a mental list of all the pruning and weeding tasks that needed to be done. He left her to it, sipping his tea slowly, wondering idly if his senses would be dulled for the rest of his life.

"It pains me to see you so pitiful, day after day."

"It pains me more," Squall replied.

She was looking at him in an odd way. Not worry or pity, or even contempt, but as if she was burning to say something that should not be said. Her demeanor unnerved Squall to the point that he was forced to bring attention to it.

"Say it, or walk away," he told her.

"Well." Ellone's expression was secretive and sly, and he knew nothing good could come of it. "I wonder why you have not asked me to take you to her. You know I could do it in an instant."

He ignored the sharp jolt at his chest, and looked down into his teacup.

"She would not welcome it. Nor would I."

Squall knew his tight grip on the cup was close to shattering the porcelain. He cursed Ellone for waving such temptation in front of his face so shamelessly. The mere suggestion of it. Of being part of Rinoa's mind again, to be enveloped in her warmth even for a second-hand moment, only for it to be ripped away once more... It did not bear thinking about.

So many years had passed that he had all but forgotten Ellone's curious ability to view the past as if it were a picture scroll. 'Memory-walking', as she liked to call it. It had been a happy diversion when they were children, a game of make-believe made real, and Squall had been entranced by his sister's talent of bringing the past to life. The day that Laguna discovered that his daughter's stories were more than mere make-believe was when everything changed, and not only because Ellone, chastened and ashamed, stopped taking Squall on her journeys. That had been the day when the seed of the idea of Ellone's potential as a Successor to Adel took root in Laguna's mind, an idea that had torn his family in two.

"I thought you had sworn to never use your ability again," he said, and Ellone flinched at the accusatory tone.

"I did. But I can no longer bear to see my brother so hollow. If it—"

"No. Do not speak of it again."

"As you wish." She pulled her arms around her knees, and he thought she was contrite. They watched a cicada fly drunkenly overhead, its ear-splitting cries ringing out across the garden until it came to an abrupt halt on the bark of a pine tree.

"Have you given thought to the question of when you will return to the castle?" Ellone asked.

"I have given thought to nothing at all."

"Perhaps I will go, then, in your stead."

Surprised, Squall twisted his head to look up at her, and found her expression not one of mockery or challenge, but a brow furrowed in wistful thought.

"You would return to a man you hate?"

"To hate a man for cruelty is fair and just, I think. But to hate a man for thoughtlessness? I am no longer sure. He cannot change the man he is." Ellone took the straw hat off her head, and turned it over in her hands. "And you have borne the brunt of his foolishness for too many years, dear brother. Perhaps it is my turn, at last."

"Why now?"

"He will need at least one of his children at his side, after you are gone."

"Gone? Where do you imagine I will go?"

Her lips twitched into a smile. "To reclaim your lady love, of course."

Through a tightened jaw, Squall said, "She does not wish to be reclaimed."

He saw that Ellone was about to argue, and shot her a preemptive glare.

"A sore topic, I see. Still, your Sorceress aside, we all know how little enthusiasm you have for the duties Father gives you. If you were to formally step down as Father's heir..."

This was an absurd topic; something he would never be permitted to do. But to Ellone, who had successfully removed herself from the castle, perhaps anything seemed possible, Squall thought. Humoring her flight of fancy, he asked, "Where would I go?"

"Well, if I were to take your place, then you could take mine. Live here, and keep these gardens alive." Her arm swept out, gesturing at the inviting expanse in front of them.

Squall snorted lightly at the idea. "I do not have your green touch. Besides, if I truly did step down as heir... I could hardly stay in Esthar. I would be a sitting target for any who seek to divide the realm. It would mean exile, perhaps in the Great Plains, or more likely in Trabia..." His brow knotted with self-rebuke. Why was he bothering to give this any serious thought? Laguna had planned his son's life since the day of his birth. Abdication of duty was not an option.

"Or to the West," Ellone said, and held up a hand before Squall could speak. "No, I do not mean to her. There is a new country that has forsworn any division between noble and commoner, did you know that?"

"Are you speaking of Timber? I was there when Father received their declaration of nationhood. A Freehold of equals, or some such idealistic proclamation."

"The word is that they welcome one and all. I am sure they would embrace a fine Esthari swordsman, if he were to renounce his birthright."

"My birthright is my burden, Elle."

"It need not always be so."

Squall fell quiet. There was little use arguing with one so unencumbered by the constraints of reality. He sat listening to the chorus of insects, birds and the frogs in the rice field, while Ellone took the empty teacup back into the house. The true heat of the day arrived, making Squall drowsy and leaden. He closed his eyes and drifted into a semi-doze.

The muffled cry of a chocobo broke his slumber, followed by Ellone's cheerful greeting and a man's resounding laugh. Squall dragged a hand through his sweat-dampened hair and cursed under his breath. The visitor came with good intentions, yes, but Squall found his presence exhausting every time.

"M'lord!"

Zell bounded into the garden from the side passage, and crouched in front of the step where Squall lay. Squall nodded at him weakly. Words felt like far too much of an effort.

Ellone joined them, and gave Squall a reproachful look, which he ignored.

"How fares the patient?" Zell asked her.

"He seems to be complaining more. It strikes me as a good sign."

"Glad to hear it, m'lady." He grinned widely. "So you've found your voice then, m'lord?"

"Mm," Squall managed.

"How odd. I believe he has lost it again," said Ellone with a touch of asperity. She climbed over Squall's legs into the house, soon returning with tea and a plate of salted pickles and rice crackers, which Zell ate with relish. Zell thanked her, and continued to regale Squall with the comings and goings of the castle. Squall offered a grunt or glassy-eyed nod at appropriate intervals, though he did not hear a word Zell said.

Ellone caught Squall's eye, and used Ward's language of signs to ask, And this one? Will you take him West with you?

It would be cruel to tear him away from Father's library and its curator, Squall replied with both hands. Besides, I have not said I will go West.

"Ah now, m'lady, m'lord, that's hardly fair," Zell protested. "You know I can't understand your secret language."

"That was entirely the point, young Zell." Ellone patted him on the shoulder, and returned to the kitchen to refill his plate.

Zell made himself comfortable on the step next to Squall, and carried on talking. Squall nodded and closed his eyes, retreating to the hollowness inside. There was a sense of safety in it, cold and empty as it was. He was not ready to emerge yet. The world would have to stay outside, and that included Zell, well-meaning as he was.

Eventually, Zell rose to his feet, and dipped his head at his lord. "I'll come again the day after tomorrow, m'lord. Rest up well. You'll be right as rain before long."

"Mm," he replied, and the keen worry in Zell's widened eyes prompted Squall to go one step further this time. "My thanks, Zell."

Zell beamed in response, and if Squall could feel anything, it would have been a stab of guilt.

But he was hollow, he was numb, and he felt nothing.


For the twenty-third night in a row, Squall could not sleep.

Night was when the numbness receded, when sensations and emotions trickled into the empty space within him. When the sky was black outside and the daytime roar of insect life had dwindled to a lazy nocturnal lull, Squall could feel pain again. Pain that split his head, crushed his chest, choked his throat. Some nights, more often than not, it left him heavy and listless with despair. On other nights, it filled him with cold rage. How could she leave him? How could she slice through their connection as if it were flesh, and call it a kindness? What sort of callous, oblivious, mindless...

Inevitably, his anger would turn inwards. If her actions were unforgivable, then so too was his own weakness. How had he let his heart be captured by a woman like that?

This night was one when the rage flared through him, leaving another blanket soaked in sweat for Ellone to tut over and launder in the well-water come morning. When the wave of fury swept away, all Squall could think of was his sister's offer. If she could take him to a memory of Rinoa... If she truly could... If he saw her face one last time, might he find a sense of finality, and leave her in the past once and for all?

He turned over onto his stomach, burying his face in his hands. Why did Ellone have to say it? This was unbearable.

An hour or more passed, and it gnawed away at him like a pack of rats in a ship's hold. No more, he thought grimly, pulling himself to his feet in the dark. If it must be done, then it must be done tonight.

The sliding door to Ellone's room stuck hard when he pushed, and Squall was so impatient that he would have punched straight though the paper had the mechanism not finally given way. His sister was deeply asleep; the rattling and scraping of the door had not woken her. Squall knelt at her side and shook her shoulder, a hesitant touch soon replaced by urgency.

She opened one eye and blinked at him, then closed it again, letting out a surly groan when he continued to shake her awake.

"Stop it." Ellone pushed his hands away.

"Take me to her," he said roughly, but let his hands drop.

"Squall, go back to your bed."

"If you can take me to her, then do it."

Ellone propped herself up on one elbow, and yawned widely. She squinted at him groggily.

"Can you?" he challenged. "You once told me it could not be done to someone you had never met."

She was awake now, and listening intently. "If I meet her through your own memories, then I believe I could find her again. Let me try."

Ellone held out her hands towards him. Squall saw the sparks of excitement that fizzed in her eyes in the dim room—his sister always slept with the shutters wide open, to feel the sun's first rays at dawn, she always said—and he realized that she had hoped for this. She had been longing, yearning to use her talent again. Cautiously, he wrapped her fingers in his, in the way they had so often done as children.

"Take us to the last full moon of the spring. The night I met her. Go no further than that."

Ellone nodded, and closed her eyes.

"No further, Elle," he warned sharply. "Is that understood?"

She twisted her mouth in disdain, eyes still closed. "Believe me, I have no wish to see you in the throes of passion, dear brother."

Squall did not think such crudeness to be worthy of a reply, and let his own eyelids fall. Something pulsed from Ellone's fingers, that strange, familiar lurch into unconsciousness, and then—

A moonlit forest, a rain of blows against his back. Rinoa was pounding at him with her shackled fists.

"Let us fight, you fool! Will you die from sheer pride?"

Squall threw her off easily, and she slid to the ground. "Fool, is it?" he spat. "Fool would be the man who released his prisoners and returned their weapons."

Rinoa, moving faster and more nimbly than he had expected, was in front of him now, wrists thrust out, eyes blazing. "I give you my word. You say you know what I am—if you do, then you know that my word is not given lightly. Let us fight!"

The dream-Squall watched her with a curious detachment. That manner of hers, that haughtiness and confidence—how had she ever thought she could pass as a commoner? Yet pass she had, evidently, for several months among the thieves in the lower town. He wondered if any man had fallen in love with her during that time. It was hard not to, even in a memory. She was a sight to pierce the heart: the fierce passion that lit her whole face, the sweet shape of her lips, the elegant curves of her neck and shoulders. Even obscured by grimy hair and that filthy thief's garb, her beauty sang out to him. He had tried to ignore it, back then, of course. She was his prisoner, and he her captor.

He watched himself slice through her shackles, and hurl his body and blade at the raging Behemoth while the thief-girl—the one with the nunchaku and the mouth like a sewer—leapt atop its back and crushed the beast's skull. Then Rinoa was there at the girl's side, whispering something in her ear, and the girl kissed her cheek, and she was a darting shadow lost in the trees, along with the long-haired musketman.

He pulled once more with his uninjured arm, and Lion Heart slid away, free of the fiend's flesh. Squall turned around to watch two of his prisoners vanish into the woods, and as his temper inflamed, he saw the satisfied gleam in Rinoa's soft brown eyes. She had tricked him.

He thought he heard Ellone's laughter, echoing faintly from far away.

"So this is the value of your word?" He had never spoken to a woman with such anger before. Yet his fury did not seem to daunt her, not one bit. Why? Who was she?

"I can give my own word, and mine alone. I cannot give the word of others." Her slim wrists were thrust out towards his chest, and her jaw was set with a stubborn defiance Squall would come to know well. "And I will be true to my promise. I remain your prisoner."

"I cut your shackles." How stupid his voice sounded.

"Then find something else to bind me with."

He fumbled at his belt, and—

"Enough," Squall said. "Surely you have seen enough."

The forest melted away, as did Ellone's presence at the corner of his mind. Consciousness seeped back in, and Squall was waking from a deep sleep, rubbing at his eyes, his sister watching with undisguised amusement.

"Well?" he demanded.

"I never knew you could be tricked so easily, brother. I suppose a pretty face makes all the difference."

"I did not ask for your opinion on what you saw. Can you find her?"

"I think I have the essence of her now, yes." Ellone flexed her fingers and offered them to Squall. He paused, suddenly aware of the magnitude of what they were about to do. If he saw Rinoa as she was right now, could he stop himself from going to her?

"I can lead you to the nearest moment to the present. To mere seconds ago." The pads of Ellone's fingers pressed against his, and Squall knew it was already to late to halt the process. He was too weak; the temptation too strong.

"It must be after midday in the West," Ellone said, and if she spoke after that, it was lost to Squall. Sleep closed in around him, and the silken threads of Ellone's power tugged on his mind and pulled him away from his body, to—

Something collided into him, and he could not move. Ellone's confusion echoed inside the walls of Squall's mind, and he felt her pushing hard against the obstruction.

Whatever it was, it would not budge, and Squall had the disquieting sense that it was alert. Alert, and aware of him.

A dark red glow spread across the inside of his eyelids. Squall watched, frozen in time, as the red rapidly displaced all traces of everything that was part of him. In a moment there would be nothing left, he would be wholly consumed, he would... He...

Ellone dropped his hand as if it were a burning coal, and the knock of his knuckles against the cool floor jolted Squall awake. He stared at his hand, uncomprehending. Yes, it was his hand, and he was still him. At least, he seemed to be.

"No, it... It does not work. I was wrong." Ellone's voice shook, and when Squall looked up, her face was pale.

"What did you see?"

"Not... not her. Not the girl you showed me."

"Then it is as you said. You cannot travel to the mind of one you do not know." It was an answer born of reason, but Squall was unsure if he believed it himself.

"Perhaps so." Ellone's doubtful frown showed him that his words had convinced neither of them.

"You think otherwise?"

"She is a Sorceress now. Maybe she sensed my approach. Why would a Sorceresses' mind lie open and undefended against a power like mine? She may have placed barriers that I cannot traverse."

"Was that what the red light was? A barrier of some sort?"

Ellone blinked at him, confused. "Red light?"

"That was all I saw. A redness that swept away the dark of my sleep." He started to say but it did not feel like her, and stopped, finding himself unwilling to describe to Ellone the feeling of Rinoa's warmth, the tone and timbre of her presence.

His sister shook her head. "I saw... I saw nothing."

"Nothing?"

She whispered an affirmation, her eyes on the floor.

"Then she cannot be reached," he said.

Ellone rubbed her eyes wearily, and started to crawl back under her bedding. "Forgive me, little brother."

Squall thought he had not seen her so crestfallen for a long time. Ellone, always deft of hand and strong of will, was a stranger to failure. She turned away from him, and buried her face in her blanket. He did not need to be told to leave.

He wrestled with her bedroom door until it closed, cursing the whole damned rickety old house as he did. Squall stumbled through the dark corridors, not back to his own room, but out into the night. Soil met his bare feet, and humid air coated his skin. He crouched down, his heart thundering in his chest.

For the first time since the night the Bond was severed, he sank his head into his hands and wept. Hot, shameful tears, tears that no-one, not even Ellone, could ever be allowed to see. They trickled through his fingers and down his wrists, and when he was done, he bowed his head against the soil and stayed there until the heaving of his shoulders subsided.

She was gone; she was no longer a part of him, and she could not be reached. Rinoa was now a void, not a presence. This was the second time in his life, Squall recognized, that the cradling comfort of a woman's love had been ripped away—or the third, if Ellone's desertion during his childhood could be counted—and he wondered how much of his pain was an echo of the primal wound, the loss of his mother in infancy.

Love was only ever followed by loss; that was all his life had shown him.

He lifted his head away from the ground. The prolonged position had caused so much blood to rush to his face that the scar given to him by that brute Almasy had begun to throb and sting. Squall rubbed at it in irritation, wincing when the barely-healed skin dragged against the rough pads of his fingertips. Damned wounds, both bodily and of the mind. Why must they linger so, shaping and defining the course of his life? Was he nothing but a bundle of scars, amassed in the loose form of a man?

Perhaps all men are so, he thought as he rose to his feet. We are shaped by our wounds.

No, not shaped... Tempered. He thought of the waterstone sliding along Lion Heart's blade, smoothing away all the nicks and warps in the steel, leaving only betterment in its wake. Squall felt the tight knot in his chest loosen and dissipate. It was settled, then. He must be as a blade, and let every knock, every loss and sorrow temper him into something sharper, purer, stronger.

He wiped away the last of his tears with the back of his hand, and left the midnight garden for the comfort of stuffed cotton and dreamless sleep.


He slept until almost noon, the absence of Ellone's hands—or feet—prodding him awake at dawn showing her contrition. When Squall eventually found her in the garden, she was subdued.

Ellone spoke before he did. "The fault is mine. I should never have suggested it."

"Let us hold no ill will towards each other, sister." He squatted to the ground and mechanically started to pull weeds from the soil, placing each one on the heap Ellone had created. "Last night was a... misadventure. Forgive me for waking you for such a foolish urge."

She batted his fingers away when they closed around a soft green sprout. "That one is monk's-mint, Squall. Leave it be."

"It looks the same as the others."

"The scent is different. Rub your fingers against the leaves if you don't believe me."

He did so, and fell into a spluttering cough at the pungent, overwhelming aroma. Ellone hammered her fist against his back until the cough ceased and he could push her away.

She laughed loudly at the expression on his face. "You'll never make a gardener, little brother. How I wish Uncle Ward could see you now."

"Must you always mock me?"

"Always."

With petty vindictiveness, he plucked the monk's-mint out by the roots and threw it on top of the pile of weeds. "Sometimes it astounds me that you and Father cannot reconcile, when you share so much in common."

Ellone scowled, but a darkness lingered in her eyes that Squall was tempted to identify as one of regret. She pulled out handfuls of weeds in silence for a few moments, then said, "There is something I neglected to tell you. Zell left you a letter from Father, yesterday."

"I suppose I should read it."

Squall turned his gaze to the swaying bamboo at the edge of the garden, feeling very little of anything. He was hardly in the mood to wade through his father's ramblings, but nor could he gather enough energy to be aggrieved by the prospect.

"Let us line your stomach first." Ellone stood, brushing soil from the knees of her thick gardening apron. Squall followed her into the kitchen, where she silently handed him four leaves of paper bound with silk cord in an elaborate twist. She turned to the hearth to prepare hot water for a pot of tea.

Squall removed the cord, and unfolded the first page.

My beloved son,

The night of the Fire Festival has passed now, and the long days of the burning heat of summer are upon us.

Squall exhaled through his nose and skipped the next two paragraphs of seasonal greetings. It was odd how Laguna, a Galbadian commoner at birth, had so taken to the writing of conventions of Esthari nobility. The man's love of literary expression was inexhaustible, a bubbling spring that flowed from the tip of his ink-brush.

He reached the second page, which Laguna had filled with news from the castle. Much as when Zell regaled him with the same topic, Squall could not accommodate it in his mind. It could have been written in a foreign script, so absurdly distant did it feel.

In the past week, Kiros has gone to great lengths to reorganize the castle's supply of...

Another page of military business followed, and Squall skimmed his eyes over it, finding little to interest him.

My son, I am sure that your heart is still heavy. As you know, I too have felt the loss of a woman's love, not once but twice. Such loss casts a shadow over all that I am, and all that I have built, even today. Truly, I never wished for you to suffer in the same way. I wonder sometimes if perhaps it is our fate as men.

Squall wrinkled his nose in distaste and turned the page quickly. His father's knack for working his way into his son's hidden thoughts and plucking out ideas as if they were his own never failed to sow resentment on Squall's part.

But while the women I loved have left this world, your love still lives. I do not believe that all is lost. She is surely suffering just as deeply as you are.

If you wish for the freedom to go to her side, I will not deny it from you. I have never sought to force your path in life, dear son, although perhaps it has seemed so to you. Forgive me. If love and duty are in conflict, then choose love. At the end of a man's life, all that truly remains is love; no man on his deathbed would wish to have spent more of his years following the expectations of others over the calling of his own heart.

So the only demand I shall lay upon you is this, my son: do not silence the voice of your heart. That is all I ask. Whatever path you choose, do not choose it for my sake.

Squall set the paper down, staring with unfocused eyes at the steam rising from the tea Ellone had placed in front of him. He had not imagined his father could do anything to surprise him; he had been wrong.

Wrong indeed. And for how long?

"Have you finished?" Ellone asked.

"No. Not yet." Squall returned his eyes to the page.

For now, let your wounds be salved by the balm of your sister's kindness. I know she is far more capable than I of giving you the chance to heal. Extend to her, if you will, my warmest regards, and tell that I love her with all my heart. As I love you. You, Squall, are the son of my blood, and Ellone is the daughter of my heart; but that is immaterial. My love for the both of you is endless, in equal measure. No action nor the passing of time shall dampen it, no matter what may come. Let her know she remains in my thoughts, now and always.

When you are ready, return to the castle. We have much to talk about.

And this time, my son, I will listen. I promise.

Your loving father, Laguna

Squall took the final page in his hand, and offered it to Ellone. He watched her face as she read, and the frown and the darkness in her eyes lifted away when she reached the bottom of the page. Ellone pushed the paper away, closing her eyes. She sat with her fingers arched against her forehead for a long while, and when she folded her hands around the teacup once more, he saw the faint residue of tears on her cheeks.

"I will pack my bags, brother," she said at last. "It has been long enough. We shall return together."