Now do I see the earth anew
Rise all green from the waves again;
The cataracts fall, and the eagle flies
And fish he catches beneath the cliffs. […]
Then fields unsowed bear ripened fruit,
All ills grow better…

- The Poetic Edda, Völuspá: 59, 62

Chapter 27: Angel Wings

A black fog of agony had settled over Quistis. She lay with her eyes closed, wholly wrapped in the shell of her body, unaware of where she was or why the inside of her skull felt like it had been scraped clean like a jack-o-lantern. Something in the void was moving though, pushing at her consciousness and telling her to get up. For a while, she ignored it. Then it became insistent; it called her by name. And finally, she opened her eyes.

Firelight illuminated the ceiling far above her. She saw suddenly, as if in a dream, her confrontation with Hyne. She saw Bahamut rising up out of her unconscious, resisting like so much muscle and bone as Hyne attempted to wrest him from the fiber of Quistis's being. The agony of it was still ringing through her body.

She thought then of Seifer and sat up too quickly. Black spots crowded her vision as she searched the room for some sign of him. Between them, she spotted something familiar. Something heartbreaking.

Squall.

His hair was hanging in front of his face and he was on his knees by the fire, clutching something to his chest. More than beaten, he looked broken, almost physically vacant as he gave himself to grief. Now that they'd been enemies, she was hesitant to go to him or try to comfort him, not sure he'd accept any of her sympathy. Still, she couldn't help but breathe his name. But he didn't turn to look at her.

Then movement, caught out of the corner of her eye, distracted her. It was Vidar sheathing his sword and leaning down over a heap of gray trench coat that barely stood out against the stone floor. He reached out with one large, green hand and gripped Seifer's still shoulder.

"Oh no." Quistis tried to get up, though the world began to pitch and spin around her. "Wait! Stop!"

Vidar glanced over his shoulder at her. Then a large, heavy hand pulled her back down.

"It's okay, ya know?" Raijin whispered in her ear. "We did it. Hyne's dead."

Quistis didn't feel victorious as she watched Vidar kneel down and pull Hyperion out of Seifer's hand. He turned the blade over, ran it broad side down both of his palms, then kissed the hilt before tucking it back against Seifer's side. Then he murmured something Quistis couldn't hear and stood back up. A kiss, a word, and he'd passed on his fate. The mission was Seifer's now. The one, she thought, that should have been hers.

Guilt made her heart spasm.

Vidar took several steps over to Squall then and made a sign with one hand. The gesture, with whatever power it had, made Squall sigh and release his grip on the husk of Hyne's body. He lifted his head and looked up at the aeon standing next to him.

"It's over now. Peace, Knight," Vidar said, then vanished.

"See, it'll be okay," Raijin said and squeezed Quistis's shoulder. "Here. Take this."

He pressed a potion into her hand. It was nothing but water now, having lost all of its healing power, but she unscrewed the cap anyway and tipped the bottle to her lips. The cool splash helped to center her. She saved half the potion, crawled across the room to Seifer, and gently rolled him over onto his back.

Up close, she could see the punishment he'd suffered at Squall's hands. There'd be plenty of swelling — the side of his mouth was already beginning to puff, a black bruise the size of a fist coloring his skin. And his breathing was shallow, making her wonder if any of his ribs were cracked or broken. Carefully, she dripped some of the potion onto his lips, then wetted her fingers and used the rest of it to clean the blood off his face until his eyelids began to flutter.

"Hey. Come on," she said. "Wake up."

Slowly, he did. His green eyes were startlingly clear in the firelight.

"Quistis?" he said, then frowned and closed his eyes again. "God. I feel like shit. Is Hyne…?"

"Gone."

"And you?"

"I'm fine."

He sighed. "Good."

As Quistis swept a stubborn bit of hair away from his face, tears suddenly welled up and filled her eyes so that she couldn't see him clearly. She bent down and kissed him. It made him wince despite her efforts to be gentle. But he kissed her back anyway and even lifted a bloody hand to cradle the back of her head. When he let her go, she found both Squall and Raijin watching them. The former blinked long and hard, as if holding back tears — or maybe judgement — and when he turned away she saw a long cut along his cheek that was still bleeding.

They were all in bad shape. Without magic there wasn't much she could do for either Squall or Seifer here; they needed to get back to the Ragnarok.

Fujin's voice suddenly echoed up the stairway.

"SEIFER!"

She appeared a moment later, her clothing filthy and her eyepatch slightly askew. "Seifer!" she repeated, quieter this time, and jogged over to him. "Are you okay?"

"Yeah." He waved away her concern and sat up on his elbows. "I'm great."

"No you're not," she replied, her quick gaze raking over him and then darting briefly to Quistis. "You're badly hurt."

"Hey. I am, too," Raijin said from across the room, then added pitifully, "ya know?"

Fujin glanced at him and waved dismissively. "FINE!"

"Is everyone else okay?" Quistis asked as Fujin crouched down beside her.

"MOSTLY."

Alarmed by her evasive response, Quistis looked down at Seifer and asked, "Do you think you can walk?"

"Yeah. I walked the whole damn way here. I'm fine." He sat up a little more and hissed, his movements stiff.

"We'll help you," she replied and motioned to Fujin. "Raijin. Think you can help Squall?"

"Sure." Raijin walked over to Squall who was still sitting quiet and pale, immersed in his own personal hell. There was something comforting in the way he looked up at Raijin though — he was lucid, Squall again. "Come on." Raijin offered a hand.

Their progress out of the palace was slow and painful. The stairway was just barely wide enough for Quistis and Fujin to pass through with Seifer in between them. By the time they got to the bottom, Quistis's shoulder felt rubbed raw from scraping against the wall and Seifer was leaning heavily on her shoulders. He was sweating and swore under his breath in frustration when they stopped at a fountain in the courtyard to rest.

The dull ache in Quistis's head had amplified into skull splintering agony once they finally reached the throne room. Drunk with the adrenaline keeping her legs moving, she stumbled into the room without looking and almost ran into Zell who startled her by reaching out and grabbing both her and Seifer, holding them upright.

"Hey. Quisty?"

"I'm okay." She pushed away from him and they all sank down onto the floor. Seifer was gasping in short, staccato breaths.

"You must've—" Zell started, then took a breath. "Is Rinoa…? And, oh my God, is that Squall?"

"Squall's okay," Quistis said. Then, swallowing past a lump in her throat, said, "But Rinoa's gone. Listen, we need to get back to the Ragnarok. The Galbadians should have a medical team with them. If we can fly out and meet them—"

Zell interrupted her. "We can't."

"What? Why?"

His voice was quiet, almost a whisper. "Selphie."

Zell glanced behind him and Quistis followed his gaze to Irvine who was sitting in just his pants and vest. His hat was on the floor beside him, his bare arms cradling Selphie who was wrapped in his coat, her still, waxy face pillowed against his shoulder.

"What happened?" Quistis asked.

"Got hit by a death spell," Zell explained. "Fujin had some phoenix down. It brought her back a little bit — we've got a pulse now, and she's breathing. But…that's it. We can't wake her up." Zell forked a hand through his hair. "We tried everything, but all our magic is gone."

Quistis swore softly and grabbed Seifer's hand, feeling like she needed to tether herself to him.

There wasn't any point in going all the way back to the Ragnarok now. There was nothing to do but wait for the Galbadians. Part of her was relieved. The world was saved, their job was done, and she could just lie down right here beside Seifer and drift away. But the rational part of her mind despaired. Krier and his men wouldn't arrive for hours.

"Let's start a fire outside, then," Quistis finally suggested. "At least make it easy for them to find us."

Fujin and Raijin collected the splintered wood from the door and piled it outside while Zell and Quistis cracked open several of Irvine's remaining bullets and poured the black powder out into a pile. Quistis loaded just the primer from one of the rounds into Irvine's gun and fired, the explosive charge igniting the powder with a concussive whoosh. The wood took the flame easily, and soon they had a roaring blaze.

Silently, they gathered around the fire. Seifer fell asleep almost immediately. Sometime later, so did Squall, his exhaustion getting the better of him. Quistis laid down on her side and closed her eyes but stayed awake, listening to the sound of Seifer's breathing, on silent vigil, making sure that sometime during the night he wouldn't just stop. The heavens weren't conspiring to keep him alive anymore. Now that he'd received Vidar's power, the rest of his life didn't matter to anyone except her. She breathed in sync with him and was lost in the rhythm when, deep in the night, a familiar and all-together unexpected sound roused her.

Around the now dwindling fire, everyone else sat up as well and looked up at the sky as a large ship flew over, its engines leaving white hot trails across the black night.

"Is that from Esthar?" Zell asked.

It circled once over them then banked and flew east toward the road leading into the city.

Twenty minutes later, they heard footsteps approaching. And someone called out.

"Squall!"

Laguna jogged into the firelight.

"Are you guys okay? Is — oh God, Squall?" Quistis watched as he dropped onto his knees beside his son and roused Squall from the deep sleep he'd fallen into. "Hey. Hang on. Okay? I brought help."

A group of ten Estharan field medics followed not far behind, their pastel military uniforms beautiful and their silvery medic badges glinting like sparks of life in the firelight.

0 0 0

The hospital in Esthar made Seifer miss the Garden infirmary. The nurse that checked on him every few hours wasn't a pretty little cadet or a matronly older woman; his nurse was a man in his thirties, gruff with a beard as thick and shaggy as sagebrush. And he didn't put up with any shit. Seifer had tried to resist his first bath only to find himself the middle of what felt like a prison nightmare, naked and wet, his ribs screaming as another man scrubbed under his armpits.

He was relieved when Quistis walked through his door, a small bunch of flowers in her hands. Someone had painted a fire cross on the terra cotta pot.

"From Fujin and Raijin," she explained and set it down. "I talked to your nurse. He says you're going to live. Forever even."

He sighed. "Don't start with me."

"I'm not." She held up her hands. "I'd just like to know why you did it. You risked the whole mission."

"I don't care about missions," he said, aware that the way he barked it made him sound brash and drunk. "You should know that by now. You taught me. Listen, do you think you could get me out of here? Maybe get me moved to Garden?"

"Garden's not in Esthar," she replied. "They're down in Centra."

"Centra? What the hell do they have to do down there?"

"President Krier has decided to build a new tomb for Hyne. And a monument for Rinoa. Cid volunteered to help. Esthar's got people down there, too."

"Yeah? So why are you still here?"

She pulled a chair up beside his bed and sat down. "Selphie and Squall are still in the hospital here," she replied. "Laguna has hardly left Squall's side. And Irvine is still waiting for Selphie to wake up. The doctors say she's stable — it's just a matter of time before she comes around. Squall feels pretty bad about it. Between that and Rinoa…well, he's lucky he's got Laguna around."

"Sounds like you've been all over the place," he said. "Any reason you waited until last to visit me?"

She nodded. "I don't know what to say to you."

"'Thank you' would do just fine."

She sat back in her chair and sighed. "You know, I don't even know when you did it. I know it had to have been that night, our last one here in Esthar. But I don't know when. Was it when I was sleeping? Or when we…? You didn't have to. I'm amazed Vidar even let you."

"I didn't really give him a choice."

"So now what?" she asked. "What's this mean?"

"Nothing until I'm dead, I guess. Never really gave a shit what would happen then anyway, so it's not like anything has changed."

"That's not what I meant."

"So what did you mean?"

She shrugged and shook her had as if to say that she didn't know, or maybe that she just wasn't going to tell him if he didn't. He sensed that he'd missed some important subtext to their conversation.

"Listen," he said, feeling too tired to have one of these battles with her. He was in the damn hospital for God's sake. "I'm not a fucking mind-reader. If you have something you want to say, just come out say it."

Quistis's hands tightened into little balls in her lap, but her expression betrayed none of her emotions. "Okay," she said slowly. "Did you do it for me? Or yourself?"

He thought her question over seriously for a moment before answering. "Both, I think."

For a long time, she was silent. And she didn't get a chance to say anything more before Seifer's nurse walked in. He grinned at her, a row of straight horse teeth showing from behind his beard.

"You don't have to leave," he said. "Just checking in on our patient here."

"That's okay. I'll get out of your way," Quistis replied and stood up, making Seifer hate the damn nurse even more. She brushed her fingers along Seifer's arm as she left. "I'll see what I can do about getting you transferred somewhere closer to home. Okay?"

After she was gone, the nurse shook his head and pinched a heart rate monitor onto Seifer's finger. "I've seen pictures of her. But, damn…face to face? I see why she's got the fan club. You know?"

If Seifer hadn't been depending on this one man to keep him healthy, he would have ripped the nurse's eyeballs right out of his head. The violent selfishness he felt surprised him. So he said nothing, even when the other man asked him if he was "involved" with Quistis.

Involved?

It was a sissy word he didn't know how to categorize. Involved as in sex and sacrifice? He had those two down. But there wasn't much more beyond that. Was there? He had no reason ever to see her again. But he couldn't stop feeling as she walked out of his hospital room door like all he wanted was for her to turn around and come right back in.

0 0 0

Selphie's room was filled with flowers and foil balloons. Every day, Irvine refilled vases with water, took away the plants that were dying and the balloons that had withered, and replaced them with new ones. Neither were hard to come by. Trabia Garden had sent several bouquets, and so had various committees in Balamb Garden that she was a member of. Reluctantly, the hospital had been allowing him to stay overnight in her room. He drew the blinds closed on a setting sun and sat down on the cot he'd made up beside her bed.

"Hey, Irvine." Quistis walked in. "I'm heading out. Do you need anything?"

"No thanks. I'm fine."

She leaned against the frame of the door. "Any change?"

"Her brain scans are starting to show increased activity," he replied. "And she's been a little twitchy. There — did you see that? Does it all the time."

"That's great." Quistis smiled but didn't actually look happy. Four days ago, Seifer had been transferred to the hospital in Dollet. And she'd seemed uneasy ever since. "Well, give me a call if she wakes up. Goodnight."

Before he laid down on his cot for the night, he turned off the lights in Selphie's room and kissed her forehead. It wrinkled under his lips — another twitch she'd developed in the past few days. "No worries," Irvine said, like he had every night for the past week, and her face smoothed back into repose again.

"Sefie…" He looked down at her for a long time before climbing onto his cot for the night. "I love you. So wake up, okay?"

The light and bustle from the nurse's station usually kept him up at night. But tonight he fell asleep fast. And he dreamed. He dreamed of the orphanage on the beach, of fireworks and campfires, and of Selphie by his side. She didn't usually talk to him in his dreams. But tonight she handed him a stick with a marshmallow jammed on the end, flaming blue, and said his name.

"Irvy?"

He took it from her, blew out the flames, and bit into the gooey morsel. It tasted like nothing, but he smiled.

"Irvy?" she repeated.

"Right here, babe." He slung an arm around her. "Right here."

She didn't seem happy. She shifted and moved restlessly against him. And she gasped strangely, like she'd come up from a long dive.

"Hey. You okay?" he asked, the dream beginning to fragment around him. He didn't want to let it go, but it shivered and vanished, leaving him once again on the stiff hospital cot, lying in the darkened room with a glowing heart monitor not far above his head. He looked up at the upside down number: eighty six.

That seemed a little high.

"Irvy?"

"Oh my God!" He bolted upright as her heart rate ticked up again to eighty seven.

Selphie was awake.

"Sefie." He grabbed her hand and held it firm between his palms. "It's me. It's okay."

"Where am I?" she asked, her voice filled with the heavy sound of tears. "What happened?"

"You're in Esthar," he explained. "We defeated Hyne. But you were hurt. You've been out for a while. We thought — oh God — I thought you might not come back."

She groaned. "The death spell?"

"Yeah."

"Oh, Irvy. I feel awful." She reached out for him with both hands and he had to resist the urge to climb into bed beside her. Just because she was awake didn't mean she was healed, and he didn't want to do any damage. He gripped her shoulder and found that she was trembling.

"I know. Don't worry. You'll be okay," he promised as he pressed the call button.

He'd lost her heart and soul once already; it damn well wasn't going to happen again. Looking down at her as the light flashed on and a nurse rushed in, he felt like the one who'd died and come back to life.

The sun had come up — was peeking between the window blinds — when the medical staff finally left the room. Selphie was glassy with some drug they'd given her. She looked around the room at all the flowers and balloons and asked, "Is this all for me?"

"Yeah," he replied and took her hands. "All for you."

0 0 0

For over a month, Quistis stayed in Esthar and quietly helped Laguna with whatever she could while he was occupied with Squall. For a few weeks, life in the palace was idyllic. She ate her meals with Kiros and Ward where they exchanged war stories and compared father to son. In her spare time, she sat and talked with Ellone. Real girl talk, more innocent and fluffy than the Garden variety she was used to where combat and violence always seemed to leak in.

Once Squall was released, he moved into the palace, too. He had a new scar on his cheek but no other outward signs of his ordeal. Quieter than usual and still in deep mourning for Rinoa, he immediately became the center of attention. From a distance, Quistis watched as Laguna and Ellone lavished him with an excess and patience and love. They bore much of his sadness too, like they were emotionally bonded to him. And they both seemed immune to the thready fits of anger he'd become prone to.

Was this what a real family was like, she wondered?

After Selphie was released and had returned to Garden with Irvine, Quistis was packing to leave as well when Laguna knocked on her door and walked in.

"The air station just called," he said. "They're ready for you."

"Okay. I'm almost ready."

He nodded and helped her gather her things. "It's been nice having you here. I just want you to know that. You've been a lot of help."

Laguna walked with her all the way to the lift that led outside.

"Once the monument in Centra is done, were going to have a memorial for Rinoa. I'll see you there?"

"Yeah. Of course."

He scooped her up in a crushing hug, puffing in her ear as the embrace squeezed the air out of him. "Have a safe flight. Okay?"

As she walked away from the palace toward the air station, the memory of Laguna's parting hug made her feel lonely. The flight back to Garden would take several hours. And once she landed…what then? With Squall staying in Esthar, Selphie and Irvine reconnecting, and Zell taking vacation time to visit his family in Balamb, there wasn't much to go back to but work. The thought left her hollow.

A small passenger ship was waiting at the air station for her. The pilot glanced away from his diagnostics when she got on.

"Where to?" he asked.

She sat down and buckled herself in, taking the moment to consider her options before replying.

"How about Dollet?"

"This ship doesn't hold enough fuel to get all the way there and back."

"Okay. Could you drop me off in Balamb, then?"

"Yeah. No problem." He took off and turned the ship west.

In Balamb, she bought train tickets and then got something to eat at a little seaside restaurant. She had half of her meal and a slice of cake boxed and ate it on board the long, dark train trip to Timber. Her connecting train to Dollet was a more pleasant ride which she spent looking out the windows, watching Galbadia pass by.

It was early evening by the time she arrived in Dollet. And some of her confidence had begun to flag. Would Seifer still be content living in this sleepy little town now that he was a hero? He'd probably moved to Deling City weeks ago, she thought as she walked down the cobblestone road and looked out over the harbor at the bobbing ships. She'd been shocked to find him here in the first place — his ego didn't seem to allow for such an unmarked existence. At the very least, she hoped Raijin or Fujin might still be in town and able to tell her where Seifer had gone.

The darkened windows of his house stood out along his well-lit street. Quistis walked up to the door and knocked. When no one answered, she waited and knocked twice more before sighing and shifting her heavy backpack higher on her shoulders.

What now?

She couldn't just curl up on their doorstep and wait for someone to come home. After pacing between the street and the door, she could think of only one other friendly face in Dollet.

The pub was already busy when she walked beneath its brightly lit sign and into the bar. Some of the faces she remembered, most of them belonging to guys she'd beaten at cards or pool, but no one paid any attention to her as she walked up to the bar and pulled out a stool, dropping her backpack with a grunt of relief. The bartender was busy refilling glasses for a group of rowdy sailors who looked like they'd just gotten back in port from a long trip. They were scruffy and overexcited but were tipping well.

Above the bar, the television was tuned to the local news and playing without sound. The news team cut to a reporter in the field who was shading her eyes from the sun and gesturing behind her toward a vista that was partially obscured by a boxy yellow truck. The camera panned back and she turned to a man dressed in a khaki vest, blue denim shirt, and a pair of corduroys. "Cid Kramer: Balamb Garden Headmaster" appeared beneath him as he began to talk.

"Hell." Someone sat down on the empty stool next to her and slapped a newspaper down against the bar. "I sort of thought that maybe I'd see you one day walking into the library, taking some sort of field trip with Chicken Wuss. Or, you know, at the goddamn hospital about three weeks ago. But the pub?"

Quistis turned.

"Come to visit me?" Seifer asked and grinned. His hair was a little out of sorts, rebellious curls forming around his collar where he hadn't bothered to get a trim, and a dusting of stubble sprinkled his jaw.

"I don't know. Are you happy to see me?" she countered.

The bartender came by, but Seifer waved him away.

"Depends."

"On?"

"Whether you're here for business or pleasure."

Quistis smiled. "You look good. Everything okay? You're feeling alright?"

"Yeah. Great."

"Is Vidar…?"

"Around. But he doesn't bother me much."

"Bahamut's been different since the battle," Quistis replied. "More subdued. He's not like he used to be."

Seifer grunted. "Business then, huh?" He turned on his stool so that his knees were pressing against her thigh. "You going to give me the full update on Squall now? Or tell me next how the messenger girl is doing? Because I'll save you the time, Quistis, and tell you that I don't really give a damn."

"What would you rather talk about?"

"Why you're here," he replied.

Shifting under his heavy, penetrating gaze, she said, "I think you know why."

"I wouldn't count on it. It's a goddamned mystery to me what goes on in your head most of the time."

He was just being a bully now, she thought, trying to make her come out and say what she didn't want to: that she'd missed him and that his act of sacrifice made her feel bound to him. It was all a bit much to discuss in a noisy bar in front of half the town.

"I just came to visit you," she said.

He glanced down at her backpack. "Need a place to stay?"

"Yeah."

"How about my place? You won't have to sleep on the couch this time."

"That would be…" She had to pause as he leaned forward and kissed her. The gesture surprised her and she was left speechless, hanging forward as if waiting for him to do it again. In public, Seifer was a different kind of person than he was in private. The public facing Seifer was hard and abrasive and arrogant. He certainly didn't kiss. Not like that, anyway.

"Let's go, then," he said and bent down to retrieve her bag. The straps were too tight for him, so he slung it over one shoulder.

There was no pretext of a mission now, and she was very aware as she followed him out the pub door that she was choosing to spend time with him. She didn't dwell too long on why, not ready to think much about the possibilities that came up. The most unsettling of all was the prospect that she had grown used to and even fond of his personal brand of companionship. She felt bereft without it now. All of the irritation he caused was easy to forget.

They walked back to his house, where he fished his keys out of his pants pocket and unlocked the door. The house hadn't changed any since Quistis had seen it last, though someone had put a bowl of fresh raspberries on the table. They still smelled like dark earth and sunshine. Quistis popped one into her mouth and chewed slowly.

"No one else is home?" she asked.

"Raijin's working late tonight," Seifer replied. "I dunno where the hell Fu's at." He stopped close to her and watched her eat another raspberry, his eyes following her hand and then lingering on her mouth. When she reached for another, he grabbed her arm and pivoted his body between her and the table.

"There's some champagne in the fridge," he said. "And I've been waiting to get you in the hot tub."

"I don't have a bathing suit."

He shrugged and grinned.

Quistis stayed inside and poured two glasses of champagne while Seifer went out on the deck, leaving the door open behind him so that the curtains wafted in and out on the breeze. They didn't have proper flutes, so Quistis used two mugs stamped with the local junk shop logo. She dropped several large, ripe berries into each cup, then thought better and grabbed the entire bowl before joining Seifer on the deck.

He was already startlingly naked, water beaded along the wide ridges of his shoulders, his ass tight enough to springboard off of as he turned on the jets and climbed over the edge into the whirling, frothing pool.

"Come on," he said as he sat down, sinking up to his armpits in the water.

Quistis handed him his glass, then sat down hers along with the bowl of raspberries she'd balanced on top. Seifer ate, drank, and grinned while she took off her shoes.

"When is Raijin getting off work?" she asked.

Seifer shrugged.

"And you don't know when Fujin's getting back?"

"Just take your damn clothes off and get in here."

"They could walk in on us. Or…out on us? Can your neighbors see your deck?"

"Oh my God." He put his champagne glass down and grabbed her with warm, wet hands. They unbuttoned her pants and pulled her shirt up. She drew the line at her bra and panties and wore both as she joined him in the hot tub.

Quistis had once been to a natural hot spring in Esthar. The water there was sulfurous — a property that the brochures claimed made the springs good for everything from curing dry skin to soothing minor cuts and burns — and had left her with a strange, infernal smell long after she'd left and showered.

Seifer's hot tub was not the same. She smelled nothing but pungent liquor and dark berries. And Seifer's toes were moving up the inside of her leg. This place was all seduction. What surprised her was the relaxation of it, the familiarity, the downright heart-melting bliss.

A long breath escaped Quistis as she moved next to Seifer and settled in the crook of his arm. She sank down deep in the water and took a long drink from her glass. The champagne was heavy in her stomach, like a thick morning fog. She lay there in it, pressed against Seifer's side, and stared up at the sky up above. A moth fluttered overhead and through the open door into the house.

"Why were you at the pub, anyway?" Seifer asked.

"Huh?"

"Seems like you spend a lot of time there."

Quistis rolled her head along his arm so that she was looking at him. "The pub owner," she said, and Seifer nodded. "I think he might be my father."

A brief, stunned silence stretched. Then Seifer asked, "Why?"

Quistis explained about the pub owner's wife, their daughter, the boat accident in the harbor, and the photograph she'd taken from the pub of Helene Selune, who looked so much like her. It was a dream. And Quistis cringed as she spoke, realizing how flimsy and desperate it sounded — how very cliche orphan it was to latch on to some unsuspecting, kind stranger because it was impossible to think that her real family could have left her, or that they might all be dead.

"I guess it's possible," Seifer said, surprising her. "Crazier shit has happened. And this guy sure as hell seems like to you, too. Right? If he wants to be your family, and you want him to be…then do it."

"You don't think it's a little weird?" she asked. "I mean, what am I supposed to do? Walk up to him and say, will you be my daddy?"

"Sure. He'll either say yes, and you'll live happily ever after. Or he'll say no, and you'll go back to Garden. Right?"

The way Seifer saw the world, marked by clear contrasts, was usually something that frustrated Quistis. He didn't always seem aware of the gray areas that she lived her life in. But maybe, she thought as she sat next to him, a little bit of his kind of black and white in her life could be a good thing. This was something she wanted. And she'd never been shy about going after what she wanted before. Maybe she needed to stop questioning the concept of family and just just seize the opportunity.

"You could inherit the place when the old man goes tits up," Seifer said suddenly and laughed. "Can you imagine? The place'd be overflowing with goddamned Trepies."

"Well, I'd hire you as my bouncer," she replied. "And Raijin could tend bar, maybe cook a little, too. Fujin could keep the books."

"And what are you going to do? Sit on your ass all day?"

"I'm only there to look pretty. I bring in the crowd, remember?"

She was relaxed and a little buzzed from the champagne. But she was aware that their teasing had a new quality to it: a future. They would know each other forever now.

"You know, having Vidar in my head," Seifer said, his voice low and quiet, "knocked a few memories loose. Some about the war — Ultimecia. And some about my parents."

Quistis had to force herself not to turn and look at him; she didn't want to spook him. "Your parents?"

"In Esthar. They were…uh…politicians, I think. They worked with Adel. Funny, right? Fucking ironic. I remember them a little bit though. We lived in this huge high rise apartment. You could see the whole damn city out the windows. But my parents weren't around much. Always off doing something. And I'd see them once in a while on TV. I really remember seeing them on TV."

Quistis leaned her head against his shoulder.

"Thing is what I don't remember. Normal things like…I dunno…meals together? Or playing with my dad? It's all just blank. Like it was always just me and some holographic, TV image of them. And I don't know if I just don't remember, or if they really didn't give a damn."

"I'm sure they loved you," Quistis said. "You were their son. How couldn't they?"

"I don't know. But I remember some of the orphanage, too. And it was a whole different world. I know that for sure."

"There were some good times at the orphanage," Quistis said, not quite sure what to make of what he'd told her.

"I know. They were all good to me…beating up Chicken Wuss, swimming, climbing." He puffed out a sigh and added, in a quieter voice full of affection, "Matron."

Under the water, Quistis put her hand on his thigh and felt him relax.

They each had a second glass of champagne before getting out of the hot tub. Quistis dried off with Seifer's shirt and he pulled his boxers back on long enough to walk back through the kitchen and up the stairs to his bedroom. Quistis followed, lightheaded and pleased with her life.

His room didn't look how she'd imagined it. It was surprisingly neat, everything put away and organized, not a lot of knick-knacks sitting around and no pictures on the walls. The bed wasn't made, but it wasn't messy either. There was something Quistis had always found intrinsically inviting and comfortable about a man's bed. She blamed that feeling, the champagne, and her wet underwear for why Seifer effortlessly maneuvered her into his. But there was something else, too. Late that night, she felt it folding over her as she drifted off to sleep, the wall at her back and Seifer right beside her.

It wasn't love. Not yet.

But maybe someday, she thought with a sigh, it could be.

0 0 0

Thirst woke Quistis up early the next morning. She tried to ignore it by wetting her lips, swallowing, and burrowing further under the covers. But soon she couldn't stay in bed any longer. Seifer didn't notice as she climbed over him, grabbed his shirt from the night before off the floor, and pulled it on.

In the kitchen, she fished a glass out of one of the cupboards and filled it from the tap. She looked out the window as she drank at the sky tinged yellow with early dawn and the neighboring houses, all built in the same quaint style. Dollet really was a nice place to live.

She left her cup in the sink and started up the stairs back to Seifer's bedroom, meaning to get back into bed next to him and while away the morning in her dreams. But as she got to the top of the stairs, Fujin's door opened.

Dr. Shipey froze in the doorway when he saw Quistis.

"Um…" He smiled too big. "Hi."

He was holding his shoes in one hand, and through the open neck of his mostly unbuttoned shirt, Quistis could see a crescent shaped bruise that was either a bite mark or a very serious hickey.

"Hi," Quistis replied.

"I was just leaving," he explained quickly and shut Fujin's door. "I've got to get back to Deling City. I've got an…um…a class. They've rehired me, did you know? Since the finds in Centra and all. Well…" He trailed off, then adjusted his glasses and gestured to Quistis. "I can see you're busy. I won't keep you."

"Right. Okay."

They turned away from one another, the awkwardness a palpable force pushing them apart, urging Quistis back into the safety of Seifer's bedroom.

Then the front door opened.

And before Quistis and Dr. Shipey could get out of each other's way, both desperate not to touch the other in the confines of the narrow hallway, Raijin appeared at the bottom of the stairs. He was dressed from head to toe in fishing gear: green waders, a net over one shoulder, and even wearing a floppy hat with hooks pushed through the brim.

He stared up at them and dropped his tackle box. Quistis pulled Seifer's shirt down as far as she could to cover herself up and tried to pretend that she wasn't blushing.

"What?" someone else asked, and a moment later Zell appeared next to Raijin, dressed in the same elaborate fishing get-up.

"Zell!" Quistis stepped behind Dr. Shipey. "What are you doing here?"

"Me?" His eyes were huge. "I went fishing with Raij." He held up a bit of line that three still wet fish were hanging from. One was oozing slime. "How come you're here?"

Zell looked up at Raijin for some explanation. The other man groaned and threw his arms up in the air.

"I'm done, ya know?" He snatched the fish from Zell and turned to walk into the kitchen, grumbling, "All these damn secrets! A guy can't keep them all!"

Zell looked up the stairs at Quistis one more time before following him, and as they vanished into the kitchen together, she heard him whisper in amazement, "Oh my God. You knew that Quistis has been sleeping with Dr. Shipey?"

Before anyone else arrived in time to see her in Seifer's underwear, Quistis ducked back into Seifer's bedroom. He was awake but hadn't bothered to get out of bed. "What's going on?" he asked and stretched his arms above his head. "Was that Chicken Wuss I heard? I swear to God, I told Raijin to stop bringing that asshole around here."

"Zell has been hanging around here?" she asked.

"Yeah. Him and Raij are all buddy-buddy now or something."

She climbed back into bed with him.

"If they're cooking, we're better off just staying up here," he said and pulled her close. "Trust me. Raij has been trying to teach the Wuss to cook, and it's damn ugly. Smells bad, too." Quistis sighed as he ran his fingers through her hair.

"Okay," she said and settled back against him, content for the moment to stay right where she was.

0 0 0

Centra was a place of pain for Squall. Everything there reminded him of Rinoa: the sunshine, the chirping desert birds, the scent of flowers in the air. He remembered much of what had happened. But he still couldn't pinpoint the exact moment when she had stopped being Rinoa and had become Hyne. Her appearance had never changed to him. Even in the tower in the Centran palace, when he'd climbed the stairs and found her dead, she'd been Rinoa — her black hair fanned out like a blood stain on the floor, her face pale and empty. In his dreams, that was what he saw. It was his last memory of her. And it ripped him apart to think that it was just a figment of Hyne's power.

So he was hesitant to get off the Balder when it landed in Centra near the monument the Galbadians and Balamb Garden had built to house Hyne's body. He was afraid that now the spell would have worn off and he would see what Rinoa had really become.

He didn't want to remember her as Hyne. Just Rinoa.

Ever since he'd woken up in the hospital in Esthar, he'd wondered if he could have done anything to save her. Had she asked him for help and he hadn't been able to hear? And he wondered how the end had finally come — whether she was still there, locked inside what her body had become, when Seifer had charged up the stairs and split her in half.

"Come on, Squall." Laguna put a hand on his back. "They're waiting for us."

They walked down the exit ramp together. A large crowd had gathered, reporters and media kept outside a roped off area from behind which they were flashing pictures and speaking into cameras with large, bulbous microphones.

Laguna had shown Squall some schematics for the monument, but this was the first time he'd seen it in person. Although he didn't like the idea of something being built for Hyne and would have rather mourned on his own, he had to admit that the building was impressive. It was white and gleaming in the sun, made out of polished rock and green, frosted glass. Two soldiers flanked the door: one Galbadian, one from Esthar. They nodded to Laguna and Squall as they passed through into the structure.

The first room was large and sunny. The walls were covered in glass cases that were filled with photographs, plaques, and personal mementos chronicling Rinoa's life. Rows of collapsible chairs were set up and filled with mourners. Everyone was dressed in black, contrasting sharply with the bright space.

"Squall." General Caraway stood up from his chair near the front. He'd grayed considerably since Squall had last seen him, and his cheeks were mottled with spots of red from his tears. "I'm glad you were able to make it."

Squall nodded.

"I saved you both a spot." Caraway gestured to the two empty seats next to him.

As Squall walked forward to sit down, he examined the crowd that had gathered, wondering who the people were that he didn't recognize and exchanging half-hearted greetings with those he did. Zone and Watts were there, along with several other people who Squall guessed were from the Timber Owls. Several high-ranking Galbadian officials were seated together also, right behind General Caraway, including President Krier. And on the other side of the room, a significant crowd from Balamb Garden had gathered.

Ellone was sitting beside Cid and Edea. Even the old Disciplinary Committee was there. Seifer was sitting beside Quistis, one arm slung across her shoulders.

Squall felt strange as he sat down. He'd never been to a funeral before. And the fact that everyone's attention seemed riveted on him made him uncomfortable.

The service was quick but heartfelt. Squall sat with his head down, not listening to most of what was said, afraid that thinking too hard about Rinoa might make him cry. And although he felt sure no one would say anything about it if he did, he didn't want to cry in public. Laguna reached over at one point and patted his shoulder. And then, when he wasn't sure he could take anymore, it was over.

He and General Caraway stood side by side to receive condolences personally as some sad song by Julia Heartilly played.

Everyone said the same thing: a brief "I'm so sorry" here and a "Let me know if there's anything I can do" there.

Selphie launched herself up into Squall's arms, a black beret flying off her head, and began sobbing with zest. Irvine carefully extracted her and settled her hat back on her head before guiding her out the door.

Quistis was more restrained, but she hugged him as well. And Seifer, who followed her, slapped Squall on the shoulder.

"I knew her, too, you know," he said. "It's not like I wanted to…"

"I know," Squall replied. "You did what you had to."

"Just don't think that it's your fault or anything," Seifer continued. "You put up one hell of a fight. Rinoa picked herself a damn good knight."

"Seifer…" Quistis grabbed his arm. "I don't think that's what Squall wants to hear right now."

"No. It's okay," Squall replied.

Seifer's acknowledgement that he'd played his part as Rinoa's knight well, better than anyone else could have, eased his guilt somewhat. His only real failure had been in not being able to honor her last wish. Rinoa had always said it would be okay if someone killed her if she started to go bad, so long as that person was Squall. Even when he'd promised her that he would, he'd known that he couldn't. So he was glad that, at least in some respect, Seifer had been able to honor her request and release her from Hyne's grip.

"See," Seifer said and elbowed Quistis as they walked away. "Told you I have empathy."

After everyone had said their piece and filed out, only Squall, Laguna, and General Caraway remained.

"Ready to go?" Laguna asked.

Squall shook his head. "Could I have a minute or two alone?"

"Sure. I'll wait outside for you."

Laguna and Caraway walked out together, leaving Squall standing in the middle of the room, accompanied only by the smiling photographs of Rinoa on the walls. For the first time, he let himself look closely at them. There were pictures of her from when she was a baby, snuggled in the arms of her mother Julia. And there were photos of her as a little girl, fat-cheeked, wearing ribbons in her dark hair. Time flowed around the room and she aged until his eyes reached the last photo on the right. It was of her standing next to the Balamb Garden directory, framed above the folded uniform that she'd gotten as an honorary SeeD after the Ultimecia mission.

Turning around, he climbed a few steps toward the back of the room and opened the door to the tomb. The room was dark and small with no windows. A huge casket sat in the middle, sunk halfway into the floor. The Galbadians had put the last bits of Hyne's body here, and tomorrow it was going to be sealed with concrete. If he was going to look, he knew he had to do it now. And though he didn't want to, he couldn't imagine spending the rest of his life wondering.

The lid was heavy and difficult to move on his own. With all his weight against it, he managed to scrape an opening large enough to see in with the light from the open door behind him.

He wasn't sure what he was expecting. A monster maybe? Bits of bone and flesh and bat wings?

But he wasn't expecting to see Rinoa's face, pale and in flawless. Her lips were slightly parted as if waiting for breath. And her eyelashes spread elegant crescents across her cheeks.

Squall dropped to his knees, holding onto the edge of the coffin with one arm, and stared at her, not sure if Hyne's spell was still acting on him or, if after so many weeks, Rinoa's body had finally returned to its real form. He reached out with one hand and brushed his knuckle gently down her cheek to her chin. She was cold and still.

"I'm sorry I couldn't save you," he told her quietly.

In the privacy of her tomb, he relaxed the band of restraint he'd closed around his heart and let it bleed. It ached for her, for the future that they could have had and the bleak one lying before him now.

"And I want you to know," he continued, "that we all forgive you. Okay? For everything Hyne did." He paused, put his forehead down against his arm. "And for leaving me behind. I forgive you. And I love you."

He raised his head again to look at her, wanting to take in everything about her so that he could remember her clearly for the rest of his days.

"Bye, Rinoa."

Too weak to move the lid back and hesitant to cover up her face when she still looked so alive, he left the coffin ajar and turned to walk out. The sunlit memorial, still full of the happy memories everyone had gathered to share, waited for him. He stopped a few steps from the doorway, something strange prickling at his mind. It was an old feeling, an electrical shiver. He reached out with one hand and felt it spearing up from the earth — magic. Fisting his hand in the long tendrils of power, he pulled them up into his body until he could make out what he'd found.

Life.

As he pulled the last of the magic from the draw point, he thought he heard a rush in his head, something snapping and ruffling. The sound settled into a steady whomp, whomp. He froze. Was that…?

He turned, and his heart soared with sublime relief and pure, unfettered love.

It was.

Angel wings.

End Notes

First and foremost, I would like to thank my beta, Zachere, who has taught me more in the past few months about writing than I have learned on my own in the past few years. It has been an honor to work with her. And this story is immeasurably better thanks to her involvement.

I would also like to extend my gratitude to meandering_mynd, who sat with me through countless nights of writerly induced angst. It's more than I would ask of any friend.

And everyone who has ever been a member of the Seiftis Forever message board should receive my thanks here as well. Seifer and Quistis came to me at the best possible moment in my life, and they brought with them a fantastic group of people who gave me a wonderful place to learn and grow. I hope you're all well, wherever you are.

Now, a bit of credit where credit is due:

1) Dr. Shipey is loosely based on Dr. Thomas Shipey, the noted Medievalist and Tolkien scholar - you may have seen him on the Lord of the Rings DVD's. I'm very, very sorry for this, Dr. Shipey.

2) I've made numerous references to the Mana games, also by Square including: Duran from Forcena, the concept of God Beasts, and the names of several Galbadian ships (the Rolante & the Hawkeye).

3) I have also alluded to quoted the poems "The Second Coming" by William Butler Yeats and "Dover Beach" by Matthew Arnold whenever possible. They provided much of the framework for my imagery through this whole story.

4) My mythology is largely a conglomeration of two real mythologies: Norse and Gnostic. From Norse mythology, I have drawn the names of all my Estharan air ships (Heimdall, Balder, etc.), Vidar, Jormangand, Fenrir, berserkers, and several bits and pieces of the Ragnarok as described in the Edda's. From Gnosticism (a second century Christian movement), I have drawn the concept of multiple heavens, divine emanations, aeons, archons, an omnipresent and unknowable god, and my title.

5) Likewise, my history is a combination of information gleaned from in game tutorials (such as the legend of Vascaroon and the colonization of Esthar and Dollet by Centra) and real life historical places. The catacombs in Dollet were based off of those in Rome and Paris. The tomb of Hyne was based off that of the fist Qin Emporer in China. And the temple city in the Centran desert was inspired by the Roussanou Monastery in Greece.

And now, at long last, my story is done. It's sill not quite what I had hoped it would be, and a mild revision is on the way. I knew when I started working on this (three years ago!), that this was going to be my last piece of Final Fantasy 8 fan fiction. After writing the same characters for eight years, I think I've finally said all that I have to say. I hope you've enjoyed reading my stories as much as I've enjoyed writing them.

Much love,
Ms Starlight