It was only a minute later that a low groan drew their attention. "Ugh…" It was Cid, and he was just waking up, struggling to orient his arms under his torso so he could get to his feet.
Leon walked over and bent down to help his older friend. "Hey, take it easy."
"Since when have I ever #$%&in' taken it easy, Leon?" Cid growled as the younger man hoisted him to his feet. Cid brushed the younger man off once he found his footing. "Y' wanna help, then get off mah back! Now fuck off!"
"Ahem!" The sound of a throat being cleared made Cid raise his head fully. He found a young woman in blue standing right in front of him with a ticked-off expression on her face, tapping her foot.
Needless to say, Cid was baffled. "Uhh…" He looked over at Leon. "Who's the chick?"
Rinoa harrumphed and an angry blush flushed her cheeks. "Chick?" she said sharply. It was almost a snarl.
Leon felt he was being sandwiched between a rock and a hard place; he rubbed his scar to ward off the impending 'sweatdrop moment'. "Cid," he finally said with a patience he did not feel, "this is Rinoa. Rinoa, this is Cid. You remember him, right?"
Rinoa nodded, her expression still stern, her fists still planted on her hips. "I see his smart mouth still hasn't changed, huh?"
Cid frowned. Waaaiiit a minute… He blinked again and his right eyebrow rose in increments as memories of this girl began to come back. Then he shuffled a bit, readjusting his flight goggles-feeling a little awkward for once-and rubbed his neck apologetically. "Heh…It's been a damn long while, huh, Rinny?" he finally remarked.
Rinoa's reaction was surprising. A smile growing quickly on her face, she stepped forward and hugged the aging pilot. Cid went ramrod straight in surprise. "Whuh-?"
"Oh, Cid, you're such a big softy! And you're just getting softer with age. How've you been?"
Cid rubbed his chin stubble as she stepped away. "Eh, been fine, 'cept I had'ta quit smokin' an' my mouth got toned down by a flower girl with a goddamn swear jar." Rinoa giggled. Cid scowled and went on. "Been helpin' Leon get the place fixed up-"
Rinoa frowned—the name change was news to her. "Leon?"
Cid nodded and jerked a thumb at the guy next to him. Rinoa gave 'Leon' a quizzical look, but he shook his head. "I'll explain later," he murmured.
Cid harrumphed. "Anyway, the town's been needin' some major repairs n' all, so a bunch of us made this, er…city Restoration Committee o' sorts. A buncha my old pals from my younger days, plus Mr. Doom-n'-Gloom over there." He jerked his chin at Leon, who rolled his eyes.
"Really…" Rinoa folded her arms for a moment, tossing her boyfriend an endearing look. "Well, anyways…" She turned away from Cid, who looked a little chagrined about not getting to explain the Committee further until Rinoa told him, "How about you tell us all about that later, Cid. Is that all right?"
Cid brightened. "Yup! That's jes' dandy, you betcha! We've got a lotta intel to catch up on, though…" He paused. "Wait, whaddaya mean by 'us'?"
Rinoa tried to hide a giggle. "Please. You really don't think I'd ever be able to fly that huge ship all by myself, now, would you?" she inquired, pointing at the massive dragon-like airship looming over them. Leon was a bit taken by surprise when she grabbed his arm as she headed for the ramp. "Come on!"
"Wait a second…"
"No excuses! There's people who're dying to see you again!"
A faint gleam came into Leon's eyes. "What?"
Rinoa touched the corner of her mouth in a lively, teasing way as she smiled. "You'll see."
They had just reached the underbelly of the massive airship when a shout from the head of the ramp made them glance up. Leon's eyes widened. "Laguna?! Ellone?!"
Moments later a slim, middle-aged man with long, greying black hair ran down the ramp toward them, his eyes aglow with relief. Right behind him was a slightly shorter young woman with bob-cut brown hair, wearing a blue knit vest, a white skirt, and a green shawl that lay draped over her forearms. "Squall!" Laguna grabbed the gunblade wielder in a bonecrushing hug before Leon could even begin to react.
Leon blinked. Unsure how to go about this, he managed to say, "Dad…"
Laguna Loire stepped back after a second to look his son up and down. "Heh, you've gone and grown up on me, haven't ya?" he said. His voice was full of an ageless energy that made him sound a lot younger than his fifty years. He wore a well-worn blue jacket, brown combat-issue pants and black boots that still fit after years of wandering the worlds. Settled on a strap across his back was Laguna's trusty, battered-looking machine gun, along with a few other 'tools of the trade'.
Leon swallowed and managed to nod once. "You could say that," he admitted. He turned to the young woman—his adoptive older sister, only a few years older than he. "Sis…" he managed.
Ellone's eyes shone. "Come here..." She pulled him into a hug that showed her strength despite her slight figure.
Laguna was oblivious to this and turned around to yell up the ramp. "Hey, come on down, everybody! He's here!"
And Leon found himself swamped as three more people ran down the ramp and engulfed him in one big reunion hug. He managed to extricate himself quickly and took in the sight of the people around him in awe and surprise.
"Irvine…?"A tall, long-haired cowboy sporting a shotgun and dressed in a ragged-hemmed tan duster, a black shirt and blue vest, brown chaps over black trousers, and a battered black cowboy hat grinned as his name was uttered.
"Quistis…" A woman with long blond hair down either side of her face and the rest up in a clip set high in the back nodded. She wore glasses, and wore a dark pink jacket/skirt ensemble worn over black pants and boots. A chain whip lay coiled at her right hip. She was only a year older than Leon was, but she acted older. "Still to the point, eh, Squall?" she asked, a small smile tugging at her lips.
He ignored this. "Zell…? Oh, great." Zell Dincht, SeeD martial artist extraordinaire, loud and brash-with a head of hair spiked to nearly rival Cloud's and a large tribal-style tattoo sprawled across the left side of his face-grinned at first, but then he scowled and folded his arms when his old friend's added remark registered.
"Thanks a ton, Squall…" he muttered.
Leon chuckled. "I was kidding, Zell."
Zell's reaction was one of gobsmacked disbelief. The others also looked a bit taken aback. Behind Leon, Cid was grinning from ear to ear. "Guys…? Did…did I just make Squall Leonheart…laugh?" Zell spluttered, looking at each of his friends.
"I'd say that's the case," Laguna remarked, awkwardly rubbing the back of his head. "You okay, son?" he asked with a smile on his face.
"He's fine," Rinoa remarked before Leon could get a word in edgewise. Leon blushed. Rinoa…you're doing it again, he thought. "He's just not sure whether this is all just a dream." She smiled up at him as sweet as could be. "Isn't that right?"
You know I'm ri-ight, she sent in a sing-song tone through their bond, which, he could sense, was already starting to strengthen itself.
Leon stared at her for a full three seconds before he ducked his head away. "Whatever…"
Rinoa gaped at him before she stomped her foot in almost-outrage. "Meanie!" she whined.
That did it. He couldn't hide his wry smile any longer as his old friends-his almost-family, really-began to laugh at Rinoa's trademark outburst.
"Okay, fine. This can't be a dream." He looked up and smiled, but then he frowned. "Wait. Where's Selphie?"
The others shifted. "We can't find her anywhere," Rinoa said, her expression downcast. "We figured she's either dead or just…gone."
Leon winced, but then something occurred to him. "…Didn't she vanish before the battle even happened?"
Irvine shifted in thought. "Yeah, you're right…"
Leon was on a roll. "Right around the time that little girl from around here disappeared."
"She was out babysitting her, I think. A part-time job," Quistis remarked.
"So she's still alive. Maybe." Leon sighed in relief. "Good." He'd come too close to losing everyone once. Giving up hope on Selphie again would be stupid. Then Cid cleared his throat loudly and snapped them back to the moment.
"Get yer head outta yer ass an' outta the fuckin' clouds, already!" he drawled, loud and even more brash than Zell. He swaggered forward and offered brusque handshakes. "Y'all remember me, don'tcha? Cid Highwind, at your service!" He and Laguna traded a particularly firm and friendly one, both men grinning at each other.
"We took real good care of her, Cid."
"Ain't that dandy. Y'all hadn't and I'd be throwin' ya inta the damn thrusters! And then I'd drag y'all back from hell jes' ta kill ya agin!"
Laguna chuckled. "I'll bet."
Quistis smiled politely at Cid as she shook his hand. "It's good to see you again, Captain."
Cid chuckled. "Hey, finally; a woman who remembers a guy's rank 'round here!" he said warmly. "How ya doin', Quiss?" Leon noted that—even Cid respected the young SeeD instructor.
"Well enough, thanks."
Cid was just about finished when footsteps approached the shadow of the Ragnarok. Leon turned to see Cloud approaching. The young fighter was looking a bit dazed and more than a little confused, dragging his huge sword with him. The grate of metal on metal was faint but constant, and he saw Irvine staring at Cloud in surprise at how the man was even lifting such an enormous weapon, especially when he was injured.
"What's going on?" Cloud asked. Then he stumbled and winced, putting a hand to the back of his head in pain, keeping the other arm taut.
Leon went over to help, but was waved off by the blond swordsman. "Here." He handed Cloud a potion bottle.
Cloud was about to uncork it when Rinoa came over and lay a hand on his arm gently. "Let me help."
Cloud looked up and blinked. "Tifa?" he asked, his voice going very soft. Leon turned away to hide his awkward look. That put a twist on things.
Rinoa giggled. "Nope; I'm Rinoa."
A small shifting of expression was Cloud's only display of reaction, but he managed to convey gratitude and recognition in that single look. "Cloud Strife," he replied. "Yeah, I remember you."
At a questioning look from the sorceress he nodded wordlessly. Rinoa laid both hands on him before the customary Cure glow emanated from her. "Heal." The glow shifted and settled on Cloud after a moment, drifting across and into his injuries.
Cloud heaved a sigh of relief as the pain went away, and he flipped his sword up and over his shoulder, letting it catch on the magnet he'd fixed up to use as a harness. "Thanks."
Rinoa nodded and left to rejoin the rest; Cloud turned to Leon. "Who're they?" he asked, looking over Leon's shoulder.
"Old friends," Leon replied, "and family. From the left, that's Irvine, Quistis, Laguna, Ellone, and Zell."
Cloud nodded by way of a greeting. "Hey."
Irvine tipped his hat to the young ex-SOLDIER. The others waved, but it was Zell who dropped a bit of a bomb on the seriousness of it all. His eyes wide, Zell stared at the huge sword on Cloud's back before saying, "How the heck do you use that thing, dude?!" in a rather loud tone of voice.
Chuckling greeted this question as Cloud stared at him blankly. Leon facepalmed. "Zell…" Will you just shut up for once in your life…? he thought.
"I'm ex-SOLDIER," Cloud said. He shrugged. "Sort of."
The others left hastily, retreating back up into the airship to avoid the spectacle that might follow. Zell pumped a fist. "Far out! That's cool!" He turned as Quistis called for him and ran up into the Ragnarok. Rinoa and Laguna, who'd both lingered, went up right after him.
"Is he always like that?" Cloud asked Leon in an undertone, leaning over a bit.
Leon lowered his hand just enough to mumble, "Don't ever give him coffee."
Cloud chuckled softly as he glanced back at Zell. "He…reminds me of Zack."
"No surprise there…" Leon muttered. He let his hand drop away and folded his arms. 'Loud' was only one way to describe Zell. "Remind me never to let those two meet," he added as the thought made him shudder.
Cloud smirked in reply. "No kidding. Zack was the king of pranks in SOLDIER."
"Hey, you two! Quit dawdling and come help!" The SeeD Commander and the ex-SOLDIER glanced up. Rinoa was waving them over.
Leon sighed. She's still the same after so long…damn. But it was a good 'damn'. He looked off at the accent-lighted turrets and towers of Radiant Garden's outer wall and the castle beyond, feeling rather pensive. The massive place towered over the airstation from a safe and close distance like a gentle, wounded and recovering sentinel. So much has changed, he thought, but a lot's still the same.
A faint command followed by a sudden bark echoed from the ship as Leon and Cloud headed up the ramp, and there followed the distant, approaching skitter of scampering paws. Leon had just enough time to brace himself as he reached the top before a brown and white Border collie with a stumpy tail pounced on him, jumping up, almost reaching his face, wriggling like a puppy and practically yelping for joy. He endured the slobber-fest for a moment before he could get a word in. "Angelo, hey! Down, girl, down!" He got another happy yelp and a good licking for his troubles. "Hey; down," he repeated sternly. So Angelo made it out, too, he mused as Angelo calmed down enough to let him bend down and give her a good rub behind the ears. He glanced up: Cloud was trying hard not to laugh. "You tell Yuffie and you're dead at our next sparring match, Strife."
"Wouldn't dream of it." For once, Cloud was perfectly serious.
"A-ngelo! C'mere, girl!" The dog leapt up and ran over to Rinoa, who'd been waiting a short distance away. Leon rose to his feet and folded his arms, watching as Rinoa crouched down and gave her faithful friend a good rubdown, cooing her usual "Aren't you a good girl, huh? Yeah…!" and other such praises while Angelo enjoyed every single minute of it, her tongue lolling in a doggy grin. If he didn't know better he would have sworn the dog threw a snooty "Rinoa-loves-me-best" look his way.
He smirked and looked around to take in the sight of the main hold of the Ragnarok. Eleven years, and it had barely changed at all. Slightly dim lights, red, white, tan and black color accents along with the usual metal…yep. Same old ship.
"Where is everyone?" Cloud asked, getting straight to the point.
Rinoa glanced up from petting Angelo. "They're probably up in the passenger's quarters packing everything." She grinned sheepishly. "Everyone, um, kind of…collected a lot of stuff while we were gone."
"I can imagine…" Leon remarked with a teasing glance. They proceeded up the stairs. Cloud trailed slightly behind and listened like an intense but benign shadow, not speaking but for the occasional time when Rinoa or Leon directed a question at him as they wound their way through the Ragnarok. They'd almost reached the passenger compartment when Rinoa dropped the mother of all non sequiters on their conversation.
"So, who's this Sora kid I've been hearing about?"
Leon stared at her in outright disbelief. Cloud raised an eyebrow, and Leon turned and glared at the blond SOLDIER. "Strife?"
"Yeah?" Cloud put on his usual distant face.
Leon kept his glare on full bore; he wasn't fooled. "Shut it."
Rinoa gave a laugh of her own at Cloud's scowl and retort of, "I didn't say anything."
"Come on," she said. "Let's see what the rest are up to, shall we?"
The door past the lift up to the cockpit led into the passenger section. Rinoa keyed the open door button while glancing back at them. "Well?"
Leon feigned disinterest. "Where'd you hear about him?"
Rinoa screwed up her face in thought as the door hissed open. "Um…this place called, uhh…" She paused for a long moment to think before her face brightened as she remembered. "Oh! This place called Wonderland, for one." She shuddered. "Boy, that place was weird. And…Olympus or something…"
"The Coliseum?" Leon and Cloud asked at the same time.
Rinoa nodded. " You've been there?"
"Yeah." Leon folded his arms. "I've been there a few times. Why did I never hear about you being there? I asked around for months and no one knew."
Rinoa just grinned. "Well, I only went there about a year ago." She frowned and hit the button when the door tried to slide shut again. "Funny…I ran into a few people in long black coats."
"Long black coats?"
"Yeah." Rinoa went into the passenger compartment, speaking over her shoulder. Leon and Cloud followed. "This one guy named Axel looked just like that one guy around town." ("Lea?" Leon asked. She nodded.) "He even acted like Lea." She paused. "Weird, huh?"
"Mm." Leon pulled her to one side once inside the door, while Cloud went past to help pack up. He met her eyes with a steely look. "Rin, that was Organization XIII. They were a group of Nobodies who were trying to use Sora's power. You were lucky you weren't hurt."
"So?" She pointed at herself. "Remember; you're looking at a Sorceress here, Squall."
He sighed. "Whatever." He decided to disregard the miffed expression on her face. It usually just means some childish form of payback, if memory served correctly. "Look, the Committee found out that the Organization was founded by the Nobody of Xehanort. King Mickey Mouse told us. He was…nervous."
Rinoa gasped. Even with the powers she possessed, she knew all about Xehanort, the man who'd reduced her home to ruins. But she instinctively understood that he was not a force to be taken lightly. At all. King Mickey…well, she'd seen him, before the Garden even fell. The rumors of a small mouse-like visitor from another world had abounded for weeks until Merlin finally dragged her up to Ansem's office to meet the diminutive monarch. Even now the memory of the squeaky, wise little fellow who looked NOTHING like a king made her smile to herself.
That Mickey harbored fear of the man was warning enough. For a moment, she couldn't even find her voice through the shock. "Him?!"
Her Knight nodded. "He went by the name Xemnas." His scarred visage was grimmer than usual. "According to Sora, he had control over the essence of nothingness itself."
This time it was Cloud who spoke. "He wasn't called the Superior for no reason."
Processing the information as Squall—well, Leon, anyway-relayed her the details, Rinoa realized just how lucky she had been not to meet the more…unscrupulous members of the Organization. Her knees locked and a wave of nausea washed over her. She barely registered Squall's hands on her shoulders as she managed to plop down in a nearby seat, hugging herself instinctively as her stomach roiled and churned. Her friends gathered around, but that didn't distract her, not even when Squall sent them off. Before she could fully break down, however, a gentling rumble of power echoed through her mind and she felt the presence of a familiar summon—Griever; the Guardian only she and Squall could summon. The winged lion's voice echoed in her mind like tamed thunder. Ease your fears, Lady Rinoa. Fate favored you and your companions; be grateful for this. Do not dwell upon what might have come to pass.
Don't. The unique summon almost sounded like a stern instructor. The very thought gave her the sudden absurd urge to giggle. The very thought of the massive summon attempting to teach a group of shaking SeeD and SOLDIER cadets about anything made for a very…amusing scene.
The summon did not comment on the strange scene playing in Rinoa's mind. He seemed almost sympathetic. I understand your fears. Rinoa frowned in confusion as her train of thought broke off. What does he mean by that? she wondered. Griever seemed to find this a bit morbidly amusing. Even summons such as I feel emotions, unlike most of the group that Knight Lion-heart speaks of.
Griever gave a rumble. The ones you encountered were…different. He did not elaborate further and quietly departed from her thoughts.
She looked up into Squall's face. "Rin?" he asked.
She smiled tremulously. Whenever the summon wished to speak to one of them alone, he usually occupied much of their attention. "Griever." His face eased at the explanation.
"What'd he say?"
"Not to worry about what might've happened. That's all. 'K?"
He grunted in reply.
Rinoa fidgeted. The question she'd asked earlier was still nagging in the back of her mind. Finally, she asked, "Who's Sora, again?"
"Sora's what they call the Keyblade's chosen one." Rinoa recognized the name immediately and a look of awed surprise spread across her face. "Don't know why, don't know how, but he is," Leon went on, "and everybody here owes him for getting rid of Maleficent. He took the last of the Organization down a few weeks ago."
"Oh." They stood in silence for another moment while Rinoa processed the information. Then she looked up with a smile. "Hey…you searched for me. That's all that matters, okay?" Leon sighed. Wonderful, she can sense what I'm feeling again…ah, well. He nodded wordlessly. Rinoa tugged him out of the corner. "Come on; let's get all this stuff out so we can go home."
Leon glanced at his watch while the others looked up at him. "Rin, it's going on one o'clock. Now isn't the time." He lowered his arm and made a quick decision. Turning to everyone else he raised his voice, shifting into "Commander Mode" (as his friends both old and new called it.) "Listen up. It's getting late and the town needs to settle in for the night, so everyone needs to bring only what you know you have to have with you." He nodded at Quistis. "Quistis, you're in charge of the meds. Bring as many healing items as you can. Zell," he said, turning slightly, "I'm guessing you flew this thing, so run the shutdown procedures, then pack up. Irvine, Laguna," he turned to the two gunslingers next, "you two will guard the ship until we're done. Keep an eye out for monsters." He leveled a warning glare at Laguna. "Cloud, Cid and I will help with the packing; Rinoa, Ellone, you bring what you think everyone will need for an overnight stay. We clear?"
Sharp nods were the reply. Leon sighed. "I said, are we clear?" he repeated forcefully. The SeeD salutes he got from his old friends—plus a more nod and a grin from Rinoa, a half-cocked, folded-arm grin and a fist-pump from Cid, and an instinctive SOLDIER salute from Cloud-was enough for him. "All right. Let's go."
To be continued...
A/N:Been kinda busy lately so it might be a while before I can get the next chapter up. Shout outs: Thanks a ton to my beta readers Rhino7, M.L. Alaya and WishingDreamer5! You people warm my already-flaming heart!
Until next Chapter, folks!