Am I a Lion?
It took a little longer to reach the crest of the hill than it normally did.
Every year, it was a little bit harder. Each step a little smaller and a little more painful.
Squall paused to catch his breath. He looked up at an old decrepit signpost which seemed to have existed longer than time itself.
He inhaled and took a step, then another, making his slow way up to the top. As he reached it, an old brick cottage came into view.
It was beautiful, if not for the fact that various vines and creepers had, like green veins, made themselves part of its red and white walls, obscuring the wood-framed windows from the bright sun. The thatched roof still appeared as strong and solid as ever, but it was covered with the golden hues of autumn leaves, blown there by the cold sea winds which swept over the Winhill Bluffs.
The simple garden in front of the cottage was already overgrown with weeds, the soil looked dull and white, long drained of anything useful.
On this occasion, as he did in so many others past, Squall paused, then closed his eyes.
The dry gravel of the pathway through the garden crunched under his boots as he made his way to the front door. Their front door. The one he had made from the strongest tree in Grandidi forest. He had carved it, carefully and painstakingly, until Grieverís profile formed itself in the dark, rich wood.
Squall allowed his hand to trace the outline of Grieverís mane, then he reached inside his jacket and pulled out a small pouch. From this, he withdrew a tarnished silver necklace which had been threaded through two rings and a key.
With a slightly shaking hand, he unlocked the door and pushed it open, the sound of rusty metal grinding against itself breaking the silence.
The welcoming warmth of the cottage brushed against him as the door opened to a cosy, carpeted room. Crushed flowers and dried wood left a comforting scent in the air. As he stepped through the entrance, she was already there, a skip in her step, a smile on her face. Then her arms were around his neck, pulling him close to herÖ
Squall blinked and looked at the dusty floor. The colours of the carpet were now dulled by the thickening layer of dust which had fallen over the years and the air was stale and dry. As he walked, the dust rose in a little cloud which seemed to hover at his feet and follow his every step.
As he walked into the entrance hallway, he passed in front of a long golden-lined mirror.
Every year a little older, he thought as he walked closer to it.
An old, grey haired man looked back at him through the reflective surface. As he walked closer still, he could see the dark lines around the drawn, tired eyes. Eyes that had seen far more than he cared to remember. And, of course, he saw the scar. A faded relic of an age gone by. Just like he was.
He walked slowly to one of the vine covered windows which faced the garden. He stared at it, as if he could see out beyond the garden, to the distant fields and, beyond that, to the sea.
"Youíll wear a hole in the glass if you keep looking at it like that."
He felt delicate arms wrap around his waist from behind him, and a cheek rest against his back.
"Thereís still so much that needs to be done out there. I canít just..."
"...just what? Sit here? Be with me? Youíve given them years of your life, Squall. How much more must we give up? The world is a safer place now, because youíve sacrificed so much to make it that way. Canít you just stop fighting?"
He remained silent.
"After so long, itís still all you know, isnít it?" she asked with a sigh.
"Itís just what Iíve been trained to do."
"No," he felt her let go of him and walk away, "itís what youíre afraid of giving up."
Even after Ultimacia, it was still difficult for him to be anything other than a soldier. The world had needed him and he had kept following his own self-created duty. It was what he had trained all his life to do, and even with his new-found self, it was difficult to change so quickly.
But she had helped himÖshe had helped him to slowly let go. And even though it had taken years, she was there, at the end of every day and at the end of it all, to stand by him and make each step easier.
Squall moved away from the window and walked up a small flight of steps to the living room. It had never been anything other than tastefully simple. An old discoloured sofa, a low wooden table and a few chairs. He sat on the sofa and picked up a yellowed issue of Timber Maniacs which lay upon it, throwing up a small cloud of dust which choked him for awhile and made him cough a little longer than he would have, in the past.
"Should I do what my father did?" he asked, a Timber Maniacs Issue on his lap.
She looked a little surprised at such a spontaneous thought. "Youíd look effeminate with your hair like that." she replied with a grin.
He glared at her, "Travel. Drop everything. The Gardens. The trainingÖleave it all behind and just...go."
She giggled, like she used to when she was younger, with her hand over her mouth, a bright silver ring shining from a finger, identical to the one which Squall wore as well. She walked over to him and bent over, grinning.
"Youíre not like that. Youíre not afraid of dealing with the people who love you, and you certainly donít have to go anywhere for an adventure." She said, pushing him down on the sofa.
He opened his eyes and realised that he had drifted off to sleep. It had been a long walk up the hill, and he had been tired. His leg had not made it any easier having never completely recovered from a wound the cause of which he had long ago forgotten. Standing was generally a difficult task, and he winced as he picked himself off the sofa.
He made his way into a corridor, past the kitchen, and into the dining room. It wasnít large, because it did not need to be. As Squall walked around the room, he paused near a tall wooden cabinet and opened a drawer. Tarnished silverware.
"I said, Iím sorry."
"But youíre still going arenít you?" she didnít look up at him, she was still standing at the cabinet, selecting the cutlery for a dinner they were now not going to have.
"Please, I know I promised, but I canít turn Cid down. Iíve got to be at thisÖ"
"I donít give a damn about where youíve got to be!" She was already pale with anger, "you promised me, today of all days. You promised."
"Iíll make it up to you. I can take the rest of the week off."
"Squall, every year youíve done thisÖevery year. Iíve understood, Iíve kept my mouth shut because I know that there are some things that youíve got to do. But this time, this timeÖ," she turned around to face him, and he could see her eyes streaming with tears, "this time I draw the line. Five years, Squall. Five. In all those years, youíve never kept today once. I donít think itís unfair for me to be upset."
She paused as she stifled a soft sob in her throat.
"This time," she said, slowly, "youíve got to make a choice."
He hadnít understood. Not yet.
"Please, Iím sorry, it wonít be a long function, Iíll be home before..."
"Youíre...just like your father." She said, her voice breaking, as she threw something at him and ran out of the room.
He remembered looking down and seeing a small circlet of silver rolling around at his feet. He remembered feeling a chill in his heart, the likes of which he had never felt. He remembered grabbing the ring and running, in desperation, after her. He had caught up with her, and she had still been crying.
It was then that he had sworn to her that he would never, for any reason, ever be apart from her on that day, of all days, their anniversary. And he never broke that oath nor did he ever place his SeeD duties above her ever again. This had annoyed Cid and had caused problems with the Gardens, but somehow, that mattered less as time went by.
Closing the drawer, Squall left the dining room.
Their bedroom was a little more ornate than the rest of the cottage. It had a huge bed, with an extravagantly designed dresser facing it. Long forgotten brands of make up and perfume adorned the dresser, their opulent designs and vivid colours obscured by the dust which had settled there.
The air always seemed heavier in that room. It was always difficult being in there, but he walked past the bed, letting his hand drift above the sheets.
The taste of her lips.
He walked around, to one of the old pillows, and brushed the dust away from it.
The softness of her skin against his.
He held the pillow for a while, then placed it gently back on the bed, as if it would disintegrate into nothing if he treated it any less delicately.
A voice came from the guest room. "Squall, youíd better get over here if you want to be a part of this."
She had insisted on it being at home. Dr. Kadowaki had obliged happily.
As he walked down the corridor to the guest room, he could hear that it had started. He was quickly there, by her side, his hand in hers, wiping the perspiration on her forehead and keeping her hair out of her eyes.
It seemed like hours, which, of course, it was not, but at the end of it, the soft cries of their daughter filled the room.
He turned and saw a slight, lithe figure in the doorway.
"Do you need a little more time?"
He shook his head in response and smiled at her.
She walked up to him and hooked her arm in his, resting her head against his shoulder.
So much like her mother, yet possessed of the same seriousness of spirit that had made him so difficult a person in his youth. She wore the same Pinwheel which her mother had used so many years before and had the same long dark hair, as a certain princess once had.
He resisted as she pulled gently at his arm, but eventually allowed her to lead him out of the house and into the bright sunlight. He forgot his normal visit to the last room at the back of the house. The very last room where he kept something that, once upon a time, had been important to him, but which now seemed so insignificant.
"Squall, you scared her." She was holding onto their daughter, trying to comfort her, but Squall could still hear muffled sobs.
"I didnít know there was nothing out there! I had to be sure. What do you expect me to do, sit in here while somethingís moving around outside?"
"There is nothing left out there! You and the Gardens saw to that. When was the last time anybody was hurt by some creature? Do you remember when?"
"What if there was another Lunar Cry? It will happen again, it..."
"Itís not up to you anymore," She said, gently, "the Gardens are more prepared than theyíve ever been. All because of you. Please, leave it to them. We need you to take care of us, Squall, but not the same way. Not with that."
Squall looked at the weapon in his hand. It had recently become unfamiliar and distant, somehow. He remembered a time when it was an extension of his arm, when wielding it brought a sense of security and confidence and purpose.
He walked up the stairs, to the back of the house. There, he unhooked the catches of the only case that could contain the Lionheart. He placed the weapon on the cushioned foam interior and, without a second thought, closed the case and locked it forever.
They walked together, in silence, away from the house, further up a nearby hill, listening to the rustle of the wind against the grass and the distant cries of mammoth sea creatures at play, until they came within sight of a solitary bed of flowers.
Flowers that were not of Winhill, but of Centra. Of the Cape of Good Hope.
There she let go of his arm and stood back as he walked on.
As Squall reached the flowerbed, he slowly fell to his knees at a plaque which had been fixed in the ground. It was old and worn, but the metal shone brightly, as if it had been recently polished.
His eyes blurred with tears as he read the words on the plaque, not all of them, not the name on it. He had read the words so many times. So very many times. But they had never faded from the fire which burned his chest.
Iíll be waiting here
Iíll be waiting for you, so
If you come here,
Youíll find me.
He did not notice as his tears fell upon the words, flowing into the lettering of the embossed characters.
"Remember," she said, "remember weíre always there for you. Iíve told you before, but you have to know this and remember it."
She brushed some grey strands of hair away from her eyes and softly touched his cheek.
"Your friends and I will always be there for you, no matter where we are."
He had known that it was true then, and that it was still true now. His friends had always been with him, just as they had been there when time had mercilessly forced his life to move on.
But even with them, even with his beloved daughter, whom he adored, today was different.
On this day, the pain in his heart overwhelmed him and he held tightly on to the sides of the plaque as his tears continued to fall on it.
And then, as he had done every year before, he kissed the name which he could not bear to read.
The only name that had changed his life.
The name of his love.