"Falling Forever" by Luna Manar
Falling Forever
By Luna Manar


--

"How can you just leave me standing

  Alone in a world that’s so cold?

  Maybe I’m just too demanding

  Maybe I’m just like my father…"

  --

She was gone.

Just like that. One minute, she had been there, breathing, fighting alongside him. The next…

It wasn’t your fault, they had said to him. No one could have done anything for her. No one forced her to come. You aren’t responsible for this.

Aren’t I?

Squall stood over Rinoa’s comatose figure, waiting in silent agony for her to take her next breath. It was always like this when he came to see her. She breathed only every half-minute, and when she did, it was an almost surreptitious effort; one was left wondering if she had truly moved. Every thirty seconds were an eternity for Squall now, hoping, praying she would manage one more sustaining breath. Even when her chest rose ever so slightly to show that she was indeed still alive, the momentary relief Squall felt was tainted by the knowledge that he would have to stand watch again, counting his own breaths as he held desperately onto his dwindling hope.

He should have been on the bridge. He was the leader of SeeD now, and he had responsibilities. Everyone in the Garden was looking to him for strength, encouragement and direction. What good am I, he thought, if I don’t have any to begin with?

It was a question he had asked himself many, many times in the past hours—all of which he’d spent here, in the infirmary with this half-living girl who was holding his struggling heart in a death-grip. What surprised him the most was that no one seemed to have noticed his absence. He wasn’t sure whether or not he should find the fact comforting. Perhaps they did so out of respect, just because he was in command and not to be questioned. But if that were true, every student in SeeD had become exactly what Cid said he hoped they wouldn’t—machines.

Squall could not help but wonder as he knelt beside the sleeping girl, if this had happened because he had come too close to that "machine" status, himself; Duty, duty, duty. No room for emotion. No questioning the mission. Just do what the situation requires…

What was required, here?

Of course, he’d already made up his mind. The captain of the White SeeD ship had given him the answer. Squall had had Nida steer the Garden in the direction of the elusive country of Esthar. They would dock at Fisherman’s Horizon soon. He had justified the action by pointing out that there had been suspicious activity from Esthar’s marine ships, and if anyone knew for certain what had happened to the infamous Adel—who, from what little he could understand about this whole mess, was yet another powerful pawn in some future sorceress’ brutal game—the Estharian president would.

But the order had been a cover-up, and Squall knew it. Part of him despised himself for it. He was not interested in what was going on anymore, did not care if the world was about to end should he ignore Edea and Cid’s dire warnings. He was on a search for Ellone. Only Ellone had the ability to help Rinoa. Ellone had gone with the Estharian ship—so Ellone must have gone to Esthar. It did not matter why. All that mattered to Squall was finding her.

Some leader I make. I wish Cid had never put me in this position. I never wanted it. What makes him think I’m cut out for this? Why is he making me choose between my life and Rinoa? Sighing, Squall folded his arms and rested them on the cold infirmary bed sheets, staring vacantly at his ring resting on Rinoa’s chest, attached to her by a fragile-looking silver necklace. The metal shone bleakly in the fading light of evening, like ice reflecting the last dying cries of the sun. He closed his eyes, blocking out the image of Rinoa’s equally cold body. I should have sent you back to Deling City after we escaped from prison. I let you come back with me to Garden. Why did I do something so irresponsible? I’m usually not that stupid.

His breath caught in his throat. For some reason, a memory had chosen now to surface, and it only served to fuel the fire in his chest. Squall trembled, feeling bile rise in his throat as the scene played out in his mind, as ruthlessly clear as if it had only happened moments ago…

Frustrated, he slammed shut yet another empty drawer. Quietly fuming, Squall stood slowly and swept the cramped dormitory room with his eyes one last time. "Nothing," he declared finally, turning to face Rinoa, who was busy double-checking under the pillows in each of the dorm’s tiny bunks. "They’ve cleaned this place out. If there’s a lockcard we can use anywhere in Galbadia Garden, one of the students has it."

"Are you sure it isn’t just in another room?" Rinoa did not turn away from her search until she had thoroughly checked every pillow.

"We’ve searched every room on this side. This is the last one. Zell and Quistis took the other side. If there’s anything to find, they would have found it by now."

"I know that." Rinoa placed her hands on her hips, cocking her head at the SeeD leader in her unique little motion of reprimand. "I was there when we split into groups, remember? I was paying attention. By the way…" Looking suddenly nervous, Rinoa let her hands fall limp by her sides. After a brief pause, she folded them behind her back, apparently trying to find the most comfortable stance in which to ask her next question. "Why did you team up with me and send everyone else to other wings? I thought I just got in your way most of the time."

Squall gestured halfheartedly with one hand, shaking his head even as he bowed his face, as if to hide his expression from her. "Just making sure you don’t get into any more trouble. You’ve been a pain in my ass today." He folded his arms across his chest, still keeping his eyes tactfully averted so she could not see the quiet humor behind them. "Seems like every time I take my eyes off you, you do something stupid that almost gets you killed. I’m not taking any chances this time."

Rinoa smirked, pretending to think hard on his words of wisdom. "Let’s see…should I be flattered that you care so much, or should I tell you you’re being an insensitive jerk? Tough call on that one." She leaned forward and stared at him, as if she was examining the pattern on a colorful insect. "Lucky for you I’m feeling generous today, so I’ll let you get away with it—this time." She straightened, her smirk breaking into a full-blown smile.

Squall turned his head toward her just enough to stare suspiciously at her out the corners of his eyes. "Is that supposed to mean something?"

She seemed exasperated at his naïve answer. "For someone smart enough to be the leader of SeeD, you sure are slow on the uptake. I meant that I know you just want to protect me yourself, but you’d never come out and say it."

"I understood what you were saying…" Again he stared at the door and refused to look at her. "I just don’t know why you said it."

"Why does it matter?" Cautiously, Rinoa dared a few small steps toward him. "Is there a reason that might scare you?"

Incensed, Squall whirled on her and cut the air with his arm. "Why should I be scared?"

"I thought I just asked you that." She smiled sweetly, knowing she had a hook in him now and there was nothing he could do about it. "Since you’re reacting so strongly, I can only assume it does matter to you. You don’t freak out about things that don’t mean anything."

Growling, Squall rested his forehead in the palm of his hand. "I’m not freaking out. Stop analyzing me."

Rinoa looked at her feet. "Oh, I’m sorry. I forgot, you hate that…"

He shook his head, sloshing away stagnant thoughts that were beginning to swim. They still had to find a way to unlock the restricted doors of Galbadia Garden. They were wasting time by standing here talking. "Let’s go find the others." He turned to exit into the deserted hallway.

Rinoa followed close behind him. Halfway through the door, she reached up and pressed her hand against the back of his jacket, just behind his left shoulder. Squall came to a short stop and turned around to face her, shrugging off her hand in the process. He waited for her to say something. When she didn’t, he growled an impatient, "What is it?"

She backed up a bit, taken aback by his irritation. "Nothing. I didn’t say anything."

"You touched me."

"Just making sure we could keep track of each other. Is that so bad?" She brought her hands up and proffered them to either side in a motion of frustration, shaking her head melodramatically and looking to the ceiling like she might receive some divine guidance from the light bulbs. "You said yourself I get into trouble every time you take your eyes off me. I’m just making sure you know where I am at all times. That way, there’s no problem."

Squall sighed and leaned wearily against the doorframe. Why did he even bother? "Look, I was exaggerating. You don’t have to hang on me. I’m not your boyfriend." He spat the word out like it was poisonous.

Rinoa’s bright expression faded a little, and he could tell she was disappointed at his announcement. She placed her hand over her chain necklace, her fingers quickly picking out his ring and closing around it. "Have you forgotten what we talked about outside, already?"

"Rinoa, we don’t have time to talk about this right now. Sorceress Edea is somewhere in this Garden. You’re the one who’s forgotten. We’ve got a job to do. Let’s do it." He nodded. "We can talk about this some other time."

She glared at him suddenly, a furious glint in her dark eyes. "You’re assuming there’s gonna be another time." Her hands curled into fists at her sides. "We’ve been very fortunate so far. What if next time, one of us isn’t so lucky? Ever thought about that?"

Squall felt the hair on the back of his neck rise. He wasn’t sure if it was what Rinoa was telling him that caused it, or his irritation at the fact she was saying it. But he couldn’t afford to stand here and debate with her. "It isn’t worth it to worry about that kind of thing," he stated flatly and turned to leave—whether she decided to come along or not.

"So that’s it?" Rinoa trailed him by mere inches, talking as close to his ear as she could without bumping into him. "That’s your answer?"

"Yes," he snarled.

Rinoa sped up and planted herself in front of Squall, a tactic she’d used in the past to force him to pay attention to what she had to say. He stopped short of barreling into her. She didn’t so much as flinch at the subsequent glower he leveled at her. "Fine," she snapped, "Even if you don’t care what happens to me, what about you? What if you have to fight Seifer again? He’s probably here, you know."

Squall fought the rising growl in his throat. He shook a little, shocked by the low-blow. He couldn’t keep himself from raising his voice in retaliation. "Don’t bring him into this! I’m here to find Sorceress Edea and fight her if necessary. Seifer’s got nothin’ to do with it."

"Then why were you talking about him to yourself when we walked in here?"

"I wasn’t."

"Liar!"

An angry trail of hot shocks pricked Squall’s spine. Growling, he lurched forward a pace, forcing Rinoa to either back up or be stepped on. She retreated only enough to meet his eyes head-on. Those ruthless eyes projected the rage behind his words. "I don’t have to explain myself to anyone. When did you start thinking about Seifer? Just a second ago you were hanging on my back like an ornament. At least quit playin’ around and make up your mind. And leave my feelings out of this. I don’t remember anything in our contract that says you’re supposed to be such a goddamn busybody!"

All sound seemed to stop. Squall was still and stiff, braced as though preparing for a fistfight. But the fight had gone from him, very suddenly, drained in a matter of seconds. He stood with his mouth hanging half-open and stared, mute, unable to believe he had just heard himself speak the words that had somehow slipped from his lips. A cold, sinister sensation began to form in the pit of his stomach. He tried to speak, but though his mouth worked, something was blocking his voice. He could say nothing, even as he saw the telltale glitter of tears begin to form in Rinoa’s eyes. She was the one who found her shaky voice first.

"I’m sorry you feel that way, Squall."

Irvine and Selphie chose that moment to show up. They ran up behind Squall just in time to see Rinoa turn away from him in disgust.

Selphie hurried to Rinoa’s side. "Heeey," she piped suspiciously, "is everything okay?"

Through a monumental effort, Rinoa managed to keep her tears at bay. She deliberately composed herself, turned her head to look Selphie directly in the eyes, and nodded once, slowly. "Everything’s fine," she said. "No problems here."

Squall couldn’t help but think that it was the most unbelievable lie he’d ever heard.

"Find anything?" Rinoa went on to say, as if there was nothing wrong in the world.

Selphie heaved a sigh that seemed impossibly huge for her small frame. "Nope. Nothing, anywhere! It looks like Galbadia got to all the security cards before we did."

"Let’s go find Quistis and Zell," Rinoa suggested. "Maybe they found something." Not waiting for anyone’s approval, she started off down the hall at a run. After a brief hesitation, Selphie followed, hot on her heels.

Squall let loose a sigh of his own and slowly started after them. He was stopped by a heavy arm that swung out in front of him, blocking his course. In another instant, Irvine, who had been standing just behind the leader of SeeD until now, had placed himself in Squall’s path and was towering over him. The sharpshooter’s face was twisted in an unusual expression, his eyes narrowed in pure, unfettered rage. Squall backed up a pace, startled; there was something deadly serious about Irvine’s threatening stance. If Squall made any attempt to pass, Irvine was more than ready to hurl him back against the wall.

"You’re lucky I didn’t hear whatever stupid thing you said to her." Irvine jabbed a finger accusingly at his commander’s impassive face. His tone had a frightening edge Squall had never heard before in the sharpshooter’s voice. "But I’m warning you," he went on, so earnestly Squall actually felt a twinge of fear at the words, "if you do anything else to hurt Rinoa…I’ll kill you."

If Squall thought for one second that the sharpshooter was in any way joking, he did not say so.

His case stated, Irvine backed off, turning and chasing in the wake of Selphie and Rinoa. "Hey Sefie! Wait for me!"

Alone amidst the echoes of their footsteps, Squall remembered for the first time in many years, what it felt like to be left behind.


 
 The last time I spoke to you…I yelled at you.

Squall raised his face from his gloved hands, wishing he had the luxury of tears. He cursed his own pride for not allowing him the respite. Any other time he felt this bad, he would have taken his anger to the training area, killed a few monsters, centered himself. The adrenaline rush of battle had always served to help him come to terms with his pain. When he was fighting, he was forced to adhere to the law of mortality: you either lived, or you died. It always served to put the essentials into perspective.

He could not do that now. He could not leave Rinoa’s side. A part of him knew, though he would not admit it to himself, she was slowly dying before his very eyes. And he was dying with her.

He was too weak to fight anymore. A torturous, alien disease had infected his blood, was burning in his heart, eating away at his soul. It was a relentless thing that left him feeling barren and wasted. He’d thought for a long time he had mastered the deadly parasite, believed he’d fought and won the war against it. Now he was forced to admit total defeat. The acidic sickness had lain dormant in his system for years, not once showing its face, waiting for the right time to strike. Rinoa’s plight had been the hair-trigger that injected the terrible poison directly into his heart.

He wrapped one hot hand around Rinoa’s icy fingers. He knew there was no cure for his ailment. He needed no battles to remind him of his own mortality in this situation. No amount of fighting would put this into perspective. This was a personal, soul-deep sickness of the heart. And, if Rinoa didn’t make it, a terminal one.

Squall shuddered, his soul slipping just a little farther into darkness. I’ve never felt anything like this before…not like this. It’s insane. There’s no reason for it… He raised Rinoa’s hand a few inches off her stomach, bowing his head just enough to gingerly run his forehead across the tips of her icy fingers, and died a little more knowing she could not feel what he was doing.

He’d caught her staring at his face once or twice in the past, her gaze fixed on his ragged wound. It had made him uncomfortable; sometimes, he’d seen her hands twitch involuntarily as she watched him. He had often wondered if the nervous motion was a result of stress, or a visible indication that she was holding herself back from doing something. Thinking about it now, he wondered if she hadn’t been possessed by some childlike urge to reach out and touch what had so drawn her curiosity. It would fit her aggravating tendency to get into trouble; her impulsive nature was at the heart of every mess she’d gotten herself into. But she knew he would never have allowed it, even if she’d asked. She had always looked away once she realized he’d seen her staring at him. Staring at Squall had been a bad enough sin. Daring to touch him without a valid reason would have brought about some very unpleasant consequences.

Squall winced, not at the slight ache that still remained when the months-old wound was touched, but at the magnitude of his own stupidity. I make Laguna look like a genius.

Another unwelcome thought crept into Squall’s fears. When he’d been paralyzed by Edea’s magic, he had watched as Rinoa lurched over to the fallen Seifer. Then, she’d leaned near him, so close, so tenderly, as if to whisper a secret in his ear…or…

Is it really him she cares for? Am I just a convenient replacement in his absence?

Squall could not imagine it. He would not let himself believe it was true. Rinoa would not have gone to such lengths to befriend him if he had been nothing more than second fiddle. And, regardless of what she thought of him, his feelings were unmoved. Letting her die would be far worse than living with her as "just a friend." Or, even, a used-to-be friend. Whatever. He was through putting her interests to the side for the sake of his own self-image.

It doesn’t matter, as long as you live…if I can see you smile again, even if it isn’t at me, anymore. Even if you never forgive me.

Squall did not dare to hope Rinoa would forgive him for being such a fool. He’d done nothing to deserve her affection, and everything to push her away. Despite all that, she had always believed in him. She’d been there for him when he needed her, even when he’d never wanted her to. In return, he would believe in her. It was the least he could do.

So he knelt, alone and in silence, dying by inches as the minutes bled away. If he did not do something soon, Rinoa would die, and his hope would die with her; if he did not do something soon, the enigmatic Ultimecia—whom he knew only through a name, and Edea’s actions under her puppetry—would enslave the world. Squall sighed and looked out the window, into the perishing sunlight. Soon, he would break every rule he’d ever sworn by to try and save this wayward upstart of a girl who had just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. He knew it was the wrong decision, and he didn’t give a damn. If he brought about the world’s demise, so be it.

The world did not matter. All he wanted was to have Rinoa back.

I can’t take this for much longer. I’m losing it. Squall gently let Rinoa’s arm down again, then balled his hands into fists and pressed them against the sheets of the flat infirmary bed. Someone…Rinoa, help me! This burning…I can’t believe it. How can anyone mean this much!

Then he remembered, maybe once, long ago, there had been someone, a friend. It had not been quite the same as what he was feeling now, but no less meaningful. It had been no less painful when that friend had vanished without even stopping to say goodbye. He had been convinced she was angry with him. It had been his fault. She had left because he couldn’t let go of her. He had to prove that he would be all right on his own. That was the only way Sis would ever come back.

I thought it was because of something I’d done. That wasn’t true, but…I thought one way or another, I could find her when I became a SeeD. I made that dream my life. Then I forgot Ellone. I forgot why I came here. I don’t know why, maybe it was the GFs, but even if it wasn’t…I forgot myself. Feeling as though he were floating on the currents of a dream, he cast a glance over his shoulder at the wall as if he might yet see the child self he had left behind. Somehow staring at that blank wall, nothing but plaster and sheet metal staring back at him, saddened him even deeper than the sight of Rinoa’s comatose figure. Eyes stinging, Squall wrenched away his gaze and fixed it on Rinoa, drawing strength from his current pain to fend off the agonies of the past. At least now, in this room, there was still hope. But it…it still hurts. Seeing Ellone again… How ironic that he hadn’t even recognized her. She had told him that if he’d forgotten her, it would break her heart.

It’s only fair, some bitter part of him cried, you broke mine, first.

Best friends forever, that’s what you said. Then you disappeared. Staring at Rinoa’s face, thinking how deceptively peaceful she looked, Squall thought to her eyelids what he might have said to Ellone, had she been in the room. When I saw you again, I didn’t know it was you…and now you’re missing again, and Rinoa’s in a coma. What a fool I’ve been! But how could I know? To lose your best friend…how can anyone recover from that? Squall felt it was beyond him. That disillusioned child he had become had grown up believing his own lies. He’d matured since then, it was true, a hard adult shell growing over the vulnerable sap of a child. He’d learned to put away his fears and his pain, found a place he could hide it, where no one could ever find it. He was stronger, older…

But inside, I’m still that heartbroken little kid.

His broken heart threatened to stop with every beat. The absence of Rinoa’s presence left a vacuum that might collapse his soul. His head was so full of apologies, excuses and pleas, he did not know which of them to address first.

He wanted to talk to Rinoa. His logical side, the dominant sense of reason in his brain, reminded him that even if he told her his life story here and now, she would not hear a word of it. She couldn't hear anything at all. He knew it was true, but he wanted to believe that it wasn’t. He wanted to believe that if he took her hand, told her what he was feeling, closed his eyes and prayed every second of the way that she would wake up, he would open his eyes to find her staring back at him, smiling. It was what he wished would happen. But it wouldn’t happen, he decided…

…especially if he convinced himself it would not.

Rinoa had always dared to hope. It was one of the many things that Squall missed about her now. He had not realized that in some way, he had fed off that hope of hers…wherever it came from, it made him feel stronger. She had held out hope for him when he had been locked away in the hell of D-district prison…didn’t he owe it to her now to believe she would pull through?

What if this is the last chance I’ll ever have to talk to her?

Maybe she was listening, maybe she could hear him, maybe she was hoping, waiting for him to speak to her, but she could not let him know. The chance of this was slim, but if it was true, he would despise himself all the more that he had not given her that chance. I have to tell her…if this is the last chance I have to be with her, I have to try. I have to let her know. She was right all along.

His head swayed slowly as he tried to make his voice work. "How…how can I explain," he murmured, his voice barely carrying over the hum of the Garden’s engines. He leaned close to her, once again taking her hand in his palm and rubbing her fingers in a fruitless attempt to warm them. "I…I don’t know what to say," he spoke in a hoarse, hushed voice, "or what to do. Rinoa, what do I do now?" He paused a moment to try and calm the trembling that had suddenly taken over him, fighting to sort through his muddled thoughts and put them in some sort of order so he could speak to Rinoa coherently. "You wanna know why I couldn’t let this happen," he growled suddenly, spouting the first understandable sentence that went through his mind, "THIS is why!" Shaking, he reinforced his grip on her with his other hand, curling her fingers into a fist he could clasp to his chest. He went on speaking, barely pausing to breathe, a flood of thoughts following the trickle of words he’d finally managed to force out. "I can’t…I can’t handle this sort of thing. I never could. People leave…you learn to care for someone, and then you turn around and the only one listening is yourself. You ask questions…no answer. You wait, hoping they’ll come back, but they never do." Having forced the remaining air from his lungs to speak the last two words, Squall stopped to breathe, but the respite didn’t last long. A different rush of emotions followed in the wake the first. "So much has changed. I don’t know what’s right, anymore. I’ve spent so long keeping myself away from relationships. …I can’t help what’s happened to me. I didn’t have any choice, it just… Damn it, Rinoa—!" He grew louder without realizing it, and the shout echoed off the walls, reminding him to keep it down. After glancing about to be sure no one was around to have heard him, he eased his grip, releasing one of his hands to gently rest it against her cheek. He leaned forward, as close as he could without looming aver her. "You helped me get here," he rumbled, swallowing a choke. "You showed me how to feel this way… I fought it the whole way, but…here I am. Here I am—" he repeated to himself, and at first speaking the words brought him hope—until logic kicked in, dousing the small spark of elation he had dared to enjoy. "—right back where I started!"

Frustrated, confused and angry, feeling lost and broken beyond repair, Squall dropped Rinoa’s hand and pounded his fist into the mattress beside her. "What am I supposed to learn, that I was right? That it isn’t worth it…not again." He scowled and turned his head to shoot his anger at the window, but ended up looking back at Rinoa. His words were not meant for anything, anyone but her. Not for the clouds in heaven, and not for the inhabiting gods that Squall didn’t believe in. "Don’t do this to me and then just leave like this! I’m here!" He stammered for a moment, producing nothing but half-syllables and meaningless noise. He tried—oh, but he tried—to get the right words to come. He could not make himself say it. He could not identify aloud what insanity that was making him feel so powerless. When he did speak again, his voice was so weak he could hardly hear himself. "I’m right here, next to you…but…" He broke off his rant, standing abruptly and turning to face the wall. His hands balled into fists at his sides. "I can’t do this, Rinoa. I’m not…I’m not strong enough to be alone."

He felt horrible, for everything. Horrible that he did not have the guts to continue talking to her face, horrible that he’d met her. He hated that he’d treated her so coldly, and at the same time wished that he hadn’t let himself crack. Anger at his inability to keep her out of harm’s way burned at his insides, while anger that she had kept putting herself in danger made him want to scream at her. He had never hated Rinoa as much as he did in that instant. He hated her for showing him that he was human, for proving that he was not as tough as he looked and that his defenses were not impregnable. He hated her for giving him hope, and then taking it away. He hated her for making him hate her so much. And he hated himself for feeling this way.

The Garden must have struck a shift in water currents, for the floor rocked suddenly, forcing Squall to plant his feet to keep from falling. The room creaked under the stress. Something breakable slid off a shelf in another room, and Squall jumped when he heard it shatter. He turned away from the wall, making sure Rinoa had not fallen off the med bed. She had not moved, but he knelt by her side once again and held her steady until, finally, the Garden leveled out. Scowling, Squall muttered irritably to himself. "What is Nida doing? You might have…" He trailed off, staring at Rinoa’s face.

Speechless, with hands trembling as though on the verge of exploding, he touched Rinoa’s face, so gently he might have been caressing the wings of a butterfly. With the tips of his fingers, he followed the warm path of a single fallen tear down her cheek.

It could have been anything; a result of her condition, or perhaps her lack of movement had finally forced her eyes to water in order to keep themselves moist. Maybe the sharp rocking of the Garden had something to do with it, shifted the gravity just enough to put pressure on the right muscles in her face. But none of these possibilities crossed Squall’s mind. For him, there was only one reason for Rinoa’s tear, and it did not require a logical explanation. He remained motionless, his fingers resting on her cheek, watching, waiting, praying…

In time with her next shallow breath, another tear escaped from the corner Rinoa’s eye, following the path of the first until it ran against Squall’s skin. The moment the living warmth touched his fingertips, it spread throughout his entire body, filling him with her hope, her sadness, her fear—everything Squall had struggled to believe was still trapped inside her. One tear might have been a fluke. But not two. And yet another one fell, touched him, warmed him. Another trickled unhindered down her other cheek. Squall was paralyzed, too shocked to do anything but stare. He felt his heart might rupture for all he was shaking inside. Somehow, he found the mind to make his voice work.

"Rinoa…please don’t cry…"

I’m not strong enough to be alone.

Hadn’t that been her point all along?

He managed to move, leaning to be near her, gingerly brushing the tears from her eyes, lightly running his fingers through her hair with one hand. He stayed this way for a short while, then shifted his position enough to rest the side of his head on the edge of the mattress. He continued to stroke her hair, pausing only now and again to free her face from another tear. He took her hand in his free one, and through half-closed eyes he watched her, the anguish in his heart no less potent, but strangely more bearable than it had been only moments before. "I’m right here," he murmured. "Don’t…don’t worry. I’m not gonna leave you." Somehow, saying the words aloud made him feel they were true. Why, he could not say. It did not matter why. In fact, the why of anything was slowly ceasing to have any meaning to Squall. The question weighing on him now, was how…

He waited, and watched. Minutes passed. Still, her eyes did not open, she was cold, she hardly breathed. In her silence, Squall thought to himself, the same words, over and over again.

I’m not strong enough to be alone…how can I be strong enough to love someone?

He had once heard the adage, ‘you cannot love anyone else until you learn to love yourself.’ At the time it had made sense to him. He questioned that logic now. He questioned everything. His life, his world, his future; all were nothing but one giant question to him. He believed the answer, his destiny, lay before him. What it meant, however, or how to save it, eluded him.

He did know one thing, at least. He was not going to leave Rinoa’s side again.

"Even if I’m sorry," he whispered, arranging the ends of Rinoa’s hair evenly about her shoulders in a nervous way that betrayed his calm, steady voice, "you don’t have any reason to forgive me. That’s all right, I guess." He shook his head at himself, finding it bizarre that he was pouring his soul out to a comatose girl, but at the same time he felt oddly comfortable doing it; for once in his life, he did not feel displaced. He felt as though he was supposed to be here. It was unusual, but it made his words come easier. "Look at the way I’ve treated you," he rumbled apologetically in her ear. "It’s inexcusable. I’ve been trying…to make you believe I don’t care—no, that isn’t—that’s not right. I’ve been trying to convince myself I don’t care. If you’re angry with me, I understand. You tried to show me what you felt, too. I thought you pissed me off because I didn’t like you. That’s why I didn’t think it meant anything…" A gentle, sigh, but heavy with anxiety, escaped with his words. "I didn’t get it. Now you’re paying for it."

His thoughts strayed inadvertently to Ellone. In the dream…Ellone said Laguna hadn’t been there to see Raine’s baby. He couldn’t hear her when she called his name. All she wanted was for him to be there…but he wasn’t, and she died…and Ellone spent a lifetime trying to fix it.

Distantly, he wondered where the nameless child of that luckless union was today. Whoever it was, Squall pitied him.

He was tired. Ellone’s dreams had offered him no rest, nor had his attempts to sleep since then. It seemed his unconscious world was just as plagued with nightmares as his waking life, and he was not sure which was the greater horror. In his dreams, he was haunted by the past. Awake, his pain was no less poignant. But pure exhaustion was a difficult monster to tangle with. He resisted it anyway, refusing to relinquish the moments he had with the girl on the infirmary bed. He pushed himself in a more upright position, but still leaned on the pillow. Without meaning to, he was staring at the set of two rings that rested below her neck, bound to her by their thin chain, gleaming coldly in the fading light. One of them, a small, silver ring, was spotless. He wondered where it came from, who it might once have belonged to. He wondered if that person had been a better friend to Rinoa than he had. Beside that pure circle rested his dark, forbidding ring, made from steel and drawn with shadow. It was no stranger to wear and tear. Many tiny chinks and scratches marred the ring’s hard surface. The blood of the sunset reflected angrily in the eyes of the carved lion, as if daring anyone or anything to touch its wearer. Had Squall not been so logical, he would have liked to think it was protecting her in some way.

But it was just a thing. In the end, the symbol meant nothing.

"I don’t know what’s going on in your head," he said, tearing his eyes away from the rings and directing their stare at Rinoa’s face once again. Her tears had dried, but he continued to trace their path down her face with his finger. "I think you can hear me, though…maybe…you don’t even know it. But if you can, try to listen." Solemnly, he closed his eyes, staring into blackness, wondering if Rinoa was seeing the same darkness, searching for the same light. "I don’t have a lot I believe in." Without needing to see, he took her hand and clasped it gently. "But I think I know what you were getting at, all that stuff you said back at the concert…you said there aren’t any guarantees. To me that just meant you can’t trust in anything…but that isn’t it. You taught me something, you know…nobody knows what’s gonna happen. It doesn’t look like it’s going to be all right. But…even if everything goes to hell, I’m not gonna give up if you don’t." He didn’t realize he was drifting off, leaning more and more to the side even as he whispered ever more quietly. "I don’t know why…but I need you to believe…maybe because…I don’t know if I can without you…"

He leaned too far, fell off the edge of consciousness, and continued to fall.


 
 It was a familiar dream. There was no gravity, nothing for him to fall down to, only an endless, empty loneliness whose inevitability he could not escape, but would never accept. In defiance he reached out, unable to speak, desperate for someone to save him, and unwilling to admit defeat to this, his ultimate misery.

This time, something caught him. He felt his outstretched fingers close around someone else’s hand. His blind eyes widened as the loneliness was broken. Warmth coursed through his soul like air through starved lungs.

He was pulled from the emptiness, and again he was falling, faster and faster, but he was no longer afraid. He was falling to somewhere, and with someone, and he was never going to let go. Sightless, he held his arms out, to the wind, to her, out of desperation, the need to know that despite life’s inevitable end, through it all, he was not alone—that everything was worth it.

Sounds—wingbeats—trilled around him, soft with peace in their dove-like whisper. The wings followed him, falling with him.

What was the difference then, he thought, between falling forever and flying?

As his heart embraced this thought, he released his hold on the hand that had saved him, knowing he need only reach for it to find her again. His awareness of the dream finally faded away, to sleep in blissful blackness.

*

Squall stood in the morning sunlight that filtered through the infirmary window. The cry of fish gulls wafted through the cracked sill, the smell of salt and seafood heavy on the breeze. The Garden had arrived at Fisherman’s Horizon. Listening to the white noise, Squall considered his options.

He’d slept through the night, collapsed forward on the very edge of the mattress. Dr. Kadowaki had awakened him. She was gone now, and for the moment, no one was manning the infirmary in her absence. It was an unusual bit of circumstances.

But it was the perfect opportunity.

Squall stared down at Rinoa, though he wasn’t actually seeing her. He saw, instead, a mind-manifested scene. Raine was on the bed instead of Rinoa. She was holding a newborn in her arms, calling out Laguna’s name, too delirious to understand why he could not come to her. Ellone would wait by Raine’s side, trying desperately to explain in the best way her limited vocabulary could manage that Laguna was not there, he could not come…

…He was too busy doing his job to help her.

Squall’s eyes narrowed. The vision faded from his mind’s eye, replaced by Rinoa’s silent form. What if she was calling out to him inside? What if he just couldn’t hear her? Laguna had not heard, and so he had not come home…

I won’t do that to you. I won’t leave you just when you need me the most. Just because I can’t hear you doesn’t mean you have no voice.

His hands clenched nervously at his sides as he warred with himself. There was only one person who might be able to tell him just what was happening to Rinoa, who might tell him what she was saying, what she was thinking. But that person might also tell him that all this hope had been for nothing, that Rinoa’s situation was hopeless. But if he did not take that chance…?

He made his choice. He moved swiftly; time was limited.

"Let's go, Rinoa," he said as though instructing her. Gently, but quickly, he sat her up. She was stiff as a board, hardly needing any support to keep her upright. Squall arranged her posture carefully, as if posing a mannequin, then turned around and placed her arms around his shoulders before hoisting her onto his back. "Let's go meet Ellone," without stopping to think, without allowing himself the time to consider the dire consequences of his actions, he marched resolutely for the exit, intending that nothing would stand in his way. Not SeeD, not duty, not Esthar, not any evil sorceress. And most of all, not himself.

Ellone will bring us together.


 
 

Sorry everyone… Squall took one last glance at the ceiling of the second-floor hallway, though his thoughts were directed at more than just the campus design. I can’t go on like this. With this final, silent apology, he carried his burden through the balcony exit, completing his mutiny.

Squall emerged into the rising dawn with his eyes wide open, an expression that was rare for him. His sudden appearance startled a few seagulls, which chortled and squealed in annoyance at being disturbed. Ignoring them, he started down the ramp that led to FH, and subsequently the derelict railroad. He knew it would take him days to cross the continental divide, but he had to try. Rinoa’s time was running out. With her every dwindling breath, the clock ticked faster. He could not wait for the world to end while the only person who still gave him hope depended on him to listen to her silent cries. Like he’d failed to do so many times before…

Squall knew he had failed SeeD as a leader, and he had failed his friends. He had failed the world, as far as he could see. He would not fail Rinoa, too.

It's a bit far, he mused without truly comprehending the concept. He descended the stairway, took the elevator down to the tracks. …but we'll make it. Without a thought, he turned east, his only purpose being the continent at the end of the tracks. There was no other destination for him anymore. Behind him was nothing. In front of him was the great continent of Esthar. Beyond that, only time would reveal what he must do.

...I know we will.

He took a few tentative steps down the track, then hesitated, glanced around as if uncertain if he was facing the correct direction. It was more a moment of reflection, forcing himself to take in the enormity of what he was about to do. It didn’t make sense to him, and yet he knew he had to do it. Rinoa had to see Ellone. She had to be saved. Squall was useless to Garden without her.

Having reassured himself for the moment, Squall started down the track. He paused once more when a fluttering sound and an light breeze rushed past him, the eddies of wind kicked up by the sound brushing against him in a direction opposite the sea winds. His eyes saw the shadows on the tracks first, then followed them to their owners; two sea doves had alighted on the railing of the bridge. The pale, nondescript birds cooed and cuddled each other for a moment, then, realizing they had been spotted, flew away in a flurry of white feathers. Squall turned to watch as they passed over him, the two flying toward the horizon, seeming to dance in the air currents together as they cried joyously in song.

He could not help thinking how happy they seemed, though they were but animals. He could not help but remember what it had felt like to fall with wings in his dream. He could not forget the tears that had touched his hand and burned his heart.

Shifting Rinoa’s weight on his back to be sure she was secure, Squall turned toward the sunrise. The wind stirred his hair, caressed his face, breathed life into him once more. For a few brief moments, a smile touched the edges of his lips.

Falling forever…

Even as he began the long, trudging trek down the lonely bridge, he felt strong enough to spread wings and fly.


 
 

*~~~*