THE CRAVE GAMING CHANNEL
V'lanna
 

"Not Without My Daughter"
By anyone but Leah Raeder
i_am@ex-okay.com


Suggestion to you is to read Amara Enid's "After the Rain" first; it's infinitely better. Characters, environments, and all that jazz ©1999 Squaresoft. You are reading the disclaimer. Congratulations: you're literate!



She's convinced she could hold back a glacier
But she couldn't keep baby alive
Doubting if there's a woman in there somewhere...


"Spark," Tori Amos

Flyspeck town south of Galbadia. Early spring. The Sorceress War persisted with what could only be called arrogance, but Winhill was already long resigned to its ghost-town ambiance. Wives and mothers no longer furrowed through anxious, cold-sweating crowds each morning at the post office, eyes keenly importuning the besieged clerk for anything, anything, the most abject crumb of hope. Life and business and the business of life resumed the reluctant plod forward.

"Run, Ellone!"

She raced to the corner, feet skittering across the dusty pavement, and with her typical auspiciousness caught her toe on an upturned block. The world somersaulted. Her legs shuddered like rubber. She strangled the tiny hand in her own, inadvertently yanking it along. Her legs kept moving—in the right direction—reasserted equilibrium independent of even her most hyperbolic prayers. She was more falling than running now. She dared to slacken her death's-vise on the tiny latch to the girl she dragged behind, sacrificed a moment to glance back. The girl's bobbing face was alabaster, dark hair slashing madly around it. Beyond, the bluish smear across the plaza denoted the soldiers from Esthar, slowly cordoning off the village.

Raine Loire sliced around the corner, slapping herself against the wall like a pancake, and spinning the small weight—Ellone—close against her in a crazed pirouette. The girl fluttered birdlike in her arms. Silence: punctured again and again by the stab of her own heartbeat. Breathing was fire, was sweet, but she forbade herself that just yet. She craned down, pressing the girl's cool face against her own, straining to hear with every recipient sensor.

Winhill sounds. Water, wind, earth. Distantly, voices: becoming less distant. They hadn't seen her, or there would have been no question about the distance. They're trying to seal us off without alerting us. She said that again to herself. Just who the hell do they think we are?

There were at least a hundred soldiers amassed in the plaza, too many by half to neutralize the town. Then again, perhaps Esthar didn't really know what they were after, either. They had come right into the bar while she was on the second floor—she heard Harriet, a maid from the Winhill Hotel, improvising, stalling for her. They had inquired for her by name. "Raine Leonheart and the girl, Ellone." She was halfway out the bedroom window when the machine-gun rattle of boots on the stairs cracked apart the town's timelessly benign drone. By some unknown grace she spotted Ellone in a field in back of the pub. They'd fled across the bridge in naked sight. Seth Pulliam had seen them. The old man who owned the general store at the foot of town. He despised Laguna, and never missed an opportunity to broadcast his disdain. He saw them, and started a scene, covering their flight.

"Raine." Ellone squirmed out of her grip. "I'm scared. How come we're running?"

She knew, actually. Adel's successor. It didn't make much sense—couldn't Adel just pick any girl for it?—yet it was so. Laguna said Ellone was special. Beyond the immediate connotation. Like she could tell Ellone that.

"They're bad men. The kind that hurt Uncle Laguna when he was a soldier."

Again, "How come we're running?"

Raine tousled the angel-fine hair, constructed a pretense of calm. "They won't get us. We'll be very quiet, and very sneaky, and they'll just go away. Okay?"

Ellone's face crumpled. "I wish Uncle Laguna was here."

"Me too." She sloughed a tear from the girl's face. "But we're brave, too, and not half as dumb. We'll be okay."

"Is Uncle Laguna dumb?"

"Ask me again later." She took hold of a doll-sized hand and straightened. "Now be sneaky."

They sidled timorously away from the flower lady's house, waded out into the meadow of wildflowers. The blue Esthar stain was dripping down across the bridge, covering the fields like a spreading puddle. Raine doubled over, swallowing Ellone in her shadow, and ran. They passed the Chocobo crossing sign. Flower heads snapped like whips in their berth, white and yellow and pale red streaming across a continuous green. The raw March sky was a poignant blue, wide as forever. It seemed sacrilege to die amidst such beauty. Bullets ripping into her back, blood draping the flowers in a heavy crimson blanket...she would die instead of Ellone, but she didn't know if she would die for her. Well...what was the worst that could happen if she gave the girl to them? I can't believe I just fucking thought that. I can't—believe—I just fucking thought— She crushed the tiny hand in her own, trying to impart her devotion. Ellone's face twisted into a corkscrew of pain, but she didn't cry out. She's your daughter, regardless of blood. Oh, god, where are you?

Wood-shingled roofs bubbled slowly above the horizon, resolved into pale gray stone houses. The lonely arrowhead of the church steeple, coupled with the high-peaked roof of the inn, swathed a good expanse of the street in shadow. Raine flung a frantic glance over her shoulder, then darted quick as a rabbit across the dirt road. Beyond the church was the docks, and there were only two ways to get there, one of which was hers. The Esthar soldiers had to be taking the long way around. There were boats. Rowboats. Rowboats, and the Esthar soldiers had guns.

Ellone's shoes sent up a spray of gravel and dust as they slid to a halt.

"We have to go back," Raine said quietly.

Ellone stared up at her, wordless and wide-eyed.

They walked—quickly—back to the church, and crouched behind a slapdash stack of crates. Across the street, blue streaks moved noiselessly between the houses: lithe, frightfully insectile figures, with bizarre metal helmets and sickle-bladed things that appeared to be both sword and gun. Raine's wits cartwheeled. The flower field. The grass there was tall; Ellone, at least, could get away, could hide...oh, god, where are you? Her eyes shivered with tears. She held it in, like a deep breath underwater. She had to get Ellone to safety. Everything else came after that. What would he do if she died? Either of them? Something stupid. Try to avenge them, if he could even get to his gun, if he wasn't already...stop it! Raine blinked. She realized she had a plan, though she didn't recall making it. She looked down at Ellone, a feather in the wind, in her arms.

"I love you, Raine," Ellone whispered.

Raine's lips contorted. "I love you too, Elle." She kissed the fair forehead. "Listen to me, honey." God, Ellone had such soft hair. "We're going to walk...very carefully out...to the street. As soon as I let go of you, I want you to run as fast as you can back into those fields." She pointed to the left-hand side of the street, the direction they'd first come from. "Run fast...like Laguna taught you." She had to clear her throat before she went on. "I'm going to run the other way. Don't be afraid. You keep going until you get back to the flower lady's house, okay? Get inside and hide. Uncle Laguna and I will send the mean men away. But you can't let them see you."

Ellone nodded silently.

"Good girl. You keep running no matter what. Even if you hear me yelling. Okay?"

Ellone nodded silently.

"Good." She compressed the tiny hand. "Let's go. Be very quiet."

They walked out into the middle of the street. Raine could hear the Esthar soldiers, now—shouting in strange accents, strange words. Military jargon. They broached the long spire of the steeple's shadow, stepped out into limpid sunlight. Raine did not look down. She squeezed the girl's hand once, and then let go. Small footsteps pattered away across the dirt road. In her peripheral vision, she saw the pastel dress slip into the grass, a blue letter in a green envelope, saw the navy uniforms streaming down an alley toward her, saw the sickle-headed gunblades swinging voraciously. She turned deliberately to the right and, gesturing as if to someone ahead of her, screaming, "No, Ellone, wait," Raine ran.

 

The man without the machine gun coughed blood again, and tried to shake it off his face, succeeding only in getting his hair in his eyes. Which hurt, because his hair was bloody, too. And blood was sticky. And his hair was now plastered across his eyes.

"Could someone punch me again, please?"

A mantis-like mask turned to him; a sibilant voice said, "What?"

"My hair is in my eyes. It hurts. Could you knock it loose?"

The mantis-heads reflected anonymous looks off each other's helmets. Out of nowhere shot a glove, backhanding him. Laguna staggered, his balance skewed by having his hands bound behind his back. When he was certain he could speak again without throwing up, he said, "Thanks."

Mantis Head A glanced at Mantis Head B. Mantis Head C only looked away in disgust.

 

Initially, it had hurt like a thousand bees all stinging the same spot at once, but now the bullet in Raine's right forearm seemed to have turned anesthetic. She no longer ran, but jogged doggedly. The Esthar soldiers gave off chase in the coarse, waist-high grass a mile outside town, probably assuming an injured woman would gravitate back to civilization to be tended. And she did, but not for that reason.

Her right arm only flapped uselessly now, so she clutched it to her chest, trotting with bent knees. Every so often, a telltale ridge snaking through the grass sent her flat to her belly, as still as if she had been shot dead. Possibly that earlier unknown grace had taken a liking to her and decided to tag along, because no matter how deliriously close the soldiers came, they never seemed to notice her. And finally she could see the road, and the flower lady's house beside it.

Now that she was there, though, she realized she didn't have the dimmest twinkle of what to do. All I want to know is that Ellone is safe. She would have to go to...Timber, to get help. On foot. With a ruined arm. Esthar would have reinforcements by then. Galbadia would have gotten a whiff, too. She couldn't bring the war into Winhill again. I'm not giving her up. Alone, she was useless. If Laguna was still free...if he still had his gun...if he knew where Ellone was hiding... I'm not giving her up. Her stomach writhed. She probably had an ulcer. It hurt sometimes, lately. While she crouched motionlessly in the grass fringing the road, her mind meandering down a million wisps of evanescent thought, the decision was made for her.

The sullen drumbeat tread of boots pulled her gaze hypnotically. He looked...almost identical as to when they'd carried him into the village a year ago. Blood scrawled wildly across his face; his hair appeared raked with brambles; his clothes were stained and dirty and askew. Past and present struck sparks. His clothes— not the Galbadian uniform they had burned after peeling it in pieces off his blood-glazed figure. He walked hunched over, hands pinned behind his back, but his head was up, seemingly searching for something. Me, or Ellone? That was unfair. Anyway, she knew the answer. Both of us. The same as I'd do.

Raine realized with a cold jolt that she had half-stood at the sight of him. She mouthed an expletive as she lowered herself. Her shoulder ached. Only dully, but somehow the persistent dullness was worse than the original burst. A cry from the road lifted her head like a string jerking a puppet.

One of the spidery-limbed Esthar soldiers clubbed Laguna with the hilt of his gunblade. He stumbled, but maintained his feet. The soldier muttered something and hacked bluntly at the back of his knees, and this time he fell. Raine's teeth sliced into her lip, but she didn't move. She poured all her will into not moving.

"I don't know," Laguna cried suddenly, in response to something Raine could not hear. "If I knew where she was, I'd be helping her escape, you idiots."

The scythe-like gunblade flickered in the sunlight, its hilt striking across his shoulders, pitching him face-first into the dirt. It took him a few moments to push himself back up—his wrists were taped together. Raine's right arm dragged yearningly at the ground, heavy as a mountain. Her ears hummed. Is this really happening? Laguna wavered on his knees. There was something about him kneeling that clawed at her too fiercely to resist, and suddenly she was floundering out into the road, screaming for them to stop.

A haze of motion spun around her. Hard fingers dug into her arms, seized her hair in a fist, pulling her up straight. She thought she was crying, but she couldn't bother to notice. She leaned forward determinedly, trying to get closer to Laguna. The stony hands unclenched, and she folded down into the dirt beside him. Her left hand drifted out, fingers grazing the side of his bloody face.

"Raine. Raine. Oh god, what happened to your arm? There's blood everywhere." His eyes flared like sulfur. "You bastards, what the hell did you do to her?"

"Laguna," she whispered, "shut up."

"Raine Leonheart." The voice sounded tinny, synthesized, coming out of that alien helmet. "Where is the girl, Miss Leonheart?"

Her lips twitched. "It's Loire," she spat coldly.

Her head snapped back, anchored by the hair now possessed by the soldier behind her.

"Where is the girl?"

Laguna's indignant glare abruptly melted. He stared at her hopefully, hedging on childlike. It hurt to look at that. "I don't know," Raine answered him—only him. It wasn't a lie, either. Anymore. "She ran off, I lost her in the fields. I tried to...god, you know I did."

"I know you did," Laguna repeated.

The glove in her hair tightened convulsively. "The village is secured. You gain nothing from evasion. It is only to your detriment." The fingers curled deeper. "Where is the girl?"

"I don't know," Raine stoutly maintained.

And then she was horizontal, staring at the flowers across the road, her cheek—emblazoned with the rosy stamp of a handprint—pillowed on harsh dirt. Her head felt cavernous; every thought rang, echoed. Laguna was shouting. Now that she'd seen him, she realized she was probably worse wounded. Raine didn't lever herself up immediately, though; something had caught her eye. She had fallen facing the flower lady's house. Meredith stood on the stoop—stood cowering—her hands a scrabbling flurry trying to draw her shawl around her taut as a second skin. She stared aghast at Raine. Her eyes shot to the door behind her, then ricocheted back. It took less than a heartbeat for comprehension to bloom. ...Ellone? She has Ellone. Oh, god, thank you. Thank you. Relief suffused her momentarily, cool tingle, flush of mint. The next problem: how could she communicate this to Laguna? Awkwardly, one-handedly, she heaved herself to a sitting position. Laguna huddled protectively above her, offering the only help he could: obstruction.

Before she could think of thinking, an Esthar soldier dropped to one knee on the opposite side from Laguna. The soldier's hand snaked out, affixing to her chin like a magnet. "Where. Is. The. Girl."

They're really pissed off now. Shit. Shit. Stalling was probably best given up. Divert them. Get them away from this house. She opened her mouth with a lie already tumbling out. Behind the soldier, Raine saw Meredith's mouth open simultaneously, saw her take a small, miserable step forward. Raine glowered, shaking her head infinitesimally. Maybe the soldier would mistake it for a tremor of fear. The expressionless mantis-face stared at her for a moment without change, and then she was back in the dirt again, but this time, the barrage continued. The boot struck her side like a clarion lightning bolt. She hadn't braced for it, and lost all her breath before she could fling back the futile defiance of a shout. Remotely, she was conscious of Laguna yelling, of thrashing sounds, but she couldn't see; her eyes were closed, and she couldn't or wouldn't make herself open them again. The boot speared into her ribs, stomach, hips. She was less frightened than she was angry; they were beating the air out of her, so she couldn't scream back at them. After a little while, perhaps thirty kicks, it stopped. She breathed in short, stuttered hiccups, swallowing back the blood because it hurt less than spitting. She wanted nothing so much, nothing so much as to wallow piteously in the road, but movement spurred pain.

They asked the question again.

Raine hurled all the spite she could summon from the kaleidoscope of pain and fury and confusion into the words, "I don't fucking know."

And then Meredith cried out, and the grass beside the house sneezed softly as two skinny legs cut vanishing arcs through it. Ellone's face wore a crystalline sheen of tears. She was crying, "Mommy, mommy," and running toward Raine.

It was odd. Ellone had never called her that before.

She watched listlessly as the soldiers scooped up the girl. One leveled his sickle-bladed gun at Meredith, but was deterred at a sharp word from another. Ellone was bent in two over the shoulder of a tall figure. The man clutched her crudely, baring her legs up to her panties. Worms of disgust slithered in Raine's stomach, but she could do nothing except keep watching. The soldiers assumed formation and marched summarily away up the road, shriveling up into indistinguishable blue smudges, the pale speck of Ellone lost to the failing of the human eye.

As if just then imbued with life, the flower lady catapulted from her porch, stumbling in her haste to reach them. She spared one wildly mournful look at Raine before attending to Laguna. The sound of tape tearing seemed...otherworldly. Raine stared at the wildflower field behind the house; the perfect blue of the sky; at nothing. She had only one thought, ceaseless and unchanging. Ellone. Ellone. Water; wind; earth. Meredith and Laguna were talking, she realized belatedly.

"...told her to stay put. To stay put. I promise you. I only came out because I heard you screaming. What kind of person wouldn't?"

"I know. Thank you. You did the best you—thank you." Raine felt the formless warmth of hands hovering near her side. "Raine?" A pained pause. "Where can I lift you from, Raine?"

It was the quiver in Laguna's voice that finally shattered her. Abandoning all deceits, Raine closed her eyes, and cried.

 

The doctor said she might lose the child if she followed Laguna to Esthar. Pregnant—how could she not have added up such angrily glaring numbers? The stomach aches, the fainting spells. As it was, the doctor said there would at least be complications during birth. Her fingers gingerly feathered at her broken ribs, and she couldn't even stop the wince that elicited. Breathing was still hopelessly laborious. Her arm bore only a superficial wound, but perversely that was the most frustrarting of all. Because of them. Because of them, she might lose the—her—child. Another. She was three months pregnant, and Laguna was gone; off to Esthar, off to save Ellone. Off to Esthar, a city half-unreal, a place no one had ever seen...no one who was talking, anyway. She might lose him, too.

She didn't tell him about the baby before he left.

He didn't know.

Raine stood in the doorway of the house Laguna had lived in during his year in Winhill—Ellone's parents' house. She thought about the first time she had kissed Laguna, in the winter, in the snow. And the day Ellone's parents were killed. Fire and smoke, screams, the chatter of gunfire. A lot had happened to piddling little one-horse Winhill. To her. She stood propped against the doorframe, the afternoon sun peering tentatively over her shoulder. Raine frowned at the bullet-peppered stain on the side of the staircase. Why hadn't Laguna ever cleaned that? Ellone played in that house all the time, right in front of it... Come back to me, she thought. And she thought, or maybe she believed, they would.

It was odd. At that angle, the sun cast Raine's shadow squarely across that stain.

 

~12.20.99~

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