Reaching Out
by Arafel
angharen@hotmail.com
See how the heart reaches out instinctively
For no reason but to touch.
Reaching out for the Star.
Reaching out for the Star that explodes.
Reaching out for Mama.

--Kate Bush

Commander Squall Leonhart of Balamb Garden sat scowling at his desk. It was another working afternoon on another working day, with the usual assortment of junk in the inbox letters of application, entreaties from countries looking to hire SeeD, et cetera. All the fun stuff Headmaster Cid had dumped on an unwilling 18-year-old before he ran off to solitary splendor with Edea. For the nth time, Squall wondered why in all hells he'd been chosen for this job. Him, an unready teenager with an inflated sense of responsibility and a rather selective soft spot. Then again, he reflected as he glowered at the mess of papers on the wood desk, that sense of responsibility had roped him rather neatly into doing a good job in a crisis, which was probably why Cid had saddled him with this position.

It was an ordinary afternoon on an ordinary day except for two things. Two scraps of paper in the inbox had thrown him all to sixes and sevens and upset his uncertain temper. Funny how words on a page could put a life into such an uproar.

The first: the results of a very discreet DNA test from Kiros in Esthar, done at Squall's request.

The second: a missive stamped with the presidential seal of Esthar from someone he really didn't want to deal with. It was half-crumpled, as if someone in a fit of pique had smashed what he was reading. Which, of course, Squall had. The note wasn't addressed to "Balamb Garden" or "Commander Squall" or any honorific at all just "Squall." And it wasn't closed with "Republic of Esthar" or "President Loire," just "Laguna."

The second missive postdated the first, though they had arrived on the same day in Balamb. Squall was beyond certain that the sender of the second letter had been informed of the contents of the first before he'd written. Laguna had said as much. Squall was good and annoyed at Kiros for breaching his confidentiality, but the little part of his mind that was still rational reasoned that Laguna had as much right as he did to know where the bloodlines led. It didn't make him feel any less cross, though.

Laguna was his father. Period. Indubitable and irrefutable. It was beyond imagining to Squall that such a scatterbrained idiot could have fathered him. (As he'd once remarked to his comrades, "I dreamed I was a moron.") What was worse was that Squall hadn't been alone all those years; he had a father who for whatever reason had chosen not to acknowledge him.

The note from Laguna was simple. He asked Squall to come to Winhill so they could talk, and so Laguna could tell Squall about his mother. They would meet in roughly a week's time, should Squall accept.

He didn't want to, and yet there were questions to be answered. The part of Squall that just wanted to move on told him to leave it be and not open up any old wounds. He and Laguna hadn't even known one another six months ago, and he hardly expected or wanted to bother with some father-son relationship. At the same time, there was a powerful little voice inside that screamed out with a deep wish to know about where he came from. It was a child's voice and a child's hurt, and a child's anger at being abandoned.

What the hell, he thought, and penned a short letter stating his acceptance. Squall folded up the paper, stamped it with the black-and-white Balamb seal, and tossed it into his outbox. Someone else would take care of it from there on. He got up, angry and unsettled, and stalked out of his office.

It was a fine autumn day in Balamb, though anyone who got a good look at Squall's face as he made the rounds of the Garden would swear to a distinct chill in the air. Cadets who wanted to ask the Commander for advice or a favor thought the better of it almost immediately and left him alone. Garden staff scurried out of his way. He strode past the main hall of the Garden, trailing thunderclouds and liking it that way.

"Squall!" someone hailed him from behind. Some sense of courtesy made him stop and turn around, and there was the irrepressible Selphie, breathing quickly as if she'd just come from running. She quailed a bit under his gaze but continued on. "Don't mean to bug you if you're busy. There's a situation out in front of the Garden." She glanced back over her shoulder and examined her boots.

Squall tried very hard not to snap at her. "What's going on?"

"I don't know," she replied. "But there's a bunch of SeeD cadets gathered up and they seem to be harassing someone."

"Why didn't you take care of it? You're a SeeD."

"You think they'll listen to me? Unh-unh." Selphie shook her head, pageboy flip bouncing. "Better get out there, Commander."

Could be worse. Someone to yell at might ease his temper a little. "OK."

"Thanks!" Selphie gave him a wavery smile and bounced off.

Squall quickened his pace to a trot and headed off towards the entrance to Garden. Once he'd reached the main road into the complex, he saw what Selphie had been talking about a knot of blue-uniformed cadets rumbling among themselves. They were gathered in a loose circle. Once he got a little closer, he could hear what they were yelling.

"Witch!" one young man cried, aiming a kick at the unseen someone. "Sorceress!" The grumbling got uglier, and the knot tightened. Squall ran over to the cadets and started shoving.

"What the hell do you think you're doing?" he yelled, glaring around him. The SeeD members fell back almost as one, their mob mentality broken by the presence of the Commander. "Do you think this is any way for SeeD cadets to behave? You!" Squall pointed to the young man who he'd seen roughing up their victim. "Explain yourself!"

"Well, sir." the cadet mumbled, scuffing his feet, "This ol' lady wandered in, and she's magic."

"And we don't need any more sorceresses!" someone hissed behind him. Squall whirled around, but the speaker was silent.

Squall looked into their midst to see a shaking black-robed figure. The figure picked up her head, and Squall saw the markings on her robe and a silver collar. He shook his head. There were numerous religious sects wandering around the continents, and they tended to gravitate towards young people, as most sects do. Her clothes marked her as part of a nature sect totally harmless, prone only to selling the occasional "love philter," or fortune-telling to the easily duped.

"She's of no interest to you," Squall said. With a curt wave of his hand, he dismissed the cadets. "Clear off. Leave her alone. Go do something constructive. Go study, for crying out loud." The cadets drifted off, leaving him alone with the woman.

He extended a gloved hand to her and helped her up. "Thank you, sir," she said, straightening her robes and dusting off her sleeves.

"Don't mention it."

The older woman stared into his face, and he felt her gaze as keenly as a blade. He felt a certain unreality wash over him as her eyes changed from a milky blue to white, and for a moment it felt like she was peering into his very soul. The feeling was gone almost as soon as it had formed, and the priestess was again just another religious crackpot who'd wandered into Balamb.

She stepped forward and pressed something into Squall's hand before he could protest. She leaned close to whisper into his ear. "The spirits of the dead can pass between the worlds on Sowwen-night. Remember your mother."

Shaken, Squall stood motionless as she folded his hand over whatever-it-was and moved off. Within moments, she had faded into the landscape, even though someone all in black should have been visible for much longer. He opened his hand to look at the object the old woman had given him. It was an unusual stone two sandy-colored bars intersecting in a perfect cross. Shrugging, he stuck it in his pocket. Whatever.

The next week flew by in a daze. Squall's poor humor evaporated enough by the next day to allow for more productive working hours and a few workout sessions in the Training Center with his friends and without. He even joined Zell in the cafeteria for a hot dog, and Zell was so tickled that he'd insisted on treating. It would have been a pleasant week if it weren'tfor the nagging knowledge that he'd have to join Laguna in a few days' time in Winhill.

On the morning of the specified day, Squall climbed into the Ragnarok airship on permanent loan from Esthar as something of a gratitude and set off for the tiny village. His mood grew darker with every passing mile. When he finally passed over Winhill, Squall noted with some relief that there was no other airship besides his; therefore Laguna hadn't arrived yet. It would give him some time to get his bearings, anyway.

Winhill was lovely colorful leaves drifted through the streets and a warm breeze ruffled the trees despite autumn's nip in the air. Squall barely saw any of it. He wasn't sure which of the memories running through his mind were his and which were from his forced rapport with Laguna through Ellone. Every building he saw had an overlay from roughly seventeen years ago, when Laguna had lived here. The flower shop, at least, looked the same. He pushed open the door, and a little bell rang as he did.

He looked around the entire place was awash with flowers. An old lady was busy arranging stems in pots of water, and her husband was off in the back humming to himself. At the sound of the bell, the old lady looked up, and she greeted Squall with a smile.

"Hello, young fellow! May I help you with something? Some flowers for your girlfriend?" She held up a long-stemmed red rose and trimmed the stem. "Always nice, roses are."

Squall reflected dryly that Rinoa would probably drop dead of surprise if he brought her a dozen roses. Might be worth considering at some point, but not now. "Sorry, but I'm afraid I'm not here for flowers." He took a deep breath and plunged ahead. "I'm looking for someone who might have lived here about seventeen or eighteen years ago."

"Oh?" she replied, her gaze sharpening. "Why is that?"

"I'm trying to find someone who can tell me about Raine."

The woman's face closed, and she looked at Squall with suspicion. "What do you want to know about Raine?"

"Everything. Anything," Squall said. He drew another deep breath. "I think I'm her son."

The old woman put her flower back in the bucket and walked over to Squall. She stared hard at him and said slowly, "Ye-es. You do look a little bit like her. I can see it in the shape of your eyes." She chuckled. "Fortune favors you. You do look more like your mother than that soldier she took up with." Anger touched the old woman's eyes for a moment.

She put a grandmotherly hand on Squall's shoulder and guided him over to sit at a table. "Cup of tea, sonny?"

Well, if it got her to talk. "Sure," he replied.

"It'll just be a minute," she called back. He heard a pot fill with water, and the dull thump of gas igniting. "Water'll boil in a few." Teacups rattled.

"Who's that, Anna?" the old man asked.

"Raine's son," she replied. "Remember all that?"

"Yeah, sure. Good-for-nothing soldier run off and left her alone."

The teakettle went off with a whistle, and Anna came back with a tray and some biscuits. She sat down next to Squall and gave him a warm smile. There was something knowing and parental in that smile, and Squall grew a bit uneasy.

"Drink your tea, and I'll tell you what I know." Anna started talking, and Squall listened silently. Anna told him how Raine came to be in Winhill, and it was obvious that she was well-loved in the village. Her pub was the center of activity, and she was kind and generous to people in need. All the same, Raine took no nonsense, and she was known as someone not to cross. Anna didn't seem to want to talk about Laguna much except to say that Raine had spent far too much time coddling him, and look how it cost her.

The biscuits were almost gone by the time Anna started to tell him about the circumstances of Raine's death. "She was wrung out, you see," said Anna, sipping the last of her tea. "She'd been all alone for almost nine months, pregnant all the while. Ellone finally came back to her and that was a bit of joy for her at the end. I remember the night she went into labor. awful night, storming like the wrath of angels." She sighed and put down her cup. Squall's face was strained, but he willed himself to be quiet; this was what he'd come to learn.

After a pause, Anna continued. "We didn't have a real medic around, and it was too bad out to go get one. Raine called and called for Laguna, but of course he wasn't there. She wasn't too much herself at that point. When you finally arrived into this world, there was just too much blood and we couldn't help her. She died, not too long after." The old woman's face was etched with a terrible sadness. "No one here could raise you and Ellone. There was no one left. It was wartime, and the only option was the Kramers. I've never quite forgiven myself for not being able to save her, and to do right by you and the little girl."

"Save her?" Squall replied blankly. "What do you mean? How do you know all this?"

"I was there." Anna reached out and patted Squall's face. "I delivered you, you see."

He left shortly thereafter in something of a daze. A piece of history had fallen into place with a solid thunk, and his mind was still reeling. Squall wandered into the town square a little drunkenly, and stopped in front of Raine's old pub. It was a home now, he remembered. He and his friends had come charging in like a herd of elephants, thinking the place deserted, and the lady of the house hadn't been too pleased. Squall hoped she was in a better humor today. He knocked on the door, and a few moments later, the lady opened the door.

"Yes?" Her face registered recognition. "I remember you. You and your friends were here before. You helped my friend find her vase. What can I do for you?"

"Yes. well, I have a question." Squall scuffed his feet, nervous. "Did you know Raine? I'm trying to find out about her."

The lady opened the door. "Please, come in and sit down." She ushered him upstairs, and Squall perched on the edge of the brocaded settee in the main room. There was something unreal about being in Raine's home, since he could see it across two decades. He tried not to look too uncomfortable. The lady seated herself in an armchair across from him and folded her hands in her lap.

"I admit I don't know much about Raine," she said, "because I bought this house a year or two after she died. I never knew her personally, you see. Why do you want to know?"

Squall forced the explanation out again. "She was my mother."

"Ah. Well, that changes things." The lady got up, and opened a small chest in the corner. "I have a few personal effects of hers that I found when I was moving in. They were hidden under the floor, and whoever cleaned her house out after she died didn't find them. Perhaps they're of interest to you." She dug through the chest and produced a few items: a picture frame, and a few small boxes. The lady stacked them up and handed them to Squall.

He turned over the picture frame, a folded triptych, and opened the swinging doors. Inside, three pictures on the left, Raine and Ellone; on the right, Laguna and Ellone; and in the center, Laguna and Raine together. They both looked blissfully happy, and Squall noticed the twin rings they were holding out to the camera. A wedding photograph. His heart gave a little lurch sideways to see his mother for the first time. Squall stared at her face in the photo until his eyes ached, searching for himself in her figure.

With an effort, he closed the triptych and turned to the boxes. They were plain wooden and latched, with all the look of a homemade effort. He lifted one creaky lid and looked inside. A few of Raine's memories lay within; little mementoes that must have meant something to her. Bright feathers, perhaps from a chocobo; water-polished stones, a lock of hair. Ellone's? It didn't matter. They were all little pieces from a mother Squall had never known.

The lady had remained politely silent throughout his perusal of the items. Squall swallowed hard there seemed to be an overlarge lump in the back of his throat and reassembled the little package. "Thank you very much. It... means a lot."

The lady smiled. "I can tell. You're welcome. I wish you luck."

Squall took his leave and left the pub. Raine's image was seared on his brain black hair, blue eyes like his, only darker; fine bones, small mouth. He clutched his treasures close to his chest and took them back to the Ragnarok. Dusk was starting to fall by the time he came back to the town square where could Laguna be?

He surveyed the house where Laguna had lived with morbid curiosity. So this was where it all began. Squall stood for a long moment outside the door, his thoughts in turmoil. He hadn't given the house a moment's thought when he'd gone in last time with the others, but that was before he knew about his relationship to Laguna. Was this where I was conceived? A hot blush stained his cheeks, and Squall resolved not to think about that again.

The door creaked when he opened it, and the heavy sound of his footsteps echoed in the abandoned house. It still looked the same bullet holes in the walls, rickety table, dilapidated dresser. The stairs groaned under Squall's weight as he ascended to look again at the tiny room where his father had spent his sleeping hours in Winhill. The room was still neat, and pleasant; the last rays of sun filtered in through the window. Motes of dust danced in the air over the crib in the corner. Ellone's, presumably, from when this had been her house. It seemed his whole life was tied up in this room the genesis of his foster-sister, the beginnings of his whole self. Squall leaned against the window, one hand placed against the edge of the window frame. He sighed and rested his head on his arm.

"It's pleasant here, isn't it?" Squall whirled around at the sound of the unfamiliar voice. Laguna stood in the doorway, half in shadow. He took a few steps into the room, and sighed. "Seems like yesterday that I was living here. Funny how time goes by so fast." Squall's fingers tightened on the window frame. A slow pulse of dull anger began to throb between his temples.

The older man came over to lean against the other side of the window. Squall resisted an irrational urge to shove him out and counted, slowly, to ten. The emotional turmoil of the day wasn't getting any better. He stared out the window, not wanting to look at Laguna. "Want to sit downstairs, and talk like reasonable men?" Laguna asked. Squall didn't answer, but he did turn for the stairs. Laguna followed him down.

Squall wrenched a chair out from the table, and fell into it. He knew he was behaving like a child, but he didn't care. The little voice in the back of his head was screaming, over and over, how could you leave me? Laguna sat down, facing him. His demeanor was much more serious than Squall might have expected; most of the time, when Squall shared his mind, Laguna acted like a complete airhead. He forced himself to relax.

"So?" Squall said, trying to keep a waspish tone out of his voice. "We're here. Kiros showed you the test results. Do you think you could tell me about Raine? About my mother?"

Laguna fussed with his shirt sleeves and twisted the silver ring on his finger. His eyes were shadowed. "I don't even know where to start..."

"Start at the beginning." Squall was unable to keep the snap out of his voice. Stop it, he thought. Try.

His father got up out of his chair, and drifted around the room, touching the walls and the bar almost reverently. After a long moment, he spoke. "Well, you know some of it. I was hurt. Raine took care of me." Laguna shrugged, and pain flashed across his face for a moment. "Never thought we'd fall in love... she didn't seem to like me too much. But Ellone liked me... she was such a great kid." He smiled at the memory.

Squall folded his arms across his chest. Patience. "You got married. When?"

"Not too long after Kiros showed up," replied Laguna. He rubbed the back of his neck, absently. "He came... reminded me of why I was in Winhill. I always wanted to be a journalist, travel the world, see everything. So I had to come clean. I was in Winhill because of Ellone. Because of Raine." Laguna stared out into the night. "I loved her. We had a little time together. Then the soldiers came." His voice was bitter. When he spoke again, his voice was tightly controlled.

"There were so many of them. They came for Ellone." Laguna's voice broke. "I lost my wife and my daughter that night. They took my little Ellone and I had to go after them to get her back. Raine didn't try to keep me here." Laguna cradled his head in his hands. "She should have."

"Did you know she was pregnant?" asked Squall, his voice dangerously soft. Laguna turned to his son. Squall's eyes were twin chips of glacier ice. He took a deep breath.

"No. No, I didn't. I don't even know if Raine knew. She didn't say anything to me."

"So. You left your beloved wife alone, for months, no contact with her at all, while you wrote articles, acted in movies, did whatever it took to get you into Esthar."

Laguna threw his arms out, imploring. "It wasn't like that. Ellone was in danger. I needed to get to her!"

Squall didn't budge. "You also had a wife who was in danger. A pregnant wife. Then, what? You rescue Ellone. That I remember."

"Yeah. We got her out of Lunatic Pandora-"

Squall continued on, deliberately choosing each word to fall like a hammer. "And then, instead of going back to Winhill, with your adopted daughter, to your wife, you sent Ellone back with who? Members of the resistance movement? What a treat for Ellone, to be sent away by her Uncle Laguna."

"It wasn't like that!" Laguna exploded. "I owed them! They got her out! She understood why!"

"Then, while you were "not paying attention," you turned into a hero. It netted you a presidency. Not bad," Squall said, with a thin smile. "You could have done worse."

Laguna looked desperately unhappy. "I only wanted what was best for everyone. I wanted to go home to Raine, but there was so much to do..."

"And Raine died." Squall closed his eyes for a moment, remembered Anna's gentle touch. I delivered you... "She died, after giving birth. Giving birth to me."

"Squall..." Laguna leaned against a wall, rubbing his eyes. "You have to understand, it wasn't like that..."

"Let's talk about the orphanage." Squall changed the subject. "Ellone went to the Kramers. Did you talk to them at all about her?"

"Of course I did. They were wonderful to take her in, to protect her. She needed to be in a place where she couldn't be found easily."

"You must have discussed the circumstances of Ellone's arrival. I can't believe that they wouldn't have told you that Ellone was delivered to them without mentioning a newborn infant who came with her." Squall's voice was frozen flame. "She knew she was my sister. The Kramers must have known that too." Laguna looked away and didn't answer.

"What was Raine's last name, Laguna?" Laguna didn't answer. Furious, Squall stood up, knocking his chair over. Laguna flinched at the sound. "What was her name, damn it?"

"Leonhart," replied Laguna, his voice barely audible. "Her last name was Leonhart."

"Leonhart," snapped Squall. "My last name. The Kramers passed it on to me. Odd little quirk of our society that it's the mother's name that's passed on, not the father's, but the Kramers knew who my mother was, and they knew she was married. They even gave me her ring. I believe you gave her that ring, didn't you?"

Laguna nodded. He didn't look up.

Squall paced, beside himself with anger and hurt. "I know you miss details seen plenty of that when I shared your head. But how could you have missed that there was a Squall Leonhart at the orphanage?" Fury clouded his head and blinded him to all but the maelstrom of emotions swirling in him. "Do you understand what it is to be alone, Laguna? To feel like you have no one else in the world?"

"All too well." Laguna spoke unevenly.

"Fine!" Squall shouted. "Good! But here's the trick, you see. I wasn't alone. I had a father. You. So now I want to know why. Why did you abandon me, Laguna? Why did I spend seventeen years of my life as an orphan, when my father was the most powerful man in Esthar, and well-connected? I lost everyone. I lost Sis. So why didn't you ever bother to try and find me?"

Laguna looked up at his son, and his eyes were sad and broken. "I... I just didn't know what I was going to do with a baby son."

The admission hit Squall like the sorceress's ice blade through his heart. In the absolute calm that comes of absolute anger, he turned on his heel and stalked out of the house, slamming the door so hard behind him that the door frame splintered. Behind him, before he left, he thought he heard the sound of a dry sob. He didn't care.

Squall stumbled through the pastoral outskirts of Winhill, seething and bitter. He'd expected Laguna's confession, but like a man who hears that his wife has been unfaithful, he didn't quite believe it until he heard it from Laguna himself. The night was bright with stars, and a full moon lit his path. Squall didn't know how long he'd been wandering in the night, but it had been moonrise when he left the town and now it was directly overhead. The cold night air had helped to take the edge off his temper, but the dull ache of hurt was only beginning to throb.

Squall looked around, trying to get his bearings. At some point he would have to find his way back to town and board the Ragnarok for home. About ten yards off, he saw an irregularity in the rolling sweep of hills a rock, much too angular to be natural, jutted up from the ground. He walked over to it, shuffling his feet through the carpet of autumn leaves.

The rock looked like a marker of some kind. Perhaps a signpost back to town? Squall knelt and brushed the layer of leaves from the surface, and froze when he read the inscription. "Raine Loire," he breathed. His mother's grave. Sudden tears started at the corners of his eyes. He'd found his mother at last. Squall knelt at the graveside for a long moment, eyes shut, thinking of the pretty laughing woman in the picture.

Something was poking him in the leg, making it hard for him to concentrate. Squall cursed and reached into his pocket. His fingers closed around the little cross stone the old priestess had given to him. Annoyed, Squall yanked it out of his pocket and made as if to throw it away but he stopped abruptly when he saw the shimmer of magic working around it. Not quite understanding why he was doing it, Squall placed the cross stone on the grave. The old woman's words echoed in his mind: "The spirits of the dead can pass between worlds on Sowwen-night..."

Ridiculous. There was no such thing possible. Then why was he so nervous?

The air was thickening around him, heavy. It seemed to solidify and ripple in intangible white veils. Squall seemed to be looking through a tunnel directly in front of him, and a human figure was walking toward him. As it approached, Squall saw long black hair flowing in an invisible breeze, and knowing blue eyes.

"Raine," he choked out. The figure stopped, and smiled at him. A single tear gathered at the corner of Squall's eye, and spilled down his cheek. "Mother."

All the wish, all the hope, all the need of a little boy who wants only his mother's kiss on little hurts and his mother's voice when he goes to bed at night gathered in Squall's heart. His breath hitched in his chest and another tear flowed down his cheek. He closed his eyes and cried out, with all the love and pain in him, "Mama!"

He felt something approach from and come to rest in front of him. Ghostly fingers lifted his head. :Squall... my baby boy...: His mother's lips pressed against his forehead, and Squall sobbed. He opened his eyes, and there was Raine, smiling at him with a mother's joy. :I'm so proud of you...:

"Mama," he whispered, and his mother gathered him into her arms and stroked his hair, rocking him back and forth while he wept.

:Ssh... don't cry, Squall... I'm here and I always will be, my love...: whispered the ghost. After what seemed like an eternity, the storm abated, and he could lift his head again. She was still there, glowing in the moonlight, translucent but solid as the ground beneath his feet.

"How is this possible?" Squall whispered, lost in wonderment.

:I don't know,: said Raine. There was no sound when she spoke, but he heard her in his mind. :You called me. I answered. I never got to know you. It is as much a miracle for me as it is for you.: She brushed a lock of hair from her son's face, and he bit back another freshet of tears. :Where is your father, Squall? Where is Laguna?:

"I don't know where he is. I didn't even know he was my father until about six months ago," he said.

Raine's face was sad. :He left so suddenly. He never knew I was pregnant.:

"He told me that." Squall lowered his head. "I've been alone all my life. He never came for me. We fought, today."

:Ohhh...: The ghost knelt beside him, and gently patted his back. :But you know who your father is now?:

"Yes," whispered Squall. He closed his eyes, and savored the feeling of his mother's love, for the first time in his life.

Footsteps behind them interrupted the moment. Raine rose from her position beside Squall, and turned to face the visitor. Squall recognized Laguna in a moment the turquoise shirt stood out in the moonlight.

Raine drifted over to her husband, who was no less thunderstruck than Squall was. "Raine..." murmured Laguna, hoarsely. "I never thought I'd see you again."

:Laguna. My husband.: Raine's smile was warm. :How I've missed you.: She stopped in front of him, and Squall saw her nose wrinkle as she looked him up and down. :Sandals? For the president of a small country?: Her expression was mock-severe. :I'd never let you out of the house like this.:

Laguna tried to laugh, but Squall could see that his face was wet with tears too. "Oh, Raine... you don't know how I regretted not coming back to Winhill. I've lived with it every day of my life. I hope you can forgive me."

:I already have, my love. There were wrongs. They can be corrected. What matters is the love of family and the love we have for one another...: Raine stood on tiptoe and kissed her husband. Laguna threw his arms around her, and hugged her fiercely. When they separated, he could see her lips moving, but no speech reached him. Whatever Raine had to say to Laguna was between them alone.

Once they were finished, Raine drifted over to stand between father and son. :My time here is short,: she said. :I sense that there is not peace between you two.:

Squall licked dry lips. "We fought."

:I know. I have watched over you both for a long time.: She moved forward to take her son's hand in her right hand and her husband's hand in her left. :Your lives have not been easy. I know, Squall, that it will be difficult for you to forgive Laguna. Laguna, I know it will be difficult for you to live with this and to learn to be a father. But you must.:

:It is time to let the past go. If you dwell on it, it will bring only sadness.: Raine gazed lovingly at both of them. :I love you more than you can know. I need to know that you will try to build the relationship you might have had, once upon a time.:

Raine lifted both their hands, and placed Laguna's hand over Squall's. She held their clasped hands between hers. :You are a family. Human foibles and all. I love you both.:

She began to grow insubstantial. The magic was fading. "Mama," whispered Squall, as another ghostly kiss was pressed to his forehead. Laguna said nothing, but his eyes were full of relief and wonder. The air rippled, and the tunnel faded out into inky night. They were alone.

Squall felt Laguna squeeze his hand, then let go. He turned to face the older man, and for the first time, he felt no anger. Raine had lifted both their burdens.

"Do you think we can do what your mother asked?" asked Laguna, his voice shaking.

Squall stepped up to his father and gave him a fierce, hard hug. "I don't know. None of us can know what the future holds. But I'm going to try..." He smiled, and tried the new word for the first time:

"Dad."