I saw my breath in the air.
Stepping back, gun gripped tightly in one hand, I made a decisive gesture with one hand as I summoned. You had to throw yourself into it, we'd found. The summons worked that much better, that much faster, if you put a piece of your heart into the calling. I think it helped that Shiva seemed to like me.
I spun away in pieces, and the air was thick with cold as she came in my place.
In a humming explosion of white noise and light, as the air turned frigid, a column of ice spiked from the ground. Shiva crouched within, her arms folded across her breast, and the cold blue eyes that opened were fixed forward as rigidly as her poised stance.
In a shattering of cold glassy fragments, she sprang into action, pivoting with the grace of a dancer, hip swiveling as she gathered a ball of ice between her palms, so bright it shone. And when she threw it, blasting it from her slender hands faster than a screaming jet, it left a wake of destruction behind, laying waste to the area, shards of ice left behind glittering like diamond dust.
Cold puffs of breath dented the air. My body was recollecting the space where I stood before, as Shiva vanished into that part of me inside. Junction. I turned to where Cid Kramer stood, a safe distance back from the ring of destruction as I'd directed.
"Impressive, isn't she?"
I managed to make my voice sound as casual as it could. Pretty casual, considering...most people thought me a carefree kind of fellow based on my attitude. It was casual considering the swath of devastation we'd just seen Shiva make.
Cid's mouth was still hanging open. He tried his voice twice.
"Ah...amazing," Cid breathed, clearly awed. The man was incapable of 'casual' after what he'd just seen. He was stunned, and there was growing excitement in his bespectacled eyes. "Guardian Forces, you said they're called?"
I nodded. "The Galbadian military has only recently begun cautious experimentation, giving them to a few of the soldiers in the field. My team was one of them. We...ah...we kinda never gave them back, when we went AWOL." I rubbed at my head.
"I can't believe it." Cid began to walk around the frost-sheened strip of barren Centra land, strides clipped and energetic. "I've heard tales -- legends -- of creatures like this, but never imagined... It's amazing, the incredible potential in that simple...what do you call it? Summons? I can't wait to show Edea."
I had to smile at the sudden enthusiasm that had seized the man.
"And just thinking of it, the potentially useful applications of -- you called it a Junction?" Cid waited for my nod, and continued full steam ahead, "To think of the spells you could include in the Junction, for example, if you were to use the drawn spells in conjunction with speed -- Haste would work admirably well, I should think -- or to use a spell like Thundaga you could perhaps improve strength, or--"
"Whoa, whoa!" I waved my hands, unable to suppress a chuckle. Cid was getting too technical for me, and that was all experimental stuff as far as I was concerned. "I'm glad you're excited, Cid. Really. So you think you'd have a use for her?"
Cid's eyes widened. "You...you would give me Shiva?" There was a cautious hush in his voice, as if we spoke not of a tool, a GF, but some primitive ice deity. Maybe she was. I had never really thought much or investigated on the nature or origins of Shiva. She was given to me as a resource and we'd managed to get along, but now I needed her for something else.
"Yeah...well..." I rubbed at my head. This was hard. I'd jumped off cliffs and faced down dragons with a flimsy prop gunblade and bivouacked out of occupied territory but this was the worst thing I'd ever done in my life. "I've got a favor to ask, Cid."
Cid's face shifted into wary lines. "In return for Shiva?" It was something huge, he was thinking, something that would even up the powerful force I was offering him like you'd hand someone a simple souvenir.
"Yeah. Her, and the two GFs that Kiros and Ward are bringing. Those're Quetzacotl and Ifrit -- Thunder and Fire, respectively," I told him.
Cid was about as good at hiding his emotions as I am. He was gaping at me. "What...what do you want?" he asked, voice weak as if he was afraid he couldn't say 'no' even if the price was the pound nearest his heart.
"It's nothing you're not already doing," I hastened to assure him. "You 'n Edea have that orphanage, you know...you've started to take care of the kids Queen Adel left parentless with her war." Absently I noted that I'd given her the title she had claimed even though we had managed to get rid of her for good with my reckless plan.
"Yes..." Cid was nodding, still cautious.
"Kids, Cid. I just need you to take care of a couple of kids," I told him, giving him a grin that faltered. If I tried to think about it that way, it didn't sound very bad, or difficult. I couldn't let this get personal or I'd never be able to follow through.
"Oh..." Cid said vaguely. "Well, I suppose that would be all right."
We stood regarding each other with affable grins. I didn't know what to say, and he didn't seem disposed to speak. His eyes were already going far away again, perhaps putting Shiva through her paces, or hypothesizing on the extended applications of Junction.
"Kiros an' Ward should be here any minute," I said, squinting, holding up a hand to scan the horizon. "They'll be coming in by hovercraft. I hope it doesn't scare the kids."
"You've got this all planned out, don't you?" Cid spoke up, sounding almost resentful. "You knew I wouldn't be able to refuse something like Shiva -- and two more of what you call 'Guardian Forces.' You -- ooh, they're coming in on hovercraft?" And just like that, his eyes were shining again. He was a little kid himself, in some ways.
I'm not much of one to talk, though.
"Yeah," I smiled. "Just like we saw in Shumi Village. Esthar has some incredible technology."
"Do you suppose..." Cid began tentatively.
I knew what he was going to ask. "Sorry," I said with an apologetic smile. "Esthar is really secretive about its technology -- we're about to close down the borders, in fact -- and I can't have other people sniffing around the area looking for flying cars or other curiosities. That is, if you did get a prototype working."
Cid gave a guilty twitch.
"I could, however," I continued thoughtfully, "put you in touch with some of the Shumi. They might be interested in a trade. One or two of them might even be interested in that project of yours, Cid."
"Ahh..." Cid exhaled, rubbing his hands together. "You really think so?"
"I do," I said with a decisive nod. And I thought his plan was a really good idea. Though I'd never suggest to his face that Edea could be any kind of threat, Adel had shown what kind of damage a Knightless sorceress could do. The whole world had feared her; not just Esthar.
Cid's face brightened. "And the careful use of Guardian Forces could make such a difference..." He trailed off, lost for a moment in his introspection, then began muttering as if to himself, "That was always the problem, you see...something to offset the incredible power of the sorceress. Nothing to fight her with, you know, except wits..."
I nodded, though Cid wasn't really seeing me. He was seeing his plans, perhaps the fortress in the sky he had dreamed up years before. His shining plans might never see action or life, but it was certainly something to shoot for. He wanted to establish a force of people, of professionals, who could stand up and fight the sorceress of their time if there was ever a need. A seed of hope planted during desperate times...
"Ah! There's Kiros!" I escaped describing the 'favor' in further detail. Edea would be delighted by two more additions to the orphanage, I knew. She was a beautiful woman, nurturing and compassionate, and it was a shame she and Cid couldn't have kids of their own. It had devastated her for awhile, I knew, until Cid had suggested they take in some of the parentless children of war.
"Laguna..." Cid had turned to me with a questioning look, but I was already running for the edge of the cape, where Kiros was powering down the hovercraft. Little Ellone was tucked in between Kiros' rangy figure and the solid bulk of Ward and her hair was mussed, her dark eyes sparkling.
This hurt. It hurt worse than any other failure I'd managed in my life.
There was a small bundle sheltered in Ward's arms, and he handled it carefully with the most bemused look on his face as he climbed out of the hovercraft. I swallowed the lump in my throat.
On steady feet I walked towards them, trying not to think of Raine's eyes. It was a little unreal. Aside from the brief trip a few days ago, enough to discover the headstone, and the fact that a child had been recently born, it had been over ten months since I'd been to Winhill. I didn't think I could ever go back now. Not even this little reminder.
"Well?" I asked of the big man, forgetting, for a moment, that his voice had been ruined three years ago.
Ward looked at me, and turned down a corner of the gray blanket. I was already looking in Kiros' direction instead.
"He's a big boy," Kiros said by way of greeting. "He's okay, Laguna. I think he slept the whole way over. Ellone was singing to him, part of the way."
"So...it's a boy," I managed. This was usually happy news that greeted a father ten minutes after the birth of his baby. Instead, here I was ten months later trying to figure out where the pieces of my life would go.
"Laguna--" A hand tugged at my pant leg. I looked down into solemn brown eyes and ruffled the girl's hair.
"He-ey," I tried to smile.
"Are we going to live here with you, now?" Ellone wanted to know. She scanned the flat, barren red plans then turned her eyes up at me again.
I swallowed again. It wasn't a lump stuck there, it was a bundle of razors. "No, sweetie, you're going to live here with Uncle Cid and Aunt Edea, and their kids."
"Wha-at?" Ellone's eyes went very big for a moment and I thought she was going to cry. I thought I might, too. Then her face closed into that solemn, too-adult look. "What about my new brother?"
My hands were trembling, I think. "He's going to stay here with you, too, sweetie."
Cid and Edea were approaching, with the discreet, embarrassed looks that showed they were aware of the difficult nature of the moment.
"But--" Ellone began to protest, then fell silent. She looked up at me, hand still latched onto my pant leg. "Does this have something to do with the bad lady?"
Hyne, she was so perceptive. It was no small wonder she'd been a top prospect in Adel's child-thieving project, without even taking into account her 'special' ability.
I swallowed again. After a few rusty starts, I managed to say, "Yeah."
Ellone considered this with a set little frown. She glanced up at me under the fringe of her lashes. "The bad lady might come back?"
I nodded, resisting the urge to shove my hands in my pockets. "Yeah, Elle. Someone has to protect the world from the bad lady, right?"
This, she understood. Ellone's smile was sunny as she declared, "Laguna's the bestest person to portect the world!"
I scooped her up in a hug. This was the best I could do -- maybe, in a few years, they would let me out of the country long enough to visit. But with the borders sealed... I hugged her tightly. As long as Adel was up there, Esthar could never relax its vigilance.
"Take her, please," I said hoarsely over one small shoulder to Edea. Her porcelain face was calm and only her eyes betrayed the strain of the situation. Sometimes I could swear she was empathic, for how good she was with people.
This part was going to be harder.
"Come, Ellone." Edea lifted the child out of my arms, picking the girl's name from thin air just as effortlessly. "Let me show you the sandcastle we are building on the shore..."
The man's handsome face was creased in lines of worry as he turned back to me. "Laguna? Are you sure about--"
"Yeah," I interrupted. "This may seem like a silly spur of the moment thing, but believe me, I've thought it through long and hard." I turned towards Ward, still not quite daring to look that gray bundle in the face. If I did, everything I was giving up became a solid reality. Loss with substance.
Edea returned in moments, evidently having left Ellone in the company of some of the other children. I remembered, briefly, the sight of a toddler with golden pigtails, and a chubby-legged boy in a navy blue vest with a white cross on the front. Her orphans. No, her *children.*
"Hey, uh...I know another baby boy is probably about the last thing you need right now," I started, rubbing sheepishly at the back of my head. "He's, uh...well, he's..."
"Edea, would you like to hold him?" Kiros' clear voice cut across my thoughts.
I was grateful, while resentful of the interference. I might never have gotten around to the point if I was left on my own. That didn't mean I had to like it.
"Ohh..." Edea's calm face melted into wonder, as she accepted the gray blanket and its contents and peered within. "Oh, he is beautiful."
"He's...he's my son."
Ice, I thought to myself, ice as cold as Shiva around my heart would keep the pain away long enough to get through this. Like Shiva I'd be cool and in control.
"What about the GFs?" Cid put in, looking apologetic for speaking up.
"Oh, yeah..." I turned away from the look on Edea's face. She had the glow of a woman who'd picked up an unexpected treasure. That was why I'd brought the kids here, I reminded myself. Each of these children were precious to her.
With reluctance, I reached into the part of my mind where Shiva resided. We hadn't been separated in over three years. She'd kept me alive, she with her Vitality-Junction, Raine with cool healing hands and a trickle of hoarded wartime Cure spells.
She came free of my mind with a tinkle of protest, like icicles cracking as they broke away from the rooftop. "Hold still," I told Cid. This was not a kind thing to do. Then I reached up, put a finger to his forehead and, essentially, dumped the shivery-blue power of Shiva into his head.
His glasses frosted over first. Then his teeth began to chatter. "F- F-Fascinating," was all the man said, rubbing his arms in a futile effort to warm himself. It was a mild reaction, and he straightened in a few moments, giving his wife a reassuring smile.
I beckoned to Kiros and Ward to come over and give it up. Quetzacotl was an instant of jolt, to judge by Cid's reaction, as if he were taking a spark plug between his teeth and trying to cope with the overload. Ifrit was an explosive "Hyne!" and the red-faced witholding of expletives; he loosened his necktie and tried to cope. Cid's eyes went unfocused as he tried to deal with what I'd given him.
It was too bad there was no place to keep a Guardian Force besides your head -- not if you didn't want it to go wild and set up housekeeping as the local monster.
When Cid could finally look me in the eyes without his vision crossing, he gave me a nod to continue. Edea was cooing softly to the child in her arms, rocking him with the soothing attitude of a mother.
"There are a few things" -- I rummaged through my pockets -- "I'd like you to give him when he's older. Along with Shiva, maybe, when you think he can handle her."
"Of course." Cid was looking scared. "Laguna, you sound like you're never coming back."
I gulped. Here it was, in the breast pocket over my heart. "I'm not." I shoved the clinking silver into his hands. "Here, from Raine's family, a necklace. Sleeping Lionheart, she called it. And from me..." After a moment of thought, I pulled the ring from my finger. My left hand looked naked without it. The profile of a lion was etched in silver, similar to the pendant she'd kept in a jewel box, the one that I had liked so much...
Matching rings, custom-made in Winhill. The other one was in a box, now, on a quiet hilltop I'd discovered only a few weeks ago.
"This is Griever," I finished, dumping it into his hand. My son would never know why. I hoped he would never feel the sorrow of the man who'd worn it.
Cid was startled and stammering, trying to find the words. "L- Laguna, I -- I can't just...I mean, it's not as if the boy is an orphan and--"
Edea touched his shoulder. Already, the sleeping bundle looked at home in her black-sheathed arms. "Cid, it will be all right."
"Edea -- Laguna--" The poor man took one look at his wife and melted. "I...I suppose for a little while..."
Thank you, I thought at her, not knowing if she'd hear. It was obvious she'd used one of her subtler sorceress-tricks to calm him. His face had lost some of the desperate worry.
"What is the child's name?" Edea wanted to know.
I looked at him now. She had turned the blanket down, around the curve of the skull covered in surprisingly thick, dark chestnut hair. His head was turned, and he was looking at me. My son, I thought, and I knew I would never lose this moment. This was the kind of pain that couldn't fade.
I looked at the boy whose eyes had already darkened from baby-blue to a more grey hue, like clouds bunching on the horizon before a storm. He had Raine's eyes, I thought, reaching again without thinking to touch startlingly soft skin. I drew my hand back. Cid would have to be like a father to him. They were Raine's pretty eyes, trying to focus on me from the mild undefined face.
"Squall," I said, and thought of the sleeping lionheart that was the only token of his parents he'd have. "Call him Squall Leonhart, for his mother's side." Raine and I would never make any more pretty babies like this together.
"Laguna--" Cid drew in a shocked breath. He would be disapproving. A son should be named for his father.
His wife nudged his elbow. "I think Laguna's companions are trying to indicate it's time to leave, Cid," she told him gently. Her voice was filled with understanding; a little more, I think, than her genius of a husband.
Kiros had one dark hand lifted, and the look on his face was a mystery. I don't know what he thought of this plan of mine. I don't know if he approved or not.
And for a moment, I didn't care. And I sincerely hated him for not letting me forget this obligation. For the world to be safe, Esthar had to disappear. Someone had to keep Adel locked up on the moon. I don't know how I got picked for the job. But as Kiros said, who else would I trust? Who but the three of us would be sure?
"I...oh, all right." Cid was dazed by the brutal swiftness of it all. I had traded off three Guardian Forces to him for my son's care, the boy's room and board for the next sixteen or so years of his life. And Cid's eyes were still swimming with the power of having those three powerful GFs discharged into his head.
We gripped hands. Edea's dark eyes were full of sympathy, and sorrow, as I nodded to her and did not look at the baby again.
"So...?" Kiros said to me, offhand, as I approached. The Kramers were still standing where I left them, by the lingering traces of frost on the ground.
"Time to go," I replied, knuckling at my eyes. Damned Centra dust. Damned Kiros. We climbed into the vehicle.
With a hum, Kiros brought the hovercraft to life. It might have been my imagination but I felt a lingering chill in the air. As we pulled away from the Centra shoreline, I could see my breath.
Kiros' voice broke the grim silence. "You going to be okay?"
"I..." I paused to swipe hair out of my eyes. The speed of the hovercraft was making them sting. "I dunno. Did I do the right thing, Kiros?"
"Not for me to say," Kiros answered, keeping his eyes on the ocean. After a long, tense moment, he relented and put a hand on my shoulder, briefly, the way one might console a child. "Hey...You never know, right? You're the optimistic one. Maybe we'll find out, some day."
I was more afraid that I would never find out, some day.
The gunblade was chill in his hands, even through the leather.
Squall shifted in the ragged line on the training grounds, blunt edge of his gunblade resting on one shoulder, frown dipping between his eyebrows as he checked the Junction between himself and Shiva. It was perfect, one hundred percent. If GFs had intelligence, he thought Shiva's was cold, calm and analytical. Perfect.
He thought sometimes, in less logical moments, it seemed almost as if she liked him by the way she sprang into action when he called.
And if all those stupid rumors were true -- the ones claiming GF use took away your long-term memories -- he didn't care. A GF had to go somewhere. If the place it resided in his brain caused all his memories to be crowded out, the trade-off was fine with him. He didn't remember much of his childhood, in fact, but he never tried hard to recall it. It hurt. Ice to cover up old memory was just what he needed.
"All right," Quistis' voice snapped out, taut as her whip. "Squall, you're up. When you're ready."
Ready? He thought he'd been ready all his life for this. Or maybe, less poetically, since the day Cid had given the word that Shiva would be his Guardian Force. The GF in Balamb Garden that no one had used yet, until him.
He stepped forward.
"I'm ready," he said, tone firm. He was cool and in control.
Ice, he thought to himself, ice as cold as Shiva set around his heart was what kept him safe.
In the surrounding area, a thin layer of frost rimmed the ground, and he could see his breath in the air.
He called, and Shiva came to take his place.