"It's almost like being back in Timber," Rinoa said into the silence, thoughtfully, the peace of the late evening having seeped into her bones.
"Hm?" Irvine asked sleepily; he was lying on a blanket on the sand, his head in my lap, his feet in Zell's. Selphie, across the fire, had claimed custody of his hat; I had undone his ponytail and was threading my fingers absently through that thick, rich hair.
Rinoa gestured a little, her eyes distantly looking out over the moonlight-silvered ocean. "We never had a beach, not like this. But we'd go down to the railroad tracks, and light a fire, and just talk and think and sing songs and trade really bad alcohol and pretend that we were doing something important." She tucked her knees up against her chest more firmly and rested her cheek against the top of her knees.
"I'm not sure," Zell said, slowly, "but I think that we used to sit out on the beach at Balamb and -- bake clams? I don't remember." He made a face. "I never realized how often I had to say those words."
"We all do," I said, softly, twirling one lock of Irvine's hair around my fingertips. "All except Irvine. And Rinoa."
Rinoa picked up her head to look at me, as startled to be included in the group. I gave her a smile, just a little one. Yes, that's what I meant. You do belong by now, Rinoa. You might not have been here from the beginning, but you're a part of us now.
"Where's Squall?" Irvine asked, yawning a little and stretching as well as he could without moving from his spot. We'd all thought that he was mostly asleep. It was that kind of night.
Rinoa waved a hand up to the wreck of the orphanage. "Up there," she said, softly. "Thinking. Wondering if he should come down here and disturb us or not. Wondering if Cid and Edea will be coming back tonight, or if they're going to sleep on the Ragnarok."
Selphie blinked. "How do you know?"
"I just do." Rinoa tucked her knees closer to her, and looked back out over the ocean. "I think it's a Sorceress thing."
"Can you do that to all of us?" Selphie didn't look upset at the thought, just intrigued.
"No." The answer was a little rueful. "I think it has to do with a Sorceress's Knight."
Zell sat up a little straighter. "Woah. Wait a minute. He's your Knight? Isn't that some kind of weird thing Seifer thought up?"
Rinoa shook her head. "I don't think so." She closed her eyes, feeling the moonlight on her skin. "Edea told me a little bit about it. Cid's her Knight, you know. I ... I don't understand it. I don't think Squall does, either. But he ... I don't know." She sighed. "I feel like I'm making this all up as I go along, except it's all turning out to be right."
"Hey, Noi." Irvine's voice was soft and sleepy, its usual drawl somehow muted. Rinoa looked back at him; his eyes were closed, but he opened one of them to look at her. "When we were all kids," he said, slowly, as if he was picking through the words as he said each one, "Seifer was the one who would come in chargin' whenever we thought of anythin' new. He'd come along, take over, an' push us all around until we were doin' what he wanted us to do. Until we were playin' his game, by his rules." He paused for another long moment, then added, "But Squall was the one who always won the games, when he wanted to."
There was silence for a long moment, while we all thought about it. Until finally, Rinoa nodded and smiled a bit hesitantly. "Thanks, Irvine," she said, softly. "I ... I think that helps."
He smiled. "Always willin' to help a pretty lady. Ow! Quisty, watch it!"
I smirked down at him, letting go of the hair I'd just pulled. "Don't get cocky, cowboy."
"Will you sing something for us, Noi?" Zell asked, abruptly. She looked at him, startled, and he flushed slightly beneath the tattoo. "We used to ... we used to sit out here on the beach like this. When we were little. I think. And Matron --"
"...used to sing for us." I could tell that my eyes were wide. "I'd --"
"...forgotten." Selphie's voice joined mine, and we looked at each other across the fire with an expression that was becoming more familiar to us all: pleasure at having remembered, combined with dismay that we'd forgotten in the first place.
"You ... want me to sing?" Rinoa straightened up and looked over at Zell, her brows furrowed. "Why ... why me?"
Zell shrugged, embarrassed. "I heard ya singing in the shower in the Ragnarok yesterday mornin' before we took off from Cactaur Island. You've got a pretty voice. Didn't your mom --"
Rinoa rolled her eyes. "Yes. My mom was the singer." It was a bit exasperated, and she made a face immediately after she said it. "I'm sorry, I hear that a lot."
"You don't need to," Zell muttered, looking down at the little heap of sand he was gathering in front of him.
"No," Rinoa said, quickly, her tone an apology. "Just let me ..." She thought for a minute, then nodded, slowly, and sat up straighter, and started singing.
"I've gone running from the devil, at times I've beaten down his path..." Her voice was sweet and true, an alto trying to be a soprano, simple and gentle and soft.
Irvine sat upright from my lap, looking startled. Another phrase from Rinoa -- "I've seen the flight of the dove," and he joined his voice with hers, laying his warm and rich tenor under her soprano in a half-remembered harmony. "And I've stumbled my way back. Miles and miles of interstate, nights not meant to last..."
The harmony was somehow hollow with only two voices. I didn't know how I remembered the song. But I did, and I knew what it needed, and I was singing before I knew what I was doing. "I can take this road all the way to Dollet, but I cannot stop my yearning for you."
Irvine's eyes were surprised as he met mine. Zell was sitting bolt upright, as if something else had surfaced from his abused memory. Selphie tucked herself into a tight ball, shoulders hunched over, cross-legged, as if she were trying to curl up into herself -- but her head was up, and she was watching us, and she was listening.
I don't sing. I can sing, but I don't sing. But it was right, the three of us, three voices: soprano, tenor, alto, all twined around each other and reaching out to connect.
"They say a simple life's the best, but you would never know, the way we complicate this world, lion's king, the lamb lies low. All I wanted was your love, the taste of your sweet kiss. The river may flow deep and wide, but it cannot stop my longing for this."
It hurt. It hurt in that way that songs hurt when they reach into your chest and pull, when they're so real and true and right that you'd swear that the songwriter had been living your life and writing your soundtrack. I could hear Squall in my voice, all of the feelings I'd agonized over, all of the feelings I knew now were remnants of our childhood. Knowing where they'd come from hadn't made them any easier to deal with. I could hear Squall in Rinoa's voice, too, all of the future uncertainty wound up into that gentle soprano. I don't know what I heard in Irvine's voice.
"So meet me on Red Mountain, lace of laurel, bed of moss, where the wind's forever howling beneath that Northern Cross."
Selphie was crying; I could see the tears shining in her eyes, moonlight reflected against pale skin. She was smiling, though, a rueful smile.
"When that final deal goes down, I'll gladly pay the cost, if my soul could be a station high upon that northern cross. Then I would have a bird's eye view, I'd watch you night and day. In casting off my mortal self, maybe all this yearning will go away."
Irvine was singing about his determination to keep us all safe from ever being hurt ever again. Rinoa was singing about her fear that being a sorceress would change her, would make her hurt her friends; it was the same fear that had led her to suggest that perhaps being imprisoned in the Sorceress Memorial would be a better fate for her than turning out like Ultimecia.
"Oh, meet me on Red Mountain, lace of laurel, bed of moss, where the wind's forever howling beneath that Northern Cross."
I was singing about having to take care of my family. The only family I'd ever known. The family that was fighting against things we'd never known before.
"Old memories have faded, nearly all of them are lost, except for your face shining beneath that Northern Cross."
We were all singing about forgetting, and remembering, and swearing never to forget again.
We held the last note for a time that wasn't long enough, and dropped off all at once. It was quiet for a long, long moment, as each of us closed our eyes and tried to hold on to whatever the song had made us think about. It was that sort of quiet where you just knew that everyone would be trying not to cry, except for the fact that they were so full with the emotion that there wasn't even room for tears.
Zell was the one who finally broke the silence. "Yeah," was all he said, but that was enough: he knew. We all knew. We all knew what we'd meant.
I could feel Squall standing up on the steps, drawn there by the voices, and I didn't need Rinoa's powers to know that he knew, too.
"I think it's time to go to bed," Irvine said, finally, and his voice fell into the silence that had gathered around us again. He stood, a bit unsteadily, and made his way over to one of the two tents we'd pitched earlier in the night. Zell stumbled to his feet and followed after him, blindly, and I knew that he was looking for someone to curl up against and shake for a while.
Selphie lifted a hand to wipe the tears from her face and gave me and Rinoa an unsteady smile before rising to follow as well. She'd been sleeping in the tent with me and Rinoa, but I couldn't blame her; we'd done this as children, all piled into a single bed like puppies, sleeping on top of and over and under and around each other. I wanted nothing in the world more than to follow her and fall into bed with the people I loved, curled up against each other, holding on tightly and just reassuring each other that we were here, we were okay, that we would make it. But I didn't want to leave Rinoa alone.
She might have been lying about not being able to read our emotions the way she could read Squall's. Then again, I might have just been easy to read. She gave me one of those little smiles of hers, the one that says yes, I understand, and made a little motion with one hand. "Go," she said, and her voice was soft and steady. "Go ahead. I'll be okay."
My voice wasn't steady at all. "Are you --"
"I'm sure. Go. Go be with them. You need each other."
I nodded a little and stood up, my legs unsteady from having been sitting in the same position for so long.
Tents weren't designed to sleep more than three, but we could manage. It was okay that we were closer. That was the whole point, after all.
The last thing I saw before I closed the tent-flap behind me was Squall making his way back down the stairs, and Rinoa turning to him and smiling.
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