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The Path Not Followed
by: SailorSpice7
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      Rinoa’s eyes shot open. She could vaguely feel the sweat dripping of her forehead. How long had she been unconscious? She had no clue. The only place she could look was up.
      The ceiling.
      The smell.
      She was no doubt in the infirmary. Rinoa felt bandages on her neck. She remembered, the monster had slashed her throat. Three very sharp claws. That dug three very deep cuts in her neck.
      Rinoa opened her mouth. Hoping to at least be able to make a sound. Nothing. She was mute. It even hurt to move her mouth. Or to contract her mouth muscles.
      She closed her eyes. As she concentrated, she could hear two faint voices in the other room.
      "I don’t know if she will ever speak again," the first voice said.
      The other person sighed. "It’s all my fault. I should have degenerated that monster when I had the opportunity."
      "Quistis, you can’t place the blame on yourself. And you know very well it most likely would not have worked."
      Quistis…Rinoa’s memory was slowly recovering. Quistis, Rinoa and Squall were attacked. On the way back from a trip to Balamb. For some reason, they came upon an Omega Weapon. These monsters were ferocious, and angry. What this deadly monster was doing there was a mystery.
      Quistis mentioned that they were undefeatable. Squall didn’t want to run. But when they tried, they were surrounded. Surrounded by dozens of angry Omegas.
      Three sharp knives. That’s what the pain felt like. Rinoa grimaced, remembering how it hurt. She had fallen. Then, Squall had gotten thrown across the field. After that, she blacked out. Perhaps reinforcements had come from the garden. And helped the very weak Quistis bring Rinoa and Squall back.
      "…And what about Squall?" Quistis fearfully asked.
      "They are doing all they can." The other voice replied.
      Rinoa decided the other person must have been the nurse.
      What did happen to Squall? Where is he? And who is "They"?
      Just then the faint sound of footsteps was heard. Three pairs of feet.
      "Where’s Rinoa?"
      "Is she alright?"
      "What happened?"
      Quistis sighed. It sounded like a sigh of anxiety, stress, and definitely exhaustion. Dr. Kadowski led everyone into Rinoa’s room.
      It was silent. No one spoke. Rinoa wondered if she really looked that bad. But she realized she must have been quite a sight. Her hair matted with her own blood. Her garments shred and ripped. Soaked a deep red.
      When Rinoa weakly opened her eyes, she saw Selphie staring down at her. And she wasn’t smiling. What could be bad enough to alter her always optimistic mood? Was Rinoa’s condition really that serious?
      "Hey! She’s up!" Selphie yelled.
      Quistis, Zell and Irvine ran to Rinoa’s bedside.
      Rinoa stared back at them. They all had relieved looks on their faces. Rinoa wished she could smile back at them. But it hurt too much to try. She wanted to tell them she would be fine. But it hurt too much to speak.
      Rinoa glanced at Quistis. She noticed her arm was in a sling. And there were dark, painful looking bruises on her face.
      "Hey babe, you okay?" Irvine asked as Selphie elbowed his side.
      "How ya feeling?" Zell asked.
      Rinoa could barely open her mouth, let alone answer them.
      The nurse came back.
      "Back off everyone. She’s in shock. And her voice is ruined. Perhaps for the rest of her life."
      They all made pitiful faces. Looking at them made Rinoa want to cry.
      Quistis took her free arm and touched Rinoa’s arm.
      "Rinoa…I’m so sorry…"
      Rinoa knew very well it wasn’t Quistis’ fault. The three of them had been sent on a casual trip to Balamb for supplies. How could it be her fault?
      Zell turned and looked at Quistis.
      "Quisty…your face."
      "I know, believe me. It’s nothing. It will heal…" she answered, looking away.
      "Poor girls…" Irvine said. The others looked at him angrily. "Oh, and poor Squall. Where is he anyway?"
      "We sent Seifer to look after him."
      "Seifer?" Quistis asked. "Why him?" Of all people, he seemed least likely to be the one."
      "He insisted on going." The nurse informed. "He said he would check on Squall…for Rinoa."
      Selphie looked down to Rinoa. At the mention of his name, a single tear rolled down Rinoa’s cheek.
      "He’ll be alright," Selphie comforted her. But she was making an empty promise. She had no idea how bad his condition was.
      Just then Seifer ran into the room panting.
      "What’s up?"
      "How’s Squall?"
      "Squall…" he started, trying to catch his breath. "He…he was just lying there, and suddenly…he went into convulsions..."
      "CONVULSIONS?!" The others asked.
      Seifer nodded and continued.
      "The medics tried to help him…but…he just kept calling for Rinoa…I think he sees death…and he wants her by his side."
      The others exchanged glances. Would they dare try and move Rinoa? But, she did need to be with Squall. Maybe seeing each other would give them both a boost for life.
      Quistis nodded. "Let’s do it. It was stupid to separate them in the first place."
      "But…" Zell started.
      "I’m sure Rinoa is up for it. She wants, no, she needs to see him." Quistis walked to Rinoa and smiled to her.
      "Yeah!" Selphie agreed. "Wanna go for a ride Rinoa?"
      After what seemed like hours of torture, they loaded Rinoa onto what Selphie called "A bed on wheels".
      They pushed the bed into a submarine headed to Galbadia. Which is where Squall was rushed. Their medical facility was much more developed than Balamb’s.
      Dr. Kadowski had to stay behind, but she kept telling them to be careful with Rinoa.
      "Yeah, don’t worry! We’ll be fine!" Selphie said, shutting the nurse out.
      No one was in much of a talkative mood. Selphie and Zell were both fairly silent. Selphie told Rinoa to keep opening her eyes, so they would know she was with them. And every time she glanced around, Seifer was staring right at her. Rinoa had never seen such a look in his eyes. He had always acted strong and fearless.
      Quistis looked around, pretending not to notice Seifer’s expression.
      "I should be dying…" she thought to herself. If both of them perished, life wouldn’t be the same. Rinoa had everyone she met beaming. Even Squall. Squall…the commander. Quistis smiled, remembering when she had given him that title. He obviously hadn’t liked it. But, for comedy, every once in a while Rinoa would call him that. But he always got her back by calling her ‘sorceress’. So Rinoa lost every time. But she didn’t mind. Everyone would laugh it off. That joke would never get old.
      Seifer spoke up and broke Quistis’ train of thought.
      "When I went to see Squall…well, I just talked to him. But anyway, I told him I was checking on him for Rinoa. I said I wanted to make up for all the things I’ve done to him…all the pain I’ve caused."
      "Did you mean it?" Zell asked.
      "OF course I meant it chicken wuss!" He yelled back.
      Quistis shook her head. Seifer was trying to show his emotional side. And Zell wasn’t helping any.
      "Do you know what those monsters were doing out there?" Selphie asked Seifer.
      "I talked to a Galabadian official, and he said he heard a rumor that in Balamb they were capturing Omega Weapons for research. And he heard dozens of them escaped. So that must be the reason."
      Selphie nodded, and Quistis made an unapproving look.
      "So Rinoa and Squall are going to pay for their carelessness…" she said.
      Zell looked down to his fists. He remembered the day he and Squall took their SeeD field test. Squall didn’t seem too happy to be on his squad. But, the two had built a friendship. If that’s what you wanted to call it. Actually, Squall had just been stuck with him ever since. So was friendship even the right word? Perhaps not. It was hard to tell with Squall. He never let anyone know how he felt. That is…until Rinoa came along.
      Selphie had gone up to see where they were, and she hopped back down.
      "We’re almost there!"
      Selphie looked at Rinoa. She had broken legs too? Selphie winced at the thought of how much pain Rinoa must be in.
      The submarine came to a stop. Everyone stood up.
      "Hey, do you think Rinoa could go in on crutches?" Irvine asked.
      "That’s Impossible," Quistis said.
      Zell opened a compartment. "Hey wait! What about a wheelchair?"
      "That will do."
      Zell unfolded it and pushed it close to Rinoa.
      "Will she be able to sit up?" Selphie asked. Quistis nodded.
      Seifer gently picked Rinoa up and set her in the wheelchair. It obviously hurt her. But she couldn’t object to anything they did. She needed to see him. Was this the last time she would see Squall?
      "Booyaka! Let’s go see Squall!" Selphie pushed Rinoa’s wheelchair, leading the way. Everyone else followed with about half the energy.
      When they entered Galbadia, Quistis led them to the infirmary. She went up to the head doctor, and asked for Squall Leonharts room.
      Selphie looked around. "Wow, this infirmary is bigger than Balamb’s and Trabia’s put together."
      "Yeah," Zell agreed, as Quistis nodded.
      Selphie bent down and moved Rinoa’s hair out of her eyes.
      "There, that’s better. You want to look your best for Squall dontcha?"
      Rinoa looked up at Selphie, and wished she could smile. The others exchanged glances.
      "He can’t even move…"Seifer muttered under his breath. Irvine put an arm around Selphie as to congratulate her for attempting to keep Rinoa’s spirits up.
      They were soon led to a large secluded room. There were multiple chairs lined up against the walls. And a large bed in the center of the room.
      "…Why is it so dark?" Quistis wondered, flicking on a light.
      There was the obvious body lying under the blankets. The crew went up to the bedside pushing away machinery. Selphie pushed Rinoa up as close to the bed as possible. Quistis pulled the blanket down so Squall was no longer covered.
      "Oh…my…" Quistis and Selphie both jumped back shocked.
      "Squall…." Quistis reached out to him.
      Zell and Irvine looked away.
      His face was decorated with large, ugly cuts. Forcing them to view Squall as looking deformed. Part of his soft, long locks had been savagely ripped from his scalp.
      "Can…can we wake him up?" Selphie asked.
      The machines continuously beeped. Zell shrugged.
      "I think it would be best if we waited for Squall to awaken," Quistis said. But what she really meant was ‘if’ he awakened. His chest slowly rose, and relaxed. Quistis pulled the blanket down to reveal a large bandage soaked with blood covering his chest.
      "Ouch." Zell commented, making a face.
      His appearance didn’t seem to bother Seifer. All anyone ever would have thought he wanted was to see Squall like this. But there was no look of pleasure on his face. Quistis felt that he had been sincere in his confession.
      Rinoa’s eyes became drenched in tears. Selphie noticed, and bent down with a handkerchief. She wiped Rinoa’s eyes.
      "Rinoa…please don’t cry…."
      They all sat down in the chairs, leaving Rinoa by Squall.
      He looked so helpless. So close to death. Rinoa had never seen him like this. And she was definitely not prepared for it. There was no longer a life without him. Couldn’t he just open his eyes? Then see her, and things could go back to the way they were.
      The silence was oppressive. The only noise was the beeping of his life support. They all watched Rinoa painfully raise an arm and touch Squall’s face.
      Quistis’ eyes teared at the heartbreaking scene. If Rinoa’s touch couldn’t revive him, nothing could.
      "…Rinoa…" Squall mumbled.
      The others jumped up. He was still alive. Barely, but alive.
      Selphie ran up to Squall.
      "Squall, Rinoa’s here to see you…open your eyes. She’s right here."
      One of his eyes was too swollen, but he opened the other one. He slowly tilted his head to look at Rinoa. Selphie carefully took one of his hands, and placed it with one of Rinoa’s.
      Squall opened his mouth and quietly spoke in a coarse voice.
      "My…my angel…" he started. "I’m…so sorry…I couldn’t protect you."
      Rinoa squeezed his hand. She wanted to tell him she knew he did all he could. She wanted to tell him she loved him. She wanted to tell him she couldn’t survive if he left.
      "S-Squall…"
      Quistis gasped. Rinoa spoke! It was surely a miracle. Quistis reached into her pocket and pulled out Rinoa’s necklace. They had taken it off when the nurse put her neck bandage on. She carefully slipped the two rings off.
      Quistis walked up to the injured couple. She slipped the Griever ring onto one of Rinoa’s fingers. She took the other ring. As she carefully lifted one of Squall’s hands, she grimaced noticing he was missing a few fingers.
      As she slid the ring onto one of his remaining digits, Zell came up.
      "Hey Squall…were we friends?" he asked.
      Squall showed a faint, rare smile. "…Yeah Zell…of course…but…"
      "But what?"
      "Can you…do…a favor…?"
      "Hey man, anything." Zell agreed. "What is it?"
      "…Please take care…of Rinoa…for me…after I go…"
      Selphie jumped up. "Squall, don’t talk like that! You’ll be alright."
      He just faintly shook his head. "I know…I don’t have much longer…and…there’s so much I want to tell you Rinoa…" he said, looking to her.
      Rinoa just returned his gaze. He could tell she had trouble speaking. But her eyes revealed everything she couldn’t express.
      Seifer looked at Squall. "You’re not afraid to die are you? Well…I want to say, I truly am sorry…for everything."
      This was the closest to an apology Squall was going to get from him. An apology wouldn’t erase all the things that had happened. But knowing he was sincere, Squall accepted. There was no use carrying a grudge with him to the after life.
      "And…Quis…" Squall started.
      She looked at Squall. "Yes?"
      "I’m sorry…that I didn’t love you…the way you wanted."
      Quistis shook her head embarrassed. How did she want him to love her? First, it was a student/teacher relationship. But had she ever ‘loved’ him? Or…had she ever stopped loving him? Before she said she was just trying to take the place of ‘sis’. But was she? Or had it been something more?
      "Squall…I just wanted to take care of you, and to try and get you to reach out to people. Because I knew Sis…I mean, Ellone, would have liked you to. I was just trying to be your sister…And you’re my little brother."
      Quistis smiled. A sibling love seemed suitable. Occasionally clashing, but like an older sister, she was always looking out for him. On a much higher level than instructor care. Teaching and watching him, like a good sister would. He was her brother.
      They all sat in silence. Irvine adjusted his hat uncomfortably. Squall’s breathing was getting shorter and quicker. Was this it? Was he going to die in front of them like this?
      Rinoa painfully pushed herself off of her wheelchair. The others looked at each other worried. What was she trying to do? Rinoa attempted to throw herself onto his bed. But instead, her limp body fell to the floor. Irvine and Seifer carefully grabbed her and set her next to Squall on the hospital bed.
      Squall exhaled deeply, fearing it would be his last.
      "All…all I want…is to hear your voice," he said. Then he vaguely remembered when he had said that first. When Rinoa was unconscious after the Edea battle. Before then, her voice had done almost nothing but annoy him. And he would roll his eyes.
      "But…having your peaceful eyes on me…is just fine…"
      Everyone in the room was tearing up. Seifer and Zell attempted to cover up their red eyes. While Quistis wiped her eyes with her shirt, Rinoa mourned uncontrollably. Her silent, salty tears flooded the room.
      "No…princess…don’t cry…listen…" He stopped for a short second, trying to catch his breath. "You’re…you’re going to…soar to new heights…Like the angel you are…alright?"
      Still crying, Rinoa tried to nod. She would survive; it’s what Squall wanted. And she could never disappoint him.
      "We will…meet again…I promise…"
      Squall placed his hand on her face. Then, his life support machine began beeping uncontrollably and much louder.
      "What…the hell is going on?!" Zell asked.
      "It’s…the…" Quistis pointed to the device while covering her ear.
      Seifer sighed, bit his bottom lip, and unplugged the machine. That was it. It was over. No Life magic could bring him to his feet. No Phoenix Down could bring him back. The Lion’s journey was over.
      Irvine sadly took his hat off and bowed his head. The quiet little boy he knew from the orphanage was gone. Squall had grown, and said goodbye long before his time had come.
      Selphie wiped her tear. It had seemed like yesterday that Squall had showed her around Balamb. He was her first new friend. And how he used to always let her through the train before anyone else. He made it seem like he didn’t care about anyone. But she knew it wasn’t true.
      Zell walked over to Rinoa while she had her head on Squall’s chest. The tears never seemed to stop. It looked like she was grasping Squall with her life. Zell placed a hand on Rinoa’s shoulder. He was going to keep his promise. It was the least he could do for his departed friend.
      Quistis stifled a noise. The kind of noise that forms deep down in the throat. And when it comes out, so do a million tears. She walked up to his body. Quistis kissed her index finger, and placed it on his cheek.
      "Goodbye brother…" she softly said, covering his face with the bed sheet. Quistis had so much to tell him. But he was gone. She knelt down next to Rinoa. Not wanting to pull Rinoa off his body, she just hugged her.
      "It’ll be okay Rinoa…" Quistis tried to comfort her, as well as herself.
      Rinoa appreciated her effort. But things never would. Her knight was gone, and the dark night was storming in. There was no consolation, and no comfort.
      The hours passed by. When Rinoa next opened her eyes, everyone was sitting around. Quistis was looking into her lap, tears strolling down her face. Selphie sat teary eyed, shifting uncomfortably. Zell and Irvine both had similar looks of sadness on their faces. And Seifer had his face buried in his hands.
      Rinoa held Squall’s hand. She tried to sit up, but was too weak. Everything went hazy, and she fell to the floor.
      Selphie and Zell went to help her up. But her fingers were still tightly wrapped in Squall’s. Zell grimaced and parted them.
      More tears ran down Rinoa’s cheeks. This was the last time she would feel his touch. Squall couldn’t hold her or touch her ever again. There were so many things they needed to share as a couple. Her fantasy of them living happily ever after was never meant to be. Why had fate played such a cruel game on her?
      "Wait!" Quistis stood up. She slowly pulled the blanket down and she stared at his necklace. Quistis removed it, and placed it on Rinoa’s neck.
      "There…now your lion will be with you forever…"

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

      Rinoa held onto the griever necklace dangling from her neck.
      It was now the one-year anniversary of Squall’s passing on. Sometimes it seemed like an eternity of loneliness. Yes, she had friends she loved. Who all loved her, and supported her as best they could. But she could never love anyone like she loved Squall.
      She looked down to his grave at her feet. Placed right beside Raine’s. And on the other side of his, was Rinoa’s future resting place.
      She looked to her left to see Laguna staring down at Raine’s grave. He had his wedding ring in his hand, tightly grasping it. Rinoa didn’t remember him coming up next to her. How long had he been standing there? How long had she been reminiscing about that fateful day of the past?
      Laguna turned around, and seeing that Rinoa was staring at him, bowed.
      "Hello Ms. Leonhart."
      Rinoa smiled and bowed back. She had adopted Squall’s last name, so they could always remain as one.
      The two held no conversation. Rinoa still couldn’t speak.
      Speaking her lovers name at his deathbed had been her last word.
      Zell came up and placed a hand on Rinoa’s shoulder. He had
kept his promise, like he said he would. Zell always stood up for her, defended her in battle, and made sure she got everything she needed. Just as Squall had asked.
      The three of them turned their backs to leave. Rinoa had trouble with life, but she continued onward, obeying Squall’s last request.
      Walking away, Rinoa knew she had to let go of the past. And to leave behind what could have been. Facing ahead, the path she wouldn’t have chosen, but now had no choice. If this was what Squall wanted, it’s what she would do. Rinoa stepped forward, preparing to spread her wings and fly to new heights.