[02.09.00] » by Alicia Hutchinson

It was a sorry excuse for a lion, it's mane threadbare, it's original tawny yellow faded to a shade closer to the color of dried dandelion petals. One eye was loose, the other had clearly already fallen off once and been sewn back on by a clumsy child's hands. The soft pink felt that had once covered it's nose had long since been rubbed off, and the black thread stitched on it's paws that had delineated it's toes was missing in several places. It was tiny, too, barely the size of an adult hand. About all that could be said for it was the fact that it's stuffing was still as good as new; being filled with flax seeds rather than cotton fluff, it's filling wasn't capable of compressing and shrinking.

Squall turned the little toy over and over in his hands, sitting on the carpet of the orphanage playroom with his back to a wall. Just outside, he could hear the others playing in the yard…or fighting, more correctly.

"Owww, Seifer, get off!"

"Comm'on, you wuss, just eat the bug like I told you!"

"Seifer, leave Zell alone!"

"Mind your own business, Quisty!"

Squall ignored the ruckus, simply dismissed it from his mind. He concentrated instead on the little stuffed lion in his hands.

"Squall, inside? When it's such a beautiful day?"

Squall glanced up. Standing in the doorway across from him, clad in her customary black dress, was Matron. He stared at her for a moment, and then looked back down at the lion.

"Why aren't you outside?" she asked.

Squall shrugged.

Matron walked across the playroom, carefully to avoid stepping on one of a myriad of discarded blocks and toys laying about the floor. She cleared away the remains of a little wooden brick house that Selphie and Irvy had been using to play Castle Siege that morning, and sat down beside the little boy. "You haven't been outside in days." Matron remarked.

"Nobody to play with." Squall said by way of an excuse.

"There are the other children, Quisty, Zell, and the others. They would play with you." They tried to, quite often, Matron thought. Especially Quisty and Selphie…Selphie sometimes actually got him to join in her and Irvy's games, mainly because she was so cheerful and gleefully persistent that Squall would eventually just give up and humor her. Quisty was less successful, probably due to the fact that she tended to come across as bossy.

Squall just stared up at her. "They aren't Sis." He stated flatly.

Matron was silent for a long moment, thinking. "No," she said at last, "They're not. But you can't spend the rest of your life wasting away in here because Ellone is gone."

The determined look on Squall's face, and the rebellious glint in those blue eyes, stated clearer than words that he intended to try. "Should've let me go with her." He said. Squall was very bitter about that. Children left the orphanage all the time, when families came to adopt them, but Sis had always promised that nobody would split them up. Then, in the space of a night and with no warning, she was gone, and Matron wouldn't save where except that she had gone somewhere 'safer' for her. Matron's husband, Cid, had left too…Squall was old enough to intuit that where ever that 'somewhere safer' was, it was Cid who'd taken her there. He also knew that Matron intended to join them when she could; he'd heard Matron talking about it with the older children sometimes.

Squall saw no reason that if Cid could go with Sis to that safer place, and if Matron was going to go too eventually, why he shouldn't be allowed to go too.

Matron knew a losing argument when she heard one starting. She decided to try a different tactic, and looked down at the little lion Squall held in his hands. "Ellone gave that you, didn't she?"

Squall nodded. "Just before she left." He replied. "She said she wanted me to have him now, that it was my turn to have a lion to watch over me until she could come back for me." That was the night that she left. Sis had woken him up to give it to him, and told him that she'd 'see him later'. Squall had thought she meant that morning…it wasn't until he woke up and went looking for her that he realized she meant much later.

Matron was touched by the sad symbolism of the gesture. She remembered Ellone telling her how she had come to posses that little stuffed lion, when she'd asked about it just after Ellone and Squall's arrival in her orphanage.

"Just before Uncle Laguna sent me back to Aunt Raine…he took me to a store in that big city and bought it for me. Said I had the courage of a lion for being a brave girl when I was caught…but he wanted me to have a real lion to take care of me until he could come back."

Ellone had kept it close ever since.

Until she parted with it to Laguna's son.

"That's a very special gift." Matron said. "Ellone loves you very much."

"Of course she does. She's my sis." Squall replied with simple logic. "That's why I should be with her where she is." He stared stubbornly at her, daring her to contradict that statement.

Matron sighed inwardly. For Squall, it was very simple. Ellone was his 'Sis', he loved her, she loved him, so they should be together. But Squall had no idea of the realities of the situation, and at six, he was still much too young to understand. Ellone had been about that age when Estharian soldiers had kidnapped her, wanting her for a potential successor to the Sorceress Adel of Esthar, wanting her for her own special gift of letting people see the past. Squall's father, Laguna, had gone looking for her-Laguna had loved Ellone like a daughter.

It was heartbreaking that Laguna's love of Ellone had caused him to never know of his own son…and that it had probably killed him. Matron had never been able to find any traces of Laguna Loire, and she and Cid had looked for years. Ellone was still convinced he was alive…and at eleven, she was starting to understand that she was inadvertently the reason that Laguna had never known his son…and probably never would.

"Aunt Raine was crying for him when she died…I wish I could fix it…"

"Lions are very noble creatures." Matron said, neatly changing the subject to one less painful. "There aren't many of them around anymore."

"What are they like?" Squall asked. "Are they monsters?"

Matron shook her head. "They're not monsters, they're animals. Big cats."

"Not like Tabby." Squall didn't like that idea. Tabby was the orphanage cat. In theory, he was supposed to be a mouser, but Tabby rarely did anything but sleep in the children's pillows and warm laps. Squall saw nothing noble about a fat orange cat with the disposition of a throw rug, and he doubted a larger version of Tabby would be very noble either.

"No, no, not like Tabby." Matron laughed. "Lions are more…active…for one. They're big golden cats."

"Big like a dog?"

"Bigger than any dog." Matron held a hand up to indicate a height that would come about up to her ribs if she was standing. "Big like that. And very, very strong. Ferocious!"

That sounded more encouraging to Squall. Still… "So're behemoths. I've never heard a behemoth be called noble."

"Well, behemoths are ugly. Lions are beautiful animals. Besides, behemoths attack things for no reason, not just for food or to protect themselves. Lions never just attack things. Lions are social animals; they have a social order, they live in groups…"

"Like the orphanage?"

"Kind of. They might be dangerous and strong, but they're also smart. They hunt in groups, like wolves, they sneak up on their prey and work together to bring it down."

Togetherness didn't sound all that great to Squall. He was a loner by nature.

It must have shown on his face, too, because Matron added, "Lions choose to work together most of the time…but lions can be loners too. Roaming warriors. And all lions have strong, brave hearts to protect what they hold dear. That's why Ellone wanted to leave you her lion; so it would protect you now that she can't."

"Strong, brave hearts…" Squall repeated, looking back down at the lion. "I like that…"

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Squall pulled on his cadet uniform jacket, and hastily stuffed a few extra rounds of ammo for his gunblade in it's pockets. He glanced up at the clock on the wall. Late, late, I'm going to be late… What a way to start his field exam, first that training mishap with Seifer, and now this. Taking his gunblade out of it's case at the foot of his bed, he started out the door…

Shoot, I forgot. He cursed under his breath, went back into his room, and took his necklace off his desk and slipped it back on. He paused, then went into a drawer and pulled out a little box, which he opened.

Inside sat a little seed stuffed lion, battered, tattered…and much loved. Squall had always had it…his very first lion, though he couldn't recall where he'd gotten it, he'd had it as long as he could remember.

"Wish me luck, okay?" he asked, feeling silly for asking for help from a stuffed animal…but doing so anyway. "Keep an eye on me when I'm out there. I can use all the help I can get."

Without knowning why, he suddenly felt…choked up. Sad?

The voice of a very young girl whispered through his memory.

"I want you to have him. He's a brave lion, he'll watch over you and protect you until I can again…"

Squall stood there holding the lion for a long moment, puzzeled, before he shook the feeling off. He was going to be late; he'd wasted enough time. Placing the lion carefully on his desktop, he picked his gunblade back up and headed out to meet Instructor Trepe in the main hall.

And the little stuffed lion watched, it's lopsided eyes somehow sorrowful and more emotional than any stuffed toy's had a right to be.


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