Just lost when I was saved!
Just felt the world go by!
Just girt me for the onset with eternity,
When breath blew back,
And on the other side
I heard recede the disappointed tide!

Therefore, as one returned, I feel,
Odd secrets of the line to tell!
Some sailor, skirting foreign shores,
Some pale reporter from the awful doors
Before the seal!

- Emily Dickinson

One black obelisk interrupted the horizon and the blue dome of the sky, imposing itself against the summer brightness. It was large--larger, perhaps, than any other thing ever made by man and certainly larger than any other thing ever made to fly--but the vastness of the expanse in which it hung made it appear to be a single, solitary speck in a world too large for it. The sky and the land around the Lunatic Pandora seemed, in contrast to that one black mark, to be hauntingly empty.

Laguna was inspecting the reflection of light in a small puddle of spilt coffee on his desk, absently dipping his finger into the liquid and occasionally drawing it out in a thin, dark line. The tint was oddly similar to that of the distance-dimmed monolith, and every once in a while he would glance up in order to compare the two. The process had been repeating for so long that the coffee was beginning to dry and thicken; when he touched the puddle, small ridges formed and sunk slowly back.

It was fascinating, for the time being.

He didn't notice Kiros coming up behind him--as he usually didn't. But he heard his friend sigh, tone someplace that wasn't quite exasperation but wasn't wholly amused, either. It's not going to help anything, you know.

Laguna swiveled his chair and looked up with the kind of implied shrug he had mastered over the years. Yeah, but it's something to do.

Kiros looked out the window, then back at the president. You're brooding, man. It's not like you.

Laguna did shrug, this time. I'm worried, he admitted easily. It's been three days. I'd kinda like to know what's going on.

Well, we're still here. If anything, I'd say that's a good sign.

Laguna blinked. That's not what I mean.

Kiros nodded, taking a seat. Yeah. I know. Leveling a reasonable look at Laguna, he crossed his arms. They're SeeDs. They've taken care of themselves this far along, they'll do their best. You aren't helping anything by obsessing about it.

Laguna sighed, casting another glance back at the immutable obelisk. There are lots of SeeDs, you know, he said. I could have gotten someone else. I could have asked for someone with more experience, someone--

Someone other than him. Kiros gave him a knowing look.

Laguna stood abruptly, moving over to the window and gripping the smooth sill. Yeah, I know, he handled the fight with Adel pretty well, and looks like he did a lot more than that, too. And if he's in SeeD then he's had all the training and everything-- he shook his head. I know all that. It doesn't help.

Kiros didn't respond--probably sensing that Laguna needed the time to speak and keeping it empty for him. Laguna took the proffered silence without quite noticing it.

I--I've had this weird feeling ever since I heard about him--like something was missing, or something. I mean, it was all such a surprise. Raine had had a son, man! If I had known she was going to, I wouldn't have--

He paused for a moment, then shook his head again.

I dunno. If I stayed with Raine, I wouldn't have been able to go after Ellone. So... either way, I guess it would have meant giving one of them up, but--

He spun to face Kiros, hand still in loose fists.

I got to see him for maybe an hour, all told, Kiros. I never got to talk to him alone, really, either. One second he was here, and now all of a sudden he's someplace--sometime--where I couldn't help him if I tried, and he's in danger....

There was an odd little pause, and Laguna's hands clenched the rest of the way and his head slowly dropped.

...and I sent him out there. Maybe to die.

A few seconds passed. Laguna looked up, halfheartedly expecting some sort of reassurance from Kiros--and found his friend staring in obvious alarm out the window. Laguna turned, casting a wary glance at the Lunatic Pandora--

A shifting, warping vortex was beginning to spill out of the construct, compressing and expanding space as it widened. Like a hungry flame, it caught and spread, reaching high up into the empty sky and casting weird patterns of light and shadow on the plains beneath--

--and, all of a sudden, it receded--collapsed back into itself, righting the twisted space as it left. A flash of light seared dark afterimages into his vision, and then the obelisk looked as grim and unchanging as it ever had before.

Laguna's hands locked on the windowsill, heart pounding in his ears. What was that? he demanded. Get someone out there to find out what that was!

Kiros muttered something in the way of startled agreement, and then rushed out the office door. Laguna watched the horizon, in a sort of half-crazed panic impatient for answers.

Again, he had to wait--just like he had been waiting for three days. They were odd little gaps of time, these spells of waiting--dead time that dragged on forever, empty areas, cavities in the flow of life that were filled only with thought and anticipation.

...after three days, it felt like he never wanted to sit idle again.

...Wait! Kiros! I'm coming, too!

By the time they reached the Lunatic Pandora, Laguna had already been kicked off the bridge because his fidgeting was distracting the pilot. As soon as the Ragnarok latched onto its makeshift docking site Laguna was at the entrance, mandatory escort of two soldiers at his side, and waiting for the stairs to be lowered. And as soon as they had been lowered he was down them, moving briskly through the corridors of the Lunatic Pandora as if he knew exactly where he was going.

He didn't, of course--he had a general idea that it might be back in the room where Adel's tomb had fallen, the place where Time Compression had all begun and surely (to his mind, at least) must have come to an end.

There seemed to be fewer monsters in the Pandora--the soldiers had little to do but keep up with Laguna's eager pace. Even so, it was a large construct--by the time they got to the door of the chamber, each of them were breathing heavily.

Laguna paused at the doorway, staring beyond it in confusion. The sight that greeted him just past the threshold was something terribly unnatural for being in the middle of a building--but, then again, the Lunatic Pandora was hardly a normal building, and the greatest things that had happened in it had been unnatural.

Even with that in mind, the sight of a blue sky and an impossible expanse of green field was enough to rob Laguna of what little wind he had. He stood there, unaware that he had caught his breath until the pressure in his lungs forced him to exhale.

With a glance at his escort, he stepped through the door.

The sunlight on his back was an odd sensation, a sharp contrast from the chill of the crystal hallways. The overabundance of flowers upon the ground scented the air, wrapping around him on the breeze. It seemed like an enchanted place--unreal, impossible. His footsteps were noiseless on the springy grass as he moved, then turned to see the outline of the doorway behind him. That was all there was--just an outline, with the cold reality of the Lunatic Pandora beyond it. It stood, sullen and alone, in the empty field.

Except that the field wasn't quite empty.

The peace of the landscape had been sapping away the sense of urgency he had felt; now it returned, full force.

With a quick order to the soldiers to remain put, he sprinted the distance over to the two forms, dwarfed by the enormity of the expanse. One was Rinoa--she glance up as he approached, surprise in her eyes. Laguna could hardly guess at what she had been through, but he could imagine that he wasn't the first thing she would have expected to see.

Rinoa looked fine--a few cuts and bruises, but hardly even what one would expect, coming out of a battle like the one she had surely partaken in. But the person next to whom she knelt--

Squall was pale. Very pale and utterly still, hardly disturbed by breathing and not stirring so much as an eyelid. Laguna's heart caught in his throat, and he sank down beside the two. He's not--

Not dead, Rinoa whispered. She sounded almost frightened. I found him like this. ...alone. I think... I think he got lost.

The word had a sinister tinge to it, one that set Laguna on edge.

In Time Compression, Rinoa clarified. He didn't know where to go, so... he never got there, I think. It... it must have been horrible.

Laguna looked down, taking in the grim expression that never seemed to leave Squall's face. He had no place to go home to....

Rinoa looked at him quizzically, but chose to ignore whatever questions she had in favor of voicing her concern. How did you get here? We need to get him to an infirmary--

Laguna agreed, bending down to pick up his son. One arm under the shoulders, one arm supporting the knees--Laguna winced. He's heavier than he looks, he complained.

Rinoa managed a ghost of a smile.

Squall's head lolled away from Laguna as he started back toward the door, and Laguna let out a purely internal sigh. He looked away, suddenly very embarrassed. ...you know him well, Rinoa?

Rinoa seemed a bit taken aback by the question. I... I guess so. I mean, I know him as well as anyone, I think.

One more surreptitious, stolen glance. There was something there, something in the contours of the face, or the quiet frown, that reminded him of Raine. Something there that reminded him of himself, too. Like a missing part of himself, twice lost and now replaced--almost. ...what's he like?

There was a pause, and Laguna glanced back to see her biting her lip. she asked.

Laguna nodded, looking ahead.

Rinoa thought about that. she said at length. Reserved, I guess you'd call him. He likes people to think he's a bit... distant. But I don't think he is, really. He just has a hard time showing everything.

There was another lump forming in his throat, something about this place--about the dead weight in his arms, only not quite dead just not quite--

You should be really proud of him.

They were halfway to the soldiers and the doorway back now, and the sudden cramp in Laguna's left leg made him unsure about whether or not he was going to make it the rest of the way.

You look a lot like him, Rinoa pointed out softly. Well... not a lot, but.... She paused.

Laguna spent a few heartbeats trying to remember how to breathe. Does he--uh--know? he asked, a tiny bit afraid of the answer.

No, I don't think so.

...how... did you know?

He glanced around, wincing a bit as his leg twinged. Rinoa smiled softly. It's obvious, if you think about it the right way, she said.

There was something in those eyes.

Heartilly. Rinoa Heartilly.

...you're Julia's kid, aren't you?

Rinoa nodded.

Laguna looked at her just a little bit closer. Should have known. She always had a weird way of noticing things. And then she left, or I left--any way, she's... gone. One more tiny hole in his patchwork life.

Rinoa glanced at Squall, and made a small noise in her throat. Laguna started slightly, turned, and almost tripped as his leg gave one last complaint. With a small sound of alarm, Rinoa rushed to steady him.

You know, he said, taking Rinoa for a moment as his confidant, the first time I ever saw him was when he walked into my office. I wanted to meet him before, but things always came up--and I kept thinking that it might be too late. I didn't know how he would take me walking into his life and asking to be a part of it. He cast a glance up at the clouds which dotted the impossible heavens. I guess that doesn't make me a very good... father, does it?

Rinoa was quiet, but Laguna could almost feel her looking at him. I think you should tell him, she said.

Laguna's heart skipped a beat in preemptive nervousness. You think so?

Rinoa nodded. He wasn't sure how he knew that, but he was sure she had. He might not take it too well, right away, but he should know.

Laguna looked down. He looks so... serious. Yeah. I think you're right.

They came upon the door, and the two soldiers still standing rigidly at attention. One of them hurried to relieve Laguna of his burden, but--although Squall's weight was beginning to wear on his shoulders and back--Laguna decided that he wouldn't give him up.


Waiting felt like the thing that was in between the ticks from a clock--when you know the tock is a split second away but you can't do anything to make it faster, when for an instant the world was consumed by a terrible emptiness. The tick, tock was the world. No one ever recognized it as the real pattern--Tick, (rest)-tock... tick, (rest)-tock... over and over, impartial and unmoved by anything around or about it.

Laguna hated waiting.

Kiros was off taking care of official business--probably trying to keep Laguna's schedule clear for the next few days. Rinoa was recuperating from her own injuries and the effort of supporting Time Compression, and Ward was... elsewhere. Probably getting himself into or out of some mess or other, still trying to clean up Esthar from the chaos of the past few weeks.

So Laguna was left to wait--alone--by Squall's bedside in the Infirmary, fighting the urge to fidget or run and wondering what he was supposed to say. How he was supposed to explain himself, everything that he had--or hadn't--done. The longer he had to wait, the worse a scene his imagination painted for him--the temptation to sneak quietly away was almost overpowering.

Tick, tock, tick, (rest)-tock.

His son. ...Raine's son. Now lying in the Infirmary after facing down things Laguna couldn't have imagined. It was... strange, to see the least. A strange feeling, to be looking at him now, after all those years. And for a moment, he had a glimpse of himself--an unknown, a stranger, one of so many people that had to come in and out of a SeeD's life so often. No one remarkable. No one outstanding. Seventeen years of waiting, seventeen years of wondering--that wasn't what he would see when he woke up. He would see just another man, an important one, perhaps--the President of Esthar was no mean job--but aside from that, just a person to blend into a crowd, to be forgotten in an instant once business was done.

And if that was what he wanted--if that was what he would really prefer--he could leave it as such. He could stand up and walk out of the Infirmary, and never say a word. Squall would never know--never care. And he would go on about his life, just as he had always done--

--still missing something, still feeling a little bit empty.

Tick, tock. Tick, (rest)-tock.

Tick, tock. Tick, (rest)-tock.

He didn't know how late it was or how long he had waited by the time Squall finally began to show signs of opening his eyes.

Tick, tock. Tick, (rest)-tock.

He looked around, taking in the room in that eternity between seconds. Finally, he glanced over to see who it was exactly that was sitting by his bed.

Laguna could see the confusion in his eyes--confusion as he wondered why his employer was there, most likely. Laguna forced himself to breathe. What to say, what to say....

Squall spoke first.

You're in Esthar, Laguna replied automatically. ...the infirmary. ......safe.

He seemed to accept that. We completed the mission, he said, going straight back into his veneer of professionalism. Just like a workaholic SeeD.

I know, Laguna said. I'm glad. A deceptively self-evident remark.

Just say it. he had thought so long about this--how to say it, how to let it slip, or hint at it, or just say it and let it handle itself from there. Simple was best, he had decided. Simple was easiest to say, and once it was said there was no backing down from it.

I wanted to talk to you.

His voice caught three times before he could say it. Tick, tock, tick, (rest)--


For such a long time, it had felt as though something was missing. Suddenly, the ache didn't seem quite so bad, any more.