It had stormed that night, one of those quick, violent summer storms that always brought Angelo clambering up onto Rinoa's bed to lie against her legs - to protect her or to protect himself, she was never sure, but it always made her smile. She'd never minded storms herself; listening to the thunder and the rush of rain against walls and windows always made her a little more aware of the comfortable warmth of her own room and her own bed.
But the storm had spent itself by the time she got up, early enough that even Balamb Garden's halls were still and quiet as she made her way around from the dormitory to the front gate. A smile and a wave to the gate guard, who smiled and waved back as he let her through, and then she was stepping out into the cool, thin blue of first light.
She kept half an eye out for bite bugs and other creepy crawlies as she hiked across the still-wet fields - greened over now where the Galbadian missiles and the uprooting of the Garden had churned up the earth - but she didn't worry much. And though Angelo trotted ahead of her, roaming from one side to the other and sniffing at suspicious lumps in the rain-bowed long grass, she didn't see anything more ominous than the bleached-out fragments of shattered chitin left behind by one of the SeeD cadets' training patrols.
She could hear the sea before she saw it, a distant roar with a steady in and out like breathing. The fields dropped away at the rim of the bluffs that overlooked the shore; Rinoa stopped there for a short while, looking down to the narrow strip of sand that high tide left between the water and the foot of the bluffs.
It wasn't hard to find what she was looking for.
The storm had passed and left the sky swept clear, but the sea was still restless, churned into whitecaps and waves that curled over themselves and rushed up the beach in a froth of foam. Against the ribbon of white sand out of reach of the surf, black leather stood out sharply - the loose shape of an empty jacket, draped over the gunblade that stood upright with its blade driven halfway into the sand.
She picked her way down in short, careful hops, and followed the tracks of a single set of boots across sand swept smooth by wind and water. When she reached the place where the jacket had been left hung over the gunblade's angled grip, she settled down on a rock at the foot of the bluffs, fingers toying absently with the pair of rings that hung from the chain around her neck, and looked for Squall.
If she hadn't known him, she might not have been able to identify him - he stood so far out into the water that she could only really see his head and shoulders above the surface, white shirt and water-dark hair. But the gunblade and the jacket with its ruff of white fur could hardly have belonged to anyone else, and Squall was the only person Rinoa knew who would brave the sea and the creatures in it without even a weapon at hand.
Angelo grew bored with exploring the smells of the beachside and came to lie down at Rinoa's feet. She ruffled her fingers through the dog's fur, half watching for the bright orange flicker of fastitocalon fins, half just watching as Squall braced himself against the breaker looming over him and almost vanished to view completely when the wave crashed down onto itself and rushed up the shore.
That was how it went. He set himself against each wave, leaning into the oncoming rush of water as it battered against him, and as each wave subsided and the ebb left him standing hip-deep he dug himself in against the undertow, only to square his shoulders as the next wave swelled. Not swimming, though Rinoa knew that he could - just standing in the teeth of the sea, letting it beat against him with the purposeless and unstoppable violence of nature. Now and again he braced himself too late or a wave rose too high, came down too hard, and she lost sight of him entirely until he sturggled back onto his feet, and began the whole thing over again.
This was a part of Squall that Rinoa didn't quite understand. He never did anything without a reason, but the reason for this - the pointlessness of the whole thing - was something beyond her experience. She found herself thinking of Seifer, and wondering what Garden and SeeD had done to the two of them, or if it was really anything anyone had done that left them both so driven to do battle with something greater than themselves.
But it had been different with Seifer. For him, life had been a challenge, and he'd met it with the belief - the expectation - that there was nothing in the world he couldn't surmount if he just threw himself at it enough times. He'd tested himself, setting himself against the biggest and strongest and everyone else along the way, as a way to prove that he was the biggest and the strongest of all. For all the warped route he'd taken towards his goals, Seifer's ambition had at least been an understandable one.
Squall had no particular ambition, at least not that Rinoa could tell. He set and achieved goals with such methodical practicality that she suspected he did it just to fill the time, to give himself something to do that would keep him from getting lost in a downward spiral of thinking too much about things he couldn't change. He'd gained some balance since Ultimecia, but it showed itself mostly in small things only those who knew him could really see for what they were... there were still these times when he spent hours at a stretch in the training center and came out exhausted and bloodied, when he was driven to stand against the strength of the sea as though purging some pressure that had built up inside him.
Eventually the tide went out, and rather than follow it Squall turned back, slogging through the water - losing his footing once and going down on one knee when the undertow pulled at his feet - and up onto the sand. He left his gunblade and his jacket where they were, but he bent to scuff fingers perfunctorially over Angelo's head when the dog trotted out to meet him, and when he reached the rock Rinoa sat on he dropped ungracefully to his knees beside it as though the energy had all drained out of him.
"Hi," she said, and smiled at him.
He looked up at her, wet hair hanging over his eyes and clinging to his face, salt water collected in tiny beads along the scar between his eyes. He didn't say anything. Instead he leaned towards her, breath going out of him audibly like a quiet sigh, one arm wrapping around her waist as he slumped halfway across her lap and leaned his head against her stomach.
Rinoa lay an arm across his shoulders and smoothed his hair back from his face, not minding the seawater soaking into her clothes. It didn't matter. What mattered was the loose way Squall's shoulders slumped, emptied of pent-up tension. "Feeling better?"
She'd learned to interpret the low "hmm" sound he made as a 'yes.'
She didn't really understand it, but she didn't really have to.
They all did what they had to do to calm their private storms.