On Angel's Wings
Obligatory disclaimer: I did not create these characters, they belong to Square-Enix. I'm just borrowing them.
Chapter 1: Flight
"Esthar Airstation. This is Ragnarok requesting launch clearance." Squall adjusted the restraints on his seat and checked the instrument panel in front of him, studying the flashing lights and gauges.
"Copy Ragnarok. Systems check." Came the reply.
"Hydraulics. Check." Squall flipped a switch and a hiss was heard as the doors were closed and sealed shut and the interior of the airship pressurized.
"Hull seals. Check. Life support. Check." Squall pressed more buttons, reading the data on the instrument panel and relaying the information he saw.
"Oxygen tanks at full." He said, checking the gauge. That was important. He remembered his first flight in space on the Ragnarok. There had been barely enough oxygen left to get him and Rinoa home.
"Main fuel tanks one and two full. Rocket booster tanks, full. Reserve tanks. Full." He flipped the toggles enabling the booster tanks, knowing he'd need them to fire the rockets to reach escape velocity.
"Forward shields at maximum. Weapons offline." He continued. He didn't need the guns; he was just going on a shakedown run. Squall had brought the Ragnarok to the Airstation for some long overdue repairs and refueling. If the test run went well, he'd take it out into a high orbit. Outside the atmospheric envelope.
"Gravity generator.." Squall flipped a switch briefly and felt the air press down on him. He flipped it off again and the pressure stopped.
"Gravity generator functional, but offline." He said.
Squall continued with the systems checks, testing the directional controls, exterior sensors, communications channels and other vital areas of the airship. It wasn't the newest ship on the planet, and had been neglected in space for seventeen years. Before Squall took it back up there, he wanted to be sure he'd be able to trust it to bring him home.
"Systems checks completed." Squall said, concluding the once-over.
"Copy Ragnarok. Systems functional. All systems are go for launch." The radio replied.
"Copy that. Commencing ignition." Squall flipped another switch and the engines powered up, starting with a whine then gradually increasing to a shriek.
"Ragnarok. You are cleared for launch." Came the response.
Squall increased the throttle and the airship lifted off slowly, hovering while he retracted the landing gear. Then he engaged the rear thrusters and the ship took off.
"Commander Leonhart, take it up to 60,000 kilometers and perform another systems check." The disembodied voice of the airstation's ground control instructed.
"Copy. Increasing altitude." Squall said, watching as the ship responded to the commands he gave the computer. He checked his airspeed, increasing it to aid in the ship's ascent. He was still flying subsonic however, not needing to go any faster at the moment.
At the 60,000-kilometer mark, the airstation hailed him again.
"Systems check, Ragnarok." The voice said.
Squall checked all the gauges and quickly read a system status report on the computer.
"All systems green. Status is good." He replied.
"Good. Commander Leonhart, increase speed to mach 1 and increase angle of ascent to forty five degrees."
"Copy." Squall said, doing as instructed. The roar of the engines intensified and Squall was pressed back into his seat as the ship ascended. A countdown was started and Squall listened with increasing excitement as it approached zero.
"Fire main rockets Ragnarok and increase angle of ascent another forty-five degrees."
"Copy that." Squall fired the rockets and the ship leaped forward, the ship's angle now pointing directly toward the ionosphere. It was rapidly approaching escape velocity.
"Ragnarok. Fire rocket boosters now." The radio chattered, and Squall complied. The roar of the engines deepened until the vibrations started to rattle Squall's teeth.
"Rocket boosters firing." Squall confirmed, trying to breathe through the increasing g-forces pressing him into the pilot's seat. The ship automatically performed a roll, presenting her hull to the upper atmosphere as she sliced through the ionosphere and into the exosphere.
Squall felt the change immediately, from pulling crushing g's as the airship accelerated to suddenly feeling no gravity at all. He reached forward and cut the rockets to conserve their fuel.
"Status check, Ragnarok." Came the request from ground control.
Squall quickly checked all his gauges and readouts, and answered, "Status is green. No problems presenting."
"Congratulations on a successful launch, Commander Leonhart." Came the response, and Squall heard whoops and cheers in the background before the connection was severed.
Squall studied the curvature of the blue planet above him with awe. He'd only seen that view of it once before, when he and Rinoa had boarded the Ragnarok after his daring rescue of her in the vastness of space. His fascination with the view then had been overlaid with a very real concern that this would be his last view of his home.
They had staved off death for a little while, but Squall, in that moment, was left overwhelmed by the thought that he'd have to attempt to fly a derelict spaceship that had been left abandoned for who knew how many years. He had no idea if it would even work. Fortunately, the comms did work, and when he made contact with ground control, he heaved a sigh of relief that they would help in getting the ship safely to the planet below them.
In the years since, Squall had always intended to go back up and take a proper look, but time and circumstance had made it difficult. This time however, he had a perfect pretext. The Ragnarok indeed did need some repairs, very expensive ones. And fuel for an airship of its unique design could only be purchased in Esthar.
The powers that be in Esthar also wanted to have another look up here, and for another reason. They wanted to see what, if anything, was left of the Lunar Base. Ships like the Ragnarok were expensive to produce. There had originally been three made to escort Adel's frozen body into her orbital prison, and two of them had been damaged and destroyed. The Ragnarok alone had survived, adrift in the airless void, seemingly untouched by time.
Another ship, the Valkyrie, had been constructed for President Laguna Loire, and it had the capability to escape the planetary bonds like the Ragnarok did, but its availability was limited. The Lunar Cry had strained Esthar's resources to the point that reconstruction and reclamation of the monster-infested areas had taken precedent, making the building of new spaceships a low priority.
Quite simply, they needed the Ragnarok. And Squall was more than willing to lend them a hand, in return for instruction on how to pilot the dragonship out into space. An added bonus of course was the fact that the ship would have to be repaired and refitted to make it safe for such an endeavor.
Squall knew that eventually he'd have to direct the ship toward the last known coordinates of the Lunar Base and report on his findings. At the moment however, he was content to simply drift in the velvety darkness and enjoy the sight of the blue vista that spread above the clear canopy of the cockpit. He had yet to engage the gravity generator, and he'd delayed that action for a specific reason.
Deciding now was the time for that reason, Squall unbuckled himself from the pilot's seat and immediately drifted upwards, weightless. When the Ragnarok had left the planetary atmosphere, it had rotated, presenting its hull to space, the canopy directed downward toward the planet below them. It now floated in a high orbit, for all intents and purposes, upside down, oriented such that the planet appeared to be above it.
The weightlessness of space made it easy to become disoriented and lose all sense of what was up and what was down. Motion sickness as a result of that was a possibility. Maneuvering under those circumstances also presented a challenge.
Squall wanted, no needed, to make himself comfortable in such an environment in order for his plan to work.
So he drifted, flew and tried with varying success to move about the ship without the benefit of gravity to work with. He fetched up against the hull several times, earning bumps and bruises for his efforts, developed a wicked headache and an even worse case of nausea. Eventually that all subsided, and Squall simply drifted, staring raptly at the planet once again, lost in his thoughts.
Kind of an extreme means of getting time to myself, he thought with amusement. But essentially that was the exact reason that he had done this. He needed that time alone to decompress. Finding that time at home was becoming increasingly difficult as news of his and Rinoa's upcoming nuptials was spread abroad.
If they had been any other ordinary couple, there wouldn't have been such intense interest. But, as children of the two most powerful leaders in the world, it was an event of great magnitude for a great many people.
General Caraway was still acting leader of Galbadia, at least until the general election, Galbadia's first, to be held next November. For the next year at least, he was still in command of the country. Laguna Loire was still president of Esthar and that country didn't seem much inclined to attempt to elect another leader, at least not that Squall had seen. Laguna had been trying to convince the council that it would be in their best interests, but his efforts so far hadn't yielded much success.
Aside from their familial connections, which certainly contributed to the interest, there was Squall and Rinoa themselves. Squall, the young SeeD commander, leader of the team that battled and defeated the Sorceress Ultimecia and Rinoa, the brave, beautiful freedom fighter that had helped in that battle. It was a fairy-tale, come to life, and the news media played it up to the hilt. The public devoured it and clamored for more. Fortunately for Squall and Rinoa, one small detail had mostly escaped the press.
Rinoa was a sorceress herself. It hadn't entirely escaped; Squall and Laguna had both had to take some rather drastic measures to ensure that what little of that information that did leak out of Esthar, was discounted as rumor and hearsay. By downplaying that aspect of Rinoa's contribution to the fight against Ultimecia, they had done their best to protect her from those whose opinion of sorceresses considered the only good one to be a dead one.
Squall had been more than willing to embark upon a campaign to permanently silence those who'd talked about Rinoa's status as a sorceress, but Laguna had dissuaded him from that somewhat extreme action, instead releasing misinformation and engineering wild rumors to discredit those who spoke too openly about Rinoa's abilities. It went against the grain for the former journalist to do that, but he understood completely Squall's position. Having the life of his wife-to-be under constant threat was enough to turn the young mercenary murderous in his zeal to protect her.
While Laguna understood what Squall did for a living, there were limits, and he would not allow his son to go down the path that he'd been considering, so he offered an alternative that they all could live with. Squall, for his part gratefully bowed in this case to his father's wisdom, himself not at all comfortable with the thought of what he might have to do to protect Rinoa and the possible cost not only to his soul, but to hers as well.
One thing for certain, Squall could not give in to his fears for her. The most heinous evils in the world were committed by those consumed by fear. It was the driving force behind both of the Sorceress Wars that had occurred in recent memory. Adel's fear of dying without a successor had lead to the Sorceress War that had played a part in Squall's very existence. Ultimecia, whose goal of time compression could be considered a response to her fear of death, had instigated the most recent Sorceress War. So, no, his life could not, would not be consumed by fear.
But it was hard sometimes when the memories of what could have happened in Centra still haunted him. Having Rinoa's life threatened by a terrorist was just about the final straw for Squall, and it had taken a lot of talking on Laguna's part to convince him not to go on a bloody rampage to make sure it never happened again. It would have been a disaster, not just for SeeD but also for himself and Rinoa as well.
Having the SeeD Commander suddenly go rogue would not have solved his particular problem, and fortunately, sense won out over rage.
But there was still a cold, ruthless part of him that made damn sure he knew as much about any potential threat as possible. And it was poised to strike at a moment's notice if expedient action was called for. Squall Leonhart, if threatened, could make a very, very dangerous enemy.
Keep your friends close, Squall thought, and your enemies closer. Then he shook himself out of the grim trend his thoughts had taken. He hadn't come up here to brood. Not entirely at any rate.
Aside from checking on what was left of the Lunar Base, Squall had another purpose for this trip. While he didn't consider himself to be the most romantic or creative guy around, given a chance, he could on occasion be…unique.
And what could be more unique, or private, than a honeymoon spent several thousand miles above the planet?
With that thought in mind, he wanted to go back up into orbit and get a feel for what it would be like, and if what he had in mind would even work. His conclusion after maneuvering around the Ragnarok in zero gravity was…. Maybe. But the mechanics would be tricky. And the physiological effects of zero gravity would add to the challenge. It would be much easier, not to mention more comfortable, to simply engage the gravity generators and avoid needless complications. Still, a wicked thought intruded into his mind, it could be fun to try…. and Squall was definitely up for the challenge.
He remembered when he and Rinoa were being guided down by ground control after he'd managed to get them both onto the Ragnarok and kill those pesky monsters that had infested it. During the moments that the ship cruised on remote guidance, Rinoa had insisted on sitting in his lap nearly the entire time.
As he held her there, lightly, he slowly began to admit to himself that he did like her being there. The feel of another body so close to him, at first uncomfortable, eventually awakened a buried longing that he'd almost forgotten. By this point he'd already acknowledged to himself that he loved her. What the hell he was supposed to do about it however, he hadn't figured out yet.
The conversation they'd had included his admission that he'd held himself apart from people for fear of growing close to them only to have them taken from him, like his sis Ellone. And Rinoa's response had been, "you've missed out on all the good things in life." It had taken him a long time to truly understand what that had meant.
He understood it now. The fear of losing a loved one had kept him from learning how to love someone else. Focusing too much on the past had nearly crippled his chance at a future.
His gaze strayed to the empty co-pilot's chair where Rinoa had sat as they approached Esthar. He remembered how she'd sobbed hopelessly after admitting to him that she had become a sorceress, and was now going to be entombed in a living death like Adel, in order to keep the world safe from her "evil".
She told him, knowing that he was a SeeD. Knowing that his job was to kill sorceresses. And fearing that he would have to kill her too. It was too much for him, watching her, helpless to do anything about their circumstances …. or so he'd thought. His heart cracked, and for the first time in his life he reached out to someone; he reached out to her and held her tight as they descended to the earth, blinking tears from his eyes the whole time. Rinoa never knew that, he'd never told her.
But it was here, in the Ragnarok, as they were descending back to the surface, that Squall had at long last, began his first, tentative steps toward…. Life. Or at least, a reason for wanting it; a barely defined longing to learn about all of those good things that Rinoa said he'd missed out on. Everything that he did from that point on had been with that as its final goal. It had all been for her, as well as for himself.
It was reason enough for him to consider this place, and the view it offered, to be special.
The radio crackled as a voice from ground control hailed him, "Commander Leonhart, your gravity generator has not been activated yet. Is it functioning?"
Squall made his way over to the control panel and thumbed the comms switch to on, replying, "Activating now." Then he switched on the gravity generator and braced himself as he drifted downward. Fortunately, one of the repairs to the ship had included an upgrade of the gravity generator, a minor adjustment that made it come on gradually, rather than an abrupt switch from zero to normal gravity with no warning in between. So, no more crashing to the deck when the gravity came on.
"Gravity generator is functioning." He reported.
"Good. Activate external cameras, and navigate to these coordinates." Ground control instructed, giving him the codes to enter into the computer. After he entered the codes, he sat back down into the pilot's seat and strapped in. The directional thrusters fired and the Ragnarok began to move toward the last known location of the Lunar Base.
"Squall, activate internal cameras as well, please?" a different, familiar voice requested.
Squall frowned, asking, "Why?"
"We want to see you up there son, that's why." Laguna answered.
Squall rolled his eyes at this, and responded dryly, "Is that an order, Mr. President?"
"It can be." Came the response.
Squall sighed, "fine." That irritated him. There was no reason to film him sitting in a pilot's chair, typing in commands. How exciting and interesting could that possibly be? And if it was being transmitted live to the news, he'd have to hurt someone.
He flipped the toggle to activate the internal cameras, and as he did, a video screen rose from the back of the control panel. As it did, the screen came on, showing his father, Laguna, in the control room at the Esthar Airstation, with Rinoa standing next to him. He smiled slightly at her, and she smiled and waved back.
That's new. He thought, studying the screen.
"Looking good son!" Laguna said enthusiastically. Squall frowned at him.
"And I'm sure the world is riveted by how deftly I can type commands on the navigation computer." Squall said sarcastically. Rinoa stifled a laugh and Laguna gave him a shocked look.
"Was that sarcasm? From him?" Laguna asked her, gesturing toward him on the screen. Rinoa nodded, eyes sparkling with amusement.
"Sarcasm? I have no idea what you're talking about." Squall said blandly. A beep indicated that he'd reached the coordinates he'd keyed into the computer.
"I've reached the last known location of the Lunar Base," Squall reported, switching back to the job at hand.
"Activate data transfer." Laguna said, suddenly looking sad. Squall initiated a live feed from the external cameras to the airstation, sending the data gathered directly to their video screens.
Then, he looked up from the video screen and the control panel he'd been working on, and froze, stunned at the sight.
"Holy Hyne," he whispered, forgetting that he was being filmed. He unbuckled his restraints again and got up from his seat, walking toward the window and the awesome, terrible result of the Lunar Cry's direct hit upon the Lunar Base that it displayed.
There was nothing but wreckage. Virtually nothing left to salvage.
"Squall?" Came Laguna's voice.
"Are you seeing this?" He asked.
"Yes. Put it on screen son, and enhance magnification." Laguna said heavily.
Squall did as requested and frowned, sitting back down in the pilot's seat and studying the video screen closely as the feed from ground control was replaced by what the external cameras were recording.
"There are still bodies up here." He observed. He counted them. Four. He hoped there weren't any others. He already knew, or thought he knew, what Laguna was going to want next, and he was already thinking about the safest means of retrieving those bodies.
"Yes." The pain in Laguna's voice was palpable. He'd known these people and worked with them for years.
"Do you know who they are?" Squall asked.
"We have a list of those who were unaccounted for." Laguna responded.
"I'll have to do an EVA to get them." Squall said.
"Squall, don't. It's too dangerous. Save it for another trip. I'll get some techs together to go with you, and they'll do the retrieval." Laguna said.
"I can do this." Squall said.
"Not alone you can't. Trust me on this." Laguna said firmly.
Squall was readying another argument when the screen suddenly shifted from its current image back to the airstation's control room.
"Squall, please." Rinoa said, looking worried. "Let the techs do it. They know how."
He frowned, "I know how to do it too. I'm already here, all I need is a tether to hook to my suit and I can bring them back."
"I know you can, you saved me that way, and without a tether. But this isn't an urgent, life or death need. You don't have to risk yourself for this. I'd much rather have you come back." Rinoa said. Squall shrugged. She was right. The retrieval would go much more smoothly with some advance planning, and common sense dictated that more than one person would need to be involved for safety's sake. Otherwise, the risk of adding one more body to those unfortunate casualties was much too high.
"Alright," he agreed. Rinoa gave a sigh of relief, and Laguna's stern, worried expression eased.
Then Laguna requested, "Squall, maneuver the ship a little farther into the debris field. We need to get an idea of what, if anything is salvageable and if there are any more bodies besides the ones we've seen so far."
"Copy that." Squall said, typing in the commands.
The ship cruised through the area, and Squall panned the cameras around, recording everything that he could. They located two more bodies, bringing the total still floating in space to six. Squall swept the area one more time, before Laguna called him back.
"That's good enough son, we've got more than enough information to work with now. Come on back down." Laguna said.
Squall nodded, "Okay. I'll start performing the systems checks." He spent the next few moments typing away at the control panel, reading off the status of the various systems that were vital to the operation of the Ragnarok.
A sudden giggle brought Squall's attention back to the video screen to see Rinoa, eyes sparkling with amusement.
He frowned at her image, puzzled, and asked, "What?"
"You were right Squall, this is the most exciting and riveting television program ever! The speed of your typing, the blank look of concentration on your face, it's truly inspiring." Rinoa said, giggling again. Squall snorted.
"Sarcasm? From you Rinoa? Where did that come from?" he said, fighting a grin.
"I learned from the best." She smiled.
"Okay, that's it. I'm killing Seifer as soon as I get back to Balamb." He said in mock anger. Rinoa gulped for a moment before she saw the glint in his eyes that meant he was joking. Sometimes with Squall, it was hard to tell if he was serious or not.
"I didn't learn from him, I learned from you!" she laughed.
"I'm sure I don't know what you mean, Rinoa," he said, deadpan. Laguna watched, fascinated as Rinoa continued joking and teasing him, trying to get him to laugh or even crack a smile. He grinned as he saw Squall's lips twitching after she told him a really stupid joke.
"That's not going to work," he said, eyes sparkling but otherwise still blank-faced, "I know what you're trying to do and it's not going to happen."
Rinoa pouted, "why not?"
"Do you know what it would do to my reputation if I was caught laughing on camera? My whole life's work cultivating my image, gone. Is that what you want?" he asked with mock severity.
"Yes." She grinned at him.
He shook his head, "not gonna happen." Laguna, grinning wickedly, suddenly whispered something into Rinoa's ear. She burst out laughing.
"You're not allowed to help, Laguna!" Squall said, glowering at the image. Laguna shrugged, looking innocent.
"Meanie!" Rinoa said, pouting.
Squall couldn't help it, she looked so cute when she did that, he had to laugh.
"Okay, you win this round Rinoa." He grinned, then he lowered his voice and gave her an intense look, "But you're in trouble when I get home."
She smiled and said seductively, "I can't wait." Laguna, standing behind her with his arms crossed, chuckled at the exchange, shaking his head.
The image began to break up and Squall checked his status screen.
"I'm going to be hitting re-entry pretty soon, so I'm shutting the cameras down. I'll see you both in a few minutes." Squall said, turning off both the internal and the external cameras.
Then the ship shuddered as it penetrated the atmospheric envelope and the hull began to heat up. Squall was kept busy checking the ship's status and correcting the angle of entry so that the reinforced hull absorbed the friction heat. He watched his readouts carefully and then cut in the main rockets.
The dragonship screamed through the ionosphere, descending gradually through the atmospheric layers and leaving a thunderclap behind it as it punched through the denser air of the planet toward the upper stratosphere. As the ship approached Esthar, Squall throttled back and cruised in an easy angle of descent, aiming for the landing pad atop the airstation.