Author's Note: This is an "extended scene" of Squall and Rinoa's flight on the Ragnarok during the game. When I finished the game, I wished it hadn't ended, and certain scenes especially so. This is one of them. I own no rights to Final Fantasy VIII or its characters. A few more notes after the story...
Squall pushed Rinoa back gently to look at her. Her eyes were red and puffy. Her nose was running. The front of his shirt was damp from her crying, and he was vaguely surprised to find that he did not care at all. None the less, Rinoa apologized quietly, scrubbing the last of her tears away with the heel of her hand.
"You don't need to be sorry," Squall mumbled. Right now, I don't want to go back either.
He cast a sidelong glance at the ship's control panel and considered the feasibility of reprogramming their destination to Balamb, Winhill or Dollet. Anywhere but fucking Esthar. But he was in well over his head when it came to operating the strange rocket-come-jetplane, and even if he did figure out how to manipulate the coordinates, he had no reason to believe that he'd be able to land it safely. He mentally chided himself for not having further diversified his training to include aeronautics.
Rinoa had managed to quell her tears, and was now looking out the cockpit glass. She was looking at Gaea, once a small bluish pearl in the sky, now growing ever larger in their view as they hurtled towards it. Given the static feeling of their weightless environment, Rinoa mused that one could be forgiven for thinking that they were actually stationary and the planet was approaching them like galloping destiny. She shook her head to break the gravitas and turned back to look at her companion where he knelt by her side, one foot wedged under her seat and one arm braced against its back to keep him grounded in the zero-G environment.
"You know, of all the ways I imagined my life might turn out, becoming a sorceress and getting locked up for it was never one of them. I mean, what are the odds?" Rinoa asked with a weak smile.
"If I hadn't let you get near the sorceress, the odds would have been zero. It's my fault," Squall said grimly.
In a motion that surprised Rinoa, he brought his forehead down against her leg, his nose pointed towards the floor. She hesitated only a moment before lightly resting her hand on the back of his head, her fingers becoming lost in his tousled hair. Despite having wanted to for weeks, she had never touched his hair before, and the sensation of finally doing so caused a tiny thrill-born shiver to travel from her hand to her heart.
"It wasn't your fault Squall. I made my own choices, and now I have to deal with the consequences," Rinoa said, trying to force her voice to sound measured and even. "It's just… My life hasn't been a horrible mess or anything, but I always thought the best way yet to come, you know? I thought I could really do something to help people, to make the world better. I thought I'd get married and have a house by the sea. I thought I'd have kids and spoil them rotten. You can't lose something that doesn't exist yet. You're never guaranteed the future that you dream about – that's what I meant earlier, I guess. But I'm still sad about it. I can't help it," she finished finally, shrugging in defeat.
Squall didn't reply – merely sighed, his shoulders dropping a little lower. Rinoa curled up in her seat, letting her cheek rest against the crown of his head. At length, she spoke again. "I can't believe I finally got myself into a mess that no one can help me out of – not the General, not the Owls, and not you."
Squall growled and struck the sheet metal floor with his free hand, causing Rinoa to sit up in alarm. When she caught his eyes, they were flashing with anger.
"There has to be something we can do! They can't just hand you a death sentence when you haven't even done anything wrong! It's not…fair…" he trailed off, realizing that he sounded like a child.
"How can you say I haven't done anything wrong? I set Adel free. I unleashed all those monsters from the moon on a city full of people. People might be dying down there…because of me. That's not fair," Rinoa said, hands twisting together in her lap.
"It wasn't your choice to do those things," Squall insisted. "Ellone showed me that the witch from the future possessed you. She knocked you into a coma and used your body to do her dirty work."
"But I let her in, Squall! I didn't even put up a good fight…" Squall could tell by the tone of her voice that she was on the verge of tears again. He tried his best to think of something comforting to say.
"Edea couldn't resist her either. I don't know if anybody could. But you shouldn't have even been there. I wish she would have taken me instead, or Quistis, or anyone but you. You're too good and you don't deserve it!" he said fiercely.
Rinoa blushed slightly at this comment, and she shook her head as if to dismiss the flattery. "We're going around in circles here. You feel guilty. I feel guilty. It's just a recipe for sadness, and I don't want to spend my last hours with you being sad."
Squall looked out the front screen, as the curve of Gaea's surface loomed large before them, guessing that indeed, they had no more than an hour or two until touchdown in Esthar. He nodded slowly and pulled himself back into his chair, sitting in it sideways to face her, gripping the cushion to anchor himself. Rinoa turned and mimicked his posture, her knee gently bumping his. Squall cocked his head slightly, giving her a look that somehow managed to look curious and disinterested at the same time. Rinoa couldn't help but smile as she remembered that it was the same mysterious, and in her opinion, unreasonably alluring look he had given her when she approached him in a ballroom not so long ago.
"What?" he asked.
"What did you think when you saw me for the first time?" she blurted.
Squall furrowed his brow and thought for a moment, tapping his foot lightly as he recalled their meeting.
"Three things," he said finally. "First I wondered who you were. Since I hadn't seen you at Garden before and since you weren't in uniform, I assumed you were someone's date. So, second I wondered what type of person wouldn't bother to tell their date that she was supposed to wear a ball gown to the SeeD Inaugural Ball. And then I wondered why you were alone, staring at the ceiling."
"Trust you to notice that I was breaking dress code," Rinoa said, laughing and shaking her head.
"It was kind of hard not to notice…" Squall mumbled.
"Well, now you know that Seifer is exactly the type of person who wouldn't bother to tell his date to wear a ball gown, or, for that matter, to tell her that she was no longer invited on account of his not being inaugurated as a SeeD after all, which is why I was alone," Rinoa retorted, chuckling again. "He wasn't a very good date. Oh, and I was staring at the ceiling because that skylight is gorgeous. I had been in some opulent ballrooms before, but none with a dome like that. I was just trying to guess how much it must cost to clean the thing when I saw that shooting star. And there you were!"
"There I was," he repeated softly. "Forty thousand gil, by the way."
"There are noise makers installed on the roof to deter birds from making too much of a mess, but they still end up paying someone ten thousand gil four times a year to clean the dome."
"No kidding!" Rinoa exclaimed, and then gave him a quizzical look. "Why do you know that? I thought Zell was the resident keeper of useless trivia."
"Oh, uh…while you were sick and we were traveling, I tried to balance Garden's budget to distract myself," Squall said, trying to sound nonchalant and looking at his feet as he felt his face getting warm.
"Did it work?" she asked.
"Not even a little," he admitted, glancing up at her from under his eyelashes with a small smirk – the closest thing to a smile she had seen on his face since they had reunited with their missing teammates at Fishermen's Horizon. In turn, Rinoa's face lit up with a grin, a sight Squall realized he would miss more than any other.
Under any other circumstances, he wouldn't have asked. He wouldn't have admitted that he cared to know the answer, afraid of what that might imply. But now that it was over for them, now that she was going, there didn't seem to be a point to leaving himself to wonder…
"Out of all the people in the ballroom that night, why did you want to dance with me?"
"Well that's not a secret!" Rinoa exclaimed incredulously. "I told you right then and there. We saw the same star, I caught your eye, and I marched right up to you and said…" she trailed off, clearly expecting Squall to finish.
" 'Dance with me,'" Squall supplied gamely.
"Noooo, I said 'You're the best looking guy here – dance with me.'"
Squall felt his face getting even hotter. He didn't know whether he had ignored her when she had said that or had simply forgotten.
"You didn't even know anyone there…" he muttered.
Rinoa considered this a moment. "You know how you don't have to eat lobster everywhere to know that Balamb rock lobster is simply the best that there is in the whole world?" she asked, giving him a knowing look. "It was kind of like that."
Squall didn't know how she knew that Balamb rock lobster was his favorite meal. Nor could he deny her logic but…
"Wait, are you comparing me to a crustacean?"
"It's not that bad of a metaphor! There's the same hard shell, but what's inside is wonderful," she said plainly, smiling fondly at him again.
Squall stared at her for a few measured moments, his look inscrutable – perhaps amused, perhaps irritated – before speaking again in a very small voice.
"Please don't eat me."
Rinoa threw her head back and laughed and laughed, gripping her sides to stave off the ache it was causing in her ribs. Squall watched her and had to press his lips closed to stop from losing grip on his own composure. Eventually, she calmed, once more wiping tears from her eyes – very different tears this time.
"Thanks, I needed that," she said quietly.
She reached out with her palm extended towards him, as if she were giving a high five. Squall pulled off his right glove and met her gesture with his own palm, his long, calloused fingers gradually curling around her smaller, softer ones. His other hand released its grip on his seat and he slowly started to drift upwards. Rinoa could suddenly hear her heart beat loudly in her ears, but it didn't stop her from freeing herself from her own chair, drifting up to join him, or from using their joined hands to pull herself closer, wrapping her free arm around his neck. When her face was a few centimeters from his, she squeezed her eyes closed.
A loud burst of static from the control panel made them both jump. Rinoa felt a slight coolness on her chin from Squall's sudden gasp. For her part, she squeaked in shock, and then moaned in utter disappointment as Squall turned from her to attend to the control panel. He reached for the volume control, which he had all but muted earlier when the ground control team had seemed intent on imparting to him the dangers of being confined with the Sorceress.
"Squall, are you there? Repeat, come in, Squall, can you hear me? This is ground control at Esthar Air Station. Repeat…" The voice through the speaker was much clearer now than it had been when they were tens of thousands of miles away. Squall spared a quick sideways glance at Rinoa, who looked solemn as she fastened herself into her seat, her eyes partly obscured by her dark hair.
"I'm here," he said through the intercom.
"Oh, thank goodness. We thought we'd lost you. And the Sorceress?"
"Uh, she's…" Squall wracked his brain for a believable lie, but needn't have bothered.
"I'm here," Rinoa said from behind him, her voice clear and even.
"Okay then. You're about to enter the planet's atmosphere. We should have you down in less than 90 minutes. We must insist that you secure any loose items and stay strapped in from here on out – it'll be a bumpy ride. If the cabin should lose pressure, oxygen masks will drop down from above your heads. Please secure your own mask before securing that of the Sorceress. In the unlikely event of a water landing -"
Rinoa sighed as Squall turned the volume down again and glanced over at her once more. She was staring straight ahead through the screen, her jaw tight and her expression harder than he could recall having seen it before, even when she had argued with him in Timber. Her hands gripped the sides of her seat tightly. Squall opened his mouth to say something, anything that would make the moment a little less awful, but was drowned out by the roaring of the spacecraft as began its long-overdue atmospheric reentry. The view out the front screen blurred in a disorienting manner as the ship shuddered and shook like it was ready to fall apart. Squall squeezed his eyes shut and prayed to Hyne, and to any other deity who might be listening, that the Ragnarok's heat shields were intact.
When the roaring and shaking subsided some half hour later, Squall looked to Rinoa again and was surprised to find that her ironclad grip on her seat had softened and that her eyes were closed in sleep. Squall couldn't help but smile a little, deciding this was a prime example of her ability, which he had noticed when they first began traveling together, to sleep through anything up to – and possibly including – the end of the world. He leaned back in his own seat and allowed himself to realize, for the first time since they had found salvation on the Ragnarok, that he was completely and utterly exhausted. He couldn't actually recall when he had last slept for more than a couple of hours at a time. It was sometime before being launched into space, sometime before carrying Rinoa to Esthar on his back, sometime before being put in charge of Balamb Garden, sometime before Galbadia had ordered two Gardens destroyed, sometime before…
Squall was jolted back to consciousness as the dragon-shaped Ragnarok touched down in the dry, reddish soil of the Estharan desert. He felt unspeakably groggy, and was surprised to find Rinoa already unbuckled and standing, her face bearing that hard expression once more. Squall quickly climbed out of his chair and stood before her, placing his hands on her shoulders and looking her square in the eye.
" 'Noa, you don't –" was all he managed before she interrupted.
"No, Squall, I do. I do have to go. I hate it, but I have to go. Listen – I'm sorry. I'm so, so sorry," her voice waivered here and she had to take a moment to collect herself, but she never broke eye contact. "One day, you'll find someone wonderful who won't leave you. And that's all I'm going to say, or else I'll lose it, and I will not go out there crying. They hate me, and they don't even know me. I can't give them the satisfaction. And I know you're not one for long, teary goodbyes, so don't start pretending that you are. If you're ready, I'd like to go now and get this over with."
Lost for words, Squall followed as she turned and strode purposefully to the elevator. He wished he had the grace to hold her hand as they descended. As soon as the doors opened again, Rinoa made her way to the exit hatch. She pressed the control switch and the motors that controlled the steel gangway whirred to life. Squall's hands balled into fists at his sides. He wanted to hit something or someone until his knuckles were broken. Where's Seifer when you need him?
Not allowing herself a moment's reluctance, Rinoa marched down the gangway. Squall heard a male voice greet her.
"Sorceress Rinoa, Hyne's descendant. Come with us. We must seal your powers for the sake of the world."
Squall followed, squinting into the harsh midday sun. He watched as Rinoa approached the small group of Esthar officials, her head bowed now. There were only a half dozen of them, and even in his sleep-starved state, he reckoned he could take them without much difficulty. But then what? Rinoa would have to go on the run. We'd have to live looking over our shoulders until inevitably… She wouldn't want that.
Squall didn't recognize his own voice as he made a final, quiet plea to change her mind and felt numb as she shook her head, explaining once more the danger she was putting everyone in, and finally offering to return his ring. It was the only family heirloom he had, but he didn't ever want to see it again if it meant she was gone.
Rinoa gave a last glace over her shoulder as she walked away, still clutching his ring as it hung from the chain around her neck. Despite what she had said just scant moments earlier, she had started to cry. Short hours ago, they had spoken of Squall's thoughts on seeing her for the first time. He hadn't had the courage to admit the whole truth of that: She's so beautiful. Who is she? Now, as he looked at her for the last time, unable to look away as she was ushered into the back of a waiting car by her diplomatic escort, Squall's thought, once more left unspoken, came as quickly and painfully as a knife wound: Don't go. Because. I love you.
Endnotes: Ta da! This is the first fanfic I've written that I consider worthy of posting. I wrote it a while ago but polished it up and posted it in honor of the "Where I Belong" challenge. Many thanks to Ashbear and Emerald Latias for running the challenge - it's been a real pleasure reading the submissions. Thanks so much for reading, and if you have any comments feel free to leave them.