In response to a widely issued challenge, I present my first standalone, romantic Squinoa oneshot. Life and its prior commitments added up to a lack of time to really sink into this, but I had the idea and wanted to see if I could pull off a pairing that I've never been particularly good at visualising with a happy ending attached…ideally without making it tooth-rottingly sweet.

Honestly, I'm not all that happy with it. But when am I ever?

Rating: K+. Mild language and sexual references.

Warnings: none.

Pairings: (central) Squall x Rinoa, (implied) Irvine x Selphie, Cid x Edea

Summary: Several weeks post-game, Squall is drowning under a frustrating, pointless workload that keeps him from Rinoa's side far more than he'd like. A chance meeting and a seemingly random memory fragment combine to show him how to move on… Contribution to the 'Where I Belong' August Squinoa Challenge.

Disclaimer: I bought, I played, I wrote. Sadly, this means squat when it comes to intellectual property…

Loneliness, Hopefully Past Tense


The dawn sun gently floated on the eastern horizon, the leaden ocean's rhythmic turbulence making its rays flicker and shimmy like a mirage as it shone down on an insomniac teenager in a snit.

Granted, said adolescent brooder would not have agreed with almost any of this statement of affairs. Basic Garden astronomy lessons taught the foolhardiness of the heliocentric solar model, so the sun was certainly not floating. The young man had certainly seen enough deserts to know what a mirage looked like, and this was not it. Not to mention, the sun wasn't high enough in the sky yet to really shine down on anything. Sideways was about the best it could manage just then. Oh, and 'insomniac'? Was it his fault he grew up in a military academy that insisted on 0600 starts?

And SeeD Commander Squall Leonhart did not do 'snits', whatever they were.

Nor brooding, moping, grumping, sulking or any variation on the pathetic 'teen angst' theme.


The suggestion that what he would call 'thinking' or 'reflection' was in truth almost certainly automatically to be categorised in such infantile terms by right-thinking people everywhere… Well. That way lies violence. So let's not go there.

Can't see Balamb from here. …Figures…

Nope, no snitworthy behaviour here whatsoever…


It had been almost two months, since the wild (if highly localised) celebration that marked the formal end of what was being called the Second Sorceress War. Almost two months since they'd all woken up the next morning and were forced to look squarely in the face of a gargantuan repair bill for the brief yet intense whirlwind of destruction unleashed by the dark Sorceress and her blond Knight.

One might have been surprised, the extent to which the mostly-reunited Orphanage Gang had managed to stick together thus far. But to be fair, they had just saved the world and were therefore due some little portion of slack as far as future assignments – and on the other side of the gil, it must be remembered that most of them, for all their heroics, remained relatively minor and inexperienced SeeDs in the wider hierarchy. As well, the original crew of three (Squall, Zell and Selphie) still had their original contract to fulfill; Timber might have been as good as independent following the decimation of Galbadia's armed forces, but 'as good as' was just not good enough as far as Rinoa's contract went.

So as matters stood, Rinoa Heartilly was currently conducting protracted negotiations, at a prudently long distance given the turmoil beginning to engulf the Galbadian Continent and the so far vague security risks of being a sorceress; Zell Dincht and Selphie Tilmitt were at least technically serving in a bodyguard capacity for the Galbadian revolutionary, while Irvine Kinneas had somehow managed to finagle a clearly facetious attaché/spy-type deal with the G-Army's remnants to hang around with Selphie and the others. Meanwhile Quistis Trepe had been given back her Instructor's license, and advanced to second in rank behind Aki in B-Garden's teaching corps – which added up to quite a lot of work for her, given that Head Instructor Aki nowadays spent most of his time with Headmasters Cid and Edea, Subcommander Xu and B-Faculty's remnants, trying to hammer out a new direction to lead the Gardens in NORG's wake.

Right now, Squall imagined, Selphie was in the Cafeteria scarfing through a ridiculously large bowl of Mrs. Moogle's Cake for breakfast while Irvine sat across from her and drooled at his girlfriend's thrice-daily display of breath control and general gobbling prowess, and what this might portend later should he play his cards right. (Of course, Squall being Squall, he preferred not to read further into this…beyond a quiet self-reminder not to lend Irvine his Triple Triad collection ever again.) Quistis would be along momentarily if she wasn't there already, effortlessly multitasking between coffee and small talk, croissants and marking. Meanwhile Zell would be flinging himself frenetically through his pre-breakfast katas in an effort to be done in time for some hot-dogs – most likely a doomed enterprise to begin with. And Rinoa? She'd be gently snoring away for another two hours yet. Once the sleepyhead finally roused, Zell, Selphie and Irvine would drift over to join her for a day of teleconferencing and verbal jousting and research, with Quistis meeting the trio over brunch for what could charitably be called a sitrep if you took their word for it and didn't look too closely.

And as had happened with depressing frequency over the past few weeks, Rinoa's main topic of discussion would no doubt be the frustrating absence of her significant other. "IRVINE managed to slip himself into a Selphie-side niche, didn't he?" he could almost hear her complaining. "What's stopping MY boyfriend from doing it too?"

As the Timber mission arbitrarily called in to assist Quistis in her attempt to take Seifer Almasy into custody had demonstrated, it was a standard clause in all SeeD deployment contracts that Garden retained the right to rotate its mercenaries elsewhere given the need. And while the others had dodged the bullet due either to their lack of seniority, their duties or in Irvine's case the simple fact that he could technically do whatever the hell he liked, the adolescent Commander had not been so lucky. No, he was simply too high-profile to be allowed to vegetate on the sidelines.

The last time he'd been back, nearly a week ago, some of the cadets had taken to calling him 'Asbestos Man'. Deling City (renaming pending), Esthar City, F.H., Trabia Garden, Winhill for Hyne's sake – SeeD's most visible face had spent upwards of three-quarters of his time being madly shuttled from hotspot to photo opportunity to crisis point to state function to meltdown, with much of the rest of his time spent either wrestling with reams of reports or valiantly trying to catch up on his sleep.

(All right, maybe he'd concede the insomnia. Externally induced, anyway…)

Annoyed? Frustrated? Temper fraying at the seams? These were far more acceptable adjectives to describe Squall's current mindset. Especially when the Dollet Dukedom, the port city's beach on which he was to be found sitting at that very moment, had pulled a move the likes of which he was becoming tiresomely familiar with.

"The Parliament will debate your proposal sometime tomorrow. However, what with the Parliament's other Very Important Business to discuss, we cannot advise a particular time or likelihood that we will be ready to reach a decision. So would you kindly await our pleasure and hang around our fine capital like a bad smell until we send fit to send for you? But don't get into trouble, because we all know how expensive SeeDs can be when they get into trouble!"

"Damn politicians," Squall muttered, his words swallowed by the surf. The Whip hadn't said it like that, of course, the smarmy little weasel had buried the sentiment under a liberal shovelful of diplomatic claptrap and honeyed tone, but neither of them was stupid. And even if Squall was that way disadvantaged, this was the third damned day in a row it had happened – and all too likely it would happen again tomorrow.

So here he was, stranded half an ocean away from his girl and his friends with nothing to do but cool his heels and play tourist, for what added up to no good reason any way he tried looking at it…not that he was in the mood to try particularly hard.

(Okay, fine. He could probably live with 'grumping'.)

In the meantime, there wasn't much else he could do. Nothing in the way of inspiration was occurring to him, whether for something to do or for some pretext to pull his Commander's rank and find something more important to attend to (a real pity – Balamb or Island Closest To Hell, at this point he wouldn't have minded either option!). He was for once actually caught up with his paperwork. The city's sights would not have changed since yesterday or the day before, and anywhere clean enough to risk eating at wouldn't be open for another hour anyway. So he sat on the sand and watched the sunrise, eyes cast towards a home hidden over the horizon.


It was a scuffing of cardboard sole over barnacled rock as the sun cleared the water that heralded the day his post-wartime life began to change. Squall's ear reflexively twitched, logging the disturbance and snapping him to tense readiness, almost eager for combat to befall him and break the monotony.

The young girl who walked up and sat in the sand a little way off to his left took absolutely no notice of this. Squall relaxed again, slipping back into his by now well-entrenched 'thinking' funk.

An indeterminate length of uncaring silence in duet subsequently ensued, with the surf's lethargic landfall serving as an equally uncaring counterpoint. The comfortable quiet was eventually broken by the distant squealing of a group of children from some point behind them.

The girl didn't react, the watery vista seemingly holding all her attention. Squall vaguely contemplated wandering over to the pub for breakfast and maybe a few rounds of cards. Then his brow slowly creased around its bisecting scar.

One reform that had been initiated upon the latest war's close had been to begin a full-scale study into the memory loss oft-associated with G.F. use. It would probably take years, but what had become apparent almost immediately was that the memories began to fade in the mid-term, the time they remained within voluntary recall dependent on their perceived importance at the time.

Case in point: the brunet SeeD couldn't help but feel something niggling at the back of his mind, something not quite forgotten enough…

What had Zell called it that one time… Oh right, a side quest. (Only Hyne could guess where he'd pulled that term from…) That must be it, he realised, leaping on the chance to mull over something that might actually be vaguely productive. The girl must have had something to do with a so-called 'side quest' here. Squall did his hazy best to cast his mind back, going over the ragged remnants of what he could recall of his time invested in reconnaissance detail during the latter stages of the war.

Given the thought that had triggered his reflection, it came as little surprise to him that most of it had to do with Triple Triad. The Card Queen's son, she gives him the rare cards she wins… He lives with his…grandfather, the Card Queen's father…yeah, he's an artist, paints new cards…why am I thinking of a dog…?

The relevant memory eventually surfaced, with some reluctance. There was a dog, a golden retriever that'd taken some treasure and buried it at odd spots around the town; it was the pleasant surprise of finding an Elixir of all things that likely explained why he even remembered that much. Squall vaguely recalled some ruckus over the clues, something about…ruined paintings?

He tried to dig deeper, but couldn't come up with anything else for the moment. That didn't explain the girl though, not that he could recall anyway. So what else…?

Well, there was that guy who ran the upper floor of the pub. There'd been another rare card… Siren, that was it! And who was it that was spazzing over finding an Occult Fan issue in the guy's den, Zell or Selphie?

That guy and his den, something in his den… Now it was really bugging him. There was something about the man, something in his den that connected him with whatever the hell it was about this girl was that was nudging at his G.F.-sodden grey matter. Something he was missing…

Didn't Odine have something to say about this sort of problem?

Thankfully, that advice came readily to mind: spatial characteristics tended to remain in the hindbrain for longer periods than actual events, according to the ridiculously dressed scientist. Squall absently ignored his stomach beginning to rumble as he applied Dr. Odine's technique to the situation, slate-hued gaze darting over his surroundings to refamiliarise himself with the terrain and landmarks.

Results were immediate, partially at least. The girl was here all that time, too…with – the Card Queen's artist father! That was how we worked out what the dog was doing, she told us… OK, we have progress. Now where did the card aficionado fit into it? Perhaps he was some relation to the girl?

OK, how about the den? That was far easier, he'd visited it briefly after dinner at the pub last night. Cramped, untidy with the dross of someone who'd never got the hang of cleaning up after himself as a kid and now never would. A desk covered with papers and assorted knick-knacks. More papers, in stacks on the floor and on chairs.

Some clouded part of his mind perked at the mention of 'stacks'. He was getting closer, he could feel it! There were…three stacks. One near the entrance, whole lot of stuff shoved in the sides if you're willing to dig…and yeah, it was Zell who got excited about the Occult Fan, Selphie was the one who got excited over 'Sir Laguna' being mentioned in…the right stack. But what about the left stack—

And just like that, the answer tumbled from the fog. And Squall found himself seeing red.

In the left stack, an account of the short-lived romance, cut tragically short by the woman drowning. On the beach, a lonely little girl waiting all day every day for her mother to come back; even lonelier now, because the Card Queen's father and son were getting on better and spending more time with each other. And tucked away in his den, the girl's father – unable to come to terms with his wife's loss, unable to bring himself to spend time with, or even explain matters to his daughter. A sad old man, mouldering away in his memories like a coward

He remembered now, reading the card player's journal, connecting him with the skinny girl on the beach he'd initially mistaken for an orphan. He remembered having to restrain himself from sneering at the man in disgust on his way out, lest he have to explain his sudden contempt to his comrades. And that was back before he found out he wasn't an orphan himself!

How long will it be, he wondered, until she hates him like I hate Laguna? Laguna at least had the small mitigation of having a country to run. This dumbass was right there!

How long will she spend sitting here on this Hyneforsaken beach, waiting for her Mommy to come back like I waited for Ellone? The other kids not talking to her because she's too busy pining for the lost? According to Irvine the rest of the Orphanage Gang had left him alone because they all missed her too, and the old adage about misery loving company really didn't apply to young children. (Actually he'd said they respected Squall's loss, but Squall remained sceptical regarding the amount of respect capable of being contained in the average five-year-old's body.) The kids around here? Probably she'd always been like this, and the other children simply never questioned it anymore.

The girl turned to study him, curious and a little afraid as she watched his teeth grinding. He took no notice.

How long before she turns out like me?

Even three months ago, Squall Leonhart would have seen nothing wrong with the idea. Now though, the question burned in his gullet like an unwisely guzzled bowl of chunky Malboro stew. It had taken him over ten years to even contemplate the possibility of reopening his heart, and that hadn't even looked like happening before his long-lost 'Sis' resurfaced. Even now, after all the progress he'd made, there was still half an ocean between Squall and his beloved while he sat moping on a beach because he couldn't gather the gumption to put aside his utterly mundane current duty and go to her side… frozen at the thought of some random kid being left with no choice but to follow in his footsteps.

No. I won't have it!

"…Are you ok…?"

Squall blinked, and looked down. The girl who had unwittingly triggered his sudden rage and horror was looking up at him with unabashed concern.

He nodded, and made an effort to relax. It seemed to work; the girl turned back to the sea and her futile vigil. Squall turned away as well, mind working furiously on some way, any way to avert the poor kid's likely fate. Possible courses of action, plans personal to global were picked up, examined, considered and discarded with all the practiced speed of a SeeD absorbed in the nitty-gritty mechanics of a side quest.

Squall had never ridden a bicycle, but would quite likely have agreed wholeheartedly with the sentiment about never really forgetting how it's done, if he wasn't busy marvelling at the solution that occurred approximately eight seconds later. A plan both short- and long-term, positively inspired in its breadth, scope and targeting of two or maybe even three birds with the one bullet, exploded into his mind, details and permutations swirling into loose orbit round their rightful places as it snowballed into something awe-inspiring.

'Side quest'? This had just got upgraded to full-scale quest! And the timer was ticking – as with many of those gut instincts he'd moved profitably to before, to hesitate was to lose the initiative and his nerve.

The Commander of Balamb Garden climbed to his feet and regarded the girl who had been responsible for quite possibly the best idea he'd had in years.

"…Thank you."

She blinked up at him, justifiably puzzled. "What for?"

"It's complicated. Don't worry about it." Squall smiled and walked away, tossing an unusually cheerful, "I'll see you around," as he made his way over to the flight of stairs.


"I'm terribly sorry sir, but the Parliament is still in session—"

"Yeah, I'm aware of that. Let them know an urgent matter requires my attention elsewhere," he told the minor functionary. Squall enjoyed the toady's subsequent spluttering for a few moments. "A replacement will be dispatched to hear the Parliament's decision, whenever it be made, as per the Dollet Dukedom's contract with Garden."

He strode out without a further word, leaving the functionary in his wake. Probably his departure would upset the Dolletians more than he could bring himself to care about.


A knock at the door-panel distracted Rinoa Heartilly from her videoconference session. "Hang on a moment," she told the man at the other end of the intercontinental fibreoptic netlink, peremptorily truncating her umpteenth session with General Caraway. Sure, it'd annoy him. But she was plenty enough annoyed with him in turn. Dear Hyne, she hated that man sometimes!

"Aw geez… didya have to do that?" Zell complained, getting up to open the door. "You just know he's gonna get— Squall!"

Her head whipped around to gawk at the figure unexpectedly framing the doorway. And there he was, walking towards her and smirking. "Squall! I didn't thi—" Her words were cut off as he dove in without preamble, pulled her out of her seat and kissed her with the uncharacteristically enthusiastic passion he often demonstrated after his long workaholic absences.

Usually though, he waited to get her behind closed doors before attacking her like that. "Hey, what gives?" she demanded when she had her breath back.

He just looked down at her, one eyebrow quirked.

"OH! Um, h-hello to you, too…"

Squall leaned in again and planted a quick peck on her nose. "I found something more important to do with my time," he told her, loosening his embrace to regard the others in the room. Zell gaping, still standing at the door; Irvine's stunned expression slipping with the sureness of inevitability into a knowing smirk; Selphie comically panting while fanning herself with a printout. Squall's cheeks darkened slightly, but otherwise betrayed no reaction for audience benefit.

Rinoa thought her cheeks might well have caught aflame. That didn't stop her grinning like an idiot. Then something occurred to her.



"I should've left the link open!" That would have bugged That Man real good… she absently made a mental note to ensure this happened at the soonest opportunity.

Squall blinked. "…Riiiiight…" He shook himself. "All right, guys – we've all got something more important to do. Irvine, get Quistis. Zell, go and find Cid…no, actually go and find Matron, that'll work better. And Selphie, go and call President Laguna – tell him we'll be dropping in on him later."

They stood there blinking.

His face hardened. "…Those were orders I just gave you."

The trio jumped and charged out the door, leaving Rinoa behind to gape at her boyfriend and try to gather herself.

"So… what ARE you doing here anyway? I thought you were stuck in Dollet?"

Squall shrugged. "As I said, I thought of something more important to do. So I pulled rank and left…"

Rinoa went right back to gaping at him. She'd never expected him to actually do it…! True, the option had always at least theoretically been there for him to take. She'd certainly yelled at him enough on the subject when she could get a hold of him, ever since Quistis had mentioned it to her a few weeks back. At any time, on any of his missions, he could have stood up and left and travelled all the way back to Garden and back to her side where he darn well belonged – of course she was angry when he never did!

But she did understand, however much she might wish not to. The man who had been appointed Commander of Balamb Garden, the man she'd fallen in love with just as he was, was simply not the type to leave his duty hanging to cuddle with his girl; she'd always realised it. Rescuing her from an eternity in space? sure! Rescuing her from the seeming eternity of negotiating with her father? not so much…

So, what was he doing here? Was there something wrong? She didn't think so, he didn't seem his habitually moody self, but what if it was an emergency?

"Not really," he told her when she enquired, "I just had a great idea. I'll tell you about it when the others get here. But in the meantime…"

And without further ado, he pinned her against the wall and went right back to savaging her lips. Curiosity over the possibility that she'd dozed off while arguing with Caraway and was daydreaming subsequently went blissfully unasked.


Leading first his squad and then his entire Garden through the Second Sorceress War had left Squall Leonhart with an air of effortless command when he wished to exhibit it. The party of seven had been chivvied onto the Ragnarok and were nearly halfway to Esthar Airstation by the time Squall actually got around to telling the others his idea.

Their initial reactions were pretty much what he had expected: exuberant displays of affirmation and approval from Zell, Selphie and Irvine, understated but increasingly intense interest from Edea Kramer, a certain amount of screaming on the topic of dereliction of duty from Quistis, and nonplussed blinking from Rinoa, who'd had the least overt reason to reflect on the subject before.

He explained further, going over the likely side-benefits to Garden and all other parties. Quistis's jaw almost hit the floor at the scope of what he proposed. Edea on the other hand, after a few careful questions, burst into the proudest, most delighted grin any of them could ever remember seeing on her customarily serene visage.

Then he explained why he was doing it, and Rinoa almost crushed him in the force of a sudden, full-body glomp.

After they landed and were directed to the Estharian Presidential Office, Laguna's nervous features dropped slacker and slacker as his estranged son laid out what he wanted him to do. Not that he could see a problem with Squall's request/demand! Far from it – as Kiros remarked, this was likely going to make his Presidential Council far easier to get along with; they'd never really swallowed the whole 'estranged' part of the ex-Galbadian president's familial relationship with the high-ranking member of the world's single most deadly fighting force, and would be very pleased to see an end to some of said force's more objectionable practices.

Sure, Esthar would be paying through the nose for it. But for such an opportunity to assuage his guilt over their past, Laguna would have walked on hot coals. And so Laguna Loire allowed himself to be swept up in the sheer romantic vision of the idea without a single qualm.

Not to mention the payoff: an impromptu dinner, right there in his suite, with his son and his Ellone and their friends. They even hung around and chatted about light, non-consequential subjects afterwards – and Squall even had a little smile on his lips as he shook his father's hand and left late in the evening.

That Squall's expression had more to do with the prospect of finishing what had been interrupted by the others back at Garden once they got to the hotel than loving feelings for his dad, was something that Laguna didn't know. And he wouldn't have cared. Just seeing one of his son's rare smiles was plenty enough for him, for now.

Approx. One Year Later…

It was a day that started like almost every day since she could remember, except for when she was too sick or the big storms blew in from the mountains. It started from her spot, on the beach where her mommy had left her.

Where her mother had drowned. Emma knew better now than to expect her to come back. But the nine-year-old stuck to her vigil yet, if for different reasons.

She still liked to daydream, occasionally, that Mommy would come paddling in from the deeps and sweep her into loving arms. That still hurt when it never happened, though. A better, more fulfilling daydream was the one that one of Mister Squall's friends had suggested, not knowing that he had already sat her down and explained as gently as he was capable why Mommy was never coming back. Instead of just sitting there, Sefie ('NOT Missus!') had said that Mommy was sure to be watching from the waves to see that her little Emma played in the sand and just enjoyed herself.

Emma was pretty sure that her mother was not really there. For that matter, she probably didn't need to be on the beach for her mother to watch her if she was. But for five years she'd been coming to the beach. Why stop now, she'd reasoned. Kneeling on the sand, she hefted her little plastic spade and got to work filling the bucket.

She'd built three sand-towers and was decorating the third with strands of seaweed and a couple of shells when a scuffing of hard rubber on barnacled rock heralded the day her life really set about changing.

She turned, and smiled shyly when she saw who it was. "Hi, Mister Squall." He returned her small smile with his own understated effort.

Her life had been changing, albeit slowly, for over a year now, beginning with a big silly argument Ricky had got into with his grandpa. He'd been bored and wanting attention one day, tired of following the dog around, and wrecked one of Grandpa's townscapes by drawing a bone on where he'd seen it burying something. She remembered back then with sad fondness as the last time Grandpa really spent any time with her – not that she really minded so much. Grandpa wasn't so lonely now; he still spent some of his time painting, but made sure to bring Ricky to the odd game of poker with his Mommy and some of her friends when she came back from her card-playing trips.

It was also the first time she'd met Mister Squall, a grumpy teenager dressed in black who'd seemed curious about the doggy too for some reason. (It was only much later that she found out that the dog had been burying rare potions in its hiding spots, and he had actually been tracking down those spots and taking the potions. Suffice to say, Emma was NOT impressed when he told her this.) It was a few months later that the girl had come down to the beach one day and recognised the dark man sitting almost in her place. She'd almost kicked him for that. But at that moment the man had seemed just as lonely as she was, so Emma had merely moved down a little and waited for him to leave instead.

She never did find out why he thanked her that day before he left. She just figured that it was for asking if he was alright, because she couldn't think of anything else she'd done. (Squall on the other hand had forgotten thanking her within a matter of days after saying it.)

It was another couple months later before Emma saw Mister Squall again. But he didn't seem so lonely now…and yet he still came over and said hello to her, and told her he'd talk to her again sometime soon. And he did, too, almost every week. More, sometimes he brought some of his friends. A short, chunky blond man with a curvy black tattoo on his face called Mister Zell, always full of energy, reminded her of Ricky sometimes. A sunny girl in a yellow dress who introduced herself as NOT-Missus Sefie always greeted her with a grin so big Emma wondered if the top of her head might fall off one day. A tall, thin man who was almost as pretty as Ricky's mommy, would slip her a cheerful wink whenever Sefie happened to be looking; it was probably a game of some kind, because Sefie would always smack Mister Irvy-poo on the arm when he did it, and he would always smirk back at her. There was also an immaculately dressed blonde woman, who would kneel in the sand beside her and fascinate the girl with tales about anything from the stars to the monsters of the Centran Continent, a beautiful, poised lady who Emma couldn't help but feel uncomfortable just calling Quistis like she insisted.

She appreciated it. They annoyed her sometimes, and would inevitably depart and leave her alone again, but it didn't seem to hurt so much after they were gone.

It was when Mister Squall had appeared hand in hand with a brunette girl called Rinoa that Emma finally asked why he kept visiting her.

"Because I was lonely once," she could still remember him telling her haltingly, more than a little embarrassed. "It's not pleasant, and I'd…just rather you weren't lonely too, that's all…"

And Miss Rinoa had leaned down and hugged her. Emma understood then, suddenly awash with the cherished yet slowly fading memories of when her mommy had held her like this and crying in public for the first time in years, why Mister Squall wasn't lonely anymore.

Mister Squall looked funny right now, tiny hints of excitement lurking under the standard blank mask. She remembered him looking like that once, when he'd come alone ahead of Rinoa and was waiting for her to arrive in turn.

"How are you today?" he asked. It was his standard opener. Emma didn't mind. She'd known for a long time that Mister Squall wasn't the smooth, demonstrative talker that the others were, and he'd told her once that his memory wasn't very good so he couldn't recall what he'd said on previous visits sometimes. At least he tried.

"Good," she replied. Again, the standard response. Feeling something more was required somehow, she waved the spade. "I'm making a sandcastle today…" It wasn't an invitation to join in like it would if it had been Sefie or Mister Zell. It just wasn't something she could imagine him doing. Storming a real castle with that weird glowing sword of his in hand, maybe. Mister Squall nodded as solemnly as only he could, settling down on the sand beside her in companionable quiet as she got back to her decorations and the surf splashed on.

Emma had finished the fourth tower and was making a big mound of sand in the middle of the square when Mister Squall cleared his throat. Usually this was a signal that the time had come for him to leave.

"If you had the choice to come with us…"

She blinked. Then what he actually said penetrated her mind, and she whirled to stare at him. Mister Squall looked her in the eye, though he seemed to be having trouble doing it.

"Me and my friends…" he coughed and tried again, "My friends and I are starting a school. We'll all be spending time teaching there. I was wondering if you wanted to come…"

School? Emma had heard of school, some of the other kids went. It was something she had never known, or ever really thought about; her time spent learning things was largely limited to Ricky's grandpa teaching her letters and numbers like he did for Ricky. Well, that and Quistis's talks. Was school like that? because if it was, it didn't sound too bad… But he wanted her to come with them?

"…Will we come back?"

She might not like her father a lot of the time – even from a young age Emma had known there was something wrong with having a daddy who couldn't stand to be around her, not to mention the resentment that had begun to build when she realised that Mommy would never come back and he'd been too scared to tell her – but she did still love him.

"Every so often," Mister Squall assured her. "The school sails like a ship, so it goes all over. But we can always come back."

She thought about that, for a while.

Pretty much the only thing against the idea was leaving behind the beach. But maybe, a hopeful, cajoling inner voice that reminded her of Sefie told her, we can find Mommy out there…?

Emma didn't really believe it, knew she wouldn't find her. But it did make her feel a little better. It made the choice easier: a beach, or Mister Squall and the people who wanted to be her friends, if she'd let them.

"…Okay," she whispered bashfully.

Squall nodded once and stood. A gloved hand extended out, palm up. "All right, then. In that case, I think we need to speak to your father."

Emma stared at the hand for a moment. Then she took it, and climbed to her feet.

The unfinished sand castle eventually washed away, unnoticed.


"What were you worried about?" Rinoa chided, leaning into his side as they watched the newest student mingle hesitantly with the other dozen-odd children they had collected so far. "She was never going to say no to you…"

Squall shrugged wordlessly. A tiny six-year-old orphan by the name of Tiffany, picked up from Balamb Town last week, was showing Emma her prized (and pretty much only at present) possession, a well-worn book of stories that her mother had left with the neighbours along with her daughter before the happy couple set out on a ship that became a wartime casualty of the Galbadian naval incursion into F.H.. Probably asking her to read her a story, Squall surmised.

Tiffany reminded him more than a little of what Selphie must have been like as a small kid (correction, he thought without a hint of shame, smaller kid). Emma didn't stand a chance; she eventually surrendered with good grace, letting the little redhead tug her over to a corner. The corners of Squall's mouth involuntarily twitched upward.

"If I were her, at that age…" he paused, "…I probably would have stayed." Rinoa's arm came drifted up his back and slapped him upside the head. "Ow," he noted in dutiful monotone. And was slapped again. "I repeat, ow." And again. "I can do this all day, you know…"

Rinoa caught the mischievous twinkle in his eye, and let her hand drop…all the way down to his butt, which she duly goosed. Squall twitched and glared at her indignantly. She grinned back at him, smug in her victory over her fiancée's formerly imminent descent into angstiness. Not that he would be caught dead calling it anything of the sort.

He soon relented, "And, I was a little worried about the father. I'm just glad I had him pegged right."

Rinoa nodded at that, remembering the man a lot better than Squall had over the past year-and-a-bit despite Squall's more frequent contact recently. There had been more than one child in Balamb whose parent or guardian had taken umbrage at the idea of essentially packing their kid off to a cross between an orphanage and a boarding school, even after the incorrectly assumed military connotations were cleared up. At least the cardmaster recognised the colossal failure-in-the-making he had wrought through his inability to face the diminutive spitting image of his drowned wife. If anything she had even less sympathy for the man than Squall, what with her still-icy state of relations with President Fury Caraway.

And his sympathy for the guy was virtually zero. But he thought he could understand, a little, why he'd reacted the way he did. Squall could only hope he didn't react the same way, should one of his more horrifying nightmares come to pass and he be faced with the same situation.

The past year had been hectic in more ways in one, sometimes even busier than the two months which had preceded it (though, thank Hyne, not as nerve-rending as what happened before that). The Timber situation, ironically, had proved to be ridiculously easy to resolve once the Commander's patience had run out and he'd stepped in. True, the diplomatic equivalent of 'don't make me come over there' hadn't gone down well at first. Nor had the 'I mean it…' which followed. On the other hand, the next missive – which ran along the lines of 'I'm halfway to Deling City on the Ragnarok, you realise? Any last words?' – now, that went down swimmingly. And the lesson had been learned, by all concerned: don't waste Squall Leonhart's time with unnecessary diplomatic claptrap, lest he decide to come over there and kick your ass. Not to mention the corollary: DON'T send Squall Leonhart to solve a long-running and pointless dispute unless there's a likelihood that one or more parties would benefit from a good and proper asskicking.

Considering the fallout of that lesson – repeated several times over for the slow of learning as the Commander became increasingly annoyed and impatient at the prospect of leaving his beloved's side time after time – it must be said that feelings all around had carried a distinctly ambivalent flavour when word got out that SeeD's most high-profile warrior wanted to found a school of all things. Even Headmaster Cid had voiced his own reservations, at first… until his wife came in solidly on the 'let Squall do this or you're on the couch for the next decade!' side of the debate.

Not only Cid but many notable individuals on both the major continents had been a lot happier once the details were hashed out. In the end, Cid's young subordinate had got his way – and it came with a wholesale shake-up of the way the Gardens worked.

No more would the three military academies gather up the foundlings and teach them to fight and obey. Now, Squall's new school would endlessly traverse the globe, picking some students to stay on until their schooling was finished and they could either find work or transfer to a Garden while letting other students on for relatively brief stretches and serving the function of a true boarding school. And unlike the Gardens, while the basics of combat would of course be taught as essential to survival on a planet which suffered rains of monsters every red moon or so, the military aspects would barely even be touched upon unless it began to look like they'd be transferring to the Garden academies within the year.

What Squall proposed was in short a slow but certain demilitarisation on all sides. It was a concept that quite possibly no other individual the world over could have been in a position to propose and mean it with any hope of success. The Galbadians would slowly downsize their armies, while the Estharians would begin to allow the bulk of their human troops to return to civilian life as their efforts to deal with the devastation of the latest Lunar Cry started to bear fruit, each suspiciously keeping their eyes peeled both on the other side as well as malicious elements within their own. And SeeD, the mercenary corps which no-one wanted on the field against them, would do the same as their reservoir of child-recruits gradually dwindled.

A nice, steady cooling-off period in triplicate. Or else… Well. As stated earlier, albeit in a slightly different context, that way lies Squall-shaped violence. So let's not go there.

Nope, in the end the diplomatic situation pretty much solved itself. (Forcing the Estharians to collaborate with Fisherman's Horizon and its engineers to build a two-thirds-scale duplicate of Balamb Garden to serve as the school – and thus getting to put Laguna in the same room as Flo Dobe and watch him squirm – well, that had just been a bonus.) What had kept Squall, Rinoa and the rest of the Orphanage Gang scrambling over the past year mostly had to do with what went into actually running a school.

Like a structured curriculum, for children of anywhere from three to fourteen years of age. Like studying materials. Like teachers. And not least, like students. Emma had been the beginning, but she was only the beginning; with the multitude of other duties that the Commander still had to perform, Squall only had two other children who he'd found and cultivated for future entry over the past year. Most of the others were scouting for upwards of half-a-dozen kids each, in each of the world's major population centres and most of the minor ones.

The process had been hectic, and often frustrating. Yet somehow, Squall reflected as he watched on, he had found it surprisingly rewarding. And now, witnessing the small gaggle of kids beginning to surround Emma as she sat and read a fairy tale aloud for little Tiffany's entertainment, he knew to his bones that it had been and would continue to be worth it.

Loneliness was easy. But in the long term, they were both better off without it. He was glad to see her begin to work that out.

Right. Two more days here, and then that's Balamb and Dollet down until the next time we swing through. Then Timber and F.H.… wonder if the White SeeDs are willing to let some of their younger ones go… His practical musings were brought to a pleasant halt by Rinoa's mouth pressing on his. Some things were more important; some other things were just as important, only in different ways.

"A flying orphanage," Squall quipped as Rinoa pulled away and led him toward the living quarters, his thumb running idly over the resized platinum ring encircling her finger. "Second best idea, ever."

And so ends my contribution to the 'Where I Belong' Squinoa challenge, pulled off not-quite-in-time for Squall's birthday. I hope you all enjoyed it.

Left to my own devices, this would probably have been a tragedy; it's not that I don't like the Squinoa pairing (their personalities contrast very nicely, for instance), nor that I don't enjoy reading them, but the surrounding circumstances almost inevitably sum up in my mind to something terrible on the horizon for them.

That said, the conditions of the challenge called for a happy ending – thus making this an actual challenge for me…which was just the way I would have liked it, if only I had a little more time to devote to the damn thing. It's my hope that what I eventually produced was a good representation of the middle-ground between slice-of-life fluff and star-cross'd tragicomedy that my mind tends to go to when it comes to thinking of this pairing in romantic context.

However, I should reiterate: all power to Squinoa fic, for when it is properly done as so many prior contributors have demonstrated, it is indeed awesome.

I'll close with thanks to Ashbear/Eternal Tiet for initiating the challenge (and reminding me about Squall's b'day!), Niqsta for inviting me to enter the challenge, the other authors and artists who have and will make their own contributions, and to you for reading and hopefully enjoying my own serving.

Until next time… (In the meantime, there's a fair-sized backlog of challenge fics I should actually sit down and R&R properly...)