She remembered the date.
If she wanted to, she could easily count the days in her head. She didn't want to. All that kind of thinking did was damage; complete psychological disintegration in the form of questions. There were no answers to be found anywhere, except somewhere… maybe… far in the north.
She did know it was just over a year now. Her friends—their friends—had been mostly silent on the anniversary last month. Respectfully or uncomfortably silent, she wasn't sure. Perhaps it was some of both. Not that she could blame them. No one really knew how to observe the day, least of all her. She'd refused any sort of memorial—how couldn't she when they didn't even know for sure? That was accepting defeat, and she wasn't ready for that yet, maybe never would be.
But time was passing and the more that went by, the more that reality scratched at her door and picked away at her psyche, grating at her carefully maintained composure.
Maybe he was really gone.
The poisonous thought dissolved at the tentative voice of Quistis, and Rinoa was grateful for the interruption. Dragging her eyes away from the calendar that lay flat atop her desk, she offered a half-smile to the lanky blonde in the office doorway. "Hey, Quistis. What can I do for ya?"
The smile was returned in kind—sincere but shadowed with a kind of pathetic futility. Quistis expected rejection at whatever it was she intended to ask. Rinoa hated that she'd done this to her friends.
"Selphie has a few hours without the baby, so she and I were thinking of grabbing some lunch in town. We were hoping you'd come with."
The brunette had to admit that the urge to deny the invitation was practically instinctual at this point. Recreation of any kind had become corrupted with the idea that it was a waste of time, and Rinoa wondered if this sort of brutal efficiency was what made him so good at what he did during those early years. It hadn't yielded her any great results thus far, however.
Her eyes had fallen to her calendar again, she realized, and Quistis was staying politely quiet as she awaited an answer.
Solitude was no way to live, and she knew that. Even he'd managed to learn that in the last few years.
"Yeah," she rasped, and then cleared her voice. "That sounds kinda nice."
Quistis' smile grew and it offered warmth that Rinoa readily welcomed. She could fix this, at least this. Somehow.
Associations were the hardest. A certain smell, an angle of sunlight, a book cover, a song—the world was full to bursting of these reminders, and it had taken the past year of mounting grief and its dull edges for her to realize just how many of these little things she'd come to share with him, even inadvertently. More memories that she'd foolishly taken for granted than she could even fathom now.
In all of her twenty-seven years, those short nine had been the richest. They shone of color and fragrance and sound, of flavors and textures. Nine years seemed so much longer than the other collective eighteen, and so short all at once.
The sun was hidden by clouds, threatening grey downpour over the harbor of Balamb. Seagulls wailed out on the pier, the scent of salt was thick in the air, in her nose and on her tongue, and all of it made her remember. Innocuous white noise and scents were no longer so innocuous. She wondered if she'd ever get used to it, or if things like sense memory could dissipate over time. The cognitive therapist that Dr. Kadowaki had sent her to seemed to believe that new patterns, new associations could be made.
But why did that thought seem almost worse?
No, she knew why. These past years in adulthood, sharing her life with someone else, had taught her to be more honest with herself than that. But it had only been just over a year. Surely they were pushing for too much too fast.
"It's your kind of weather, Rinny," Selphie broke through her reverie, clearly floundering for a safe topic. She was far from it, really. Rainy weather was his kind, and she'd only come to appreciate it because of that.
But in a way, she supposed it had become hers. She'd learned after five years of marriage that people had begun to simply group them together, one marital blob instead of two individuals. Everything of hers was his, and vice versa. Just parts in the sum of the whole. She was ambivalent to it, not sure if she loved that or hated it. These days it was easier to hate everything, admittedly, but she fought those urges every damn day. Everyone meant well, and she had to regularly remind herself of that.
"Yeah, it is nice, isn't it?" she mustered in response. Her eyes slid over the two of her friends, seated at the patio table with obvious awkwardness. After a year, no one had really gotten used to it. They'd all offered their words of reassurance, and then later condolences, before simple platitudes had become stale. After that, what was there?
Quistis tried to look enthusiastic about her salad. "This is a really good salad. Really ripe tomatoes. They're really… red."
Selphie nodded eagerly back at her. "They really are."
Rinoa couldn't help but laugh. It wasn't the most joyful sound anymore, but at least she still had the ability. She'd take what small victories she could.
"Guys…" she sighed, shaking her head as her laughter faded to a chuckle. She glanced up at the sky, helplessly searching for words. Once upon a time, she'd had some of her deepest conversations with these women, and she knew she'd let the bonds slowly unravel to this tattered state. Her pain was hers. They'd done their share of shouldering the burden like the good friends they were, but when was it enough? They had reason to hurt, too. She'd been selfish in this loss. "I really… fuck, I really owe you an apology."
Both of her friends looked at her with reserved interest, as though she might put up a wall again at any second. Hyne, she'd done some serious damage. She just hoped it wasn't irreparable.
Taking a breath, she considered her words carefully, and resolved to speak through the sting that came with acknowledging the topic aloud. "I know I've been really… uh… not here, and for a long time."
"No, Rin," Selphie argued with an uncertain grin, desperate to ease the tension. "You've been right here. I'm looking at you. See?"
Quistis didn't make any such attempt to relieve Rinoa of the burden, and instead leveled her eyes to look back at her. It wasn't hard to see the harbored frustration that had taken up residence in that blue gaze, but it was encouraging to see that there was now a trace of hope as its companion.
"Selph, that's sweet, but… no bullshit, okay?" Rinoa softened the words with a gentle smile.
The petite girl looked thoughtful for a moment before giving a solemn nod. "Alright. Hit us."
Tentatively, she began again. "I haven't been a great friend." She swallowed, still fumbling for the right words. "I don't think anyone would disagree that my feelings are justified, but perhaps the way I've handled them could… uh, use some examination."
When she didn't immediately elaborate, Quistis took the opportunity to speak, also slow and methodical with her words. "No one can blame you, Rinoa. I haven't been through what you have, none of us have. If it had been Seifer… Hyne, there's no way I could say that I wouldn't be the same exact way." She held up a hand as Rinoa began shaking her head. "But hear me out… I agree with you. Maybe it's time to start reevaluating the way you've been letting it affect you. It's killing us to see this happen. We miss him, too, but we really don't want to have to mourn you along with him, and it seems like that's all we've been doing."
The words packed a punch, but Rinoa knew they weren't wrong. "I know." Her voice was no more than a whisper, barely audible over the sound of tumultuous waves and screeching seagulls.
"No one is telling you to give up hope," Selphie added, her voice startlingly somber. "None of us have. But life really does go on, with or without you, and you only get so much of it before it's gone." The deeper timbre of her voice resonated nicely when she was serious, Rinoa noted absently. She always secretly liked it when Selphie sounded like the adult she was. She loved all facets of the girl, but there was an old soul about her that peeked through in seldom moments when she felt like displaying her wisdom. Perhaps keeping it so hidden made it all that more impactful. Clever girl.
"The fact is, Rin, that he may never turn up, and it would serve you better to really consider that possibility, as painful as it is," Quistis continued, leaning over the table to grab Rinoa's hand. "It doesn't mean that you don't love him. But do you think he'd want this? Hell, what if he was found tomorrow and learned you'd completely stopped living your life for the past year? Would he be happy?"
Rinoa shook her head, tears stinging her eyes. "No." She knew that much. He wasn't the same moody teenager he'd been when they'd met. He'd finally learned to nurture that deeply buried part of him that could love and appreciate and feel. He'd wanted nothing but her happiness and to be a part of it. He'd be devastated to know that she'd let this consume her in such a way.
"Sweetie, we know it's exhausting," Selphie said. "Not knowing is pure torture, maybe even worse than finding out if he's… anyway, all of us can understand that. It's not something you can just snap out of, but there's just no sense in doing this to yourself."
"I know," Rinoa replied again. "I know you're both right and I'm going to try…" The words were tight in her throat, and she wasn't sure she could finish the sentence. Where was the line in a situation like this? How much time was enough? It didn't feel like enough, but would it ever? Did the emptiness go away? Or did one simply learn to work around the pain that would forever linger, like losing an arm? Could one live with a phantom heart?
Quistis gave her hand an encouraging and sympathetic squeeze. "That's all we can ask."
"We were about to start trying to have a baby."
Rinoa wasn't sure where the abrupt declaration had come from, but there it was, irrevocably hanging in the air.
Her friends stared at her, expressions stunned and so sad that she had to look away. She focused on the shore instead. "Right before he left for the mission. We talked about it and decided that we would try when he came back. He was so happy… because I was the one that wanted to wait so long. But I'd finally decided I was ready."
"Rinny," Selphie uttered helplessly.
"Sometimes I can't help but think that it's better this way," she continued, pressure tightening her chest. "I'm not sure I could have… without him." Breathing was tiresome and difficult, but she pressed on. "But then… I have all this regret that I cheated him out of the experience… and that there isn't a part of him left here." She mustered a watery smile before taking in a breath of sea air, looking up at the grey sky, then down at the ring that glinted on her finger. "But… there really is so much of him here, isn't there? I can't look at anything in this town, or in Garden that doesn't remind me of him. Maybe… maybe it'll have to be enough."
She was going to try. For him. For her friends. Maybe even eventually for herself.
The rescue searches had stopped four months ago, no sign of the Ragnarok or even a trace of life in the hills just west of Trabia where he had intended to land thirteen months before. The remote scans and communications monitoring were still in effect—it was the most Rinoa could convince the SeeDs at every Garden to continue after so long. Nida and Xu were leading the efforts from here in Balamb, taking an inch whenever they could get one to find any scrap of information, and she was grateful for every one they turned up, few as they were. Sightings reported of the Ragnarok on the day of the mission before its communications went offline popped up sporadically—it had given them at least an indication of how far he might have possibly made it, at the very least, though most of these alleged sightings occurred far from the path he'd have used to get to his destination.
Rinoa had done all she could, as much as she resented it. Sorceress or not, if there was no life to be found where she was looking, she plainly wouldn't sense any. It rendered her virtually useless and that was more frustrating than anything. If only she knew where else to search. If he was really gone, she was certain she would have known. She might not have been able to sense him from their bond since he'd disappeared, but she had to believe she'd have known if the worst were true.
She'd hunted in every likely place: Every single Garden, every town and city on every continent, Odine's lab. She'd even checked the less likely places—the Centra ruins, Tears' Point, the Tomb of the Unknown King, even the local Fire Cavern, and all with the help of Laguna Loire, her closest ally in this exhaustive search. His grief and determination had nearly matched hers and he was still doing what he could from Esthar.
There was nothing to do at this point but wait. Listen. Scrape for clues. Somewhere in all that, she was supposed to be simultaneously trying to live her life like a normal woman. At least, she was going to try to make whatever time she spent with her friends a little less miserable for them.
She'd finally broken down and made plans for the weekend to take a camping trip with the whole gang—Quistis and Seifer, Selphie and Irvine, and Zell, who'd thought about inviting his long-time girlfriend, but had taken pity on Rinoa being the odd one out and decided to go alone. It had taken some convincing from all of them—mostly assuring her that wherever they went would have cell phone reception in the event that there was news, but she'd ultimately given in and decided to take a step out of her comfort zone. This is what he would want, she repeated to herself over and over.
The night before they were to leave, she didn't know how she'd managed to fall asleep, but was pretty sure it had happened only five minutes before she was awoken by rapid knocking at her door.
"Man, you guys really like to get an early start, don't you?" she sleepily grumbled as she begrudgingly opened the door.
The sight of Nida, face drawn and anxious, shot her into stark consciousness like a bullet.
"What is it, what did you find?" she asked, her mouth barely able to form the words as fast as the questions spilled forth.
"A new sighting. The Ragnarok, spotted in the sky by residents at FH."
She faltered and nearly fell, and it took her a moment to realize that she had been bolting toward the comm center already, clad in only in a t-shirt—one of his—and a pair of old cotton pants.
"What...?" Oh, Hyne, could it be true? What were the chances he was piloting it? "How long ago?"
"Seven minutes." A brief glance at Nida's expression as he kept pace with her was all it took to see the barely contained anxiety and excitement. After a year, it seemed impossible that this could even happen, and they both knew better than to assume this was a best-case scenario. Anything could be a trap. But it was something.
"Did they say where it was headed?" she plowed on, trying her best to squash all of the hope that was bubbling up and threatening to choke her.
Nida drew in a shaking breath as they turned out of the long hallway and into the massive round corridor at Garden's center. "Toward Balamb."
Rinoa was sprinting before he'd even finished the last syllable. She was nearly blind with hope and panic. Even if it wasn't him, she'd take it—this was their only chance for a good lead. If it was him...
Please, please, please.
When she finally made it to the comm room, Nida not far behind, her legs were shaking. Muscle fatigue or a physical manifestation of all the inner turmoil over this development, she had no idea and didn't much care. All she wanted to do was find a chair before she collapsed and wait out the next few minutes until she received confirmation that the Ragnarok was on approach.
When Xu turned to look over at her from where she'd been hovering at the control panel, her expression reflected what she'd seen in Nida's face—trying damn hard not to be overwhelmed with hope and not entirely succeeding.
"It hasn't popped up on our radar yet, but if the reports were right, it should be no more than ten minutes outside of our field. I've already sent a squad to scout, and another to the landing pad."
Rinoa had really grown to like Xu's straight-down-to-business approach. She wasn't sure she could coherently respond to anything else just then. The floodgates were already threatening to crash open, and anything short of cool logic was likely to be all the push they needed. She'd save it for when they knew one way or another.
Taking a seat beside the other woman, Rinoa waited with trembling muscles and shallow breaths, struggling not to count the seconds that ticked by. The air was fraught with tension, nearly electric, and no one dared utter another word in case they missed a single blip on the radar or a crackle over the radio.
It was only minutes before any noise came through, just a quiet, high-pitched beep, and all three pairs of eyes fell onto the radar screen simultaneously. A small speck had made it just inside their radar field.
"Bravo team, report!" Xu barked into the radio.
"Nothing here, ma'am," came back, and Rinoa exchanged a worried glance with Nida. Then the radio erupted again. "Wait… we got something. Stand by."
Fingers twitching, Rinoa had to fight the urge to grab the radio from Xu and demand more information. As it was, she was pretty sure she couldn't yet move if she tried, anyway. It felt like no one could breathe, no one could move, no one could make a sound until something else came through.
After a few more seconds of silence, Xu flipped the channel on her largest monitor, and all of the security camera feeds came to life in neat rows and columns.
The three of them scanned each one frantically, until Nida pointed out a small, distant light approaching on one of them. Immediately, Xu zoomed in on that one.
Rinoa's eyes were fixed on it, trying to distinguish any familiar shape. It was too dark to see clearly, but after another few moments, she could see that it wasn't just one light, but several, spaced out in a familiar pattern.
Lifting the radio again, Xu was about to hit the button to speak when the cadet's voice beat her to it.
"Ma'am, we have confirmation… it's the Ragnarok!" Even the distorted voice over the radio sounded utterly beside himself with this news.
Somehow, she was out the door again, voices calling after her.
"Rinoa, it's too dangerous!" Nida cried.
She kept running, feet carrying her as fast as she could make them, adrenaline and undiluted hope counteracting all traces of her previous frailty. The landing pad wasn't too far—a huge addition that had been built above the parking area several years prior.
Xu's voice sounded behind her, as well, but she was already too far to make it out clearly. She was pretty sure she heard the other woman tell Nida to let her go.
"Get the others!" Rinoa shouted behind her as she rounded the corner to sprint down the hall to the parking structure, not at all concerned with whether or not they'd figure out who she meant.
By the time she made it on top of the pad, the ship was close enough to see and hear and breath in fumes of fuel.
"Ma'am, stay back!" one of the cadets ordered her, gun drawn and trained on the approaching vessel.
This time, she obeyed, frozen in her tracks while she watched the ship descend—unsteadily, she noted. The ship was either damaged… or the pilot was.
"Oh, Hyne," she croaked, air fighting its way through her throat.
The huge aircraft dropped with a less-than-graceful crunch, and she instinctively stepped forward.
Strong arms grasped her, and she immediately resisted. "Let me go!"
"We don't know who's in there," her captor argued, "Please, ma'am."
The bay door began to open and her breath stopped, straining to see what would appear behind it. Hyne, she couldn't feel him. Why couldn't she feel him?
Light from inside the ship blinded them, stark against the darkness of the outside world, and it took several moments for all of their eyes to adjust, just enough to make out a moving silhouette.
She didn't have to see his shape to know.
"Rinoa," the voice cried brokenly.
"Squall!" she screamed, bursting from the cadet's hold with a surge of magical energy and sprinting for the bay, unhindered by the squad of soldiers that were no longer aiming their weapons.
Tears obscured her vision, and they crashed into each other sooner than she'd expected, hard and desperate and painful and staggeringly exquisite. She hadn't yet seen him clearly, save for the blur of skin at his neck, but, Hyne, she could smell him, the scent that was all his, the same one that lingered on the shirt she wore.
It took her a few moments to realize he was mumbling her name over and over in hushed sobs, and she broke apart in his arms as they simultaneously sank to the ground.
A thousand questions flittered through her mind, everything she'd wanted to know from the moment he'd left, where he was, how he was, what had happened… but for the moment, words were gone and rendered useless as he held onto her and repeated her name. She didn't think she could speak just then, anyway.
After several minutes, she became only vaguely aware that her friends—their friends—had made it out to the pad and were watching them, tears pouring down over exonerated smiles, clearly fighting off the desire to move in closer and instead giving them their private reunion.
When—finally—they drew back just enough to see each other, Rinoa drank in the sight of him. His face was ghostly pale, but exalted as heavy tears fell from his ice blue eyes, his mouth trembling as he studied her in warring panic and relief.
"You're okay?" he managed to muster, apparently struggling with larger sentences just then, and she couldn't resist the delirious laugh that spilled forth.
For the first time in over a year, she could say it with absolute sincerity, though her voice cracked on the word. "Yes."
He nodded, drawing in a shuddering breath and he hauled her close again, burying his face in her neck, breathing in her hair.
"You?" she returned, nothing more than a whisper.
"Yes," he echoed, tightening his hold on her, and she knew he returned her sentiment—he was okay now.
Questions and explanations would come, but she wasn't sure how she'd manage the courage to part with him just then—for a long while, even—and she was getting the impression he felt much the same. There would be later.
For now, for once, there was time.
A/N: This is my submission for the Where I Belong challenge – please see this community for links to all of the other amazing stories from all of the other veteran FFVIII authors! Well worth it. I'll be posting the link in my profile.
Admittedly, it's last minute—not that I wasn't working on it, but I've been so pressed for time this month that the tail end feels a little rushed to me. Hopefully, this will be something I can perfect in the future. A lot of unanswered stuff here, I know. It was intentional. I'm exorcising some very personal demons with this story. Perhaps, once I've finally finished WW (some day….) I can write the whole story around this. Hope you enjoyed it in spite of the vagueness. Thanks so much for reading. It's an honor to have been invited to join this challenge.
Special thanks to Ashbear for extending the invitation and writing absolutely devastatingly beautiful stories, and to Carie Valentine for being my longest-standing reader and fan. She's pretty damn amazing, too. I promise, I'm actually working on WW!