Squall was ready.
He was absently watching the skyline of Timber drop into view when he felt her change, and he reacted on instinct. She hadn't moved, hadn't even changed her breathing, but his hand was over her mouth before he stopped to think about it, and just in time.
She woke screaming. Squall pressed harder against her mouth, and with his free hand, pinched her nose closed. In seconds her eyes opened wide, and for the smallest moment, he was looking at the feral creature he'd spent so many years helping her fight.
He moved his hand immediately from her nose to her hair, and whispered to her, her name, his name, where they were, shielding her body with his until the screaming stopped, and he dropped his other hand.
She stared back at him, panicked, embarrassed, and he pulled her against him, keeping his back to the aisle of the plane.
"Is she scared?" a small voice asked, and Squall saw young eyes looking at him over the seat in front of them.
"A little bit," Squall said.
"My sister is too," said the boy, and the sound of a child whimpering registered in Squall's mind.
"I think you're supposed to have on your seat belt." Squall pointed at the indicator lights, and the boy looked sheepish.
"Sorry!" he said, and the face disappeared. More sounds of the plane started to form; the tone drop of the engines, the low murmur of voices, and a baby crying near the front of the plane. Rinoa mumbled something against his chest.
"I'm sorry, I didn't catch that," Squall said, and loosened his grip around her shoulders.
"Who are you talking to?" She leaned away and started fumbling at her feet for her purse.
"There's a little boy and his sister in front of us. He thought you were scared of the landing."
Rinoa let out a bitter laugh, and settled back in her seat. "The landing? I guess you could say that."
He took her hand, and frowned at the small tremors he felt. "You're shaking."
"Please. I'll tell you, just... Not now. Not here."
His frown deepened, but he said nothing more, and soon they had landed. They waited as they usually did until most other passengers were gone before joining the line to exit the plane, and walked together in tense silence through the airport.
Squall was loading their suitcase into the back of a cab when he felt the tug at his jacket, and looked down to see the boy from the plane standing there. He was older than Squall had originally guessed, and he was holding a bright yellow rose.
"Hi," the boy said.
"Hi," Squall replied. "Is your sister feeling better?"
The boy nodded, and pointed to a car several feet away where a couple stood watching them. A little girl, no more than five or six, was with them, her face pressed into a bouquet of matching flowers. Squall gave them a small wave, and they nodded. The girl waved enthusiastically.
"Squall?" Rinoa's voice drifted from the backseat of the car, and the boy ran around to greet her.
"This is for being brave," he told her, and handed her the flower.
"Thank you!" she cried, and brought the flower to her nose, eyes confused but her smile bright.
"I need to go now. Don't be afraid anymore, okay?"
"Okay. Thank you again."
The boy stepped back and gave Squall a wide wave, and ran off to join his parents. Squall closed the trunk of the cab, and slid into the seat next to Rinoa. He told the driver to take them to the train station, and turned. "That's who I was talking to on the plane."
"I guessed that much. Noelle was like that."
"You were like that."
Rinoa smiled. "Yeah... Now I'm the one who gets scared."
"Be fair to yourself. You've never liked flying."
"Neither have you."
"No... I haven't."
They didn't say much the rest of the trip, and watched as the cab wound them through the city they had for many years called home.
"It's so different," Rinoa mused, a sad quality to her voice. They were sitting at a stoplight, and Squall recognized the building next to them as the old Timber Maniacs studio. It finally closed about five years before they moved, and now the front had been remodeled; it looked like it was nothing but offices, sandwiched on one side by a tall banking center, and a condo unit on the other. On the other side of the street was a full block of construction cones and concrete, a large sign right on the corner advertising the name of the contracting company. "Did you see anything when we were landing? Have they torn down all of Roshfall yet?"
"We were on the wrong side of the plane. The skyline is really nice though, even if it is a lot bigger. Look-" They were on a new street now, and Squall pointed as they crossed one of the main roads. "Your trees are still there."
He watched Rinoa's face change, a calm breaking across it for the first time since they finished packing. "Do you think they still have the lights?"
"I definitely think they do."
She smiled, and reached across the cracked leather seat for his hand. "Thank you."
Squall smiled. Minutes later the cab stopped, and they were through the train station, onto the train, and settling restlessly into their seats.
"Part of me is always going to feel like this is home," Rinoa said. She pressed her face against the window and watched while Timber faded into the sprawl of shopping malls and gas stations, into subdivisions, and finally, the mountains.
"Part of it always will be home. We have a lot of memories here."
"We really do, don't we?" She leaned back, and Squall watched her eyes flutter shut. He thought she had fallen asleep, until she spoke again."How did you know?"
"On the plane. You knew, like you used to. How?"
"You're ready to talk about it?"
"...No. I guess not. Not out in the open like this, at least... I feel... I feel so...exposed." She opened her eyes, but kept them focused on the window, on the passing world.
"I'm still here, Rinoa. Just like I've always been."
"I know." She raised her arm and beckoned him to rest against her, and he did, Rinoa with her back now pressed to the window, and she brushed her fingers through his thinning hair. "I've never doubted that."
He reached for her other hand and brought it to his lips, and in minutes, was asleep.
December, twenty-two years prior
A mix of laughter and groans rang in the room, outweighed by a less-than-delicate clanking of metal on glass.
"Haven't we already toasted like, three times?"
"Selphie, you're going to break that!"
"Well then, listen!" Selphie lowered the water glass and exchanged it for a wine goblet.
"Squall's still bringing out dessert, wait for him," Rinoa's voice chided again.
"We ought to toast to Squall's newfound sense of hospitality." Irvine took a casual sip from his glass and tipped it towards Squall as he entered the room.
"I didn't hear anyone else volunteering to help," Squall said, and raised an eyebrow just so in Irvine's direction. He lowered a tray with a large, rolled cake on it to the center of the table, and took a seat beside Rinoa. "Unless you were offering to go back for drinks?"
Irvine winked, drained the rest of his glass, and headed for the kitchen.
"You didn't actually make this, did you?" Selphie leaned her head closer to the cake, and poked at a candied evergreen leaf with her finger.
"Oh, Squall's become quite the baker, didn't you know that?" Rinoa said, completely straight-faced, and began to slice the cake. "What else was he going to do during all the time off he had this fall?
Selphie stared at her, open-mouthed, and Rinoa pressed a plate towards her, verging on a fit of laugher.
"Oh no, it's always been a secret love of his." Selphie turned to the head of the table, where Ellone looked back at her with a small smirk that could have rivaled one of Squall's on any day.
"You made this, didn't you Elle?"
"Take a bite, see if it's edible. If it is, Elle made it. If not, Squall." Irvine re-entered the room with a tray of steaming mugs.
"Hey now, some people in this house can actually cook!" Rinoa said, and stood to help Irvine. The smell of cinnamon, oranges, and apples filled the room as they passed around mugs.
"Ellone's in th' house, isn't she?"
Rinoa stuck her tongue out at Irvine, and he blew her a kiss in return.
"Now can we toast?" Selphie breathed deeply into her mug, and gestured at the cake plates in front of everyone. Or at least, almost everyone. She frowned, and asked, "Where did Laguna go, anyway?"
"To check on Noelle," Rinoa replied.
"That was almost twenty minutes ago." Ellone pushed her chair back. "I'll go check-"
"I'll go," Squall said, and the table turned to look at him. "What?"
"Nothing," Irvine said quickly. "Selph?"
She beamed. "To everyone!" she cried, and raised her mug in the air. The others mimicked her, if not with slightly less enthusiasm.
"Are you sure?" Rinoa's voice was low against Squall's shoulder, and he turned to her with half a smile.
"I need a minute, anyway," he said, and clinked his mug against hers and took a drink. "Wish me luck."
She swatted his shoulder, and took a small sip of her own. Squall heard her turn back to the table and start telling the others about Noelle's most recent accomplishments, and he paused at the top of the stairs, embracing the quiet. He stood there for several minutes, letting the heat from his mug press into his hands, and allowed himself to appreciate the moment-moments-he was in.
He exhaled, and softly opened the door to Noelle's nursery.
Laguna was leaning back in a chair, Noelle in his arms, and Squall's first thought was that he was asleep. He stood on the threshold, one hand still on the door, and just-watched.
Noelle, who was asleep, was little more than a lump of blankets, and Squall admired, as he often did, just how large that lump of blankets had become in the past weeks. The man holding her, on the other hand, looked smaller; his face was thin, framed by loose strands of grey hair that he still kept long. Squall looked for himself in that face, and without the normal motion and conversation, he thought he could almost see it.
He turned, and Laguna spoke.
"I'm not asleep."
Squall looked to him again, his face unchanged. "Could have fooled me."
"Well, maybe a little. I think babies emit sleep vibes."
"You sound like Zell."
"You don't think so?"
"I don't sleep much." His voice held a finality to it that Squall immediately regretted, and he walked further into the room and took a seat as if to apologize.
"It is too bad he couldn't make it."
"Rinoa told me. I don't blame him for staying with her, but it would have been nice to see him. So, did someone send you up here to find me? I didn't miss dessert, did I?"
Squall shook his head. "Not yet, but you might if you stay up much longer." He watched his father and daughter for another minute, and added, "I volunteered to come up here. Nobody sent me."
Laguna smiled, a subtle smile he'd crafted especially for Squall. A smile that was muted in the face of his normal exuberance, and one built around an understanding that had taken years to reach.
"I uh... It's just pretty loud down there. I needed a moment of quiet."
Laguna nodded, and Squall pretended not to notice the knowing shine in his eyes.
"Well, I'll try not to talk to much, then."
"Thank you." Squall took another sip from his mug, and, as an afterthought, offered it to Laguna. Laguna declined, and Squall took to staring into it, the dim lamplight of Noelle's room catching the little flecks of orange and turning them to glitter. Laguna's eyes were closed again, and Squall absently pushed at the empty rocker beside him.
"She looks like you." Squall stared at the rocker, and did not respond right away.
Finally, "I think she looks just like Rinoa."
Laguna shook his head. "She looks like your mother."
Squall started, and returned both hands to his mug. "She does?"
"You're getting hung up on her eyes. Those are Rinoa's eyes, but the rest of her..." Laguna stared down, and ran a finger across Noelle's nose and smiled. "Sorry I took so long up here. I was... Oh, nevermind."
"Well looking at her... Especially when she has her eyes closed like this, I can pretend like it's you."
Squall felt a jolt in his stomach, and stared hard at the floor. Somewhere downstairs he heard a wild burst of laughter, and it felt like it was coming from another planet.
"See? They think it's funny, too." Laguna laughed softly to himself, and one of Noelle's arms twitched.
"I don't...think it's funny," Squall said. He felt Laguna look his way, but kept his eyes on Noelle.
"You know," Laguna said, his voice hesitant. "I thought we were past all this."
"Well, me. Ever since you started coming to visit. I got to see you and Elle together. I never knew you, but I still got to watch you get married, and I at least felt like we had a relationship."
"We do. You don't think so anymore?" Squall frowned, drained his mug, and grimaced at the sweetness of it now that it was cold.
"We do in the present. But looking at your daughter... I guess I've been so focused on moving on from what's already happened, or worrying about what you missed, I never really thought about everything I missed. I guess that's a pretty selfish way of looking at things, isn't it?"
Squall looked at him, but Laguna was still staring down at Noelle, something in his eyes Squall recognized as regret, but mostly he saw love. The same sort of love he saw whenever Rinoa looked at him or Noelle, or he felt when he looked at his family.
"I guess it's backwards, but I think I understand you more now than I did then," Squall said, and was not surprised when Laguna gave him a curious stare. "Not with all of it. But if something ever happened to Noelle, if someone ever came after her and I thought Rinoa was safe... I just mean, it makes sense to me now, why you left my mother. You always tried to tell me you didn't leave her, but I... I hope I never have to make that decision." The words were becoming difficult, and Squall went back to pushing at the rocker. He could feel Laguna smiling though, and felt his own lips twitch against his will.
"Thank you," Laguna said.
They were silent again, but a different kind of silence, one that was causing a threatening burning in Squall's eyes, and he kept them open, focused, and was grateful when Noelle started to whimper.
"She slept for awhile, didn't she?" Laguna shifted her, but her cries started to grow stronger as she woke up.
"She also gets that from her mother." Squall smiled to himself, and imagined the face Rinoa would make if he'd heard him. "Who we should probably go see, since I think someone's hungry."
Laguna stood slowly and tried to keep Noelle's blankets intact, and handed her towards Squall, who shook his head.
"You can carry her," Squall said. They stood beside each other, and Squall felt awkwardly like this was one of those times when a hug might be appropriate, but wasn't entirely sure what to do about it. Noelle let out a loud wail before he had to decide, however, and a minute later he heard Rinoa on the stairs.
She stopped in the doorway, and a look crossed her face, one that almost made it possible for Squall to see things as she must have seen them; three generations, in the dim nursery light, and a shift in mood she probably felt from the stairs.
Rinoa smiled, and stepped towards Laguna. "Come here, hungry girl," she said, and took Noelle into her arms, settling back into the chair Laguna had occupied.
"I'll uh... See you downstairs." Laguna scratched his head, gave Noelle another long look, and walked out of the room.
"You're okay?" Rinoa asked, folding down her shirt.
"Actually..." Squall watched Noelle as she found her mark, and lost himself, as he so frequently did, in admiring the workings of the tiny person he had somehow, against all reason and expectation, helped to create.
He blinked, and leaned down to kiss Rinoa's head. "Yes. I'm actually, completely good."
Winhill smelled like fall. Somewhere in the meadow someone was burning leaves, and the smoke mingled with the sweet and heavy fragrance drifting from the kitchens at the inn. There were wreaths of gold and scarlet waving greetings from most of the doors they walked past, and bales of hay were stacked at random on the main path, playing host to bright orange pumpkins.
"Remind me why we didn't move here instead?" Rinoa paused, and the rattle of their suitcases on the gravel along with her. Music drifted lightly from an open window, but the only other sound was a gentle wind that nudged falling leaves along the road.
"Because somebody wanted to build our own town by the beach."
"That person was crazy," Rinoa said, and closed her eyes against the waning sun. Squall frowned at her word choice, and started moving again.
"What?" Rinoa asked.
"That person was enthusiastic, and passionate. Not crazy."
Squall saw his wife shake her head, and felt a twinge of guilt for breaking the mood over what he knew was an innocent remark.
They said little else until they checked into the inn, and Rinoa stood at the window, staring out at fields dotted orange with even more pumpkins, at the meadow preparing for hibernation. "I'd miss the sound of the ocean, though," she said, as though the conversation had never stopped.
"You think? You thought you would miss the city, too."
"You would miss the sound of the ocean. You've never lived without it."
"We did in Timber."
"Well aside from that. Anyway, I like our house."
Squall joined her at the window, and Rinoa leaned against him. "It is so much prettier here though. All the colors. And real fires. Thank you for suggesting this."
Squall smiled. "You're welcome."
They left the room and the inn, and resumed their walk through the village. Almost everywhere they went looked vastly different now, but Winhill was mostly untouched; a tiny pocket of tradition and calm, tucked away from the rest of the world.
In the main square, they made their requisite visit to Raine's old pub, and left carrying a mug of steaming cider each to a table that gave them a view of the setting sun. They watched until the sky was little more than a greyish purple, when Rinoa finally spoke.
Squall looked at her sharply. "Your dream?"
Rinoa paused. Across the square a woman was calling out to two children who came running and giggling towards her, and she chided them for being out so late.
"I was... Now. That dream has always been about the past, but this time I was there in the present. Except, Noelle was with me. And I didn't find you, I found...me. At seventeen."
Squall knit his eyebrows together, and Rinoa met his gaze. I'm here, he willed to her. If she couldn't hear it, he at least knew she could see it in his eyes. I'm here. "Why do you think...?"
Her voice carried an odd lift at the end, and Squall set down his cider to reach across the table. "You think Noelle brought you there?"
"No-Noelle's here. That's-"
Squall watched Rinoa's failed attempt to mask the horror that crossed her face, and he turned to see his daughter walking towards them across the square.
"Noelle!" He stood, and hurried to greet her before she reached their table to give Rinoa a chance to gather herself. "Why aren't you with June?"
"Ellone forgot a few things. I was in Timber until later today anyway, so I told her I'd come down here and pick them up. But there wasn't a train out until later-I'm actually running behind, but then I saw you. Why didn't you tell me you were coming here? Are you going to Dollet?"
"Last minute decision," Squall said. Noelle gave him an odd look, not fully believing his spontaneity, and finally looked past him where Rinoa was slowly rising from the table.
Noelle moved forward to give her mother a hug, and Squall watched them, straining to see anything that might cross between them.
Something Cid told him once flashed brightly in his mind, and Squall pushed back the feeling of resentment, trying to give it clarity. Something he had not understood thirty years ago, but he wished he could clearly recall now. Something about Rinoa and Edea in the first few years. Whatever it was had made Cid uncomfortable, and Squall cursed himself for not paying more attention.
"Did you just get in?" he heard Noelle ask, and Rinoa confirmed they'd only just arrived.
"When is your train?" Squall asked.
Noelle checked her watch, and Squall watched as first embarrassment, and then opportunity crossed her face. "In one minute. My chronic lateness apparently hasn't been affected by recent changes."
This time it was Rinoa's face that darkened, even as Noelle laughed off her joke. "Noelle, that wasn't funny."
"We should-" Squall started, and was cut off by the train whistle in the distance. He sighed, and tried again. "Since it looks like you'll be here all night, we should probably have this conversation somewhere else."
Rinoa looked panicked and Noelle annoyed, and Squall gestured to the two mugs that now held cold cider. "Noelle, please carry those inside."
She rolled her eyes, but picked them up and disappeared into the pub. The square was now lit by street lamps and strings of lights, and Squall took one of Rinoa's hands and squeezed it. "Before you ask, no, I did not know she would be here. I think you need to talk to her, but you know I wouldn't do that to you."
Rinoa nodded, and looked into the glowing windows of the pub. "What... She's going to want to talk. What am I supposed to say? What if I..."
Another memory surfaced, of standing with Cid on the beach and watching Edea in the distance.
"I can lie. Or I can tell her the truth. Or..."
"...Or I can."
Rinoa sighed heavily, and leaned against Squall's chest.
"You guys are at the inn? Did you actually eat dinner yet? Whatever they were cooking earlier smelled amazing. Oh, I'm so glad Ellone asked me to come down here, I really, really miss you." Noelle glided towards them, and kissed them each on the cheek. "Come on!"
She headed down the path, her dark hair sweeping after her like a shadow, and reluctantly, Squall and Rinoa followed.
First off, a little tribute in this chapter to Ashbear, with the lights on the trees. My city has those during the holidays so it's always stuck out to me visually and is kind of ingrained in Timber for me now.