Desolate ... barren and empty ... in a word - lifeless.
Squall looked right and left. He was tired and he was sore, but he HAD to find Rinoa, so he started walking. As he walked, he kept an eye on the horizon. Thinking there was no end to this dead land as he walked, Squall suddenly found himself on the edge of a precipice ... where he collapsed onto the ground. It was as if he were on an island floating in the middle of nowhere. It was as empty and isolated as his life had been.
He looked up and frowned as a feather floated down to his hand. Immediately he was reminded of the design on the back of Rinoa's outfit ... white angel wings. He didn't know if it was exhaustion or anything else, but he could swear he could see Rinoa standing in a flower-filled field teeming with life and sunshine. "Rinoa!" He managed to push himself to his feet and walked towards the mirage. "Rinoa!" The vision blurred and turned into her wearing the dress she had worn the night they met. The memory played itself in his mind countless times. Her pointing to the skylight ... where he had seen a shooting star. Walking towards him, dancing ... always fleeting.
Then he thought of how his life had been life without her ... how it would be. Two tears shot down his face as he collapsed. He could not survive losing anything else he loved ... and he had loved her more than life.
Desolate ... barren and empty ... in a word - lifeless.
That was what came to mind as Rinoa walked along. There was nothing on the hard ground and the sky was so clouded that there was no sign of the sun. To top it all off, there was no sign of Squall anywhere. This place was as barren as she felt without Squall there. He made her smile without meaning to. Her boots made a steady sound that broke through the silence. She looked straight ahead ... and was rewarded by a vague outline of a form lying on the ground. She slowed as she neared it and felt her heart drop when she recognized Squall. He was lying motionless ... as if he were dead.
Shoving that thought aside, she knelt beside him and lifted his head. She felt her eyes stinging as she lovingly combed her fingers through his hair once. He wasn't responding to her. 'No ... he CAN'T be dead! Not NOW!' After swallowing, she tried calling his name ... and received no reply. 'No ... oh PLEASE ... he can't be dead!' She tried again. "Squall? Please ... answer me!"
Nothing ... not even a twitch. She placed her fingers at his pulse point and then placed her hand over his over his heart ... nothing.
Feeling all hope leave her, Rinoa let out a cry and held Squall tightly. "NO! You CAN'T die! Not now! Not when you had so much to live for! PLEASE don't leave me!" She sobbed against him, barely aware that she was now sitting in a grassy field. The scent of flowers made her look up and she watched as the circle of light grew around her. She was impassive and wondered if this agony in her heart was similar to what Squall had felt to cause him to shut everyone out. 'Why is it that I can only understand him NOW ... when it's too late?' With a sigh, she looked back down, and felt her heart skip a beat. He was breathing! Her lips parted in amazed wonder as his eyes slowly opened. The pain that had been in her heart vanished as he slowly sat up and looked at her. "Squall? You're alive?"
For his part, Squall felt tired. The pain at thinking he had lost Rinoa had been unbearable. He had given up and had let himself slip into darkness when the sweetest voice led him back. Now she was here, looking like the angel he always knew she was. For the first time in years, the joy he felt could not be contained and he smiled.
Rinoa couldn't keep the happy mixture of laughter and tears in as she threw her arms around Squall and held him tightly. "OH YOU'RE ALIVE!" She sniffled as she pulled back to look at him. Disbelieve written all over her face. "I ... I thought that..."
"Hush!" Squall's arm felt like lead as he wiped Rinoa's tears away. He blinked slowly. "Tired..."
Rinoa nodded at him. He had every right to be exhausted. "Rest, then. You deserve it." She gently coaxed him to lie back down as she continued to cradle his upper torso.
Squall gazed up at her ... she looked so beautiful. He reached up and caressed her cheek. "Love you..." He then closed his eyes, relief washing through him and making him sleepy.
Rinoa bit her bottom lip as if doing that would keep her from bursting with the happiness she was feeling. She had known for the longest time that he loved her, but the words made a universe of difference. "I know ... I love you, too." She kissed his forehead tenderly and felt a wave of happiness. She had fought her own private battle, and had won. She knew that Squall would no longer isolate himself. Rinoa looked up as she heard someone approach, and held Squall protectively. She relaxed as Irvine and Selphie appeared.
Selphie squealed in delight. "There's Rinoa!" She waved like crazy and ran forward with Irvine close behind. "Omigosh! Is he..." she gulped "...dead?" The fear was written plainly on her face. She thought of Squall as a protective older brother ... she had done so since they were kids.
Rinoa shook her head. "He's just sleeping. That last battle wore him out terribly, and I don't know how long he was lying here before I found him."
Irvine knelt down, relief etched on his features. Selphie's question had voiced his own worry. "Come on ... we hafta get him to Dr. Kadowski." He turned. "ZELL! QUISTIS! OVER HERE! WE FOUND THEM, AND SQUALL'S ALIVE!!"
Zell was there in almost no time at all. He was gasping for breath, but he had a huge smile on his face. "He made it?"
Quistis was slower in her approach, but her smile was no smaller. "He certainly did!"
Squall was barely conscious, but he had to see with his own eyes. He forced his eyes open and looked around. They were all there ... each and every one of them. They were all beaming at him. He kept his usual expression only a moment before breaking into a tired smile.
Irvine let out a happy laugh at the sight of Squall smiling. "Well if that don't beat all! Come on!" He dragged Squall to his feet and looped one of the younger boy's arms around his neck while Zell, laughing up a storm, took the other. "Garden isn't far ... we figured you had something to do with that little light show a few moments ago. Next time, yell if you want to signal us."
"I'll keep that in mind." Squall couldn't put to words just how good it felt to be surrounded by his friends again. He had fought with all his might against feeling for these people, and they had stuck with him regardless. He was too tired to do much more than walk so he let the conversation flow around him. He was roused from near-dozing yet again when a loud cheer rose from the Garden. He gave Zell a puzzled look after being pounded on the back.
"Believe it or not ... LIKE it or not ... that cheer is for you, pal!"
Squall shook his head. "No ... it's for US." When the headmaster met them, he tried to stand on his own and salute, but failed miserably. After a moment, Squall found himself encircled in an embrace. He frowned in puzzlement as Cid released him. "What was that for, sir?"
"Because you were always like the son I never had. That was why I had always had such high hopes for you. For ALL of you." Cid turned to the dark-haired woman just behind him who was crying softly.
With a sob, Edea wrapped her arms around Squall. As with Cid, Squall was like a son to her. All the children had been like her own, but Squall was always special to her. Of all of them, Squall's adoption had been the hardest to bear, and she had cried for days afterwards. She blinked as Squall pressed a kiss to her forehead. She blinked again as he smiled at her. His smile transformed him in an amazing way. Smiling made him look like the boy he was. She couldn't help but smile in return. "I always wondered where you hid that!" She turned and let Dr. Kadowski take him.
The students of Garden all tried to get closer to Squall. Several of them were asking him if he'd be all right. Squall sighed in resignation as the doctor shooed them away by telling them that he needed rest. It was the truth too. He was beyond exhausted. The only thing keeping him up was the stubborn determination not to collapse. It worked part of the way, but he couldn't keep his eyes open any more. He was only dimly aware of the collective gasp as he finally succumbed and passed out.
Dr. Kadowski kept him from falling to the ground. "Poor boy." She looked up to see Rinoa approaching. "Help me get him to the infirmary. My guess is dehydration and exposure."
At Fisherman's Horizon, Seifer watched the float with passive indifference as he contemplated everything. He had been more than foolish. He'd nearly gotten killed for no other reason than the fact that he had an old rivalry with Squall. He was just thinking that there was no fish in the lake when Raijin started whooping. He looked over his shoulder.
"WOO HOO! I CAUGHT ONE! LOOKIT THE SIZE OF IT! IT'S A WHOPPER!"
Fuujin kept her face in the usual disapproving mask. She looked over at Seifer. "SEIFER?"
With a growl, Seifer stood and threw his rod down in defeat. "Nothing EVER goes right for me!"
Fuujin shrugged and turned back to Raijin. She watched another moment as he did a little victory dance and decided that he was bragging a little too much. "SHOWOFF!" She lifted her foot and kicked Raijin into the ocean. It was more to make Seifer feel better than to shut Raijin up.
Seifer laughed at her way of dealing with Raijin. He shook his head, amazed yet again that they had stuck with him. He looked up as a shadow passed overhead. There were cheers coming from it. He smiled. 'He's alive! Good work, Squall. I knew you wouldn't disappoint me.'
In another part of the world, President Loire stood on a dirt path that he knew well. He glanced down at his wedding band and heard phantoms of the past.
He spun around and there she was. Raine, and she was looking as beautiful as he remembered. "Hmm?"
She stepped towards him. "Ellone said you wanted to see me? She was giggling. Do you know what she was talking about?"
"Uh ... well ... that little snitch!"
Raine tilted her head and smiled. "Well?"
He felt his leg starting to cramp up. "Nothing." He spun around and chided himself. 'If she follows, I'll do it!'
Raine walked after him. "Laguna! Wait a second. I was ... huh?"
Laguna smiled as he spun back around and grasped her outstretched hand lightly and slid a ring on her finger. He hadn't been able to get the engagement ring, but he did manage to get a set of wedding bands.
Raine gazed at the circle of silver around her finger as the meaning had hit home. She laughed through her tears as she looked at him.
With a half smile, Laguna lifted his left hand to show her the mate. "Beloved husband?"
Raine sniffled as she shakily brought her own hand up. She knew he was asking her to marry him. "Be ... beloved wife! Oh, Laguna!" She ran and threw her arms around him. "'Til death do us part!"
Laguna smiled as a peace settled in his soul. He had fallen in love with Julia's looks, but he knew it wasn't real or he would have found a way back to her. Raine was pretty, but she had a spirit that drew him to her, and he loved her for that. "'Til death do us part!"
President Loire walked up to the gravestone and knelt by it. He felt his eyes sting with tears he refused to let fall as he read the inscription. 'Raine Loire.' He felt that old ache swell in his heart that he always felt when he remembered her. He blinked as he heard someone calling him.
Laguna looked over his shoulder and spotted Ellone waving at him. He smiled as he waved back. He looked up as a shadow passed over him and smiled at the cheers emanating from it. 'Good work, kid!'
Rinoa stayed by Squall's bedside as he recovered. She was deeply concerned that she didn't have to cast a sleep spell on him. She was beginning to worry that he would never wake up from his comatose state. She smiled in relief when his eyes finally did open. "Hey! Welcome back to the land of the living, sleepyhead."
Dr. Kadowski walked in and nodded. "So you're finally awake. You had me worried there. Although I wasn't as worried as this young lady was." She grumped a little, but was quick to smile as she got results from the tests she was running. "Everything seems to be in good order, although I suggest you take it easy for a few more days."
Rinoa reached to play with Squall's bangs. "How are you feeling?"
"Like I was hit by a truck! My head is pounding like crazy!" Squall threw his free arm over his aching head. "Everything after getting back to Garden is a blur."
"Humph! No wonder about that! You passed out! You've been comatose for about five days." Even she had to chuckle at the dumbstruck look on Squall's face. She had always known that hidden beneath all that hard stone was a treasure beyond price. She had seen the change coming the day she met Rinoa. Speaking of which... "You'd better hang on to this one, my boy! She's been a good influence on you. AND she hasn't left your side once since we had to drag you in here!"
Rinoa blushed and ducked her head in an odd motion of shyness. "I have no intention of letting him ditch me." She shrugged. "If I do, where will I see that dazzling smile of his?"
It was Squall's turn to blush. Luckily for him, his arm hid most of his face.
Rinoa chuckled. "Don't try to hide it! I know that you're blushing." Then her tone became concerned. "Does your head hurt a lot?"
Squall shook his head. "No ... it's throbbing, but I'll live. Can I go?"
Dr. Kadowski nodded after a minute. "You're strong enough. Plus I think the rest of Garden is wondering how their Commander is. Just remember what I said about taking it easy. Don't go fighting any T-Rexaurs for a few days."
"Great..." Squall's tone was less than enthusiastic, but he pushed himself into a sitting position with Rinoa's help. He smiled a thank you as Rinoa held his arm to steady him as he stood up. "I'm okay. I can walk under my own power."
Rinoa reluctantly let go of Squall's arm, then smiled as he opened his arms to her. She walked willingly into his embrace and she felt him sigh happily as she returned it.
Squall inhaled deeply and held Rinoa a little closer as tears leaked out of his eyes. "I thought I had lost you. I couldn't bear the lonliness again."
Rinoa nodded in understanding. The actual battle wasn't what had almost killed him, it was the heartbreak of losing something very important to him. "It's all right. I'm here and I don't EVER plan on leaving you!"
During this touching scene, Dr. Kadowski was letting Quistis, Selphie, Zell and Irvine know that Squall was awake. She smiled at each reaction and knew that as she hung up, people would be gathering at the Quad. She nodded at Rinoa to tell her that everything was ready.
"Come on! Let's go for a walk! The exercise will be good for you." Rinoa smiled as she walked, hand-in-hand, with Squall. There were a few students still around, but they started following the couple as soon as Squall was spotted.
About ½ the way to the Quad, Squall looked over his shoulder. "Why is everyone following us?"
Rinoa only smiled. "You'll see."
Squall raised his eyebrows at her mischievous tone, but said nothing. He was only slightly surprised when they turned into the Quad. What surprised him was the setup. It looked as if they had been preparing for a party. "What the...?"
Rinoa stood in front of him, and smiled as she started clapping. Quistis, Selphie, Irvine and Zell joined her. Following them were Cid and Edea. Soon all of the Garden inhabitants were applauding and cheering.
Squall was confused as he spun around to read the banner they had passed under.
"WELCOME BACK, SQUALL"
Dr. Kadowski approached and joined in the applause.
That was the final straw and Squall felt his heart, and his eyes fill. He'd thought he was alone, but he had a family bigger than he had even realized. He turned back to his closest friends and noticed that they had drawn closer. Before he knew what was happening, he was enclosed in a group hug, which caused the cheers to intensify.
Rinoa smiled. She could practically feel Squall soaking up the love and friendship that he'd denied himself for far too long. She stayed next to him as Selphie jumped up and down.
"OKAY! Let's start the PAR-TY!"
Squall stayed inside for a while as everyone asked him how he was feeling. Some hugged him or shook his hand. One little girl even planted a kiss on his cheek. He glanced over to see where everyone else was. Selphie was taping with her camera, Irvine was dancing to the music, and Quistis was sipping at a drink.
"Are those the famed hot dogs?" Zell pointed a finger at the pile.
The girl with him giggled. "They are indeed!"
Zell ran forward and grabbed at least a dozen of the hot dogs, much to everyone's amusement. Everyone knew that Zell had wanted to taste them. With a little skip, Zell went to a table and proceeded to eat.
Rinoa took Squall's arm. "Come on! Let's go look at the stars."
Selphie was having a blast. She'd had to stop her taping to change the battery. "Okay ... it's on!" She turned to where Quistis was still sipping a glass of champagne. Irvine was right next to her doing some fancy dance moves. "Quistis! Over here! Smile!"
Quistis noticed that Selphie had the camera focused on her. So she smiled and waved.
Irvine was a little miffed that Selphie had cut him out of the picture, so he poked his head in front of Quistis'.
Quistis frowned. "You ham!" With that she sniffed once and walked away.
"What? Aw c'mon, Quisty! I was just having a little fun!" He turned to Selphie and cocked his head inquisitively. "What did I do?"
Selphie sighed as she followed Quistis with the camera, and smiled as she approached the headmaster.
"Ah, Quistis!" Cid turned to Quistis and smiled. "How are you enjoying the festivities? Squall gave us quite a scare there for a while, didn't he?"
Quistis nodded as she chuckled. "He certainly did. Dr. Kadowski was telling me just yesterday that she didn't know if he'd EVER wake up. Poor Rinoa was so upset that she actually looked like she was planning to hit the doctor." She smiled fondly as Edea walked over. "Matron..."
"Well I, for one, am glad he pulled through it all right. But he always was a stubborn one."
"I think it's not entirely fair that we're talking about Squall behind his back!" Irvine walked over and smiled. "But I am glad we all found each other again! Despite being an orphan, my time at your place was the best time of my life, and I thank you from the bottom of my heart for being there when we needed you." With that, he bowed and then winked up at Edea.
"You flirt!" Edea chuckled. She couldn't believe the stroke of luck that had brought the children back together, and it saddened her that she had been the cause. They had been ordered to destroy her, and poor Irvine had been told to pull the trigger. She wondered what must have gone through his head. Then she saw the understanding in his eyes and smiled.
Irvine smiled back then turned to Selphie, who was dutifully taping the proceedings. "Hey! Get your cute fanny from behind that camera! I'll take over for a while." At that point, he grabbed the camera and gently scooted Selphie to stand next to Quistis.
Selphie, in turn, nabbed his hat. "Irvine, the camera's sideways. Turn it ... THERE! You got it! I'm kinda ... HEY!"
Irvine barely listened to Selphie talking and he focused on some girls and waved. "Good evening, ladies!" He grinned as they waved back at him.
Selphie stuck her face into the camera's view and frowned. "Irvine! WHAT are you doing? Humph! I am NOT speaking to you." She walked off in a huff.
"Aw, Seffie! Come on! I was just having some fun!" He chuckled. He had done it deliberately. She was so cute when she was mad.
Selphie froze and her anger was forgotten in an instant. "Quistis! Look at Zell!" She pointed while giggling.
"What is it? Oh! Irvine, you should focus in on Zell! Look!" She pointed as well and laughed.
Irvine did, and grinned. Zell was wolfing down hot dogs like they were going out of style.
"Mph! I can't tell you just how long I've wanted one of these!" Zell took two huge bites. "Well worth the wait!" Another huge bite that he swallowed without chewing. He reached for a glass of water to help it get down.
Quistis and Selphie ran to him and started pounding on his back. Selphie gave him a final hard smack and he swallowed the chunk.
Zell turned to the two women after recovering. "You two could have KILLED me!"
Selphie squealed with laughter as she ran away.
Zell turned to Irvine, who was still chuckling. "What are YOU laughing at, Pigtailed Boy?" He threw a half-eaten hot dog at the camera.
"WOAH! Chill out! And chew your food!" Irvine snorted and turned back to Selphie. Smiling as Rinoa's dog, Angelo, ran across the room.
Selphie was looking around, and smiled as she pointed. "I found where Squall and Rinoa disappeared to! Don't they make a cute couple?"
"I'll say!" Irvine turned. He could see Rinoa, but he couldn't see Squall. 'He must be out of the camera's point of view.'
Rinoa gazed up at the stars. "Déjà vu!"
Near her, Squall nodded. "Only thing we need now is a shooting star."
As if on cue, a star streaked across the sky.
Rinoa grinned and turned to Squall. Her grin turned to a smirk as she pointed, mirroring the move she had made the night they had met.
Squall turned to Rinoa and smiled. "Come here." He took her hand and pulled her closer. He paused only a second to bend his head down to kiss her.
Rinoa wrapped her arms around Squall tightly. She felt the kiss all the way to her toes. Despite how independent he wanted to be, she knew that he needed her, and that endeared him to her all the more. She blinked at the light applause that suddenly started and gently broke the kiss. "I think we have an audience."
Squall turned towards the doors. Sure enough, all of Garden was watching them. To make matters worse, Irvine had a camera taping the whole thing and giving him a thumb's up. He turned back to Rinoa. "Well, then let's give them something to REALLY watch!"
Before Rinoa could ask what he meant, she felt herself bent backwards as Squall kissed her again. She had to hold on to him because she didn't trust herself to stand on her own two feet. She couldn't even hear the cheers over the pounding of her heart.
Selphie raised her eyebrows after a minute. "Um ... they should breathe."
Irvine chuckled and turned to Zell. "Hey! How much you want to bet that Rinoa won't be able to stand without hanging onto him?"
Zell shook his head. "No bet. I doubt she'll even be able to think!"
Quistis nodded. "I never knew Squall had it in him, the rogue."
Rinoa blinked as Squall broke the kiss. There were stars in her field of vision. "Oh ... WOW!" She blushed. 'Is THAT what Squall feels for me?'
Squall grinned as the applause thundered again. He had to steady Rinoa and noted that Zell and Irvine exchanged a look. "You okay?"
Rinoa's mind was a million miles away and she practically draped herself over him. "Mm hmm! Never better!" She blinked as she heard light chuckles. Then blushed when she noticed that they STILL had an audience.
Squall chuckled as Rinoa tried to gather her composure, but kept his arms firmly around her. The smile that had been missing from his face for far too long was firmly in place as he looked around and then settled back on Rinoa. He had a home. More importantly was that, finally, he had a family. His eyes softened as he regarded the woman he loved. 'And, with Rinoa, someday I'll start a NEW family.' With that warm thought in his heart and mind, he moved towards the dance floor. "At least THIS time, I know how to dance!" As their song started, he swept Rinoa into the waltz she had taught him on the fateful night not so long ago.
"...And they lived happily ever after!"
"Tell us another story, Daddy!" The little girl, who had her father's eyes and her mother's hair, bounced on the bed.
"Yeah! Another one!" The boy, who was his father all over again, agreed.
The father stood up and smiled warmly at his children. "Tomorrow. I've kept you two up late enough as it is! Your mother won't be happy with me if I let you stay up much longer." He turned to leave.
"Daddy...?" Julie hugged her stuffed moogle. "Did all that REALLY happen?"
"I'll show you the tape sometime." He promised. "Now go to sleep." He chuckled as he shut the door, and stopped as he was confronted by his wife. She tried to look angry, but smiled after a moment.
"You never could deny them anything!" She reached over and ran a finger lovingly down the scar on his face.
Squall smiled at Rinoa. "Can you blame me? I live the childhood I should have had through them."
Rinoa nodded. "I understand. Come on ... let's get to bed!"
Squall watched her walk to their bedroom and thanked that shooting star that had brought them together. After a moment, he followed his wife and closed the door behind him.