Rinoa closed her eyes for a moment, took a deep breath, and then looked up at her blank screen. Her shaking hand reached up to adjust her earpiece and microphone in line with the height of her chair, and she pondered why after so many years of being a navigator, she still felt like fainting from nerves right before she plugged in. Today she was watching SeeD Unit Fifteen, wired into their radios and locked into vision cameras which where mounted in their goggles. She’d move when they moved, see what they saw, and she would have their backs covered with air lifts, air strikes, group assaults and most importantly, be ready to log and report their progress to the Generals upstairs.
The control room was cold, the air conditioner churning the stale air around the tense figures, furiously typing on the keyboards in front of them and speaking rapidly into their microphones. Rinoa chanced a look around the room. The concentration was rapt on her colleagues’ faces, no one looked away from their screens to meet her gaze, and she knew in a few minutes time, she would resemble them also. Her heart would race, her palms would sweat, and her mind would fly at a million miles a second, because this was personal. This was life or death, and because, this was him.
“Unit Fifteen…” a young woman commented as she looked over Rinoa’s shoulder. “Are they still in section blue D?”
Rinoa watched her friend take her position at the desk next to her, and start her own ritual of getting ready. Her perfectly manicured nails seemed at odds with her pressed uniform of stark dark grey. She flicked her red-blonde hair back over her shoulders, and fitted her earpiece, shooting Rinoa a smile before tapping her screens into life.
“No, they’re in Red Four,” Rinoa replied, still trying to calm her nerves and feeling the uncomfortable sensation of goosebumps on her skin.
Quistis had been her friend at the Esthar Base since the moment Rinoa had arrived. In a place that was dominated by old style military men, and ex-SeeDs from a time when the world hadn’t gone insane, it was nice to see someone with whom she could identify with. Quistis was SeeD trained, and had once lived in Balamb Garden, before the influenza had struck the capital of Esthar and almost wiped out the entire population in a matter of days. Now the place was overrun with monsters, multiplying at an alarming rate, and the remaining refuges had found themselves quarantined in a unstable, dangerous place, unable to run, left begging for help.
Help had come, but it had not rushed. The first priority was to control the spread of the disease, then to start formulating a vaccine. But before help could arrive, the surrounding monster population had exploded, and moved into the city like the wave of a second infection. Desperate, the military generals of the surrounding countries and SeeD leaders had moved their troops into the crumbling city to rescue the ailing population and control the monster attacks.
Which brought Rinoa’s thoughts back to the present, to the voice now in her ear, and the images flickering into life on her screen. Quistis was still waiting for her team to contact her, and Rinoa could feel her looking over, frowning at Rinoa’s screen.
“This is Squall Leonhart, SeeD Unit Fifteen, SeeD number two two four five one, reporting with Selphie Tilmitt, SeeD number seven five one one seven. We have relieved Unit Seventeen in Section Red Four.”
His familiar voice settled through Rinoa like something warm in her veins and she felt herself relax. She’d always felt so safe when she worked with Squall, as if nothing worried him. He always reacted so fast, and most of all, he trusted Rinoa implicitly to have his back, something Rinoa reflected upon with great pride.
“Good afternoon SeeD Unit Fifteen, this is Rinoa Heartilly speaking, I will be navigating with you today. Locking onto your coordinates now, please update me with your orders.”
“Rinoa,” Selphie greeted, her cheerful voice filling Rinoa’s ears. “We’re following reports of refugee sightings in the, previously thought to be abandoned, rail station. There seems to be a lot of destruction to the surrounding area, suggesting monster inhabitation, although no present sightings.”
Rinoa looked at her two screens, she could see Selphie, the shorter of the two dressed in the black fighting suit, oxygen tank strapped to her back, mask over her mouth and nose already. Her goggles were enormous on her small face, and her hair was pulled back severely and tied out of the way. Rinoa was allowed this glimpse of her, only because Squall was looking in her direction. As Selphie turned to meet his gaze, Rinoa switched her attention to the other screen to where Squall’s imaged was displayed. He had a red band on his arm to display himself as a high ranking captain, his face was covered with the mask and goggles also, as was required in the field, but unlike Selphie, his hair was free to fall across his forehead and into his eyes.
Rinoa had never seen these two without their battle wear, unlike some of the other teams that sometimes were recalled, like Seifer and Irvine, Zell and Nida, Squall and Selphie were always deployed in the most dangerous missions, and had quickly earned themselves the reputation of being fierce, reliable and ready to follow orders. Rinoa knew it was a great honour to be one of their navigators, to be deemed competent enough to hold their lives in her hands.
“Rinoa, have medics on standby, and the air rescue,” Squall requested as he checked over his gunblade, spinning the bullet chamber and testing his grip and the feel of the blade in his hand. “There may be casualties.”
“You’ve got it,” Rinoa assured him, tapping in the request and logging co-ordinates. “Ready when you are. Requested back up standing by.”
Rinoa saw in the corner of her eye Quistis start to co-ordinate her team towards Rinoa’s required back up point, and realised that Quistis was dealing with the very same Seifer that she had briefly thought of a moment ago. Quistis was the only one who ever seemed to have any semblance of control over Seifer, who usually liked to run the show however he liked. At the moment she was doing a good job of herding him to the designated spot by taunting him into missing out on the action. Rinoa smirked. There were no such childish tactics being deployed on her watch. Squall and Selphie were pure professionals.
But as predicted, Squall and Selphie had run into the expected trouble, and were busily engaged in a fight with three monsters. They were in control, easily beating the monsters back, moving fluidly, and covering each other’s backs, not allowing any attacks past their defences. Rinoa monitored the progress of the units moving in to provide backup, satisfied that the units would arrive in approximately fifteen minutes; she used her spare few moments to scan the surrounding area. She spotted something unusual, and for a second her heart forgot to beat. What was that? It scanned as a large heat mass on the screen, moving in Squall and Selphie’s direction.
“Large unidentified object moving in your direction, throwing off a large heat tracing. Will appear on your left, in approximately two minutes,” Rinoa informed them both.
“Units moving to requested destination,” a voice spoke into Rinoa’s ear, and she looked up at the main screen, which hovered above them all at the front of the room. This was what the Generals were watching, seeing the front line battle, and not for the first time, it had changed it’s picture to display Rinoa’s screens for their scrutiny.
“Oh God,” Rinoa whispered to herself, forgetting that she was still microphoned in. “Squall you’re on main-screen again.”
“Watch my back Rinoa,” Squall replied, sounding slightly breathless after the fight. “Update on the unknown enemy.”
“Still approaching,” Rinoa said looking at the large mass hurtling their way. Thirty seconds tops before it burst into their clearing. “And you’ve got it. Support units thirteen minutes away. Air defence ready to launch.”
A deafening roar filled Rinoa’s earpiece and she shied away helplessly, her eyes and everyone else’s transfixed upon the enormous monster that had burst through the cover of the trees, and was now rearing up on its hind legs ready to attack.
“Oh my hell,” Quistis exclaimed, before turning to her screen and furiously telling Seifer and Irvine to hurry up. She wasn’t the only one telling the support units to double the pace.
Rinoa bit her lip hard as she realised that this was the only fight she had ever been worried for Squall through. Usually he glided through the field as if everything he did was easy. Nothing seemed to frighten him, but from the sound of his breathing, and the jerky movements of this fight, Rinoa could see that he was without his usual composure. Had he been injured in the previous fight? Switching screens, she rewound the previous footage, and sure there it was, a blow that had snaked it’s way under his left arm and into his ribs. Surely it had not been too damaging at the time, but without the necessary time to retreat and recover, this relentless fighting was draining him. If the support didn’t arrive soon, Rinoa wasn’t sure if Squall could keep going. Selphie was a great second, covering Squall’s blind spot and keeping a check on their damage caused and taken, but even she was struggling right now.
Rinoa felt her heart painfully miss its beat as Squall was knocked from his feet. He fell so hard that Rinoa almost felt the breath leave her body in sympathy. Panicking she hit the red alert button, watching as Squall lay there unmoving. The red alert did nothing, except sound a high pitched alarm in the command tower and illuminate them all with a flashing red light. The units were already running towards the fight, and she watched their progress as little dots on a screen, all rushing towards one spot.
Selphie was barely keeping herself alive. The monster having given Squall up for dead turned his attention solely upon her now. All she could do was deflect its attacks, and hope that help would arrive soon. Rinoa closed her eyes, there was nothing more she could do to help her team, in a few minutes they might both be dead. Taking a deep and steadying breath she opened her eyes to see Seifer crash through the trees into the clearing, closely followed by Irvine. He knocked Selphie out of the way as he took her place, and Rinoa watched Selphie struggled over to where Squall was lying and attempt to drag him out of the fray. This was unlike Squall, something was dreadfully wrong for Squall to be out cold like this.
Rinoa felt a sharp pain in her hands, and realised that she had been digging her fingernails into the soft skin of her palms. Her eyes flicked up to the main screen, which had now swapped to Quistis’ view-screen, and knew that there was nothing further she could do. Only the last thing, call in the air rescue.
“Selphie, rescue team approaching, stay in nearby co-ordinates,” Rinoa informed her, watching as another pair of fighters, Zell and Nida, launched themselves at the monster along with Seifer and Irvine.
“Understood,” Selphie replied, her voice breathless with the effort of moving Squall.
Rinoa continued to watch the fight from the main screen, when she was interrupted by a hand on being placed on her shoulder. It was a heavy weight, a man’s hand, his fingers gently squeezed her for her attention.
“Come with me,” he said in a whisper near to her ear.
Rinoa darted a look at Quistis, but she was too busy to notice. A few others in the room looked up as Rinoa was led away, and she followed doggedly behind this man knowing that perhaps she had destroyed everything she had been working so hard for. She’d let her team down, and Squall was hurt.
Rinoa stood nervously waiting for something to happen. Instead of being yelled at and then fired, Rinoa had immediately been taken towards the office her father worked from, which didn’t settle her nerves at all. He was one of the Commanding Generals involved in this Esthar mission, and Rinoa wasn’t a fool enough to think that this would be a social visit. Perhaps he was going to personally show her his disappointment before she was officially demoted out of the base?
General Caraway was sitting by the window on his desk chair, his greying hair making him look a lot older than how Rinoa always pictured him in her mind. They had never been close, and the only time he’d ever expressed and pride in her, was when she’d progressed in her current career. It was the only thing about her life that he’d ever approved of, and now she was about to lose that too.
“I’m sorry, I should have been faster, I should have told them to fall back sooner, it wont happen again Sir…” Rinoa said as she stood at his desk. As he turned to look at her, she stood to attention and saluted him.
“Sit down Rinoa,” Caraway instructed seemingly completely deaf to her apologies. Uncertain, Rinoa perched on the edge of a chair, ready to spring back up at any moment. “I don’t wish to discuss the mess of that mission, you can speak to the other Generals if you have a problem with the way you acted, but as far as I am concerned, you did your job as well as you always do.”
Rinoa didn’t reply, she wasn’t sure if that was complement or not. Probably not. But if she wasn’t in trouble, then what was the problem? Why had she been pulled out of the navigating room?
“I’ve had a request, from the Commander of Balamb Garden,” Caraway said, he watched Rinoa’s face carefully, but there was nothing readable in her expression. She stilled looked as white faced and ready to faint as she had the moment she’d walked into the room. “Squall Leonhart wants you to meet him, apparently he has something to ask you… he wouldn’t tell me anything more than that.”
Rinoa frowned, she felt even more confused than every right now.
“Squall wants to meet me?” she asked. This alone was a terrifying prospect, she’d never met him in person, and he was just a voice in her ear, a soldier in black filmed on Selphie’s camera. She’d never even see his face, since breathing equipment and huge goggles always covered him up. Now he wanted to meet her? Why?
“But what has that got to do with the Commander of Balamb Garden?” she queried looking sceptical. Was this conversation really happening? It seemed bizarre. Her father frowned at her in response.
“Squall Leonhart is the Commander of Balamb Garden,” he replied. “How have you managed to not be aware of this? You’ve been working with him for months… did you not read the files?”
“I read what I thought was relevant…” Rinoa assured him. Maybe she should have read a little more then. Caraway made a noncommittal noise that told her that he wasn’t impressed with her reply. Rinoa knew she wasn’t doing herself any favours right now. “But Squall has been injured…”
“Yes, I am going to allow you time away from your duties to meet with him. You will travel to the infirmary and assess his status, report back immediately, we need accurate information in order to plan our strategy. Without their Commander, Balamb Garden will be in a state of frozen orders, they will not accept changes, and might even withdraw, this will harm our cause.”
Rinoa raised an eyebrow. She was being given leave? To what, spy on Squall? There was no way she would be reporting back anything unless he asked her to. As far as she was concerned she was still a part of his team, since their mission still remained open and she hadn’t logged off her system. Technicalities, yes, but a valid point.
“Am I to leave immediately?” Rinoa asked.
“Yes, collect your belongings, and I’ll arrange your transport.”
Rinoa stood, saluted him once more and left the room with her mind reeling. Squall was the Balamb Commander? How could she have missed that? Why hadn’t he ever said anything? Rinoa shook her head. He must have thought she knew already. She should have known. There were no excuses, and Rinoa walked back to her room, allowing herself to feel like an idiot, knowing she deserved it.
The hospital was a separate building, surrounded by electric fencing and sniper towers. Rinoa felt a shiver run through her as she was driven through the large iron gates, and refused to look behind her to see them swing close and be locked. She felt as if she was stepping into a prison rather than a medical facility, and when the car stopped and she stood on the gravelled pathway, she felt lost.
In the navigation room she was Rinoa Heartilly, high ranking, in control, demanding respect for her skills, trusted, and here… she was just a frightened girl, shivering in the cold. Shrugging her bag over her shoulder, she made her way into the maze of the building, looking for someone to direct her.
“Hello, my name is Rinoa Heartilly, I’ve come to see Squall Leonhart,” Rinoa said to the lady sat behind the desk, the woman smiled, but didn’t say anything. Rinoa frowned. Had she not heard her? She opened her mouth to repeat herself, but felt someone touch her arm.
Rinoa looked to he side to find a girl, smaller than she was, smiling at her warmly. She had light brown hair to her shoulders, bright green eyes and a cut across her cheek. It had been covered with butterfly stitches, but as she smiled it pulled on them, and looked painful.
“Selphie,” the girl said holding out her hand for Rinoa to shake. “I’m so glad I’m getting to meet you at last. I’ve always wanted to. You’re the best you know…”
Rinoa felt her eyes widen. Selphie. The Selphie? She looked so unlike a solider that for a while Rinoa couldn’t understand what was being said. Instead she simply followed behind her, slowly coming to the conclusion that Selphie was extremely forthcoming, free with her observations, and not shy in the least. She smiled a lot, and Rinoa wished she wouldn’t since she always ended up touching her wound with a grimace.
“Well, Squall’s in there. You can go in, he’s waiting for you,” Selphie said. This simple sentence filled Rinoa with apprehension. Beyond this door was the man she had been admiring for longer than she could remember. The man who her mind wandered towards when she was alone.
Rinoa bit her bottom lip, her hand on the door handle, the other rose ready to knock. She realised from the rapid beating of her heart that she had developed more feelings for this man than she’d realised. And in a few seconds time, her fantasy world would come crashing down, and she could be left feeling empty. Holding his life in her hands had brought them close, she’d felt there was a bond between them some how. But, now the moment had come, Rinoa was scared it might all of been imaginary after all. He might feel nothing at all.
Squall Leonhart was the Commander of Balamb Garden, he had better things to think of than her. She was just a voice on the end of an earpiece. But hadn’t Selphie said she was the best? Maybe they had discussed her; after all, she was a part of their lives.
Rinoa knocked and listened. There was no reply, she hesitated for a moment, then pushed the door open slowly, knocking again. She looked inside, and saw that the TV was on, the volume low, the blinds were drawn, and there was a young man lying on his back, his eyes closed, his hands resting by his side. The glow of the TV gave his face a strange eerie colouring, and Rinoa simply stood and stared at him for a moment before she closed the door. He was nothing like she imagined. He was younger for a start, her age perhaps, or at a push early twenties. She looked him over, from the black socks on his feet, the grey sweat pants, the dark blue vest, the unmarked skin on his face. His hair pushed back from his forehead as if he’s run his hand through it only moments ago. Rinoa walked forward and sat beside his bed, her eyes still on his face and waited.
He looked so calm, and as she considered him, she realised he was the perfect ideal, something her mind would never of hoped to imagine, never dared. The perfect soldier, young, strong, she recalled his voice, full of authority, in control. Rinoa felt her heart sink; she had no chance with someone like him. She paused, admonishing herself. This was highly inappropriate, and since when had she even been considering that anyway? She shook her head, if she was honest, she knew she’d been hopelessly entangled with this man since the moment she’d heard his voice.
Rinoa reached out and touched his arm, her fingers ghosting over his smooth skin, feeling the muscles beneath. It made her shiver, and she moved her fingers gently down his arm before resting over his hand. She whispered his name, and watched his chest rise as his breathing changed from sleep to waking. He opened his eyes slowly, and Rinoa withdrew her hand slowly. He turned his head in her direction, and Rinoa found herself caught by his eyes, as they swept over her and gazed up into her own.
“I wondered when I would see you,” he said, looking up at her appraisingly, before sitting up slowly and moving back against his pillows with a wince. “Your father finally set you free?”
This seemed a rather odd comment to Rinoa, since this was the first time she’d heard he’d wanted to meet her. Her father didn’t have the monopoly over her life, she could have met him any time that she liked. Well, maybe that wasn’t so true. Her father must have been stalling this meeting then, it was the only explanation. Except it cleared up nothing.
“What do you mean?” Rinoa asked after her own thoughts had yielded nothing usuful.
“You father. General Caraway. I’ve been trying to meet with you for a long time. But he refused my requests. In the end I pulled rank and threatened to remove Balamb SeeD from the operation.”
Again, this only made things even more confusing. Why speak to her, if Squall could speak direct to the Generals, why bother going through a navigator?
“Why?” Rinoa asked, fully aware that her confusion was written all over her face. “Why did you want to meet me?”
She watched Squall shrug, as if none of this was a big deal. Didn’t he realise that she’d been pulled from her job for this? Was this just curiosity on his part? Or did he have a complaint to make to her face? She blushed at the thought of him declaring his love for her. That was stupid.
“Why not? You’ve been very important to me,” he replied. Not a declaration of love maybe, but it made Rinoa blush again all the same. Important? Her mind snagged on part of her comment however.
“Been?” she enquired. “I’m not anymore?”
“You still are, But I have something to ask of you,” Squall informed her in a matter of fact tone. Rinoa watched him closely, looking for injury. He seemed to be wound free, but was favouring one side, so the blow he had taken to his ribs was still paining him. But there seemed to be nothing visible.
“Alright,” Rinoa said. “Ask me.”
But like always, Squall meant business; there was no friendly chitchat to be had here. Even lying in a hospital bed, Squall was still working. His mind seemingly never switched off.
“Someone put that virus in the community. So far, no one has asked whom. Suspicious?”
“Very,” Rinoa agreed, nodding. In fact she’d been wondering the same recently. Nothing had been mentioned on the news, and the absence of anything had made it glaringly loud. Where had it come from?
“I’m going to need your help,” Squall informed her, shuffling slightly on his bed. He winced again, and then settled, his breathing a little faster.
“Yes, I’ll help you,” Rinoa replied before she could even consider what she was saying. She looked down at her hands, wondering what she was getting herself into and not quite understanding why she was so ready to trust him.
“Really?” he asked her, looking just as sceptical about her willingness to jump into danger with him, as Rinoa felt. “Your father won’t approve.”
Rinoa smiled to herself as she kept her gaze down and away from his face. She could hardly look at him, this man who had been a part of her dreams for so long. She felt as if every time his eyes met hers, she was falling a little more into insanity. There was no way she was every going to refuse to join him on this new mission, even if it meant leaving everyone and everything she had ever known behind. Squall was the only person she had ever admired, ever trusted, she’d follow him anywhere.
“I’m pulling my team out, Seifer, Irvine, Quistis, Zell, Nida and Selphie of course. We will leave the base in two days time,” Squall informed her matter of factly.
Rinoa nodded, but felt her heart sink. Quistis was coming to? Rinoa knew she lost her shine when she stood next to Quistis, and perhaps her disappointment showed on her face.
“They don’t know yet,” Squall told her, looking away and staring up at the ceiling. “It was you I was most concerned about.”
Rinoa felt her breath hitch. She looked up at him, and he seemed miles away in his own thoughts.
“Again, why me?”
“Because you’re the best navigator these people have,” he replied as if this was painfully obvious and she was trying his patience by asking it.
“Why does that matter?”
“Because we’re going back to Balamb Garden, and you’re going to teach my students how to become like you. Then, you’re coming with me,” Squall informed her, before he closed his eyes and his face became void of any animation. It appeared he’d reached the end of his strength right now.
Rinoa gently touched his arm once more, and his eyes opened wearily. There didn’t seem to be anything to say at this moment, and Rinoa simply allowed herself to touch him. He didn’t shy away from her, or tell her to stop, simply closed his eyes once more. He was real. At long last, the figure from the screen was real. Squall Leonhart, Commander of Balamb Garden was right before her, and he needed her help.
“I wont let you down,” Rinoa whispered, taking her promise to heart before she left him.
She looked back over her shoulder once before she walked out of the room. She had no idea what she had gotten herself into now, but for once, she didn’t feel afraid. Everyone would be well as long as she was with Squall, she trusted him with her life.