Cracked, dried earth shifted beneath her. A thick fog enveloped the air, leaving nothing beyond arm’s length visible. Storm clouds circled above like a black veil, blotting out whatever lingered beyond them—the stars, the sun, and anything that existed. Much like the rest of the world. Rinoa didn’t have an answer for any of it; the single truth she held onto was that she had to find him.
That thought alone was the key to surviving time compression. Shared thoughts and memories would link everyone together. Then they would find one another… somehow. The details weren’t clear, but neither was the plan to confront Ultimecia.
You promised me, Rinoa thought, almost tripping over her feet. If I needed to find you, that you’d be waiting for me. At our place. You’ll be there. I’m coming. I’ll find you.
How long had she been walking? Minutes or a lifetime? Maybe both. Within time compression, it was all the same. Rinoa discarded her worries in favor for the reminders of why she refused to die here.
She imagined Squall standing amidst a flower field, arms crossed and back to her. Petals swirled around them and the sun beamed within a clear, blue sky. And when he finally turned to meet her, they could embrace and confirm this was in fact real. They were alive.
“You’re late,” she believed Squall would say.
Rinoa chuckled. “Better late than never.”
The fog shifted and Rinoa halted. It parted to reveal the desert spanning to the horizon. Between that laid a body. Her eyes widened in disbelief.
It wasn’t a flower field, but they could transform it into one if their hearts chose to.
New life breathed into her steps. Rinoa held back a smile as she hurried to the lifeless form. Her heart thumped in time with her necklace beating against her chest. She found him. They could go home now. No need to linger in a nightmare—it was time to wake up.
“I didn’t mean to keep you waiting,” Rinoa murmured, “though I guess it was about time I saved you for a change of—”
Her movement hiccuped. Her eyebrows scrunched together. A tremble fell upon her parted lips.
This… this wasn’t right.
What should have been black leather and furs were instead navy blue linens. A jacket was amiss, revealing scars and bruises scattered across toned arms. No white shirt, no assortment of belts. But not all was lost; a gunblade lied several feet away.
Shuffling closer, Rinoa held her hands together and knelt before the body. Messy, blond hair replaced darker locks. She scanned the form, inhaled, and extended a hand to flip him over.
Lying before her was the ghost of a stubborn memory. She once looked upon him with a sense of admiration. A summer crush and nothing more. There had been a time when she feared for his safety and well-being, but that dissolved when he proved to the world how dangerous he was. It was in his defiance to stand against the sorceress, in his sadistic tactics, in his cold, dead eyes before he handed her over to Adel.
Why… are you here? Rinoa refused to utter.
Not a speck of her longed to share the same air as him. Guilt stung her heart; she didn’t wish suffering or death upon him, either. Rinoa kept one individual in her thoughts throughout her meandering. It wasn’t him. It never was going to be him.
She clamped a hand over her mouth. Did we mess this up? Did we not win? No, but we did. I remember… Ultimecia… she was dying. Or decaying. The next thought brought dread to Rinoa’s entire being. Or ceasing to exist.
Heartbeats clogged her ears. A foul taste coated her tongue and tempted Rinoa to vomit. Instead, she swallowed it down and examined the premise. Nothing but desert and darkness. No flower fields, no feathers, no blue sky.
Did you forget? She blinked and tears rolled down her face. Are you lost somewhere? I didn’t stop thinking about you. Not once. I was looking for you. I… maybe I’m not trying hard enough. Rinoa jumped to standing, brushed her legs off, and sighed. Maybe this is another illusion, just like everything else.
Rinoa shifted her weight and froze. Her dark eyes twitched about. The fog returned.
Where am I supposed to go? And how? Trembling fingertips clutched the rings dangling from her chain. Where are you, Squall?
Shuffling backwards, the heel of her boot thumped into the body she failed to forget. A groan sounded beneath her and Rinoa spun around with a gasp. He stirred and winced. A gloved hand rubbed at the faded scar carved into his face—an exact mirror image of the scar she grew used to.
Cyan eyes flashed open. Neither flinched from the locked stares. She confused his gaze for anger, but the longer they held eye contact, the more she discovered something else lingering there.
Something wistful, something distressing.
Empathy tugged at her heart until she returned to her knees. Rinoa didn’t dare touch him again; she wrapped her arms around herself to ease her nerves. The words caught in her throat, but she forced them out.
“Seifer?” her voice as dead as the world around them.
He blinked. His lips twitched. He spoke, yet Rinoa heard nothing.
It had also been dark back then, but an array of lights illuminated the dance floor. Chandeliers and lanterns alike mimicked the vibrancy of the stars scattered across the night sky. Deling City polluted the skies until only the moon was visible. No matter how many nights she spent in Timber, she treated the countless stars with a reverence only a deprived child cherished. She was determined to count all of them, only to fall asleep before reaching four.
But she was awake and alive that evening. Anticipation tingled to her toes, or perhaps that was the spiked punch she snagged upon arrival. Everyone celebrated, but Rinoa had motivation outside of crashing a party.
Seifer bragged about his elite skills and prowess during that elusive summer. They tangled in bedsheets and each other, wearing nothing but stray sunlight and smiles. Beyond the kisses, laughter, and gasps, they talked. For Rinoa, it was complaints of her home situation contrasted with the life she wanted to live. It paled in comparison to the luxury Seifer painted of Balamb Garden. He had his whole life figured out. All that was left was a SeeD test to ace.
“No sweat,” he said, that signature grin swept across his face. “I’ll be running circles around those amateurs and show them how it’s done.”
Rinoa giggled and basked in his confident energy. “I wish I could be like that.”
He shrugged. “You already are—just don’t know it.”
“Yeah, but I’m not a SeeD, silly!”
“Okay, fair enough, but I bet you could walk into Garden and act like you own the joint.”
“I… don’t know about that.”
“Yes, you can.” He scooped up her chin and gazed into her eyes. “I know you can, because I believe in you. Believe in yourself for once, Rin. And when you do, hit me up.”
She raised an eyebrow. “You mean that?”
“Pfff, uh, yeah! It’s not every day I bump into someone who can keep up with me.”
Rinoa whacked him. Seifer retaliated. They tumbled and laughed until they forgot why they started in the first place.
Her lips quirked over the recollection. Maybe this wasn’t what Seifer had in mind when he suggested she should contact him if she was ever in the area. Timber was borderline desperate and everyone agreed on the ludicrous, yet only plan proposed—Rinoa’s plan. Seifer would understand. He could help. In more than one way. A thought for later, though—Rinoa needed to secure a contract between Balamb Garden and the Timber Owls first.
Finishing her drink, she checked the thick crowd again. No sign of Seifer. She expected him to meet her upon arrival—he did invite her, after all. How else was she to meet with the headmaster, an arrangement Seifer promised for her?
Rinoa discarded her empty glass and wandered the edges of the dance floor. The evening was more of a drag than she planned. Once more her eyes drifted to the massive glass ceiling to fixate on the starry heavens.
She almost missed it. A blink and it would have been gone. Rinoa gasped—a brilliant shooting star flashed across the night sky and twinkled out of existence as quickly as it manifested. A smile warmed her lips. The rest of the ballroom danced and chattered, utterly oblivious to the marvel which unfolded. With a hum, Rinoa leveled her gaze and discovered she wasn’t the only one who witnessed the miracle.
He, too, stood on the outskirts of the dance floor, drink in hand and not a care for anything except the spectacle they both witnessed. Their eyes met and Rinoa giggled. Perhaps he could entertain her while waiting for Seifer. Upon approaching him, Rinoa forgot Seifer and focused on the man before her. Dark and mysterious, straight out of a silly romance book. But they weren’t in a book and she was determined to have at least one dance with him.
Maybe he’d even smile for her. Maybe he’d even like her.
A single drop met her cheek. Another teased her lashes. The third raindrop was lost to her hair, but it was the fourth one which drew her attention to the skies. The distant roll of thunder thrummed through the ground as the descent of rain quickened with an alarming intensity.
“We need to get out of here.”
She refused to acknowledge him. Why did it have to be you?
The dour, yet wary tone was accompanied by a hand skimming her arm. Chills raced over her skin. Once more she searched the area. Nothing but darkness and fog. No different from before.
“We can’t stay here.”
A half-hearted chuckled teased her breaths. “Where is here?”
Rinoa clutched one tight fist around her forearm. She allowed his fingers to linger, but she avoided his eyes.
“Hell if I know, but we can’t stay.”
Urgency lined those words, yet Rinoa caught the hint of fear. Had time compression tormented him to the point of forsaking his usual arrogance?
“Rinoa.” This time he tugged at her. “We need to—”
“I’m not going anywhere with you,” she blurted out.
Only the thunder and pitter-patter of rain interrupted the silence.
“Okay, look,” Seifer drew out with a huff, “I don’t blame you for thinking like that. Honestly? I wish I came to alone, but for fuck’s sake, we’re not alone. You… somehow found me, so I guess we’re just stuck together.”
“No, we’re not.”
Seifer heaved out an exasperated sigh and a string of profane mutters. The rabble turned coherent once he raised his voice again. “Yeah, you and me both. I like this as much as you, but we don’t exactly have an option—”
“My option,” Rinoa said, jumping to her feet and jerking her arm out of his grasp, “is to leave you here and find who I’m actually looking for.”
He didn’t object. Not when she turned her back, not when she walked away. When Rinoa’s steps slowed and she struggled to find any semblance of a path amidst the fog, Seifer called out.
“Unless you’re planning to use some of your sorceress hocus pocus, I don’t see you leaving any time soon.”
Spinning on her heels, she dared to face Seifer in the sweep distance. He forced himself to seated, bending one knee to prop an arm on. He dragged a tired hand through his hair and rubbed his eyes. Rinoa held her breath when he set his sights onto her like a hunter narrowing on its prey.
“I’m going to try this again,” he said. “We need to leave.”
Did he know something she didn’t? Was something awry in the time compression? Did they… not return to their world in the present time?
Rinoa wobbled on her heels and clenched her fists. “Seifer, what’s going on?”
To that, he laughed. Rinoa found some peace in that abrupt, yet horrifying sound—at least he hadn’t cracked. “Seriously? You think I know what the hell is going on in this fucked up world? Shit, I don’t know. I’m afraid if I tried to make any more sense of it than I already have, I’d do more damage than good.”
“Is this….” She tucked drenched hair behind her ears, stray locks clinging to her face. “Is this now?”
“What do you mean?”
Rinoa rolled her eyes. “Are we still lost in time compression? This… isn’t another illusion meant to torment me, is it?”
Nothing but the rain answered her. Seifer gingerly approached her. The danger in his eyes melted. Rain rolled off his jaw and soaked the layer of clothing he wore. He extended a hand, not close enough to touch.
“This?” he said. “This is real. I’m real, you’re real, all of this is. I’m not here to give you any more nightmares.”
Her eyes twitched between his face and hand. Drawing a deep breath, she eased her fingertips into his palm. Warmth greeted her there, as did a lively pulse along his wrist. Seifer closed his gloved fingers over her and squeezed.
But if I made it back to now, Rinoa struggled to comprehend, then why didn’t I find Squall? Why are you here?
“Rinoa,” his voice was a sweet murmur mixed with the rain, “we need to go.”
“But… no, we can’t.” She shook her head. “Not yet. I haven’t found him yet. He… we promised to find each other. He could still be lost out there. I need to find him. Seifer, I can’t leave until—”
She turned, but Seifer’s hold on her snapped Rinoa back into him. Gasping and stumbling, Rinoa glared at him.
“Let me go,” she snapped.
“We can’t go playing search party now,” he said.
“I promised I would find him—”
“Who the hell are we going to find here?!” He gestured to the endless expanse that was the desert. “We’ll be lucky if we can get out of here alive, even luckier if you can whisk us away with your magic, but it’s just you and me, Rinoa. If we go out looking for somebody—anybody—we’re good as dead.”
A void hollowed her entire soul. Every word in her mind stilled and lumped in her throat. The chill living in her body was thanks to either the rain or the dreadful realization that maybe she was the only one of the group who survived time compression.
All she imagined was that massive flower field and the bright sun and the wind drifting by. He waited for her there—he promised. She couldn’t back out now. Not after everything they had been through. And if he wasn’t there waiting for her….
I need to find him, Rinoa repeated to herself. He needs me. I can’t leave him out there to die.
Those hands sunk into her shoulders. She stared daggers through his chest.
“I can’t leave everyone behind,” she murmured. When he didn’t respond, she continued. “I don’t know where they are. We all agreed to focus on one thing that would bring us back to the present. I… remember all of us facing Ultimecia. We were together, then.” She struggled to bring her gaze to meet Seifer’s. “You haven’t seen any of them?”
He never responded, but the distant gaze in his eyes said enough.
Her shoulders fell. “I just… Squall told me where to find him. He promised me. I don’t know where he is. He could be hurt or scared or lost. And I know you don’t give a shit about him, but I’m not some heartless monster like you. I can’t… I won’t leave him.”
“It’s only us,” Seifer responded after a moment. “We’re here. We’re alive, for now. This is the present.”
Rinoa sighed. Her head fell. She clung to her rings—Squall’s ring.
“I’m not saying we can stop looking,” Seifer said, “but right now? We need to leave.”
“Are you for real?”
She dropped the rings and matched his stare. Rinoa expected rage to live there; instead, she found something more desperate.
“After everything I… what Ultimecia forced me to do?” He scoffed. “I wouldn’t be surprised if both Esthar and Galbadia would start a war over who got the lovely privilege to execute me. And you? You’re still a sorceress, Rinoa.”
“I’ve done nothing wrong.”
“You exist. That’s reason enough for some people in this world.”
She squinted. “How are you so sure of that?”
“Because people are fucked up and history loves to repeat itself. Doesn’t matter if you helped put an end to Ultimecia all by yourself—majority of the world would rather you be locked up and frozen just like Adel was.”
But Squall will find me, just like before, was what she wanted to say. Except Squall wasn’t here. She didn’t know where he was. Frantic eyes zipped about in search for anything that wasn’t Seifer.
“Can’t we just—” Her voice cracked. Maybe tears mixed with the rain streaming down her face. Rinoa couldn’t tell anymore. “We can track down Balamb Garden. Maybe they can help and set things straight and—”
“Really? That’s where you want to go?”
“They can help us.”
“The place that’s meant to hunt down sorceresses?”
“This is different.”
“How do you know?”
But she didn’t. And she loathed how he was right.
“We can’t be taking any chances,” Seifer added. “Our best bet is to lay low and wait for this all to blow over.”
“How….” Rinoa closed her eyes and focused on breathing. Every fiber of her being rejected this reality she was spat into. “How long will that take?”
“Fuck if I know, but we have to be in this together.” After a bout of silence, Seifer sighed and leaned in until they were eye level. “You hate me. I get it. Don’t exactly blame you, either. But I can’t do this alone and neither can you.”
“I sure as hell can try,” she grumbled in defiance.
He smirked. “Yeah. I know you will. But might as well try together.” Seifer licked his lips, despite the rain coating them. “I’ll be your knight.”
Rinoa jerked back, eyes wide. “I already have a knight. I don’t need you.”
“And where is your knight?”
Those words sliced into her and twisted. Rinoa trembled. The trepidation of the unknown tempted her to scream. Instead, she swallowed it down and submerged into silence.
“I’ll keep you safe,” Seifer said. “That’s what knights do. And when all of this calms the hell down? When you don’t need me anymore? Or shit, even if you find whatever it is you’re looking for? Fucking kill me for all I care.”
Thunder cracked above as lightning flashed across Seifer’s grim face. Those brilliant eyes of his struck through Rinoa, enough for her to find her voice again
“Together,” she said, faltering through the downpour. “For now.”
Water squeezed past the seams of her boots and dared to soak her feet. Rinoa glanced down; water pooled to their ankles and spanned past the fog and darkness.
“Come on.” Seifer nudged her along before scooping up his gunblade. “We need to get going.”
She stumbled to a walk and peered back to Seifer. “Where are we going?”
“Anywhere but fucking here.”
Seifer jogged by and Rinoa followed his lead. Intermittent lightning strikes brightened their blind journey. A shallow sea met them with every step. All of it faded as Rinoa threaded together what Seifer uttered upon finding him.
“What are you doing here?”