On the back streets of Timber, if one knows where to look, or if one gets lucky (or lost), they will find a small bookshop tucked in an alley.

It's nondescript, a simple gold-painted name in the window that has faded to an echo of itself, a handful of books displayed beneath on plastic risers. It's hard to say if the titles ever change, and if they do, they're bland enough to be unremarkable in the rotation.

The building itself sits between an Esthari carryout restaurant and a lumber warehouse, and the placard on the blue-painted door flips erratically from open to closed, depending on the owner's whim. There are no set hours listed anywhere, no advertisements of sales or special savings- sometimes it stays open all night, sometimes when she's feeling flighty, it is closed for days.

The one constant thing is the electric scent of magic that hangs in the air, like inhaling stardust. On days when the sunlight hits just right, one can see the shimmer in the air, sparkling like the nighttime sky.

Customers are few, and mostly regulars, people come to browse or buy dog-eared paperbacks three-owners-old. She trades more than she sells; it keeps the middleman out, replenishing stock from estate sales and people downsizing their libraries, instead of having to deal with publishers trying to push their latest into her hands.

No one understands how she manages to stay in business, but Rinoa Heartilly (formerly Leonhart, formerly a lot of things), doesn't feel the need to answer those kinds of questions. It's no one's business but her own, and a couple of lawyers with email addresses that end in " ." The building is hers, in title and name, and there are no employees to worry about paying.

It's simply something to do, to fill up her days; free time is something she has quite a lot of, as the years pass, the clock ticks on. Timber changes with the seasons. Every time she catches her reflection in a mirror or her phone or a passing window, Rinoa doesn't think she's changed very much at all. Thinner, now, hard-won muscle of combat softened to more graceful lines, the product of yoga and walks around town- no sense in owning a car when one doesn't need to go very far to get where they want to be. Her hair is longer, still dark, bleached strands eons gone, grown out and finally trimmed off a lifetime ago.

Today, she lets it hang loose around her shoulders, a curtain of dark that is more comfort than annoyance. Mostly, she could have sworn there was an extra hair tie in her purse, but only came up with gum wrappers and receipts and her wallet, and resigned herself to the inevitable.

A copper bell, an antiquated impulse picked up at a flea market ages ago, hangs over the door, something to draw her out of idle daydreams or a good book (or a trashy magazine). It's served its purpose well over the years, chiming just as brightly as the day it was installed- although, it probably helps that not many people come barreling through her door these days.

The bell chimes now, though, and Rinoa doesn't lift her head from the book she's reading (skimming, really, a tawdry romance that had an amusing cover), doesn't even drop the loose strand of hair she's idly twirling around her fingers, knotting and unknotting as she reads.

"Let me know if you need help finding anything."

The footsteps don't proceed deeper into the store, coming instead her direction. With a sigh, she pulls a stretch of receipt paper to use as a bookmark, and sets the book aside to get up from her comfortable chair behind the counter.

It's only when she's halfway to standing that she finally realizes who's walked into her door; by then it's too late to stop the surprise from overtaking her features.


Thank god for the plank of wood that separates the two of them- she may have crossed fifty just the other week, but her heart rushes for a moment like she's seventeen all over again, like it does every time she sees his face, like she's still on the far side of a ballroom instead, drumming up her courage to make a move.

Fifty looks well on him, hair still dark save for a few streaks of gray he either doesn't care about or won't admit are there, one eye still the same shade as the sea at dawn. He still holds himself upright with the carriage of a SeeD, hands coming to rest lightly on the edge of the counter, spine straight; even the scarring that crosses the left side of his face and the milky white of that eye doesn't detract from the line of his jaw and the dark stubble there. He's either forgotten to shave, or he's been too busy to keep up with it.

Some things never change, and she wouldn't waste gil trying to bet in either direction. She knows him too well.

"I would have called, but-" A shrug, shoulders still broad in a dark blue overcoat. She wonders if it's Garden-issue, or if he's finally gotten some belated sense of style in the years since their divorce. "Your phone said it was disconnected."

"Oh. Yeah. I changed numbers recently. Too many people calling about a warranty for a car I don't have." Should she have given him the new one? No. It's no longer his business what she does, as long as the silver bangle stays around her wrist and the world doesn't try to hunt her down. "Sorry. You just surprised me, that's all."

"Sorry." An echo of her own, and that slight smile deepens for only a second, gone as quickly as it's come.

Rinoa waves off his apology. They're sorry about a lot of things, but she doesn't think any of them matter now. He wouldn't have come all this way if it weren't important.

The remains of any hope of this being simply a pleasure visit disappears as the silence stretches on between them- what she wouldn't give for the distraction of a dog right now, Angelo's years-gone absence an old ache in her chest that she tries not to dwell on.

If not a dog to distract, then the deep thread of their knighting, something she can read . She hasn't touched that connection in a long time, though, barricaded behind Odine metal and faded with years, with perpetual distance between Rinoa Heartilly and Balamb Garden, her obligations long since repaid in vials of blood, what makes her her stored in some file somewhere in Garden's archives.

Her gaze drops to his hands on the counter, ensconced in black leather gloves against the winter's oncoming chill. Beneath the left, she knows there's another wedding ring, one that doesn't match the one stuffed deep in her jewelry box at home.

Too long a silence, now, too much time to get caught up in old feelings. She feels compelled to break it.

"You can tell me what's going on, since I doubt you came here looking for something to read."

She doesn't know what she expects him to say, only that what comes out of his mouth is not even remotely close to anything on her list. Maybe something to do with Quistis, or Irvine, the last few remaining members of what was once their party.

She hopes it isn't Quistis, mentally bracing herself as he opens his mouth to answer.

"It's Ellone. I need your help finding her."