Disclaimer: I make no claim whatsoever to the characters or world of Final Fantasy VIII, which is the property of Squaresoft/Square Enix.
(A/N: This is a fic written for the 2021 Final Fantasy Fanfiction Challenge- Pandemic Edition, so please take this as a content warning: there will be pandemic-related themes, events and feelings in this story. If you read fanfic as a respite from current events and don't want to be reminded about covid (100% understandable), I would gently recommend giving this one a miss. Reader's discretion advised for such a sensitive subject. -colobonema)
Under the Mask
Time of Death: 0407 Esthar Standard Time.
She logs in the rest of the data and blinks away the dancing fuzzies that make her eyes swim. Numbers don't look like proper numbers any more, especially on the too-bright computer interface panels that line the walls in Esthar Northside Hospital. She's been awake for twenty-six hours now, and her shift still isn't finished.
Rinoa reaches for the antiseptic spray, wipes down the touchscreen—for the fiftieth, or maybe the hundredth, time today—and pulls a new pair of disposable gloves out of the box and over her fingers. The nitrile catches against her cracked, dry skin, pinching and dragging.
A buzz at her hip tells her she's needed back in the ER, and she obeys, leaden feet making their mechanical way back down the corridor.
Rinoa's standing, craning to see the stage, swamped by the heaving crowd of doctors, nurses, surgeons, anesthesiologists, hundreds of her coworkers all crammed into Deling City General Hospital's conference hall. There's a large paper sign taped to the doors: NO PHONES.
Doctor Kadowaki taps the mic, and starts to speak. No greetings, no preamble. No nonsense.
"You're all aware of the situation in Esthar, I'm sure. We've all seen the news reports. Later today, President Deling is going to announce his pledge to dispatch ten thousand healthcare workers from Galbadia as part of the pandemic relief aid deal. This hospital has been requested to send a minimum of eight hundred of our staff."
A ripple spreads through the crowd, murmurs that Rinoa can't catch. Kadowaki stares down at them.
"We're asking for volunteers. As young, fit and healthy as possible. Under-30s only. No asthmatics, no diabetics. BMI within a strict range. We want to take every precaution we can to avoid you coming back in body bags. For obvious reasons, we'll take no-one with dependents. No mothers, no fathers. If you sign up to go out there, you do it with a full understanding of what it means."
When the staff trickle out of the hall, there's a desk set up in the corridor. Rinoa joins the line and waits her turn. She signs up. She's young, she's trained. She wants to do her bit.
Her phone vibrates next to her pillow, three days later. The call is from a government official, one of the high-ups. His name comes up on Rinoa's phone as 'Dad', however.
Much like Kadowaki, General Caraway doesn't do greetings. He gets straight to the point.
"The list of volunteers comes through my office for vetting. You must have known that."
She props herself up in bed, pressing the phone to her ear. "I didn't really think about it. Sorry you had to find out like that, I guess."
"You're not going."
"Because you're my daughter, and I won't let you."
"So it's okay to let someone else's daughter go out there?"
"Rinoa, you're not going."
If appealing to his sense of fairness won't work, maybe emotional guilt-tripping will. "I thought you'd be proud of me. I want to help. It's awful in Esthar right now. Those poor people."
A long, icy pause. She's almost certain she can hear him grinding his teeth.
"I'm proud that you're a nurse. I'm proud that you're dedicated to your vocation. That does not mean I want to ship you off halfway across the world to some godforsaken, plague-ridden hellho—"
"That's not a very diplomatic way to describe Esthar, dad," she points out. "What was it Vinzer Deling called President Loire in the video-conference? Galbadia's Greatest Friend and Ally?"
"...Politics is not reality."
"Well, politics is your job. Mine is reality." She cuts off the phone before he can respond.
She can't remember what it feels like to smell something that isn't antiseptic, blood, or death. She can't remember not having red-raw hands from all the disinfectant and washing, or itchy hot cheeks perpetually moist under her surgical mask. She's worn one since the beginning of her career, of course, but never for this long. Not for shifts like these.
The fear she had that the virus would claim her doesn't play on her mind much anymore. She's too busy with her patients. She's tested every day, a swab inside her cheek. By her second week in Esthar, she was showing antibodies. No symptoms. She's been spared. Rinoa thinks Kadowaki was right. Being young, strong, and healthy has given her the best chance. Of course, she's still careful. Mask, handwashing, endless sanitizing. She veers six feet away from any Esthari she passes in the street, when she's walking the short commute from her health worker-bubble hotel to the hospital. They see the bright stripes on the hospital lanyard round her neck, and they cross the road to avoid her. She doesn't blame them. They've reason for their fear. She's a walking source of infection.
In the beginning she thought she might get to know her new Esthari colleagues, but there's never time for more than the bare communication necessary to get the job done. They're overloaded with patients, from morning to night to morning, and most leave Rinoa's care for the direction of the morgue, not for the upper floors of the hospital or for their homes. The other ER nurses seem nice enough, but everyone's working through a fog of exhaustion, and all they do is glide past each other while they race from task to task.
She's at the triage desk this morning, when one of the paramedic teams arrives. The taller man, the team leader, shakes his head at the triage nurse, and Rinoa knows they've brought in another patient who died en route.
Another one of the paramedics is standing near her. The one she always notices. Okay; the good-looking one. She only knows him as 41269. Esthari healthcare workers don't wear name badges, only numbers. A cultural thing, she guesses. Back in Deling City, she had RINOA HEARTILLY, NURSE on her lanyard. Heartilly, because she never wanted to use her father's name to advance her career. Now, she's a number.
Paramedic 41269 is... Well. Something about him draws her in, even from afar, but up as close as this she's at risk of making a fool of herself. She can't help wondering what the other half of his face looks like, under his surgical mask. Rinoa knows she's being shallow. It's just that the top half is so... promising. Intense blue-gray eyes under arrow-straight brows, and a shock of chestnut hair that somehow falls with aesthetic perfection across his temples, even though he can't have combed it for hours and hours. She knows her own hair is a mess, and knows with a stab of shame that she's selfish and vain to even be thinking about her appearance when death is all around her.
"Twelve," he says, and she looks around her in confusion.
"Twelve calls so far this morning. Not one of them still breathing when we got there."
To her surprise, he's speaking to her. There's no-one else in earshot. Maybe he just needs to unload. She meets his gaze over his mask, and it makes her heart thud a little harder. He's exhausted. He's seen so much loss that his eyes can't take any more in. She knows that look, knows it well. It's the look they all wear by the end of each shift.
He slips off one of his nitrile gloves to rub at his eyes with his bare hand, and Rinoa flinches. It's instinctive, ingrained now. Don't touch your face. Don't touch your eyes.
He notices her reaction, and gives the barest shrug. "Yeah, I know. Don't think it makes much difference, though, with the viral load I get exposed to all day long." He leans against the counter with sagged shoulders, and she doesn't know what to say.
She's rescued by her buzzer. "I'd better go," she says, and the paramedic nods without turning around.
Rinoa steals one last look at him before she goes back to the ER. She wonders how long he's been awake. He does eighteen-hour shifts, but this one's gone well into overtime. How many locked apartment doors he has smashed in this morning? How many grieving spouses has he left behind with instructions that they won't be allowed to attend their loved one's cremation, that the funeral will be video-link only, so they'd better say their final goodbyes right now... She knows she'll start crying if she thinks about it too much. The paramedics have got it worse than the ER nurses right now, she's certain of that. She wants to tell him something that will help, but there's nothing. No words. There never are.
Days and nights bleed into each other. She's not even sure which is night and which is day anymore; she spends it all under fluorescent strip lighting. She's always disoriented when she leaves the hospital and finds the outside world to be one of sunshine, or hammering rain, or pitch black darkness. It doesn't matter, really. The outside world is not her world anymore.
She's over in triage again when there's a commotion outside the doors, and then a group of people bursts through. The paramedic's there, Mr. 41269, making quick strides alongside a trolley holding a woman's limp body.
"She's still alive." His voice is harsher than she's ever heard until from him, until now. It's harsh with the pressure of hope, she realizes. He wants one, just one, to make it. When he lets go of the trolley, his eyes follow the patient until she's taken out of sight.
Rinoa's assigned to her bed, later, after she's hooked up to an IV and just about conscious. She's too far gone, though. They always are.
The patient is a frail, elderly Esthari lady with delicate features and a head full of baby-soft black hair, even though her ID puts her age at eighty-two. Her breathing is shallow, labored; she's not far off the end.
She's watching Rinoa closely as she checks the monitor.
"You're one of the relief nurses aren't you? The Galbadians?" Her voice is as weak as the rest of her.
Rinoa stiffens. She knows what's coming. Many of the older Esthari—some of the younger ones, too—can be somewhat... xenophobic. It's not exactly surprising. They're people who have spent most of their lives under Esthar's policy of global isolation, until President Loire opened the borders a decade ago. Some of them recoil from her on sight. Tell her they don't want to be touched by her foreigner's hands. Rinoa doesn't take it personally. It's not about me, she tells herself. None of this is.
"Yes, I am."
The woman raises one hand, fingers trembling in the air, and clutches at Rinoa's arm.
"You're doing a... a fine thing. Thank you... for coming all the way to Esthar. You're so young." Her words are punctuated by wheezes, the death rattle Rinoa hears day in, day out. "Your poor parents must be worried out of their minds."
"Mm," says Rinoa. It's not much of an answer. The real one, if she could say it, is hardly any better. My mother's dead, and my father tried to stop me coming here. Put a security freeze on my passport, and only backed down when I threatened to go to the press. We haven't spoken since.
The woman's hand slides down to cover Rinoa's. Her fingertips are ice-cold, and they feel like crumpled paper.
"I used to be a nurse, too. Long time ago now."
She pats Rinoa's hand, slowly, rhythmically. "It'll get easier, you know. Once you stop taking it all to heart."
"I don't think I can." That slipped out too easily. She's not being professional here. It's not about me.
"You're a good girl." Her patting has softened now, and she's stroking Rinoa's fingers. "A good girl."
There's something about her touch that reminds Rinoa of her Grandma Heartilly, dead and buried for fifteen years now, and Rinoa's welling up. So much for detaching her emotions. She'll never be any good at that.
She goes out for air as soon as the shift comes to an end, and the paramedic's sitting on the steps in the dark, staring into space. He doesn't acknowledge her when she hovers over him, but she lingers there anyway.
"Did she—" He gives up on the question halfway through.
"Yeah. She did. About an hour ago." He doesn't blink, but Rinoa feels the quiet sapping of his hope that one, just one, might pull through. "Sorry," she adds.
She takes a tentative spot on the step, sitting right next to him, breaking the six-feet rule, but there's no-one around to see them, no-one to tut in disapproval.
"She was... She seemed like a lovely lady."
Rinoa feels stupid as soon as the words are out. What a trite thing to say. Lovely isn't much good when she couldn't even help her, stop her pulse from fading away. Lovely or otherwise, none of it matters except the steady beep of the heart monitor. Until it Rinoa has to switch it off. And she always does.
The paramedic bows his head in his hands, not in grief, Rinoa thinks, but in weariness. He's depleted. Mr. 41269 is a man of deep resources, she thinks, or he wouldn't be in this job in the first place; but they're finally depleted, and he's running on empty. She is, too. She's been running on empty for a long time, probably ever since she stepped off the Horizon Line rapid train onto the sea-blue translucent platform at Esthar Northside Station.
He doesn't answer, so she does it anyway. She leans her head against his shoulder, and he feels warm, strong. He's the first person she's touched in a month who isn't dying.
It feels like coming up for air after drowning.
Her nerves are elated, blood is pumping in her ears, and she knows that if he gives her a sign—if he moved his arm down to her waist, or placed his hand on her thigh—she'd be kissing him wildly and tearing the shirt of his uniform off his chest, because to hell with it all. And there'd be embarrassment and apologies and an awkward stammered I-don't-usually-do-this afterwards, but it'd be worth it, because she'd have felt alive again, if just for one moment.
But there's no sign. He allows her to lean against him, though, and she stays there until she's almost sure she won't cry. She smooths down her scrubs, ready to thank him and go. Go to her tiny hotel room, bury her head in the shiny polyester pillowcase, and sob out the day's losses until sleep takes mercy on her.
He surprises her, though.
"D'you want a drink?"
The bars, the cafes, everything's closed. They've been closed for three months, and they might be closed forever. She blinks at him.
"There's... a vending machine." He gestures at the opposite wall, and she nods, embarrassed at her misunderstanding. Of course he's not asking her on a date. This isn't a world where people can go on dates, not any more.
She follows him and stares at the colorful array of soft drink cans, lit brightly from underneath. Esthari brands. She hasn't a clue what any of them taste like.
"I haven't got any—" She's not a citizen, and she doesn't have credit scan function built into her temporary hospital ID. There are some coins and notes in her bag back in her locker, but...
"I'll get it." He swipes his pass, and the vending machine bleeps dully. The paramedic points at the machine, and she knows she's supposed to make a choice. Rinoa settles on a can with some kind of citrus fruit pictured on it in garish yellow, and presses the button.
She slips her mask down to her chin, and uses the fingers of one hand to massage her face where the metal nose strip has dug deep into the skin, leaving angry red marks across her cheeks. He hands her the can, and turns away to choose his own. Rinoa sips. There's a rush of sourness, and tiny bubbles that stab angrily at her tongue, and it isn't all that bad, really.
She's thinking how nice it is to breathe through her nose with the damn mask off, when she realizes that he's drinking his soda too, which means... She spins around so fast that the soda sloshes out of the top of the can, a droplet of sticky foam plummeting onto her shoes.
His mask is down, and she can see his face at last. Oh, hell's chocobos. It's good. Exceeds expectations, even. A strong, sharp jaw, coated with a layer of late-shift stubble. His mouth is... Well, it's... nice. She's staring too hard at it now. Shit. Stop. Back to the eyes.
He looks at her, an awkward smile, as if to say yeah, so this is me, and she returns it. His eyes are dancing around her mouth, soaking up the details of her unmasked appearance, just as she is doing. He's not even trying to hide it, not really. Did that mean he'd been curious, too? Wondering what she looked like, under the mask?
The paramedic brings the soda can to his lips, and Rinoa still isn't looking away from his mouth. It's too late, she realizes, to stop herself from thinking about what it would be like to kiss him. She's already imagining it. She's doomed. A crappy sugar-loaded Esthari vending machine soda has doomed her. Dammit.
"Thanks," she manages to say, then remembers that she's said it already.
"Your shift over?"
"Yeah." He shrugs, and lobs the empty can into the recycling bin. "I'm gonna... you know. See you." He refastens his mask, and she does the same.
She watches him leave. If she was someone else, maybe she could have said it: Take me home with you. Maybe, just maybe, he'd have nodded, and they'd have stumbled into his apartment in the dark—wherever he lived—hands tugging at belts and zippers, and they'd be rolling around in his bed, and every single touch, every kiss, each frenzied thrust and blissful release would bring her back to life, and they wouldn't ask each other's names until morning.
He's gone now. She sighs, and crushes the soda can in her fist. That's all just a fantasy, and she's not here for that.
She hasn't seen him for a while. She hasn't counted the days. She's trying not to think about it.
Rinoa's talking to the triage nurse when one of the other paramedics, the blond one with broad shoulders, hurtles through the sliding doors and slams his palms down on the triage reception desk. There's urgency in his face, but against all odds, it seems to be the good kind. Something's happening.
"Turn on the TV," he commands. "Now. C'mon!"
The nurse at the desk fumbles at the control panel, and Esthar News 24/7 flickers to life.
It's a press conference, yet another one. It's not the President this time. The speaker is Doctor Odine, Esthar's Chief Scientist. He makes Rinoa's skin crawl, although she can't say why, but she knows he's a smart man. He's bobbing up and down on the podium, unable to contain his excitement.
—research team sequenced the virus, as you know, and since then—
The other paramedic, her paramedic, has followed his colleague into the triage hall, and he's gazing up at the screen along with all the others.
—unprecedented success in the trial of the vaccine. The rollout across Esthar will be immediate—
There's a gasp among the assembled nursing staff, one of shock, disbelief and dare-to-believe it triumph. A whoop and a cheer come from someone at the back, a burly porter, the one who always gives Rinoa a masked grin she can read from his thick eyebrows.
—stock of twenty million doses, and a further fifty million in production—
She catches Paramedic 41269's eye, and sees her own expression reflected back at her. Rinoa almost can't take it: all this hope, the suggestion that there might be an end in sight, that the deaths, the distancing, the masks might all be a memory one day, that Esthar could return to what it was before.
Her buzzer goes off, and she has to return to a patient, another one that slips away quietly without even waking. Rinoa feels nothing, only numbness, when she disconnects the monitor and shuts it off. Today might bring the first seeds of hope, but not for everyone. For far too many, it has come too late.
The paramedic finds her at the end of her shift, placing a hand on her upper arm, the smallest contact that makes her burst with longing for more, for him, and he has no idea of the effect he has on her.
"Need a drink?"
She chooses the same crappy soda, the one that she suspects is just citric acid and bubbles, and she watches with appreciation once again when he takes his mask off. He's objectively good-looking, she decides. It isn't just that she's desperate for human contact, starved of touch, eager for someone to latch onto in all this so she doesn't have to think about death for five blessed minutes. No, he genuinely is a fully-certified, stone-cold hottie. And he's looking straight at her, holding the can out towards her, and in this moment it feels like he's all hers.
"Thanks," she says. "It's... good news, isn't it? The vaccine?"
"Yeah. I mean, it'll take a while before we see major effects, but... It's a start." He sips on his soda, and looks at her thoughtfully. "Listen, um..."
"Rinoa." She was too quick just then. Sounded far too keen. Shit-shit-shit. He probably wasn't about to ask her name at all. Why did she jump in with it like that?
"Rinoa? ...Rinoa." He pauses, nods, as if he likes the sound of it. "Uhh, so... Squall. By the way."
"Huh?" She can't parse the sentence. She wonders if her brain has finally capitulated to exhaustion, and she can't understand words anymore.
"I'm Squall," he says in a barebones explanation, and she's embarrassed again, because she didn't realize that was even a name. Maybe weather-related names are big in Esthar. Squall. Storm. Hail. Blizzard.
"Oh. Sorry. Squall." Rinoa can't halt the smile that spreads at the privilege of letting his name spill from her lips. "So what were you going to say?"
"I thought, maybe... At the end of your shift, do you want to—"
"Yes," she says firmly.
His eyebrows draw together, befuddled. "...I haven't asked you yet."
"Whatever it is, the answer's yes."
Amusement flickers in his eyes, bringing a welcome warmth to their color, and he gets it. He gets it now that she's into him, without her having to make a fool of herself and say it directly. Thank fuck for that, Rinoa thinks. And the best part is, he's relieved. Because he's—holy shit, this is somehow actually happening—apparently into her.
"Okay, then." He half-smiles before taking another sip of his soda, and the way his mouth curls to one side makes her stomach fold in on itself.
When her shift ends, he's waiting for her by the lockers. She can't see his expression under the mask, but his eyes are keen and sharp, and they're on her. Only on her.
"Ready?" he asks.
Maybe it's okay to forget it all, just for a few hours. Maybe it's forgivable to stop thinking about all the loss and the pain and the people she can't help, and lose herself in excitement and desire and—hopefully, oh god she hopes this next thing is on the cards—blind lust.
"Come on, then." He looks at her over his shoulder, and the gleam of anticipation in his eyes tells her it's almost definitely on the cards.
She adjusts her mask, and for once she's glad she's wearing it, because otherwise the whole hospital would see her stupid, infatuated grin.
It's okay. It's okay to forget. It's okay to escape. She'll be back here in the morning.
When they're clear of the hospital doors, safe in the outside air and the secrecy of the dark, he reaches for her hand. She grabs it, eagerness for his touch bursting through her body like bubbles of laughter, and they're off into the night.
With huge thanks to LaylaEvercrest for launching this fanfic challenge, and to RydiaPryde for giving this story a much-appreciated beta read.
Details of the 2021 Final Fantasy Fanfiction Challenge- Pandemic Edition can be found in the FFN forum of the same name, or in LaylaEvercrest's profile. It would be great if FFN would let me post links, but… *grumbles*
(p.s. To all healthcare workers, everywhere… Thank you.)