Disclaimer: FFVIII is still not mine.
Author's note: this was written for The Final Fantasy Pandemic Challenge started by LaylaEvercrest. Its main theme came to me while listening to I remember you by Skid Row, and it may have some concepts and images in common with the song.
Thanks to Layla for her challenge and her support. It means a lot.
Being a pandemic fic there will be angst. You've been warned. Also, I'm from Italy and I work in a medical environment, so this is heavily based on what happened here and my personal experience.
Finally, this is dedicated to all the parents that work in healthcare and decided to separate from their children to keep them safe.


The day it started is a blur for Squall.

He remembers it was a Thursday. He was on the sofa of their apartment in Garden, the tv on but just background noise, and Rinoa was half-sitting between his open legs and half-sprawled on his chest, thumbing through a book of baby names she had bought that morning in Balamb, as he gently caressed the small bump of her belly.

She had just said, "would you like Kiran for a boy and Lenna for a girl?" when the tv show they weren't watching announced an emergency press conference by President Laguna Loire.

He doesn't really remember what his father said. He just remembers numbers – cold, detached numbers blaring death and a seemingly uncontrollable disease spreading through Esthar City. Health authorities investigating. Hospitals swamped.

The days after that are a blur too, and his memory is all muddled around numbers rising so fast it almost seemed they skyrocketed, and countries closing their borders like in that videogame Irvine played once, during a mission.

He remembers an emergency meeting on Sunday, the culprit finally found in a particularly nasty mutation in Malboro's venom, making it able to infect the lungs and spread from victim to victim at a disconcertingly alarming rate. And just like that, a team of SeeD volunteers ready to leave for Esthar to exterminate the monsters.

Rinoa asked him why he volunteered, and he said nothing. But she felt, through their bond, his need to be there, his need to do something, to protect his family in such a weirdly contorted way he couldn't explain. He was doing what he could: fight back. He knew the enemy. He could take it down.

She felt the tenderness around his resolve, the love that fueled his determination, and she felt his desire to give their unborn child a world that was free of daily reports at six pm of people infected and people that could not make it. And she felt the tenderness and the love around that desire, too.

She made him promise he would come back. He promised.

She made him swear he would come back. He swore it.

She told him, "if you die I'll kill you," and he nodded like it made sense.

She didn't tell him I love you when he left, but she hugged him silently, letting him feel through the bond the baby that moved like a butterfly inside of her.

That's what he wants to remember.

Her love. Her gentle worry. Her silly but serious threat. His baby fluttering in her belly. The heartbeat that stole his breath away.

He will latch onto those memories and do his best to come back to her, unbroken.

His first patrol is in the Nortes Mountains.

He mechanically goes through security measures. He listens to the Estharian soldier teaching him how to dress properly, committing to memory everything that will avoid contaminating the clean clothes he wears underneath the equipment. He slips into every single garment wondering if it will be enough, or if he will be in the six pm numbers, one of these days. Just a number, forgotten, spoken about in the past tense.

One day he counts the garments he has to wear as armor. They are nine. The equipment he wears in the morning is hot, and heavy, and he sometimes feels like he can't breathe, and they cannot remove it until they come back, exhausted and sweaty, after twelve grueling hours of battle. They're not even able to undress, and he would be ashamed to need help with something so mundane as undressing if he didn't feel so drained. He downs a liter of water without even stopping to breathe, feeling his sweat in his eyes, and knowing he can't even rub them because he still has to wash his hands.

They say, think about a song. Wash your hands for the entire duration of the song. He closes his eyes, hoping he won't fall asleep at the sink, and starts lathering his hands thinking about Rinoa singing a rock song he loved, laughing, as they shared picnic sandwiches on a hidden beach in Balamb, their first summer together.

That's what he wants to remember.

Days turn into two weeks, and one evening, when he comes back from patrol, a soldier leaves a message for him on the table of the decontamination room. It's a number. The apartment he has been assigned into the soldiers' isolated residence.

It is small and dark when he enters, and it smells of bleach, and he tries to ignore the pang of loneliness in his heart. No Rinoa waiting for him, sometimes just come home from work herself. No Rinoa listening to him. Helping him. Supporting him. Loving him.

Dinner has already been served, in the form of ready meals he has to put in the microwave. Another long set of instructions waits for him on the kitchen table. He is tired. So unbelievably tired. The monsters are so many and so powerful, and so exhausting, and maybe it will be all for nothing.

Love you, flashes a message on his phone when he pulls it out from his pocket. He looks at the clock. It's three in the morning in Balamb. He shouldn't wake her up with his messages. He should dutifully wait, so she can rest. They agreed on messages, on two calls per week, because there's the time zone and she is pregnant and she needs her sleep. But he misses her so much that…

Ah, to hell with that. He has been waiting since coming to Esthar.

Love you, he writes back. Miss you.

In the kitchen, the microwave signals his meal is ready. He takes the phone with him and keeps looking at it while eating, waiting for it to light up.

It does.

You ok?

No, he's not ok, but he doesn't want her to worry. Yeah. Tired. Then, as an afterthought, he adds, what are you doing up? It's three am in Balamb.

Baby's moving. We miss you.

Then, before he can even think of an answer, the phone lights up again. It's a picture, this time. Rinoa in front of their bedroom mirror, clad in a white nightgown she keeps pressed under her belly with a hand. The bed unmade behind her. The sense of familiarity and longing that springs into him feels like a punch in the stomach.

Sleep tight. You deserved it. Love you. Be safe tomorrow.

He rubs his eyes, stopping abruptly before thinking it's ok, it's safe, he washed his hands before touching the food. He laughs, a little nervously, passing his thumb gently on Rinoa's picture, his little butterfly baby tucked in the small bump she shows proudly.

Will be. I promise. I swear. Love you both.

Maybe it will be all for nothing, but then he sees Rinoa's smile in the picture, feels his baby moving in his memory, and he thinks it will be for his everything, and for a minute, it feels ok.

One night he comes back to a computer and a webcam and a message from Laguna.

Sorry it took so long, son. Everything has to go through a strict security procedure. These are safe to use. The computer has already been set up with messaging software. Rinoa has already been alerted.
Be safe, son. Love you.
PS don't worry. This is not favoritism. Everyone else in the residence got one.

It feels a little unsettling, thinking that they called Rinoa and maybe scared the hell out of her when she's pregnant, but he favors the feeling of immense relief and gratefulness because he will be able to see and hear her voice again. He turns the computer on, not really expecting to be able to talk to her tonight. He contents himself with the pictures she is sending every day: her in front of their bedroom mirror, keeping whatever she's wearing pressed under her belly, to show her baby bump.

But when he finds the software Laguna mentioned, he feels compelled to launch it, and as soon as the loading finishes, a connection request flashes.

Incoming video call – Rinoa Leonhart Loire

He immediately takes the call.

"Hi," she says almost timidly, waving her hand at the camera. The smile falls almost immediately. "Hyne. What happened to your face?"

Yeah, maybe he should have thought this out a little more. In his eagerness, he has completely forgotten the set of bruises that adorns his face, on his nose, under his eyes, on his forehead.

"It's the security equipment. It's a little tight, and since I wear it for at least twelve hours every day, it leaves bruises."

Rinoa runs her fingers on her monitor as if it's enough to touch him. He closes his eyes, willing himself to feel her fingers on his face, as it happened so many times before. Her gentle fingers, cool with healing magic. He misses her so much it physically hurts.

When he opens his eyes again, he notices she has retreated her hand. He tries to lighten up the mood. "Guess I'm not exactly the best-looking guy here right now, eh?"

"You always will be," she says, before bursting into tears.

"Hey! Hey, don't cry. It's ok, really. They don't even hurt." This is a lie, because they hurt, they hitch, and in the mountains, when he's fighting Malboro after Malboro and all the layers of protective gear are so heavy and so hot and he feels like suffocating in his own sweat, they almost burn and the first thing he does after dutifully washing his hands is filling the sink and putting his face under the water, and relief is so sweet and so painful.

"It's the hormones," she wails, still sobbing. "This morning I cried because I cut a fricking strawberry," she says, trying to smile, to stop the tears with the heels of her hands.

He almost tells her not to, he almost cries don't touch your eyes before remembering that Balamb is free, and Rinoa is safe over there. Their baby is safe.

"Were you scared? When they called you?" he asks instead, painfully swallowing the lump closing his throat.

She shakes her head. "No. Laguna called me from his personal line and he immediately said he had a nice surprise. I couldn't believe it."

Good. He can stop be unsettled by that. "How are you, Rin?"

She sighs, moving her left hand to grab her mother's ring. Her wedding Griever shines in the moonlight, the blue stone they chose together almost ethereal in the dark of their bedroom. "Next week I have to see Dr. K. She says I can't wait anymore to do the morphological ultrasound. I…"

"You waited?"

"I hoped you could be here, by then." She shakes her head again. "I'll send you a lot of pictures if that's ok."

He decides not to dwell on her willingness to wait for him, or he may be the one crying. He is so tired. So emotionally devastated. All those useless deaths, all the things they could have done to prevent them, all the monsters they killed just a minute too late. All their helplessness, their fallacy, their ignorance, their inability to end this for good. He is drained. He is drained but he has to keep going on.

He shakes his head, too. "You can send all the pictures you want. I love them."

She opens her mouth, as if she's about to say something, but then she closes it again. She sighs, moves her hair on her shoulder, letting it cascade on her breasts in a motion that enchants him, and then she says, "we'll be able to know if it's a boy or a girl. Do you want to know?"

Yes, he thinks, because I may never be able to see my child.

"Yes," he says, "because we still have to decide on the name."

Day in and day out, he keeps silently waiting in a social distanced line in the morning, he keeps wearing unsufferable protective gear, he keeps slashing through fucking Malboros hoping it will be enough, he keeps getting his blood tested once a week, and he keeps getting back to a dark, silent apartment that smells of bleach, to ready meals that taste like sand.

One night, there's a message on his phone.

This is Dr. K. Check your e-mail before calling your wife. And tell her she has to rest properly. That girl doesn't listen to me.

Amidst all that's happening around him, Kadowaki manages to make him smile. He powers the computer on and opens his email, and finds a video file attached to a blank message.

It's Rinoa's ultrasound.

He watches his baby on-screen with teary eyes, a hand over his mouth, unable to believe it is his, theirs, made out of nothing into life. In the dark mess smelling of bleach and sweat and Malboro's guts his life has become, the tiny fingers of his unborn child, the movements he sees on screen, the features he can recognize are like the light on the brighter side of dawn. The spring breeze that unlocks summers. Oxygen for his scorched lungs, a balm for his bruised skin.

He feels Rinoa's excitement even before accepting her video call, and when she appears on his screen her smile is broad, and she is sitting cross-legged – as far as she's able to, at least - on their bed, caressing her belly. "Guess what?"

He smiles, too. "So, boy or girl?"

"We're having a boy!" She claps her hands, realizing it's three am a second too late. She giggles. "Whoopsie. I have to keep it down. Our neighbors probably won't share our joy."

Squall laughs, and the sound is so strange and so familiar, filling his apartment with a hint of life. "Dr. K sent me the video of your ultrasound. He's beautiful. Amazing. I can't-" His voice cracks a little and he falls silent, trying to regain his composure. "Hyne."

"Squall, love, look at me," she says, reaching out to touch his reflection on her monitor. "It's ok. It's ok if you're emotional. I cried too when I saw him." She giggles a little. "Ok, maybe this doesn't work, since I told you I cried over a strawberry last week. But I mean it. Please, don't feel like you need to hide something."

"It's hard," he whispers. "I didn't think it would be this hard when I volunteered. Down here it's…" Words fail him. He sighs, pinching the bridge of his nose. "It's hard, and I miss you."

"Do you want to talk about it?" she asks, gently, with the sweetness that is her, and her love, and her tenderness, and the bond they share but cannot use with an ocean between them.

"When I get home. Promise." He takes a page from her book and reaches his finger to the monitor, touching her face, touching her belly. His beautiful, amazing little boy is nestled safely in there, and he closes his eyes, feeling again his butterfly movements in his memory. "So, which were the names you found?"

She looks at him suspiciously but chooses to let it go. "Kiran for a boy, and Lenna for a girl. Kiran Leonhart Loire has a nice ring to it, don't you think? It means ray of light in Centran. We can search other names, though."

"Kiran is perfect," he says. A ray of light. The brighter side of dawn. The spring breeze that unlocks summer. Oxygen. A healing balm. "He will be our ray of light."

Rinoa smiles. "He already is." She rubs her belly, affectionately, giggling a little. "You like your new name, little one? …Ouch! Don't need to kick mummy so hard though!"

He watches, wanting to be there, to feel how hard his son is kicking, to engulf Rinoa into his arms and make love to her, lose himself in her touch, in her love, in the everhealing presence of their bond. His rays of light, his wife and his son. He touches the monitor again, and this time, when Rinoa looks at him again, she reaches out to touch her monitor too.

"Sleep tight. You deserve it. Be safe tomorrow, ok? Kiran and I love you."

"I promise. I swear. Love you both too."

The monitor goes black when she disconnects, and he keeps touching it for a few seconds. Then, he opens his email again, watches the ultrasound's video again. His Kiran. His strength.

Conflicting emotions twirl into his chest. He's grateful because Dr. K sent him the video. He's grateful because Rinoa is understanding. He's grateful because weeks of grueling battles have still not led him to a positive test. But he also feels guilty because he's thousands of miles away from his wife and his son. He feels guilty because there are hundreds of people dying every day and he has just seen his son, chosen his name, like a normal couple expecting a child would do. He feels guilty because this hope, this happiness, this feeling of wholeness is so precious. He feels sorry because he knows his father didn't have the chance to see him, twenty-five years ago.

He doesn't know what do to with these feelings.

He stands up, throwing the package of his meal into the trash, and opens the little window in the kitchen. The frigid air from Esthar's desert cools his mind, but there's no silence, there's no dark, outside. The night is interspersed by the ambulances' lights, flashing red and blue in their rush to the hospital. The sirens are almost deafening. Looking at the horizon, he sees his next patrol's destination: the West Coast. He wonders if Irvine and Zell are looking out of their window as he's doing. He hasn't talked to them aside from sparse emails with even sparser reports about zones secured and monsters killed. He'd like to.

It's ironic, because being alone is exactly what he wanted when they met, and now it's the last thing he wants.

He closes the window, turns back to the computer to shut it down, but then he opens the email again, clicks on forward, and starts typing. The conflicting emotions are still there, but there's something he can do about one of them.

Hi Laguna,
there's a video attached to this message. It's Rinoa's ultrasound. We're having a boy. I just thought you would like to meet your grandson.
I'd like to speak to Irvine and Zell. Can I have their contacts?
And maybe we could talk sometime, too.
Be safe.

Days turn into weeks again, and one day he is on the truck that takes his team to the West Coast when one of the soldiers says, out of the blue, "tonight my son woke up from a nightmare. He said he thought we would all die."

Everyone else in the truck listens silently as the man starts recounting his son's dream, how torn he felt because he could not console him, he could not even hug him, because he was too scared of infecting him. He says he has nightmares too, and every single head in the truck nods, because they may fight valiantly during the day, with their protective gear and their fearlessness, but when they come back they are just men and women, and they know they just cheated death for a day more, but nobody knows what will happen tomorrow. And when they come back they just hope against hope their next test is negative, and they talk to their wives and husbands and children through messaging software, hoping it will be enough to protect them, to shield them, hoping their wives and husbands and children will understand this is just out of love.

When the soldier is done talking, shaking with sobs, the man next to him just moves a little closer, extends his arm, and silently, gently squeezes a quivering shoulder. It's nothing, and it's not enough, but in their world, right now, it's almost too much.

Squall watches, thinking about his rays of light and hoping they will understand he does this out of love, out of the desire to give them a world where not even bad dreams can disturb their happiness.

He hopes he will be able to tell them, too.

That night, when he comes back to his bleachy apartment wanting nothing more than his nightly talk with Rinoa, he sees he already has a message.

He opens it and his heart stops.

This is Dr. K. Rinoa won't be able to talk to you tonight. She's having contractions. I'll try to stop them and I'll keep her in the Infirmary for good measure tonight.

It can't be. It's too soon. She's just past eight months, his little boy can't be this eager to be born. He checks the timestamp of the message; five hours ago. Maybe she's ok now. He knows it's three am in Balamb, but he's worried. And tired. And he needed to hear her voice tonight, and if he can't do that he wants at least to know she's ok. To know their baby's ok. He needs his rays of light to keep fighting.

How are they now? he types. It's too soon.

Well, thank you Commander Obvious, comes the reply a few minutes later. That's exactly why I tried to stop the contractions. She's in labor now.

He swallows. Too soon. Too fucking soon. What do you mean she's in labor?

He sends the message before realizing how stupid it sounds. He can almost see the doctor shaking her head and say eh, what do you think I could mean?

That's exactly what she writes.

Sorry, I'm just exhausted, he sends, pinching the bridge of his nose. He hoped he could be home for his son's birth, but apparently, his son decided to come out sooner than expected. He shudders. Ellone said he was a preemie, too. And Raine…

Yeah, I know, sends the doctor. She's fine, as much as it can be expected for a woman in labor. She keeps bugging me about writing to you. But don't worry. I'll take care of her.

Thanks, doc. He puts the phone down, sees the ready meal, but his stomach is knotted so hard he doesn't think he will be able to even drink.

She wants to tell you to be safe tomorrow.

Squall smiles, feeling like crying. He slouches on the chair of his tiny kitchen, puts his head into his hands, and thinks back to the soldier, that morning, the pain he felt because he couldn't hold his son, and he understands now, and he wishes there was someone, next to him, extending his arm and squeezing his shoulder.

Tell her I promise. Tell her I swear. Tell her I love them both.

It's three am in Esthar now, and there is still no news from Dr. Kadowaki. He just keeps tossing and turning in his bed, checking his phone every so often to see if maybe the doctor sent an update.

He keeps remembering the soldier on the truck, crying over this strange world in which you can't hug your loved ones and be safe has become the most usual way to say I love you, don't die on me. He tries to clear his head, tries to sleep, tries not to worry, but nothing works. He is truly restless.

He gets up, figuring a glass of water may help. He opens his kitchen window again, and the night is full of sirens, full of red and blue lights. Down on the road, a convoy of army trucks is slowly approaching the outskirts of the city. There are so many he can't even see the beginning of the line.

He swallows.

He knows what they are. Laguna warned him, yesterday night.

He closes his eyes, trying to delete that image from his brain. Trying to think of happier times. Safer times.

Rinoa singing his favorite rock song. The feeling of her thighs, soft and warm under his head, as he lies on their secret beach, in Balamb, her fingers through his hair. The way her back feels against his chest, as she caresses his leg after making love. The way Angelo sprints in their flower fields and they all laugh, trying to keep up with the dog. The smell of flowers. The smell of the hot milk cake she bakes every other week. Quistis' herbal teas. Zell's Triple Triad messy strategy. Irvine's mischievous smile when he has love advice for someone. Selphie's love for Trabia. Nida's smile every morning when he salutes him. Xu's precise, strictly to-the-point reports, because she likes to sneak in a game of cards at least twice a week. His father's awkward smiles and pats on the back that usually end with leg cramps. The way Kiros shakes his head when it happens and then interprets Ward's shake too. Movies nights with the gang. Rare, casual talks with Seifer.

He opens his eyes, looking at his palm and his wedding ring. He whirls it around with his thumb until Griever looks back at him. He is a lion, now, strong and proud, because he is not alone. He has fought loneliness and won.

And he can still win, destroy the loneliness that surrounds him now, in a foreign nation, with foreign people fighting beside him, with the night filled with sirens and lights, and a convoy of coffin-filled army trucks going out of the city to bury the dead.

He will win.

Fight hard, and the battle is yours, sings Rinoa in his memories. His mantra.

Happier times. Safer times.

That's what he wants to remember.

It's seven am in Esthar when he groggily gets up again. He immediately checks his phone and a message greets him.

Congratulations, Squall. You're the father of a healthy baby boy.

A kind of love blooms in his chest, and another kind tugs a little. How's Rinoa?

Resting. They are both fine. Kiran is already breathing on his own. Rinoa said he's your little lion.

Squall laughs in the middle of a tiny sob. Thank you for everything, doc.

You're very welcome, my boy. Congratulations! I'll send an update on their condition later. Be safe. That's both from your wife and me.

Out of his kitchen window, as he leans against its frame with a quick cup of coffee before heading out, the sun rises over Esthar City, and the blue buildings make the light softer, almost magical, almost dreamy.

The brighter side of dawn.

He remembers his wedding, when Rinoa grabbed his hand to guide him to the beach behind Edea's house. The scent of flowers drifted there on a light, late-summer breeze, and she was laughing, holding her cerulean skirts with one hand to protect them from the sand.

There's a tradition in Timber, she said, watching him with sparkling eyes. Newlyweds write promises in the sand and let the waves wash away their words. The sea will protect their promises.

They wrote their promises, the most earnest they could think of and let the sea protect them. They kept writing promises in the sand for their entire honeymoon, sometimes laughing, sometimes deadly serious, sometimes mischievous, sometimes innocent.

He lets the exhilaration of those days wash over him again, as the truck drives his team to the West Coast. He lets the happiness from those promises surrendered to the sea invade his mind. He lets the deep love he felt and still feels stretch in his soul. He didn't know he could love someone like this, with such depth, such intensity, such abandon, but he does, and there's Kiran now, and the sea protects his promises, and he knows what he has to do.

Love promises in the sand. His lioness. His little ray of light.

That's what he wants to remember.

That night they're almost ready to go back to Esthar City when they're ambushed.

He immediately recognizes the soldier whose son had a nightmare, the other night, and his eyes widen when he sees the turtapod's sharp claws tear his protective gear open. His scream is muffled in his helmet, and Squall dashes forward, trying to warn his unknown comrade, when a Malboro tentacle slaps the soldier's exposed skin.

Fuck. Fuck, fuck, fuck.

He summons Eden hoping he'll be able to assist his other comrades, who are already in position to defend them from the attack, as he tries to help the injured soldier. He presses the emergency button on his gear and hopes the rescue crew will be on time.

He grabs the uninjured arm of the soldier and drags him toward the beach, begging Diablos to protect them from other enemies. The hand of the soldier grips his bicep, and his eyes, behind the protective helmet, are so full of pain, of despair.

"I'll use Odine's antidote," says Squall, wondering if the man can understand through his suffering. "It will hurt. But it will buy us enough time." He's not sure it's true, but for once he feels reality is too horrific to accept it as it is.

There's a trickle of blood on the corner of the soldier's mouth. "Y-you… you are the p-president's son, right?"

Squall nods, opening with trembling hands the small vial, cursing the security gloves that makes everything slippery. The light-blue liquid pours on the soldier's injury and the man doesn't flinch. Squall knows, without the slightest doubt, that the soldier is too far gone. He vaguely wonders how his son will feel, knowing his father fell in battle without being able to hug him when he needed him the most.

"T-thank you," says the soldier, as the grip on Squall's biceps becomes lighter, weaker, more frantic. "For f-f-fighting."

Squall shakes his head, there's no need to thank him. He presses again the emergency button, once, twice, more frantically now, because the soldier is dying and the vial is not working and he swears to Hyne he won't let him die like that.

"M-my ID is 41269," says the soldier, and Squall feels something hardening and shattering into his chest. They're both fathers. They share the same ID number. He could be the next one lying on the battlefield, dying, sharing his ID number to an unknown comrade so they will be able to bury him properly.

That Malboro is so fucked.

He casts every Esuna he has, pushing Eden's and Shiva's and Diablos' magical force behind the spells, and then he literally bombards the soldier with Curaga and Regen spells to fight off the bloody venom.

The soldier hisses in pain every time a spell hits him, but Squall is relentless, merciless in the way he tries to wrestle this man from the grasp of death. "C-can't use your magic. Save them-"

"I'm not letting you die on your son," he says, with the fierce determination both of a son and a new father.

The soldier closes his eyes and swallows, and a tear mixes with his sweat. "T-thank you."

Then finally the emergency crew is there. Squall watches as they gingerly put the soldier on a gurney, inserting an IV with a powerful antidote. He hopes the man will be ok. He hopes his son will be able to see him again.

Then he turns and charges a raging Renzokuken against the Malboro until it's just a messy pulp of stinky guts and venomous blood.

As his comrades around him catch their breath, a collective sigh of relief filling the silence, he turns back to the beach, falling on his knee, breathing so hard his lungs feel on fire. He still feels the broken pieces in his chest, and he doesn't know if he will be able to pull them back together. If he'll ever be able to hold them together. He thinks he'll manage, maybe. It still hurts like a bitch.

He doesn't want to become a number whispered on the battlefield to the comrade that happens to hold his hand while he dies. A number among other numbers at six pm.

He writes Kiran in the sand. The ocean fills the indents of the letters, and the name of his son becomes a love promise for the sea to protect.

He writes 41269 in the sand. The ocean wave that crashes on the beach gently washes it away.

For his son. For his unknown comrade on the verge of death. For himself.

May the sea protect them all.

When he stumbles in his awful, isolated apartment, that night, still broken and shattered, his eyes immediately search his phone.

The little green light that greets him feels like a lifeline.

In the dark, he sees a few texts, but there's an image and it's the first message he opens.

Rinoa is smiling at the camera, holding a little bundle of yellow fleece blankets, and his little boy is even more beautiful and amazing than he was in that ultrasound's video. He is so perfect. Rinoa is so perfect.

There is a moment of complete silence in his soul, like everything in him is now bracing for impact.

And then love explodes in his heart. It feels like he is healed, and complete, and all the tiny pieces that got shattered just an hour ago are glued back together by an invisible force and the pain and the despair and the guilt are out with the first sob that racks his chest. He falls sitting on the apartment floor, unable to tear his eyes off the picture of the loves of his life. His lioness. His little ray of light. His meaning.

This is why he came to Esthar. Because they are his and he is so theirs he can't have meaning without them. And he swore to protect her, protect their children that day, on Winhill's beach, when the sun was still nice and warm and Rinoa looked like a bride again with her ivory dress at sunset and the tide called for love promises written in the sand.

He remembers, and he learns the depths of his love, and tears are burning his unrested eyes, and sobs are painful on his lungs, yet he has never been so happy in his entire life. This is his meaning. This is what he meant, when he swore himself to her as a knight at seventeen, as a husband at twenty-three, a wild promise and a mature one.

And then there's guilt again because he is on the floor of his apartment crying over his newborn son and the soldier with the same ID he has is currently fighting for his life in ICU, if they managed to find a bed. And maybe he didn't do everything he could to save him, maybe he did something wrong, maybe mercilessly straining himself with magic on the poor soul was useless. And his son will lose his father nonetheless, maybe he already did, as he cries for his newborn little lion on a solitary floor that smells of bleach.

He looks at the picture again, caresses it again. He feels so whole when he looks at it, so finally at peace, and yet he feels guilty and hollow too.

Kadowaki's caption is so perfect, though. Seriously, you need to tell me how you get her to listen to you. I told her no phones were allowed and she kept pestering for a picture. The things I do for you, Squall.

The things she does for him. Squall gets up and washes his face, then he goes back to retrieve his phone, looks at the picture again. The things Dr. K does for him. And then, it hits him – Dr. K will know. She will listen. She always did, even when he didn't talk.

The phone rings once, twice. Then there's static on the line, something falling to a floor in Balamb, a muttered curse, and her voice answers groggily. "Kadowaki speaking."

"Dr. K," he says, and she can't continue, his voice strangled, his breathing labored.

"Squall?" she asks. "Hyne, Squall. It's three am in Balamb."

"I know," he says, with a kind of rough voice he doesn't even recognize. "It's just… I saw the picture."

There is silence on the line, then static, then, "I'm happy for you, Squall." She is almost soft, almost tender, different from the doctor that berates him when he's reckless, different from the tired sarcastic doctor that answered his messages yesterday night. And he is different, too.

An entirely new kind of love. A well-known kind of guilt.

"Dr. K," he says again, and then he is silent, and she listens, she waits. A lot is being said in Squall's silences, she knows. "Thank you," he says, a voice so small she may have imagined it. "Thank you so much."

"It's my job, Squall. No need to thank me." She is still waiting, though, like he did when he saw the picture, bracing for the impact of his love. "But I bet you didn't wake me up at three am in the morning just to thank me. You could have done it with a message."

"Yeah," he whispers, and in his memories, Rinoa says we can't read your mind, Squall. So ironic that she got to read his mind, in the end. And the way she loves him anyway is both the most humbling and the most inspiring experience of his entire life. "Dr. K, what…" Suddenly his throat feels scorched, like the venom spread through him too. "What do you do for Malboro's venom?"

"The mutated kind?" she says, voice low, and he almost can see her eyes narrow at him.


"I suppose you have a vial of Odine's antidote?" she asks, and he hears, on the other side of the line, the rustling of fabric.


"You need to take it immediately. On the double Squall – no time to waste-"

"It's not me," he says, and he hears Dr. K sighing, in relief, maybe, and it feels so wrong to be relieved that someone else has the venom in his system. "It's a soldier – got hit today – we were just about to come back and he was hit on naked skin and-" He swallows. He wonders what she thinks of the soldier having naked skin to be hit, but she's a military doctor, she has seen war, she has seen battles, she has cured injuries and closed the eyes of the dead. She knows it's nobody's fault. "I tried… I just want to be sure, Dr. K."

"Tell me what you did to save him." She does not berate him for being reckless, not yet. She'll reassure him. Then, she'll unleash.

"Poured Odine's vial on the injury. Then I used all the Esnas I had. And then Curagas and Regens."

"You did everything you could, my boy."

"But he didn't flinch." Squall sits heavily on the floor, rubbing his eyes. "When I poured the vial, he didn't move. When I used the magic, he hissed in pain."

"Still, you did everything you could. If he lives, it's thanks to what you did for him." Since Squall says nothing, she tries to get the message through his thick, stubborn head. Sometimes she thinks that's why he fell in love with Rinoa. They are both stubborn as hell. "Malboro's venom is the most dangerous poison in the world. You know that. The mutated kind is even worse. You did what you could, Squall. Battles are like this. It's no use to think about what-ifs. Learn the lesson and be a better fighter tomorrow. I know he's not blaming you. He's thanking you."

This does little to ease his guilt, but he shrugs, and the lump in his throat is not so painful anymore.

"When's your next test, Squall?" asks the doctor.

"The day after tomorrow, 6 am Estharian time," he answers.

"Try to have it done tomorrow. And if you test positive, Squall, I swear to Hyne I'm going to give you an earful when you're back in Balamb. You're a father now. I didn't spend last night delivering your son for you to get Malboro's venom in your body."

Squall laughs, a little sheepishly, but he sobers up when he hears the doctor scoff. "It's hard down here, Dr. K, I'm doing my best but everyone tests positive sooner or later. I've just been lucky until now."

"Yeah, keep being lucky then. Your wife needs you. And your son too. You get back here healthy and in one piece. And no more guilt, boy. You did everything you could for that man. Don't let what happened today taint your happiness now. Do it out of love for your family. Out of respect for his."

Squall sighs, lets the words hit him. Out of respect. Out of love. But what he did, on the battlefield, has been out of love too. A distant, not really comprehensible love for a scared child that's out there, having nightmares that will get even worse now. Because it could be his own child, one day, having nightmares over a father that can't hug him. He did it out of solidarity to a comrade that fought valiantly beside him, a fellow fighter that didn't deserve it. "We have the same ID number." He falls silent, and Kadowaki is silent too, waiting for the rest of the story with bated breath. "There's an unspoken rule, on the field. If you die out there, you can't be buried like everyone else. You'll be buried in protective gear. Nobody can risk taking it off you." He swallows, trying to sum up the courage to say it out loud for the first time since he came to Esthar. It hurts, and at the same time, it is healing. "The first day I went on patrol they told me that soldiers have agreed to tell their ID number to the nearest comrade if they're dying on the field."

Kadowaki makes a sound, a sharp intake of breath, maybe, a sob over the atrocity of such a situation, a gasp over such a code of honor for soldiers, a sigh for the trauma these men and women are enduring. Maybe all these things together, and many others he can't recognize and she can't explain.

"I was his nearest comrade." His voice feels hollow, the lump in the throat is coming back, and the pieces that the picture glued back together are threatening to dissolve again. "He told me his ID. It is my ID, too. For a moment, it felt-"

They are both silent, static taking the place of the words they cannot say. Squall knows Dr. K understands. She always did, even when he was a broody teenager needing her guide to lead the Garden that had been thrust upon him. Needing her guide to navigate through his complex emotions. She said nothing during those days with Rinoa asleep in the infirmary, but she knew, and she always squeezed his shoulder, passing by, to let him know she did. She understands now, as she says nothing, that for a moment, on the battlefield, he felt lost, and his hope to come back to Rinoa unbroken is completely shattered.

"What if I'm the next one, Dr. K?" he says under his breath.

She is silent for long, and he thinks he won't get an answer. Not that he needed one anyway. But then she takes a deep breath and says, "you fight hard so you won't be. You never escaped danger, Squall. You always conquered it. Stick to your guns."

He nods, knowing perfectly well she can't see him, and knowing perfectly well she's picturing him doing so. "You sent something worth fighting for," he says, and she makes a sound, like a vocalized smile. "Please, don't tell Rinoa. She'll worry about it and-"

"Can't have her worrying now. I know. You can call me if you need to vent."

He closes his eyes, nods again, feels she's being his guide, his unfailing mentor again. In all these years, she has been the person that respected his silence the most, because she is the one who has really learned to listen to it. "And… I know she can drive you mad, and I know you've done so much for us, for me, already. But could you please… just… damn," he curses, pressing two fingers on his closed eyes. "I need to see them. And now it's…"

Kadowaki sighs. "One photo per day. That's all. The phone interferes with our medical equipment. I'll relay every other message."

Silence. Static. Comforting sounds for his damaged soul.

"Thank you," he says, and he pictures her nodding, her gray hair pulled in a tight bun. "Can you tell her something, then?"

"Which part of 'I'll relay every other message' was not clear?" Squall smirks, shakes his head. His unfailing mentor can do sarcasm to prove her point when the mood strikes her, and apparently, the mood's striking her now.

"Tell her I wrote Kiran in the sand, today. She'll understand the meaning."

"Will do. Be safe tomorrow, Squall."

And just like that, he feels like a comrade slid closer, silently, gently squeezing his shoulder.

Log into the software tonight. We're back home.

He launches the software almost trembling, knowing fully well what he'll see. Ten days of daily pictures have not prepared him for this.

"Hi. Finally!" she says, gently rocking against her breast the little bundle she's holding. Squall feels his heart beating so fast he's almost dizzy. "I missed talking to you." She looks tired, but her eyes sparkle. "I'm so happy you can finally meet Kiran." She moves her eyes to the baby, cooing. "See, there's daddy. Say hi to daddy," she whispers, gently raising the baby's tiny hand, and Squall feels something exploding in his chest, because this is the first time someone calls him daddy. And the feeling is so precious, so unbelievable he almost forgets to breathe.

"Hi Kiran," he says, his voice cracking, raising his fingers to touch the monitor. She immediately moves closer to her monitor, so he can see the baby better, and then she raises her fingers to distance-touch his. "Hyne, I miss you so much." This love that keeps exploding and expanding in his chest feels so raw, so unfinished when they're miles and hours away from him. He needs her to define his feelings, to define him as a knight, as a husband, as a father. He is terrified of the things he won't be able to hide, through their bond, but he can't wait for its healing presence, the way her magic hums musically into his soul, the way her love sees every crevice in his mind and pours adoration in them. Rinoa dotes on him, and sometimes he feels like the sky's wrapping around them alone, glittering with stars.

"We miss you too," she says. "Kiran loves sleeping in your leather jacket." She giggles a little, lowering her fingers to let him see the baby. "I don't know if it helps, but I want him to get used to your scent. So I wrap him into your shirts or let him sleep on your jacket."

It's endearing, thinking his son is sleeping in his clothes. "I can't wait to hold him."

"…Squall, I… please don't misunderstand, but… when do you think you'll be able to come home?" she asks, moving Kiran to nurse him. "I know why you want to do this, but…"

"It's ok. I understand." He racks a hand through his hair, trying to regain his composure. "We're doing a patrol tomorrow on the West Coast, to be sure there are no Malboro offsprings. Then we'll move to the Great Plains. This will be the last area. We think we'll be able to eradicate Malboros from there in about six weeks. At least we hope so. Meanwhile, a monitoring group will check all other areas again."

"Six weeks, then?" she asks, caressing the baby's head.

Squall nods. "Esthar army and SeeD will join forces for the last area. I think six weeks is reasonable enough. My job here will be finished."

She nods. "Promise me you'll be safe?"

"I promise and I swear," he answers, touching his heart. "You don't have to worry about me, Rin." He sighs, wondering if telling her it's a good idea. Then he looks at his son eagerly suckling, at his wife's tired but beautiful, luminous face, and he decides that yes, it's a good idea. "Kadowaki told you, right?"

Rinoa smiles. "She was so dumbfounded, I cried for half an hour when she told me. It was… so sweet of you, Squall. I loved it."

"I wrote my ID, too."

She covers her open mouth with her hand, her eyes full of tears. "For us?"

He nods. He doesn't think he would be able to lie, and he doesn't want to tell her the story of the injured soldier yet.

"I think I just fell in love with you all over again," she says, smiling, a tear slowly sliding on her cheek. He blushes a little and she giggles. Her husband and her son will be protected by the sea. Everything will be fine. Then she sobers up, and she asks, "what did you write on our wedding day?"

He looks at her face, at the way the light softly glows on her skin. His son has fallen asleep, and Rinoa pulls her bra and shirt back in place. "I wrote I'll be waiting for you in Centra, but then, when we were in Winhill, that day at sunset, I wrote I'll protect you and our children." He shakes his head, lowering his eyes, almost ashamed. He doesn't think he's keeping that promise. "What about you?"

"I wrote I'll never let you feel alone," she answers, holding the baby against her shoulder, gently patting his back. She looks into her husband's eyes, and Squall feels like she can see directly into his very core. "Seems to me we're both keeping our promises."

"Six weeks, and I'll come back to you."

"May the sea protect you, Squall. Be safe. Love you."

Four weeks later he is finally ready to go home.

Esthar is free of Malboros. Numbers are slowly, but steadily decreasing. It is still unbelievable, and the scars on Esthar City will be visible for a long time, but the nation will wear them proudly. They are still mourning the dead, but they're ready to celebrate life again.

Squall is standing in front of the Monument to the Victims, wondering if ECA's soldier 41269 is in there, if the sea managed to protect him. He hopes it did.

He is still having nightmares about that day. The muffled scream, the way the soldier did not flinch like he should have when he poured the vial, the weak grip on his bicep. How the man felt on the verge of death. How he felt at his most desperate, at his most helpless, when he kept casting spell after spell hoping it would be enough. How being at his most desperate and at his most helpless drove him to tap into that raw, unfinished love his son had inspired in him.

He sighs, resisting the temptation to rub his eyes. He needs to remember happier, safer times. Out of respect for the soldier's family, as Kadowaki said. Out of love for his.

He watches the Monument again, reading the names of the comrades that succumbed fighting for a happier, safer world. He knows nothing about these people, men and women who probably rode the same truck he used every day, fellow fighters who died while he was in the front row, attacking the monsters to let other comrades try to save them. To let other comrades hold their hand, while they whispered their ID.

There's an inscription, on the Monument, something that says their sacrifice won't be forgotten. He's not so sure about that – he is sure he will always remember these months, the fights, soldier 41269. But the world will go on, the world will forget. As it should be.

He will write something for them, on Balamb's sand.

The sea will never forget.

"Quarantine is mandatory, Squall."

Kadowaki is stern, unmovable, and Squall racks his hand through his hair. "Why Zell and Irvine can go home then?"

"They're not showing antibodies. You do," she answers, nonplussed.

He sits on the bed of the Balamb Hotel's room he will spend the next two weeks in, muttering, "I can't believe this."

"Listen. You have a newborn in your house. He is also a premature baby, with a still immature immune system. We can't risk exposing him. This is for his safety, Squall." She sighs, watching his low head, his defeated look. "I know you want to see him and I'm sure you can't wait to be with your family. But it's better to be safe than sorry, right?"

"Right," he says after taking a deep breath. "It still sucks."

"I know, but it is what it is." She checks her clipboard, clicking her tongue. "Meanwhile, you should rest. It looks like you have sleep to catch up. Do you think you need help with that?"

Squall looks out of the balcony door. "…Maybe."

"Mh." She doesn't comment further. "You also lost almost seven kilograms, Squall. We need to get your sleeping and eating routine back in order."


"I'll send someone with your meals every day. And I'll come to check on you every other day." Then she sighs, sitting at the small table. "Is there something I can do for you, Squall?"

He looks back at her, raking his hand through his hair again. "Can you… I just need a computer. So I can see them. Could you please arrange something about this?"

Kadowaki nods. "I'll see what I can do." They stay silent, the doctor scribbling something on her clipboard, Squall still thinking about how he's going to survive this. Then, she puts the pen down and looks at him.

"What?" he asks when she keeps watching without saying a word. He may be a little too harsh, though, because Kadowaki narrows her eyes.

"There's something you're not telling me."

Squall sighs, crosses his arms, looks out of the balcony again.

She just waits.

"…Yeah." There is silence again, a kind of tension building, and he feels it, he recognizes it, and before he can realize what he's doing, he says, "I'm having nightmares about soldier 41269, Dr. K."

"I figured." She nods, trying to find the right words for what she's going to offer. "We can arrange something about that too. Meanwhile, maybe we could try something that may ease your mind, Squall."

"Mh." Non-committal, but not exactly an outright no. She'll take it and work on it.

A pager goes off in her medical bag, and she stands up. "I need to go, now. I'll work immediately to get you that computer. You'll behave, you'll eat properly and you'll take this to sleep," she orders, rummaging through her bag and putting on the table a bottle of pills. "One pill at ten pm. Let me know if it works. I'll come back this evening for the therapy."

"Therapy?" he asks, narrowing his eyes.

"Therapy. I'll send you back to your family healthy and unbroken, my boy."

And she's gone, and he exhales a deep breath, and he knows he will come back unbroken because Dr. K is a force of nature and if she says she'll heal him, she will.

He gets up, figuring a nice shower could help. He has nothing to do, Garden has granted him three months' leave after this mission, so he can refuel properly. He just doesn't know yet if he'll refuel for Garden or something else. He wanted to talk about it with Rinoa; he now knows he'll have two weeks to mull over it.

There's commotion down the road and he goes to the balcony. Then, two familiar voices.

"Basically your plan is he'll hear us? From here?"

"He will if you help me. Come on!"

Squall leans over the marble railing of the balcony. Down on the road, Irvine and Zell are loudly bickering.

"Oh, see! He heard me!" says Irvine, brushing his ponytail over his shoulder. "Greetings, Commander!"

"Yo, Squall!"

"What are you doing over there?" he asks, putting a hand on his hip. People are passing by his friends looking at them strangely; they know they've just come back from Esthar, and they are suspicious about the possibility of them being contagious.

Especially when, at docking, Zell started coughing and loudly said, "I'm not ill, I just choked on a toffee!"

"We're here to keep you company, man," says Irvine, crossing his arms. "We can't get up there and you can't come down here, but we can talk from the balcony. We just don't want to let you feel alone, you know."

"That's right!" says Zell, throwing his punches in the air.

Squall can't help it. He starts laughing, softly at first, and then harder, until it's a full laugh – the first he did since the night he found out he was having a son.

"Thank you, guys," he says, saluting them.

They grin, they playfully salute back, and resume their antics.

Maybe these two weeks won't be so bad.

Dear son,

Dr. Kadowaki sent me a request about a soldier who was on your team on the West Coast. She said you would like an update on his condition since he was wounded on the field.

The soldier's name is Lucian Vaughan.

With his permission, I'm happy to tell you that he's slowly recovering. His right arm is paralyzed, though, since he took a direct hit on naked skin. He has been honorably discharged and he will start working in our offices as soon as he feels ready to begin.

He remembers what you did for him. He says he thanks you from his heart. He asked me to give you the drawing you can find attached to this email. He says his son did it for you, as his personal thank you for saving his father.

Please, tell Rinoa I need more pictures of Kiran. I hope, when this disease is over, I can finally meet him.

Love you,

He's been counting the days.

Tomorrow, if his test is negative, he can go back. He is itching to do something, anything, unable to stay put and just wait. He has been waiting two weeks, and even if waiting is his most precious promise to her, it feels like stolen time.

A knock on the door interrupts his musing, and he starts counting, as usual, before opening it, to avoid possibly dangerous interactions.

They knock again, and he sighs, opening the door.

Kadowaki's smile is so large it is impossible to ignore. He understands, he feels it, and at the same time, he can't believe it.

"Negative?" he asks, in a whisper, almost fearing to say the words out loud.

"Pack your stuff, Squall," she says. "You're coming home!"

He smiles. She doesn't know he didn't even unpack.

Garden is silent when they arrive, waiting in the Garage for the afternoon lessons to begin, so that Squall can go to his apartment on the third floor without being stopped for congratulations and thanks. Kadowaki squeezes his shoulder, in front of the stairs leading to the elevator, and silently goes to the Infirmary.

He sighs, running up the stairs, and he tries to calm his thundering heart, his unsteady breath, as the elevator doors open on the third floor.

His hand trembles as he opens his home's door. His home. It feels like yesterday when he went out of the same door to uncertain battlefields with an enemy that was known and new at the same time. It feels like yesterday when he kept repeating he had to remember happier, safer times. It feels so strange, thinking that happier times are for the future, now, and not just a memory from the past.

The first thing he sees is Rinoa, sleeping on the sofa, with a fleece blanket on her legs and one of his old fully-zipped sweatshirts on. He tries to be as silent as possible, but then Angelo feels he's back and bursts into the room barking excitedly, and he is scratching her hears when Rinoa stirs, and when she sees him she gasps. She sits up, looking at him like she's thinking he's a dream, and when he smiles back, saying, "I'm back," she just leaps from the sofa straight into his arms, and this is so reminiscent of their beginning, the first of their yesterdays, he can't help but laugh softly into her hair. "I'm back," he repeats, and she is sobbing against his chest in a way that sounds like she's also laughing, and he holds her tighter, tangling his fingers in her long hair, Angelo whining in happiness between them, and this feels so home he almost dreads he's just dreaming.

She gently pulls away to look him in the eyes. She raises her fingers and touches bruises that vanished long ago, features she has touched only through the barrier of a monitor for months. "You're ok," she gasps, and she sobs, and she laughs, as her fingers brush his jaw, his lips, and he raises a hand to intertwine their fingers and kiss her wrist.

"I promised," he simply says, and she giggles through the tears. "I'm ok."

"You better be," she jokes, and he laughs, softly pulling her to his chest and using the hand still tangled in her hair to sweep her into a kiss.

He could kiss her for hours, he thinks, let the needy part of him control his actions, let his love soar, and flourish, now that he's back where he belongs, where he can become definite again. The memories he latched to during these past months feel like a black and white picture, pressed close to the real thing, with its taste, its scent, its texture. He feels like he just came back into himself, like he got detached, separated through loneliness and despair, and he has now found his way back to wholeness.

She moans a little, and then he feels something new – something different, something he can't recognize. But she does.

"I'm sorry, I messed up your shirt."

He finally takes in her appearance, all the difference in her body. He left when she was barely showing, and now…

"Oh," he says, seeing through the white t-shirt she's wearing under the sweatshirt. He scratches his neck, slightly embarrassed, and she blushes.

"Yeah. I'm sorry." She touches his chest, brushing the almost invisible wet patches her unwanted milk leakage has left on his shirt, blushing under his stare. "He's usually awake by now, so…"

She doesn't try to finish the explanation. He puts a finger under her chin and gently forces her to look at him. "It's ok. I guess it's normal then?" She nods. "Did… did I hurt you?"

She shakes her head eagerly. "It's a relief, believe me."

His smile turns a little melancholy. "Guess there's a lot of things I need to get used to."

"You'll manage," she reassures him, brushing her lips against his.

They are silent, watching each other as if they can't believe they're back together again. Then Squall sighs, taking her face into his hands. "Hyne, you're stunning."

She laughs, because she knows she is absolutely not stunning at all – her hair is still messy from the nap on the sofa, she probably has pillow marks too, there may be Kiran's spit-up on her sweatshirt and she's wearing an old t-shirt, thinned out by use and now stained with milk too. But he smiles, and she feels, even if their bond is still a little weary and guarded after all these months apart, that he really thinks she's stunning. He's often blunt, and she knows if he said it, it's because it's true.

"And you're the second best-looking guy here, now," she jokes, eyes glinting. "Do you want to meet the guy who overthrew you?"

"Yes," he says, feeling something tightening with anticipation in his chest. She smiles, kissing him again, and retreats to their bedroom.

When she comes back, with the yellow bundle he recognizes from the picture he has burned into his mind, his breath catches into his chest. It feels difficult to breathe through the burning sensation in his lungs, it feels difficult to see through the tears clouding his vision, it feels difficult to think through the heady sensation of seeing his son – really seeing him, his own flesh and blood, for the first time.

Rinoa is so beautiful she shines. It almost looks like she is the ray of light in the room, and when she stops in front of him, watching him with love-stricken eyes, she glows from within. In silence, she gently moves to help him hold the baby, and soon after Kiran is for the first time in his father's arms.

Squall rocks him, careful not to disturb his slumber, and there's a hot mess of emotions inside of him – wonder, love, amazement, awe, pride. He can't see the boundaries between one and the others, they are just there, in the deep part of him that swells, and soars, and chants at the feeling of his son's warm, delicate body in his arms. There were days, in the past months, when he felt he may never be able to see him. Holding Kiran like this is healing something inside of him, sweeping the guilt away. This is his present, now – the future he dreamt of yesterday. The tomorrows he can't wait to see. This is why he fought, in Esthar's deserts, in Esthar's coast, in Esthar's mountains. His meaning. His little ray of light.

"Mummy's right," he finally whispers, his voice cracking. "You're truly the best-looking guy here now." Then the baby squirms a little, settling back when Squall holds him a little tighter to his chest. He can't wait to see his eyes. Hear his voice. He lovely brushes his lips on the baby's forehead, and a tear wets the boy's cheek.

Rinoa steps a little further, letting him live this moment on his own terms, and she watches as her husband rides the waves of this new, totally unconditional, all-embracing love. It's just like the ocean holding their promises in its embrace, she thinks. This is a love that sparkles, like the sea under the summer sun, and it can be so blinding and so breathtaking. She is so grateful Squall has the chance to feel it.

So she watches, as a father is born before her eyes.

It is a love that sparkles.

Later, holding both his son and Rinoa to his chest, he thinks how naïve he was, imagining that the raw, unfinished love that bloomed in Esthar would be different in Balamb, as their weight and warmth are real against him.

This will always be raw. He will always be at his most vulnerable with regards to Kiran, because this is a love that encompasses everything he is, everything he was, everything he will ever be. It will be his weakness as well as his strength. And it will always be unfinished because it's been exploding in his heart since the day he looked at the picture Kadowaki sent him. It will keep exploding, spreading into him, making him feel stronger, and healed, and whole, and so proud and so grateful. He is so happy to have the chance to feel like this.

"Tell me about his birth," he whispers, and Rinoa slips her hand on his chest, intertwining her fingers with his, under Kiran's back.

And when she speaks, and he lets the bond be less guarded, more open, he feels the strength of her love too, enveloping the light blue thread between them and closing tight around it. This will be raw, and unfinished, and it will be their strength.

It will be their healing.

The hardest part is the night, and Rinoa learns it soon enough, as he loves her thoroughly, holding their fingers intertwined together on the pillow, above her head.

There is something different that she can't really pinpoint, but there's a pull in their bond that lets her know it will be alright if she just lets it be. So she does, and lets him set the pace of their reunion, doing what she can do best for him now: be the adoring wife who dotes on him, who understands, and listens, and comforts. Can he feel, through their bond, how absolutely proud she is of what he's done for the world? Can he feel how inspiring his dedication has been to her, knowing he did it out of love for her, for their unborn child? Can he feel that she thinks their sacrifices were worth it, because the world now is safer for all the Kirans who were out there, waiting for their mothers and fathers to come back to them?

Can he feel he can be broken, with her, if this is what he needs to heal, to forget?

It is slow, and passionate in a tender way, and there's a kind of yearning in his lovemaking, and she feels so touched, so moved she can't help the strangled sound between a moan and a sob. And then his face is next to hers, on the pillow, and she listens to their breaths slowly steadying, his heart thundering against her breast. She waits, and he traces her chain with his finger, down to her mother's ring, up again to her shoulder, and slowly down her left arm, until he touches her wedding band. Her Griever.

He sighs, and she feels he's suspended between a decision and a choice, and when he speaks, his fingers still playing with her Griever, it's in a whisper, so low she almost can't hear. "I don't think I can talk about that, yet," he says, and his shame reverberates through their bond in a way that squeezes her heart with icy fingers. "I can try to show you, though."

She nods, turning her head so that her lips brush against his, and then the bond is open and unguarded and so raw it's almost bleeding, and she's in Esthar, in the suffocating protective gear that bruises his face, slashing monster after monster, yelling orders, creating security rings around the injured and the fallen, smelling the bleach in his dark apartment, riding trucks in silence in the morning, riding back to the city, exhausted in his very core, and the memory of Lucian, ECA's soldier with ID 41269, is so difficult to overcome it almost feels like an old VHS with the tape ruined from being played too many times. She feels, she lives his pain, his despair, his helplessness, the absolute relentlessness of his magic wrestling death. She sees, in his memory, the drawing still stored in his email, a naïve thank you from a child who shouldn't have had to live that. Remember yesterday the soldiers repeated like a mantra during those days. Fight today. Secure tomorrow.

She feels, she lives, she understands, she listens.

She doesn't know if she can comfort, but she does what she does best: she pours her adoration in all the crevices of his fractured soul, hoping to mend the breakage. Magic dissolves into the cracks, solidifying in light blue rivers, glittering with her love, her respect, her pride, encompassing his weary soul with everything he is to her, everything he ever was, everything he will be.

Tears are cutting through his throat the entire time, and it feels like there's a knife lodged in there, but he doesn't cry. In the safe space Rinoa is for him, he remembers their first night together, when she snuggled against his chest, whimpering for the pain between her legs, her fingers lightly brushing his scars. He remembers she told him of an ancient Centran art called kintsugi, the mending of pottery with gold poured in the breakage, and he understands what she's doing, and he is grateful, and he feels her love, her pride, her respect, enveloping the bond, filling his cracks, mending his broken soul. Magic strengthened by Kiran, the baby they managed to get out of nothing into life.

It shimmers, like the sea they surrendered their love promises to.

Theirs is a love that sparkles.

The sand is warm under their naked feet, and Kiran is softly snoring against his chest, secure in the baby sling Rinoa helped him wear. It's a comforting weight, something that helps him feel anchored. Rinoa is singing that rock song again, laughing, as they walk hand in hand on Balamb's beach.

He has a promise to keep.

When they reach a small inlet, Rinoa steps in to take Kiran from his arms, as he writes on the sand. He squats, letting the water crash back and forth on his feet, wiggling his toes as he thinks. She patiently waits, as he looks at the horizon, and the sea sparkles, like their bond strengthened by their shared love for their baby, like the magic she has poured into his cracks, like his entire soul, glued together by the sheer force of his determination.

And then, it's easy.

Whenever they were parted, there was always something that drove them all together again.

Remember yesterday. Fight today. Secure tomorrow.

The tide is receding, and the words will remain under the sky until the ocean will claim them. It's fitting.

He adds you will never be forgotten, and he stands.

When he turns, Rinoa smiles. Behind her, the sea shimmers under the timid spring sun, and as he engulfs her in his arms, feeling their son comfortably pressed between them, he is certain, for the first time in months, that someday he will be unbroken again.

Well, you know that I been through it
I got the scars to prove it
Fight hard and the battle is yours

Author's note: the song Rinoa sings is Stick to your guns by Bon Jovi. The three verses at the end of the story are from that song too. Stick, as I affectionately call it, is my go-to song, and I found it fitting for this story.
As usual, English's my second language and this has been beta-read by Grammarly only, so if you notice something strange let me know.
Thanks for reading and be safe, everyone.