A moment amidst the flight from the D District prison, on the rails back towards Garden.
In the engine of the Galbadian supply train they'd hijacked, the heat was stifling, the air heavy and hard to breathe. But even wrapped in layers of black leather that soaked in the scorching rays of the desert sun, Squall couldn't seem to get warm. The cold had seeped into his bones, and in spite of everything, it lingered. He found himself leaning against the metal housing of the engine's controls, lulled by the rumble of the train and the hypnotic onrushing of the tracks ahead into a numb half-trance, thoughts sliding out of his head and leaving him feeling strangely vacant.
He didn't realize Rinoa had slipped in and was standing near his elbow until she spoke.
"Squall?" The sound of her voice brought him out of it with a jolt, and he looked toward her, trying to make his eyes bring her face into focus. She was frowning, her brow furrowing into a look of concern, and he wondered vaguely if there were marks on his face or if he just looked like hell.
It took him a moment to realize that Zell wasn't with her, and the knot that had been tied in his gut tightened subtly.
Finding words took effort, even more than usual. "Trouble?" Squall asked at length, his voice rattling unpleasantly in his throat.
Rinoa shook her head. "Not really. There was a soldier who tried to chase after us, but..." Her frown faded, and for a moment she almost looked like she might smile. "He was on foot."
Squall let out a breath he hadn't realized he was he was holding. It came out in a quiet sigh. He'd hoped, dimly, to get away clean - to have the train well away before the soldiers at the depot realized what was happening. But there was nothing anyone could do about it now. "Where's Zell?" he wondered, and winced inwardly at the sound of his own voice. Flat. Dull. Like it didn't matter to him one way or the other.
"I threw him off the back of the train."
It was such a ludicrous statement that Squall couldn't even manage surprise. He just stared at her, dumbly, until at last the corner of her mouth quirked up in a sheepish little half-grin. "Asleep," she told him. "He passed out on some cargo as soon as we got clear of the station." She paused, glancing briefly back towards the rest of the train, and her expression sobered. "I cast some cures on him. He didn't look so good."
Zell hadn't looked good. Squall had seen that for himself, during their drive across the desert, and before that as they'd scrambled up and down the endless levels of the Galbadian prison. Normally Zell was still only when he was unconscious and quiet only a little more often, and the way he'd slumped into the seat of the van - his uncharacteristic silence, during the escape and after - had said more about the beating he'd taken than words could. But there hadn't been time for more than stopgap healing for anyone, not then. And after, well... Squall hadn't thought of it.
Hadn't thought of much of anything except getting back to Garden. It surprised him to realize he felt grateful - grateful and faintly relieved that Rinoa had thought to take care of his teammate, that somewhere along the way she'd stopped looking to him for instructions and begun simply stepping in where she saw a need.
He felt, somehow, that he ought to try to tell her something, but the words eluded him. "...Thanks," he murmured instead, and she quirked another lopsided little smile.
Squall turned his eyes back to the tracks ahead, to watch as the engine ate up the miles. Green was encroaching onto the browns and golds of the landscape as the desert began to give way to plains. Somewhere beyond lay forests, and beyond that, the sea, and Balamb, and Garden. Home.
Rinoa's voice beside him sounded like it was coming from a long way off. "Where are we going?"
He didn't bother mustering the energy for speech, and wasn't sure why she'd even asked.
The silence voiced his thoughts for him, and when Rinoa spoke again, her words were more hesitant. A little embarrassed. "I mean, I know we're going to Balamb Garden. But - how? Are we going to Dollet? Or..." At the corner of his vision he could see her shifting, scuffing a boot uncomfortably against the metal floor as her voice trailed off.
Squall bit back the impulse to tell her he didn't know. It would have been the more honest answer. "We're headed for Timber," he said brusquely.
For a while, the only response was silence, filled by the persistent grinding rattle of the train. "...Is that a good idea?" Rinoa ventured at last. "They were shutting the station down when we left. There'll be soldiers all over the place. Won't they be looking for us?"
Suddenly, desperately, Squall wanted to shout at her. Of course the Galbadians would be looking for them. They'd been lucky to get as far as they had; he was running on guesswork, clinging to one single, all-imperative thought: get back to Garden. Now. Beyond that, he could only grasp at straws.
But even if he'd had the energy to shout, there wouldn't have been any point in it. What good would it do her to know that he'd aimed for Timber instead of Dollet because it was the quicker route, too focused on getting home to remember that they'd had to flee the city only days before? He didn't look at her, just kept his eyes fixed straight ahead, watching the horizon as they thundered inevitably along the tracks.
"Probably." To his own ears, his voice sounded defeated. "But we don't have much of a choice. We'll stop outside the city and walk in. If the trains aren't running..."
If the trains weren't running, Squall thought dimly, he didn't know if he could force himself to keep going. But what he said was, "We'll head north to Dollet."
On foot it would take days. They'd never make it in time.
"Squall..." Rinoa's soft voice intruded upon the grim turn his thoughts had taken. Squall gritted his teeth, dreading her next question. Just a little more, he knew, and his fraying nerves would snap, and then he really would shout at her.
But all she said, in unexpectedly gentle tones, was, "You don't look so good either. Maybe you should get some rest."
Rest... Squall wasn't sure when he'd rested last, aside from a few stolen moments wedged into this corner or leaning against that wall, struggling to catch his breath before the next wave hit. Not since they'd escaped the Galbadian prison. Not since their fruitless battle with the sorceress on the streets of Deling City. Not, he finally decided, since the night he and Irvine and Selphie had camped at the mouth of the nameless king's tomb. Yesterday? The day before?
It felt like weeks ago.
"Someone has to keep an eye on the train," he said dully.
"I can do that," Rinoa said. Squall looked over at her, and something of his surprise and vague doubt must have surfaced in his face, because she grinned. "The guys in the Forest Owls taught me. It's not hard, anyway. You just keep an eye on your speed and make sure you don't run into anything on the tracks."
Squall fumbled for some kind of reaction, and could find nothing but dim surprise. "...oh," he said eventually, the word coming out quiet and vague.
She lifted a hand towards him, as though to guide him away from the controls, but then seemed to think better of it. "Come on," she said. "There's a bunch of stuff back there you can lie down on. I mean, it's not the presidential suite or anything, but..." Her voice petered out, her cheeks turning faintly pink with embarrassment he didn't quite understand.
It took an effort of will for him to push himself away from the console. "If anything happens--" he began, but Rinoa cut him off.
"I'll come get you," she promised. "Don't worry, Squall. Everything's going to be okay."
Somewhere underneath the fatigue, Squall wished he could believe her.
It was harder than he liked to admit to move away from the support of the console, to take a few stiff, plodding steps toward the back of the engine. When he paused to look back at Rinoa, she was already moving to take his place at the controls, with no sign of hesitation. "If you get tired," he said, "get Zell to take over."
"Okay," came her easy reply, and he turned away again. The sound of his name stopped him within arm's reach of the door to the next car. "Squall."
By the time he'd turned back again, with a weary 'what now?' on his lips, magic was shimmering in the air around her. A gesture of her hand and a murmured "Cura," was all it took for a swell of blue-green energy to break around him, with a rush of warmth through his body as injuries he'd halfway forgotten about healed themselves away. He'd pushed the pain so far back in his mind that he'd barely even been aware of it except as a sort of omnipresent ache, and the sudden relief, the easing of the chill he hadn't been able to shake since he'd first regained consciousness in his tiny capsule of a cell, nearly brought him to his knees.
When his eyes focused on Rinoa's face again, she was smiling.
"Go on." She urged him out of the engine with a shooing motion of one hand. "Sleep. I'll be fine."
There was nothing Squall could think to say to her, so in the end, after a long, silent, vaguely baffled hesitation, he simply did as he was told.