Squall's email in-box was suffocating.
Nida wanted a response to his FH engineering base sustainability proposal. Squall couldn't care less, and tried to say so in a professional, supportive fashion. The result was convoluted, too wordy, and vague. Squall longed to scrabble out "whatever" on the keys and hit send, but Garden Commanders Did Not Do That, so he wound up sounding like a wishy-washy pussy instead. He closed his sent mail and tried not to be disgusted with himself.
Xu had a twenty-page petition from the female students regarding the Garden dress code, and the blatant sexism that forced female cadets to wear skirts. Either everybody had the right to wear pants, her text hinted, darkly, or nobody did. Picturing the horror of Nida's entire FH team going about their business in starched black poplin miniskirts, Squall wrote back that Xu could do whatever the hell she wanted with the Garden dress code, provided he never at any point had to face the prospect of Irvine Kinneas in a kilt. It would be like a bed-ruffle on an electrical pole, and it took three or four bracing swallows of coffee for Squall to get the image out of his head. Irvine would mourn the free visual buffet of legs the current uniform provided, but Squall would rather a moping sharpshooter to Xu on the feminist warpath, any day of the week.
Buried at the bottom of the complaints and suggestions and requisition forms and duty listings was a message from Rinoa.
Sorry, it read. Sorry. That was all.
She hadn't written in weeks.
Squall stared at his laptop screen, and his coffee slowly went cold. He tapped his hand against the side of his mug, and even now, a year later, he missed the sound of a lion-carved ring clinking on the ceramic. He had last seen her in Timber, two months ago, in August. It had been hot enough to blister paint. He bought her a milk tea, they'd gone to a movie to escape the sun, made out in the back row, and left early to go back to her new apartment. The rickety metal fan in the window muffled her soft little noises; her clinging, kitteny hands smelled like teen perfume and sweat and honey tea. She curled against his side when it was over, too-hot in the endless afternoon, and asked if he was going to marry her.
Two months after he had said, "I don't know," Squall was still drowning in her. In her testing silences, in her unanswerable demands, her coy smiles that never met his. It was August again in that stifling, too-pink room, and Squall couldn't breathe. He opened up a reply, deleted it, and then stuffed the "To" field with addresses he could type in his sleep.
Does anybody else want to get the hell out of here?
He sent it, signed off, and yanked his jacket off the back of his chair. His coffee was left behind, his secretary's questioning gaze got no answer. It was October outside, the sky turbulent and unrepentantly gray. The horns and claws on the granite gate-dragons were speared with leaves, and more leaves blew up in heaps along the sidewalk and swirled in little aero-burst tornadoes along the drive.
There was a black and red monstrosity of a motorcycle parked next to the main gate, blue tribal flames detailed along its gleaming carapace, and Lieutenant Commander Zell Dincht was leaning against it. His hands were in his jacket pockets, his sunglasses were on in spite of the sky, and the wind was doing its best, without success, to tear down his carefully constructed hair.
Squall looked at him, and up the empty drive beyond.
"Quisits?" he asked.
"Grading mid-terms," Zell answered.
"...Has a date with Quisits, after the mid-terms."
"I dunno. Something about trading moogle pixel pets."
"So it's just you?"
Zell tilted down his sunglasses, his frank, blue-eyed gaze framed with black tattoo. "It's just me. Is that a problem, Commander Leonheart?"
Squall studied Zell's compact, triangular frame, the faded creases in his favorite jeans, the padded palms of his gloves. "Only if you call me that again," he said, and Zell grinned.
"Fair enough," he said, and swung one leg over his bike. "Get on. Where d'you wanna go?"
"Anywhere," Squall said, and hooked his forefingers through Zell's side belt-loops. The motorcycle roared to furious life, tearing down the Garden drive. Cold air punched Squall in the face like a blast from Shiva's summon; he swallowed it down and breathed in Zell's scent of oranges, motor oil, and the ozone of distant thunder. The world streaked by in shades of brown and gold. Squall leaned into Zell on a curve and everything else was left behind; Rinoa and all her Augusts washed away under a grey Balamb sky and the promise of rain.