~ Chapter Eleven: A Time to Embrace - Morning~
Our greatest glory is not in never falling,
May 18th - Morning
A sheer coating of ice covered the snow, as the temperatures of the previous night had left their mark on the whitened crest. His boots cracked the surface with each step, but the solidity of the ice allowed only his heel to break through.
He had avoided this place. A year ago, he had walked out here with his friends, but now he was alone. Back then he had an objective to complete, at least that was what he chose to believe…but even then, he knew the only difference between the two sides was the viewpoint each held. But if this carnage wasn't the work of the purest evil, he wasn't sure what was.
A large gargoyle watched the gravesites. The same mythical creatures, which adorned both Galbadia and Balamb Gardens, now stood vigil out in this battlefield. The field where one side had been young students, and the other faceless missiles, guided by a ruthless warlord.
Back then, he was still trying to figure out so much, and he could never focus on Trabia's loss. Selphie had. The young SeeD had felt this pain multiplied tenfold, yet somehow she mustered the strength to carry on. Right now, he had never held so much respect for his friend.
He wasn't sure where to look. The birthdays etched in the granite seemed too recent, everywhere he turned. The ages went from those among their early twenties, to those just old enough to enter Garden. He stopped at the headstone of a little girl who had turned five only months before this happened. She would have never had a chance.
He couldn't stay there any longer. Outside. Alone. Somehow, he had dreaded this visit to Trabia, he tried to convince himself it would be taking time away from his job in Balamb. His duties would fall further behind under bureaucratic bullshit. Another part convinced himself that he needed to be with Rinoa, after the revelations she had just endured. But lodged in between both of those reasons, was a smaller part of him thought maybe he couldn't face this reality alone.
And that part was right.
Pulling his standard issue SeeD jacket around him, he shivered, but not from the bitter temperatures. The force of his will wanted him to go back inside. To return to the painting, the tiling, and the manual labor - that was safe. This was reality.
As he was starting to leave, a dark object in the sea of ashen caught his attention. His breath caught within the depths of his lungs as his eyes fell on something familiar… Something that was almost as much a part of him as his heritage - a black leather jacket with a once fur-lined collar. It was draped over the grave like a robe lying regally upon the shoulders of royalty. The extreme climate, in combination with the direct sun, had faded the hues from black to an almost stone grey.
He reached out his gloved hand to the collar. Small flakes of ice fell to the snow below, as his fingertips gently brushed the material. For a moment, he truly believed his heart had stopped beating. He wasn't sure if the feeling was distraught about this student's death, or the guilty relief that it wasn't him. It could have been. If he had been a minute longer in any of his decisions, this graveyard would be mirrored in Balamb. But if he had been a minute sooner, maybe this graveyard wouldn't be Trabia.
It was like looking into a reflecting pool - to a parallel universe. To what might have been; what could have been. He closed his eyes as he thought back to his first trip to Galbadia Garden, to how he had envisioned death. He ran out of the waiting room, away from those who cared most about him. It was only the beginning of repressed emotions yet to surface. Maybe death was more than being talked about in the 'past tense.' Maybe it was how those around the fallen perceived the memories of their life - just not the 'tense' of speech used.
Because here, they still spoke in present tense.
A year ago, he couldn't fathom the possibility of death, he screamed as he left a room full of his comrades…and Rinoa. It was a rare, but honest, emotional outbreak that his friends saw in Galbadia that day. Now he understood it wasn't being scared of 'death' itself, it was being scared of dying…and there was a difference. He had been dying most of his life; now he understood that fully.
And here among the fallen his jacket sat; a reminder of what could have been. He closed his eyes, fighting back both tears and unrelenting frostbite. Gradually he started removing his gloves, body trembling. He placed the leather objects in each pocket of the weathered jacket, and kneeled to the headstone. The deceased cadet was sixteen according to the engraving - the name unfamiliar to him. But the name didn't matter, did it? This cadet was one of thousands, just like Squall, just like every other student housed in a Garden. For too long, the Garden Faculty knew them as nothing more than numbers…never by their given names.
He knelt in the snow; his legs were numb, and no longer feeling the sting of the cold. The wind swept around him, picking up natural debris from the nearby forests. He watched the crystallized fur shift on the jacket. Time seemed irrelevant. He wasn't sure how long he had been there.
In the distance, he could hear the faint sound of footsteps approaching. He didn't bother turning around, it was probably one of a hundred others offering their condolences. The steps grew louder, as the layer of ice seemed to crack, but never break, under their weight. In a way, he was glad not to be alone anymore. Even if it was a stranger, it was a reminder of life. What he never expected was for someone to place a hand tentatively on the back of his coat.
As he turned, the glare of the sun caught his eyes, temporarily blinding his vision. He stood up to regain his bearings. Dark hair blew freely in the breeze, almost covering her face, but he didn't need to see who it was, he already knew.
“Am…am I dreaming?”
“No,” she rasped beneath the bitter cold.
“Rin-” He never finished saying her name as he drew her to his body. Right now, he didn't care if she was really there, or just a vivid figment of his imagination. He needed her to be, and by the gods, she was. He laid his head upon hers, searching desperately for the life he needed to be reminded of. The warmth of her arms encircled him, as a thousand emotions passed through his mind. Even in Winhill he hadn't felt this weak, but this gravesite was different… Winhill was a past he could not change; Trabia was one he could have.
“Let's go inside.” Her voice was still battered from the elements. His mind never registered the words; it just felt the vibrations of speech running through his body.
The elements whipped around them, as he found the courage to take a step backwards. Her dark hair was pulled into a ponytail, barring the long strands that had broken free from their confines. Those were the ones covering her face. But it didn't matter, she looked angelic even bundled under countless layers of clothing. Their eyes met, but neither spoke, as neither needed to.
He nodded in silent agreement, as she extended her gloved hand. He accepted the gesture with no hesitation, following her lead toward the main building. She noticed something about his hands, rather the absence of something from them. He wasn't wearing any material barriers, no gloves to protect his skin from the harsh climate. He always wore gloves. Even in ninety-degree heat, he wore them.
It was too hard to speak giving the circumstances. The emotion, combined with the sub-zero temperatures filling her lungs, made Rinoa put her entire will into the act of walking. As they arrived inside, a warm blast of air welcomed them. The contrast was enough to send a chill through both of their bodies.
Squall was the first to stop; facing her once they'd traveled a short distance from the doors. His hand was still within hers, as he momentarily forgot about the physical connection. It felt more like an extension of himself, and for that moment in time, the act felt completely natural.
His free hand moving toward her face, he gently pushed long hairs over her shoulders. Her skin felt so unearthly cold, it almost scared him.
“Why…why are you here?” A mix of confusion and gratitude surrounded his question.
She hid a smile, this wasn't the time or place for it, but the separation seemed more like an eternity than mere weeks. “Cid thought I should spend some time up here. He'd been contemplating having civilian workers help in the restoration, since many were lost here too.”
“It's hard…so many needless deaths...”
His words trailed off and she saw no reason to press any further. Rinoa nodded slightly, squeezing his hand in nonverbal support. His eyes didn't leave hers, and she found it increasingly difficult to breathe…although the temperature played no part in it this time.
He was the first to speak again, before doing an action that she would've never have imagined in a hundred lifetimes. “I'm sorry I took so long… I should have done this months ago.”
Stepping forward, he wrapped his arms around her waist, as she again rested her head against his shoulder. It caught her off guard, as Squall was standing in a public place holding her…like this.
Although the sensation was breathtaking, she was still confused by his meaning. “W-What exactly are you talking about?”
He listened to her breathe, to the words reverberate through her chest, to her very rapid heartbeat…to every sound he could hear. His logical side was telling him to step away, this looked unprofessional, and part of himself didn't want to get used to the comfort she provided.
However, at this moment, he didn't care.
The more powerful side was telling him that he needed her, finding a solace that he hadn't felt since the separation. His heart was on autopilot, as his arms tightened the embrace. Her hair felt like silk against rough cheeks, as he rested his weathered skin against her temple.
She felt his warm breath on the back of her neck, his words sending an amazing euphoria through her body. “I'm talking about on board the Ragnarok.”
“Shhh,” he cautioned, allowing himself to continue. “Rinoa, when you asked me to give you a hug so you could feel alive… I didn't understand. Now I do.”
Rinoa nodded again, realizing that some lessons aren't learned in a day. They can take weeks, months, or even years to comprehend…and neither of them would ever stop learning. The moment was broken when the voices of older cadets carried through the hallway. The group of female students walked toward the main entrance, and the sound brought him back into the present.
She couldn't help but fall in love with him even more, if that was possible. His actions reminded her of a child that had just been caught by their parents, waiting for a reprimand that would never come. He was trying so hard, yet he couldn't break free from his conservative nature. The two stood in silence, as the group left without giving them as much as a second look. In all honesty, the students of Trabia had greater things to worry about than the Commander of Balamb Garden and his girlfriend.
When the girls were out of sight, he couldn't help but stare at her. It had only been weeks, but somehow time felt like it had ebbed away for years. He wanted to tell her how much he had missed her, how glad he was that she was there. He wanted to tell her a lot of things, but the words just somehow were out of reach.
He wanted to say a million things. But when he started all that came out was a long pause, before finally piecing together a half-coherent sentence, “Rinoa… you're… beautiful.”
Did he really just say that so candidly? He felt like he was one step away from sounding like one of 'those guys' he'd labeled as crazy only over a year ago. If he had been watching this from the sidelines, he would have shaken his head, saying this guy was a, well…chicken-wuss. No one person was worth the heartache - any guy in this circumstance was weak and his judgment was clouded by irrationality at best.
Now the tides of fate had turned and he was the one standing there calling some woman 'beautiful'...and strangely enough, he meant every bit of it. It was then it dawned on him, it wasn't the worst thing he could have uttered at such a moment. In fact, maybe it was one of the best.
Rinoa smiled. She really didn't know how to respond to that, without sounding…well like her. Should she thank him? Should she say something countering the sentiment like, 'you are too?' Would it sound too corny? Why couldn't she just speak from her heart instead of trying to analyze everything at this moment? She usually spoke openly, why now find some awkward loss for words?
In a momentary confusion, she looked down at his hands, remembering the observation from earlier.
“Where are your gloves?” She couldn't have timed that one much worse, terrific comeback to 'you're beautiful'…
The answer wasn't logical, but she figured it had meaning to him, and that was enough. With Squall, some things were just meant to let be. Rinoa quickly figured a change of topic may be good, given his cryptic answer and her sudden ability not to accept a compliment.
“Want to help me find my dorm?” She offered her hand again, hoping that they could continue where they had left off.
He hesitated briefly this time, before accepting the gesture. Together they started toward the student corridors. Reaching her free hand in to her coat pocket, she produced an official SeeD envelope. He took the paper from her, noticing that Cid had hand-written the room number on himself. As they approached the masses, his demeanor seemed to transform with every step taken. His footing became steadier, and as they grew closer to the main atrium, he slowly let go of her hand. Any signs of confusion or doubt disappeared, and his familiar mannerisms returned. He was no longer the confused teenager, but now acting as commander…at least by outward appearance.
She sighed inwardly, part of her accepted this was just his nature, but still a bigger part thought he wanted to learn. Then she thought back to just minutes before, to when he hugged her openly. Maybe this too would take time, and she knew this lesson would be worth the wait for both of them. In the meanwhile, she was just content to be next to him, because right now, that was more than enough. They were there. They were together.
Her silence was starting to scare him; he thought maybe he had done something wrong. Granted, he wanted to hold her hand…but there were so many people. Somehow he didn't want to downgrade their relationship with something trivial…and he felt everyone was watching. Crap, he did mess up…he wondered if it would be more awkward to grab it again. Or would that just make him look too indecisive? Maybe if he just talked to her…it would be better than just the sound of their footsteps in the hallway.
“So, you're just up here to help?”
She looked over at him curiously, wondering if there was another meaning in his statement. It wasn't as if this was her choice, although she jumped at the chance to be near him again. Maybe he thought she was up here to check up on him, after their last phone call. Great, now she was thinking everything had some double meaning. Why did her mind always have to work overtime on these things?
“I guess. Cid said he had planned to come up here. He only mentioned the whole trip to me yesterday, and trust me, I had no earthly idea that I was coming up here too. Well, until then… I would have called, but I guess I just wanted to surprise you.”
They exchanged a quick glance, and for a second she thought he was going to get angry. Instead, he continued to interrogate her about the headmaster's decision.
“So, Cid only brought this up to you yesterday? You weren't aware he was planning any travel until then? Did he ride up with you? Is he here?”
First, she wanted to scream. Second, she wanted to drag him by one of his belts into an empty classroom. Never in the history of SeeD had one person switched between two personas so quickly. One minute his actions would amaze her, the next he was putting her on trial and acting her superior… All right, in technicality he was, but she liked his role of boyfriend much better than 'Distract Attorney on all things Cid.'
“Yes, Commander Leonhart, it was only yesterday that I found out about anything...and again, I was clueless. Usually, I plan his travel itinerary, but this one he had taken care of himself. And no, he isn't with me. He mentioned a stopover in Deling first. Before you start the next line of questioning: I have no idea why he is Galbadia. I have no clue if he is with his wife, General Caraway, or a chocobo jockey. And yes, I do know that Deling is in a completely different direction than Trabia. I still have a hard time understanding that man.”
“Don't even try.” The answer seemed automatic, as his mind was still lost in thought.
“I suppose you're right. Really, I'm sure there is a logical reason for everything. Then again, I shouldn't be complaining about Cid, I'm here right? I get to see you.”
“Something like that.” This time after his comment, they exchanged a slightly longer glance than before. Rinoa saw a slight crack in his exterior, as a smile briefly crossed his face. It was short, but the action was definitely there. “Chocobo jockey?” he muttered under his breath.
They rounded the corner, following the corridor until it branched off into a smaller hallway. He stopped at the second door they came to, checking the room number. Ripping open the envelope, he removed a bronze colored key. Trabia was using manual locks until their keycard system could be restored, but on the list of priorities, that fell near the very bottom.
Opening the door, he politely stepped aside gesturing for her to enter. He stood on the threshold, watching her subtle body language. The way her body shivered on contact with the cold temperature of the room. The way her boots scuffed on the tile floor, but somehow her steps seemed to be as delicate as a ballerina. The way her chest would rise and fall as she filled her lungs with air. The way she would do the most simplistic tasks, it all fascinated him beyond any logical explanation.
So much for his thoughts only a few days earlier…on keeping his personal life 'personal.' With her there, it was going to be a slight miracle to keep focused on anything for long.
Turning on the thermostat immediately caused the heat to start circulating throughout the room. She snapped the plastic cover shut, feeling relief as a warm wave of air touched her body. She spun around several times, just to bask in the freedom of not being on an uncomfortable transport seat. Her body ached from the trip, but she couldn't have been more relaxed than with him.
After her moment of playfulness, she walked over to the twin bed, which took up a majority of the room. One of Trabia's inhabitants had brought her luggage from the transport, and placed it in the middle of her bed. She briefly wondered why they hadn't thought of turning the heat on at the same time... but then again, this wasn't a hotel. Sitting next to her duffle bag, she started to unpack her belongings. When his silence continued, she looked up to see him leaning against the doorway.
“Squall, you can come in.”
“I wish I could, but I have to get back to work.”
“Oh.” She tried not to sound disappointed, even though she completely understood. “I'm going to unpack a little, then see where they want me.”
His thoughts still seemed distant, but not like outside… This look she could decipher, this one she knew way too well. “What is it Squall? I know it's work related. Are you still stuck on the Cid thing?”
“Do you find it strange that both of us are up here at the same time?”
“Um…no, not really I guess.”
“Who is running Balamb? Xu? It doesn't seem like the headmaster to have both the first and second in command not on the premises, given the circumstances.”
“What circumstances? Xu is more than capable of handling anything that comes up. I think you're just letting your imagination work overtime again.”
“Whatever.” It came out as dry and mordant. He hadn't intended to sound that way, it just sort of slipped out naturally. Some habits die harder than others. Immediately he walked over to where she was sitting, spotting a tinge of hurt within her eyes. “Sorry.” He tried to smile, although he wasn't pulling the gesture off right now.
Bending down slightly, he lifted her chin and searched her eyes for the playfulness he had witnessed previously. “I'll find out if they have any activities planned for this evening. Maybe I'll try the 'social' thing one more time, okay?” She nodded in agreement, finding it increasingly difficult to look into his eyes. The young woman turned away, not sure of why…just the intensity of his stare was becoming too much to bear. He didn't seem stunned by her action, but just moved forward, placing an almost featherlike kiss on her cheek.
With the gentle contact she turned back, reestablishing the connection which she had broken. Their eyes locked, as she accepted his offer.
“Tonight, I promise.”
This time, before he left, he rested his lips upon hers, barely applying any pressure. It felt so soft, so gentle, she was just glad to have this moment. While the kiss didn't carry the same fervor as before he departed Balamb, it somehow conveyed a deeper emotion. It was simple and beautiful…enough to make her heart feel a tranquility that had been absent for weeks.
Even in a room she had never been in, in a place she had only visited once…her heart felt at home.
Author's Notes: When I was playing FFVIII again, I noticed in the Trabia Garden scene a faded black leather jacket that resembled Squall's. It was resting on a grave on the right hand side. I always wondered how many people noticed it, and thought it would be something unique to put into a fic. :)