~ Chapter Fifteen: A Time to Hate - Part III ~
Love sought is good,
In his head, he had whispered the apology a hundred times. Each time the confession was complete, his actions seemed crueler than the time before. Jerk, moron, asshole... whatever you wanted to call him, Squall Leonhart made Laguna's memories look like the acts of a distinguished gentleman. This relationship stuff was just so damn hard. Seeing Seifer and Rinoa together awakened a part of him that he never knew existed. One that had lain dormant for eighteen years.
Softly he rapped on her door, waiting nervously for an answer. When he didn't get one, he tried knocking for a second time. On a hunch, he tried turning the doorknob only to be met with resistance. Of course, this was the time that she remembered to lock her door. Figures she would pick now to finally start heeding his advice.
Inside the room, Rinoa bit her lip apprehensively. Honestly, she didn't want to be seen in her volatile state. Squall wouldn't show up - he was the type to work through his inner turmoil by himself. Naturally, a part of her wanted to run to wherever he was, and convinced him that everything was going to be all right... But right now, she had enough of her own past demons to sort through. So here she was lying silently in the dark like a petrified child, certainly not reminiscent of the young woman she should have been.
With Squall mentally eliminated, it left the visitor to be either one of three people. She really didn't feel like going through the 'big brother' routine with Zell. Although, even she knew, the martial artist only had her best interests at heart. Cid would only treat her as a daughter, which on some level was extremely comforting. Yet the man was, for lack of a better term, a 'parent' to all parties involved, and might make it more complicated. The third choice in the possible trio was Seifer. That conversation wasn't going to happen, alone, in the next millennium. Right now, she preferred her boyfriend's tried and true method of brooding alone.
“Rinoa, are you in there?”
Squall's voice caught her off guard, and a surge of warmth surrounded her body like a kindling of fire. A gasp escaped her lips, as the tears seemed to flow freer with this revelation. It was a mixture of heartache and undying relief that he'd actually sought her out. He repeated his question slightly louder, again waiting for a response. Rinoa couldn't tell if he was upset or apologetic, it seemed to be an amalgamation of both. The young woman tried to wipe her eyes, but she had been trying to do that for well over forty-five minutes.
Lying on the bed, she brought her knees up to her chest, hoping that he'd go away. She was suppressing the even larger part of her who wanted to run and jump haplessly into his arms. This was going to kill her. It was either pride or stupidity keeping her from running to him. She cursed herself for her own vulnerability. Instead of facing him, she was lying curled in a fetal position.
Silence was the only thing that passed between her and the door for countless minutes. It occurred that her wish to be alone might have been granted. The realization that her foolishness drove him away hit her with the strength of a monsoon. This brought on yet another onslaught of tears. She steadied herself enough to crawl off of the bed, edging slowly toward the door. Honestly, she wasn't sure of what she expected to find in the hallway. She just prayed for something.
He heard the mechanical release of the lock, before the door gradually opened. There he sat on the floor, back against the wall, looking like some kind of pathetic fool. He had to remind himself that was a fairly accurate statement right now. Swallowing when he finally found the courage to look at her, the apology he had prepared seemed hopelessly lost. She couldn't even look him in the eyes. Her focus remained on her bare feet, as she stood balanced with one leg behind the other. All he could do was look at her, think in his heart he had once again caused this.
Her hair was up in a high ponytail, with large clumps falling from their restraint. A navy blue t-shirt and shorts had replaced her sweater and jeans. It looked like she had already retired to bed for the evening. Her face made him realize just what a fool he'd been. Her eyes were swollen with tears that he had caused. It would have been easier to blame their existence on Seifer, but he wasn't the one who had hurt her today. Squall wanted to sweep her up in his arms, protecting her from everything. The only problem was - how was he supposed to protect her from himself?
“Rinoa… can I talk to you?”
“Whatever, it's a free country.”
Her statement might have been abrupt, but he could tell she was having difficulty trying to keep her poise. Turning around, while still watching the floor, she headed back into her dorm without another word. Standing up, he took a deep calming breath before following her lead. It seemed all he had been doing lately was asking her forgiveness for his foolishness. He silently wondered just how long she would put up with this nonsense.
When he entered the room, she'd already made her way back to the bed. Crawling under the comforter, she refused to look in his direction. Her body turned away, she faced towards the barrenness of the window. There was no light in the room, save for the moonlight sparkling off of the snow. Her body remained mostly obscured in the shadows, as his eyes fought hard to focus. Still he could make out her saddened face in the glass; he wondered if she was looking outside... some part of him holding out hope that she was looking at him.
“Rinoa, I shouldn't have--”
“No, you shouldn't have.”
He wasn't expecting her tone to be so sharp. “But I did, I'm sorry.”
“No kidding Squall. I didn't notice... I was too busy being in awe of your power.”
“I deserve that.”
“Did you break any more of his bones in the last few minutes? Or is his sentence a public execution for just speaking with me.”
“No…Rinoa...no. Will you look at me?”
His voice softened as he sat on the edge of the bed. He had been here only an hour before, yet now it felt like a lifetime ago. He wished back those earlier moments, to hear her laughter... And of course, to be utterly confused by some of her actions. Now he wasn't confused by them, but had driven her to her current state. Another fugitive sob escaped her when the bed shifted with his weight. She clung to a nearby pillow as if it where a life preserver.
“Why?” Her voice cracked.
“Because, I want to apologize.”
“You can do that just as well to my back as my front.” God, she wanted to turn around. But she just wanted to hold back a few moments longer. By her defiance, she hoped he wouldn't think her as being weak, and ready to give in to his every whim. She knew that when it came to Squall, her heart was always fragile, but a part of her yearned to be stronger.
“Rinoa, I just saw you two together and…” The apology he had planned before now officially packed up and built a small hut on Minde Isle. Any words that came to mind seemed juvenile or delusional. “I-I don't know.”
She tossed a pillow angrily against the windowpane. Maybe it wasn't what he wanted, but at least she was finally expressing her emotions. He could handle that better than her silent indifference. “What Squall? What did you think? I was going to run back to Seifer, now that he is trying to turn his life around? You think that you're only a substation for him? What…really?”
“Yes, if that makes you feel any better, I was scared.” The young man paused as the words left his mouth. He couldn't believe how easy that just slipped out. A year ago he wouldn't have admitted fear to anyone, now he felt as he wanted to share himself completely with her. Involuntarily he reached out placing his hand on her shoulder. The warmth of her body under his touch gave him the strength to continue. “I don't know how to explain it, but here was some guy, who spent his life tormenting me, and I walk in and he's holding you.”
“Correction, I was holding him.”
He chose to ignore that comment. It was for the better. “Rinoa, it's as if the last year had been a cruel delusion, and I suddenly discovered the truth. With him, where he was before, and with you gone. It was like some slap in the face of reality… and I hated it.”
It was the final weight that broke her stubbornness. The hold was released and she could no longer keep her tongue. Sitting up quickly, she looked him in the eyes for the first time since letting him in her room.
“Reality Squall? Our Reality is the time we spend together. The day we watched movies at the hospital, our trip to Winhill, dancing in your room, from our very first hesitant kiss... to the way you kissed me tonight. My 'reality' with Seifer was long talks, a few awkward kisses, and summertime memories with someone who listened to me… The same 'someone' who threw me away like chum to a school full of hungry sharks. Don't you think I, at the very least, deserved to know why? God Squall, it's not him that I want to be with. Why would you even question the fact that I love you, just because Seifer's back? If you doubt this relationship, then I'm not even sure what we're doing anymore!”
The sorceress hadn't started out yelling, but somewhere along the line, both the tone and exigency increased. The knight held in firm silence, looking dumfounded at the emotional outburst. Wasn't it him that was supposed to be apologizing - not sitting blankly in some comatose state?
In the soft light, she could just make out his expression. Suddenly Rinoa felt as if she had crossed some unwritten line. In all their time together, she had never seen this much uncertainty shrouding his face. For the life of her, she couldn't figure out what was said that would cause such a reaction. The numbness spread through her body like fire as she tried frantically to recount her words. She had 'kissed Seifer,' was that it? Did the thought disgust him so much that he couldn't be around her anymore?
“W-What Squall?” She finally had to question aloud. All attempts to mask her fear washed into oblivion.
“You said…” He whispered the start of something, before trailing his thoughts.
“I'm sorry.” Reaching out her trembling hand, she slowly wrapped unsure fingers around his arm. He didn't jump at the contact, for that she was grateful. It was nothing more than a mental crutch, trying to keep him from getting up and walking out the door. “I-I'm so sorry,” she stuttered once again. It was so long ago, and the feelings for Seifer had faded way before now. How could she truly apologize for something she had done before she met him? She was damn well going to try though. “Yes...I kissed him. Squall, I-I promise you it was nothing much. Seifer had much more experience than I did and-”
He shook his head cutting her words abruptly, never taking his eyes off of hers. This drastic change in behavior was starting to concern her. She mentally went back trying to retrace her words...hospital, Winhill, kisses, summertime, sharks, I love... Then it hit her with all the force of a ruby dragon's tail.
“Oh crap.” Rinoa hid her face in her hands in embarrassment. “At least it wasn't from the lunch lady.” She shook her head in disbelief, how did she let that one slip out, especially in the same sentence as the name 'Seifer?'
Yeah, okay those were the words he caught... there went her last ditch effort to think, maybe he was upset about the shark reference or something. Again, any romantic notion of this declaration seemed a far cry from reality. But as she stated earlier, this was their reality, and maybe it somehow fit into their myriad of awkward moments. If she was going to say it again, she was going to do it right. Taking a deep breath, she removed her hands from her face, looking him directly in his eyes.
“I love you.” She said with conviction through her tears. “Squall Leonhart, I love you... I certainly didn't mean to blurt it out like that. It's just today...and you... I was so scared. And I...”
Her words softened, and she had to look away. Like so many other times, the emotion became too much to bear. As much as she wanted to search his face for a reaction, the tears were becoming too painful. In that moment, no other words were needed. She had spoken from her heart, and that was all she could ever do. She just prayed that it would be enough.
The feeling of strong arms encircling her brought her that needed moment of salvation. Giving in to the serenity, she placed her head against his chest like she had done countless times. But this time it was different, for he knew how she felt... and he was still there. He didn't back away; he didn't leave in a drunken state of fear. Instead, he came to her, accepting the gift with heartfelt gratitude. She never expected a reply, knowing he still needed time. She would allow him forever if he wanted it. Inside she felt as if a huge burden had been lifted; one that she didn't even know was consuming her heart.
His left hand moved to her waist, capturing the cotton t-shirt fabric in his palm. The other hand traced the path from the small of her back up to her neck. She leaned closer, drawing their bodies together. Her two arms resting on his back, finding a safe harbor from the storm. Her eyes closed as she listened to the fervent beat of his heart. So scared, so frightened, but like a paradox - he was never more at ease. Minutes passed within the silence. The only sounds remained their breathing, their heartbeats, and the low hum of the room's heat being forced through the ceiling vents.
His gravely voice finally spoke through hapless breaths, unable to say anything more. His mind was screaming to respond, yet no words seemed to materialize. Some feelings were simply beyond all spoken words, when only the silence bound them within the dark. The sweet fragrance from her skin was starting to flood his senses. Moisture from earlier tears coated her neck, glistening faintly in the ashen moonlight. Before his mind registered what his body was doing, he softly traced small kisses along the sensitive skin of her collarbone. Praying in the darkness that he could somehow erase the pain he had caused. Allowing himself to continue in the moment, he explored the material of her shirt near her waist. He had never known cotton could feel like the finest of silk on his coarse hands. It was then that her earlier wardrobe registered in his mind, as did the small embroidered logo on the front of her t-shirt.
Between kisses he managed, “Rinoa... you...took my shirt, didn't you?”
She giggled aloud. A combination of the memory and sensation of his breath, brushing against her skin like raindrops. Maybe his comment wasn't what she was expecting at such an intimate moment, yet somehow it fit perfectly. Reality had to ground Squall, before he would allow himself to get lost in the unknown... The sorceress had noticed this tendency, but wished this newfound closeness would have lasted longer. Eventually he would allow himself to lose control, to get lost within his human desires. But certainly not tonight. So as he had done countless times before, he changed the subject completely.
Her words were soft, tender, and spoken unsurely from the momentary exhilaration. Then again, she was hoping this one would have slipped passed him.
“Yes, it's yours. Before we went to the Tomb of the Unknown King, you guys had us doing laundry in Deling. Please... don't be mad. I honestly thought it was Selphie's and put it in her basket. I was supposed to return it but...”
“But... what?” He questioned, feigning concern. Still softly placing tender kisses on her neck.
“I ended up wearing it that night. I didn't have your ring yet, and I just wanted something that was a part of you. Plus, how was I supposed to know that you would have a shirt with a skunk embroidered on the front?”
He stopped his advances and parted slightly, allowing their foreheads to gently rest together. His left hand still gently caressing the back of her neck, letting his fingertips soothingly play with the end of her ponytail. The light reflected deeply into her eyes, and he felt as if he could see eternity. He didn't care that she was wearing his shirt; he just had to stop himself before drowning in his own mind. She remained silent, allowing her knight to take the lead. Tenderly he pressed a finger to her lips, curling up the corners of his mouth in a tiny smile.
“I'll have you know, Miss Heartilly, that isn't a 'skunk,' it's a badger.” She couldn't help but chuckle as he defended his shirt. He seemed so sincere about it; it was a mischievous side of him she would have never expected. Lifting an eyebrow, his finger still was placed gently on her lips, continuing to hush her. “That badger is the mascot for the world's finest gunblade oils, imported from Eldbeak Peninsula. Don't ever underestimate a badger. They can be just as fierce as Wendigos if threatened. They can get up to whopping ninety centimeters in length...razor sharp claws...huge teeth...they're terrifying, really.”
“Wendigos, Squall?” she finally countered, still enamored with his presence. A single finger still resting on her mouth.
The movement of her lips under his touch fascinated him, the way her warm breath tickled his finger. He couldn't help but give her a full-blown smile. Not from their conversation, but just from the amazing comfort he had unknowingly found with her.
“Very small Wendigos...but Wendigos nonetheless.”
The gunblader tried to remain serious, but couldn't help but join her in a moment of unadulterated laughter. He finally dropped his finger, wrapping his second arm tightly around her back. It felt good to laugh, amid all the problems of the evening. The young man just wished he could find the words to tell her how he truly felt. For a minute, he forgot why they were amused. Whether the situation was truly that humorous, or it was from all the tension that had been building through the night. It was amazing to be this close to anyone, and part of him wondered if he could ever survive without it.
Laughing, they fell onto the bed cradled in each other's arms. Rinoa still under the covers and Squall lying to the outside edge. He rolled onto his side, still grasping her tightly. She adjusted her positioning, giving him more room instead of clinging to the edge of the mattress.
“Rinoa, keep the shirt, it looks a hell of a lot better on you. I'll just save labels for another one.”
“Thank you Squall, but you weren't getting it back anyhow.”
“I figured. I know how stubborn you can be Rin.”
Letting out a small snicker, she exhaled as she rested her head against the pillow. She just wanted to stay this close to him forever. In his arms, the world just seemed to fade away into nothingness, as if it was only them. The young man paused, reverting to his more serious self.
Every conscious thought was telling Squall not to bring earlier events up, and just to enjoy the captivating magic of being near her. He wished to let his mind fully comprehend the three little words she had given freely, but he couldn't, it was his duty to protect her. They were on this journey together, taking each obstacle as it was laid before them. The emotional bond they had shared this evening was still plaguing his thoughts. He wished them back to that logical part of his brain usually set aside for work.
“I need to let you know something.” She started to pull away, but he wouldn't allow her escape. He didn't want the euphoria to end. “No don't. It's okay... I just need to let you know something about us.”
“Us?” She questioned, somewhat concerned. Her head resting on the pillow, she turned to look into his eyes. Their focus had leveled in the dim light, and she could make out every centimeter of his features.
“Well, about this whole sorceress/knight relationship. Um... honestly, not sure how to explain this, I hope you'll understand. According to Cid, it seems we can be empathic to each other's emotions. Even if the other isn't aware they are experiencing them. I'm not claiming to understand all the details, but it explains why neither of us were acting ourselves tonight. The short version is that you could sense Seifer, because you'd had some sort a previous relationship with him. Because your relationship was left unresolved...the physically closer you got to him...”
“The more I couldn't control my...um...irrationalness?”
“Something like that. I somehow can perceive your emotions, drawing upon them. The results can manifest themselves in different forms... not always anger. It's part of my job to know when the connection is a warning to something else. We'll learn more with time. I should have listened to my first instincts, and not left you alone tonight.”
“You couldn't have known Squall.” She assured him, starting to subconsciously massage his shoulder. “It wasn't all bad. Plus, we got to freak out Zell a little bit.”
“That's true.” He chuckled, slightly remembering the martial artist's expression when he found them 'making-out' in the hallway. It was more fervent than anything they had shared to that point. Now the knight could understand the passion surrounding the kiss - they were both slightly emotionally overloaded.
“So, I guess this means next time I steal your shirt, you'll feel my guilt,” she teased.
“I think it has to be something major... something that would affect both of us or our relationship. But don't worry Rin, you better believe I'm going to keep a tighter inventory on my wardrobe after this.”
“That hurts.” Rinoa stopped massaging long enough to slap him playfully on the bicep. The young sorceress couldn't recall a time when they had been this close, for this long. Okay, there was the night he had stayed with her after Cid and Edea's... but she was upset with him back then, so technically that didn't count. Tonight she wasn't really mad, but hurt by the way he had dismissed her so easily.
Maybe the gravity of everything that had happened tonight was beginning to dawn upon her. Looking into his eyes now, she remembered the scared child she saw staring back in the training center. That five-year-old who had everything stolen from him, silently yearning for someone to reach out and comfort him. Someone to whisper everything was going to be all right. It was the child afraid to ask, but desperately seeking comfort and acceptance.
Rinoa had never known Squall and Seifer at the same time. At least during a meeting that could be classified as peaceful. Judging from what little she had firsthand knowledge of, their pasts could not have been one based in anything less than a complex rivalry. It was not only the mirroring scars engraved on their faces, but also ones that ran deeply carved between the two. It was something that would never completely heal. It simply couldn't. In all her desires to hear Seifer's reasoning, she never stopped to fully comprehend the significance of his return on the man lying next to her. She had known Seifer only a few months, Squall had to deal with a betrayal of someone he'd known all his life.
“I-I'm so sorry Squall.”
“Why?” He hadn't initially grasped her meaning, believing their conversation still was lighthearted, joking about pilfered clothing. “Rinoa, honestly you can have the shirt, it's okay.”
“No,” she softly answered. She shook her head almost embarrassedly. “I'm sorry about the training center. I'm sorry I didn't let you in the room right away, and that I feel the need to be stubborn some times. I didn't think about how hard it was on you...to see him again. I guess I was just thinking about myself, and didn't stop to realize... I-I'm so sorry.”
“It was hard.” He hadn't meant to be so candid, but for once, his heart was guiding his words. Moving his hand to her face, he traced her jaw with a fingertip. “But it was harder to think of losing you.”
“Squall, you aren't going to lose me...I'm not going anywhere. Please, please believe me.”
“I want to, God I want to.” It came out more of a plea than he had intended.
His throat felt as parched as the Kashkabald Desert, but he swallowed his pride anyway. Part of him had to know, if not for him, then for them. Maybe he would find solace in knowing the truth, maybe he just needed to know more about her. Maybe the truth was much less painful than some of the images that plagued his mind.
“Rinoa, I have to ask... what exactly was your relationship like with Seifer?” Okay, he had officially crossed into 'jealous boyfriend territory.' Zell would be so proud.
Searching her mind, she tried to find the right words. She smiled knowingly, this had to be so hard on him, and he was acting so brave in the face of danger. She would expect no less from her knight. Before they got into the whole sordid history, they had to get comfortable...this could take awhile. There was also this small voice in the back of her head that didn't want to be looking in his eyes. It was still hard to talk about. The thought of hurting him with any words made her ill.
“Wait one second.” She moved from her position, grabbing a few bed pillows and leaned them against the headboard. He laid there captivated at her actions; sometimes it just took his mind a few moments to register pertinent information. She wouldn't change a thing about him, even if it was within her ability. It was only then that he took her cue, sitting up and removing his shoes before returning to the bed. Leaning against the headboard, he placed his arm around her and she leaned onto him, putting herself once again in the familiar position, finding comfort on his muscular chest. Although, she could never tire of this closeness.
“I can't believe I've known you well over a year now, and you're finally asking me about Seifer.” All right, not the best statement she could have made, but it was the truth.
“Maybe a part of me was afraid to know.” Definitely not the words she expected as a reply, if she expected any words at all. He leaned down, placing a small kiss on her head. What surprised her most was that he didn't retract, resting his chin softly in her hair. His warm breath was like a longed-for friend, comforting her through the next several minutes.
“I met Seifer at the Deling Train station. Actually...I ran into him - literally. As usual, I overslept and was running late to the platform. Hurrying to catch the train, I turned the corner quickly and wham... well you get it. He uttered a few choice words under his breath, looking down at me. He just stared at me with disgust, while one of his friends helped me to my feet. I mumbled some kind of apology, still embarrassed. What I didn't know was that my train had been delayed due to a mechanical failure... The four of us ended up on the same train, and I remember walking down the aisle by them a few times...on purpose. Finally, the last time Seifer reached out, grabbing my wrist asking me if 'I had a problem.' I wish I could tell you why I found him fascinating... Maybe because he didn't help me. The guy had been anything but a gentleman.”
She reluctantly continued, listening to his heartbeat like a metronome. She honestly didn't know how much he wanted to hear, but she knew there could be no secrets between them. Experience had taught her that much.
“So anyway, I found the need to tell them all about myself... I'm pretty sure Seifer wasn't listening to half of my rambling. Raijin and Fujin were nice and the three of us talked the entire trip. Arriving in Timber, I got off the train after saying my goodbyes... I figured I'd never see any of them again. When I was walking out of the station, someone tapped me on the shoulder. Seifer asked if I wanted to go grab some dinner... I learned about him that night, when his friends weren't around... He was attending Balamb Garden and was going to be a SeeD. It was early June, and he said he had the weekends free. We agreed to meet every Friday night outside the train station.”
Did he really want to hear all of this? Of course not, but he listened to it, absorbing all the details. One thing made sense, Seifer seemed to be away from the posse when he talked freely. Nobody at Garden would have taken the time to get to know him one-on-one. Then again, he wouldn't have allowed anybody that close. Maybe Seifer saw the same quality in Rinoa that he had, someone that you wanted to put all your faith in, and slowly chip away at the walls. It was something natural about her personality. Sometimes the commander just wanted to drown himself in that quality.
“When school started again full-time, I'd write long letters and tried to call. He always seemed too busy to talk, and never once wrote back. Still, I was holding onto the memories... I just couldn't let them go. I even went to Balamb over winter break and things seemed fine between us. Part of me always wondered if there was somebody else, and he just didn't have the heart to tell me. He still seemed concerned about me, wanting to know how things were going with the resistance. But...um something happened on that trip...and...”
She bit her lip, feeling her pulse reverberate throughout her throat. He involuntarily tightened his grip, feeling as if she was going to fade away into nonexistence. “I could tell he was stressed about the exams coming up... We went out to dinner and then returned to my hotel room. I guess I was too naïve to think much about it, or maybe some part of me subconsciously understood the implications. I was just a month away from turning seventeen, and part of me wanted to grow up so much... to feel like an adult... to feel like a woman. But I couldn't... I just couldn't.”
The tears were trailing down her face again, for the countless time that evening. She couldn't believe that there was anything left in her. Against her will, the sorceress' body trembled as the knight held her securely. Never relinquishing his grip, his heart ached with hers as she tried anxiously to finish.
“H-He was so mad and left. I blamed myself. I figured I'd never hear from him again, after what I'd pulled. He could have been with any woman, but he wanted me that night.... God, I don't know. Maybe I just read everything wrong... I'm still confused. Seifer called in late March, which was the first time he'd ever called me. He had been apologetic, but never apologized... it's kinda hard to explain. The conversation felt different. He did mention that things were changing at Garden, for the better, saying he was going to make it this time... He was just so damn positive about himself. He thought if I wanted to hire SeeD, that it would be the right time. So, he invited me to the graduation... told me to wait outside and he'd escort me up. That was going to be the first time I would be around people he knew. I was so happy. I finally felt like he wanted me to be a part of his life...”
She continued breaking down, to a point where she was barely audible through the sobs.
“Rinoa, its okay...I get what happened from there.”
“N-No,” the young sorceress faltered. She wiped away her current tears with the thickness of her blanket. “I have to finish...I also made up my mind that night I wasn't going to back down; I was going to spend the night in his room. Dressing up, I actually planned to give myself completely to him. Squall, hindsight is twenty/twenty honestly... I'm so, so sorry I'm telling you all of this. I think I really would have been with him that night too... if one thing hadn't come along. You.”
Part of him was already resigned to the fact he'd accept if Rinoa and Seifer had been physically together. He had convinced himself that it didn't matter; it was in the past. It didn't change the way he felt about her, the way she felt about him, or the future they were destined to share. Yet on hearing that they hadn't, he felt an enormous relief surge through his body. Maybe it was selfish, maybe it was only human nature, whatever it was he didn't know. He just knew it went down to the most primal of feelings.
“Seifer never met me downstairs, so I went to the ballroom to find him. I looked around for a while, trying not to let any of my irritation show. Thinking maybe if I could dance, or get out and talk to someone, it might calm my nerves. Whatever I did, I wanted it to be perceived as if nothing was bothering me. The music... I just listened to the music and felt lost in its melody. I remember thinking how happy everyone looked. Even in a place that trained children to fight, couples had found each other. Here I had planned the biggest night of my adult life, and I was alone in a room filled with people. That's when I saw you looking at me.”
“I was alone in a room full of people too, until I saw you too.” He left his thoughts to himself, not wanting to interrupt her. After all, it was Rinoa that caught him staring at her. If you asked him one reason why he looked, he couldn't give one, but maybe he could give you a hundred. He would have tried to deny the fact had it been anyone else, but she had caught him staring that night, and many nights following that. Somehow, he didn't care.
“After leaving you, I talked with Cid. He agreed to help... it was like a small miracle. I mean, I know Seifer just stood me up, but I felt that I was doing something for Timber... That was better than anything I could've done for myself. I wanted to run to someone, shout it to the entire world. So I decided to head back to the train station, figuring I could at least share the moment with Zone and Watts. I stepped outside the main doors, when someone tapped my shoulder from behind. I turned... it was Seifer... H-He seemed so bitter, so hurt. Seifer never mentioned anything about failing, I still was under the impression he'd passed... He said he'd been drinking and wasn't aware of the time... That's when he went upstairs and saw us dancing...”
Catching her breath, she lifted her head from the safety of her human pillow. She rolled over, moving to her elbows, and resting them gently on his chest. This way she could see his face, and every darkened shadow shading his masculine features. He moved one arm securely around her waist, while the other drifted to her face. Softly he brushed long tendrils behind her ears, wiping her tears with his thumb. She smiled, nuzzling her cheek into his palm. He cupped her face as she turned her head slightly, placing a soft kiss on his fingers.
“The next seconds were kind of a blur. Damn it Squall, he was so just angry. He reached forward and stumbled from the alcohol, falling into me. I remember shifting sideways and letting out a shocked yelp, as he fell into my shoulder. His weight knocked me back, hitting a nearby wall... The next thing I knew, two guys in robes were pulling him off of me. And Cid... Cid was there and ordered them to take Seifer to the disciplinary room, until he sobered up. The headmaster asked if I needed an escort... I told him I was fine. I think I was just in shock at how fast everything happened. I wasn't mad, just confused... they took him away so quickly.”
“Squall, it's not your fault; you have nothing to apologize for. I've always felt bad... like the whole ordeal somehow came back to me. All of it. If it hadn't been for me, Seifer wouldn't have been at the television station in Timber. Ultimecia would have never controlled him and--”
“Rinoa stop.” His words were forceful, yet he delicately caressed her face in his palm. She winced, closing her eyes at his authoritative tone. “It would have never mattered. Ultimecia would have appeared to him eventually. It wasn't you that connected our fates; it was our past at the orphanage. Your arrival may have been a catalyst, but it was never the cause.”
“Are... are you mad at me Squall?” her voice shivered slightly.
“At you? How could I be?”
“Well... because of Seifer.”
“If anything, I understand the conflict towards him a lot better. I shouldn't have acted like I did today. You two honestly did need to work things through. I'm the one who is sorry from stopping you.”
“I was just shocked to see him again, in a Garden training center no less. It was about the last thing I had on my mind. I guess I wasn't thinking about how it would appear in the long run.” As much as Rinoa enjoyed the close proximity, the numbness was spreading quickly through her arms. Begrudgingly, she moved into a sitting position. Never wanting to break the physical contact, she kept one arm gently placed on his chest. Shaking the tingling sensation from the other limb, the young woman looked down to where he was lying. It seemed that he hadn't taken his eyes off of her since she had changed positions. “So where do we go from here?”
“The only place we can go... forward.” His voice seemed hoarse as the whisper cut through the darkness. He reached out both of his arms, capturing her free hand in one fluid motion. He brought both of her hands together, placing them on his abdomen, where they joined his. “We go forward... together.”
“Squall, thank you.”
“Thank you for what?”
“I should be thanking you, Rinoa... for saving me. Thank you for loving me.”
“For breaking Seifer's nose,” she giggled breaking the tense mood.
He gave her a wry smile. “I thought you were mad about that?”
“Well, I'm supposed to be, I guess... but really he did deserve it. Most guys just badmouth their ex-girlfriends, not sacrifice them so they are joined eternally with a psychotic tyrant.” She tried to make light of the situation, but he could tell that the truth still bothered her.
“He won't hurt you anymore.” The knight clutched her hands tighter, closing his eyes as he made the promise.
She withdrew her right hand, moving it up to his forehead. Softly she traced the line of his scar with her index finger. “No Squall, he won't hurt us anymore.”
Trembling under her velvety touch, his eyes closed tighter at the sudden realization that he was laying on her bed, with her caressing his forehead. All words seemed to be lost, along with that logical side of his brain that commanded the most basic of actions. The fingers from one hand still rested on his stomach, and he could feel the weight of the bed shifting. In the darkness, the feathery touch of her lips replaced the trail that her finger had blazed. Softly, delicately, her warm breath met with the imperfection highlighting his face. Not only kissing the physical wound, but also trying to make all those fears and doubts bottled inside him ebb forever from his soul.
Rinoa fought against herself not to continue. To sit back up and temporarily push the fiery sensation of his skin from her mind. He may not be ready for any more contact. It had usually been him initiating their closeness, taking the lead at his own pace. Yet the temptation was becoming too much, and she wanted to take a chance, throwing months of caution to the snowfields outside. It was all a risk, a calculated risk. She had to be willing to accept the consequences...
She found herself pulled into a trance, unable to stop at just his scar. With skillful vigilance, she moved to his lips, wondering how he was going react. At first, the contact was tentative, and he seemed to be resisting any advances. Her warm breath mingled with his as she hovered over his mouth waiting for a reaction. Afraid she had already tested the limit of his boundaries, she started to back away. She cursed herself for throwing too much on him already. The confessions of both her true feelings for him, and her history with Seifer, were enough for any one person to absorb.
She smiled, extremely self-conscious about her actions, as his eyes fluttered open. She could not read his expression, not due to the lack of illumination, but because it was something she had never laid witness to. The last thing she expected was to feel a hand on the back of her head, bringing her back to him. His eyes shut as their lips united once more, not the tender pecks from before, but a blending of emotion and passion surpassing any previous barriers.
Her body felt so weightless as she fell on top of his chest, his mind couldn't even register that another human being could feel so light. The young man had not consciously realized that his hand had moved under the material barrier of her shirt. His second hand joined the first moving to her back, finding comfort in the silken texture of her skin. One hand pressed into her shoulder blades, while the other continued mingling with her ponytail and neck.
Every silken strand of hair felt like heaven as it twisted around his fingers. Somewhere along the line, he had forgotten how to breathe and now was trying to steal needed gasps between kisses. His mind screamed this was wrong, it was too soon, and he would have to stop this before he lost all control. But his heart couldn't get over the simple fact that she loved him. Through all the heartache, through all his foolishness, this person had seen all his faults... and loved him any way. Could he have ever asked for any greater gift?
His throat let out a groveled moan as he moved her to the side. Together, she allowed him to take the lead by rolling together. Her fingernails scratched gently against his back, as neither seemed to be yielding to the moment. It was her turn to let out a soft cry as he started tracing kisses down her neck, much as he had done earlier. Her body shivered at the touch, and she couldn't help letting out a small giggle every so often.
It was within a moment of clarity that Squall realized just what he was doing. Again, he had allowed himself to be overtaken with her. To be lost within their touch. He gave her another short kiss on her neck, before giving her a slightly longer one on the lips. But she had sensed the change too; she was surprised he had allowed himself to be lost for that long. Although, a part of her couldn't help but feel the disappointment, still she knew his lucidity was for the best. With arms still tightly wrapped around her, he maneuvered so he could look directly into her eyes. It was him that was the first to smile, reassuring that he wasn't offended. Letting her silently know that he had found a certain exultation in the moments they had just shared.
“Rinoa, I... I really wish I could--” It wasn't the thought he had planned on admitting, but somehow it is what came out. “It's just that--”
“I know Squall.” She brushed his bangs out his eyes, although they fell right back. “It's been a long day for both of us. You don't have to explain anything.”
“It's just our emotions are still a little off, and I don't want to do--”
“Shhh.” Rinoa placed her finger on his lips this time cutting his words. “No explanations, all right? We don't need excuses, when something is right... we'll both know it, okay?” He nodded in understanding. She moved the single finger that rested on his lips back to the edge of the scar. “But Mr. Leonhart, you are not getting off that easy.”
Raising an eyebrow, he felt a surge of panic. Although from his current position, he wasn't sure what he possibly had left to be unnerved about. Right now, he was literally laying on top of his girlfriend, in her bed... not exactly the easiest thing to try to explain away. Not that he would even try.
“Squall... the training center, earlier? What were you taking me there for if it wasn't to train?”
“Oh that.” He grinned, slightly humiliated at his line of thinking. “After everything else tonight, it is nothing of real importance.” Shifting his weight, he moved back onto his side. Although feeling her body beneath his was amazing, it wasn't exactly the most comfortable position... given the circumstances. He finally managed to roll over, sitting up at the edge of the bed. He turned back noticing she was grinning sneakily like a Cheshire cat.
“Well you're going to tell me, right?”
“I suppose I could... or I could just show you.”
“Show me?” Her voice took on a seductive edge as she winked in his direction. He gave her a slightly confused look at her implications.
Shaking his head he looked at her shrewdly, “Get some clothes on.”
“You really don't know how this whole thing works, do you?” She said the last part teasingly as she sat upright in the bed. Part of her was shocked she felt that relaxed joking about the subject. Sometimes she had dealt with testing or uncomfortable situations with humor - tonight had been a combination of more than both.
Standing up, he turned back to where she sat. Leaning over he inched closer to her face, to where only a small space separated them. The commander mirrored her first tone, speaking softly in his own alluring manner. “I know exactly how it works Heartilly. You must remember you're dealing with a SeeD, trained in the art of making the enemy helplessly surrender. To know the enemy better than he or she knows themselves. To make them feel secure in order to obtain the needed result.”
He moved forward to where his lips were millimeters from hers. Just like before, she could feel his breath dance on her mouth. She leaned forward, closing her eyes, the commander acting as if he was going to close the final gap. In that instant, he turned his head standing up quickly. She caught herself falling forward onto the bed when he had moved away. She squinted her eyes in aggravation at his malicious retreat.
“Then again, SeeDs have been known to be given withdrawal orders.” He chuckled faintly before pointing at her suitcase. “Now just get some sweats on or something; it's cold in there.”
They had walked the whole distance hand in hand. Somehow, it felt more natural than anything in the world right now. Maybe it was because most of the students were asleep in their dorms, or maybe it was just that he had reached a new level of understanding with her. One that superseded any fears or concern of outward appearances. He still would maintain professional decorum when necessary, but right now, he only wanted to be her boyfriend, her knight... the person she loved. He could never tire of that.
Upon reaching the training center, he held the door open for her as she entered. Again, the air greeted her like a cold blanket wrapping her body. They silently walked within the room that currently housed no monsters. Reaching another set of double doors, which acted as a divider, they entered another room. It reminded Rinoa of Balamb Garden and the secret area... just without the teenage hideout. Squall led her back to a tiled area surrounded by yellow and black caution tape. She mused to herself that he wouldn't seriously bring her here to 'make-out' now. They were quite capable of handling that by themselves in her room.
“There.” He pointed to the marked off area.
“Caution tape... it is really nice.” She said, slightly confused, and examining the thinly colored plastic. He was unusually silent, and then in a moment of extreme tiredness, she wondered if that is really what he was showing her. “Um, the technique in the display over the barricades is excellent, Squall.”
“Thank you, I put it up myself.” His answer was completely serious.
“What, that's really it?” This had to be a weird joke forged in the mind of Squall Leonhart, right? “Please tell me it's not the tape.” Okay, she needed sleep badly.
“No Rinoa, of course it's not the tape...” He glanced over his shoulder, giving her a wink this time. “Come here.”
Staying to her side, he squatted down to the floor still grasping her hand. She followed his lead, ending up sitting on her knees. It was then that she discovered what he had brought her to see... it was something etched within all the cement tiles themselves. She looked toward the one nearest them, as he nodded in that direction.
“I was helping in here earlier this month. All these tiles were originally designed by students and staff. A cadet suggested that every tile should have a name, and something symbolic of a fallen student engraved on its face... so they did. But there were more tiles than students, so the headmaster thought that everyone who helped with the restoration should also have one... At first I declined, I didn't want to have my name on anything... I figured it should be left to the residents of Trabia Garden. Then one of the instructors said if I didn't want my own, how about something that I was grateful for...”
“Squall... I...” She tried desperately not to cry, feeling as if her tears would crystallize on her face if she did. It was so cold, and she could feel the familiar sting in the corners of her eyes. Reaching out her right hand, she traced a pair of delicate angel wings etched on the marbled tile. In the center, a lion's head profile, being valiantly protected by its heavenly, feathered guardian.
“Just like Winhill,” she echoed aloud, remembering drawing wings on the Leonhart family mausoleum. There she etched them into the years of filth, it was nothing lasting ...such as this. Now that she examined each stone, they all had some symbolic meaning to those who had suffered and endured. “It's so beautiful Squall... they are all beautiful.”
“One of the artisans in Shumi Village made them. Each individual just had to design their own tile.”
There was foreign lettering written below the image. It was like something she had never seen. She ran her fingertips of the cold stone. “W-What does it say?”
“It's written in an ancient Shumi dialect.”
Taking her eyes off of the tile, she glanced at him apprehensively. “Shumi dialect, huh? Somehow, I think you're avoiding my question.”
“Hey, I have to at least have some surprises, right?” Moving to his knees, he let go of her hand and placed his arm around her back. Resting her head on his shoulder, the sorceress let out a small laugh.
“Squall, I thought that 'secrets' were what we've spent the last few months avoiding. I don't suppose it will work if I said it was an 'order from your client'?”
“Nice try Rin, Timber held its free elections months ago. Although, I'm pretty sure you're never going to stop ordering me around.”
“Hey!” She turned, peering in annoyance. He gave her soft reassuring peck on the lips.
“Secondly, we are working to avoid secrets. I promise you this isn't one... I will tell you eventually... just not right now. You have to trust me, okay?”
“I trust you,” she admitted, albeit reluctantly. “Not even a tiny clue?”
He smiled resting their foreheads together. “It has nothing to do with Wendigos or badger shirts.” She started to protest, but was cut off by his lips pressing against hers. He parted and she found it best not to continue the line of questioning... at least for the moment.
“Come on,” his words brittle in the cold air. Standing up, he helped her to her feet. “You're going to get sick if you stay in here. Plus, we've better get some sleep. I'll take you back to your room, okay?”
Agreeing silently, she placed her head back on his shoulder as they walked out slowly. His arm found a resting place snuggly on her waist. She looked around the main room when they left the smaller part, remembering everything that had happened tonight - the good, the bad, but mostly the overwhelming relief that filled her soul. She had faced her fears tonight, and came face to face with her past. Two people whose histories had intertwined for a short time, now had two decisively different paths to follow. Seifer was earning his redemption as a ward of Trabia Garden, a complicated and dangerous journey in its own right. And her, coming to terms with emotions running deep within her heart, and discovering her place among this world. Walking down the path not alone, but hand in hand with her knight.
Chapter Notes: Hey everyone... I just wanted to thank all of you for your reviews. I read each one and they do keep me writing. I think I would have given up long before, had it not been for all the support. Sorry this part took a little longer than I thought...my daughter had the flu, then as per my normal life...I caught it from her. Yes, a parent's job is never done...which I'm glad! Also, Optical Goddess had asked what Rinoa and Squall were going to do in the training center, and I thought...er...yeah better answer that one. That's what has been fun about doing this story, mixing so many things into it... I can't believe any one is still reading. Until the next chapter... I promise something a tad bit more fun for them. :)