~ Chapter Two: A Time of Peace ~
Romance and all its strategy,
Leaves me battling with my pride.
But through the insecurity,
Some tenderness survives.
I’m just another writer,
Still trapped within my truth,
A hesitant prize-fighter,
Still trapped within my youth.
--Dan Hill (Sometimes When We Touch) March 16th
He walked the long familiar halls of Balamb Garden, just as he had done every day for the last thirteen years. Over time, the size of his steps had changed, but never the determination that drove each one. It was as if he was always pushing himself to be better…not better than the next student, but better than he had been the day before.
Since he had been appointed commander, his life was marred by protocol and politics. Now a quiet walk through the halls turned from something simple, to that sublime, for many of those around. Half of the population idolized him for his actions, and the other half ridiculed him for his prosperity. He could feel the tainted glares of the latter upon him, and sometimes he wanted to do nothing more than scream. Scream for the world to leave him alone, scream so he could enter his silent refuge once again…scream just to know that he wasn’t lost in a barren wasteland. But that wasn’t him…instead, he bottled up everything into an emotional dam.
Maybe if he could come to terms with all that had occurred, the rest would fall into place. Part of him held back from still believing, waiting for something to happen…another sorceress, another war, another person in his life to leave without explanation.
He stepped onto the elevator lift, and begrudgingly pushed the button to the third floor. The commander leaned his head against the cool texture of the glass and exhaled, mulling over the monotony of his job. Even two months after Ultimecia’s defeat, he could tell his future comprised of nothing but an endless ocean of paperwork and meetings. As luck would have it, the only break he had in the tedium was the survival retreat a few weeks ago…and of course his weekend excursion to Deling.
There was a certain relief that he was in there alone as the doors started to close…and just like some time-honored tradition seen in every movie, a hand reached in blocking the doors. Another hand soon joined it, as the doors were slowly pried open until the hydraulics took over completing the job.
“C’mon Squall, you could have pressed the ‘open door’ button,” stated Zell sarcastically as he entered the lift with his usual spark of enthusiasm.
“Could have,” the Commander dryly replied, never moving his head from its resting place.
“You going to the third floor?”
“Yes Zell – that is why it is lit up.”
“Man you haven’t been this irritable since… Oh sorry, still haven’t heard from her?”
If he had a Guardian junctioned and a ‘stop’ spell handy, this next part of the conversation would have been a distant memory. But like everything else, a simple elevator trip had to be an uncomfortable way for conversation to rear its ugly head.
“She’s called once and has written several times, but nothing in the last few days.”
“Didn’t you talk about it when you were in Deling?”
Well, he had accidentally mentioned it, but immediately dismissed the subject as a faux pas. That day was too important to ruin it with an answer. Especially one he already knew in his mind and his heart was not ready to accept. He realized that no matter what, she would never join SeeD. It wasn’t her…she simply wasn’t one of them. She was one of the group, yes; one who was hired for money, no. Yet, he would expect nothing less from her moral values, and that was the terrible irony of the situation. Cid had presented the offer before she left for Timber, with extensive training upon her return. Squall knew that was why he hadn’t heard from her, she had made her decision…and couldn’t bear to face him.
The chime of the elevator sounded and the doors opened. Both men took a step out into the outer waiting area of the headmaster’s office. Squall wrapped his fingers around the grip of his gunblade, wishing more than ever for that ‘stop’ spell right now. Anything was better than seeing ‘that look,’ the one he got too often when his friends asked about Rinoa… The very one he got from them that fateful day she left with Estharian soldiers underneath the desert sky.
“No,” he hoped that answer would be sufficient.
“Well, didn’t you write her about it? I understand it might have been easier on paper.”
Easier on paper? Hell, that would be farthest from the truth…somehow the words “Squall, I’m sorry – I can’t be a SeeD” weren’t any easier on his heart when he would see them printed in black and white.
“I never wrote her…not on that subject, not on any subject…I just never wrote her.”
“Man, didn’t she write you at least four times a week?”
“Something like that,” his tone more hushed this time.
Zell deciphered the expression on his friend’s face…one learned quickly growing up in the company of Squall Leonhart… It was that ‘leave me the hell alone’ expression, which until two months ago, used to be his norm. The martial artist and the others never doubted that Rinoa would return to Garden, but somehow their faith never mirrored the beliefs of their leader. Zell knew it best to try to change the subject, so he threw a few low blocks into the air, preventing imaginary punches.
“Coming to my party tomorrow night? Selphie has been planning it for weeks, hired a real band this time…not us trying to sound like one.”
“No tap dancing right?”
Zell chuckled at the memory of Fisherman’s Horizon and their almost comedic attempts at entertainment, “Nah…not unless Irvine drinks too much.” The Commander raised an eyebrow at the comment. “Er…not like there will be any alcohol there, really sir.”
Squall sighed; somehow the idea of an alcoholic beverage seemed to hold its own appeal right now…at least it would make his bi-weekly meeting with Cid a little more memorable. “Zell you’re old enough to make your own decisions; I’m not going to police you every time I’m around.”
“So that means you’re comin’ right?”
“I’ll be there.”
“Whoa man, it’ll be great!”
Squall nodded politely dismissing himself, “I’m late for a meeting right now.” Walking over to the headmaster’s door, he knocked and then waited for permission to enter.
Turning around, Zell jumped back on the lift, heading down to the second floor. When he rounded the corner heading to the classroom, he was momentarily knocked off balance when Selphie jumped into his arms, grabbing him tightly around the neck.
“What the!? What’s up with you!?” he managed as he pried her arms slightly loosing her near fatal grip.
“Zell!” she shouted, with her enthusiasm not going unnoticed by those around, “you will never believe who is back!!!”
“Come in.” Cid shuffled a pile of documents from one side to the other, covering up some paperwork that had been lying on his desk. He looked up to see Squall walking in and gave him a reassuring smile. “So Commander Leonhart, how are you doing today?”
“Fine sir, thank you…and you?”
“I’m very well, glad to see you are getting better with these pleasantries, keep it up for a bit and you just may grow to like them.”
Squall chose to ignore the comment, instead directing the conversation into a more professional overtone. “Is there any new business I need to be briefed on, before I head to my office?”
Cid felt slightly disappointed at the turn of the conversation, over the last months he was hoping the young man would confide in him a little. So much had happened to the teenager, that the headmaster thought his guidance might have been beneficial. The two of them shared several bonds…one of a father figure to a son; one shared within the warrior’s code, and most importantly, one extraordinary history only bestowed upon few…the honor of being a knight.
The older man grabbed a pair of reading glasses on his desk, placing them on the bridge of his nose. He reached over for a leather-bound notepad, and skimmed the first few pages of the lined paper.
“Well, I have received the final bid from the contractor…the renovations will go ahead as planned, in total construction shouldn’t last more than three months. I have put in a request for them to begin with the old Garden Faculty rooms, hopefully yours will be one of the first group completed.”
“Son, didn’t you know? I’m sorry I must have taken the fact for granted…when I talked about moving the instructors with tenure into larger rooms - I was meaning all SeeD administrative staff. As commander, you will be getting your own apartment. Mind you, it won’t be lavish, but it will at least have a separate living, sleeping, and small kitchenette area.”
“Sir, I don’t need a larger room, the dorm I have now is more than adequate.”
The older man laughed candidly, as he scribbled some notes on his paper. “You will,” his answer was almost inaudible between laughs.
“Excuse me?” Squall wasn’t sure where the humor lay; he certainly wasn’t seeing anything remotely amusing about the comment. Knowing this was going to take more time than he originally anticipated, the commander reluctantly sat down in one of the burgundy leather chairs placed in front of the desk.
The older man waved his hand dismissing the commander’s question but in his mind he was thinking, “Yeah you try living with a woman and dog in a one room dorm…fat chance buddy.”
Some things Cid knew more about than the baffled person seated in front of him…it would take time, but it would happen. It was destiny, and both of the Kramers had already resigned to this fact. There would be no stopping the bond once it started. The more experienced couple could only prepare them for the trials that lay ahead…both those physical and emotional. No, it wouldn’t happen in the next week, month, or maybe even year…but rest assured, it would happen – and they would have an apartment when it did.
“Um…it’s not important right now Squall. Oh, the first group of the students on the ‘Rebuild Trabia Project’ will be leaving…um…crap, can’t read my own handwriting. I believe it’s the nineteenth of March.”
“Yes, it is sir. Selphie and Irvine are being dispatched in the initial unit.”
“Not going to feel the same without her around is it?” Recognizing his comment may have double meaning, Cid quickly expanded on his statement. “Irvine’s final transfer papers just arrived in this stack of ‘bureaucratic hell’ somewhere…now he’ll be spending the next two months in Trabia, talk about coincidence…it may be that long before I find his paperwork again.”
Looking down to the cluttered surface, the headmaster grabbed a manila folder; opening it briefly, he skimmed through several manuals inside. “I wanted to inform you that in my opinion it has become necessary to hire a few civilian employees. Some of the positions were those that the Garden Faculty used to handle, and some have become essential through the process of change.”
The commander acknowledged him non-verbally, understanding that some outside help would always be required. Garden had dozens of non-SeeD employees: janitors, cafeteria workers, gardeners, and even the people who worked the front doors.
“Squall, next week upon your final approval, two technicians from Fisherman Horizon will be employed on full-time payroll. Now that Garden is mobile, we will need to have qualified mechanical workers. They’ve agreed to come aboard, based on our new military stance. However, if we accept any jobs that reflect the former ‘mercenary’ reputation, more than likely than not, they’ll return to FH. We will assign a few younger cadets as apprentices, so eventually it can be handled internally…but that may not be for quite some time.”
“Understandable…is that all sir?”
“No, not quite. I am contemplating two more positions…before the attack, I had underestimated the importance of having a secondary physician on the grounds…so as of next semester, I am considering taking on an additional doctor to help alleviate Dr. Kadowaki from all medical responsibilities. I already have a candidate in mind; she left SeeD to pursue a career in medicine. Because of her past experience, she would already have a working knowledge of Garden, and I suppose the idea was always in the back of my mind when she left.”
“That would be a very logical move, and I know that Dr. Kadowaki could sure use a break.”
“That’s an understatement…I don’t remember that woman ever taking a vacation.” Cid paused closing the folder. He looked down at his desk as to emphasize a point. “And Squall, I’m going to hire an office assistant for myself. Someone who can help me keep everything organized; maybe for once I’ll find something in this rat’s nest.”
“You mean a secretary?” Squall leaned to the front of his chair, somehow he didn’t like where this was going. Any documents Cid saw were usually important, and to have an outsider with such access could be detrimental.
“No, no, no…I don’t think that would be an appropriate description at all. I’m not looking for someone to fetch my coffee or file…okay, maybe a little filing...but to be an actual assistant to me. Their input would be asked for on various matters, and I would trust them to act almost like a mediator on occasion. Maybe if a person is not a SeeD, they might look at things a little differently. Plus, I can’t even read my own handwriting…someone who could use a computer and a word-processing program would be a godsend around here.”
“Sir, I’m not sure how much I like this idea. If it was someone to answer the phones, and schedule appointments, I would agree…but you would be taking a great risk with what you are proposing. No outsider should see your memos…no matter how illegible they are.”
“Did you ever hear the story behind the capital ‘d’ in SeeD?”
“Yes sir,” replied Squall trying to act indifferent. He felt a little upset about the sudden change in topic, feeling as if Cid was purposely trying to divert his attention without giving him a clear-cut answer.
“Well, forget about any official story you may have heard. Do you want the real story?”
“I guess.” Was this a choice, or some life-lesson that he was going to hear no matter what?
“I’m going to tell you how much I could use the help. Do you want to know how bad my handwriting really is? When Edea and I first came up with the idea for Garden and SeeD…we were writing possible investors for the initial capital. I was in charge of ordering the stationery, on the request form I put everything down, faxed it over, and three weeks later, we were officially ‘Seecl Special Mercenary forces.’ Turns out the man at the other end thought the ‘d’ was a ‘cl’ – he couldn’t read my handwriting.”
“Edea was not very happy about it, as her last words before I sent it were ‘type it please, so it is legible - your writing is the equivalent of chocobo scratches.’ Well, in my haste, I just handwrote the damn thing…didn’t want to go through the hassle of typing. After the mistake, I faxed the man back a strongly worded letter, trying to take some of the blame off me… In it I wrote, ‘It is not ‘cl’ it is a ‘D’ and of course I underlined it making my point very clear. This time he called to clarify, and I said, yes just like on the fax…well three weeks later we were SeeD…as I had written a capital ‘D’ on the paper. I was furious, but Edea calmed me down, she always had a way of doing that. After a few days, the name just felt right. Anyway that is how we became SeeD.”
Squall was surprised that he had actually found an ironic humor in the story. “Well sir, I for one am proud to be a Seecl.”
“Very funny Leonhart.”
“I thought so.” The commander smiled briefly before restating his doubts: “Honestly, I don’t see the need of bringing a civilian into the organization, especially for such an important position.”
“Well, the assistant comes highly recommended, and I don’t think trust will ever be an issue.”
“Sir, no disrespect…but trust is always an issue with SeeD. If we are now focusing primarily on training and security, how do we know that an outsider will not betray the confidence? I think that promoting from within would be a much more feasible solution. What about Xu or Quistis? I was under the impression they handled day-to-day administrative duties.”
“Well, Quistis helped out during the time of conflict. Now that she is teaching again, that will become her primary focus. Xu will be handling the recruitment and the Human Resource end - those duties before were controlled solely by Norg’s intents.”
“So why not promote from within?”
Cid sighed, rubbing the bridge of his nose. “Well Squall, this was based on my decision. Edea, too, met with the new assistant and couldn’t be more pleased with the outcome. I can promise you trust will never be an issue.”
“How can you promise?” Squall held the comment to himself, although he still couldn’t follow the headmaster’s reasoning. He turned his head slightly, not looking the elder in the eyes, finally conceding his argument, “Understood sir.”
“Squall…sometimes…” the older man hesitated with his words, his voice echoing the regret, “Sometimes you can’t always trust the people from within…you just never know a person.”
Seifer. Even almost two months after the defeat of Ultimecia, Cid had not been able to talk about the boy to anyone. The two sat among awkward silence, one that Squall didn’t have the courage to break…or the words to heal. The older man inhaled deeply, before grabbing a file lying on his desk. Squall watched as the headmaster fumbled in opening the folder; his emotions were betraying his actions.
“So anyway Squall, here is the welcome manual, and the written history on SeeD. There is also a required video presentation, which basically covers everything briefly that is in that book.”
“Sir, why are you telling me this?”
“Oh, I’m sorry…I guess I should have made myself more clear on the situation. I want you to go through the book with the new hire, rules, regulations, that sort of thing.”
“Shouldn’t Xu be handling this? I believe it falls under the definition you just stated of her duties.”
“Normally she would, but I’m afraid she is unavailable today, and since you may be working closely with my assistant, I thought you would be the most logical choice.”
“Today sir!? You mean that the person is starting today!?” Squall couldn’t hide his feelings on this one…he tried desperately to feel part of this organization, and sometimes he felt like he was the outsider. He stood from his chair, trying not to let his emotional dam break at this moment. “I feel like this is something I should have been notified of. I know you have the ‘final’ say when it comes to what is best for Garden, but seeing that I am supposedly the commander, I think a background check and a formal interview with me would have been the least that could have been done.”
“Squall, listen…I understand. Under normal circumstances, you would be the first to know, and I would even insist that you would be present for the preliminary through final interviews. As for the other civilian positions, I am asking you to run criminal checks on before they officially start. This one, however, was a choice that I made, and will not go back on.”
He was never one to question orders. He was never one to question authority, but somehow the entire situation seemed forced upon him. Cid had never used a subordinate in such a manner before, with the notable exception of Xu, and even she had her own duties during the conflict. Maybe the lack of previous assistance was due to the presence of Norg, and the high level of secrecy that had to be maintained on a daily basis…but why now…why trust an outsider of all things?
The commander pushed away his reservations, and walked into the small conference room. The shades were pulled, and the lights dimmed for the introductory video presentation. A closed circuit television distinctly showed the black and white SeeD emblem, it was the only light that illuminated the small space. Tossing the manila folder onto the table, he tried not to let any of his distrust, or insincerity, seep into his voice.
“I’m Commander Squall Leonhart, on behalf of the staff and students I would like to ‘welcome’ you to Balamb Garden. We hope your employment will be a productive and plea--”
He felt someone attack his waist from behind, and responded as any highly trained soldier would do in the identical situation. His body went into autopilot, and with one fluid motion, he grabbed his assailants’ arms, twisting them forcefully to his right side. With grace-like ease, he flipped them over his shoulder, until their defenseless body hit the floor with a resounding ‘thud.’ Both of the attacker’s wrists were contained within one hand, as he pushed his knee into their stomach, virtually rendering them powerless.
“Ouch,” a voice whimpered out of breath.
The adrenaline of the short-lived battle coursed through his veins, but the sound of the voice made his mind wander in a completely unexpected direction. One that, fifteen minutes ago, might have explained the headmaster’s elusive answers. He knew that voice; it haunted his every dream…
“Uh…huh.” The soft tone was more in anguish this time.
Squall loosened the tight hold on her hands, dispersing the weight off her abdomen falling onto his own knees.
“I’m sorry…I didn’t…are you all right?” He reached over to her, placing his hand on her shoulder. Only the shadowy silhouette of her hair could be seen in the darkness, but he knew it was her – his heart could tell.
“Can you say workman’s comp?” Smiling briefly through the pain, she took in his hazy features highlighted with the illumination of the video screen. His hair slightly covering his features and his scar nothing more than a shadow stealth upon his face. His eyes, however, reflected the light like a beacon burning through the November gales. Rinoa momentary cringed realizing she had read one too many romance novels after leaving the hospital.
She started to speak again, but her voice, along with her resolve, caught in her throat. In that moment, the weeks of emptiness seemed to fade in the passing of time. With her now freed hand, she reached a palm up to his face, surprised at her own gumption. She allowed herself the almost forbidden pleasure of feeling his cheek. “I’m fine Squall.”
He tensed at the contact, surprised that he didn’t pull away from her. Reaching up he met her fingers, slowly guiding them away from his face. Each digit seemed to be an entity of its own, each something he had only dreamed about for the last two weeks.
He quickly released her hand, and then stood up, acting as if nothing out of the ordinary had just happened. “Can you stand?”
“I think so, nothing feels broken.”
“I’m glad…I hate all the damn paperwork.” He reached down to her, offering his hand. She accepted the help, and stumbled forward slightly losing her balance as she stood.
A sharp sting radiated from her lower spine, and she had tried to hide the pain as she winced inwardly. No one could ever say that Squall Leonhart wasn’t always ready for battle and she now had the war-wounds to prove it.
Squall had not stopped to remember why he had first entered the room. He seemed only to be focused on one thing, and in the dark, he found himself less self-conscious about staring at her. And that was exactly what he was doing…
She had realized this fact, and found herself not wanting to break the peaceful silence. The only sound in the room was the low hum of the audio-video equipment in the background. Finally, he took a slight step away, obviously starting to feel uncomfortable, it almost wanted to make her laugh…there was such an innocence contained within one so guilty.
“Rinoa…” he hesitated slightly before asking the question that he had dreaded. Somehow, he found the strength in the darkness to ask the impossible, “Are you staying at Garden?”
“Is that all right with you?”
“Hell yes!!!” Okay that would not be the diplomatic ‘Squall-like’ answer, so he settled on, “If it is what you want.”
She smiled slightly before raising a hand to her forehead, almost looking embarrassed. “I do…I don’t have anywhere else to go and…” she cut herself off, knowing that she was trying to make excuses for the real reason she wanted to be there. She took her hand away from her head, looking at him with more confidence, “I want to be here.”
He found a certain euphoria within the words, but tried to remain collected around her; although he realized it was a losing battle. He had to say something…
Yes, conversation with Squall Leonhart could be a little on the short side, she understood this point very well. At least she had the benefit of being able to speak without being under heavy sedation this time.
“Timber is doing well, thank you. In the last two weeks, they have organized a basic government structure without the influence of Galbadia. Most of the administration is temporary or at-large positions until the elections this fall. Well…okay, that didn’t happen in just the last couple of weeks, but the last time I saw you the elections weren’t a hot topic with us, so I just summarized.”
“I’m sorry, I should have asked before.”
“No Squall, you don’t have to ask…please don’t feel bad.”
“But it’s important to you…of course I should have asked,” he thought to himself, and then swore he wasn’t going to make that mistake again. “How are your tonsils? Or…I guess lack of.”
She pushed strands of hair behind her ears, “They are happily living somewhere, which isn’t in the vicinity of my throat. It was better for our relationship that way.”
“It’s good to hear you again.” He cringed at sounding like a long distance commercial, “Oh, man…please don’t think that was lame.”
“You too,” she answered with complete sincerity, putting his mind at ease.
“Cid…” he finally spoke uneasily, “Cid wanted me to go over some stuff with his new…” He could see her smile, and it lit up the dim room like Bahamut’s Mega-Flare. The realization hit him for the first time since he walked in there giving his fictitious welcome speech. His feeling of culpability made him break the bliss, looking down at the yellow folder that lay on the table. “Rinoa…are you sure? The rules, the regulations…this isn’t you. Are you sure you really want to work here?”
“Squall, are you sure you do?”
The answer caught him completely off guard. Never once had he made his earlier doubts known to her - about his feelings, or his scruples. He could never live with himself if he allowed Rinoa to compromise her principles, for something as pedestrian as…well whatever she was there for; his mind still refused to fathom it was for him.
“It’s better.” His answer skirted her question – but still truthful, again it was one of the subjects that he avoided back in Deling. “I was going to tell you before, now that Norg isn’t controlling the intents of Garden, Cid is focusing on taking us in a different direction, one that will be leading us away from the mercenary reputation.”
“He said something to me about changes for the better the other day, but told me that someone would go over everything when I returned.”
“…when you returned,” Squall repeated under his breath, amazed how wonderful each syllable sounded when he said it.
“Nothing Rinoa, just…nothing. Anyway, SeeD is deviating from the mercenary stance. All Gardens have contracts in the works with local governments, to help train their recruits in basic defense and security issues. We will still be hired by individual sources, but only for the purpose of defense…no longer killing for money, only protecting - taking a human life will only be a last resort. There will also be more focus on hostage negotiations, and special op recovery.”
“So, if I had tried to hire you now, SeeD wouldn’t have helped the Forest Owls?”
“Well…technically…no, but we could have help protect you if Vinzer Deling had put a contract out on your life.”
“Good…I like that.” She replied, taking a small step forward as she watched his tense body slowly began to relax. “So I guess this means I can’t hire you to stop Irvine from hitting on me.”
“Well, technically that falls under ‘protection’ of human interest…and there are some articles that allow for more dramatic and persuasive approaches. Where you can’t hire SeeD for combat, I think I would be willing to work independently if the situation was dire enough to warrant it.”
“Oh, I love it when you talk all official like that. Now explain to me the detailed history of junctioning.”
“No!” she playfully answered, hitting him on the shoulder. He was so cute when he was confused at her sarcasm. Oh crap, she just called him ‘cute’ again; she swore to break that habit yet. “Um, Squall, you really didn’t know I was here, did you?”
“No, Cid seemed to have omitted important information about his new assistant.”
“You didn’t think I was coming back to Garden at all.”
He took another step away from her, looking over to the video screen. He hated the feeling of being caught in the proverbial ‘headlights’. There was no correct way of answering this, as he found to be the case too often lately. “No, Rinoa I didn’t.”
In the dark, she could see the moisture in his eyes reflect like crystals, and empathized with the inner turmoil he was experiencing. She walked over to him, this time placing both hands gently around his waist. “Squall, I know before I didn’t agree with being paid to fight someone else’s battles. But remember I did hire you. I think SeeD had its purpose, but I’m glad to see you moving in a different direction. I was honored at the opportunity to become a SeeD, and seriously considered it…but in the end, it isn’t who I am. When I talked to Cid the other day, he was the one who suggested the assistant position…he said he already knew I would refuse the SeeD offer.”
Rinoa closed her eyes, placing her head on his chest. “You still don’t believe in me, do you? Squall, I promise I’m not going anywhere. I never questioned that I would return, the only question was in what capacity. As I said before, Timber was a chapter in my life…one that will always remain very special…but it’s time to start a new chapter.”
He leaned his cheek on her soft hair, and finally allowed himself to reciprocate the embrace. He tried to ignore that voice inside, the one that always caused him torment. “Is that all I am going to be to her, a chapter? When she is done with me, will she move on again?”
“What are you thinking Squall?”
“Nothing of importance.”
“Right, like I would believe that. Don’t worry, I don’t expect you to understand right away, it will take time. But I promise you someday, you will never doubt when I say I’ll be here…I’m not leaving.”
“Rinoa, I don’t doubt you…I doubt myself.”
“Look at me,” her soft voice sending a sudden chill down his spine. She placed a finger underneath his chin, making him look toward her. “Stop that. Don’t doubt, just feel.”
He gave in to his feelings, reaching down to press his lips upon hers. The hospital had seemed like years ago, and the balcony like several eternities. He pulled her even closer, if that were physically possible, not wanting to let the moment end. For the first time he felt himself brave enough to let his hand wander up her back, feeling every millimeter of her body.
“Commander Leonhart, if that is how you welcome all new guests, I am guessing that our female enrollment would triple by the end of the week.”
The shock was overwhelming, and both stopped their actions very quickly. Rinoa covered her mouth with one hand, while the other smoothed the wrinkles in her clothes. The embarrassment Squall felt back in the hospital was nothing compared to having Cid standing there looking at him. He immediately jumped into attention saluting the older man.
“Hyne boy, at ease…gee’sh I was just kidding. Although I do have serious doubts whether I should let you welcome the two mechanics from FH next week, last thing we need now is an ugly lawsuit.”
“I apologize about my behavior sir, it was very inappropriate.”
“No, it was inappropriate for me not to knock. Trust me, I know what it is like to be separated…” The headmaster sighed knowing that no matter what he said, Squall wouldn’t think of him as anything but a superior. Still he felt the need to continue, if not for boy’s sake, than for Rinoa’s. “Off the record, I know what you two are going through, more than anyone else here. Squall I trust that you will never let your relationship come between your duties at work, just as I know you will never let work come in between your duties as a knight. Can I ask you one question, and I want you to answer me truthfully.”
Cid took off his glasses, holding them by the stem in his hand, and then looked toward the younger man. “Squall, in my office, when I mentioned I was hiring an assistant, why were you so adamant about me not getting one? Honestly, what was your first thought?”
“That’s two questions,” Squall mentally complained, but he knew that right now he owed the truth to both of the people standing in the room. “My first thought…” He wasn’t sure whether to be embarrassed or proud of this fact, especially with her standing next to him. “…was about Rinoa. I didn’t like the idea of someone having access to personal information about her, including any weakness she may have. I know that she has concerns about people fearing her…and I just didn’t want an outsider knowing that she was a sorceress. But there was also concern for Garden in general. So much could be compromised.”
“Excuse me sir?”
“You answered truthfully, and more importantly…how I wanted you to answer. I can tell you one thing…that nobody else in the Garden would have agreed with your thinking. Their reasoning would be - you are Commander, and as such, your duties first and foremost, would lie with SeeD. There isn’t another superior at any of the Gardens who would understand your answer but me. Whatever you do, always remember what is more important…because it hurts like hell if you make the wrong choice.”
Rinoa stepped from where she stood behind Squall, moving over to the headmaster, “Edea?”
“It’s not important dear. In the end it all worked out…I guess.”
“Headmaster,” offered Rinoa looking older than her eighteen years to him. “I know whatever you did was what was necessary. You managed to protect Ellone, and in the end that was all that was important. Maybe you were separated, but maybe you had to be. In the end you trusted each other’s character, and came out stronger for it.”
“Rinoa,” Squall said her name trying to quiet her. Although he believed in everything she was saying, he still found it hard to accept her speaking her mind, especially to one in authority.
“No Squall…it’s all right. That’s one of the reasons I want Rinoa here…she has distance from SeeD, although she shows respect, she also isn’t afraid to speak her mind.” He placed his glasses back on his face, scratching the back of his neck. “There really was a reason I came up here, and not to make you two feel uncomfortable…although I did a damn good job of that, huh? Rinoa, I was entering your personal data into the computer, and was surprised that a ‘Rinoa Caraway’ came up in our database, as a student at Galbadia Garden twelve years ago.”
“Oh yeah…” Rinoa turned away from Squall and the headmaster, almost ashamed of the fact.
For a second the two men exchanged a look, not sure of how to interpret the situation. Squall finally took a step forward, placing his hand on her shoulder. “Rinoa, what is it?”
She turned around smiling embarrassedly, “Nothing really…yeah that was me. I never attended; I was just accepted. I didn’t make the connection right away to Garden, I was so young…and it was a lifetime ago.” She took a deep breath, acting as pained by the memory. “When I was six, almost a year after my mother died…well…my dad wasn’t himself. He ended up going away on a very long mission, and enrolled me in military school. Really, that whole time is just a blur, I remember some guy coming out to the mansion and talking to me. I’m not sure what happened, but somehow I ended up staying with my grandparents for two years…I never actually attended.”
“Well, that explains the lack of data, I wasn’t sure what was going on…just surprised that anything came up at all. I’ll let you two get back to the um…history of SeeD.”
The older man left the room, as Squall’s hand still gently rested on her shoulder. “Rinoa, I know it’s none of my business…but I noticed you called him ‘dad’ just a second ago.”
Reaching her hand to meet his, she interlocked their fingers forcing back the tears. “Well, I guess…he was ‘dad’ to me back then. I think when he abandoned me for so long, that was the beginning of the end for us…I needed him then. That’s what made him Caraway.”
“You…stayed with your grandparents?”
“Yeah, they lived in Timber…my mother’s side of the family. Didn’t I ever mention that she was born in Timber? She moved to Deling to make it big, it was her dream.”
“No, I didn’t know.” Now some of her desire to help free Timber made sense. It wasn’t just because the town was occupied; it was a part of her history. She had lived there for two years, and it became a second home to her…and he was guessing more a home than Deling City after Julia’s death. Moreover, it was her mother’s history too, and maybe Rinoa felt she was fighting for her memory.
“You know Squall, I don’t want to talk about this anymore. I think that SeeD history is starting to look exciting.”
If there was one thing he could understand, was when a subject bothered a person, and they truly no longer wished to speak about it. He knew that Rinoa had her past, just as he did…if someday she wanted to talk about it, he would be there.
“Come here,” he whispered, yet his voice reached, pulling her closer. She rested her head on his chest once again, feeling comforted by hiding within the shadows of the room.
She closed her eyes, just enjoying the incredible calm of his arms around her, protecting her from the memories that were still hard for her to fathom. “You know Squall…I am starting to think the world is against us.”
“What!?” He didn’t mean to sound that surprised, her comment just caught him off guard.
“Well at the hospital Zone and Watts walked in, and now it was Cid.”
“Don’t forget the balcony, when Selphie ran out and asked if ‘we could do it over’ because she missed it the first time.”
Rinoa laughed at the memory. “Yeah that was pretty…uncomfortable for you I’m sure.”
“Well, someday it won’t be so uncomfortable…you’ll get used to it.”
“I’m trying,” he spoke hoarsely. In unison they looked at each other, she winked mischievously as he bent down to finish the kiss they had started earlier. And again, fate set another obstacle in their way…technically four of them. This time Squall heard the door opening, and almost ended pushing Rinoa off him trying to separate their bodies. She raised her hands skyward, admitting defeat as the lights brightly illuminated the room.
“Rinoa!” Zell ran into the room, grabbing her body off the ground weightlessly and spinning her around. “It’s true, you are here!”
“Yes, it’s really me…”
When he set her down, she waited for the slight dizziness to subside, and her momentary blindness to fade. She noticed the four people, correction: four friends, standing in front of her. Laughing a little, she walked over to the rest of the group. Quistis was the second to greet her, pulling the younger girl into a hug. “Missed you, hun.”
“You too,” she replied sincerely as she pulled away.
Selphie let out a slight squeal, as she hugged her friend. “I saw you earlier walking in the halls! I had to find everyone; we finally asked Cid where you two were!”
“Just been in here, watching some exciting welcome videos.”
“Oh I know! Did you see me? Those were all produced in Trabia while I was still there. I’m in the background in several shots…and the actress in the scene ‘how to use the keycard system.’ I was the one who kept getting the red light because I swiped my identification too fast!”
“Yes, yes…I noticed. Your acting abilities were great, I really felt for you when you couldn’t enter that room,” she playfully teased, hugging the girl a second time.
“We didn’t interrupt anything, did we?” Irvine smirked in the general direction of the commander, as he lowered his cowboy hat over his eyes. “Squall seems a little quiet over there…and slightly annoyed.”
“He’s fine Irvine… No more annoyed than usual, and you didn’t interrupt. Glad to see you.”
“You too darlin,’ it’s not the same without that beautiful smile, and those gorgeous deep-brown chocolate eyes.” Irvine reached down capturing her right hand, lifting it to his mouth. He delicately kissed it sweetly saying, “It’s always a pleasure to be in the company of such an attractive lady.”
“Oh-puleese,” interjected Zell. “Squall I’m feeling ill, isn’t there some kind of rule about ‘cheesy’ pick-up lines at Garden? Especially, comparing eye-color to food.”
“No, but there should be,” the commander added sarcastically.
Selphie elbowed Irvine in the stomach. “Hey guys I’m just kiddin’, you know me.”
“Yes we do, that is what scares us,” stated Quistis.
“Hey Rin, it’s my birthday party tomorrow night! Selphie’s been planning it for a while, there will be a real band, lots of music, and food…it’ll be great. You’ll be there right?”
“Of course Zell, I wouldn’t miss it for the world.”
Squall stood back and watched the group around him interact. To them it was so easy, so natural. Even Quistis was laughing and smiling, a side of her demeanor he hardly ever saw out of her normally professional appearance. Irvine had placed his arm around Selphie, who had thrown it off the first time…but his persistence paid off in the end. She no longer fought his advances, and eventually leaned up against him for support. Zell moved back and forth, unable to stand in one place very long…he was like an endless faucet of energy that nobody ever turned off.
And Rinoa, of course he couldn’t stop watching her, although he tried not to look obvious. She was there; she had really come back…all the others believed she would, yet he still carried his doubts.
“You still don’t believe in me, do you? Squall, I promise I’m not going anywhere.”
“You’re home now,” he whispered under his breath. “You’re home.”