~* Chapter 8: Dusk *~
*Love disclaimers, disclaimers are my friends. I do not own Final Fantasy or any of the characters. Well I own a dog that looks like Angelo…close enough for you? Yeah, me either…darn it.*
Quistis and Zell stood alongside Squall, watching the patrons as they arrived at the reception. They had done their required amount of mingling with the upper-crust throng. Something that none of them enjoyed. They were fighters, not used to these social gatherings like those people.
Squall froze as he felt a skinny hand on his butt. He didn’t have to turn around, and more importantly, he was afraid. He knew it was she, Maude McCay, scarier than Ultimecia herself.
"Maude it’s so nice to see you again," spoke the SeeD with forged enthusiasm. "I was just so hoping I'd run into you tonight. As I was just telling my friends, Quistis and currently unattached Zell, no evening would be complete without a beautiful princess."
"…And an ugly dragon," whispered Zell to the instructor.
Turning her back quickly, the blonde woman hid that she was going to lose it. Squall acted so damn happy, it was the most outlandish event ever witnessed by humankind. She walked behind a stone pillar and almost fell to the ground in hysterics. She felt a masculine hand on the back of her shoulder.
"Quistis?" there was a minor concern in the tone. "Are you okay? Can I get you some water or anything?" Looking back, Robert was standing there, next to Rinoa. She reached for Rinoa and hugged her tightly, nonetheless out of breath. In between snickers she said, "Rinoa…Squall…Maude McCay... was touching his butt."
Rinoa started laughing also. "I know Maude, she can really be something. Even though I want nothing further to do with Squall, no man deserves that fate."
Quistis motioned to where they were; Robert led his cousin in that general direction. She regained her equanimity, and like a true professional, went back to the scene of the crime. Well, in a few seconds, after she watched him squirm for a moment. Yes, paybacks can be hell.
Zell stood and watched ‘Happy Squall’. He too, was almost frozen in fear, as his best friend transformed into the world’s happiest guy. Something the rest of Garden would probably consider one of the signs of Armageddon.
"Squall, I really need my bedroom repainted. I think you would be perfect." Mrs. McCay put her scrawny arms around Squalls waist. "I’m sure someone of your caliber would know his way around a bedroom. I’ve always wanted to see how well you could use your paint brush." Giving Squall an extended kiss on the cheek, she left a fire-engine red lipstick mark on his face.
"Don’t get sick, Leonhart," he was mentally coaching himself on the overly nice philosophy…that he now concluded…down right sucked. "Maude, I would love to paint your bedroom. But unfortunately, due to Garden regulations, I’m not allowed to accept any outside work."
Zell had to speak up now; better judgment was no longer in his favor. "Yes Squall, that’s true…unless, you don’t take any money for the job. Garden allows you to do community service. I’m sure you would be very good with a paint brush."
Robert and Rinoa had been listening to the conversation for the last few minutes. Knowing she couldn't laugh, for etiquette was very important to the society of which Maude was a member, Rinoa tried desperately to contain herself. She walked up next to Squall and grabbed his arm. She was going to have to get through this, even if it was the last thing she did. And at this point…it just might be.
"Yes, Mrs. McCay, Garden does allow for community service as long as no monetary compensation takes place. But, since Squall is The Commander of a Garden, he can’t directly involve himself. Regulations restrict him from doing such labor for security and political reasons. However, Zell here is not regulated by any such ineffectual rules. He could paint your room, and believe me…he can paint it much better than this guy." She pointed to Squall, who had a completely bewildered look covering his face.
Rinoa leaned over to the wanton, trying not to pass out from the odor that resonated off her body… "Does she know that perfume is not to be used like suntan lotion?" contemplated Rinoa wordlessly. "Maude, I once had a friend who dated Commander Leonhart over there… It is common knowledge, among the girls at Garden, he isn’t very good with his paintbrush. Sad really, what a genuine waste of the male species."
Mrs. McCay turned, looking at the face of a now aghast Commander. "Pity, he was such a good kisser." Turning around she grabbed Zell's muscular arm, and the other hand traced its way down to his rear end. "I always have been a sucker for a man in a penguin suit. So you’re good with a brush, huh?" Zell looked back, revulsion replaced his normally tranquil exterior.
Smiling brightly, and waving faintly, Rinoa added, "Bye Stud-Man, nice seeing you again." Rinoa broke one of the final barriers, laughing aloud.
Squall turned and wondered, her mood swings were as unpredictable as Seifer's…and that was saying a lot. At last, he looked at the woman using his arm as support. "I don’t know whether to be insulted or pleased right now."
"Go for the latter Squall… All I have to say is…now I am even with you for jumping out into space. Trust me, mine was a far worse fate," she said playfully.
The look within her earthen-brown eyes, it was the first good look he had all evening. She was exquisite, just as he vividly remembered. A blue hand-beaded dress with spaghetti straps covered the length of her body, but always emphasizing curves to where they should be. Around her neck, she had a set of ivory pearls, and a matching pair of cultured earrings completed the ensemble. Her hair was pulled back in a loose fitting-bun with tendrils hanging down. Her delicate matching shoes accentuated the feet he had noticed only a few days ago. He unconsciously looked down at her breast, "Damn you Irvine. Had I ever really noticed those before?" Such physical thoughts were far from his mind a year ago. Now at this moment he couldn’t take his eyes off them…. Er…her.
Quistis picked that moment to walk around the corner. She noticed the way Squall was staring at the dark-haired woman. She traced an imaginary line from his eyes to Rinoa’s... breast? Squall was actually staring at Rinoa’s chest. Shaking her head, the woman attempted to hold the laughter yet again. "Um… huh, Squall?" Quistis watched his expression, which mirrored a child caught with his hand in a cookie jar. Squall almost turned three shades of red.
"Oh, hello Quisty…er Quistis. Rinoa and I were just talking."
"Yes... talking," laughed the blonde woman. "Where did Mrs. McCay go, how did you manage to lose her so quickly? Oh…and where is Zell?"
Rinoa spoke up, "They went off, together, to discuss some community service work. Quistis, can you make a mental note? Keep Zell a safe distance from me for a while."
Robert, who had been talking to the couple next to him, turned back towards Rinoa. As he was about to open his mouth to speak, a young attractive young woman ran up to Squall. "Oh my god, you are Squall Leonhart?! I have been in love with you for two years. It’s great to think the world has heroes like you. Would you care to dance?"
Squall was uncomfortable, this kind of thing happened occasionally. Over the last two years, he tried to be polite. SeeD had a distinguished reputation, and he didn't want that to be tarnished with his typical, cavalier attitude. In a very gentleman-like fashion, he replied, "Right now I’m accompanying Ms. Heartilly. If I am free later in the evening, I would love the opportunity to dance with you." The young girl ran back over to her friends, pointing toward Squall. The Commander, in all honesty, had not intended to dance with her, but still wanted to let her down politely.
Something almost snapped in Rinoa as she started thinking. "History always repeats itself, that's what they say. Is this what happened when I left for Caraway's house a year ago? Some eager SeeD cadet ran up to him and threw herself at his feet? Did he even bother saying, 'not now I’m with Rinoa, but later this evening?' Or did he actually have an emotional attachment to her… or was it purely physical?"
These questions she'd asked before, to herself, over a year ago. On that morning, and every subsequent morning after. With every sunrise, she wondered…with every sunset she questioned. Now with him beside her, she was asking the very questions that drove her to the brink of insanity.
She had to stop this; she had to stop him.
Truth be told, she was already starting to have feelings for him again. That killed her very soul. "How long would it be before he runs off with another young girl, one he wouldn’t have to help around the rest of his life? One who could see him at their wedding? One who could see him when they made love?" Rinoa felt herself starting to hyperventilate…she had to get away from him now. Before she fell into a trap, from which she couldn't escape.
"Squall, I’m very busy tonight. Please do me a favor and keep your distance. It really doesn’t do me any good to be around SeeDs. Everyone here knows they were hired to kill Galbadia’s soldiers. Those militia members have friends and family in attendance this evening, if I’m seen with you that will reflect badly on Caraway. As a citizen of Deling, I have responsibilities toward the government."
Squall stood completely taken aback by Rinoa’s change of attitude. "Rinoa, the same government you denounced two years ago? The one you were fighting against for the liberation of Timber?"
"That’s the past Squall. Leave it there. Robert please, escort me to my father's table. I would like a glass of water." Rinoa turned toward her cousin and offered her hand.
He stood just as perplexed as Squall. He grabbed Rinoa’s hand while giving Squall and Quistis a look of absolute confusion. Yet, he said nothing to either as he guided his cousin to her father’s table.
Quistis looked at Squall, "Are you okay?"
"Did that make any sense to you Quistis?"
"Well, no. Just give her a while, try talking to her again after the banquet. Now, I would like an important, muscular, and extremely sexy SeeD to escort me back to our table. Don’t make me call Maude over here to feel your tight buns again." Quistis said while wiping the red lipstick off Squall’s face.
"Anything but that, Instructor. I’d rather have Irvine feel my butt than that leech," Squall offered his arm out for Quistis to take. Together, they casually started walking back to the table.
When Squall and Quistis arrived, everyone was sitting down with their drinks. Zell had managed to plan a daring escape from Deling’s biggest, and oldest, sexual predator. Squall tried frantically not to make eye contact with him, but Zell was obviously not pleased.
"Tell your girlfriend that I so owe her one Squall. Mrs. McCay petrifies me, and I’ve seen some really, really ugly things."
Squall shook his head vaguely saddened. "Zell, she’s not my girlfriend." The Commander saw Quistis lean back in her chair out of the corner of his eye. "Just somebody I’m really hoping would like the job."
Quistis smiled at that comment.
The dinner had pretty much gone without incident, except for some crabmeat flying through the air, landing in a lady's hair. Irvine still couldn’t look directly at her. They all ordered several drinks. The exception was Squall, only on his second glass of burgundy wine. He watched Rinoa as much as possible, mingling, smiling, and laughing with all groups of people. "Boy, she really does have striking legs. Great, mental note, KILL IRVINE."
Her cousin had been escorting her around all evening. The Commander watched the way they interacted with people, the subtle nuances that only he, or those who knew the truth, could notice. Now Robert whispered something in her ear, leaving her standing alone. This was his chance and he knew it. Squall took off the white gloves that covered his hands, and excused himself from the table.
Rinoa was leaning against a wall, in similar fashion to his positioning on the night of the SeeD graduation. He held his head up high, swallowed his pride, and walked over to her. Thinking he could stir old feelings, he echoed the words of their very first encounter, "You’re the best looking girl in here."
Turning her head away from him, Rinoa cynically replied, "I wouldn’t know."
Not letting her behavior get to him, Squall took another step closer. "I bet you’ll only dance with someone you like."
"Yep, that’s not you." Rinoa declared with lack of emotion.
He reached down and gripped her right hand gently. She did not pull away, yet she did not return the gesture. He took another step closer, until they were centimeters apart. Raising her hand to his mouth, he gently kissed it. "You’re going to like me; you’re going to like me."
Rinoa could feel her whole body going numb, but tried to resist his charm. "Why did he never act like this before?" It was not going to influence her. "Nope, still don’t like you and you can’t dance.”
"I’m looking for someone and she’s standing right in front of me."
"Wow," he thought to himself, "now I’m starting to sound like Laguna, or worse yet, Irvine." It sounded like some cheesy line from a singles pick-up bar. Yet strangely, he meant it. That line at least got her attention. Rinoa turned his direction, and by the look on her face, she probably was thinking that he sounded just as lame.
"Here, let me move…so you can get a better look at whoever 'she' is." It was a simple reply, but it lacked the confidence she had a few moments ago.
He gave a slight pull on her right hand. "I’m right here Rin, trust me."
She gave a small snort, "Trust you?" Somehow, before she knew, he had led her to the dance floor. He continued to hold her right hand, carefully putting his other on her delicate waist. The touch was very tentative at first, as when they had danced before. Squall looked at Rinoa's face; she was simply beautiful. Amazing. He accidentally looked down at her breast again. Eventually he caught his faux pas and took his focus off them; glad she hadn’t seen him hypnotized by her body.
After the initial shock, Rinoa started to relax ever so tentatively. They were able to keep the pace with the other dancers, and he even spun her away and then gentle pulled her back closer to his chest. "You’ve been practicing, Squall."
"No, you just can’t see me stepping on everyone’s feet," replied the man, with a smile on his face that carried over to his voice.
"Squall, if you’re wearing your SeeD uniform, why aren’t you wearing gloves?"
He laced his fingers around hers tighter, leaning in and whispered in her ear, "Just thought I’d be a rebel tonight. Don’t you dare tell Cid." He couldn’t tell her the truth. Not yet. In actuality, he wanted to feel her without the material barrier, but he was going to take this in small steps.
Even if his heart was diving in headfirst.
With his last comments, he took the hand that had been on her waist, and slid it affectionately around her back. Each motion pulled them closer together. She didn’t fight it anymore. Maybe it was just the feeling of security. She hadn’t felt that in over a year, if she had truly ever felt like this…it was incredible. Again, her body was doing things her mind was screaming against. He was so close; Rinoa leaned her head against his muscular chest. He was definitely tense. "Some things never change," she thought. The uniform was very abrasive against her cheek, but Rinoa just didn’t care right now. His heartbeat was so rapid, so powerful. "Have I ever heard another person’s heart?" No, in fact she hadn’t even gotten this close to him back in Balamb. They were treading on new territory, and it scared her.
When the song ended, Rinoa realized she had been unconsciously smiling. "How long have I been smiling? More importantly, did Squall notice my smile? He can't see me like this, he can't know." Raising her head up to him, Rinoa knew she had to run away, and very quickly. The longer she stayed next to him, the harder it would be to leave. She closed her eyes, holding the tears at bay, she wouldn't cry. She gathered her last breath, one she felt that after, a part of her would die…forever.
"Goodbye Squall. This is how I met you, it’s only fitting this is how we part. We had a great year together and I thank you for everything you taught me about life and myself. Even if you refuse to admit it, we have changed. Please, don't forget about the events in our lives…the past makes us who we are. Take the mistakes we made and learn from them, Squall. I did love you. Just want you to know that, but that’s the past. All you can ever be to me is the past…a memory. Goodbye."
"Rinoa, it doesn’t have to be. Please don’t leave me again." His mouth was slightly agape, as he pleaded with his eyes for her to stay. Knowing she couldn't see them physically, but maybe spiritually she could sense it deep within her soul.
Robert came up, grabbing Rinoa by the arm. "It’s time to go sit on stage Rin. The President will be out in a few minutes."
She reached both arms out to Squall. With her hands, she felt her way from his chest to his face. Placing her palms on either side of his jaw line. Going on to the tips of her toes, Rinoa reached up and kissed him gently on the lips, "Goodbye, Squall Leonhart. Goodbye."
Robert gave Squall a look. One that Squall had seen all too often from his group of friends. The expression that says 'I’m sorry… it must suck to be you.' Squall just stood alone, amid all the dancing couples. A feeling that also went like the first time they met; only this was a thousand times worse. He had only thought of her as a beautiful girl then, and now he saw her as the beautiful woman he loved. She had broken his heart again. He still could not move, until they had disappeared completely from sight. Just a few moments ago, Rinoa admitted she'd loved him. "Why now? Do you just stop loving someone one day? Goodbye Rinoa Heartilly, goodbye."
This time Rinoa did not tell him to leave out of anger, she told him with her heart. He was not welcome in her life anymore.
The others had watched from the table, it was more like watching a dramatic movie than watching their friend get hurt. It had all been such a peculiar week. They could see that Squall was heading back toward the table. To any other bystander his expression would have been that of indifference. They knew him too well. When he walked up them, he grabbed his wineglass and drank the entire contents within seconds. "I’m going back to the hotel. I’ll be joining you for Garden tomorrow morning." The Commander walked away without another word, he didn't need any.
"Sorry sir, but I can’t have you leave until the President is done speaking," informed the Galbadian security officer at the door.
"I’m a goddamn SeeD!" Squall yelled, pointing to his dress uniform.
"Yes sir, I can see that. Thank you for pointing out the obvious. However, this gives me even more reason to question your intentions. Neither Galbadia, nor President Mitchell's security detail, hired SeeD at this event. SeeD’s are known as mercenaries. Therefore, as of right now, I have no idea if someone hired you. For all I know, you may be paid by the highest bidder to kill the President. Just, please, take a seat until we are given the all clear."
"I could kill you five different ways, and not one person would hear you scream. Not one." Squall spat back at the young soldier before turning around. He didn’t want to give Cid anymore trouble with a SeeD conflict against Galbadian citizens. He reluctantly decided to return to the table and order the strongest alcohol possible.
Returning to the rest of his friends, he noticed that Robert had already helped Rinoa onto the stage. Now Rinoa’s cousin was sitting with amongst the group. "Great, this I need," he replied sardonically to the others.
Squall glanced toward the stage. There was a surprising amount of people gathered, some sitting, some moving furniture, and a couple engineers working on the microphone. He reached for another wineglass, the others seemed not to pay mind to his actions. Irvine and Selphie were watching the crowd, Zell was stabbing cheese squares with toothpicks, and Robert and Quistis were heavily involved in a conversation about capital punishment.
"Look Squall, its Maude McCay going to the microphone. Looks really hot tonight, doesn’t she Squall?" Irvine seductively teased as he elbowed Squall at the waist.
Squall just shot Irvine a look, and the cowboy immediately shut up. Mrs. McCay took the microphone and began, "I would like to thank all for attending tonight’s final performance of this season's Deling Ballet. I personally wish to thank all the young, talented performers we had this year. We also would like to give a particular thanks to President Jefferson Mitchell for attending tonight’s farewell performance, and for helping revitalize the stability of Galbadia. Here with a special introduction is General Caraway’s daughter...Rinoa Heartilly."
Everyone at the table looked up to the platform, save for Squall, who continued to swirl the contents of his almost empty drink glass.
"Oh my god!" interjected Robert. The others, including Squall turned hurriedly towards him. "They moved the damn podium… I wasn’t watching. Those bastards moved the damn podium." Robert shot up, quickly moving to the stage. When the recognition of what Robert was expressing hit Squall, he too followed out of his chair and down the center aisle. Halfway to the podium, both men knew it would be too late.
Squall stopped moving. He knew Robert would be there for her, just as he had been for the last six months. He so dreadfully wanted to help, but knew Rinoa didn’t want a single thing from him. Squall turned away, and started walking back. Part of him didn’t want to see Rinoa hit the podium. The other part didn’t want to see it wasn’t him up there comforting her.
"Three stairs, railing to the right, fourteen steps, left hand out, grab podium," The words were playing over in Rinoa’s mind. "Four, five, six” She felt herself hit the podium. No, the woman wasn’t walking at a fast speed, but it still made her lose balance. She tried to correct herself, but only managed to get her shoe heel caught in the long elaborate dress. She reached out hoping she could grab the podium, but it was no use. She fell loudly to the floor. A sound like no other she had ever heard, one that would echo for countless hours in her heart.
Humiliated, alone, and staggeringly afraid.
Everyone was quiet, confused as to what had taken place. Robert stopped for a second, after climbing the initial few stairs. Rinoa had not looked up, still sitting on the floor in a now torn dress.
"Squall," she said in almost a stage whisper.
Robert standing on the side nodded to Quistis, she understood. Standing up to meet the Commander as he returned, she moved her hand on to his sleeve. "Go to her Squall, she wants you."
He thought about Rinoa’s last words to him, but right now that was irrelevant. So he turned and ran back to the stage. He saw Robert still standing there. "Why has Robert not gone to her yet?" Squall darted up the stairs and Robert looked directly in his eyes, "She called for you. She needs you."
"Why.... Had she really called for me?"
Squall approached Rinoa, literally falling to his knees directly in front of her. He reached out his hands and gently touched her bare shoulders, "Rinoa…I’m here." In return, she said nothing, just leaned in closer and grabbed him around the waist. They stayed on the stage like that for what seemed like forever.
Back at the table, Irvine leaned over to Quistis, "Looks like our little kids have grown up."
Quistis just smiled leaning in her chair, "No Irvine, they were forced to grow up along time ago. Now they understand that."