~* Chapter 9: Sunset *~
* I do not own Final Fantasy or any of the characters, still. Amazing isn’t it?*
Squall continued holding Rinoa in his compassionate arms, "Rinny, I’m here. Can you stand up?"
Rinoa had not cried, as she wouldn’t let that happen. She just let Squall hold her until she had regained her confidence. Then she let him hold her longer. For no reason at all, except to feel the security within his arms’ grasp. Rinoa nodded to Squall and he began to slowly stand up. Gradually, cautiously, he helped Rinoa to her feet. He tenderly put his arm around Rinoa’s shoulder, in a protective manner, and then started walking off the stage.
"No, Squall. I have to do this." Rinoa looked at his face, not with her eyes but with her heart. "Take me back."
Still holding her delicate body close, Squall softly whispered in her ear, "Do you want me to stay with you?" Rinoa did not answer with words. She only smiled, and reached her shaking hand to meet his on her shoulder, gently pulling it down and intertwining her fingers with his.
They started walking back, together. Squall regretfully let go of her hand when they reached the podium. As much as he wanted to hold her, he knew she needed to do this herself. But he also knew her, and she needed someone close. As Rinoa once, a lifetime ago, told him, "I can’t fight alone." If she could feel his presence, she could make it through anything. She was strong alone, but together they were invincible. He found a place directly behind, and let her take a position at the microphone. Before she could say anything, Squall leaned forward and whispered, "I’m right here Rinny; I’ll always be with you."
Each word sent a shiver down her spine. The way he said it, the fact he was saying it, not to mention in front of hundreds of people. Turning back to him, she tilted her head slightly. There was so much she wanted to ask, and wanted to say at that moment. Now was not the time, as the crowd of people began growing louder with every second that passed. So the most she could do is mouth the words, "Thank you, Squall."
That, along with her smile, was all he needed.
General Caraway watched the events unfolding from his table. Earlier today, this is what he wanted. He would have given anything for her to be his pawn. He knew Rinoa was going have to tell the citizens the truth. She would be on national television, telling her secret in front of President Mitchell, public officials, and the registered voters of Galbadia. So why did he feel so bad? Because at that moment, he realized Rinoa Heartilly wasn’t a political pawn. She was his scared little girl, having to tell a secret she had tried so hard to conceal.
Rinoa hadn’t wanted his pity; she certainly didn’t want Galbadia’s. Her only wish was not to be treated different from anyone else. Caraway knew that, at that moment, his role of father was the most important title he ever held. If neither his valor nor courage could get him elected to public office, then let it be damned. If there was one time in his life when Julia and he would have agreed on actions, let it be now.
With a newfound resolve, he stood up demanding, "Under the orders of General Caraway all live feeds of this event must stop."
Rinoa turned the general direction of her father’s voice, and held the podium with firm hands. "What the hell is that man up to?" her mind screamed. She just wanted to get this nightmare over with.
Squall reached forward and affectionately touched her shoulder, "Give him a chance Rinoa." It came out more an order, than a request. Rinoa inhaled deeply, and closed her eyes. She could smell his cologne, and it somehow put her mind at ease. Gradually, she reopened her eyes and could only smile. It was a natural response, smiling had always been something she’d done when she was nervous.
This was a really good time to smile.
Caraway walked over to President Mitchell, talking to him as onlookers spoke amongst themselves. After a moment’s discussion, the President made the order public. He was the President, and his word was carried out, no matter how preposterous it may seem to others. "As a direct order from the Commander of the United Forces of Galbadia, President Jefferson Mitchell, please stop all direct links. As of this moment, all television signals, radio waves, and videotaping or recording devises must stop immediately. If not, you are in direct violation of Galbadia law, and will be treated as such."
Caraway was thankful even though he was positive Rinoa would not be pleased about drawing added attention to her address. The General knew that, in the end, his decision was correct. Moreover, for one time in his life, he felt like a father. It was a proud feeling, one he would never outgrow. He noticed that the President and press alike had turned their attention toward Rinoa, and the uniformed SeeD with her. Looking to the podium, Caraway could see Squall standing beside his daughter. It was the first time he looked on Squall as anything but a mercenary.
Before, when they had first met, he would have done anything to keep that man away from his daughter. Hell, he was the kind of person that Caraway would have killed without a second thought. Yet, not now. He saw something in him, which mirrored his own life. A sadness, a hope, and a devotion…only Squall's was not to SeeD, it was to his own daughter. Something that took Caraway too many years to realize, and this man…only one. Maybe there was hope for them. The two soldiers exchanged eye contact, nothing but mutual respect passed between them. Squall gave Caraway a SeeD salute…a gesture Caraway was more pleased with than he could’ve possibly anticipated.
"Rinoa, go ahead when you’re ready," Squall informed the anxious, frightened lady in front of him.
Rinoa slowly stood up straight and looked towards the audience. "I would like to thank all of you for the chance to perform again. When I was very young, my mom wanted me to take dance classes. When she first told me, I was very upset. I preferred back then to think of myself as one of the guys, not someone who would prance around on a stage. Together we came to a mutual agreement; I would stay in classes for ten weeks. After that time, if I so decided, I could drop out without any argument. Unfortunately, for me, after the first class I was hooked. Dancing became the highlight of my week. The year I turned five, I was chosen to dance in the Winter Festival. My mother couldn’t believe I was going to perform at the Festival on the stage, under the lights. She was so excited for me, and told me it was the second best day of her life. The first being the day I was born. Three weeks later Julia Heartilly was killed. I never performed that year, and I made a vow to never dance in public again. Not without her by my side."
Rinoa halted briefly, and turned her head toward Squall. He reached his right hand to her face and gently moved his bare fingers across her flush cheeks. She smiled back at him. With the comfort of his small gesture, she persistently returned to the still clueless audience. "I…I continued taking private lessons; what I did was for me, nobody else. A decade later, when turmoil was facing the government, I stopped taking classes. It’s public knowledge that during the Second Sorceress War, I had several disagreements with General Caraway."
Rinoa again paused for a moment and then corrected her own statement, "I had disagreements with... my father. I had taken some time off and stayed with my close friends at Balamb Garden. Circumstances later caused me to return to Galbadia. During the war, I was forced to grow up very fast, and learned of regret. One of the many decisions in my life I looked back on was not performing again. I had to keep a promise, knowing in my heart that my mother would be watching from above. I had to perform again…so I did. I made it into the company, dancing to remember and also dancing to forget. What nobody, but a select few knew, is that I was in a car accident six months ago. I almost died. When I regained consciousness two weeks later, I had... lost my sight. For the last six months I have been blind."
Everyone in the reception hall started mumbling, whispering, or in general making gasping sounds. Squall took a step closer to Rinoa and gently laid the palm of his hand in the small of her back. She needed him to be there, both physically and mentally.
Rinoa took a deep breath and apologized, "Sorry that I hadn’t told anyone, especially those closest to me. I just didn’t want anybody to look at me differently. Please, I ask of you, do not pity me. I just want you to see the same person you have all my life. Robert, my cousin, joined the company so he could practice with me. He knew; he helped. I want to thank you Robert Caraway for all the support you gave me. Everyone knows how stubborn I can be sometime; thanks for not giving up on me. I would also like to thank my close friends Quistis, Selphie, Irvine, Zell and Squall. For making me understand you just think of me… as Rinoa Heartilly. Thanks every one." Rinoa stopped and turned back to Squall. Her smile made the last year seem irrelevant. Squall reached over to her bare arm, interlocking the shaking limb with his sturdy one.
Quistis and Selphie exchanged looks. Both girls beamed, stood up, and began applauding. Soon everybody in the reception was following their lead, including the President and General Caraway. Again, just as at the performance, Irvine and Zell started whistling and hollering. This time nobody cared. President Mitchell made a gesture to one the security guards posted at the entrance, signaling him to open the blocked doorway. Squall continued holding Rinoa’s arm until they had left the reception hall.
The humidity of the evening only seemed to increase since they had gone inside. Walking from the air conditioning, into the vast dampness of night, was a systemic shock to both of them. Yet, they didn’t care. In their minds, the evening was almost perfect. At least, it was a relief from a burden that Rinoa carried for too long. That, in itself, was perfect.
"I can’t believe…I did it! It’s over, no more hiding," Rinoa cried as she turned, capturing Squall in a forceful hug.
"Doesn’t it feel better not to be hiding from people anymore? I’m an expert on that subject you know," he said calmly in her ear, still with arms tightly around her waist.
"It feels great!" Rinoa continued, and then broke the hug. "Squall…I really don’t know how to ever thank you. I know now that I still need friends, all of you are so wonderful." She turned her back, not capable of facing him. Even though she couldn't see, she could feel his expressions…and that scared her to death. "Squall friends though…that’s it." She took a symbolic step away from her knight. "It will never work out between us…I just can’t depend on you or anyone. I would like all of you in my life…but, just as friends."
"Rinoa, I understand. However, now that I found you, I won’t allow myself to lose you again."
"Squall you won’t. I’ll always be here for you...I promise. But our lives have changed, circumstances have changed. I will be here…if you need me, but as a friend, like Quistis or Selphie. I can’t offer you my love anymore, but I can offer you my friendship. We are two people…just in different places in our lives." She turned back toward him and offered her hand. "Please accept my friendship Squall Leonhart."
He took her pale hand. He needed her, if only as a friend right now. He would accept that for the time being. Time, other things in his life had taken time. She was worth the wait, no matter how long.
"Friends Rinoa Heartilly, always."
The night air was still incredibly warm. The Commander was getting very uncomfortable in his dress uniform. He also figured it would be best to get Rinoa back after the strenuous evening. "Rin, I’m going to get a cab and take you home, away from everyone right now."
"No Squall," she begged taking a step out towards the footway. "Let's walk." She was still holding his bare hand, something she was trying desperately not to get used to feeling. She pulled him on the sidewalk, with almost a little too much force. He slightly lost his balance, much as he had done the first night she dragged him onto the dance floor.
"Down girl," his simple reply.
"Sorry, I just have to get you away from the building quickly."
"Um…never mind right now." Just as she finished her statement, a light drizzle started raining down.
"You knew that was going to happen…didn't you?" He raised eyebrow at her, as she continued guiding him down the parkway.
"Yes…I could smell it in the air. Plus, it's going to get a lot worse."
"What!? Rinoa, I'm getting you a taxi. I don’t want you to get sick."
"No. I want to walk in the rain. Squall, you never played in the rain as a child, did you?" She inquired as they continued walking along the strangely deserted city street.
"Never. Didn't you know you’re four times more likely to get sick when you’re wet? Being exposed to the elements when it’s not a necessity, is just plain reckless," he informed her. It sounded like he was reading right from the SeeD manual…or a medical journal.
"Yes, Commander Sir," she snapped back. "Forget all of the military training, just feel the rain. It’s very warm tonight, and there is so much to celebrate. I don’t care that I’m getting soaked… I just enjoy the feeling."
"What happens if we get sick tomorrow?"
"Well, you get to stay in bed and eat chicken noodle soup. Then you get to think about all the fun you had the night before, and you don’t regret it. Live in the moment Squall, life's too short. I know that now."
Squall observed the night as the soft drizzle turned to a heavy rain. Hearing Rinoa begin to laugh with the change in precipitation, he silently watched as water fell upon her body. She reached up, taking down her hair from its restraints. Shaking her head, the long hair flowed gently down her back. Looking up toward the darkened sky, she closed her eyes and continued to laugh. She looked so damned beautiful, so free.
The rain was hitting her bare skin; her shoulders and neck were glistening in the streetlights. The droplets would then run down her chest into her dress. "Chest again?" he inwardly cursed himself once more. Squall wondered why he kept coming back to that. She took a step forward and held out her arms, spinning while continuing to laugh and smile, as if joyously dancing in the rain.
"Your dress will be ruined," he managed to say, trying to draw his own attention away from Rinoa’s body.
"It’s worth it to see the rain, Mr. Leonhart," she chirped. Squall reached out his hand toward her, grabbing her arm in mid twirl.
"Your father is going to kill me… If I don’t get you back in safe condition, Ms. Heartilly," Squall mischievously said resting his face in her damp hair.
"I can't have that happen now, right?" she answered as their bodies touched. He spun her around a few times in the rain. Finally, she ended up face to face with him. "I swear Mr. Leonhart, I think you were dancing with me… in the rain."
"I don't know how to dance," he solemnly replied.
"Then…neither do I."
In ten minutes they arrived at Caraway's, absolutely soaked. Instead of wanting to go inside, Rinoa signaled Squall to take her around back. Rinoa sat on a bench next to the house and took off her shoes, necklace, and earrings. She stood up swiftly, looking mischievously at him...
"Sometimes to be free, one has to do things that don’t make sense to anyone else. Like disobeying your father, joining a resistance group, trying to put a bracelet on a sorceress or..."
Squall stood up and yelled, realizing she was heading directly into the pool. "Rinoa, stop, don’t move!" Quickly he walked over to her, “don’t take another step or you're going to fall in the..."
"Pool!" she cried as she reached out and pushed him in the crystal blue water. Squall was caught off guard, falling easily into the calm pool. SeeD dress uniform and all. She was still laughing as he surfaced from under the water.
"Rinoa Heartilly, you know how much trouble you could get in for pushing the Commander of Balamb Garden into a life and death situation?" He was still in shock from being submerged.
"See Squall, now you don’t even notice the rain, do you?" She leaned down and held on to the edge of the pool. Then with an almost seductive giggle, she jumped down into the water.
"Okay Rinoa, now I know that dress will be ruined."
"Yes Squall, but who cares!" She swam directly towards his voice. "As I said before, some things are worth the price. Did you know that nobody can beat me in Marco Polo? I’m an expert."
Squall swam over meeting her in the deeper end of the pool. "Whatever," he commented jokingly. "You know you’re in trouble now."
"Who sweet little innocent me, what ever did I do?" Rinoa replied in the most naive voice she possible could.
"You messed with me," he was laughing as he informed her of the guilt. Then he quickly started splashing her. "Never mess with a trained professional."
"I’ll remember that when I meet one!" She yelled splashing him back.
Squall swam as close as physically possible, grabbing her around the waist. He noticed that the pool lights reflected the intricate beadwork of her dress. The reflection mirrored her eyes, which too sparkled like crystals. Each droplet of water ran its own path, ones he only wished to trace with his fingertips. Again, the commander found himself having thoughts that only scared him, as felt as if was losing self-control. He noticed Rinoa facing toward him with a look of slight confusion; his silence was speaking volumes. "You are in so much trouble little girl. What do you think your father is going to say when I tell him you pushed a poor defenseless SeeD into the big, scary pool?"
Rinoa reached up, resting her arms around his shoulders. "I don’t know. Maybe the same thing your friends say when I'll tell them…you tried to push me in first." For a moment, they just treaded water, locked in each other's arms. They were both soaking wet, but neither of them cared. Squall cautiously started swimming toward the shallow end, effortlessly holding Rinoa next to him. Their bodies remained mostly underwater, as now Squall could barely touch the bottom. Rinoa still held close, no longer believing the emotions running through her.
Her mind wandered back to the park, and the kiss they shared. It was so deep and meaningful, and she longed to be touched in that manner again. Ever since she felt him give into human passion, she wanted nothing more to experience the same sensation. "Friends right?" Then why did she want nothing more than to explore every part of the man who was only centimeters from her soaked body. "Can you feel how hard my heart is beating? Squall, can you possibly know the sensual thoughts racing through my mind, could you possibly be feeling the same way? God, friends… we are just friends right?"
Squall noticed the shadowy figures reflecting in the light. "Well Rinny, that’s not what happened and you know it. You pushed an innocent SeeD into the deep water, without warning," said the Commander, daring to press his body closer to hers.
"That’s my story and I’m sticking to it," she replied lightheartedly, while lifting one eyebrow. Rinoa held on tightly, never wanting this miracle to end. "Who do you think they’re going to believe?"
"I don’t know, why you don’t ask them?" Squall saw all their friends standing on the wooden deck, along with a not-so-stern-looking Caraway.
"Oh crap, they’re behind me," mumbled Rinoa, placing her palm to her forehead. She turned around and smiled at all of her friends. "So…um…welcome back to the house, anyone else care for an evening swim?"
When they got out of the pool, everyone was trying to keep a straight face, save for Zell who was openly laughing at the two. Squall didn’t exactly look like the proper 'Commander' as his uniform was completely soaked. A soaking mop on his head replaced the usually well-groomed hair he adorned. It was obvious to all that he was having trouble keeping bangs out of his eyes.
Rinoa, on the other hand, stepped out of the water and looked just as gorgeous as ever. The water only highlighted her creamy skin, and the dress seductively clung to her body. Even her dark hair shimmed in the moonlight, which now replaced the rain clouds. Squall knew she could be covered with mud…and still be an angel. "Rinoa covered in mud…" He again, was angry at his thoughts, and the path in which they were leading him. Somehow, he used to think of himself above such innuendos. That was much more Irvine's department.
It didn't take long for the maid to return with two large towels. She handed one to each of the offenders, then left them to be with their friends. The others had been relatively quiet for them, most still in shock of what they had witnessed.
"Squall you give new meaning to the phrase drowned rat. Yet, Rinoa you wear that wet look incredibly well. Very sexy," joked Irvine. Squall couldn't have agreed more, but had to go the motions of annoyance, giving his friend a stern glare. The one that clearly meant "Shut up… now!"
Rinoa smiled and tilted her head toward the cowboy, "Thank you very much Irvine, you are so sweet. It's always nice to be in the company of a gentleman."
Zell quickly looked around at everyone standing there, "No Rinoa, General Caraway went back into the house, ergo, no gentlemen here."
"You will have to excuse Zell," explained Quistis sarcastically. "We don't let him out much, for evident reasons. It’s been a long night for everyone. We just wanted to let you know how proud we are of you Rinoa. It took a lot of courage not to just walk off the stage. You are stronger than I could be in that situation…we just love you."
"Rin?" asked Selphie sympathetically. "We were all talking on the way back here. The four of us would like to invite you back to Balamb. We’re leaving in the morning. This year's junior cadet candidates will be here in a few days, and duty calls us back. You are such an important part of our family… now and then. We don’t feel complete without you; something is missing…you. So please think about coming home."
More than anything in the world Rinoa wanted to say yes, scream it at the world. Yet she knew it would be hard around Squall. Hell, it would be downright implausible. That whole friends thing was a lie. She did want him, just not only as a friend. She knew after this evening, the pool, and the rain that her feelings remained as strong as ever. Rinoa was deeply in love with him. And that…would just be too difficult. The memories of him, of that other woman, of all the pain, would haunt her to the end.
Maybe in the future, if Squall was transferred to another Garden she could face her fears. Without him there as a reminder of the hurt, the pain. Damn, she missed her friends. "What if Squall’s girlfriend is still there? What if he's still seeing her now? Then how would she feel about the way he acted toward me tonight… Hell, maybe that girl never knew about me."
No, she definitely could not go.
"Guys, being around you would be wonderful, but we’ve all moved on. Quistis is teaching, Selphie and Irvine have each other. Squall has..." She stopped herself from making a terrible mistake, "his job. Yes, Squall has his job, and Zell has… Well all right, Zell might not be the best example." She was trying to lighten up a little, hiding the sorrow. As she always did.
"Hey Rinoa," informed Zell in a spiteful tone. "I still owe you one for Maude McCay… Let’s not make it two, kay? But we still love ya Rinny."
"I love ya too Zell. I just can’t go back there yet, too many bad memories."
"Bad memories?" Quistis thought this a very strange comment for Rinoa to make. As far as she knew, nothing had ever happened to her while living at Garden.
Squall also contemplated Rinoa’s use of the term 'bad memories.'
"Was I nothing more to you than a bad memory? If so, did tonight mean nothing? Rinoa…I thought that tonight we… Hell, what was I thinking?"