~~ Dancing in Time ~~
Chapter One: A Time to Love
I do not own any of the characters of Final Fantasy VIII.
It's the heart afraid of breaking
that never learns to dance.
It's the dream afraid of waking
that never takes the chance.
It's the one who won't be taken,
who cannot seem to give,
and the soul afraid of dying
that never learns to live.
--Bette Midler (The Rose)
March 2nd through 4th
For just a minute longer, she held the delicate flower in her hand. Maybe it was to capture the moment forever - etching it into her soul…or maybe it was because she was scared the moment would end too soon. The aroma danced in her senses, as the petals softly tickled her nose. She felt the smooth stem, but was always wary to avoid the thorns. In her life so much never seemed perfect, yet somehow this rose did. It represented all that was right in this world, and all the beauty contained within.
It represented him…
Each step seemed to be harder to take; he pushed back hair as strands fell over his face. It had been a long day…no it had been a long week. The only comfort he found was the fact he would have the next several days off to recover. He closed his eyes trying to convince himself that was the real reason, but he knew better… He only hoped those around him wouldn’t make too much of the situation. His friends always found away of making something bigger than it really was…
He tried desperately to put the thoughts of her out of his head, at least for the remaining distance to Garden. It had been nothing more than routine training, but this was his first ‘official’ time in command on an away mission. He never knew how disorganized cadets could be until he found himself in charge of an entire garrison.
Holding his breath, he ignored the acute pain creeping up his tendons. Each step seemed infinite, never making it closer to Garden. It was as if it were a desert mirage, an illusion more than reality. If it was possible to be walking further from a destination, Squall Leonhart was doing just that.
Three weeks…a small eternity.
She was coming back today, and he tried hard to convince himself that wasn’t the reason he was looking forward to this holiday. But in years past, he worked through such breaks… Now he found a reason not to, the very same reason that made his life worth living…Rinoa Heartilly.
For a minute, he wondered if she was already there, waiting to greet him. Quickly enough, he shook the notion from his head, loathing the idea of starting to feel dependent on anyone. He found his thoughts drifting to her more often in the last week, especially when he slept underneath the stars blanketing the night sky. At times in the stealth of darkness, he would find himself searching the heavens, trying to find exactly where in space they had been. Sometimes the feeling, the memory, terrified him more than he cared to admit…yet still, the nighttime held so many memories that he always could find more serenity there then in the daylight hours.
Rinoa had returned to Timber three weeks ago, keeping a promise made so many seasons before. The town, for all intents and purposes, had achieved independence with the fall of the sorceress and with that, the contract with Garden was nullified. However, Squall held on to a deeper contract, one not written upon paper. Part of him wanted to accompany her, but Rinoa insisted that she would be all right alone - closing that chapter in her life. And that was fine with him; he needed time to sort through foreign emotions.
So much was new to him, opening exciting new horizons and possibilities, yet so much still scared him. He would wake up thinking the last months had been nothing more than a vivid dream. The certainty of its existence would set in when sleep no longer clouded his vision; he was only grateful that the events were real and not a fantasy created in his own mind. They were far too magnificent.
Now boundaries would have to be drawn, and a relationship defined…maybe he wasn’t sure where the duties of knight began and boyfriend ended. Boyfriend? What a prosaic term. He inwardly berated himself for thinking the word; it was far too soon to believe in that. They had been through so much together, but now was the hardest time. The time in between the battles - the peace. It was easier when he had a set objective, something definite, but now he never knew what each day would bring.
He again ran his hand through long hair, combing unruly bangs out of his eyes. He swore not to over-analyze things too much right now, bout only to look forward to the days ahead. Tomorrow was going to be his first test…she was turning eighteen. Their first official ‘holiday’ together, and he found himself on the giving end. She had told him not to get her anything, or go out of his way, but his friends informed him otherwise. Zell and Irvine seemed to have more experience with these types of situations. ‘Seemed’ being the operative word, as Squall had his doubts that they understood women any better than he did, they just acted as if they knew. But maybe sometimes that is all it takes: the confidence that he lacked.
A thousand ideas ran through his mind, but none of them seemed right…some too commonplace, some too personal, and some far too impersonal. It was hard at this point in their ‘relationship’ to figure out what was appropriate. The fact that he had accepted the role of ‘apprentice knight’ made it more difficult. She already had his ring – what else could match its significance?
His thoughts were interrupted when he heard the cadets collectively sigh in relief as they walked the final steps through the gated entranceway. He would have sighed too, had he not been deemed the authority figure at the moment…so with his final orders, the commander dismissed the group as they saluted him; he automatically returned the gesture without so much as a thought. Whether he liked it or not, his mind had already wandered from things other than SeeD.
Quistis held her breath as she sat along the fountain’s edge. She twirled fingers around strands of her flaxen hair, finding herself subconsciously biting her lower lip. She once again checked her watch, looking toward the main doors. This time she saw numerous cadets racing in - returning home with newfound enthusiasm. Her first thought was to yell at the unruly group, but right now she had something more important to do than be an instructor…to be a friend.
Looking once more at the small ripples of the water, she found the courage to stand making the short trek to the front gates. She had been elected out of Squall’s peers to inform him of the change. To anyone else the news would be trivial…but he was different. This was all new to him, and even the slightest setback may be perceived incorrectly. Quistis knew of his past and of his fears…even if he refused to admit, or to face, them yet.
She watched as the commander walked into the lobby, lost within his solitary world. He appeared to be scanning the common area, and she knew exactly for whom. Though his expression never changed, Quistis could tell his momentary disappointment when she wasn’t there.
“Squall…” called the instructor, with more hesitation than she meant to convey.
He looked over at her slightly leaning his head. Yes, he had caught the momentary uncertainty in her voice. Squall didn’t make an effort to approach her, so she walked over trying to remain optimistic. Quistis smiled faintly as he stood immobile. This wasn’t a big deal, right?
“Hey, how was the survival retreat?” He didn’t answer, looking even more cross at her attempt to make hollow pleasantries. Nodding her head, the instructor could read his demeanor clearly. “All right, all right…Zone called…”
“She’s not coming.” He said it as a simple fact, acting as if he already ‘knew’ this would be the way fate decided his life. He tried to turn before she could see any hurt within his expression, but of all his friends, she could always read him the most openly. And right now, that was the last thing he wanted.
“Squall, wait…it’s not like that.”
He still refused to look her in the eyes, folding his arms over his chest. “It’s fine, I just want to take a shower.”
“Don’t you even want to know why?” Her question came out almost a demand; she knew how difficult Squall could be at times. Without thinking, she reached her hand out, grabbing him firmly around the arm. He seemed to stiffen with the contact, looking down to where her fingers met bare skin. She quickly pulled away, aware of his feelings and the invisible barrier that remained. He was still very uncomfortable about congenial touch. Right now, he wanted nothing more than to mask signs of weakness by returning to the solace of his dorm.
A sudden fear engulfed his body, and he tried to ask a horrible question without showing undue emotion, “Is she hurt?”
“No Squall…not hurt.”
That was the only answer he needed, “Fine, whatever…she has her life, and I have mine.”
“…but she is in the hospital.” The words caught him off guard, and he suddenly felt remorse for his earlier implied statement and tone. Turning to face Quistis without hesitation, he noticed her silently conveying reassurance with a returned smile. “Actually, of all the things…she had to get her tonsils removed.”
A huge weight was lifted, as the words were assimilated by his mind. Even though Quistis had said she wasn’t hurt, it was hard for him to accept that destiny would not be a cruel adversary once again.
“Normally it is an out-patient surgery…” She looked around taking great care that nobody else was within hearing distance. “But because of Rinoa being a sorceress, the doctor wanted to monitor her a few extra days before she was discharged.”
Over the last month, her secret was strictly on a need-to-know basis. They wanted to give her enough time to accept the powers, and the responsibilities that lied within. Garden would know, the world would know…but only on Rinoa’s terms. To her close friends it wasn't a major deal in the least; they wanted her to feel just as she always had…the person who was now accepted as one of their own, as family.
Scratching the back of his head, Squall wondered, “Why does a sorceress have to worry about something as routine as tonsils anyhow?”
She laughed aloud at the rhetorical question, “Who knows…magic can almost cure the dead, but it can't cure a facial wound.” She emphasized her by pointing to his scarred forehead.
He scowled at her in mock anger, but even he knew she was just trying to make light of the situation. “Very funny, Instructor,” the last word said somewhat sarcastically. Returning his focus to more important issues, he asked, “She’s in Timber then?”
“No, actually she went to Deling. The hospital is larger and better equipped. Plus one of the doctors interned under Dr. Kadowaki a few years back. She made sure that he was Rinoa’s primary physician. If we had been aware of her condition, we could have brought her back to Balamb. But there wasn't a train until the next morning… From what Zone expressed through the conversation, she was very uncomfortable. You know how stubborn Rinoa can be…I think she waited to the last possible moment hoping it would just go away.”
He was grateful to hear that she was in a place that could handle the situation, and equally as glad that it was with someone they could trust. Then the realization dawned upon him: Rinoa would be spending her eighteenth birthday lying in a hospital bed. What a way to celebrate.
Like a faithful companion, he heard the voice in his head…the one that questioned everything in his life. Was he supposed to go to Deling City? Was she expecting him? If he did, would he look too desperate…if he stayed, would he look too inconsiderate? With the time needed for travel, he would be lucky to spend one full day there. Of course, if the injuries had been severe, this would never have been an issue…but everything had to be an issue to him. What does one do over something like this?
“You go,” a voice insisted. He tried looking confused at what Quistis was saying, but even he knew she wouldn't fall for the act. Damn, she did know him too well sometimes. She reached into her jacket pocket, handing him a small white envelope. “Somehow we thought you might wonder what to do, so we made up your mind for you…tell her it’s a birthday present from the rest of her friends.”
He opened the envelope, reaching inside he pulled out a set a train tickets - one to Deling, and one from Deling, each with the obligatory layover in Timber. Quistis looked at him, eyes full of empathy, “Squall we just didn’t want you to read too much into her not being here, it wasn’t her choice. You know she would be here if she could, don’t you?”
For some reason, he couldn’t answer her directly. He truthfully believed she would, but somehow those ‘old lingering doubts’ would sneak up like a ghost from his past. Maybe that is why his friends found it hard to approach him on certain subjects – an occurrence that was everyday to most seemed magnified tenfold to him.
“It’s new.” He said simply, and his answer was simple, yet truthful.
“Yes, Squall it is…but trust me, it will be worth it.”
The light of dawn seeped through the windows as crystallized morning dew cast a rainbow of colors on every inch of the train. The brightness of the sunrise woke Squall out of his tentative slumber, and it took a moment to gather his bearings. He tried to stretch, but only found that it multiplied the pain throughout his body. Whoever designed these seats surely didn’t have the comfort of overnight travel in mind.
With the karma of the universe not in his favor, he learned that the SeeD car on the train to Deling had been removed for its annual inspection. At least the first leg of the journey had gone smoothly, as the private car was his alone. Honestly, the silence was a welcome companion after spending the prior week out in the wilderness. The peace alone was worth the trip, not to mention the chance to see Rinoa…no he wasn’t going to allow himself to read into anything. When he did, he always had a way of getting hurt, or hurting those around him. It was just a simple visit to see a friend. Yeah…right.
He watched the countryside as it turned from barren to scattered buildings adorning the grasslands. The nearer the train moved to Deling, the closer the structures became until the fields were non-existent. Crowded streets lined the final approach to the city, and a voice boomed on the intercom that they would be pulling into the station shortly. The commander tried not to get annoyed when the man gave the mandatory spiel, one that he had heard too often in the last few months. As the train rolled to a halt, the conductor announced the passengers could carefully disembark onto the platform…the courteous way of saying, “Get the hell off my train.”
Upon standing, a surge of pain shot through his spine, and he mumbled a few profanities under his breath as he reached for the overnight compartment. Every muscle felt as if Jumbo Cactuar’s ‘ten-thousand-needles’ were piercing the skin. If the survival trip hadn’t been taxing enough, he had just spent a night in a seat equivalent to that of an electric chair.
He waited until all the other passengers had vacated the car before grabbing his belongings. A black leather overnight carrier was the least of his two worries… Scanning the empty car, he made sure he was truly alone. Inwardly praying the coast was clear, he reached for a second bag. His friends had sent their own birthday presents along. Selphie had found a ‘lovely’ shopping bag adorned with two fuzzy kittens wearing bows and having a tea party. He wished he had time to find something else to carry them in…anything that didn’t have doll clothes pictured boldly on the side.
In all his haste to clean and pack last evening, the simple fact he hadn’t purchased a gift momentarily eluded him. Now he was here, in Deling, and showing up with presents from everyone…but him. He seriously hoped that something along the way would come to mind, or maybe something he passed along the way would stand out.
The gods seemed not to be on his side, when every shop he passed was either closed or only sold newspaper and tobacco products, the latter she would surely not want. He didn’t really want to walk anymore when he noticed the hospital coming into view. Okay, maybe the idea of ‘seeing her’ again won out over fatigue, but he would admit that only to himself. He looked down at the shopping bag, and decided that somewhere during the day he would know what to get her. He counted on it.
Rinoa watched the sunrise from her window swirling her spoon in the lukewarm liquid. Somehow, broth for breakfast seemed very unappealing, not to mention the powdered formula they claimed to be soup tasted the equivalent of chalk. She tossed the plastic utensil onto the hard surface, sighing in aggravation.
The door opened with a small swoosh and Rinoa turned to see a woman in white lab coat walk in her room. The patient tried to smile politely, although her throat throbbed at the attempt.
“Uncomfortable, isn’t it?” The doctor returned the gesture with sympathy as she studied charts attached to a clipboard. “I know. I had mine removed when I was twelve, but as you age the pain and discomfort only increases.” Placing the board on nightstand, the older woman looked down to the tray holding the Styrofoam cup of liquid. “I think it should be illegal to call anything that started as a powder soup.”
Sitting on the edge of the bed, the woman held out one hand to the young patient. “I know when we first met, you were under heavy sedation. I’m Elise Vandermere, a colleague of Dr. Kadowaki…she asked me to perform the surgery. I want to apologize for accommodations, but usually I don't get many patients over the age of twelve on this floor.”
Rinoa reached out accepting her hand, and then grabbed a notepad, scribbling her reply: “Nice to meet you too. The room is fine.”
The doctor smiled courteously, pointing to the wall directly in front of the bed. “I'm glad the room is fine, but whoever they commissioned to paint those pink mogs on the wall should never work again. Have you looked at their eyes? I have more children scared to go to sleep because of those things.” Elise quieted her tone as if telling a secret, “Personally I think it looks like they’ve had one too many.” The sorceress tried not to giggle as the pain only intensified when she did.
“We just want to keep you one more night for observation. Headmaster Kramer wants to be positive everything is healing correctly before you’re released. I’m prescribing some pain medication containing codeine, so it may make you drowsy. Let us know if you have any significant bleeding, earaches, or if you believe you are running a fever. And most importantly remember to drink plenty of liquids. A nurse will be in every two hours to take your vitals, but if you need us before then, please feel free to call…that’s what we are here for.”
Rinoa acted as if she was listening carefully to the doctor’s instructions, although one nurse had given her the identical lecture last night, and another reiterated it this morning before breakfast. The doctor reached out, placing the back of her hand against the young sorceress’ forehead.
“I’m sounding too much like a doctor again, huh? Rinoa, don’t worry about a thing. Nobody knows your secret but me. They are under the impression you’re a high-risk case due to your immune system’s ‘so-called’ resistance to antibiotics.” She paused taking a breath, noticing the emptiness that her patient was trying desperately to conceal. “I hear today is your birthday, I'm venturing to guess this was the last place you wanted to be.”
Rinoa didn’t answer. Deling City was definitely the last place she wanted to be today; she had spent countless hours looking forward to her return to Garden…more specifically to Squall. Somehow, it felt as if she had failed him…she couldn’t help the situation, but put the blame on herself nonetheless. It killed her that she wasn’t even the one to deliver the news, and she hoped he would take it at face value. Still, she worried about the way he would interpret this.
“Yeah, that’s what I thought Rinoa, but these things can’t be helped. At times, it has a way of working out for the better…fate can be tricky that way,” the doctor offered with genuine compassion.
The door opened once again and a nurse entered, carrying a floral arrangement. Elise stood from the bed, and the two staff exchanged a few words before the doctor excused herself from the room.
“Hello Miss Heartilly…I’m Nurse Thatch, but you can call me Kimberley. These just arrived at the front desk for you. They’re beautiful.”
Rinoa looked at the pink carnations and small baby’s breath overflowing from a crystal vase. When the nurse handed her the bouquet, she immediately ripped opened the card. She didn't know why…she had just hoped…hell, she didn’t even know anymore. She forced a smile reading the inscription: Happy 18th Princess, love Zone and Watts.
Again, she was left alone with her soup - for lack of a better term - and found herself looking toward the outside world for comfort. She had done the very same thing as a child, just a few blocks down the boulevard. The view from Deling never seemed to change, no matter where you were. Pushing the tray away from the bed, she leaned back contemplating the idea of sleeping the day away. The door opened for what seemed to be the hundredth time that morning, and she felt like the main attraction in some medical freak show…the eighteen-year-old sorceress in pediatrics with tonsillitis. She refused to hear the ‘tonsil lecture’ again; closing her eyes, Rinoa hoped the nurse would think she was asleep and leave her to much needed rest.
The click of his boots echoed off the linoleum tile of the hall, as he strangely found himself on - of all places - the pediatric floor. Over his right shoulder, he carried his black duffle bag, and in his left hand the dreaded kitten bag. At least the sack didn't seem to out of place around here, as he had just passed a five-foot replica of Chicobo welcoming him to the children's ward.
“I'm here to see my girlfr--” He wasn't sure whether it was the term, or his surroundings that made him stop, but he had caught himself mid-sentence. The older nurse looked at him with more than enough suspicion to make him want to crawl back onto the elevator, or at the very least hide behind the giant Chicobo.
“Sir, you do realize that this is the pediatrics floor?” Yes, the woman was one-step away from calling the authorities. Squall wondered if the person at the information desk in the lobby was playing a sick, cruel joke on him.
“Rinoa?” a soft voice spoke from next to him. He turned to see a younger female doctor removing her lab-coat. The woman finished handing her jacket to a nurse, along with a clipboard and few other items. “Room 427…I'm Elise Vandermere, her physician.”
From Quistis’ words yesterday, he believed the doctor to be male. Without thinking he voiced his thought aloud, “I thought you were a man.” Well, that came out completely wrong – he cringed at how that must have been perceived to her. He hated small talk…couldn’t she just ignore that comment?
“Really? From the back, and kitty-cat bag, I thought you were a girl.” No, of course she couldn't ignore it. The chuckles from the other nurses made him try to retain what equanimity had remained. He wasn’t going to let this encounter get to him; he had more important things on his mind today.
Walking away from the desk was easy part…standing outside Rinoa’s door was the harder. Through the small patterned window on the door, he could see her sitting upright. Her dark hair was pulled back into a lose braid, and a nurse was saying something while Rinoa nodded in understanding. She held a vase of flowers, and for a minute, he cursed himself for not stopping to get her anything…at least the daily newspaper would have been something.
Even from there, he could only stare at her. She was even more beautiful than he remembered. Even lying in a hospital bed, she still could light up any room. The nurse started walking toward the door and he quickly jumped out of sight so Rinoa wouldn’t see him. Now he felt the part of the adolescent teenager…a world that was not his. Why was this so hard? Why was he so scared about just going in and just speaking to her? He had talked to her on many other occasions…well kinda. That had to be it…this was the first time that he had actually gone to her. Without their friends, without that extra mental support he denied was there, yet always counted on.
The nurse kindly acknowledged him as he leaned against the wall, at least this one didn’t attempt conversation. When the coast was clear, he looked back at her through the door; she had just pushed her tray away, and laid her head back against the pillow. This was it, now or never…in all his years of training, nothing ever could prepare him for moments like this…ones that scared him deeper than any battle.
Keeping her eyes closed, Rinoa turned away from the nurse as she pulled the blanket up covering her shoulders. She listened to the silence as the person just stood there, and knew that whoever it was wasn’t leaving until they had checked on her. She sighed in defeat turning back around, trying not to show any undue anger toward the staff. Yes, this was their job, but it was her life…and not to mention her birthday. She doubted that would get her any sympathy points with them.
Her eyes shot open, and her heart stopped. For a brief instant, she was in complete shock. It was like a dream, she had to be dreaming…that was the only logical conclusion. Maybe it was the way he spoke her name, the way it rolled off his tongue…or the slight hesitation she could sense in his normally definitive tone. What ever it was, it was the most beautiful sound in the world.
Before her mind had a chance to know what her heart was doing, she jumped out of bed grabbing him in a deep embrace. By now, history should have taught him better, but Squall found himself stunned when she captured his waist…along with his heart. For an ethereal moment, his fears subsided as he returned the gesture, placing his cheek on the top of her head. He smoothed her silky hair with one hand, while the other firmly held the packages. Finally, he pulled away - not exactly positive why he did, but some habits die hard.
They looked at each other until Squall broke the moment by turning away. She had to smile at how timid he could be, as she sensed the uneasiness that still surrounded him. Maybe she did have a way of coming on a little strong, like physically tackling him as he walked in…but she simply couldn't mask certain emotions as he could.
“I missed you,” her voice rasped out. She could speak, but it irritated her throat in doing so. Saying that to him was worth any price…
“I missed you too,” he thought immediately, but he didn’t reiterate those words aloud. Setting his bags on a nearby chair, Squall walked back to where she stood. “I don't think you should be talking right now, you should be resting.” He attentively placed one hand on her shoulder, while the other pointed to the bed. “Now go Miss. Heartilly.” She rolled her eyes at him; he was sounding more like one of the medical staff than her boyfriend.
Lying back down, she pulled the white sheet over her, and then started to reach for the outer blanket. She was surprised when he grabbed it first, and gently covered her body. Rinoa could only smile watching him as he moved. She could see how much he cared, even though he wouldn’t admit to it.
Stealing a chair from a small table, he pulled it over to the side of her bed. He then sat down looking at her again before averting his eyes to the window. She almost felt sorry for him, for the first time in their relationship he was the one having to do all the talking… A minute must have passed before he returned his eyes to her. Nodding his head he softly said, “Hello.”
She couldn’t help but chuckle at him. He was so cute, so lost right now…but he was there. She just had to help him find himself under the layers of emotional scars. And if he even knew she had just called him ‘cute’ in her mind, he would not be thrilled to say the very least.
Grabbing her pencil and notebook, she wrote on a piece of paper, “You really didn't have to come, I'll be all right.”
“I know you will, but I did what I wanted to do.” Did he just say that? He inwardly cringed at his own corniness, at least in his opinion. Scanning the room he tried to find something to talk about, he had to change the topic quickly. The first thing he saw was the wall, and subsequently his first thought was, “Damn those are some ugly mogs! No…better say something more appropriate, sound more intelligent.” The arrangement of pink carnations caught his eye.
Oh Hyne, this was getting worse…he was commenting on floral arrangements with impressive adjectives such as ‘nice.’ Squall was realizing how much this conversation stuff was overrated. He never sounded this stupid in his own head, did he?
“Who are they from?”
Classic save, now he sounded like a jealous idiot. She reached for the envelope that was still attached on its plastic holder. He opened it, glad to have something to do with his hands. Reading the card something stuck out in his mind, something that he wouldn't have thought about had it been any other person: the use of the word ‘love’. How simple it was for Zone and Watts to sign a card with it, how simple it was for the entire world to use it. Even if he had brought a card with him, how would have he signed it? Right now love was too new, yet nothing else seemed to fit…
A hand reached out taking the card back from him. She smiled shaking her head as if playfully reprimanding on his thoughts. She knew he was thinking something, but wasn't sure which path his mind took at that moment. With Squall, there were a million possibilities and she wouldn't even venture to guess which road he had wandered down.
“Happy birthday,” he said as an afterthought. Now he was the going for imbecile of the month…how could he have not said that to her in the first place? Reaching his hand up trying to cover his embarrassment, he wished he was hiding behind the Chicobo statue right now. He looked over at the kitten bag and figured he could at least give her the stuff their friends had sent.
After retrieving the gifts, he sat back down placing the sack at his feet. Reaching in, he grabbed the largest box, hoping that it would take some of the pressure off him. “I think this one is from Selphie,” his tone contained a hint of sarcasm as he handed her the package covered with Cactuar wrapping paper.
Rinoa unwrapped the present…a pair of chocobo slippers and matching sleep shirt. Next was the gift from Quistis, a leather bound first edition of her favorite childhood fairy-tale; she could hardly believe that the instructor remembered her mentioning it one time in passing. Zell and Irvine had combined funds to purchase a gift certificate to a restaurant in Balamb, one that Ma Dincht swore by. The final present caught her slightly off guard; it was from Cid and Edea…a silver marcasite pin outlining the shape of angel wings.
Placing all the gifts back into the bag, she was thankful to have friends that truly cared for her. It had been so long and they were family in every sense of the word, at least in her mind. She noticed again that Squall looked uncomfortable, and she wanted for him to feel the same tranquility that she did around him.
“Rinoa, I’m sorry I didn't get you anything - yet. I’ve been on a mission, and then…no…there is no excuse. I’m sorry.”
When would he understand that just being there was enough? She never really thought he would come, hoped yes, but believed… Pulling the covers back from her body, she carefully got out of the bed. He looked up at her, not sure what she was doing. Offering a hand to him, he hesitantly accepted the gesture, and then she guided him to his feet.
“Rinoa, you really should be in bed.”
Ignoring his pleas, she placed her head on his chest and her arms around his back. He fought it at first, until he sighed allowing himself to give in. She listened to his heartbeat quicken as the stood there, his muscles so tense for the few minutes. Gradually she could feel him relax as she stayed there refusing to yield. How many times had he thought about this over the last three weeks, just being near her?
“I missed you too,” the words softy echoed in her ears. His voice danced in her mind, as his warm breath played with the hairs on her neck. Finding the courage to break the warm contact, she pulled her head away from his chest, and looked him in the eyes. For a second they searched each other with no words spoken between them.
Thoughts of the balcony raced through his mind, back to that first kiss they shared over a month ago. He reached down and before he realized it, he was kissing her again. He did it more softly than before…knowing how sore she had to be from the surgery, but just needed the sensation of another touching him, knowing him, exchanging so much in a simple kiss.
“Whoa, sorry Rin!” A voice raised in embarrassment.
Squall pulled away hiding his face from the two men in the room. He cursed himself for not hearing the door – training to be aware of ones surroundings quickly flew out the window whenever she was near. He thought of it as a weakness he would have to overcome, letting emotion rule over reason.
As he looked at the tiled floor, he felt unsure if he was angrier about being caught, or the simple fact they had walked in on something…well so perfect. Zone and Watts were part of Rinoa’s past. He was aware they would always be a part of her future. The trio had gone through so much together, and he was grateful for the ties that bound them. She on the other hand, wasn’t uncomfortable in the least about the situation, laughing hoarsely at the commander's reaction. Squall tried to retreat from his current position, but she grabbed his arm forcing him to remain closely by her side.
“Good to see you are taking better care of our princess this time,” commented Zone raising an eyebrow to the couple. He held out his hand to the SeeD in offer to shake, much as their first encounter. This time Squall accepted, but still was careful to avoid direct eye contact.
“Much better care, sir,” echoed Watts.
Rinoa squinted her eyes, glaring at the two, unable to speak a witty comeback.
“…Sorry Princess,” Zone apologized. “I know that look…it definitely isn’t a good one.”
“Kinda like waking her up, huh.”
“Nah, no bruises or scratches,” Zone took a symbolic step away from her, “yet.”
“Rinoa, if they are going to be here for a little while, there is something I need to attend to.” Squall could see the disappointment on her face and reassured, “I’ll just be gone for an hour or so…promise.” She forced a smile, nodding slightly. “Hey, it’s me in Deling; what kind of trouble could I get into?”
“Well Sir, Zone and I frequent this ‘club’ that is open twenty-” An elbow firmly hit to the young man’s abdomen as Rinoa again narrowed her eyes at her friend. “Oh…yeah…never mind.”
“Don’t worry, we’ll take care of her while you’re out…we’ll make sure she doesn’t inflate all the latex gloves as balloons - again.”
Squall looked down to her, as she tried to look innocent. He had to chuckle at the mental image. “Rinoa…you didn’t?” She waved her hand dismissing his question.
“Yes Sir she did, not this time…but one of her many trips to the emergency room. It wasn’t that bad until she turned a few dozen into water balloons.”
Lowering his head, he stared her directly in the eyes offering a disapproving look. It was one usually reserved for students, or Zell and Irvine, on certain occasions. “Many times? Water balloons? I think there is a lot about you Miss Heartilly that I do not know.”
Avoiding an answer, she ushered him toward the door making a gesture of goodbye. “Now you want to get rid of me, I see how you are.” The door closed and he watched her as she waved through the small window. The end of the dark braid lay caught on her shoulder, as her eyes meet his with so much emotion and a hint of playfulness. For a moment, Squall wondered why he even questioned coming to see her, the choice so obvious now. He just hoped that she would never know about his initial doubts…and wished her friends had better timing.
Sitting at a small table, Zone shuffled through his deck of triple triad cards. He was on a quest to organize them alphabetically. That had not been his original intention, but Watts had flat out refused to play another hand. He had his doubts on Zone’s moral ethics pertaining to rules that ‘seemed’ to change often - depending heavily on the situation. So to keep himself entertained, the man sat rummaging through his prized card collection.
Watts was leaning back into the chair that had been moved closer to the bed. He made himself right at home by removing his shoes, propping his feet on the edge of the mattress. The television was turned on, and now he was finding himself engrossed in a local call-in talk show.
Soon after Squall had excused himself, the nurse returned with medicine. She gave the patient a strict reprimand for being out of bed and not resting properly. Rinoa had made it through the first half of Watts’ channel surfing, but found herself starting to doze in and out of consciousness. Both men convinced her to give in to sleep, and they would remain until the commander had returned.
The door opened and Zone made a meager attempt to salute the man walking in, afraid with his luck the card would go sailing from his hand. Watts motioned acknowledgment him slightly with his head, trying to hear the end of the show.
Shutting the door, Squall placed one of two sacks he brought in on the counter. The second one was placed on the floor next to Rinoa’s bed. When he turned to see her peacefully sleeping, he was surprised at the vivid memory that flooded his mind like a typhoon…and the repressed emotions contained within. There she was lying serenely in the hospital bed, her face pale under the lights. It reminded him of another time, when she couldn’t wake up. Part of him wanted to run over and shake her out of the sleep, just to convince himself that’s all it was…sleep. The bed, the sheets, the distant look on her face…so void of life…so…
The voice snapped him back, and Squall realized he had retreated into his world again. He reached to the bridge of his nose, rubbing his eyes trying to veil any signs of the momentary relapse.
“Oh I hope it gets better, those can be such painful little buggers.”
“Yeah,” he spoke in almost a whisper under his breath, “painful.”
“Anyway sir, as I was saying, they gave her some medicine and she’s been out for about forty-five minutes. I know what she can be like when you wake her without the aid of narcotics, so I would use great caution.”
Zone gathered his triple triad cards, carefully placing them into his custom card-cozy that he had purchased after the ‘Ultimecia Conflict.’
“Hey man, still have the Shiva card? It was one of my favorites.”
“I’m sure it was,” Squall withheld that comment for something slightly more diplomatic. “Yes, I thank you. It came in very useful.”
“Hehe, for me too buddy, for me too.” Zone looked at the commander with a smug expression. Squall glared back with a blank face, hoping that they would be leaving very soon. Sometimes he wondered just how Rinoa met these two, and how such a loyal comradeship could have formed between three such diverse individuals. Then again, he never understood Rinoa…hell, she wanted him around, and why she did was still a mystery.
“Well Squall, hope you are taking good care of the card. But hey, it was worth the price…that remains the best of issue of ‘The Girl Next Door’ in print. I still can’t believe I sold my original copy.”
Sometimes fate can find humor in such awkward, humiliating situations. If Squall could have found a hole to crawl deep into, he would have done so at that exact moment - when he noticed Rinoa had woken from the realm of sleep and now was giving him a very baffled expression.
He had to come up with a good, and plausible, explanation, “Um…um…er…long story.” Yes, that answer was worthy of all his years of training and decisive maneuvers in a military war zone - which now manifested itself in the form of a hospital room. As a last ditch effort to drop the uncomfortable subject he looked toward her, reiterating, “Many times…and water balloons?”
She sighed in defeat, at least for the time being. Rinoa vowed she would get the whole story out of him yet. It was just so wonderful to wake from that state in between slumber and consciousness, hearing his voice filling her senses. It was so precious…every word was a gift that she would forever treasure.
The two Forest Owls laughed aloud at the unspoken interaction between the couple, a relationship neither man thought would come to pass. Both walked over to her, taking their turns giving Rinoa a quick kiss before saying their farewells and eventually leaving. Squall watched as the events unfolded, and wasn’t sure how he felt when they had said their goodbyes. He knew the kiss wasn’t meant in anything more than amity, but somehow he found himself envious of their abandon, how they could just be so free with their emotions toward a close friend…like the ability to open up was the most natural thing in the world.
“Oh sorry,” he apologized when he noticed her looking at him. “Just…never mind…”
She didn’t have to say it, he already knew what she was thinking, “No Squall, how will I know what you mean unless you tell me?” On some things, she could be just as predictable as he could.
“I’m just thinking that for once I have to do all the talking, it’s kinda like you not being able to go on about useless things.” Crap…did he just say that? “Must…correct…self,” he thought internally hitting his head against a figurative wall. He scratched the back of his neck during an awkward pause of silence. “Rinoa, I didn’t mean useless…I mean useless to me.” Suddenly the word ‘moron’ popped into his head as he remembered hearing Laguna’s thoughts. For a brief…very brief…second he almost felt pity for the man, now being on the other end of the ‘moron’ situation.
Finding the nerve to look directly at her, he was surprised to see her face turning red trying to keep in the laughter inside. Her hand was covering her mouth, and tears were forming at the corners of her eyes. She found his suffering a source of great humor, but somehow her actions actually made him feel less ‘moronic,’ for lack of better term.
“Water,” her voice rasped between deep breaths as she held her throat.
Squall nodded in understanding and poured a glass of ice water that sat in a pitcher next to her bed. She took a few sips before handing the cup back to him. She pointed to the chair beside her, trying to urge him to sit back for a while. He set the glass on the tray placed next to her bed, and took off his black leather jacket laying it over the back of the chair. Finally, he sat down and they were almost eye level to each other.
She reached for her notebook jotting, “Well I can still write, anything new at Garden?”
“A few things here and there…Quistis officially had her teaching credentials reinstated. I spent a week in purgatory with cadets who make Zell look like the poster child for calm. It’s just different without the influence of the Garden Faculty. The place has taken on a completely different atmosphere.” He paused for a second and studied her, shocked at the words that came out of his mouth. “Rinoa, I really don’t want to talk about work. I just want to enjoy the time away…I can brief you on everything when you return.”
Squall closed his eyes when the subject was broached, placing his face in his hands. He hadn’t meant to bring it up…everything was still too unsettled. “I mean…that is…if you decide to return, to live, visit…whatever.”
The first week she stayed after Ultimecia, Garden had been more in the spirit of celebration than that of a military’s institution. Rules made by Norg had been disregarded, amended, or temporarily suspended during the time. It was a period to rebuild, reflect, and remember all that was lost or gained. Two days after the official party, she had left again…back to the place where they first met on ‘business.’
Feeling the spirals of the notebook hit the back of his hands, he looked down to what she wrote, “You know about it? Cid talked to you?”
“…Yes,” he hesitated, feeling as if he was betraying a sacred confidence. “Rinoa, I know there are a lot of rules and regulations…I know how you are, and the freedoms that you cherish. I understand with my work and SeeD’s work…I’m…I’m back on that again, aren’t I? Seems like it always come back to work, doesn’t it?”
He attempted a small grin, although she could tell it was forced. “Never mind, we can talk about that later too…it’s your birthday, let’s just focus on that.” Reaching out he tentatively placed his hand over her fingers. Tilting her head, she smiled back, reassuring him the touch was welcomed. His arm felt something slightly poke into his skin, and he looked down to notice the hospital identification tag worn around the wrist. Something about it caught his attention…‘Rinoa Caraway’ followed by ‘Heartilly’ in parenthesis. Part of him wanted to ask her about it, but he figured that it was neither the time nor place to bring up that subject. Some wounds were better left to heal on their own, and he had already had his share of awkward moments today – enough to last into the next lifetime.
“Um…Rinoa I got you a few things…nothing big,” he quietly spoke as if embarrassed by the thought. He let go of her soft fingers, feeling the regret almost immediately. “I…would have wrapped them…but honestly I don’t know how.”
As he reached for the bag, she scribbled something else down on her pad. When she was done, she handed it back to him: “Gift wrapping is not taught as a prerequisite to the SeeD examination? I’m shocked…really…”
“Do I detect a hint of sarcasm on the paper? Really, Miss Heartilly that takes much talent.” She winked at him playfully, grabbing the notebook from his hands.
He looked down at the new writing and for the first time had to laugh aloud. “Wow, I have been promoted to an ‘all cap meanie’…this is a great honor you have bestowed upon me. And three exclamation points…I’m slightly disappointed it’s not underlined…but guess I’ll take what I can get. However, this does bring me to your first present…”
Reaching in the bag, he pulled out a child’s magnetic drawing board. On one side there was a pen attached by a string, on the other side four various shaped stamps. “I think Selphie has influenced me too much, but here ‘save a tree’…or with the way you’re going on, save a few hundred.” The last part was meant as a joke, and she knew it. Rinoa took the board from his hand, and pretended to swat it at him in mock anger. He pretended to duck, placing his arms in front of him in defense.
“Now I know why I don’t buy people presents,” he added, still acting frightened. “It’s too dangerous…guess I should be glad it wasn’t a puppy.”
He could see that she was writing something with the magnetic pen. Again, she had written the word ‘meanie,’ this time with more exclamation points and underlined several times. He took the board from her, sliding over the bottom part that cleared the screen.
“Whatever,” he wrote in reply. She couldn’t help but start laughing again; the moment was worth any price, even the pain she felt in her mouth. He reached in his bag for another item, and pulled out an object he kept momentarily hidden.
“Since we were probably going to go to dinner tonight…I wanted to buy you the very best.” He lifted up a can of condensed chicken soup. “See one step better than powder, plus now it now contains twenty percent more noodles.”
She wrote on the board, “Can opener?”
He reached in the bag, pulling one out and commenting, “Happy birthday. I’m a SeeD, I think of everything.”
All at once, his mood changed. She could see his demeanor fade back into the one of old. “Squall?” she asked with her raspy voice, instead of writing.
“Nothing,” he mumbled, looking into the bag. Rinoa was curious of what was upsetting him and leaned over the side of the bed. She saw a small flat box still in the sack, and she could tell that something was bothering him about it.
“It’s just something stupid…nothing special at all. I…I just…” She cut him off surprising him with soft kiss on the lips. It wasn’t long, but it was perfect. She rested her forehead against his and they stayed there for a second. Finally, he sighed in defeat, reaching for the item…as he handed it to her, he felt like it was something that needed some sort of explanation, one he couldn’t even offer at this point.
Opening the small package, she unfolded several sheets of white tissue paper. Placed in the center was an inlaid mother-of-pearl hair barrette. It was beautiful. Reaching down she removed it from the box. She ran her fingers along the smooth sterling silver, and then touched the inlay with her fingertips. Her eyes seemed to reflect with the small crystals on edges the barrette. She sat as silent as he always did unable to say, or write, anything.
“I just didn’t know what to get. I just saw it and thought…maybe you could use it. But if you don’t like it, I can take it back.”
She shook her head ‘no’ at the mere idea of returning the clip. He watched as she leaned forward, reaching back for her long hair. Carefully she took out the rubber band, and with her fingers undid the loose braid. Her dark hair flowed past her shoulders, as the braid left wavy imprints. With her fingers, she separated the front strands on each side sweeping them up from her face. The back part of her hair remained down, gracefully highlighting her face.
And he watched her.
For lack of anything he could comprehend, he watched her. Why? Why was she still there with him? Why did she even want to put up with his moods? Why after every time he pushed her away, did she stay?
Shattering the tension like brittle glass, a nurse walked into the room on her daily rounds. Both jumped slightly as they had been caught off guard by yet another unwanted intrusion. Standing from his chair, Squall walked over to the far wall leaning against it for support. Crossing his arms under his chest, he watched as the woman repeated the standard routine as he had seen often in the infirmary. Finally, she left…leaving them once again on their own.
He walked over the table and grabbed the second sack that he had returned with. “I noticed while I was here earlier that you had a movie player...I guess the pediatric unit has its privileges. Being aware that I am not the best conversationalist in the world…I rented a few titles. I didn’t know what you like to watch, so I rented a few out of every department. Figured I could hit on something that way.”
Reaching in the bag, he pulled out two stacks of movies. She waded through the assortment, shocked at the mass selection in which she had to choose from. She really had no idea what she wanted to watch, but it didn’t matter…as long as he was there, nothing else did.
Debating between action, drama, romance, and comedy, she finally settled on latter. Right now, drama and action would eventually remind her of work - this was the reason war movies were eliminated before she even had to look at them. Had he felt a little more comfortable, she might have elected the romance…but she wanted him not to feel so insecure about relationship issues right now – those movies always seemed too cliché for real life situations.
Carefully he placed the disc into the player, and then returned to the now familiar chair. Out of the corner of his eye, Squall saw her moving but wasn’t sure what she was doing. A small echo finally made him look fully in her direction; she had scooted over to one side of the mattress. The back of the bed was in a sitting position, just as it had been the entire day. A taupe colored blanket mostly covered her body, except for her upper torso. For a second he looked at her with a confused, slightly scared expression.
As the movie started to play in the background, she made the same gesture…once again offering the space. Taking what courage a simplistic act like ‘sitting’ took, he finally moved toward her. Cautiously he took the space next to her, always watchful to avoid touching her accidentally. Not one time did she try to contact him, but always allowed him to remain in control. It was a big enough accomplishment to get him to sit that close to her, for any substantial length of time.
Together, wordlessly, they watched the movie…and three more that followed. She even found the nerve to slip a romance in during the later part of the evening. And sometime during the course of the day, he found the nerve to reach for her hand, holding it closely. For him it was a great relief from conversation, although he never regretted any part of the experience…okay, a few comments he would have rethought before speaking aloud…but overall, he had handled it with dignity. For her, she was just satisfied that he was there, that he had found the inner strength to face a few of his demons, no matter how big or small. Other things could be sorted out later; for now…it was a beginning.
The day went nothing like Rinoa had planned, but she wouldn’t have changed it for the world. It was by far, the best birthday she ever had, or would ever have…but nobody knows the future, right?
Somewhere during the night, Squall had left for his hotel, and she wasn’t even sure at what hour. The medicine had made her extremely drowsy, and parts of the night ran together like watercolors. But she did remember him kissing her goodbye; that, she never could forget. At first, she thought it was a dream, but it was far better – no dream could be that real.
The next morning she awoke to the noisy clang of the food cart, and another packet of the powder they tried to claim to be soup. She hated the fact that he had to spend so many hours traveling; the ones they actually spent together seemed few in comparison. Overall, he had spent twice as many hours of his holiday on the train, than with her.
“Miss Heartilly, this came for you.”
A younger hospital volunteer came in caring something wrapped in green tissue. Rinoa smiled politely, her throat seeming slightly better than the day before. She pulled back the outer paper, and saw a single peach rose mixed with greenery. Tossing the paper aside, she held the lone flower by the stem. A white envelope fell into her lap, and she reached down picking it up. Somehow…she had not thought, this time not even hoped, but when she read the card, she knew.
Maybe for some it wasn’t the most romantic sentiment in the world, but right now for her…it was all she could ever want. She could live with rules and regulations, but she couldn’t live without the adventure set before them. For just a minute longer, she held the delicate flower in her hand.
And it was perfect, just like him.
From the nurses’ station, he watched as she opened the card. He could see her smile, and hear her laugh, although her back turned and the door closed. He could still see…
Turning around, Squall walked quickly out of the hospital, hoping he would make the train on time. On the way to the station, he couldn’t help but think about yesterday…and for that moment in time, he smiled.
It was strange even to him, the way he felt with her. Almost like living a childhood he never had, experiencing parts of life for the first time that he never knew existed. Some times the change scared him, and he didn’t even know who he was anymore. No, she hadn’t truly ‘changed’ him, as others around Garden would gossip. Maybe she had just found something buried deep inside, long ago forgotten. He wasn’t changing for her, but because of her…and that was all the difference.