~ Chapter Three: A Time to Laugh ~
We were strangers starting out on a journey,
Never dreaming what we’d have to go through.
Now here we are and I’m suddenly standing,
At the beginning with you.
--Theme from ‘Anastasia’
Rinoa’s hand started trembling as she reached just a little further into the darkened shadows. It had now become a personal challenge that she had to win…it taunted her, it tracked her every breath as if by radar. Her body tried to drive back the overwhelming anxiety, and she found herself almost starting to hyperventilate, reminding herself to inhale the surrounding oxygen into her lungs.
She was so damn close; the victory could be hers if she could just find the inner strength.
Every muscle in her body was screaming for her to turn the other way and run…run far away. But she had to make a stand; this was her place now, her home. She wouldn’t cower in fear as she had most of her life. She was older now, and a sorceress, she had helped save the world for Hyne’s sake…but this took more. It was within her grasp…just a little further….
A scream echoed through the deserted hallway of Balamb Garden. Selphie was just outside her friend’s door, and frantically knocked, afraid of what horror she may find inside. She had never heard Rinoa yell in battle. The young sorceress had usually hid her panic from the group, or bottled the emotion almost to a point of not speaking. That is when they could tell she was truly upset.
“Rinoa, are you all right!?”
“It’s…open…” a voice trailed from inside.
Selphie ran into see Rinoa standing on her bed, looking like a terrified child.
“What? What is it?”
“Spider…big black hairy spider.” Rinoa pointed to the ceiling on the other side of her room. “I was trying to kill it…it jumped toward me, I swear it lunged.”
Selphie looked at the ceiling and then back to Rinoa, apprehensively saying, “Where is it now?”
“Floor…somewhere over there,” she pointed underneath a wooden chair.
“Eeek!” Selphie screamed as she jumped onto the bed next to her friend. The normally fearless girl thought she too saw the ‘monstrous arachnid’ getting ready for a surprise ambush. The two girls stood holding one another, looking toward the floorboards.
“You know, Selph…this doesn’t look good.”
“You mean a SeeD and a sorceress, cowering from an eight-legged freak of nature?”
“Something like that. Have any magic on you? I’m thinking Eden would come in handy right about now.”
“Um, no…guess you didn’t know.”
“Cid has started to avoid from relying on para-magic. With Norg gone, more details about memory loss related to the Guardian Forces surfaced. So, as a general rule, they are only to be used on very rare occasions and…oh Diablos! I just saw it move! It’s huge! What about your sorceress’ abilities, can’t you do something?”
“You would think so, but Edea hasn’t taught me how to harness the energy yet. But…okay it’s worth a try at this point.” Rinoa put out a hand and closed her eyes, focusing all her strength on the menacing creature. A sudden eruption resonated throughout the room, echoing out into the empty corridors of the hallway. They both covered their faces, as debris flew toward them, and smoke cloaked the room like a mysterious fog.
“Crap Rinoa, didn’t mean for you to totally obliterate us in the process.”
“Guess I have a little more energy than I thought. Now it’s going to take me another whole day to clean this place up.” Rinoa sighed sitting down onto the mattress, placing her bare feet over the edge onto the floor. She fanned the air nearby, trying to clear her lungs. Just as she started putting her weight on her toes a black, and very hairy, foe emerged from the rubble that once resembled a chair. “It’s not dead!” She leapt back onto the bed with the speed reminiscent of a lightening bolt, standing again with Selphie on top of the comforter.
At about that time, they heard someone running down the hallway - the metal clangs of footsteps resounded with each hurried step. Two figures emerged from the other side of the doorframe, waving the remaining clouds of the smoke out of their eyes.
“Rinoa, are you okay!?” Squall’s voice was filled with concern. He entered the room, with Irvine closely following.
“Selphie, you in here?” the gunman’s comment almost overlapped the Commander’s.
The two women looked toward each other as the smoke began to thin on ‘their level.’ “Um…we’re fine.” It was said in unison, and no further details were offered…slightly humiliated of the truth.
“What happened, are you hurt…did someone attack you?” Squall’s first instinct was that of a trained SeeD, and of course, that meant expecting some earth-shattering event like an attack by a hostile country, a rogue sorceress, or at the very least a Ruby Dragon with a toothache…
“We are fine, I just didn’t know my powers would have so much…um…power.”
“Yeah, Rinoa and I were just…um…testing her magical abilities.”
“Damn it, you two could have gotten yourselves killed! Don’t you know how dangerous messing with unknown power can be!?”
“Squall…” interrupted Irvine, “Let me ask the girls a question.” The cowboy moved in front of the commander, suspiciously looking at the two standing on the bed. “Now logic has taught me a lot about women, but most of the time, I still don’t get them. You two will run head-first into a seemingly uphill battle, you can make it through time-compression unscathed, but by the way you two are standing up there, and seeing that we are down here…I’m going with mouse.”
“Spider...” Rinoa bit her upper lip self-consciously as she looked down to her feet. “It is a spider.”
“But Irvine, it was big…and black…and hairy…and staring at us…and it tried to kill Rinoa!” Selphie struggled to plead their case.
Irvine examined the floor around him, until he saw the black arachnid making a break for freedom into the hallway. He took a few steps forward, crushing it under the weight of his boot. The two girls cringed as their foe met its untimely, but well deserved in their opinion, death.
“The world is safe once again.” Irvine smirked as he removed his hat, bowing toward the two girls. “Always a pleasure to help damsels in distress.”
“Distress!?” Squall’s voice rose in anger. “Distress is being chased by a fifty foot electric spider through the streets of Dollet! Or being hunted by the Galbadian army like prey, or…oh Hyne I could go on forever…but this is not distress!”
Shaking his head, the commander walked toward the wall, crossing both arms under his chest. Everyone could tell he saw no humor in the situation, and needed a moment to collect his thoughts. Irvine sauntered over to the bed, offering Selphie his arms in some romantic gesture. She rolled her eyes at the scene, and Rinoa tried not to giggle at her friends. Finally, the cowboy won his battle. Selphie grabbed him around the neck, jumping into his arms as if he had rescued the princess from the fire-breathing dragon in a fairytale. He cradled her in both hands, as he walked out leaving the other two alone.
“Um…Squall…guess saying ‘I’m sorry’ would be a good place to start.”
She smiled hoping he would answer her, but he said nothing. His arms still folded under his chest, and one foot propped up against the wall.
“I know Squall, I know…it’s immature to be afraid of a spider. It was staring at me, all those eyes…hundreds of thousands of little beady eyes watching my every move. I tried to kill it by um…normal means, but ended up falling off the chair as it leapt toward my jugular.”
Rinoa looked toward the small window when Squall still remained soundless; his eyes seemed to be judging her. “Okay, okay I know,” she started reprimanding herself, not positive if she was more embarrassed or ashamed of her actions. “I could have harmed myself, or worse yet Selphie. I violated at least five Garden regulations, and I haven’t even officially started work. If you want me to leave, or want to reduce my salary…I’ll understand. I’ll pay for the damages out of my wages. I don’t know…I…just don’t…crap, I’m sorry.”
When she turned to look at him again, he had one hand over his forehead, and his gaze directly at the floor. She could no longer see his eyes, only the leather glove hiding most of his face. The part that wasn’t covered by his hand was covered with long stands of his hair. The heel of his boot remained against the wall and the second arm still over his abdomen clenched in a tight fist. She saw his body start to shake, and knew she was the one to cause him to get this upset…to be this disappointed in her. He was furious, and couldn’t even stand to look at her. And then it happened: she thought her mind was playing tricks on her.
He was laughing. Squall Leonhart was actually laughing.
For a second she stood dumfounded at the development. Was he laughing because he was so upset that no other emotion could come through the surface? He pushed himself off the wall with his foot, walking toward the bed. Still his face remained down, and the sound of his muted laughter was the only thing in the room. He was now visibly holding the second fist up to his mouth, trying to cover his amusement. Finally, he looked up at her, and she could see the liquid buildup at the corner of his eyes.
“Squall?” Right now, she wasn’t sure of what to do…this was just…strange.
“Rinoa,” he tried to sound stern, although he couldn’t keep the laughter seeping through, “Spiders?”
“I…I don’t like them.”
“I noticed. So it was…a large spider?”
“Yeah…huge.” Her voice monotone, she wasn’t sure where this conversation was headed.
“Okay let me get this straight. I was in my office, received a call that a scream came from the employee’s living quarters, didn’t even hang up the phone as I rushed out, ran down three flights of stairs, grabbed Irvine for backup, heard a loud explosion from the end of the hall, and then find out the culprit was a ‘huge’ spider.”
“Yes, that about sums it up…are you mad?”
“I should be, if it wasn’t so damn funny. Did you call it a ‘meanie’ as you tried to annihilate it from the face of the earth?”
For the first time her tension eased, and she placed both hands on her hips. She smiled naively down to him, “Leonhart are you making fun of me?”
“Well, I’m not the one standing up on the bed, now am I?” He offered a single hand to her, not the grander gesture as Irvine had made, but still…it was a start. She accepted it, jumping from the comfort of the mattress, onto the hard surface of the floor. He tried to catch his breath, “So Miss Heartilly, do I need to requisition you a new chair? This blowing up furniture thing - isn’t going to be a habit, is it?” Squall lowered his hand down to his side, leaving his covered fingers intertwined with her exposed ones.
“No, it’s not…and a new chair would be terrific. Guess I should be thankful it wasn’t my laptop.”
“Yeah, you’d be on your own there.”
“Squall I really am sorry, I don’t mean to be a pain.”
“You can’t help it,” he said matter-of-factly. “But I wouldn’t change it for the world. I have faith that if ‘it’ had truly attacked, you could have fought it bravely on your own.”
“I don’t fight well on my own, remember?” She smiled at him, reaching her free arm around his neck.
She titled her head slightly to the side in confusion, looking into his eyes. “Thank you for what?”
“Making me laugh…I don’t ever remember laughing.”
“Good,” she kissed him quickly on the lips. He didn’t return the gesture, yet he didn’t fight it.
Looking out into the hall, he broke away from her. It was as if a realization had him, how close their bodies were to one another. “Rinoa, this wouldn’t look good if someone walked by. I need to get back to work anyhow.”
She nodded in understanding as he turned, and then walked out the door. Rinoa didn’t care that he had left abruptly – she understood. Exhaling, she closed her eyes, thanking the heavens that she had been given this opportunity. What must it feel like to be eighteen and never have laughed? With most people, she would not take the admission literally, but with him…she knew he was dead serious. To think, she was the source of this precious gift, his laughter…over her and one of her stupid phobias. Smiling she opened her eyes, looking at the sawdust and debris scattered across her room…now this disaster was another story.
Selphie more or less skipped across the ballroom floor. Taking a step back, she made sure the final touches were perfect on the decorations. She had managed to transform a beautiful, grand ballroom into something more reminiscent of a nightclub in downtown Deling City. There was a time and place for elegance, and a time and place for them just to dance the night away, acting like the young adults they were, this was the second.
She looked up as she heard several voices entering the room, Irvine walked in – no, strutted in - followed by three young girls. They didn’t look familiar to her, and she didn’t believe them to be current students at Garden. She eyed them carefully, trying not to act too concerned, as the cowboy seemed to have put on his ‘macho’ persona for the moment.
“Now ladies, this is Selphie Tilmitt…she’s the one who arranged this entire evening. I was only in charge of the colossal responsibility of hiring the band.”
Smiling respectfully, Selphie waved at the young women, “Hi, are you guys here for the party?”
“No,” Irvine winked at her, “Selph, they are Akimbo the band.”
“Of course, all-female band…should have seen that one coming.” She hadn’t really meant to say it aloud, but somehow it just slipped. “You guys can change over in the women’s lavatory – first door on your left, outside those double doors.”
When the trio left to get ready for the performance, Selphie smiled fiercely at Irvine. She couldn’t put her finger on it, it almost felt like jealousy…but she refused to admit that. Around that time, they heard a few loud ‘thumps’ on the marble floor. Both looked over in time to see Zell completing a series of back-handsprings, followed by a flawless layout. Behind him, Rinoa was walking in, present in hand, shaking her head at the martial artist.
“You wouldn’t think he is turning nineteen would you? I can’t believe he is a year older than me.”
“Well yes, but at least he doesn’t blow up office furniture when a small insect crawls across the floor,” Irvine added teasingly.
Selphie elbowed him in the stomach, foregoing all formalities of being gentle. “First Irvine, it was big. Second, a spider isn’t an insect! Third, Rinoa and I are going to make sure the food is ready…you two start greeting guests, or do whatever you two do. Just tell your ‘band’ to go ahead and start warming up when they’re ready, kay?”
Rinoa handed the gift over to Irvine, and then was almost dragged out of the room, with Selphie guiding her forcefully by the wrist. When they cleared the hallway heading to the kitchen, the leader stopped dead in her tracks.
“Rinoa, how do you know if you are in love?”
This caught the girl slightly off-guard. She wasn’t expecting this question, especially something so direct. She wasn’t sure how to answer it; maybe it was different for each person, maybe there was no answer she could give her friend.
“Irvine?” questioned Rinoa, although she didn’t need to.
Selphie nodded, acting as if she was looking down the hall, making sure they were still alone. “I mean, I know I care for him…but sometimes he just… How did you know about Seifer?”
Rinoa froze, and she momentarily forgot to breathe. It wasn’t as if she had been thinking about him in the last few months, beside the fleeting thoughts wondering if he was all right. It was still an upsetting subject to her. She guessed in her mind, that she must have repressed some of the memories. She was trying to figure out how to explain their relationship from that summer, and not make herself look foolish in the process.
“Um…well…” Then it hit her within her hesitation, the answer that she had wondered years ago herself. “You know back in Galbadia Garden, when you asked me if Seifer was my boyfriend and I said, ‘I really don’t know…I think I was in love…’ Well, you know what…if I had to ‘think’ then that wasn’t love. I cared for him, as I said before…he had confidence and made me feel like I could take on the world. Do I regret that summer? No, not really…because that confidence gave me the courage to work with the Forest Owls, and not just sit idly by like other factions. Because of that confidence, I met Squall. I don’t have to ‘think’ about Squall I ‘know’ and that is the difference.”
Putting a hand on Selphie’s shoulder, the dark-haired girl looked into her friend’s eyes. “Selphie, you don’t have to ask me. You already know. Maybe your question isn’t ‘do I love him,’ but rooted more from the fear because you do.”
“He just…well he is such a flirt. I don’t know. Sometimes I think I can handle it, other times…it gets to me.”
Giggling slightly Rinoa understood all too well, “Again, you already know if you can handle it. Just don’t expect him to change. I mean, to a point he will settle down, but he will always be that way…that is why you fell in love with him. When it is all said and done, he wouldn’t do anything to hurt you. I think he would never risk your love on something so fleeting. Trust in him, trust in yourself.”
“Rin,” Selphie tried not to let the tears roll down her face, “I’m going to miss you. It’s not fair that you just come back, and I’m off to Trabia. Don’t get me wrong, I want to go help with the reconstruction…but just wish it was in another month or so.”
“I heard about the project, I think it’s great. I also know that Irvine gave up his chance to take the SeeD field exam to go up there with you. Right there, that speaks volumes about his character. And hey, I’ll be here when you get back…don’t think I’m leaving again.”
It was Selphie’s turn to laugh, “I’m not Squall.”
“Thank Hyne for that, I can barely handle one of him, two would be…scary.”
The two girls finished walking down to the back door until they reached the kitchen area. Most of the staff had already retired for the evening, except the few scattered workers hired to prepare food for the party. The drifting aroma of hot dogs was overwhelming, as the trays were filled with more ‘dog’ combinations than any one person could possibly imagine.
“Selphie, you aren’t serious…those trays aren’t all hot dogs, are they?”
“Well no, not all of them…some are condiments for the hot dogs.”
“I know he likes them, but um…isn’t this overkill?”
“Yeah, I think so…but since this is the first party we’ve had for quite a while, I wanted to go all out.” The eager girl walked over, happily pointing out some her favorite creations. “We have…beef hot dogs, turkey dogs, chocobo dogs, corn dogs, bite-size weenies, bite-size corn weenies, and of course, tofu dogs – in bite-size and regular – for our vegetarian crowd.”
“Wow…that is…um…nice,” said Rinoa trying to control her laughter. “I didn’t know there were so many hot dog varieties, I have led a sheltered existence, huh?”
“Nah, just need to be educated in the ‘finer’ things in life,” joked Selphie as she walked over to the head cook, starting to dig through her small handbag. “Hey how much do we owe you yet for the catering?”
Rinoa felt guilty for not offering to pitch in earlier. The neglect wasn’t intentional, it just was with her returning, she never thought about the cost of the evening. Of course, it would make sense that the party was not a Garden related event, so Zell’s friends would be chipping in on the expenses.
“Selphie, please…let me help,” she apologetically said.
“Rinoa, Selphie…you don’t owe a Gil,” a voice shot back, as a slender figure entered the kitchen. “The total bill has already been covered, along with the band, the decorations, and from what I can tell, looks like a fair amount of alcohol.”
“Quistis?” asked Selphie in full-blown amazement. “You didn’t pay for all this yourself, did you? We’re going to take small donations at the door to offset the cost. This had to run thousands.”
“I’m sure it did, but I didn’t pay for any of it.”
“Well, who did?” Rinoa’s question also laid foremost on Selphie’s mind.
“I don’t know,” the instructor honestly answered. “I went to pay the rental company for the stage…they informed me the account has already been taken care of in full. Everything is paid for, from what I can tell.”
“Wow, maybe Zell has a fan-club we don’t know about.” Rinoa walked over to a center metallic preparation table, her friends following close behind.
Quistis sighed, leaning on the countertop, “They can have mine, it’s more than annoying. I’m thinking the Zellies would make a good group.”
“Wouldn’t it be the Dinchties?” Selphie asked popping a mini corn-dog in her mouth.
“Who knows, but anything would be better than putting up with nonsense I do. I swear, the other day, they were actually auctioning off an old sweater I threw out with a spaghetti stain. Last time I checked, it was up to seventy-five Gil on the Internet.”
“You could supplement your income nicely that way,” teased Rinoa as she grabbed a mini-tofu-dog. She stared at it briefly, before flipping it in her mouth. After taking a few bites, she immediately made a face, grabbing her throat. It tasted nothing like a hot dog to her…the advertising label was sadly mistaken. “Water…I need water…”
Selphie ran over to the refrigerator, opening it up she grabbed a bottled beer. Twisting it open with ease, she handed it to Rinoa who quickly took a sip. “Oh Hyne,” she gagged, “this is worse than the tofu dog…and is far from water.”
“Oh, just wanted you to live a little! You’ve never had a beer?” Selphie asked, raising an eyebrow at the girl.
“Um…no, I really don’t drink. I’ve had a glass of wine on occasion, but nothing more than that. In Deling and Timber the legal drinking age is twenty-one.”
Quistis laughed, opening up a beer she also retrieved from the refrigerator, “In Balamb it’s only eighteen. I think that is because of the lack of entertainment – fishing and Triple Triad will only get you so far. I hated the taste too, but trust me it’s acquired. I just learned if I wanted to keep up with the guys, you have to act like one sometimes.”
“Right,” spoke Rinoa as she swirled the foamy contents of the bottle around in circles. “Like anyone could ever think of you as ‘one of the boys.’ Trust me Quistis...that is the last thing on their minds.” She took another sip, still making a face, “Gah! How do you two do this?”
“Like this,” Selphie responded, getting a bottle for herself. She quickly drank half of the contents. “Don’t ask…if you think Balamb is bad…wait until you are stuck out in the ice-covered wasteland of Trabia… Trust me, the stuff looks like a godsend when you’re buried under a frozen tundra of snow.”
Rinoa tried another sip, wiping her mouth with the back of her hand. “Just never thought about you two drinking alcohol. I dunno, it just seemed…well maybe some burgundy wine for Quistis, and a tropical drink with a small umbrella for Selphie. But beer? I guess there is a lot about you two I don’t know.”
“Yeah,” replied Quistis almost quietly. “Rinoa, you saw what it was like when you first got here. So many rules and regulations, alcohol seemed the only vice they allowed us…in moderation of course. Maybe it was something to relieve the tension, it wasn’t as if we had much to live for beside SeeD, they made sure of that. Plus dealing with Squall and Seifer…it was almost a requirement for the staff.”
“You know, he drank,” stated Rinoa, still mesmerized by the copper tint of the blown glass bottle.
“Who?” Quistis wasn’t sure whom Rinoa was talking about.
“Oh…sorry…we were talking about Seifer earlier. I just remember that when I was sixteen, he drank. I guess, to me, it was as if he was defying some kind authority, breaking rules I could only dream about. It made him seem older…I don’t know.”
The instructor immediately felt protective, she wasn’t even sure why. But the person Squall cared about so much, was now talking about someone else... She went against better judgment, or rather spoke from the heart of a ‘sister’ rather than that of an interested friend.
“You are over him, aren’t you Rinoa?”
Rinoa hadn’t meant anything specific by the statement, and the instructor asking such a straightforward question caught her off guard. She looked over to the blonde woman, who couldn’t mask the concern on her face. The young sorceress set her drink down onto the counter before answering, “Quistis, I know what you are thinking. I’m sorry I didn’t mean it that way… Selphie just asked me about him earlier. If you want to know the truth…I will always care about Seifer… If I saw him on the street, part of me would want to run up, begging him to tell me why he did what he did. And the other part of me would want to kick him in the balls and laugh.”
Selphie raised her hand energetically into the air. “I’m going with the latter!”
Quistis looked at Rinoa, “Um…dear, how much of that beer have you had?”
She waved off the comment continuing, “Anyway, I will always remember Seifer, he is my past. But it was never love…maybe I had to go through that to know what real love is like. This time I know.”
“Oooh, you love Squall!” Selphie blurted out openly in front of several of the cafeteria ladies.
The dark-haired girl quickly tried to cover up her friend’s mouth, suddenly remembering days of pre-adolescent behavior. “Hush, Selphie!” she begged, wanting to do nothing more than crawl under the metallic table until everyone had left. It wasn’t as if is she was embarrassed of how she felt about Squall. It was more the fact that she felt that, when he were to find out, it would be in a more dignified and romantic setting than casual conversation in a kitchen while drinking a beer… Or, of course, there was always the horrible possibility of Squall hearing it from the cafeteria lady, while she was dishing him up mashed potatoes. “Hey, you need some more gravy on those, and by the way I heard Rinoa say she loved you. Congrats! Ya need a spork for those taters’, commander?”
She tensed at the pure ridiculousness of the thought, “Selphie…please? I don’t want him hearing anything second hand, I owe him that much.”
“Come on Selphie, we’ll let them figure that out in their own way,” added Quistis in her normal professional demeanor, always the voice of reason. “And if they don’t figure it out soon, we can talk Nida into announcing it on the PA system, or even worse, I can put it out on the Trepie chat room.”
Rinoa rolled her eyes taking another sip. “First of all, not funny…second of all, Trepie chat room, you aren’t serious are you?”
“Sadly there is such a place, and trust me, you don’t want to know what goes on there.”
“Wait a minute, wait a minute!” exclaimed Selphie, setting her empty bottle on the counter none too gently. “How do you know what goes on in there? I tried to get in, I believe it’s members only…”
“Um…yeah…well for ‘research purposes’ I opened up a screen name.” The instructor hid her face in shame. “Call me ‘whip_her_good’ board member number 427. Look, it’s just freaky…I just had to know.”
The other two girls were almost on the floor in hysterics. Rinoa held her stomach as the tears started running down her face as she gasped, “Whip…good…oh my gods.”
Selphie handed each girl another drink, barely keeping her sanity. “Quistis how could you!? I never knew that was you!”
“What!?” The blonde woman was now on the brink of tears, “You what, you mean…”
“Hell yeah! I had to know too, nice to meet yah…‘the_trepeinator’ at your service. How do you think I knew it was members only?”
The three were now past hysterical, and come to the point where one couldn’t stop laughing…even the most ludicrous things, as they seemed to have double meaning.
“Ma’am,” interrupted one of the chefs, addressing Selphie, “Where do you want me to put the hot dogs?”
Well…one could guess where their minds went in the current state. Selphie nearly choked on her beer, trying to catch her breath. “Ah…take ‘em to the party…I’m sure the guests will know what do with them.”
“Well…maybe half of them,” the instructor choked out. “Unfortunately for me, that half either has a girlfriend…or a boyfriend.”
“Oh Hyne,” gagged Rinoa, “I thought we were supposed to be the dignified ones.”
“Yeah, well…we deserve a break,” countered Selphie. “We better get back to the party…see if any of the guys are actually eating the mini-wieners.”
“Huh?” questioned the other two, the amusement never subsiding.
“It’s a male physiological thing, trust me. Somehow they feel inferior…we used to serve ‘em up in Trabia, and then laugh at the guys who would eat them.”
Quistis lifted her bottle up to the others, “Here’s to learning more about the guys…and each other.”
“And to experiencing life for the first time, with a new perspective,” added Selphie raising her beer.
“Here’s to new beginnings with friends and family.” Rinoa completed the toast, as the three lightly clanged their bottles together.
He wandered through the vast crowd. Although the commander was among a hundred people, he still felt the same loneliness as when he had been lost during time-compression. Somehow, these gatherings had not been any easier on him, and he desperately searched out his friends, one in particular. The loud music only added to his aggravation, as he hunted for a familiar face through the jungle of activity. If it was possible, he felt more uncomfortable here than at his graduation ball. That at least kept the appearance of dignity…this was random insanity.
If it weren’t considered inappropriate, he would have growled at the mass of humanity crowding the dance floor. Not like any one would actually ‘hear’ him if he did, the bass in the music made sure of that. A hand grabbed his shoulder, and he nearly turned to bite the offender’s head off, until he saw the martial artist staring back at him.
“Great party, huh? Been a while since Garden had anything like this.”
“The words ‘great’ and ‘party’ are oxymorons,” he pondered. “And hell if I would know, would have avoided this type of event like Leviathan would Quezacotl.” He found himself yelling over the music, “I wouldn’t know…never been to one.”
“C’mon, Irvine has a table over near the food.” The commander followed Zell through the massive throng, eventually ending up at a table near the back of the room. It was less noisy, as he could almost hear himself complain.
“Hey Squall, how you doing?” The cowboy’s question pretty much went unheard.
“Fine,” he answered without ever looking at the speaker, pulling a chair up to the table.
“So how’s work?” Zell asked attempting to start up any sort of conversation.
“Fine.” He hadn’t taken his eyes from the crowd, searching the crammed horizon for someone. The two other men exchanged a knowing look, attempting to have some fun at the commander’s expense.
Irvine took a swig of his beer, “Heard that your job requires you to wear a large purple T-Rex outfit and high-heels, how you feel ‘bout that?”
Zell laughed at his friend, mouthing behind his back to Irvine, “Watch this.”
“Hey where’s Rinoa?”
“Rinoa?” the commander asked, turning to the martial artist. “She’s supposed to be here.”
“Here, you might need this more than I do.”
Irvine set a full beer next to Squall. The commander eyed it suspiciously at first before asking Zell, “Hey, thought you said there wouldn’t be any alcohol here?” It wasn’t that he cared, just had to walk through the formality of it all. In fact, the question wasn’t even out his mouth before he had taken his first sip.
“Well…didn’t think there would be. But seems some people brought their own, and someone donated a few kegs and several bottles. Don’t worry, it won’t get out of hand.”
Just then, Squall felt a cool slimy sensation on his bare arm. He looked down immediately, and saw the glassy reflection of the overhead spotlights in two deep-brown orbs.
“Hey there Angelo.” Squall was surprised at the amount of delight he felt in seeing the hairy canine. Reaching down, he gave the dog a brisk scratch on the tuft of fur at the back of her neck.
“Look Zell, your date has arrived.” Irvine teased as he also reached over, giving the dog a little attention.
“Ha-ha, very funny. Seriously I have to go mingle a little bit, don’t want too stand around in one place to long. Must be social...and must go see if that hot drummer has a boyfriend.”
“What about your ‘friend’ from the library?” asked Squall, again surprised at the words that came out his mouth. Throughout his head, he heard Cid’s voice echoing, “Glad to see you are getting better with these pleasantries, keep it up for a bit and you just may grow to like them.”
“She came here with someone. I don’t know, thought we had something going. I’m not giving up, but not going to go through the night dateless either. Trust me, if this drought continues…Angelo might start looking good.”
The two decided it was best not to reply, as the comment left itself so open-ended. And it was his birthday after all, so they, especially Irvine held witty comebacks to themselves. Zell disappeared into the mass that lined the dance area. Tonight wasn’t the scattered crowd, which Squall remembered from his first dance with her, and there was no way he would get out in that mass.
“Sir, how are you!?” A voice loudly yelled from the hoards of people.
He sighed. Not that he wasn’t glad to see Zone and Watts again, just it wasn’t whom he was searching for. And right now, being called ‘sir’ was the last thing he needed.
“Nice to see you again,” he said diplomatically to the young men.
“You too, sir.” Watts answered.
“So where’s our princess?” The Forest leader looked around the room.
“Rinoa!” he wanted to scream. “Her name is Rinoa.” Squall wondered why the term ‘princess’ suddenly bothered him when before it never had crossed his mind. All right, that wasn’t the complete truth it had crossed his mind at the time, just not in a very flattering way to Rinoa. But, that was before he got to know her - ‘princess’ no, ‘savior’ from his own self-destruction, yes. The term only seemed to degrade everything she had accomplished, in his opinion.
“Last time I saw her, she was being dragged helplessly by Selphie.” Irvine volunteered after Squall’s momentary retreat into his ‘special place’ as the gang had come to refer to his long bouts of silence.
“What are you doing here?” The commander wondered if that sounded too rude, but then again, he really wasn’t in the best of moods right now. This ‘socializing thing’ was highly overrated, just as he had earlier learned about the art of conversation.
“Bringing Angelo to Garden, sir. The princess wanted to wait for a day or so…until she was settled in her room.”
Taking another swig of his beer kept Squall from commenting back on the overuse of the blasted term.
“So Squall, did you meet her father yet, and get the lecture?”
“The king?” Crap, he said that aloud, didn’t he? Okay, he could get passed this and hopefully they didn’t hear the sarcasm…and what lecture?
“I met Caraway.”
“Glad to see you came out unscathed. You should hear some of the horror stories.”
“What are you telling him?” Someone asked from behind. It was strange, the way his body suddenly felt more at ease just hearing her soft voice. He wanted to look at her, but didn’t want to look like he was ‘looking at’ her. He never got the chance to figure it out, as he felt the slight pressure of someone’s hands resting on his shoulders. The next thing he knew, she’d leaned over, placing both hands around his neck. She clasped her own hands together, resting them gently on his chest. Leaning down she whispered, “Hey you” into his ears. He could feel her intoxicating warm breath, mixed with the distinct aroma of the alcohol, playing tricks on his skin.
“Hey,” he rasped out trying to act like his normal, indifferent self. “Must breathe, inhale…exhale.”
“Nothing princess, just asking if he’d met the General yet.” Watts finally answered the question.
She raised an eyebrow at him, still standing behind Squall. “Yes, he met him. And guys, just call me Rinoa here, please?”
“Haha, yes!!!” Squall actually tried to keep down the small grin forming on his lips.
“Hello again,” said Quistis to the guests as she rounded the corner. A petite energetic figure also emerged, rushing quickly toward the table and the four-legged companion sitting faithfully by.
“Angelo!” Selphie cried, almost attacking the canine in an over-abundant shower of love. “I missed ya girl!”
“Yo! Zone…Watts’ glad you two show’d up! Get some chow yet? It’s a virtual smorgasbord of hot dogs over there.”
Zone held his hand over his stomach, “No, I don’t think I could eat right now. The car ride here did me in, think I’ll be heading to the restroom.”
Squall held his comment, trying desperately to continue coaching his lungs how to properly intake oxygen. Rinoa remained standing behind him with her arms tenderly resting against his body. This was the longest time he had been in physical contact with her since the Ragnarok. He tried not to move, in fear that people might notice, moreover, in fear that she would pull away. “Inhale, exhale…damn it…don’t look scared.”
Watts looked toward the tables covered in food. “I don’t know if I should…Oh wait! They have the mini-weenies…I must go get some!”
It was a statement that sent the three girls once again into mass hysteria. Quistis tried to remain solemn but quickly put her head down on the table, burying her face in her arms. The long blond hair hid the tears flowing from her eyes. Selphie was already on the floor petting Angelo, and literally fell onto her rear laughing. Rinoa released her hold on Squall, kneeling down quickly on the floor next to Selphie. She couldn’t look up, both arms crossed over her stomach, trying to keep what little composure she still retained.
“What…what’s their problem?” Zell took a sip of his drink, acting as if nothing was out of the ordinary in his life.
“I have no idea.” Squall stared down at the top of Rinoa’s head, whose hair now fell gently into her face.
“Girls, care to share?”
“No Irvine, not really. Just…girl stuff.” Quistis said between laughs, waving a hand toward him.
“Yeah right, next thing we know…you’ll be blowing up the table.” Squall said still watching Rinoa on the floor.
She looked up at him and he realized it was the first time he had seen her face. Her features highlighted with glow of the spotlights, eyes shining with the newly formed tears.
“I resent that.” Squinting up at him, she tried to look hurt by the comment, but failed miserably…only laughing harder at the attempt.
“Yes, I had to rescue the fair-maidens from the evil clutches…‘eight’ evil clutches of the worlds scariest, hairiest, and now flattest spider.”
“So you killed it? What did it ever do to you?” Quistis asked raising her head toward the cowboy.
“Well, maybe if it paid some rent we could have worked out a deal.” Rinoa added returning to a standing position.
“You don’t pay rent!” Selphie finally picked herself off of the floor.
“I was thinking of ordering a miniature replica of Lionheart, so next time I could defend my sorceress’ honor like a true knight.” Squall’s deadpan comment made everyone laugh, including Rinoa, who usually didn’t find humor in that subject.
“Wouldn’t you need eight of them? Maybe put them on your fingertips?” Irvine took another drink of his beer, as Selphie walked to his side of the table. Sitting on the gunman’s lap, she grabbed the bottle from his hand and took a huge sip.
The commander thought for a moment, before looking at the woman standing directly next to him. “That’s ninety-six pulse ammos, sorry Rinoa you’re on your own.”
“And they said chivalry was dead.” Protested the sorceress placing her hands on her hips in mock anger.
“Not dead, just on hiatus for awhile, buried under a mountain of paperwork. When I find the correct forms, I’ll fill them out in triplicate, get them notarized, and have a certified messenger deliver them.”
“Oh, Squall,” Rinoa teased as she moved closer, wrapping her arms mischievously around his upper body. “You know how much I like it when you talk ‘all commander’ like that; you still owe me that history of junctioning lecture.”
“Well, I can offer you the true history of SeeD now,” he replied raising an eyebrow at her. “Plus if you’re good, I’ll read you the expense reports from the last six months.”
“You really know how to show a girl an amazing time Squall,” she said seductively. Reaching over she moved his face to hers with a simple touch of her hand until they were eye-to-eye. For a split second, she saw a deep-rooted emotion staring back at her, burning a path into her soul. It then was replaced with a look of a childlike fear, as some startling reservation that remained locked up inside made its way to the surface.
He moved her arms off, not forcefully, but definitely sending her an unspoken message. His heart for a moment had stopped beating just seconds earlier, only to continue now at double its normal pace.
“I just remembered something.” Squall announced standing from the table. “I’ll be back in a while.” He nodded slightly, before turning around and walking off without another word.
In her heart, she wanted to run after him, feeling the guilt of pushing back into his solitude. It wasn’t intentional and sometimes his actions were unpredictable, just as they always had been. She’d felt more relaxed after the two drinks, not drunk, but the alcohol had clouded some of her better judgment. Of course, he would feel uncomfortable with their friends watching them, hell, he felt uncomfortable without them watching. She had been wrapped up in the moment, and now he would be paying the price. Instead of having a night of acting like a carefree teenager, he now was running back into his military world…a safe-haven for his mind. In that world, he always knew what to do…or at least acted like he did.
She sat slowly in the chair that he had just left, feeling the emptiness in the warmth of the seat. The place he should have still been in, if not for her actions. “Stupid, stupid, stupid…” She chastised herself aloud, placing her elbows on the tables and burying her face within her hands.
“Rinoa, don’t beat yourself up over it…he’ll come back. I know Squall…just give him time. And some advice from me, if you want to hear it: don’t change a thing you’re doing. It’s what drew him to you in the first place, just be yourself around him. Soon he’ll learn to be comfortable with who you are, just like he will about himself.”
“Thanks.” Rinoa looked at the woman across the table from her, “I just don’t think sometimes, I just wanted…oh never mind.”
“Hey,” a woman came up holding a drink in one hand, and twirling some tendrils around her face with the other. She had stunning auburn hair pulled loosely up on top of her head, and wearing a very tight sapphire dress - emphasizing every curve of her body. “Do you know where Squall went?”
“Squall?” Rinoa repeated, not sure why she felt a tinge of jealousy, but this woman was gorgeous…it was only a natural reaction.
“Yeah, I need to talk to him.”
“Right talk…I’ve heard that one before. And of course to talk, it is necessary to wear a push-up bra and five inch stiletto heals.” Rinoa remained silent except in her mind.
“I’m Quistis Trepe, an instructor here; maybe I can help you with something.”
“No, this is personal.”
“Of course it is, but we must define personal and professional dear…if you are ‘getting paid,’ it makes it professional.”
“Oh, um…I think he went up to his office.”
“Quistis!!! You did not say that…” The two girls exchanged a look, and Rinoa could tell that the instructor felt bad, like she had betrayed a sacred confidence.
“Okay, I’ll go check up there.”
“Over my dead body… Miss ‘There-is-no-way-those are natural.’” Usually Rinoa wasn’t the type to feel insecure or the slightest tinge of jealousy, but maybe the liquor was taking over her normal mindset. She stood up faking a smile toward the stranger, “I’m his girlfriend, and if it is personal…maybe I can help you.”
“I wasn’t aware he had a girlfriend.” Replied the woman eyeing the younger girl with what appeared to be a slight bit of suspension. “Just make sure he gets this, and tell him I’ll call him later.” She handed Rinoa an envelope, marked confidential. “And miss, this is personal…I hope that you understand that word.”
“Understand this!” Rinoa thought a few choice phrases, none that were too flattering.
“Oh, and tell Squall I had a blast.” Smirked the woman as a final statement, turning around and exiting the party. Rinoa stood stunned as she watched the woman and her ‘had to be liposuction’ legs leave. Finally, she had to say something to break the silence, “Did you see how short her skirt was? Who would wear a skirt like that to a SeeD party?”
Selphie, Zell, and Quistis found irony in the statement. They watched the demeanor of their normally collected friend show a different side. “I don’t know…maybe the same kind of person who is afraid of spiders.” The martial artist said jokingly winking at the girl.
“Oh that hurts,” she replied sarcastically. “That was different I was…er…um…well it was different!”
“Wow, did you see how short her skirt was?” Irvine finally piped up. The other four looked at him in disbelief.
“Where have you been, Irvy?” Selphie demanded, still sitting on the gunman’s lap.
Rinoa glanced down at the yellow envelope in her hand. If only she had x-ray vision…but even then, she wouldn’t do that to Squall. She trusted him. Still it was curious, not the usual type of person he would do business with, especially one classified as a ‘personal nature.’
“Hey guys, I’m going to go for a walk.”
She had gone up to his office, only to find the door locked and no lights appeared from the crack under the frame. Rinoa had also traveled down to the SeeD dorm area, and knocked on the commander’s door, again finding no reply. Sighing in bit of frustration, she figured it was best to return to the party. The halls had a few students, some going to the training center, and some walking between the party and their rooms. Still she held the envelope firmly in her hand, as the curiosity was starting to get the better of her.
Tossing her hair behind her shoulder, she rounded the corner to where the main entrance of the ballroom was. She was surprised when a hand grabbed her arm from behind, catching her off guard. Quickly she turned as the figure started dragging her into a remote area. Although once she turned around, he had no urge to fight the assailant.
“Squall!? What are you doing?”
Again, he didn’t answer her, as they were now standing just inside the coat-check room. Luckily for this evening, it had been left unused, not being a formal Garden event.
“Sorry.” He almost whispered in regret, unable to look her directly in the eyes.
“Sorry for what?” She asked his fingers still wrapped around her arm.
She shook her head embarrassed for a moment, “Squall…I’m sorry…I shouldn’t have acted that way in front of your friends, I just got caught up in the moment.”
“Don’t ever be sorry for being yourself.” He said finding the strength to look her in the eyes.
“…You either.” She responded with hesitation finding it increasingly difficult to breath.
He happened to notice the envelope clasped in her hands, as he looked away from her hypnotizing stare. “Where’d you get that from?”
She wanted to say what was really on her mind, but it was still very inappropriate in the situation. “A woman dropped it off. I was just trying to find you.”
“Did she say anything?”
Rinoa bit her tongue again on the comments she would have liked to say. Simply answering, “Just that it was personal.”
“Good.” Squall took the envelope from her hand, placing it in his inside jacket pocket. He looked back at her and saw an unfamiliar look of insecurity on her face. “Nothing, she said nothing?”
“No, nothing.” Rinoa turned her face away, embarrassed by knowing that he was reading her.
“She’s very good at her job.”
“That’s…nice.” Rinoa tried to think of a diplomatic, kind thing to say. She moved her back against the wall, counting on it for support.
He couldn’t help but start laughing again, the second time today - the second time in an entire lifetime. “Rinoa can you keep a secret?” The curiosity was killing her, and she moved her head back to face him, taking in every detailed feature. “Her brother works in Balamb…as an exterminator. I hired him as a personal favor to me, to spray a few places for bugs. Your room, my dorm and office, and Cid’s office…just in case any unwanted ‘eight-legged villains’ made their way in…. Wouldn’t want you to have another traumatic experience at Garden, and require lifetime therapy…again more paperwork.”
“But…” she tried to say, only to have a finger gently rest over her mouth.
“Shhh…it’s my duty as knight, to save you either from a ruby dragon or hairy spider. Plus in all honesty, I’m not thrilled with the things either…but that’s between you and me. Although I’m not likely to burn down Garden in the process of getting rid of one. If you’re wondering about anything else she was referring to…I also had her do me another favor, but again this is our secret. I didn’t get anything for Zell’s birthday… figured the least I could do was cover this event. I told her if she paid the bills, with my money, she could stay around and enjoy the party. She put all the receipts in an envelope for me.”
“It…was you?” Her earthen eyes widened in shock, amazed at his uncharacteristic thoughtful gesture.
“No one knows…or ever will know, remember? Or I go to the store and get a pet tarantula. I can’t let people know that I’m actually nice.”
“Your secrets are safe with me, my meanie.”
“Now, for something I should have done an hour ago.”
He moved in closer as her body was still pressed against the wall. Placing one arm around her lower back, he slightly pulled her forward away from her support. He moved his forehead to touch hers, looking directly into her eyes. Somehow the fear he felt earlier was still there, but by themselves, he could contain that emotion long enough to act on a deeper, more primal one.
“Breathe,” he whispered. Not sure if it was for her benefit or his, but somehow it didn’t matter as he closed the distance between them. Pulling her body next to his, he gave into his human instincts.
Rinoa moved her arms between his jacket and shirt feeling the sensation of the soft cotton dance on her fingertips. His touch was so intoxicating, so gentle, yet full of passion at the same time. She could taste the bitterness of the alcohol still lingering on his lips, and the sound of his hurried breathing in her ears. This was the most free he had ever allowed himself to be with her, and she accepted the gift with knowing respect.
She felt someone nuzzle up to her leg, and unfortunately, it wasn’t Squall. Waving her hand, she tried to ‘shoo’ the dog away, but the attempt seemed to be in vain. Without warning, the dog suddenly started barking loudly, and never in her life had she wished she owned a muzzle, until today.
Slowly he pulled away, although his body was screaming against it, aware that someone would eventually come to find out what all the commotion was about. And just as he figured, Quistis and Selphie came running in with a look of concern.
“Et tu, Angelo?” Rinoa squinted her eyes at her ‘not so beloved at the moment’ friend.
“Um…” Selphie started trying not to giggle, “We were just worried about Rinoa.”
“But we see that she is ‘very capable’ hands.” Quistis added with her own hint of sarcasm. Hiding her amusement, she put her fingers over her mouth covering her laughter.
“Geesh, is that all you two ever do?” Selphie blurted out, probably again thanks to the aid of the liquor. Not a comment she would usually say - out load that is - about her commander.
“I wish,” Rinoa mumbled under her breath, just vocal enough for Squall to hear.
“Come on,” he said grabbing her hand with a smile only she could see. “Tonight is not about us anyhow. Plus I’m getting hungry myself.”
They walked out of the coatroom, followed by the two females still giggling, and the canine that had been sent on a hunt for her master. Selphie looked over at Quistis, pointing to the Commander. Quickly she ran up beside him, tossing her arm playfully around his free side.
“Hey Squall, how do you feel about mini-hot dogs?”