~ Chapter Nine: A Time to Cast Away ~
A photograph never grows old.
Why was it always hard to be strong? Why couldn't it become second nature with practice and discipline? Instead, it was something she worked harder at each day, feeling as if she were swimming against the current. Rinoa rolled over, looking at the neon numbers on the alarm clock. She hated this; she hated it with every breath in her body. But she had to be strong in her life, as she had faced far worse than this.
Maybe it was so hard because part of her was starting to feel an inner dependency on him being there. She sighed, hating the feeling of being dependant on anyone, especially him... He would like knowing that less than she liked admitting it. She tried to convince herself it was something else, and maybe it was, maybe she just didn't have the ability to distinguish between those feelings right now.
Maybe this is why it had to happen.
Over the last months she had lost herself among the students at Garden. She had become one of them, without being 'one' of them. With him gone, maybe she could find that piece that had been missing, then again, maybe him missing would be the piece.
The last five days had been hard, the hardest test between them yet. It wasn't in what she said, rather what she had avoided saying. She still hadn't talked about her experience that night at Cid and Edea's. To be honest, she had distanced herself slightly from her friends…and him in the course of those few days that followed.
The first night Squall had stayed for hours just holding her, neither speaking a solitary word. Somewhere in the early morning he had left; she knew that if he had stayed any longer the gossip would have been reached the Quad before morning homeroom. As it stood anyhow, it had been spread around Garden by lunch. Let them think what they liked…they both knew the truth. She heard the whispers and giggles, and ignored them as much as possible. They could never understand what really had transpired, and that was all right with her. It wasn't their business anyhow.
Granted had the roles been reversed and she was the outsider, she would have probably drawn the same conclusion. That was one of many things that she had learned during the last year, not to take every situation at face value. It was rarely accurate and in the end only led to bigger problems. Then again, isn't that exactly what she had done surrendering herself to Ultimecia?
Squall too seemed to allow her extra space, which was the definition of irony in and of itself. She could tell sometimes he would want to ask something, but then would back away. His eyes carried more emotion than he could ever be aware, and she knew one particular thing he was afraid of. Yet it didn't matter; she was still there and with him, so that should be all the answers he needed for now. The rest would come in time.
Time. Crap she looked at her alarm clock again, this time placing a pillow over her head in frustration. She actually contemplated screaming into it, trying to relieve some of the tension; however she figured the action would only draw more attention. She had plenty of that already from the students…
Ever since Rinoa had returned to Balamb she understood this day was inevitable. At first it didn't seem such a big deal, but as time grew closer, she dreaded his departure even more. Again she tried to think that the separation meant nothing, they could do eight weeks apart with their eyes closed…right? Heck, they had done it for eighteen years, what were a few more weeks?
Three hours - it would be three hours before he left for Trabia Garden. Part of her wanted to run to his room and beg him to stay, but she knew that was the selfish part and she would never act on her desires… That didn't mean she still didn't think about doing it.
This was going nowhere. Exhaling in frustration, the restless young woman sat up in bed. She tossed the comforter to the side, as she rubbed her eyes attempting to focus the surroundings. She heard a loud 'grunt' from the foot of the bed, looking over she saw Angelo shaking the heavy blanket off her head. The canine gave her master an annoyed look, before resting her head down on her front paws
”Sorry girl, didn't see you down there.”
Placing her feet on the cold tile, Rinoa mumbled aloud for never buying herself a throw rug. It was an everyday ritual to curse when her bare feet met the ceramic floor, and every day she swore next time she was in Balamb that she would buy a rug. Somehow the purchase always escaped her, or something else more pressing came along. That's it. She made the mental note that in the upcoming week she would go buy a damn rug.
As she stood, her body felt like she had slept curled up in a cardboard box. The effects of tossing and turning were manifesting themselves as each muscle felt like she had just participated in the world's longest marathon. She made the mistake of glancing in the mirror, and could have sworn that staring back was Medusa's twin sister. Her hair had taken on a life of its own, and the dark circles under her eyes were more pronounced than a Geezard's nose. This was going to be a long eight weeks.
Finally finding the inner strength, or maybe it was the overwhelming need for a strong cup of coffee, she dragged herself into the bathroom. The warm water in the shower seemed to run out within the first two minutes, leaving something one could barely deem lukewarm for the remainder. Typical. After a few shots of caffeine, the young woman felt a little more part of the living world. She'd put on more makeup base than usual, trying to counter the effects that the lack of sleep had caused. The last thing she needed was Squall to figure out that she hadn't slept well over the last few nights. She had to be strong, or at least act the part.
The cerulean horizon caught her eye as she took another sip of coffee. It was supposed to be overcast and rainy, that's how these things always go in the movies. When a main character leaves or is disheartened the weather mysteriously parallels the actor's mood. But no, today only whispers of cirrus clouds were scattered in the brilliant sky. In her opinion, the conditions outside should have been nothing short of a monsoon.
The stillness of the air was broken when the sound of a knock echoed throughout the room. Rinoa nearly dropped the mug as the sound startled her, causing her to involuntarily jump. She cringed in pain as the mug's contents splashed over the rim, her body tensed. In pain she slammed the cup down too quickly breaking off the ceramic handle. With all her might, she tried not to scream as the aggravation was reaching a boiling point. Not to mention the throbbing fingers that she cradled within her left hand. The bright side to this morning was that only two fingers were suffering from first-degree burns. Well, at least now she had something to focus on rather than Squall leaving… regrettably, it was the pain of scalding fingers.
Finally reaching the door, the stinging of her fingers quickly subsided as she looked into azure eyes.
”Squall?” She wasn't sure why it sounded like a question, as it was obviously him, but lack of sleep was getting the better of her. Leaning against the doorframe, she smiled holding the inflamed fingers behind her back. Now she only hoped she could mask how tired her body was, not to mention the thoughts clouding her mind.
”Hey,” she softly answered back…her conversational skills were speaking volumes right now. There seemed to be an awkward pause before she finally continued, ”So…um packed?”
”Yeah, don't have too much.”
Her words trailed followed by another bout of silence. This time the commander was the one to break the long pause.
She mentally slapped herself on the head after that witty comeback. ”You know Rinoa…breakfast a noun meaning the first meal of the day. Crap say something before he defines…”
”Breakfast…it's food…food you eat in the morning. Did you want to go get some?” He was trying to act serious, although his tone echoed his playful sarcasm.
”Yes!” She quickly answered, almost cutting off his last words. Now she went from sounding like an imbecile to sounding completely desperate… ”I'll need a few minutes.”
”Want me to wait here or meet in the cafeteria?”
”No stay!” Great, now she sounded like an imbecile, desperate, and giving him commands as she would Angelo. ”I mean, please stay here. I'll just need a minute to clean up this mess.”
”I didn't get much sleep last night.”
”Me either.” Great, the idea of trying to hide that fact just flew out the window. She continued moving toward the shattered ceramic pieces. Maybe he would just ignore her last words or all the words since she had opened the door.
”Are we…” He paused not positive how to say this clearly, or fearful of the answer she may give. ”Are we all right?”
”What?” Quickly turning her head toward him, Rinoa stopped cleaning up the mug.
”I mean… Hyne, I don't know.” He ran his hand through his hair with his eyes downcast to the floor. He really didn't know how to say it, but he needed to know something before he left. It was slowly eating away at his thoughts, and what little sleep he had was riddled with guilt.
He really didn't have to say anything, of course she understood what he had meant. In all honesty, she was surprised that he was the one to bring it up. Some part of him seemed…well almost scared. They would be 'all right,' this was just something she had to get past. Re-examining every aspect of her life to this point, she somehow felt…well very 'childish' at times for lack of a better term. How one could feel old beyond their years and childlike at the same time was a paradox to her.
”Rinoa, I can go speak with the headmaster. I'll get out of leaving if you would prefer.”
Maybe just hearing him speak the words were all she needed right now. She would never ask him to 'get out of leaving,' but him offering only reaffirmed her importance within his life. Part of her was glad, knowing that her wishes would take precedence over his job. But this certainly wasn't one of the times she would ask, if she ever would. If it came down to that, he would never have to ask, in his heart he would already know the answer.
”Squall, of course you go… I'll miss you, but I'll be just fine.” Smiling at him she stood, and placed her arms securely around his back. For the first time ever, she was the one to initiate physical contact. As before, it was always him taking the lead on anything remotely intimate. Maybe this was a good thing, her feeling comfortable enough, not fearing that he would pull away.
Their lips touched softly a few times, before meeting with more certainty. Momentarily he hesitated, not at the feeling, but just at how much he was growing to like this once foreign sensation. Moving his hands, he ran his fingers through her hair reaching for the base of her neck. It just felt as if he couldn't get her close enough to him as he pressed closer to her body. Before he knew she was against the wall, using it for whatever support it offered.
It was then that the realization hit him, how for a few minutes he could do nothing but get lost in her intoxication. It scared him. He had always been in so much control, now he was losing that capability, at least in one aspect of his life. He was the one to break the moment, withdrawing himself back only slightly. Her eyes contained a blend of sadness and concern.
”Squall?” her tone gentle, wondering if she had made a mistake.
He remained silent, still searching her eyes, before admitting, ”I'll miss you too.”
Her smile returned as young knight ran his hand through her hair, memorizing the texture, the silky touch that danced on his fingertips.
”Do you want to talk?”
”No,” she answered softly, ”Not yet. Please don't think it's because of you, honestly it is because of me.”
”It doesn't matter who it is, it hurts just the same.” He stopped wondering if he should elaborate on that, but she didn't need to hear what she already knew. ”Please call me anytime, day or night.”
Biting her lower lip she nodded in understanding, never speaking another word on the subject.
Finally he moved his hand from her hair, placing a large amount securely behind her ear. ”Now Rinoa, do you want to go get some breakfast?”
”Yes I do,” her voice was barely above a whisper.
She started to walk away, but noticed that he had remained planted in the same spot. The hand that hadn't been smoothing hair was holding hers, fingers still seizing the few precious moments they had to share. Just as she was about to open her mouth to ask what was wrong, he gently moved her body back toward his. Leaning in, he gave her a gentle kiss on her lips. It wasn't as passionate as the first, but the sensation was breathtaking nonetheless; the pain of her burns had been all but forgotten in such perfect moments.
Leaning his head back on the cushion, he watched as the waves crashed on the port side of the boat. The way the white tips foamed, leaving small eddies in their wakes. He couldn't help but remember the smell of the salt air on their first date in Balamb. The way it filled his senses along with everything that was her - her strawberry shampoo, her Gardenia lotion, and the slightest hint of vanilla in her perfume.
He sighed in aggravation; he couldn't believe what he was becoming. At one point, he thought all the male SeeDs whose girlfriends sent them off in tearful goodbyes seemed feeble in their duties. In what twisted and demented world would two people in that kind of life find happiness among the bloodshed? It was a weakness, an adolescent fascination that took them away from what they were really there for, their purpose in life, their purpose as SeeD.
Now it all had changed, even something as elementary as 'his purpose in life.' SeeD was no longer his most valued duty, strange how things can change in just over a year. At least he didn't have to make those around suffer through a tearful goodbye; instead theirs was done in private, in beautiful silence. He could think of nothing more fitting, and less agonizing, to everyone himself included.
He closed his eyes as he remembered the feel of her smooth skin; the way he wiped a tear away that she tried desperately not to shed. Yes, normally he would consider crying a fault, but earlier in that moment, he was trying to stop his own from forming within the corners of his eyes. She had smiled up at him, simply nodding. In return, all he could do was nod back to her. If he could have forced himself to smile…then he would have. But it didn't feel natural, so all he did was just stare. He memorized every beautiful feature, and every flaw, but what he saw between the beauty and the flaws was only perfection.
The rocking of the boat reminded him of the comfort he felt as he gathered her into his arms; how he held her tight with only minutes until he left. He opened his eyes abruptly, as he tried to convince himself this was only for two months - eight short weeks. This was not like when he had said goodbye to her at the Sorceress Memorial. That felt like forever, and he never wanted to feel that way again.
He watched a few seagulls play what resembled a game of aerial tag, before thinking back to his last seconds with her today. After they parted from their embrace, their lips met once more, and then he left her room. He didn't look back. He wanted to, but he never did. How could he? The first time he had looked back, they were already at the docks of Balamb Harbor, and Garden was nothing more than a speck in the distance.
Now here he sat eight hours later, feeling the unison of each wave with forward motion of the vessel. He tried to find the beauty of the sunset at dusk, but as they neared Trabia they were met with overcast skies and a light sprinkling of snow. Glancing down at his watch, he hoped the hours would pass by quickly, once he could get somewhere and do something - well, it would be better than sitting alone doing nothing.
Could he rescind that last statement? Nothing alone was looking better by the moment.
”Yes.” He never looked as the man took the seat next to him; the commander just hoped that maybe the martial artist would take his enthusiasm somewhere else…like overboard. Squall caught his own mistake, even as he thought the words, he didn't truthfully mean them. It was thoughts such as those, which had got him into trouble in the first place. Zell only was there to try to be his friend, and no matter how much Squall had ignored him, his comrade never lost hope, or took the actions to heart. Kind of like Rinoa did…Squall inwardly chuckled to himself, wondering how the two would like to be compared.
The commander sighed, deciding to try to be a little less…well Squall. His tone softened as he turned toward his companion, ”Yes Zell?”
”Hey, the captain said we should reach the Trabian docks in less than an hour. I'm kind of nervous about going… I mean we were there last time, right after everything… But this time...the reality will have set in. I talked to Selphie and she said…” The martial artist paused realizing that Squall hadn't cut him off like he normally would have done. In fact, the commander honestly seemed to be listening. ”Um…yeah anyway Trabia, Selphie mentioned…” This was starting to confuse him. He just had to ask, ”Squall, are you listening to me?”
”Yes, I am.”
”Yeah, I noticed... Is something wrong?” Zell wished he had thought that one out a little more as he suddenly felt slightly awkward. ”I didn't mean that like it came out. I'm just surprised that's all. Um...never mind, I really just came by to give you something. Selphie gave them to me this morning when she couldn't find you. She thought you might like them.”
The martial artist produced an envelope from inside his jacket pocket. A moment of confusion passed the commander's normally unyielding expression. He accepted the envelope, wondering possibly what Selphie would have for him. Opening the packet, he found several glossy photographs.
It was remarkable; he had never had any pictures of her. It wasn't if he didn't want any, he had just never thought of asking her, or taking the initiative to take one himself. It would just feel…out of place. Now there were several shots taken during Zell's birthday party of all the entire group, some of her, and a few of just the two of them. Those stood out the most in his eyes. He had never actually seen them together; it was a rather overwhelming feeling…yet one that he seemed to be strangely comfortable with.
The last photo was Rinoa sitting on his lap, her head resting against his shoulder. He hadn't even remembered Selphie taking the picture. That night he felt trapped almost between two selves - part of him worried about how their actions were being perceived by those around, while the other part wanted to stay that way forever. He hadn't realized how long he had been staring at the photograph, until a voice beside him commented on it.
”Yeah, I like that one best too.”
The blond man wondered if he shouldn't have commented on the photo, but he really did like the picture. Sometimes he found himself trying too much to watch what he said around the commander. Zell was a person who spoke from his heart, and it was hard to change that at times. So instead of getting up and just walking away, as he would have only a short time ago, he added one final thing. ”Squall, if you ever need anyone to talk to, I know I'm not her or anything…but I am here if you need someone.”
”Thank you,” replied Squall, and he truly meant it.
She tossed and turned, was it even possible to be so tired yet still be awake? At what point would she just pass out from exhaustion? If she hadn't felt so fatigued she would have hurled the alarm clock across the room, but the point was moot as she would just have to buy another clock… well then maybe she would remember to get a throw rug at the store.
The moonlight poured in through the open drapes, illuminating the entire room with a bluish glow. She tossed on her back once more, looking straight up. The ceiling seemed to have thousands of dots imprinted on each tile. If she stared long enough, the image would become three-dimensional almost looking as if they were celestial bodies dotting the horizon of space. Great, now she was halfway hallucinating she was in space, which could never be a good sign.
From her nightstand, the phone chimed interrupting her journey into her three-dimensional ceiling universe. Leaning over Rinoa placed her long hair behind her shoulders, before reaching for the receiver. Part of her started imagining the worst, given the hour of the call, which reflected in her voice.
”Squall, is everything all right!?”
”Yeah, I'm sorry I shouldn't have called.”
”No, no, no…please.” She took a deep breath, calming herself down. ”I'm glad you did. I was just laying here, couldn't sleep.” She decided to forgo the details of her psychedelic examination of the ceiling tile.
”Is it that surprising?”
”Kind of…” Her words trailed off as she reached past her alarm clock, grabbing an object placed carefully on the other side. Early tonight she memorized every detail, until the guilt had made her set it down. Now she again stared at the picture of them together; ones which Selphie had given her copies of this afternoon. With a single finger she traced his jawbone on the photograph, smiling at how happy they both seemed that night… Even if he would refuse to ever admit 'happy' was in his vocabulary.
Rinoa could hear him breathing on the other end, each just sat in silence for the moment. She wondered if he could also hear her breathe; he had to…as it was seemingly increasing louder with every passing second. She had to break the silence before emotion became too much.
”How…How is everything up there?”
”It's a mess. I…I just don't know how they do it.”
”They do it because they have to.”
”Everyone just seems so upbeat, even under the circumstance.”
”It's a form of closure…to move on from the past.” She paused, her own words mirroring those she yearned to say, somehow she hadn't found the right time. But here, in the stillness, it was easier to face some of her demons. Maybe he was thousands of kilometers away, but somehow he felt that he was right next to her. She looked into his eyes, the ones embossed on paper. ”Squall?”
Before she could stop herself, the words just seemed to flow from her heart. ”That night I-I saw my mother…and I watched her die - again.”
She paused shocked she was saying this; maybe she needed to say it so they both could move forward together. She once again looked towards the photo, finding a certain peace in his face.
”I watched her last breaths, and I saw her blood stop flowing with my own eyes. Caraway just walked away, again, leaving me with strangers. He…just left me…I was only four. Then I heard you, and things you thought about me…how I always got in your way, how I was annoying. But you know what I realize now? You were right. Maybe the hardest thing for me to face is not how you acted, but how I acted and-”
He knew the direction she was taking. She was going to place the blame upon herself, he would not sit idly by allowing her to twist his thoughts. He cut her off, not with anger, but speaking forcefully all the same.
”Rinoa, you may have been annoying, you may have acted childish at times…but don't ever stop being you. Right now, I would give anything to be annoyed by you. Your integrity is a rarity in this word today - the childish times, the mature times, the times when it was just us... It is how the qualities balance out that I was drawn to, it is everything that is you, Rinoa Heartilly.”
He paused trying to take in the words he had just spoken. Part of him wasn't sure what he had just said, given the time of night and the emotions clouding his thinking. But he did know one thing - everything he just said was fact. Unlike the half-truths that Ultimecia had allowed her to witness. He only wished she had heard the others that crossed his mind back in those days...then quickly realized that 'those' thoughts could be just as embarrassing.
”Rinoa, if you tell me what you heard, or saw, I'll explain…please. Trust me, it isn't like what you are thinking. Nothing-”
This time it was her turn to interrupt him, ”Squall, I know. That's the thing - I know. I think the problem was in believing in myself. But I do now, and I believe in us. Squall Leonhart, no matter what I witnessed, I trust you with all my heart.”
”Thank you.” His words caught in his throat, and Rinoa had never heard his voice so unsure.
”Squall I…” she started and quickly stopped.
Why? Why in the hell couldn't she just say, ”I love you?” Three little words she knew were true, but still couldn't admit to him. Was it because they were on the phone, because she couldn't really look him in the eyes? Was it she had never told anyone else before, with the exception of blood relations? Maybe she had said it to her friends in jest, or casually in passing. She hadn't told another human being in over thirteen years that she loved them, and never this type of love. The one she felt for today, for tomorrow, forever…
So instead all that she could muster, ”Squall, I really, really miss you.” Yes, maybe adding the second 'really' in there would prove her point. She inwardly cursed at herself yet again, it seemed the closer they grew, the more tongue-tied she became.
To her surprise, he didn't laugh, or make any undue comment. ”Rinoa, I really, really miss you too.” His voice was so tender, yet reassuring, never faltering over the reply.
”Goodbye,” she softly added.
”No, never goodbye. Goodnight for now, I'll talk to you soon.”
It was her voice this time that cracked under the emotion. She hung up the phone and placed the photo next to her alarm clock. She smiled looking at his image as she rested her head against the pillow. ”I love you Squall,” she added for only the photograph and her canine companion to hear. But it didn't matter, she had said it, and she knew it was true. More importantly, she knew that he loved her, even if it would be a while before he could say those exact words.
She closed her eyes, and for the first time in five nights, she slept peacefully.
End notes: Wanted to congratulate my friend Noacat on her recent wedding! Yeah, the number of married people are growing, I don't feel so alone anymore! Carrie, Rosa, Lara, and Bob - well okay, there are at least six of us that I know of and sure I have forgot someone! Caleb Nova, also congrats on getting your story finished, I know how it is writing something for a few years! ^_^
Finally, thank you so much all who have taken the time to review…I know people like the more dramatic stories of mine; sometimes I'm not sure how people will react to this, as it slightly different than most things I do. It's hard to explain to some the plot of 'Dancing' revolves around the relationship itself. I think there is so much of my personal experience in the story and I hope some of the little things come through. I'll be going back to the dramatic pieces with one that I had started about the same time as 'Crimson Lies,' just never had posted. Once we get further with 'Somewhere in Between,' I'll start posting the other.
Thanks for putting up with me though all of this, you'll never know how much your support means. Seriously…I thank you all.