“I’m sorry, Commander, sir,” the waiter said over Squall's shoulder, “but we don’t have that particular vintage – our sincere apologies. Can I recommend another bottle – on the house, of course?”
Squall tried not to grit his teeth- too hard, anyway, because they were already grinding a little at the waiter’s placating, admiring, sorry-to-your-famous-personage-please-be-kind tone. He glanced up. Rinoa was smiling at him, that smile of hers that carried beaming wattage like a Thundaga to the chest, and even though it still made his heart skip a beat he could read in it what neither of them was saying: her hesitation playing across her face, the tense strain of her smile even as his own lips quirked back in response.
“Not a problem,” he said, aware that his voice was gruff and sounded irritated; maybe everyone would assume he was aggravated about the wine.
The waiter bobbed his head in some kind of nod-bow, which did serve to siphon a little of Squall’s irritation away from Rinoa and onto the waitstaff of Felicia’s in general, a blanket of annoyance stretching from wall to wall. The waiter left, and silence fell, again; Rinoa fidgeted with her napkin, and Squall took his glare back to the tablecloth.
"Did you really want that particular bottle?" Rinoa asked, only a little tentative, and Squall knew she at least was wondering how much of his anger was directed across the table; he could feel the query in her words, and it only frustrated him more, the tingling sense of hearing more than she said when she spoke.
"Well, it's the only one I knew anything about." His admission made her smile, a little, like she tended to do at his wry jokes; the temptation of that little smile had brought those out in him more and more until even Selphie had accused him of hiding a sense of humor underneath his uniform. "I don't really care about that, though. It's the..." He trailed off, waving a hand at the doors in the back, where a small but sufficient gaggle of waiters and busboys had gathered to gawk. "All of that."
Rinoa's smile turned warm. She understood; she'd understood from the beginning what his awkward aborted hand-gestures all meant, an interpersonal skill Squall still found himself disbelieving on bad days. "Come on, Squall. I think the savior of the world deserves a free bottle of wine every now and then."
She was teasing, but the joke fell a little flat between them, skewered on Squall's irritation and the tension in the air. It had been an argument for months, now, their differing opinions on how to deal with their own sudden fame; Rinoa had decided to carefully cultivate a public image, whereas Squall wanted nothing more than to take the titles of Commander and Knight and hide both under a giant pile of paperwork, preferably guarded by Cerberus. "Squall," Rinoa's voice tripped into the silence, soft again, awkward and urgent, "I didn't – I didn't mean–"
Squall looked across the table at her. Her eyes were kind, but careful. Rinoa had started to carry with her a certain hesitation, these days, especially around him. It both alarmed and worried him, because Rinoa was not a hesitant person, had never been: she'd always been exuberantly impulsive, careless of her own safety and pride, amused by her mistakes. She'd carried him away like a force of nature. To see her here, weighing her own words, made something slow turn in his stomach. He couldn’t label what had changed, or why, only that it had, and he wondered whether she was trying to be helpful, or if she was just sick of his company.
He'd been so lost in his thoughts; her eyes had turned cautious, and he recognized the concern Rinoa carried in her face right before she started to say something he would, inevitably, argue with – "Let's just wait," Squall interrupted, gesturing again at the crowd of observers gathered by the kitchen doors. He knew they'd have to continue the argument eventually, but... he'd really wanted to have a calm and uneventful dinner for once, without any reminders that they were anything more than two people at dinner. Sometimes, Squall thought grumpily, these roles they wore felt like foreign uniforms, like the dumb costume Laguna Loire had worn in that awful movie; parts in a play, fitting as strangely as Loire’s skin had in those memory-dreams. Some days he didn't feel any more like Rinoa's Knight than he did her boyfriend.
"Right." Rinoa swallowed, and Squall watched as she put a smile back onto her face. Rinoa had always been better than he at wearing the public persona; she slipped into it easily, charm wrapping about her like a scarf, brightly colored distraction. "So Selphie told me today that you were thinking about approving her idea for a Festival next month?"
Stilted conversation about Selphie's plans ("Oh, approve the fireworks budget, Squall; this year's cadets really deserve it") helped them through the arrival of their free bottle of wine, and Rinoa's idle musings about the nature of Selphie and Irvine's relationship took them through dinner itself. Squall's stomach turned over again; when had it turned into this? He remembered Rinoa talking to him, happily and freely, about anything and everything, drawing his own stilted observations out of him with relative ease. Now their eyes met over the table awkwardly, as if caught on something invisible between them. Too much unsaid rested in the air, a stiff tension Squall could sometimes almost feel in his stomach, or in the soles of his feet, like something unbalancing both within and beneath him.
It was not, he reflected sourly, all too long ago that he wouldn't have noticed the stiltedness in the conversation – or at least wouldn't have cared so much, worried at it like this. Sometimes people just didn't get along, or didn’t want to talk, and it had never bothered him; he hadn't believed in relying on others. But he watched Rinoa's face across the table – the cautious shift of expression, the too-quick smiles – and felt the helpless tug of her, affecting him whether he allowed it or not; and beneath it the deeper current of connection between them, his small wants all tangled up in their bond. They saw each other so little, these days. He tried to smile more as dessert arrived, and not to think of the frictionless marble of a ballroom floor, and how scrabble-slick it would feel if it tilted beneath him.
They were leaving the restaurant when a young woman dashed up to Rinoa's side, her eyes bright with admiration, a magazine in her hand. "Excuse me," the girl said, and her voice was so blatantly hopeful that Squall almost wanted to yell at her. "You're ...Rinoa Heartilly, right? Could I maybe get you to sign this?"
To Squall's surprise, it wasn't the copy of Timber Maniacs he'd expected, Rinoa's unusually solemn face declaring her Sorceress powers in an exclusive interview – it was the issue of Weapons Monthly she'd done, so many weeks ago he'd almost forgotten about the entire thing. On this cover, a laughing Rinoa was signaling Angelo to jump; even the dog seemed to be smiling. Sorceress's Best Friend, read the byline; How Your Pet Can Protect You. Squall had never expected a publication other than Pet Pals to take Rinoa and Angelo seriously, and he'd been so surprised when WM called – surprised and proud, he remembered. Rinoa (and Angelo, to be fair) had worked really hard to prepare for that issue, and he'd been so proud of the gleaming way the author had described their prowess. The fact that Angelo had been highlighted as an extremely efficient, well-trained and very experienced protective companion was an unexpected but highly desirable bonus.
The ever-present sense of irritation subsided enough for Squall to feel guilty. It almost made him want to sulk more. He watched as Rinoa gracefully signed her name right beneath Angelo, beaming at the young woman in a way Squall shouldn't have still been surprised with: this was Rinoa at her best, always with a kind word, happy to share a smile and a sentence with anyone – as if they were all her adoring public, as if she was nothing more than a radiant and reluctant celebrity. Rinoa finished, and looked up at Squall; the smile wobbled a little on her face as she read something on his. Squall winced.
As they left Felicia's, they both turned towards the road that would lead down to the beach, in unexpected unison; he wanted to laugh, except that it made his heart hurt a little. His footsteps were quiet and stern; Rinoa's sounded flightly, the light patter of her distinctly-civilian sneakers fluttering around his uniform boots. "Rinoa," he said, softly, finally, before the silence could form the shape of the thing between them. "I'm– I'm really proud of you for that article. Have I told you that?"
She turned her face to him, and her smile was soft and pleased, the glow in her eyes genuine. "Oh, Squall," she said, and she reached out to take his hand; slender fingers clutched at his in a misaligned squeeze. "You did," she replied, the teasing in her voice warm, "but it never hurts to hear it more, you know. Thank you."
Squall didn't let her hand go. It was like a much-needed anchor: sometimes he felt like Rinoa was a kite, drafting around high above him on her own windy whims, so much more lofty and powerful than he could ever be. Her hand in his solidified their connection, an affectionate grounding wire. He didn't want to bind her, hold her, limit her – never. But some days he wondered whether the unseen tension between them would snap this tentative string holding them together, leaving him breathless and Rinoa lost somewhere, separate from him.
They reached the boardwalk, and Rinoa paused to take off her sneakers and socks. "Go on, silly," she said, and her voice was so rich with love and teasing that Squall did, sitting down on the bench to carefully unlace his boots. "No one's going to steal a pair of SeeD boots," she pointed out, even as she carefully tucked both pairs away behind a bush. "They're too ugly for civvies, and SeeDs all have them already."
The sand was still warm underneath his feet, and unsteady between his toes. Rinoa took his hand again, and they walked out to the edge of the ocean in silence. She took a step forward, dabbled a toe in the surf-dappled remains of a wave. Squall followed the pull of her; the water of the sea was cold. It was a strange sensation, the sand uneven and shifting under his weight, the edge of the wave tugging at his toes and ankles. He didn't much like it. His feet longed for the sturdy evenness of the boardwalk, the cement, a battlefield; he felt flooded and overwhelmed.
But Rinoa's face was soft as she looked out over the ocean, her eyes on the rose-and-peach clouds on the horizon. She was so beautiful she made Squall's breath catch, even as he laughed at himself for the thought. She looked lovely. She looked tired, Squall realized almost belatedly, without her usual high-beam smile or mischievous grin; there were wan circles under her eyes, and exhaustion across her brow, even as her face relaxed in the light of the oncoming sunset. Maybe it was the act of watching her like this, watching the tight tension in her face unwind, that made it so obvious.
She took her hand back from him to gather her hair up in a messy bun at her neck, where the wind couldn't steal pieces as easily. Squall felt off-balance without that grounding contact, as if the drag of the waves and the sea was suddenly too much. With her hair tied back, Rinoa's face looked starker, and the exhaustion was more evident. How had he just noticed? Her lips curled up in a gentle smile as she caught him staring. "What?"
"You look tired." Squall reached out, fumbled a piece of wayward hair behind her ear. The gesture seemed to fall flat, floating sluggishly on the waves; he wasn't much good with hair, or with sweet gestures. He dropped his hand to his side again and tried to ignore the shifting sand particles between his toes.
Rinoa let out a sigh through her teeth. "It's been busy, Squall. Just last week we caught a truck of explosives, on its way to..." She turned away, her face wrenching. "On its way to an elementary school. Timber can't sleep until they're gone," she said, and her voice was rough. "And you know I can't sleep either." Something cold wisped inside him – it hadn't been how she meant it but the memory of their nights gaped open underneath him, her waking and the fear singing across the Bond; he tried to shrug all of that aside, but it only compounded his directionless worry, the kite-string suddenly taut and quivering in unseen wind.
"I just wish you would take care of yourself." He meant it with care, but it came out woodenly, and the thing between them twisted, suddenly and surprisingly hot, wrenching out of his grasp.
Rinoa rounded on him, her eyes flashing. "I am taking care of myself, Squall. I'm just a little tired, is all. Would you please...!" Her fists clenched and then opened, tension releasing into the air in a gesture Squall could almost feel. "I can take care of myself. I am doing so. It's a rough time right now, and I think helping Timber get rid of Galbadia is a little more important than getting a full eight hours, don't you?"
He didn't even say anything, and her shoulders still sagged in snide disappointment. "No, of course you don't." She sighed, and looked away. "This isn't just about me, Squall; it's about Timber, and the thousands of people there who are risking as much as I am, if not more." Her hands flexed again. "I just wish you would trust me, Squall. To take care of myself."
"Rinoa," he said, and his million arguments choked in his throat and died on his lips, the way her face rose and fell, the way he felt her anger and resentment and resignment trickling through all the gaping holes they left every time they tore into this.
He breathed through it and said, "I know we both have a lot going on right now. I just – worry about you." She turned to look at him again, and he tried to think of a way to phrase it that she'd understand. "I've seen you take care of yourself. But you've..." And now they were leading into it, the argument they'd been having for weeks now: this disagreement that shimmered in the air with hot rage, that pulled their connection tight and thin until it was threadbare and fraying. "You've put yourself out there as a huge target. You told the world you were the Sorceress, Rin, just came right out with it. It isn't just Galbadia watching you, anymore." He swallowed the feeling of helplessness and anger, the sense of worry that wasn’t entirely his, this protectiveness he’d found inside himself like some foreign memory left behind by a GF.
"I've told you this before, Squall, and I stand by my choice." She planted her feet in the wet sand and faced him; her eyes were stern. "I am not going to live in secrecy and shackles because of what happened to me. If I tried to hide it, you know someone would find out, and everything I'd worked for would go up in smoke if it came out wrong." She swallowed, and Squall could see a trace of fear flicker across her face; it echoed down his spine, faintly, and he watched Rinoa bury it with determination. "Yes, I decided to claim it, and I would do it again. I am not going to hide. I think it's about time these damn powers were used for something good."
I will control this thing. It echoed, ricocheting across the sharp angles of what they'd built between them. Squall wondered whether he was truly hearing her thoughts, transmuted somehow through the shaky Sorceress-Knight bond, spiraling down this kite-string connection, or if it was just a memory of the countless times he and Rinoa had had the same argument in the past weeks.
She just refused to look at the situation through his eyes: from a military perspective, even without a lot of analysis, the biggest target in Timber was Sorceress Rinoa Heartilly. It was Intro-to-Strategy-type knowledge, the kind of thing he'd expect even a civilian like Rinoa to be able to understand. But it was as if Rinoa thought her own determination to not let the powers keep her from living a normal life had convinced her she was no different than any other soldier or citizen she fought beside, and her refusal to recognize or admit it was endangering both her and her mission.
"Speaking of Timber," she said, interrupting his thoughts; Squall heard the tension in her voice and looked up. Rinoa had squared her shoulders and set her mouth in a way he recognized, a method of delivery she used when presenting something she knew he'd argue with. It was amazing sometimes how well they knew each other, how they could still predict the other’s reactions and emotions – how familiar all of this was, even with the layers of their arguments in the way. "Have you thought at all about my proposal?"
He blew the air from his lungs in an exasperated sigh. "Rinoa, I – yes, I've thought about it," he said. "But nothing has been decided yet."
"Well, I've done some thinking." Her face was set with determination, and she began to tick items off on her fingers. "Timber needs connections with other governments and powers to be fully recognized as an independent nation. Timber Garden would bring that with it. We need a better military presence, because Galbadia has both G-Garden and the Army – we're barely surviving these attacks, let alone a full-fledged war. If Timber had a Garden, we'd be pretty instantly established with military power, with an army of our own."
"Not necessarily," Squall had to point out. "Balamb isn't considered a strong military power by itself." The water licked at his toes, and he shifted in the sand, feeling his support shift with him.
"But Galbadia uses G-Garden to farm for the Army, right? Cadets that don't decide to stay on with SeeD can go right into the Galbadian Army." Rinoa sounded proud, almost smug, as if she'd anticipated this argument. "And even B-Garden has an agreement to defend Balamb if necessary, as part of the contract for the space, right? Just the presence of a Garden could go a long way towards solidifying Timber's defenses, even preemptively."
Squall nodded, conceding the point if not the overall logic of the situation. "But a full Garden can't be built in a week, Rinoa. We don't even know how much of Trabia Garden is salvageable yet. In the time it would take to get a Timber Garden built, functional, and actually graduating SeeDs and soldiers..." He shrugged. "Things could be very different."
"That's another thing," Rinoa replied, ticking off another finger. "Building a facility like that would bring in a lot of industry. It would boost Timber's economy, which we need pretty badly right now – bring in construction, education, lots of activity across lots of sectors."
Squall bit his lip. "It's a good argument, Rinoa," he said carefully, because he knew she wasn't going to like this. "But you forgot about something."
She set her mouth, ready to argue, her determination written across her brow. "Like what?"
"You've presented a list of reasons why a Garden would be good for Timber," Squall said. "But you haven't given me any reasons why Timber would be good for Garden."
Rinoa frowned. She said nothing, though, so Squall continued: "Frankly, from Garden's point of view, Timber isn't an ideal site. It's close to a Garden site we already have, and Galbadia Garden can't be moved anywhere until the repairs are done. It's caught in the middle of a civil war, which poses a lot of risk to us: financially, situationally, structurally, not to mention that it also puts a lot of innocent Garden staff and students directly in a line of fire that has nothing to do with them." He shrugged again, and conceded, "The economic situation is pretty favorable, because a new site could be built for relatively cheap, but otherwise... it's a hard sell, Rinoa."
Her mouth set, stubbornly. "I don't think it's worse than any of the other locations you've taken bids from, Squall. Esthar is just as unstable – they've got Lunar Cry monsters and their wall coming down, people there aren't too happy either – and Trabia's still a disaster area, unfortunately. Timber isn't politically stable right now, no, but Timber's stability problems could be solved with an incoming Garden facility. It's cheaper, it's close enough to Galbadia to keep them all in check, and half of the problems will go away once it's announced."
Squall took a minute to look out towards the horizon. He felt the beginnings of a headache coming on, the low rumbling kind that built up from his neck, thundering through the back of his skull. "It's also a terrible PR decision," he pointed out, his voice rough in his throat. "You and I are–" And this was ironic, what with the way they were fighting about it all the time, the tension squirming in the air even on good days. “We're too close for it to look like anything other than favoritism."
Rinoa shook her head; there were lines on her forehead as she frowned, and Squall wanted to reach out and smooth them away, smooth this all away, somehow get the roaring out of his ears and the frustration out of his spine. "Good relationships are what drive good politics, Squall," she said, and her voice was somehow both soft and hard: it echoed, strangely urgent, in Squall's head. "People will see this as a reason to stay on friendly negotiating terms with Garden. If Garden works this closely with their known allies, everyone will want to be your ally."
"Garden doesn't need allies," Squall ground out, frustrated; he couldn't seem to find the words he needed to express this particular idea, and it was helping the sudden headache gain momentum. "We need customers. The entire point of Garden is to stay out of politics as much as we can."
A look flashed between them, sharp as steel, something that felt like hissing, angry and molten: and Squall knew they were both thinking about Garden, thinking about Garden's real purpose, its initial purpose. He and Cid weren't sure how to reconcile Garden's fundamental point with the events of the past few months – yet – but Squall knew that if SeeD were to have a future, it would have to be about more than Sorceresses. The thought alone made something twist in his gut; he felt like he was trying to clutch a mass of loose threads, each twisting away from him: Garden's future, his future with Rinoa, Rinoa's plans, all tangled up together and for a second he wondered where Squall was in the middle of it all. When had he become like this, so connected that it hurt, that it confused him dizzy, that it made him just want to touch Rinoa's face and smooth this all away?
Her hand came up in a weird echo of his thought, though her fingers were frustrated, clawing loose hair away from her face again, caught in the evening shoreline wind. And because Rinoa was Rinoa – and his heart swelled, proud and warm, even as the words he knew were coming scraped across his headache, tensed his shoulders – she took the unsaid thing between them and said it, put it before his face.
"Can't this be the start of something new for Garden? Can't this be Garden's future?" It hung in the air: And ours?
Squall looked at her for a long moment, feeling the waves stealing the surety out from under his feet, watching as the dying light touched Rinoa's face, more softly than he ever could. His voice felt flat and unhappy when he spoke.
"I don't know, Rinoa. I just… don't know."
It hung so solid in the air, like Squall had spit ice spells on the waves; the water ran cold along his feet. And for once, he couldn't read Rinoa's face, like the evening shadows had reached it early and it bothered him how much that scared him, these naked feelings when words couldn't cross the empty spaces; the kite-string had gone lax, slack pooling around his ankles, looping away from him into infinity.
Then Rinoa ran a hand across her face, breaking the density of their looks: a tired swipe across her forehead, fingers stopping to tuck hair behind her ear. "Let's just – let's go home, okay?"
His head ticked down in a nod, enough that Rinoa turned to trudge back up the beach. The sand felt gritty and unpleasant as he followed her, clinging to his wet feet. They reached the boardwalk, and he stood awkwardly barefoot as Rinoa rummaged in the bush. She retrieved her sneakers, the stiff line of her back etched across his vision in silent rebuke, but left him to fend after his own boots, the childishness of it a helpless irritating contrast to the empty enormity of the questions they couldn't answer. She led the way back, and Squall couldn't see her face.
The door closed behind her with a quiet click, and Rinoa stood there for a moment, her eyes adjusting to the soft almost-darkness of Squall's office. She felt the absence of his hand in hers like an ache, and wrapped her arms around herself for a moment, desperately hoping her own palms could transmit that strange feeling of solid solidarity Squall's did. Of course, nothing happened, except that her eyes adjusted a little more and she felt a little foolish for embracing herself.
Squall flicked on the light, and stalked over towards his desk, ruffling through his inbox – looking for the Timber petition, Rinoa guessed. He set everything neatly back in place, carefully aligning it all in a perfect stack. He didn't look at her. Rinoa breathed in, feeling her eyes prick; these days it seemed like she was living her life on the verge of tears, whether it was Squall or Timber or just plain being so tired all the time, because there wasn't ever enough time for anything. She breathed out. It felt sometimes like she was overflowing, inside, although Rinoa had no idea what she'd be overflowing with; she felt low on energy, willpower, everything else. Her heart felt knotted, tangled up in something and set crookedly in her chest. She breathed in; breathed out, this time like a sigh. Squall, glowering at his inbox, hadn’t once glanced in her direction.
"Squall," she said, or tried to say, because the second she opened her mouth the tears rushed into her throat; it came out a half-sob, which wasn't what she wanted to do; why did everything feel so out of control? He looked up at her then, and his eyes were dark like storms, and she choked on the other half of her sob. I can't do this, she thought, because it was tearing her apart: Squall's eyes on her, so calm and so judging, and oh, God, it hurt when he looked at her like that, all military discipline and cold stone walls. She wanted him, the Squall she knew, the one who understood her flailings and dreams. Despair rose in her throat.
Before she realized she'd even moved, Rinoa had crossed the room and come to stand behind Squall's desk; she took his hand in hers. It wasn't the anchoring she'd wanted, though: it was like Squall was a wall, and all her emotion had ricocheted off that smooth unforgiving surface and struck her directly in the heart; so much; too much, Rinoa thought, make it stop. She half-collapsed into his desk chair, clutching at his hand, pulling him closer so that she could lean her head against him. Her forehead came to rest against the curve of his hip, and Rinoa breathed in a sharp, ragged sob against the fabric.
She closed her eyes against it, against all of it, against the awful reality of everything: deaths in Timber, danger in Galbadia, broken dreams and exhausted soldiers, going short on sleep and working fourteen-hour days. Squall, slipping away from her as the world set them up too far from each other. The roiling magic inside her, so desperately needing an outlet, weeping so terrifyingly to her in the night. Rinoa closed her eyes, and breathed through Squall's shirt, and knew nothing else until Squall's hand came to rest on the back of her head, tentative.
Rinoa swallowed desperate tears. Squall's fingers were cool against her skin, gentle and familiar.
As his brief touch became a soft stroke, Rinoa sagged a little. There was no sound in the office save her ragged breaths. She squeezed her eyes together, tightly, thinking: it can be okay, right?, just for right now? and feeling Squall's hand run through her hair. It was strange and sad that Squall could still give her comfort, that the light brush of his fingers still carried reassurance; she and Squall just felt so far away from each other, and whether it was circumstance or their bond or both she couldn't say.
She tilted her head to look up at him. Her eyes filled with tears, but somehow, this close, her cheek still pressed against his stomach and his hand still tangled in her hair, it was okay, as if tears were only allowed in close proximity.
She felt Squall shift beneath her, felt him inhale, felt his muscles stiffen as he got ready to speak; her eyes closed again, against the tears and the inevitability of whatever he was going to say, her heart already bracing itself.
"I don't know what to do," Squall said, and Rinoa could have laughed: was he talking about them, about the Gardens? About her sniffling into his shirt right now, about the way they’d spent months building an argument so large they couldn’t walk anywhere without tripping over its residue? Even now she felt swamped, exhausted, and she imagined she could almost feel Squall's tension creeping across the Bond like an enemy approaching – and she hated that, that she could even think of them this way. It added a layer of such empty, undirected anger to the helpless tangle of her emotions.
"Why can't it be simple?" It sounded so childish, and she knew it, and couldn't stop it, like the tears she'd swallowed were coming back up all wrong and bitter, words she didn't want that were still true, and she felt Squall's hand tense in her hair, just a little, and squeezed her eyes shut even tighter.
And she could almost feel Squall's eyes slide closed, too, before he spoke, echo-layer of what her own had done, a sudden moment of clarity-connection-- and then fading again (don't go don't go), as he said, so quiet, "People don't let things be simple when Sorceress is involved."
Her breath drew in, ragged and loud.
A hard sharpness gripped her, like she'd frozen inside, and her eyes opened to stare almost dully into space even as intricate body-awareness of the moment pushed in all around her: how she kept breathing, how Squall's body felt alive under her face and hands, how they stood and sat there silently together as Squall shot square through the heart the thing that could hurt and scare Rinoa most.
She felt the ice sudden in her veins, a chill she was so, so afraid could become real at any moment, things spilling over from her mind into being and back again. She was sure, she was sure, that she had been right, that it had been the right choice; everything pointed to it, everything she wanted for Timber – if she couldn't stop being afraid of this part of her, if she couldn't own it, control it, be it and be herself, how could she expect the rest of the world to feel? And it hurt so hard and deep when Squall took this careful decision and hedged it in, tangled it up with his military logic when this wasn't about fighting for her, it was supposed to be the opposite–
"But this was the simple option," she found herself saying, almost a whisper behind everything she couldn't let out – tears and magic, fear and certainty, this obdurate certainty that seemed to so irritate Squall and–
"Simple for you," she heard him say, dry, his fingertips still and motionless in her hair and she felt the air go hollow inside her, rushing out like a blow. She wanted to be mad – she was mad – except she heard the question inside it, Squall asking her to see what her publicity had done to him (to them). And she was still mad, because it was like a mocking echo of her own thoughts, buzzing helplessly between them: couldn’t he see her side for once?
She felt Squall breathe in, could feel the words coming up through him before he spoke them: "It's hard, Rin. It's hard for people to see past that. All they'll see is another Sorceress-Garden alliance. Or they'll see the Commander handing out favours."
Rinoa could imagine, could feel him, staring over her head, both of them talking to opposite walls, cross-purposes, their words floating away from each other instead of towards and what does it matter what conclusions people jump to, she wanted to cry. We can change them, we can show them, what does it matter what they think at first if we both know we're doing the right thing? She knew what a reputation could do – wasn't that what this was all about? Why she'd gone public, why she worked so hard for people to see her? And the question rose up in her, husking her throat dry, her lips forming the words as she stared at the wall of Squall's office: "Does it really matter more to you? What people think of you?"
He twitched, the muscles of his stomach hard for a second under her head and hands. "It matters what people think of you." His hand drew away from her hair – so he wouldn't pull it by accident, she knew, with his tense-frustrated fingers, and her breath drew in, loudly – and he kept going, a rough deep-growing edge rising in his voice, "Rinoa, you can't – you can't twist people around until they do what you want. You won't always get something just because you want it." He pulled away from her; her hands spasmed on his hips but she let him go, listened to his hard pacing steps as she thought, I'm not a spoiled little kid anymore, Squall. So many things boiled up in her, quiet and useless; her thoughts felt like they were thudded into the ground with each of Squall's steps, muted, emptied, undirected and–
"We should get some sleep," Rinoa said, and her voice sounded very small; she knew it was a cop-out, but it was the only thing she could think of: to stay in this office, to spend another minute here, ripping their hearts into shreds with words – she couldn't take this.
Squall's pacing stopped; Rinoa almost winced as she felt all of Squall's attention directed at her, shaky-sharp quivers across the bond: love, frustration, so much sadness and exhaustion. The silence stretched, thin and close, and Rinoa closed her eyes, and tried to send something back, hope-love-need all in one desperate rush because she couldn't do it with words, not when every syllable came up acid.
But Squall only stilled into the deeper silence that meant he was thinking over words or swallowing them, and said, "I have some work to finish."
She nodded, stiff, everything unspoken and unspilled twisting in her like snakes, and got up from his office chair.
The door clicked shut quietly – too quietly – behind Rinoa and Squall hunched his shoulders at how gently she'd closed it; he knew what it looked like, what it felt like: her fingertips splayed against the wood to cushion the swing, hands soft and steady. Click, and they're in separate worlds. It was always three things with her, three extremes – the slammed doors of her tempers, the way she just forgot doors were there once she was through them when she was relaxed or happy or energetic – and this, the too-careful kind when he knew she was all too aware of walls. She would shut doors like that when she wanted to be alone with him: the door to his room, her room, even this office, sometimes – though recently it had been only so that she could take his hand and tug him to wherever she needed comforting, resting her head against him in the parody of everything’s okay they continued to play out.
She shut doors that way when she wanted to be apart from him, too, careful and avoidant. Click.
Squall blew out his breath, unable to banish the sight of her looking up at him with tears in her eyes, the soft white arch of her neck as she leaned her forehead against his hip; the way his hand felt in her hair. Her footsteps had long retreated up the hall but the scent of her still lingered here. The Timber Garden petition lay accusingly in front of him, and memory from earlier in the day intruded: her smile wobbling on her face at the sight of him; the surf rushing around her calves as they argued. Her hand tugging him to stand in front of her, the click of the door, the papers on his desk like the softest rebuke wedged into his heart.
He flipped open the petition again, movements annoyingly jerky. He was tired and it was late; irritation still bubbled under his surface like it always seemed to, these days. It was like a well had opened up inside him and drained him dry of patience, leaving behind a volatile residue of grit and grimaces, like the sand he could still feel between his toes.
He looked at the thick stack of paper in his hands – he hadn’t wanted to look at it with Rinoa standing there; he could imagine the look on her face, hope-expectation-dismay-disdain in the way only she could summon up, her own personal cocktail mixed specifically for him. The cover letter was simple and neat, and Squall detected Rinoa’s hand, heavy among the words: phrases like good working relationships and friendly contract were so familiar he could almost hear her voice reading them aloud. He turned the page, and the standard petition form had been filled out in her handwriting, painstakingly neat (Rinoa’s usual handwriting was awful, some last lingering rebellion against her expensive private school).
The sight of it – her careful letters, words neatly chosen and sentences deliberately phrased; the thought of Rinoa hunched over a clipboard, pooled in her lap, notes strewn around her as she gnawed on her pen – Squall’s heart wrenched a little, even as a part of him filled with irritation; you couldn’t even use a computer? His fingers came to rest across the small line of boxes at the very top, in which she’d so neatly penned RINOA HEARTILLY, Timber Owls Liaison; his fingertips could feel the indentations the pen had made, and they ran across it idly, reading the sensations in the page beneath her name.
This, Squall thought, was exactly why he could not accept this petition. He couldn’t even read it without Rinoa’s voice filling his ears, something like the scent of her in the air and this stupid, irritating sentimentality that threatened to choke him every time she surfaced in his world.
He set the petition aside. He wasn’t sure why it filled him with such frustration; it was uncontrollable, the way it surged out of some dark place inside of him. Things between himself and Rinoa had never been smooth and easy, but they’d fit, before, in a way that had drawn them together; now they seemed to repulse each other, like magnets turned the wrong way, something terribly off and misaligned. It was like everything Rinoa did drove him up the wall, each well-meant gesture yet another example of the things she didn’t understand, hadn’t changed, wasn’t listening to; she said things nicely and seemed to mean them but when it came down to actions, she still wasn’t–
Squall sighed, and his eyes fell to the papers in his hands. He’d picked up the petition from Esthar absently, probably to hide Timber’s beneath it where the sight of Rinoa’s neat capitals wouldn’t fill him with upset guilt. But it was in his hands, and Squall started to read it again – more carefully this time. His first glance at it had been perfunctory, filled with the mild sense of irritation he always felt towards Loire and the more direct aggravation he still felt spikes of when reminded of the casual way Cid had dumped this problem into his lap.
Squall took a breath and tried to breathe out the lingering frustration, and gave his second read-through more attention.
Esthar had done well. Their arguments were well-phrased, their points clear, and the example sites they’d listed were all specific, with tiny footnotes and addendums of relevant details marked where appropriate. The budget proposal they’d submitted was rough and estimated, yes, but it wasn’t an unreasonable starting point; the list of technological collaboration projects they’d suggested for a three-year trial period was actually intriguing.
Squall flipped through the rest of the proposal, admiring the concise and precise way Esthar had included their information. At the end of the packet was a short personal letter, signed by President Loire, which included an open invitation for a SeeD representative to come visit at any point within a certain time period. Squall checked his calendar; Loire’s invitation had technically opened up yesterday.
The phone number at the bottom of the page stared at him. Squall’s eyes fell to the Timber petition – Rinoa’s petition, and before he really had registered what he was doing he’d picked up the phone and dialed.
For some reason he’d expected a secretary. When he was greeted with a cheerful “Good morning! This is Laguna!” it surprised him to the point of silence; he stared at the paper in his hands for a long moment, phone hissing low static into his ear.
Squall cleared his throat. “This is Commander Leonhart from Balamb Garden,” he began.
Laguna laughed. “Hi, Squall! What’s up?”
He had forgotten the way it annoyed him, how Loire pretended they were friends, buddies, more, as if Ellone’s weird memory-connections and the few words they’d exchanged while fighting Ultimecia had somehow cemented a lifelong alliance. Squall rolled his eyes where only the empty room could see, but it was already too late for anything but the talking. “I’m calling to arrange a visit in regards to Esthar’s Garden petition.”
“Oh, great!” Laguna sounded surprised and pleased and – something else besides, something tinny and expectant that might have just been the phone connection. “When do you want to come out?”
Squall thought about his duties; he thought about Rinoa, tucked into bed, that little frown still between her eyebrows even as she slept; he felt the water tugging at his feet again, the stubbornness in her eyes, tired and sad, as she refused to give up again and again.
“Tomorrow,” he blurted. “Or maybe the day after. I …have to check my schedule.” He realized he should have done so before calling and then tried somewhat awkwardly to explain, “I wanted to make sure the invitation was still open.”
Laguna laughed again. “Of course. Any time within that period is fine. Just send me your travel itinerary and I’ll have someone pick you up at the station.”
Squall breathed in through his teeth; out through his nose, a long tense exhale. “Alright. Thanks.”
There was a long moment of silence, and then Laguna chirped, “See you then!”
Squall made a very noncommittal noise and hung up the phone.
Rinoa’s feet took her through Garden on their own. She certainly wasn’t directing them; her mind was still in Squall’s office, incensed and passionate and so very, very empty, as if the connection they shared had been drained from her, from them, bit by bit, until all that was left was dead circuitry. The magic writhed in her, and she wondered whether or not she would sleep tonight: she needed real sleep, not the kind that grabbed her and dragged her downwards into the roiling mess of Sorceress’s powers, down into the drowning deep where dark things lived, tempting her-Sorceress-her with powerful dreams that quickly transmuted into gasping nightmares, throwing her awake—
She blinked, and stopped walking. Quistis was standing in front of her, a hand on her arm, concern creasing her forehead. “Rinoa, are you alright?”
“I—“ Rinoa laughed, not really meaning it. “I’m sorry. I must have glazed over for a second there.”
Quistis’ lips twitched, concern and friendly humor evident in the smirk. “You look… upset,” she said, slowly, as if unsure. “Is everything okay?”
No, Rinoa wanted to say: I’m losing Squall and I’m losing Timber and it feels like I’m losing my mind, too, and I’m not just losing, I’m lost. “Yeah,” she said instead, although it came out a weary sigh.
Quistis didn’t look convinced. “It’s Squall,” Rinoa said finally, squirming with it, as if admitting it made it real, made it worse, and she knew Squall wouldn’t want anyone to know but honestly, she couldn’t keep this in any longer; it was eating at her, like acid, and for a minute she thought about letting all her problems out, releasing them to Quistis, all of this shadowy darkness that felt like it was growing inside her like a weed, that would choke and consume her in the end—
Quistis’ face had creased with sympathetic kindness, though, and Rinoa swallowed the urge; it tasted like bile in her mouth and she wanted nothing more but to run to bed, to bury her face in a pillow. “We just can’t stop fighting.” The words escaped like balloons, drifting on the air currents.
Quistis gave her a supportive smile. “It has to be hard,” she said, haltingly; “Squall isn’t – the easiest person in the world.”
Rinoa snorted, and then shrugged. She looked down at her hands as words failed her; she didn’t know what to say: there didn’t seem to be anywhere stable between help me with all of this and go away within the reach of her mind.
Luckily, Quistis seemed to recognize the awkward silence; she was probably used to them, as she seemed used to everything, each and every experience life seemed to throw at her. “I know it isn’t my business, but have you guys thought about… talking to someone? Maybe Cid or Edea? Or even Doctor Kadowaki… an external party? Somebody neutral, who could listen.” She shifted her weight, gracefully. “Or have you thought about …taking a break? Getting some distance?” Her voice turned soft and even more kind and it wasn’t what Rinoa wanted at all, this reasonable, rational, sense-making list of items to check off, options to consider; this was the way Quistis dealt with everything, calm and systematic, and right now Rinoa was full of bile and rage and too much sad emotion to want anything to do with this—
“I dunno,” she said finally, shrugging again. “Sorry, Quisty, I think I’m just tired.”
The smile quirked into something stiff and awkward for one second, but then Quistis smoothed it out, all propriety and poise. “Of course. Go to bed. Sleep always helps. Good night, Rinoa.”
Rinoa watched her leave, wanting to call out – what? Something: I’m sorry; come back; help.
Instead she turned and continued her wayward drift towards their bedroom.
Squall opened the door softly and closed it even more softly. Rinoa was already asleep; he could always tell by her breathing, which went deep and even. She’d left on the light on his desk, turned towards the wall so as not to disturb her. She was a shadow in his sheets, curled up on her side of the bed in a tight ball, the wrinkles of the blanket curving into her form like a sigil.
He undressed, silently, changing into the pajama pants she’d left out on the chair for him. It was all habit; even these fights were becoming habitual, this strange cycle of ferocity and forgiveness, as if putting balm over the wound would stop their hands from ripping it open the next day. It was hard to be angry with her sleeping in the darkness, her breath a soft rhythm.
Squall climbed into bed, his heart dulling to a slow ebb of pain as he curled himself around her; as his arm wrapped over her side she loosened, stretched to fit him, and all of a sudden it was sad, because the only time they fit this well was in sleep, in the darkness, shadows hiding the gaping cracks.
Her warmth was a drug and it pulled Squall down, into sleep.