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Same As It Never Was

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It took Rinoa a full few minutes to realize the tinny ringing sound in her ears was the sound of her mobile phone going off – awareness and awakeness seemed very far away, and she swam through a muggy half-conscious mist, dry like cotton in her mouth, and when had the simple act of waking up become such a hassle? She was always so tired. She sat up in bed; her face felt grainy, as if she'd brought the beach back with her: as if she'd cried all night, even though she knew that wasn't the case. She rubbed at her dry eyes. The phone continued to ring, an alarm sounding in the sterile quiet of Squall's room – and she stumbled out of bed, her stomach wrenching and falling simultaneously, as she recognized the serious-tone ringer she'd set for Zone and Watts in case of an emergency – Timber, oh God; please be okay, please, everyone be okay...

"Hello?" Her voice sounded breathless; consciousness had slammed itself into her, and her heart was pounding. Please be okay, please be okay...

"Rinoa." It was Zone, his voice flat and exhausted, and while one part of her winged in relief, elated, he's safe, another part sank in nervous worry: he'd said her name, not Princess, not Rinny; it was bad.

"What's wrong?" The questions were bubbling up out of her, the worry catching in her throat and making her voice sound smaller than she wanted. "Is everyone okay?"

"We're alright," he said, and suddenly she could breathe: cool air poured into her lungs, and she exhaled slowly, the tension fading to a dull ringing roar. "There was another bombing. The library over on Fifth –we think they must have found out about our meetings there. No one was hurt, it's more a symbol thing than anything, I think, but the building's been blown to dust." He swallowed, and she could hear the sadness in his voice, that same hopelessness she hated so much. "I figured you'd hear about it, the news is all up in arms here, and I wanted you to know we're all okay."

"Thank God." It was all she could say, because she was suddenly and inexplicably heartbroken: the library, old stone and ivy, a set of encyclopaedias so old they still thought Esthar was a myth; sitting on the step, eating ice cream in the summer sun with Watts, smoking in the shadows with Seifer. It hadn't even been that important of a place to her until now – until now when it was gone forever, books turned to dust and all her old cigarette butts buried in its ashes. One more piece of Timber lost forever, simply removed from existence, irreversible destruction: a Galbadian bomb, taking a chunk of her heart with it. She felt its loss keenly, a sharp stab of feelings so mixed she could barely decipher them: hurt-anger-sorrow, roiling like a storm.

"What are we doing with this?" she asked, because being sad wouldn't help them at all but turning this into a strong piece of propaganda and momentum would. "We have to go public on this one. That library is a well-known Timber landmark. People are going to be angry."

"We haven't done anything yet." Zone sounded as tired as she felt, and Rinoa realized he'd probably been awake all night – what time is it in Timber, anyway? – dealing with the fallout. "Watts and I are trying to evacuate the area so that we can get started on cleanup, but no one has made a statement or anything." That's your job, his voice said, and Rinoa knew it without even having to hear the words: she was theirs, their Princess turned savior turned Sorceress, the figurehead they'd centered their movement around: it was why she'd gone public about her powers in the first place, so that she could use them, use the fame, use the public attention to wrench Timber from Galbadia's poisonous grasp at last–

Rinoa pressed her fingers to her forehead, took a deep breath. "Tell them I'll be back today," she said, sounding much more resolute than she felt. "Take care of the city, and if anyone asks, tell them I'll be making a statement when I get there. I'll – I'll call when I know my timetable."

"Thanks, Rin." Zone's voice was grateful, relieved, and as Rinoa shut her mobile slowly she felt her stomach sink. She'd have to go tell Squall. The thought made her ill, and that realization made her feel worse: she was nervous about approaching him with this; she felt guilty to again be choosing Timber, but what could she do? Squall and Garden could wait; Timber couldn't, not with the rubble of the library still warm, the dust from the explosion still settling on windowsills and countertops. The thought of it, her city, under siege again, behind her back – the sadness was transmuting to anger, slowly, newly-forged determination not far behind. She dressed quickly, tucking the mobile into her pocket. She'd just tell Squall the news; he'd see. Hell, maybe it would help open his eyes a little bit; maybe it would show him what Garden’s assistance meant to her. To them. To Timber.

She tapped on the door to Squall's office, and then opened it slowly; he was already there, already on the phone with someone, a fresh printout gripped in his hands and a stack of mission-assignment papers strewn, unusually messy, across his desk. He looked up at her, and stopped short for a second; barked "I'll call you back" into the phone and hung up. They looked at each other for a long moment, the gaze seeming to draw itself out, horizontally, and Rinoa wasn't sure if the things she saw in her periphery were real, or were part of the sudden hurt that came flinging across the Bond like an ice-spell barrage.

"I heard," Squall said. His voice was flat and stern, but his face creased strangely, as if trying to express something blocked. "I'm sorry to hear it."

"Thank you," she said automatically, her mind feeling blank as she swallowed the reality of actually facing him, of having to tell him these things in person. "I have to get back. Can you call Selphie, have her pull the Ragnarok around? I promise it won't–"

"Rinoa." Squall stood up, and she saw he had put on his game-face, his Commander-face, the one she wanted to rail her fists against and break – but concern leaked through the Bond, concern and worry, and it only made it worse because she was so, so mad. "You're not going."

Her face flared up, a sudden flush of anger rushing through her body and flooding her brain, splashing off of the cool ache of the Bond like a deflected wave. "Excuse me?" Her voice bit; she felt the icy sting of it, through an off-key echo of Squall’s cold determination, and it only made her madder. "The last time I checked, you were neither my Commander nor my father, Squall. You do not get to say what I do." It hurt, after all this time, that he'd still try to order her around like a cadet, like something young and fragile that needed to be kept safe and would obviously obey.

"Rinoa." His voice was almost pleading now, the way it shaped her name from those cold stone lips, and yet tinted with condescension – and how did he do that, so stern and unyielding and yet emotional all at once? "Think about it. You're not there right now, and everyone knows it, with your schedule so public." And that wasn't a low blow, either, was it? Squall would never fight unfairly. "They're trying to draw you out, bring you back, where they know you're vulnerable."

"So what if they are?" she shot back, her temper flaring up at the subtle arrogance of his military analysis. "That doesn't change the fact that I need to be there, Squall. I need to go back today."

"If you go back, you're just giving them what they want." He turned, gathered the mission sheets from his desk casually, only the crunch of the pages in his grasp revealing his actual tension. "You can't go back to Timber. I've assigned Quistis to be your bodyguard while you're here in Balamb, just in case."

"You what?" She actually took a step back. "No. This is ridiculous, Squall."

"This is what needs to happen." His face was closed, a stone carving, his eyes alight with the brewing storm. She couldn't even look at him; she couldn't look away, her eyes drawn to his determination and that traitorous set of papers in his hand, as if she were just another mission objective. But that was how Squall saw life, wasn't it? A series of victories and defeats, a strategic discipline. No room for the passion of rebellion in the life of a SeeD Commander.

And then it hit her: a way to drive her argument home, and oh, it wasn't fair, at all, but if he wanted to fight dirty, she could too. "If you're so convinced that I'm so much safer in a Garden, then that's another good reason to put one in Timber, isn't it?" It was almost a hiss, but she was so angry she could barely see straight.

The sudden change in subject struck Squall a little; she watched him shake his head, watched his eyes narrow in disbelief. "Because that won't come across as favoritism." He folded his arms, and she felt the stubbornness, like someone putting a foot down in her mind. "I'm sure our benefactors will approve of me asking for a new Garden just for my Sorceress girlfriend."

Rinoa took another step back, her entire body shaking with the hurt, the rage. "Well, I don't get it, Squall. You want to keep me safe, but instead of taking a big step to make my life safer, you decide to box me up in Balamb Garden, far away from where I need to be, and you set Quistis as my guard dog, to keep me here? This is – this is the entire reason I came out as a Sorceress, the entire reason I decided to go public anyway, to use that for Timber. Are you still mad about that? Is that what this is about?" Her voice broke on it, and she'd never been farther from weeping in her life, all of her worry for Timber and her anger at Galbadia and her frustration with Squall coming together, something building inside her, climax and anti-climax. "Are you still mad about that because I made my own decision? Why are you still treating me like I am a dumb, stupid child? Is this some kind of punishment?"

"I want to protect you!" It burst out of him strangely, anguished and angry all at once, and Rinoa blinked at it.

She swallowed, slowly, feeling out the sudden change in the air, her emotions still buzzing inside of her like a swarm of lightning, an ache she wanted to release; "Why?" she asked, the one word carrying a double handful of her own hurt, her own rage, because they'd had this argument before. "I'd rather have your support than your protection, Squall, and you know it, so why–?" It hurt, to confront him like this, to say it out loud: this isn't helping me. "Why are you still doing it?"

"I just – Rinoa, I – I have to. I can't not. Because–" and his face went blank, tight and empty "–because of what we are."

Rinoa's retort died in her throat, stopping it up; a chill splashed across her chest and the anger turned nauseous and greasy and dripped away. Shaky misery sloshed across the Bond and Rinoa bit her lip, scared -- the Bond had been so strange and unstable; they'd been seeing each other so little, both so busy. Was it driving Squall so hard to protect her even when it was slipping through Rinoa's fingers? Because it was slipping? Was he so unhappy because he could feel it too? Or – or was he trapped, so close to losing it that he could almost taste life without her? Squall's words had sounded like half-accusation, but his face was tense with the effort it took to get that much honesty out, the irritated furrow deep in his brow and Rinoa quailed – when had it become so hard for them to be honest, even when they knew each other so well, when she could read every line of his face? It seemed the more they learned of each other, the less they saw and the more they hid, as if this intimate knowledge was a dangerous weapon between them instead of a gift.

The thought tightened her heart, cold and fluttering inside her. She looked at Squall and his eyes met hers, too quickly, an instant instinct, and Rinoa felt the edge of tears on her tongue.

"This – this isn't working, is it?" It came out so small.

Squall just looked at her for a moment, then blew out his breath and turned away. Rinoa couldn't move, rooted to the spot, all the restless energy shattered and gathered into one tight line between them. She stared at Squall's back, wanting to say something, anything. She listened to his breathing, harsh and forceful through his nose, marking five of her racing heartbeats for every breath she heard. His hand came up in an achingly familiar gesture to cover his face. He looked so tired.

She didn't even know what her own words meant – and she was afraid to try and pin it down, every option twisting up her gut: the Gardens, her and Squall, the Sorceress-Knight bond – she remembered running into Quistis, how she had felt everything sifting through her hands, how she had felt so lost – and she was waiting, she knew, for Squall to find her, pull her out of the dark, do it just one more time...

"All right," he said after too many silent moments. He didn't turn. “I'll go to Esthar to research the Garden idea. I won't make any decisions. Please…” His voice choked on it and she felt something crackling between them, Squall’s concern and his own stubbornness butting up against whatever mix of anger-fear-loss she must have been pouring into their connection.

He swallowed, and didn’t turn around. “You should stay here with Quistis. When I get back and Timber is safer, I'll go with you. We can research the Timber Garden idea then."

She felt the bottom dropping out of her stomach, too slowly, and she thought of free-fall, black and alone and forever. He didn't ask me to go to Esthar with him. And, bigger and more angry– I need to be in Timber. I need to support them. Isn't this what I revealed myself for? They need to see me, to believe– Then, crawling up her throat: He's not listening to me at all.

But then Squall turned around – every echo of that movement rising up in her memory – his face so unhappy and his eyes full of care and his mouth set and angry but silent, trapping the hurtful words inside, away from her. And she realized that he was trying, that there was compromise in this for him and she could only think, It's not enough, and listen to the way it echoed off of this hollow feeling.

“Is that going to work?” she asked, and dammit, she didn’t mean for it to sound like such a challenge: everything between them turned into a fight, every question and silence and answer becoming a new wound, everything they knew of each other turning into weapons – and what did she expect, from a mercenary and a rebel?

“Rinoa—“ His voice was choked with exasperation, and she felt him swallow it, his aggression fading to cold distance. “We can’t… I can’t do everything at once. We – I – it isn’t a bad idea to take things one at a time.”

She blinked, her brain tangled, half in the Garden conversation and half in the threads of their Bond, sticky and unraveling. “But…” There were so many things to say, so many things she couldn’t even put into words. Why do your things always come first? “Some things can’t wait,” she said, carefully.

Squall’s shoulders hunched, and Rinoa wondered how much he could hear over the Bond – how many of her traitorous thoughts were being transmitted? “If they really think this is important, they can.”

His voice was so sad, and Rinoa’s heart spun with it, even as his indifference tore her to shreds again. She wasn’t even sure what this was about, where this talk was going, and it was so indicative of everything now: lost, confused, swirled together, everything bleeding from one thing to the next. “I’m not sure we get to decide everything, Squall,” she said, softly. “I don’t know if we …get to pick what can wait.”

“I know that,” he snapped, and her heart went cold, the Bond twisting up like a rope. “That’s the problem. There’s so much…” At stake? Her mind finished for her. Involved? So much we can’t say, so much we don’t know. Did he mean Garden? So many threads tangled in this mess: Timber, Galbadia, Esthar, Balamb, misaligned like the points of a broken compass and out of balance.

“There’s too much going on,” Squall muttered finally, and his hands closed into fists.

It was some kind of admission. Rinoa shook her head as the words buzzed with too many meanings: Gardens, Sorceresses, so much unsaid between herself and Squall and too much said around them: public opinions, political angles, magazine articles and newspaper photographs; too many people deciding what they were (Commander, Knight, mercenary; Sorceress, Owl, rebel) and not enough of them deciding who they could be. One step at a time didn’t seem like such a bad idea with all these things bouncing in her mind, suddenly, the magic rising within her in a sudden rush of panic. Her hands gripped each other like a circuit, like a lifeline, knuckles signaling a white flag of surrender.

“I can’t do this,” she whispered. “I can’t do everything.”

“Neither can I.” She heard the tension in his voice, pulled taut between them like string.

“So,” she said, trying to stride forward as best she could, because to stay here any longer would be to drown in indecision and she couldn’t bear this for one more second. “What can wait?”

Squall turned to her, and she saw it on his face and her heart broke open before he even said anything because she felt it like waves, like turbulence, ricocheting across the darkness: the feedback whined in her ears, the reverberation of it threatening to pull her under down with the dark things and she looked into his face and tried not to plead, not to beg, no, Squall, say it can wait; say Esthar can wait, Garden can wait…

“Can you?” he asked softly.

One at a time. Everything else first, then us… Rinoa swallowed, and tried to make herself a stone. “You mean… take a break. From this.”

He nodded. It sank like a rock into her stomach, and the ripples around it were dark and lonely and she thought about it, how hard it was already at night even with him there. And then she thought about the times she woke up and he just made it harder, because he didn’t understand – or he did understand but didn’t agree; Squall would never lie to her, but often his truths hurt, sharp thorns beneath the wilting petals. She thought about freedom, and wondered when she’d become so bogged down in herself that she’d lost sight of other things. She thought about a pause, just a stop in time: a space to breathe.

She hurt to say it. But she made her mouth form the words: “Maybe you’re right.”

It was the first verbal victory she’d granted him in a long time; but Squall just looked sad, and Rinoa knew it wasn’t a battle he’d wanted to win. It felt like they were both losing, and maybe he was right: maybe separating would dull this pain a little, blunt the knives she felt tearing at her heart, because there was only so much more of this she could take.

Squall turned the whole way around; his face looked old, for a minute, and Rinoa thought maybe she knew what he would look like at fifty: lined, shadowed, and too sad. “Okay,” was all he said, and his hands relaxed out of fists, opening to the air like possibilities.

It was like all she could see was the distance between them, him beside his desk and her in the middle of the room, and those familiar few feet had never felt more obvious, impossible and empty. For a moment she clutched, desperately, for the Bond, and oh, that had been a bad idea because it wasn't enough and it was too much – the unsteady pull gave her less balance, not more, like small secret currents in a shallow tide, dragging at her feet. Even now she could feel bits and tatters of him, and it hurt, because all of this would have been so much easier if she could just think he didn’t care about her.

But the evidence was there, where she could feel it, flickering across this distance that wasn’t far at all, still left them close enough to hurt each other so much. She stared across this space full of old promises and new hurts and containing nothing, and she couldn't stand it, tears welling again in her eyes as this sunk in -- is this really it? Can we fix this, ever?

Rinoa looked up, for his face, for his eyes, and it came out of her without asking, his name, "Squall," sounding lost and almost swallowed up by the unbearable silence of the room. Her feet took a faltering step forward and for a horrible moment she remembered watching as her body did things, walked places, hurt others – her magic an uneven buzz inside her – but Squall came forward, too, and a ragged sob caught in her throat as it echoed another memory: him coming to save her and how the moment before they'd held each other had felt blue and infinite, and safe.

Her eyes blurred, wet, and she couldn't see and it didn't matter, because they met a few steps from his desk, and his arms came around her like they always had, enfolding her. Rinoa breathed in, smelling clean leather and warmth and safety and Squall, and her exhale was damp and ragged into his chest as her hands clutched at his jacket.

Squall's hand came up to cradle her head, soft in her hair, blunt fingers gentle – and she started to cry, all the tears that had threatened to spill silently over the last days coming now in shaking rushes. She felt so empty, everything she had left leaking out of her in sobs.

She buried her face in the crook of his shoulder and felt him tuck his chin over her head. Squall was all around her, solid and strong and holding her as she cried, got his shirt and his jacket and his collar wet; a half-laugh choked her for a moment, the way she was ruining his clothes and the face he would make, but it wasn't funny, at all. His arms tightened around her, making small comforting motions through her hair and the laugh escaped as one shuddering breath instead. Then his hand pressed her head gently against him, almost a spasm, and – oh, Squall – she wrapped her arms around him tighter, as she realized so late that he might want this, need this, too, this familiar thing. She squeezed her eyes shut, wanting to hold in this feeling; bit her lip and held him as close as she could, a small pocket of lightness buoying up the hollowness inside her, tiny in all the scoured empty vastness of her but warm and safe and theirs.

He didn't say anything, and she couldn't, pressed in by the silence and thinking as hard as she could about the way he felt, the quiet strength of his arms and the smell of his skin, his fingers in her hair: memorizing everything. He held her as her sobs hollowed out – quieted, settled, until she was breathing shakily in his arms, eyes puffy and face drying slowly in the carefully conditioned air.

Awareness of the thick-ticking seconds crawled over her again, creeping across her skin as she felt how long he'd stood there, holding her; felt it in the tension of his body, how he held that tightness carefully away from her. And it wasn't enough but it was more than nothing; time dripped on her skin and she thought stupidly of the phone call she'd interrupted, how the world wasn't standing still around them at all. She swallowed a sniffle. She used to feel – almost warmed, when Squall caught her crying, like his regard turned the sticky feeling away; now she just felt wet and splotchy and tired, and so, so aware of keeping him.

She stepped away, and his hands slid off her – and for a moment she so badly didn't want to look up – but she almost couldn't help it. His face was so serious, set and sad and tense. Rinoa swallowed. There was so much to say, and nothing she could voice.

He looked away first, and Rinoa almost staggered, as if the look between them had been all that propped her up; he turned to his desk and grabbed two papers off the very top. Their crackle echoed the stiffness of his hands and she watched numbly as he thrust them at her. Her hands came up to take them; her eyes bounced down to catch Quistis's name among too many capital letters and official words. And she looked up again, staring. Is this it? she thought again, so stupidly.

Squall looked at her and she caught the faintest edges of thoughts, like cloud-shadows chasing across a sea and she didn't know if this was the tatters of the Bond or if she just knew his face so well: all the thoughts he never said, and the only one that made it out was, "Stay safe."

He looked at her for a moment more, almost searching, and then he was gone; the slam of the door made her jump, sliding off all the echoing spaces inside her.

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Squall flipped the light on in their room – his roomtheir room; Rinoa was everywhere here, her touch evident in every single thing: the way she left the bed made but not military-neat, the pillow tossed haphazardly at the wall; the coffee-cup by the sink she’d declared ‘clean’ and he’d found two obvious lipstick-stains on yesterday. It was full of these things, so small and yet so critical, her shoes in the way of his closet again and he was glad to be leaving, glad to be going somewhere that didn’t smell like her shampoo, wasn’t full of her invisible fingerprints.

He sat down at the desk, picked up the phone, dialed Quistis’ extension.

“Quistis Trepe.” Her voice was professional and blank, and Squall felt such relief at it.

“Quistis,” he said. “I’ve assigned you to a mission. Orders are in my office.” He didn’t elaborate.

He heard her breathe in, sharply, but she said nothing except, “I’ll be there shortly.”

"Thanks." Squall toggled the ringer, and thought for a minute, his finger idling on the phone. Normally Quistis would have stepped up to take his Commander duties in his absence, if nothing else had been going on, but – there were so many other things, so many spaces to fill. He needed Quistis as Rinoa’s bodyguard, somehow; and he wondered how the misplaced awkward thing between himself and Quistis had become this silent, unacknowledged, distant and almost invisible bond of trust, Quistis’s desire to be everyone’s big sister finally manifesting in her own reliable capability, the way she was just always there. But Quistis couldn’t do everything, and Squall needed – he didn’t want her distracted by the rest of his duties, by administrative paperwork: not now, not with dust settling in Timber and the biggest target in the world right on Rinoa’s forehead.

Instead, he dialed Zell's room, listening to the ringtone sound four times before there was a click and the sound of something falling to the ground.

"Dude, Squall, this is MY number."

It almost made him laugh, compared to Quistis' cool and impersonal professionalism. "Congratulations," he said, trying to stir up something in his voice, anything other than the cold silence he was feeling. "You're Commander for the next week or so.”

"Very funny," Zell said. "I think you have the wrong number. If this is a prank, Anthony, I'm gonna shove my foot so far up your--"

"Zell." All it took was his name, and that voice, the way Squall had been able to say things while they were out at war fighting Ultimecia and everyone just listened, obeyed, the power of command seeping into his words in a way that had always made him uneasy, even as he made sure to use it, because they couldn't have any questions. "I'm going to Esthar to meet with them about the Garden site. You're in Command while I'm gone."

Zell spluttered. "But Quistis--"

"Is busy," Squall said, his tone of voice making it clear that this was not optional. "She'll be here if you have questions, but I need you to do this."

"No problem." Zell's agreement came almost too soon, and Squall wondered whether he'd feel bad about this in the future, putting so much unfamiliar work on Zell's shoulders; it was hard to be concerned about it, though, when he knew it would keep Rinoa safe, and was it awful that even with his heart beat-up and silenced he still cared enough to do these things? To divide up his own workload in a way that put Rinoa at the center, first and foremost? It was all he knew how to do.

"Thanks," he said.

Zell snorted in laughter: "Thank me when you get back, jackass. T-Boards are gonna be legal – no, mandatory, and you’re gonna get a detention."

He hung up. Rinoa had been at his desk, too, sometime in the past few days – probably trying to help; she’d stacked the papers neatly in a way Squall could tell had undone any semblance of filing he’d attempted. He booted up his console. Last night he’d sent a funding request to Cid for the Esthar trip; he was surprised to see it, already returned and approved, in his inbox: usually Cid took days to reply. He must really want me to get this fucking thing settled. Squall frowned, but transferred the requisition code onto his account dutifully. He booked the first train he could find, clicking the upgrade to private booth with dark relish: maybe he’d be able to get something out of this trip, namely rest.

He didn’t book a train home. Don’t know how long it’ll take, he told himself.

He fired the details off to Loire’s account and leaned back in the chair, closing his eyes.

Esthar. He was going, and he was going alone. Here, in a room full of her touch, he could admit that a small part of him had been hoping – expecting – thinking that Rinoa might offer to go with him: a peace offering, maybe, just a gesture that she was willing to give him something; a small vital step away from the danger that was Timber, a significant sign that she was listening to his concerns, if not fully understanding them. He didn’t know what she was going to do here in Garden anyway – but Quistis was here, and Zell was here, and Selphie could be called back from Trabia at any time Rinoa wanted; and there were still phones and computers to keep in touch with Timber.

Maybe they did need a break. Funny word, that; Squall already felt like things were broken.

He got up and grabbed his duffel bag and started to pack, methodically; her things buzzed against his hands, upsetting the walls he’d tried to construct around their Bond, around his feelings, around his heart. He moved a stack of her shirts aside, and they felt warm against his fingers, as if they’d just come from the dryer or from her body. Squall threw his dress shoes into the duffel bag with more force than necessary, but the echo remained, Rinoa’s fingers rubbing polish into them as she smirked (“You mean they didn’t train the big bad SeeD how to clean his own shoes?” “…Whatever.”) – and then he sat down on the bed, trying to ignore the way it smelled of her, still seemed to carry her body heat.

The Bond felt like it was sloshing around in his head, a glass overflowing with the rocking of the sea beneath it; he held his head in his hands, trying to get a grip on it – but it slipped away like water, almost mocking his attempts to handle something so intangible: Rinoa, slipping through his fingers, the things they’d shared suddenly liquid, seeping into all these cracks–

–and then there was silence; his head pounding between his ears and the onset of an awful headache, but silence. Too much silence, and he wasn’t sure whether to be scared or grateful: had she done this, pulled the magic back inside herself? He certainly hadn’t; the Knight never had any power here, no control. Had she done him a favor, or was this just another symptom of the space growing between them, the walls they were building?

Squall finished packing in record time, because it wouldn’t hurt for him to be early for the train, and he didn’t want to stay in this too-quiet room any longer: a part of him still lingering, his instincts listening for Rinoa’s slow sleeping breath even though he knew she wasn’t there.

_________________________________


“No,” Laguna repeated, “he goes in the guest wing, I don’t care.” He and his team were bustling down the hall – he’d never really been able to precisely say he’d bustled before, but there was no better word to describe this restless, semi-panicked group movement, rustling and thumping and papers flying every which way and – “Shit,” he said, “I have to call Ellone, someone write that down!” His heart felt too big, too loud, not yet thumping in panic but buzzing as if preparing for it, training for the upcoming emotional marathon.

An aide hurried to his side, scribbling on a pad of paper in a haste that had him bumping into no less than two walls and a councilman as he completed the sentence. “Mr. President,” the aide said, almost gasping for breath – why were all his aides and team members so out of shape? Was he gonna have to implement mandatory team volleyball again? – “Here’s your list, sir.”

Laguna took it and turned the corner into the guest wing. “This room,” he said, rapping his knuckles on the door with force. “I want it cleaned – spotless! – and turned down. Stock the liquor. Get a console installed with our fastest connection. And I want it done by lunchtime.” He frowned, and tried to remember to breathe – but this was so much more important than breathing, and if it caught up to him he might never–

“Laguna?” He looked up to see Kiros and Ward at the end of the hall, and his heart lifted in relief: finally, competence, in the form of his two best friends, people he trusted more than aides, companions who would know what he wanted before he asked. Hell, friends who would have better ideas than his own. Breath hissed out on its own, relieved and happy, and Laguna felt dizzy with it. Kiros leaned against the wall and smirked in obvious amusement at Laguna’s panic. “What the hell is going on?”

“It’s Squall,” Laguna said, and Kiros’ eyebrows rose; Kiros and Ward both knew, without words, what that meant. It carried all the things the three of them had never really bothered to talk about, because what was there to say? Do you regret any of it? Would it matter if he did? Did it matter if he didn't? Squall was who he was, grown now, and it was pretty much too late for regrets, from Laguna's point of view. (Didn't stop him from having some, but he carried them around like a secret, tucked in a pocket of his heart he didn't much look at.)

“He’s coming in tonight. Well, tomorrow morning. He’s on the train now. To look at the Garden sites.” The explanation felt woefully empty. He wanted to say, to see his dad, to get to know his father, to hang out with his old man – but none of that was guaranteed, and he was both hoping for it and afraid of it; part of him wasn't ready to have a son, hadn't ever been ready, and instead of a son he had a nineteen-year-old mercenary whose conversation consisted of ellipses and nobody wrote parenting books about that. There wasn't enough time in the world to rationalize this, to think it out, to plan for the conversation they would have to have; Laguna could think for years and still have no answers, and Squall was going to be here tomorrow anyway so years weren't even an option, and that was probably for the best, everything considered. He didn't even know if Squall knew, and that was the worst part of it, that of all the things unsaid between them he might have to start with those words.

Kiros looked at Ward. Ward shrugged one shoulder, his lips in a smirk which was both understanding and amused.

“Ward says we’ll help.” Kiros lifted himself off the wall, angled grace, and came down the hall to clap a hand on Laguna’s shoulder: congratulations? Solidarity? Sympathy? Laguna wasn’t sure. It didn’t really matter, though; he felt a rush of confidence, suddenly, through the swirl of misplaced panic he’d been so overwhelmed with. His spirits lifted, and he remembered: Squall! Coming to see me! It wasn't all bad.

“Okay,” he said to the cluster of aides. “You guys go, uh, get this room ready, and all the other stuff we need for an honored guest. We’ll take care of the rest of it.”

The group bustled out of the hallway and Kiros snorted, crossing his arms. “Fine group of helpers you’ve got there.”

“I didn’t know what else to do!” Laguna threw his hands wide, because he meant it on a lot of levels: he'd stared at the phone and cycled through elation and panic and sorrow until they'd all blended, mixing like a terrible cocktail he'd just done three shots of. “I couldn’t find either of you, and I wasn’t going to just sit on my butt, there’s so much I have to get done before he gets here…”

“Laguna. Calm down.” Kiros’ voice was so steady and confident that Laguna felt instantly better: how does Kiros do that? The hand on his shoulder squeezed, as reassuring as Kiros had always been, battle-strength tempered with the kind of common sense that could cut through the world's worst bullshit. “It’s going to be okay.”

“Are you sure?” His voice sounded wretched and embarrassing even to his own ears. It was awful how much he cared, as if he could make up for so many years of not caring (although he hadn't known! he cried again, mentally, like excuses were any legitimate kind of currency) by making sure Squall had the best threadcount sheets and a fully stocked minibar? God, he wanted to laugh at himself. "How do you know?"

Ward made some kind of noise, and Kiros shot him a deeply amused look before saying, “Ward’s thinking, how can it go wrong, it’s Laguna? And we’re both laughing.” His face must have twisted, because Kiros’ smile opened up, immediately reassuring. “Come on, Laguna. Yes, it’s going to be fine. Really.”

Laguna exhaled, slowly; there were so many ways it could go wrong and his brain was still trying to come up with one way that was right: they were family but weren't; they were soldiers, but more; famous but not; leaders, Commanders and Presidents, father and son and the only similarity he could come up with was that both their weapons involved shooting things and that was the kind of thing that would make Squall roll his eyes and turn his back on everything Laguna wanted to offer but didn't know he had. There weren't any obvious ways this could work, no perfect sets into which Squall and he would simply fit, like pieces of a puzzle: but he had to try, because not trying meant getting absolutely nothing and what he wanted was – anything more than that.

“Laguna.” Kiros' voice leapt into his thoughts, and his friend grinned. “If you don’t give us something to do, we’re going to leave.”

“Don’t you dare,” he said, but he was grinning back. “I will die of stress, and then Kiros will have to be President, and everyone will be mad because they know you throw shit parties."

Ward nodded, emphatically, and Kiros was kind enough to let the jest by, simply throwing Laguna the kind of look he knew he'd be grateful for later. The situation righted itself, oriented itself, because he had help and he had friends who wanted him to succeed, no matter how far success in this particular case might be from its original definition. It would be as okay as it could be, and then – he and Squall could have a chance to do the rest.

_________________________________


She stood there in his office, crumpled papers in her hand and nothing but emptiness in her heart, echoing strangely off of new surfaces – and is this how it would feel, now? Had they broken their Bond with this, the one source of grounding stability for her wild magic now lying in pieces on the floor along with shatter-shards of herself, her heart? Rinoa choked back a sob, and gathered her hair back from her face with one shaking hand. She felt small, and lost, and a myriad mixture of other things she didn’t even have words for.

There was a knock at the door.

"Squall?" Quistis pushed the door open slowly, and then stopped, startled. "Rinoa, I'm sorry. I got a phone call...?"

"Oh," she said, struggling to assemble something like a smile on her face. "Yeah. Here." She passed the papers to Quistis and wanted to sigh: she felt both relieved and panicked, her last link with Squall just handed off in one simple gesture. Quistis took them, her bemused expression fading into professionalism as she started to read. Rinoa watched her quick eyes scan the orders, almost absently. She was still so mad, all of the shards of it still bouncing around inside her, and yet she almost understood Squall's concern – an understanding he wasn't giving her; although that was unfair too. Squall probably understood, he just didn't care like she did. Rinoa thought about Timber as Quistis read. She thought about the elementary school that had almost been hit; she thought about the library which had.

Quistis looked up, blue eyes sharp, and Rinoa started - she'd been staring, absently, and Quistis' face was covered with the kind of questions Quistis would never voice. Rinoa started, and Quistis smiled in that kindly blank way she had, framed to save its recipient from the most embarrassment possible. "Sorry," Rinoa said, and her heart wrenched as for a moment she wanted to spill it all to Quistis: all her troubles, thrown into a pile at Quistis’ feet, for her to patch up and bind back together like she seemed so good at doing. "Is something, um, wrong?"

"Not at all." Quistis' words were chosen carefully, as if she didn't believe them herself for a second, and Rinoa almost laughed – of course something was wrong, everything was wrong, there were probably still tear-tracks on her face and she was buzzing with unspent magic like a plucked string and Squall was already too far away. Rinoa swallowed, choked it down, stood almost-straight. Quistis licked her lips a little, as if choosing her next words even more carefully: "Is there a specific reason Squall has assigned me to be your bodyguard?"

"Timber," Rinoa began, the words catching in her throat. She sighed; where to start? Everyone knew the political situation in Timber, but how much would she have to explain before she hit the wall of Squall's edict, his trip to Esthar, her broken heart and their break - she remembered now, Quistis had seen her last night in fine form as always; did Quistis know about the bombing yet?

"Are we going to Timber now?" Quistis pursed her lips, in thought. "That–" Her eyes trailed meaningfully to the paper in her hand. "That would make sense, then," she said, half to herself.

Timber.

Rinoa thought again of the library, the pieces of smoldering rubble smoking in Timber's setting sun, a city silhouette that would never look exactly the same - she wanted to be there; she needed to be there, in a way Squall didn't really understand: and in that minute she knew she had to go. If I stay in Balamb, I'll go crazy. The unstable Bond quaked at that, as if reminding her just how easy that would be. Rinoa shuddered. Timber. I could go home. She wanted to go home; suddenly needed it, a bell-peal ringing down her spine and through her bones, out her fingers; she tingled with it. She needed to get out of here, away from this place that was empty of her and full of Squall–

Squall would be so angry.

She opened her hands before her and looked down into them, as if she could somehow read in her palms what to do. In one hand lay her last tenuous link with Squall: his desires to keep her safe, his worries for her, his well-meant concern and the sense of protection the Bond compelled from him, for her; the cage of Balamb, and the lonely limits of Garden. In the other hand, Timber: her home, her calling, danger and suffering and security tied up together, needing her and wanting her. It wasn’t supposed to be this hard. If she followed her heart to Timber, would she lose the part of her heart Squall held on to?

"Rinoa?" The voice was tentative. "Are you all right?"

She glanced up. In between her two hands... there was Quistis.

Squall would be mad, yes. But she, Rinoa, could be responsible about this: she could respect his wishes without letting them box her in. She couldn't stay; staying would ruin her, change her, make her feel less herself than the day she'd told the world she was a Sorceress. But she could at least say she'd listened; she'd been willing to compromise his desires with her own. She had a bodyguard, and a damn good one: she was going to use this. Besides... it had been Quistis' idea in the first place.

"We're going to Timber," Rinoa confirmed, and her voice sounded so sure, so solid, she knew she had made the right choice.

Quistis nodded, and Rinoa took a breath – there was nothing in the orders, then, about keeping her confined to Garden, and the mix of relief (I’m not making her break orders, then) and guilt (Squall trusted me to stay) made her stomach churn. She didn’t – she couldn’t chance running into Squall, for so many reasons; when was the train to Esthar? If she knew Squall – did she? – he’d leave right away.

“We’ll go on the late afternoon train,” Rinoa said, and her heart leapt at the thought of home.