Part of him shouldn't have been surprised at the stubbornness he had faced. Now that the seaside town was faring better, they wanted to cut down the amount of private security they hired. That was fine, Squall figured. After all, there were other places he could send experienced mercenaries to. What wasn't fine was the drastic pay cut proposed, as well as the additional taxes passed for non-permanent residents, which included stationed Garden personnel.
Cid was right; Dollet was going to try save very gil while trying to squeeze the Gardens for what they were worth. Sighing tiredly, the brunette walked into the apartment he was sharing on the business trip and tossed his uniform jacket across the back of the couch.
He made it to the kitchen and managed to grab some water from the fridge before stopping. Blue eyes scanned the empty kitchen, dining room, and living room. That was odd: it was quiet. It was quiet and he was there with Selphie and Zell.
Furrowing his brow, he gulped down some water from the bottle as he tried to remember their schedule. Both were supposed to be doing rounds at their main station; checking on living conditions, training exercises, and interviewing some of the soldiers stationed. Although, it was already late afternoon. The two of them should've been back already.
Then, somewhere in the two-bedroom apartment, he heard a toilet flush. A small bit of relief reached him; so they were home.
"Oh, Hyne! A medic! Selphie, we need a medic!" Another flush was heard coming from the bathroom in Selphie's room.
"Why aren't the pills working!?" Selphie's voice cried out. Squall slammed his empty water bottle on the table and ran down the hall.
"Zell!" he shouted. "Selphie! Are you-"
A retching sound filled the air as he reached the bathroom he shared with Zell and skidded to a stop at the doorway. The tattooed-blond was sitting on the floor, practically hugging the toilet, as he wiped the remains of vomit off his lips. Squall had seen limbs being blown off, wounds gushing blood like a fountain, but nothing made him recoil as much as puke on a floor and a green-faced mercenary.
"Squall!" Zell's eyes were red and rimmed with tears. "Squall, I'm dying!"
"What happened!?" Squall shouted, readying himself to get the necessary antidote.
"The shellfish…," Zell winced as he looked at Squall beseechingly. "They were…rot-" His eyes went wide as he turned his head back to the toilet and threw up once more.
Squall remained standing at the doorway, trying to come to terms what he was understanding. Shuffling could be heard behind him and turned around. The door to Selphie's room opened and sick-looking brunette leaned heavily against the doorway.
"How long does it take for food poisoning to go away?" Selphie croaked. She clutched her stomach with one arm as her other hand hovered over her mouth, as if to stop any sudden projectile vomit from hitting their captain.
"A day or two," Squall frowned. He found himself taking a hesitant step backwards. "What happened?"
"We went to eat at this place," Selphie grimaced. "That was a mistake. The shellfish in our dishes were spoiled…ugh!" She shot up straight, as if she had been hit. "Excuse me!" Her door slammed as she darted back inside to use the bathroom.
Squall looked back at Zell. "Did you at least take any medicine to help?"
"Nothing helps, Squall," Zell told him dramatically . "Nothing will ever stop this pain."
The leader of the group closed his eyes and took a deep, calming breath. "I'll call for a maid to come up and clean up after you, just try to get some rest," he said as he began back down the hall.
Shaking his head, Squall walked back to the kitchen to fetch a number of the cleaning services on the fridge. He had just finished making the arrangements when Selphie's door opened and the shaky twenty-something-year old appeared.
"Squall," Selphie grimaced at her hoarse voice. "I need a favor."
He narrowed his eyes suspiciously. "Don't tell me you didn't finish your rounds at the station."
She winced. They hadn't. "We can finish the checks tomorrow, but no, I need you to do something else."
He looked reluctant to ask. "What?"
"I scheduled a dinner meeting tonight," Selphie winced as her stomach made an odd gurgling sound. "But I can't make it. Can you go instead?"
"Selphie, I'm sure you can reschedule," Squall told her firmly as he began taking things from the fridge to prepare his dinner.
"No," she shook her head as she remained leaning against the hallway wall. "They're only here for one night and I don't have the phone number."
"I'm sure they'll try to contact you."
"Squall," Selphie croaked. She stumbled over, still gripping her stomach. "Please…I'll pay for your dinner with them." She paused as she swayed halfway there. "Out of my own paycheck, this time." Her stomach gurgled and her shoulders began to rise.
Squall turned around to give her a firm rejection with a head of lettuce in one hand and some bread in the other. "They'll understand if you have food poisoning. You can explain it to them the next time you talk. Now, go back to your room and lay down." His eyes narrowed as he looked at her curiously. "Selphie…?" Her eyes crinkled up as her hands shot to her mouth. "Crap, Selphie," he rounded the kitchen's breakfast bar, placing the food on the counter as he rushed to help her. "I told you to-"
Then she threw up on him.
Squall could only stand there, his eyes wide as Selphie's still-hot vomit penetrated his shirt and rolled down the front of his body. His arms were still extended to help her and had frozen in place. Across from him, Selphie's pale, taunt face was frozen in a horrified expression.
"Go to your room," a low voice said as Squall's hands clenched and slowly lowered to his sides.
"But…what about dinner tonight-"
"I'll take care of it," he continued. "Just. Go. Rest." Selphie didn't bother nodding. She just stumbled back and tried to get to her room before Squall got really mad.
"Whoa," Zell said as he stumbled out, looking slightly better, but still red-eyed and pale. "What happened here?"
"Are you done with the bathroom?" Squall asked carefully. Zell nodded. Without a word, Squall stalked past him. Selphie had thrown up on his clothes. He only had one clean set left that was his uniform and he'd have to get this set cleaned before they left.
"You're going to use it? Now?" Zell cringed. "It's kind of a mess-"
"Did you puke in the shower?"
"Then it'll do," Squall grumbled.
Zell looked back at the counter, where Squall's abandoned food remained. Despite what he had just done, and the remains of Selphie's 'attack' still on the floor, he found himself oddly hungry.
Zell eyed the bread. "Are you going to use these?"
"No!" a voice yelled.
"What about your dinner?" Zell asked warily. The bathroom door slammed. "Okay," Zell said as he eyed the food. "Your loss!" His stomach gurgled. His eyes widened as he clutched his midsection and turned back to the hall. "Just hurry up!"
The seaside town had seemed to prosper in the last few years. Buildings had been rebuilt, the main street was lined with well kept buildings and elegant streetlights. The water was nice and clear and the weather wasn't too hot, but wasn't too cold either. Rinoa could see why Dollet was booming into such a popular tourist destination for those who wanted the peace and serenity of a beach resort town.
It was a shame she was only there for a night before her transport ship left. Still, she thought as she took a deep breath and inhaled the warm sea air, at least she'd get to have dinner with an old friend. It had been a happy coincidence that she had run into Selphie that morning while going through the town.
The pleasant smile on her face seemed to fade as she lowered her eyes and looked down at her fingers knotting themselves on top of the table she sat at. She was in as romantic scene as any: on a balcony of Dollet's best seafood restaurant, over looking the crashing waves below. The sun was setting, there was a hazy glow of candlelight coming from the tables, and somewhere within the restaurant behind her, and a string band was playing and entertaining the guests.
The mood was perfect, but the fact that she was sitting there, waiting alone made her self-conscious. Quietly, looked at the watch on her wrist. She was early; Selphie had a few more minutes and even then, Selphie was probably the tardiest soldier she knew and would most likely be a little late.
An ache made itself known in her chest. The thought of a soldier immediately brought her thoughts back to Selphie's Commander; the man she'd left behind.
Sad brown eyes looked at her pale hands. More calloused than ever, but she was proud of it. It was the result of years of hard work and dedication put into helping victims of the war rebuild all over the world. Her heart stung once more. It was the result of years of being away from him.
"Stop it, Rinoa," she scolded herself quietly. "Selphie is going to come any minute. You don't want to be depressed, mooning over her commanding officer like a love sick teenager…." That she once was. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath. Selphie was on assignment in Dollet. Not Squall. Selphie's the one who ran into her that day, not Squall. She would be having dinner with Selphie.
"Miss, your guest has arrived," a voice said behind her. Rinoa opened her eyes and rose from her seat to greet the newcomer.
A surprised voice did not belong to a happy, petite mercenary. "Rinoa?"
Wide brown eyes immediately met equally wide blue ones and her heart shot to her throat. "Squall?" If the food poisoning didn't kill Selphie, Squall swore that he would. He watched those familiar eyes blink with confusion as her lower lip jutted out in a miniature pout. "What are you doing here?" She craned her neck and looked around. "Where's Selphie?" She prayed it wasn't a prank.
Squall needed to force himself to breath; to calm the slamming organ in his chest and remain composed. He'd been through war and had his life turned upside down with worse surprises than a beautiful woman in a sleeveless, knee length navy dress scheduled to have dinner with him. He could do this.
"She has food poisoning." He almost hit himself for sounding so blasé about it. When he had left, Selphie was telling him that she was going to die and to tell Irvine she loved him and not to forget to feed her goldfish. Even as she said that, she was looking better, but not good enough to go to dinner with a Galabadian General's daughter. "She and Zell ate some spoiled shellfish at lunch and it caught up with them."
"Oh, no…are they okay? Do they need to see a doctor?" Rinoa asked, her brows furrowing as she reached for her bag.
Squall almost smiled to himself. It seemed she hadn't changed much. She still sounded the same. She may have grown a bit taller, her face more defined, and with a few more laughter lines in the corners of her eyes, but she still cared. "No, they're fine. They're getting some rest and I've rescheduled their duties tomorrow so they can continue to do so."
"Then is there anything I can do?" she asked, still holding her purse.
Squall hesitated, remaining where he had been standing. His eyes moved over to the chair where he was supposed to sit across from her. "Selphie actually sent me in her place," he explained. "There isn't much you can do right now. They just need to rest and get it out of their systems."
Rinoa found herself nodding. "I should at least say hi."
The corner of his eye twitched. "I would stay away. Selphie…threw up on me earlier."
Her eyes widened once more. He could see her lips tugging into a smile; a sign that she was trying to hold it her laughter. A snort escaped her lips before she turned her head to the side and barely muffled a laugh. He rolled his eyes.
"Sorry, sorry," she giggled as she looked back at him. Her eyes roamed down his body; it didn't look like he had been through an ordeal. He was wearing his uniform and it was crisp and clean, albeit not buttoned all the way up. No, he looked just fine. "Are you okay?"
"As long as it doesn't happen again," he told her. He lamely motioned one arm towards the seats. "Would you still like to have dinner with me?"
He looked uncomfortable and she thought it was kind of cute. That never got tired, even if she thought he'd gone from boyish-teenage 'cute' to an older 'dashingly handsome'. She almost laughed at her assessment.
"Of course," she smiled, barely stifling her laugh as she turned back to her seat. She put her purse back down on her side of the table as Squall came up behind her to help her push her seat in. The brown-eyed brunette nearly jumped as she felt him behind her, grasping on to the back of her chair and moving her closer to the table. A hot flush rushed through her and she lowered her head, hoping he wouldn't see the red across her face.
Squall's grip tightened on the back of her seat. That close to her, he could smell the scent of her hair over the salty air around them. He turned his head away and pried his hands from her chair, quickly rounding the table to get to his seat. As Rinoa grasped her napkin to put it over her lap, Squall fumbled with his own.
"Have you taken a look at the menu yet?" he asked. He inwardly cringed. It sounded so forced.
Rinoa chuckled slightly and shook her head. "No, I was actually waiting for Selphie to arrive." She stopped and thanked the server as he handed each of them a menu. "What are you specials?"
"The sea bass, miss, they just came in with this afternoon's fishing vessels. We also have a special house sautéed mussels with garlic sauce and the chef's personal favorite, steak and shrimp," the server recited.
"I'll have that," Squall said, handing the server back the menu already.
"Excellent choice, sir. And shall I give you a moment, miss?"
Rinoa wrinkled her nose. She handed the server back the menu and beamed. "Make it two."
"And to drink?"
"I'll have coffee," Squall stated.
"A glass of the house wine," Rinoa piped. The server nodded and shuffled off. The woman looked back at her unexpected companion and released a deep breath. "So…What are you doing in Dollet?" Rinoa smiled. Because Selphie didn't tell her he was there, too.
"Garden negotiations with the town on the mercenaries stationed here," Squall replied . "You?"
"I'm passing through," Rinoa continued to smile. Their conversation drifted into silence and she reached for her glass of water.
Squall remained seated stiffly in his seat. He looked out towards the water, trying to distract himself from the woman in front of him. He silently promised himself to put Selphie through rigorous training hell as soon as he could. Wait…no. Even better, he'd put her behind a desk for a month and make her correct student essays at the Garden. Yes, that would be a suitable punishment for keeping who his dinner partner would be from him.
It was bad enough that he had been misled – he was sure it was someone from the Dollet city council who wanted to have a dinner meeting or something. Instead, he had to sit through an awkward dinner with the woman who left him several years earlier. While it wasn't an ugly breakup – or even a break-up if one asked Selphie – it did leave the two on non-speaking terms.
His brows furrowed just a bit. Why did they stop talking? She had left and never called. He had taken it as a sign that she didn't want to have anything to do with him anymore. That's what that meant, right? But it was different now. They were adults. They had careers and had grown up a bit since they last met. They could obviously be civil.
It wasn't as if Rinoa leaving had caused him too much heartbreak.
Blue eyes flickered across the table. Rinoa was using her straw to poke at the lemon slice in her glass.
That was a lie. Every day since she left part of him died. He wasn't sure if he was angry or sad or confused, but he knew felt empty. There was something missing and numerous times, he had wanted to contact her – ask her what was going on, if she was coming back or if it was over…and ask her what he did to make her leave.
But he never did. He took a deep breath.
"So, what have you been doing?"
"What have you been up to?" she asked at the same time. The two blinked and stared at each other for a moment. He looked surprised and she began to chuckle. Her shoulders lowered as her eyes saddened just a bit. "Humanitarian aid all over the place. I'm never really in more than one location for a month or two."
"It must be exciting," he acknowledged.
"Yeah, exciting," she forced a smile on her face. "And what about you? Heard you're climbing the ranks at the Garden."
"I'm just doing my job," he shrugged.
"I heard you do it very well," she leaned forward.
"It's not like I have anything else to do." He silently swore. His eyes moved back to her face, trying to see if his careless answer had any affect. Her eyes had gone blank and her teasing smile had faded into something hollow. "I mean…Cid just piles on the work. It's been one thing after another."
"Right, right," she nodded, his eyes darting away. She pulled back, trying to pretend that his comment didn't stab at an old wound. "I'm sure he keeps you very busy."
He lowered his eyes once more. "Anyway," he began. "Is it the same humanitarian organization you were working with before?" He almost winced at the last word.
Rinoa nodded. "We're trying to work close with the Gardens and cities affected as best as we can," she said. "I actually email Quistis a lot."
He didn't know that. "That's good. So…you've kept in touch?" With everyone, except me?
Rinoa smiled sadly. "No…not everyone."
He narrowed his eyes as he watched regret wash over her face. Before he could read further into it, their meal arrived and the topic quickly shifted to the food. In between "Mmms…." and " how is your steak…" were long moments of silence or strained conversation.
By the time Rinoa finished her dessert, she looked ready to flee once more. Squall grit his teeth. It was the first time he'd talked to her years and this was how it was going to end? With a stubborn battle over who paid the check and then they'd go their separate ways?
"No, it's fine," Rinoa smiled as she reached for the check. "You came all this way to have dinner with me last minute. I'll pay."
"It's alright, Rinoa. This one is on me."
"At least let me pay my share," she offered, already reaching into her purse. "How much was it…plus tip?"
Squall placed a few bills into the little black folder the server gave him and then handed it back. "Keep the change," he told the young man. The server thanked him graciously and Squall looked back at Rinoa. "Don't worry, I'll make Selphie pay me back."
A small snort came from Rinoa as she shook her head and placed her wallet back into her purse. "You win, this time."
Squall rose from his seat as Rinoa did and rounded the table to help her out of her seat. She thanked him quietly as he looked around. "Where is your jacket?"
"I didn't bring one," she shrugged as she snapped her purse closed. "It's not that cold and the ship isn't far."
"Oh…you're walking back?" he asked as they walked through the restaurant. Rinoa nodded. They thanked the host who seated them as they passed an exit.
"Well," she said as they stepped out of the restaurant. Squall held the door open for her, waiting until she and an elderly couple walked through before releasing it and joining her. "That was a delicious meal."
"I bet you have a busy day tomorrow," she added.
"A few more meetings," he replied. "We leave the day after tomorrow."
"Oh," Rinoa nodded. She looked down at the pavement as they walked to the street and began heading up. "You sound busy. I'll let you go, then." She began to quicken her pace, but Squall's hand flew out and grasped her wrist.
"Wait!" He held her back and she looked over her shoulder, surprised. Squall hesitated. "I….Rinoa….." He looked down at her hand and quickly released her. "Let me walk you back," he offered as he lifted his gaze back to her eyes. "Please."
Part of her was screaming for her to say no; to deny him and avoid the confrontation that she knew would arise if she stayed with him any longer. Another part of her was drawn into his face. The more defined angles, the sharper eyes, the look of a man who had wanted just a few more moments of her time. How could she deny him after what she had done? She pulled her bottom lip and took a deep breath.
"Sure!" The smile across her face was not the one he was familiar with. It didn't reach her eyes and he was almost saddened to see it. "The ship I'm staying on isn't too far of a walk away."
Squall nodded and began to walk beside her. "I'm sorry if I hurt you," he said suddenly.
Rinoa nearly dropped her purse. "What?" she gasped she whirled to look at him. He furrowed his brows.
"When I grabbed your arm," he pointed out.
Her eyes darted to her wrist and she found herself nodding. "Oh…right," she agreed. She shook her head and offered him another smile. "It's nothing. You can never hurt me, Squall." It surprised her how true that still rang.
Beside her, the soldier nodded solemnly. "I just think I should at least escort you back," he asserted.
"Right, have to be chivalrous, eh?" Rinoa continued to put a smile on her face.
"It has nothing to do with that." His footsteps fell into synch with hers and she glanced at his face.
The words left her lips before she had a chance to stop them. "Then what does it have to do with?"
Squall continued to look ahead of them, down the sidewalk they were walking on. He wasn't sure what exactly, but he answered.
"It's been a while," he told her without meeting her eyes. "And we haven't really talked."
She jerked her head back. Her eyes crinkled up as she turned her head away shamefully. "There isn't really much to talk about," she tried to assert. "My job's pretty boring and I know you've probably got your hands full at the Garden. Whenever I email Quistis, she usually tells me you're holed up in your office." She frowned and looked at him. "That's not good for you, you know."
He cocked his head to the side. "You email Quistis about me?"
Her face flooded with color. "I like to check up on everyone back there!" Rinoa defended.
"Of course!" She stomped her foot on the ground, clutching her purse at her side as they stood at a street corner. They were half way to the pier where the transport vessel she was staying in was docked. Rinoa took a deep breath and tried to calm herself. Yelling wouldn't do her any good. She knew what would happen when she opened her mouth and didn't think.
The questions and confessions would pour out. The hurt, the fear, the guilt, the doubt. She didn't want to deal with that now. Frantically, she turned away from him, trying to find something in the main plaza they were crossing through that could distract them.
A small, almost unheard chuckle came from beside her. Rinoa found herself looking back at Squall as a faint, relieved look fell across his face. "Nice to hear that."
"Squall?" she asked, confused. He was looking out at the plaza. In the early evening, the street lamps had turned on and families and couples, tourists and locals, wandered around, chatting amongst themselves and enjoying the refreshing sea breeze as a trio of accordion players played some music by the center fountain.
"It's changed a lot, hasn't it?" Squall asked as his eyes crinkled up. "What a difference a few years make."
She studied the side of his face and found herself nodding. "Yeah…."
He looked at her and smiled softly. "No matter what occurred in the past, something like this was still able to happen. It could've just been abandoned, but people choose to come back and rebuild. Now look at it." He looked back at the plaza. "All they needed was a chance. It's like everything we've worked for wasn't for nothing."
Brown eyes followed his. He was right and for a moment, she felt at peace. The music, the people...it was a happy moment and she didn't want to part with him on unhappy terms. Her mind suddenly formulated a plan. It was childish and would probably embarrass him, but it looked fun. Pink lips curled into a devilish smile.
"C'mon!" A hand clamped firmly on his and suddenly Squall found himself being pulled forward.
"Rinoa! What are you-"
"Look! Everyone's having fun, but no one's dancing!" Rinoa exclaimed as she plowed forward. Squall looked at the back of her head as if she had gone mad.
"Maybe no one wants to dance," Squall rolled his eyes as he stumbled on to the center plaza.
"That's just because no one wants to start," Rinoa assured him as she pulled him into the center, just before the fountain. She turned to him and placed her hand on his shoulder. "So, we should get the party started for them!"
Squall looked at her. "You're crazy."
"Come on, Meanie! Participate!" the shorter brunette beamed in front of him. "Everyone's watching!"
For a moment, he caught a glimpse of the woman he had known years earlier. Her eyes were sparkling, her smile was sincere, and the air around them, for that moment, had a familiar energy that exasperated him, as well as made his heart beat faster. He let out a tired sigh.
Squall pulled away from her and her face began to fall. His hand dug into his pocket and pulled out some gil. Then he tossed them into the open instrument case in front of the musicians. "She likes to waltz."
It was an order more than a random statement and the musicians seemed to find amusement in the man who had been dragged across the street by his pretty girlfriend to dance in front of everyone. As he walked back to Rinoa, the people around the fountain seemed to clap and cheer him on.
"It hasn't even started yet," he grumbled as he took his place in front of her.
Rinoa couldn't seem to take the smile off her face. "Oh, shush. You know you're enjoying it."
The music started and Rinoa began to sway in place. An amused smile tugged at his lips. "A little." Their feet back to move and they began to circle a small area to the amusement of bystanders. A few couples rose from the benches and came from the surrounding grass lawn to join them.
"You've gotten better," Rinoa complimented as they wove between the half dozen other dancing couples.
"The result of having to attend more than my fair share of balls, dances, and other celebrations," Squall admitted. Rinoa giggled in his arms.
"I think they've served you well, Captain Leonhart," she beamed. He smiled back and swung her around. She let out a laugh.
A small one came from him and as the song went on, all he could remember was how much he had loved being with her. Rinoa giggled as she fell against him. His face softened. No – he remembered exactly how much he loved her.
She raised her eyes and met his face. The silly look on hers slowly melted off, softening as she found herself drawn into the familiar look he wore only for her. In those private moments, when it was as if they were the only two people in the world, his eyes would warm and a small smile would grace his lips. She would find herself lost in his expression.
The music around her seemed to fade into silence; only the rapid beating of her heart pounding in her ears could be heard. She became all too aware of how warm he was and the subtle scent from his soap that still lingered on him. Her body would stop whatever it was doing and move on its own accord. Even as she felt the heat of his breath against the tip of her nose, she didn't seem to realize what she was doing. Or wished to stop it.
He tasted like coffee.
Her eyes closed as her lips parted just a bit and welcomed him back inside her, filling an empty void that she had missed. He was hot and strong and familiar…and she had missed him so much.
She didn't know her arms had wrapped around his neck. She didn't know she had stopped. She didn't realize people were clapping.
It wasn't until Squall pulled away, gently prying her arms from around his neck that the environment they were in came rushing back. Rinoa's face filled with color as she heard the whistles and the claps. But the public display wasn't what alarmed her. A trembling hand rose from her side and to her lips.
She'd kissed the man she had left without a word.
"We should go," his voice was low as he gave a few people nods of gratitude before taking hold of her hand and pulling her through the crowd.
Rinoa stumbled after him, stunned by her own actions and unable to see his reaction. She thought they were just having a bit of fun; a distraction from the conversation that wanted to come out. For a moment, it was like it had been years ago; when they were together and happy and nothing had changed.
Her hand pulled out of his as they reached the other side of the street. Squall looked back at her quizzically.
"I'm sorry," she apologized before he could ask if she was alright. "I didn't mean to kiss you like that," she mumbled as she avoided his eyes. She quickly walked around him and headed as quickly as she could back to her ship.
"Then why did you do it?" Squall asked as he marched behind her.
"I don't know," she said. "It just…it just happened. Force of habit!" she insisted as she kept her eyes ahead of her.
"Force of habit?" Squall repeated. That was it. He couldn't keep it in any longer. The dreaded words left his lips. "Rinoa, I think we should talk."
"Squall, my ship leaves in the morning-"
He persisted. "This won't take until the morning."
She refused to look back at him, already feeling the tears stinging at her eyes. "Squall," her voice pleaded. She didn't want to talk about it. She didn't want to tell him. "Please-"
"Why did you leave?" He dropped the bomb. It was the question she had been afraid of answering. Not because she didn't have a reason, but because her reason was so frivolous in retrospect and had hurt him.
"I don't want to talk about it!" She darted forward and for a moment, Squall was surprised that she was actually running away.
"Rinoa, wait!" Squall yelled. He shot after her, reaching her easily as they arrived at the dock and grabbed her wrist once more. "Just tell me why!"
She shook her head as her eyes swelled with tears. "What do you want me to say?" she choked out as she pulled away from him. "I didn't even say good-bye when I left and the next time I see you, did you think we would just start talking like we used to and I'd just tell everything?"
"No, but I do think we need to talk," Squall squinted his eyes. "Why didn't you say good-bye? Why did you leave?" he asked, confused. She saw pain in his eyes. "Did I do something wrong?" Her heart broke once more at the sound of his voice. Did he think it was his fault?
"No!" she cried out.
He didn't understand. "Then what happened?"
"I didn't want to leave - not for that long! It was only supposed to be for a little bit!" Rinoa answered, her voice cracking as it rose. "I was only going to do some aid work for a week while you were on a mission, but the situation became dire and they needed more people. I knew you'd be fine with me staying longer to help, but the efforts just got longer and longer…and before I knew it, three months had passed. I realized that you didn't try to contact me at all. I called the Garden to see if you were alright and they said you were fine, so I didn't understand why you didn't try to get a hold of me after I had been gone for so long."
"Rinoa, I know you can handle yourself," Squall told her. "You're a good fighter and you're dedicated to your causes. I knew if something bad happened to you, I'd be the first to know."
She looked at him as if he were an idiot. "So you didn't think to even check on me, even after that long!?"
"I had confidence in you," Squall told her flatly. "That's not the same as not caring about you."
She choked back a cry. "I thought you didn't want me any more."
"Rinoa," he began carefully. "Why didn't you contact me?" he asked. "Because you thought I didn't care about you?"
It was stupid now that she thought about it. How could a man who had put his life on the line for her, swore to stand by her in her worst moments, not care for her? Yet, when she was nineteen, she had been afraid that was the case.
Lingering doubts filled her mind and she found that every time she wanted to get in contact with him, she couldn't bring herself to. It was frustrating how it was so much easier to contact Quistis or Selphie than Squall; the man she had been living with. Perhaps it was because she knew she was hurting him.
"After a few months, I was too ashamed to contact you," Rinoa admitted quietly. "I thought…why would he wait for me? I hadn't called in months. I hadn't written any letters or sent any messages. It was like I dumped you without telling you and drew it out for weeks. Knowing how I was feeling, obviously you felt worse. I did that to you. I hurt you. Why would you wait for someone who did that?"
"Because I love you," Squall stated, as if it were the most obvious answer in the world.
She almost wanted to laugh at how simple his answer was. Even know he sounded so sure of it and she had been terrified.
"I was so scared," she cried out. "I couldn't even bring myself to write you a letter! Every time I tried to call, I was afraid that you'd answer and tell me it was over; that you wouldn't put up with me – and I wouldn't blame you! I was so scared to hear you tell me you hated me, I couldn't even call you! I know it's stupid, but I was afraid, Squall!"
"We were nineteen years old, Rinoa," he reminded her. "We should've known better, but we didn't. I should've called you, too, instead of thinking you left me."
"What reason would you have for me to leave you?" Rinoa asked. "I love you. You were everything I could ever want!" Everything was coming out now. "Even now, after all these years, you're still everything I want and…and…and I'm still scared. Things have changed, you were right. I'm not the same Rinoa and you're not the same Squall. I can't expect you take me back after I did something so pointless and ridiculous!"
Squall looked at her curiously. "Then you don't want to come back or try again."
"Of course, I want to come back! I want to try again! I want to, I've never stopped wanting to," Rinoa admitted, her voice weakening. "But I can't force myself on you. I won't do that to you."
He took a deep breath. "Rinoa, every week that had passed, the chances of you coming home grew slimmer and when I finally realized it had been far too long, I thought that maybe you had done it on purpose. That you didn't want to continue with the relationship."
She looked at him beseechingly. "And you thought I broke up with you?" Of course he would and she was afraid of confirming it.
A flicker of pain reached his eyes. "The reason I was promoted," he explained carefully. "Was because I spent every waking moment working, trying to forget about you."
Her chest ached. "Did it work?"
His eyes met hers. Slowly, he shook his head. "No."
Rinoa frantically wiped at her eyes and nose as she began crying. "I'm sorry!" she apologized in a mess of tears. "I thought you hated me! I thought you never wanted to see me again and I couldn't deal with it. I love you so much-"
Her words were cut off as she was crushed against his chest. Squall closed his eyes as he held her tightly against him. He pressed his lips against the side of her head her arms wrapped around him, her fingers clinging on to his uniform shirt.
"You have no idea how relieved I am," she heard him whisper roughly against her head. "I thought you didn't want to have anything to do with me any more."
She shook her head as she buried her face against him "I want to go back, Squall," she cried. "I want to go back to the Garden, back to our room. I want to go back to how it was before."
He stroked the back of her head as he looked up at the ship just a few paces away, waiting for her to board it.
"Rinoa, you just can't come back," he told her reluctantly. She stiffened in his arms and pulled away, a hurt look on her face. "You still have a job to do and the Rinoa I know wouldn't just abandon it."
She sniffled. "I know," she admitted. "It's not that simple."
As she wiped at her eyes, he smiled slightly and reached into his jacket pocket to pull out a handkerchief embroidered with the Garden's name and seal. He reached forward and wiped her face with it, encouraging her to blow into it to clear her nose.
"Rinoa, this isn't bad," he assured her as he stroked her bangs out of her face. "We cleared the air. We got answers."
"I'm still so sorry, Squall," she insisted as she grasped on to his shirt. "I made you wait for me and I just left…."
"I should've paid more attention," he reminded her. "I could've called. I should've called and made sure you were okay."
"I'm glad you had confidence in me," Rinoa attempted to smile. "My whole life no one ever really thought I was capable like you do. I should've had more confidence in you."
Squall lowered his eyes. They settled on her flushed, tear-streaked face and reddening eyes. "What do we do now?" he asked. "You can't just leave and I can't follow you."
Her eyes trailed down his face, lingering on his lips, his slight stubble, the muscles of his neck disappearing into the collar of his shirt.
Her tongue darted out between her lips and moistened them. Oh, what the hell? She couldn't let him leave so easily. "You can…," she hesitated slightly, avoiding his eyes. "Follow me…tonight." She'd make him want to call her.
Her face was red and warm and it was clear it wasn't because she had been crying. "And tomorrow?" he asked. "Will you still leave with the ship?"
"Yes." She didn't hesitate. That Rinoa he fell in love with, the one who wanted to help, who wanted to make things better and make people happy…that hadn't changed. Some things didn't change.
He nodded and leaned forward, placing a soft kiss on her forehead. "Good."
Silently, her hands slipped into his. Small hands wrapped around his larger ones as she lead him into the ship.
Squall had been silent most of the ride back to the Garden. His few words revolved around transport, tickets, and a brief lecture on not eating anything 'risky' since she and Zell were still recovering from their food poisoning.
The perky brunette furrowed her brows in concern as she looked over at her friend and higher-ranking officer. Squall sat back against his seat, his head directed out the window and his face set in its usual stoic expression. The only difference was there was an odd, far-away look to his eyes; as if his mind was completely elsewhere.
Selphie pursed her lips and looked down at her hands. That was her fault. She should've told Squall he was going to meet Rinoa for dinner, but was afraid that if she told him, he wouldn't go. She had steeled herself as best she could that night, waiting for him to return and demote her.
But Squall hadn't returned that night.
He had come in quietly the next morning, checked on both her and Zell, and then went to sleep for two hours before his first meeting of the day. He hadn't mentioned a single thing about Rinoa or dinner or what had happened. It was as if it didn't happen at all.
That was what disturbed the shorter mercenary the most.
The jeep came to a stop at one of the side entrances to Balamb Garden and without a word, Squall climbed out and reached for his duffel. Selphie quickly scrambled out after him.
"Hey, Squall," she called out as he began walking up the path to the Garden.
"What is it?" he asked as he turned around and gave her a slightly expectant look. She shrank back just a bit.
"Um…about that dinner…," she trailed off. "Is everything okay?"
His expression didn't change. "Yes," he nodded. "Why?"
"Because you were having dinner with Rinoa and Selphie thinks you're going to demote her for setting you up," Zell said as he walked past them. Selphie wrinkled her nose and shot him a glare.
"Zell!" she yelled. She was going to kick his butt later.
"Don't worry about it," Squall told her as he turned around. "I'm not going to demote you."
She looked almost shocked. "Really?"
"It didn't have to do with work," Squall pointed out.
Selphie looked relieved. "Thanks, Squall!"
He disappeared into the building and headed to his office to pick up any mail and check for any pending reports to look over before he retired for the day. He reached into his jacket pocket, fishing out his key card as he took the elevator up to his office's floor.
He made it halfway down the hall when he slowed down and heard noises coming from his office. He narrowed his eyes and stopped outside, by his assistant's desk. He glanced down at the desk; papers were neatly put away and the laptop had been taken home for the evening.
Squall frowned. Who was in his office? Very few had the key and he was well aware that all of those who did wouldn't enter unless it was an emergency.
He moved his key card across the sensor and the door slid open.
The slender figure pacing between the door and his desk came to an abrupt stop. She stood up straight, her arms flying stiffly to her side as she met his eyes. Two large bags were in a pile behind her feet and in one hand, she held a keycard – one he had given her several years earlier.
For a moment, he wasn't sure what to think and wondered if he were actually still asleep on the transport vessel and this was all a dream…that after he had watched her leave him, his subconscious decided to toy with him.
One pale arm rose and a hand nervously ran through her hair. She bit her lower lip, as she did whenever she was unsure of something.
Rinoa met his eyes. What was she doing? She gathered her things and told her main office that she was moving. To where, they had asked. She didn't know what had come over her other than the feeling that for several years she had been nomadic; going wherever she was said to be needed and now, she was going somewhere permanent. She loved what she was doing, she hadn't been lying to him when he told her, but part of her was missing something.
And that night, when she was with him, she felt she had found it. Now, she was standing before him; a product of her impulsiveness and hope, finding herself foolishly speechless even after hours of trying to explain why she was there.
What had they come to terms with in Dollet? That they were both idiots? That he was dense and shut out his hurt while she was afraid and ashamed? That he still loved her and that she still wanted to return to him?
Squall adjusted his bag over his shoulder. "How long have you been here?"
She swallowed a lump in her throat. He didn't sound mad, but he didn't sound pleased, either. "Two…three hours," she croaked. She cringed at her voice as he raised a brow. "Irvine let me in."
Squall nodded and quietly stepped around her. She felt a chill against her skin as he did so and willed herself to turn around and face him. He stopped beside his desk and went through the stack of folders and envelopes in his inbox. She remained rooted in her spot, waiting until he finished.
He tossed the papers back into the box. "These can wait," he said quietly. Squall walked back around and reached down beside her. "Your bags?" he asked, pausing a bit.
She nodded. Was he going to kick her out? Her heart tightened in her chest. "Yes."
He nodded and grabbed one large duffel bag and slung it across his body then grasped the other's handle with his hand. When they were secure around him he stood up and headed towards the door. "Come on," he told her.
Rinoa's heart sank. He was going to take her outside and call for a taxi, she just knew it. Lowering her head, she began to shuffle after him, trying to hold back any tears. This was a mistake.
A warm hand slipped around one of hers. Brown eyes shot from the calloused hand grasping hers before looking up.
"Can you close the door?" Squall asked as he led her into the hall. Rinoa nodded dumbly.
"Yeah," she murmured. She fumbled with her keycard before the door slid closed behind them. "Where are we going?" she asked as he continued to hold her hand and led her forward.
"I have a new apartment," Squall replied as they reached the elevator. He looked over his shoulder and gave her a questioning look as they stopped in front of it. Rinoa's eyes were growing damp and her face was turning red. "Are you alright?"
She sucked in a heavy breath and shook her head. "I'm going to get to stay with you, right?" she asked carefully. "You're not just letting me stay for the night and then make me leave?"
He smiled slightly. He released her hand and lifted his to caress the side of her face intently. "Leave? I thought you had come home."
"Squall," she sniffled as she tried to wipe at her eyes. Relief rushed through her and she jumped forward, throwing her arms around him. "I'm home!" She forgot about the luggage he was carrying.
"Rinoa - the bags!"
A ding filled the hall and the doors slid open. "So, I told her to just wait in his office until he gets-whoa!" Irvine's arms flew out on either side of him, slamming against the elevator doorframe to keep himself from falling over the couple on the floor.
"Rinny!" Selphie piped happily as she peeked beneath Irvine's arm and saw the brown-eyed brunette on top of the man surrounded by several bags on the floor.
"You couldn't wait to get to your apartment?" Irvine asked as he grinned. "I didn't think you had it in you, Captain."
Behind a mess of dark hair, Squall's blue eyes shot Irvine a glare. "Get in the elevator," he growled in a low voice as Rinoa giggled on top of him and buried her face against the side of his neck.
Irvine gave him a mock salute before pulling Selphie back into the lift and allowed the doors to close. Rinoa lifted her head up and looked down at him, smiling that smile he loved. "Sorry about that, Captain," she beamed, lopsidedly. He lifted one hand to her face once more and gently stroked her hair. She relaxed against him, her face softening. "I'm home, Squall."
He craned his neck up and grazed her lips with his. "Welcome back."
Squall's Office, Early Evening
"Hold on, hold on," a voice said as the stack of papers was placed on the table. Blue eyes looked across at a confused man across from him. Seifer looked up from his laptop and removed the glasses from the bridge of his nose.
"What?" he spat out, somewhat annoyed. "You got something against the ending? I told you, I'm not into those fairy-tale, frou-frou endings where the prince rides off into the sunset or some crap."
"It's not that," Squall replied. "I have issues with the beginning."
"The beginning?" the blond scowled. He narrowed his eyes. "What could possibly be wrong with the beginning? It's a perfect set up! Two lovers who grew apart are reunited for a night, which brings them together!"
"I'm talking about the part where the secondary character throws up on the main character," Squall frowned. "That's kind of unnecessary."
"Yes it is," Seifer replied sternly. "It's clearly a way to show people just how sick she is and thus is unable to make it to the catalyst dinner."
"Since when was one character throwing up on another as a way to get them to go to dinner a classic?" Squall frowned.
A knock sounded from his door. "Squall? Are you in there?" The door creaked open and Rinoa peeked in. "We're going to go get dinner, are you coming?"
"I think we're about done here," Seifer said as he slipped his glasses into his coat pocket with one hand while lowering the top of his laptop with the other.
"Hey, Seifer," Rinoa greeted. She raised an eyebrow curiously at the two of them in the Captain's office. "You two have been spending quite a lot of time together lately. Is this project Cid gave you that stressing?"
"Oh, yeah," Seifer crouched down by the wall and tugged the plug out from the outlet. "Really difficult, Rinoa. Your tiny mind cannot comprehend how complex this project is."
She shot him an irritated glare as Squall rolled his eyes. "Yeah, whatever," he mumbled. He pushed himself back and rose to his feet behind his desk. "Not fighting a massive war is great, but that makes it difficult for mercenary schools."
"I hope you guys are doing well on the budgeting," Rinoa sighed. Squall reached her side and she rose up on her tiptoes to kiss the side of her husband's cheek. "How is that business proposition your dad suggested going?"
A sly smirk graced Seifer's face as he tucked his laptop under his arm and eyed the brown-haired man. "Funny you should ask."
"It's going fine," Squall said in a low voice, glaring daggers at Seifer in an effort to silence him. Rinoa' s eyes darted from one man to the other before rolling her eyes and letting out a heavy sigh.
"Okay, well, you two go ahead and finish up whatever you're doing. I'll go meet the others downstairs," she said as she began to slip out the door. "Also, Seif – Quistis said you're coming to dinner with us, so yeah…."
"What?" Before he could argue further, the door closed and he was alone with his rival-friend-co-author, if they could be called such. He snorted and looked at Squall. "Great, another few hours with you."
"I'm so thrilled for it, as well," Squall said deadpan as he grabbed his keys from the table. Seifer stood by the door and prepared to leave.
"Same time next week?" he asked to confirm.
"Same time. I'll let you know what Sis says about your short story."
"I expect nothing but praise," Seifer said coolly. He opened the door and stepped out. Squall followed behind him and turned off the lights in his office.
"Don't be too disappointed, though," Squall said as the door slid closed. "When my article next week trumps yours."