Squall Leonhart knew something was off.
From the moment he had begun to walk along the narrow hallway, a foreign, pungent smell permeated his nostrils and refused to do nothing but intensify with every step he took. Noticing that the door at the very end of the hall was ajar, he cautiously slowed his pace to quiet the echo in his footsteps. After the target was approached surreptitiously, the commander held his breath and dared to peer into the room to assess the situation.
Nigh-instantaneously, the breath escaped his lungs' hold.
The sight before him managed to surpass his most dire expectations. And he'd seen a hell of a lot during the 23 years he'd lived on this planet.
Mustering all of his courage and audacity, he took a step forward into the room and coolly uttered, "…Haven't we all suffered enough the first time?"
Naturally, the paintbrush in her hand instinctively went flying in his direction. He caught it with ease.
"Don't do that, Squall!" she indignantly yelped after turning to her left. "I was just about to dip that in primer. You could have had a shirt and face full of paint… not that you wouldn't have deserved it for scaring me like that."
Inwardly smiling, he walked over to where she was to hand her back the brush. "Sorry. Couldn't resist."
Instead of simply taking the brush and resuming what she had been doing, the sorceress opted to rise from her crouched position. Crossing her arms and taking a step forward to eliminate the space between them, a devious grin quickly spread across her face. It was one Squall knew all too well.
"So…you wouldn't resist helping me out either?" she asked in the most sugary, put-on voice known to man. Yep, his most dire expectations were certainly being surpassed and then some right now.
"I would but staying here would make me the stupid one."
…Not that it impeded his ability to throw her through another loop, judging by the utterly dumbfounded look on her face right now.
Feeling merciful, he pointed to her shirt with his free hand. "This finally come out of hiding?"
Peering down for a second, the comment finally clicked in Rinoa's head.
"Oh, yeah, I guess it did." she sheepishly answered, flattening the invisible creases in her 'I'm With Stupid' shirt — a gift, if one could call it that, courtesy of Selphie from her and Irvine's trip to Deling a few months ago. "I was going to burn it but I figured it'd be perfect to paint in…being unwearable in public and all. I can wear this inside out if you want to regain some IQ points."
Squall shook his head. "It's fine." he assured her, holding a certain comment about earning the title of stupid for letting her effortlessly con him into this on his tongue. Pocketing the brush in his hand in his jeans' back pocket, he waltzed past her and peered into the nearby de-lidded paint can out of curiosity. His eyes suddenly narrowed. "…You sure this is primer? It's…light blue."
"Yeah, I'm sure." she airily replied, crouching back down to pick up the can to pour more of its contents into the nearby tray by his feet. "It's a new kind of tinted primer that turns white when the coat is completely dry. I'm not sure if two cans' worth is going to be enough, but we should at least be able to do most of the room."
Taking a fresh glance at their surroundings — a modestly-sized room with beech hardwood flooring (currently covered by layers upon layers of newspaper) and white trim outlining the bottom of the walls, a singular window and closet (also currently taped up along the edges) — Squall was not personally convinced that two cans would do the trick. Not because of the size of the room, oh no, but because the walls were presently giving him a migraine of epic proportions, painted in a painfully-bright yellow colour.
Mari…something, the real estate agent had called it?
Regardless of whatever the hell this shade of pain was called, the commander figured it would take a hell of a lot of this blue-tinted primer to make sure that retina-burning colour wouldn't bleed into whatever hue his girlfriend had in mind for the space.
"So…are you going to keep the brush or do you want the roller I have here?" said girlfriend asked, effectively pulling him out of his sardonic musings. "I'm thinking that whoever uses the brush will probably paint around all the trim since the rollers won't be able to reach those parts."
"I'll keep the brush for now. We can eventually switch to even out the workload. Sound reasonable?"
Rinoa nodded. "Sounds like a plan to me." she agreed. "I'll get started. You might want to change into something else though. I'm not sure if the tint in this stuff might ruin your clothes if it happens to get on you."
Taking her advice, he took the brush out of his pocket and retreated from the room. After a quick right turn and hop up the stairs, Squall walked down the upstairs hallway, sparing a split second to appreciate the fact that the walls here were painted in a far less visually-assaulting off-white as he approached his target, the master bedroom he and Rinoa shared (which was also painted in the same colour). Upon latching his hand on handle of the aforementioned destination's door and twisted it to enter the room, he spared another moment to take in the gloriously-messy (mostly Rinoa's doing) sight in front of him.
With half-opened boxes pushed off to the side, no dressers or drawers to be seen anywhere, random articles of clothing strewn in every nook and cranny and two blanket-covered, pillow-adorned twin mattresses dotting the center of the hardwood floor, the room was rather unimpressive-looking. But to the man who had scavenged through those boxes to pluck out the clothes he'd wear for the day, slept on the pushed-together mattresses and had been blessed enough to be able to wake up in morning beside his beautiful girlfriend (despite the slight gap) for several consecutive days on end for the first time in their five-year relationship (a trend he hoped to see continue), it was a sight to be infinitely thankful for.
It wasn't soon before long when the commander found himself crouching down to one of the boxes inscribed with his name to rummage through it to find something suitable to paint in. In a sea of black, white, grey and occasionally navy, a shirt called caught his eye as he sifted through the folded pieces of clothing. A rare smirk appeared on his lips.
Returning downstairs a short while later after locating some old shorts and slipping them and the new shirt on, Squall approached the still ajar-door as cautiously as he had the first time. Not for fear of getting paint flung at him or of giving Rinoa another scare, but to get the chance to silently observe her for a moment.
He hadn't been even gone five minutes and he could already see that she was sporting paint blotches on the front of her shirt — which now read 'm Wit Stupid' (…had she been pressing her chest against the wall?) — a look of pure concentration (she was rather cute when she bit her bottom lip like that) and the beginnings of what was surely going to be an uneven, unsightly streak-laden coat over the patch of wall she was currently working on. The scene before him was the epitome of a Rinoa-esque disaster waiting to happen and yet as he finally entered the room…he couldn't have cared less.
"He—" she began to parrot before stopping dead in mid-word upon turning her head in his direction. A veil of silence suddenly hushed the room.
"…Why are you looking at me like that?"
…Or rather a veil of silence and shameless staring.
"You know exactly why. Where did you get that?"
"This?" 'This' referring to the fact that he was currently wearing a cotton shirt in the warmest of sea blues. "…Just something I had lying around."
"Liar. That involves shopping at some point. And we both know you'd rather fight a T-Rexaur unarmed than step foot in a mall."
"It was a present."
"Oh, that makes more sense. From who?"
"Selphie. It was from that trip." he answered. "She said she couldn't find any captioned t-shirt for me that was ridiculous enough for her tastes so she got this."
Rinoa furrowed her brows. "That's weird. She told me that the souvenir shirt place she was at had tons of stuff and a custom t-shirt designer on site. And it's not like her to quit those absurd missions she makes up for herself either — she even got Angelo a 'Talk to the Paw' doggie shirt. This is actually…nice. Really nice. Nice enough to beg the question why are you even painting in this?"
He turned around to show her.
"-Oh. My. God." Her face suddenly threatened to split open with an ear-to-ear grin as she tried containing her mirth. "And I thought mine wasn't wearable in public. I can't believe she got that made up for you— no, scratch that, I can't believe you didn't kill her on the spot."
He turned around. "I couldn't."
"Oh. Feeling merciful for once?"
Squall snorted. "You give me too much credit. It was because she'd sent it through inter-office Garden mail in a delivery box. Then she went on a mission in Esthar before I could even track her down. It was just my luck that she'd thought something through for a change."
"Well, that makes a lot more sense. I am kind of surprised you'd be willing to wear something like this to paint in though." she commented. "The jokes are just writing themselves in my head, you know."
The commander shrugged. "It was the only shirt I didn't mind getting ruined. Besides, I'm used to the verbal abuse."
"Oh, you are, are you?"
Swiftly, she quickly sidestepped around him and before he could register what was happening, he felt something cold lick across his upper back. The sensation of the paint seeping through the shirt's back made him cringe.
When she sidestepped around him to face him once more, he made a point of giving her a disapproving look. Though he knew it was a futile exercise in one respect at this point — she'd long-since gained immunity from the intended effects as it tended to make her feel even less sorry for her actions — but when it finally coaxed that impish grin she'd been withholding previously, it made it worth it on that account alone.
"You could have just stuck to making jokes." he dryly told her.
"I could have, sure, but that would have been too easy." she said. "You should be thanking me, really. It's even wearable in public now."
"It was before. I just needed a hooded sweatshirt to cover the back."
"Oh hush you. You're supposed to indulge me by asking, 'What does it say now Rinoa?'"
He shrugged. "I just assumed you'd painted over the whole thing."
"Nope. I left one word there. Guess."
Rinoa rolled her eyes. "…Ha. Ha. Very funny. You know it didn't say that."
"…I thought it was, given the actual options."
The sorceress rolled her eyes. "I left 'Rinoa's' there. I thought about just painting over 'boytoy' to make it say 'Rinoa's sexy' but then again, I already know that so I went for something a little more sweet."
Sure, leave it to Rinoa to find a way to lovingly annoy him.
Even still, his annoyance at the fact the paint was making the shirt stick to his back, and that it would probably take a shower in the said shirt to peel it off later, had quickly dissipated when she leaned forward to innocently kiss him on the forehead. Oh yes, he was definitely Rinoa's idiot alright.
…Especially considering that he'd forgotten about the roller in her hand when he'd made the impromptu decision to reel her in for a follow up kiss on the lips. Her shirt now read 'm … Stupid.'
Well, at least that made two of them now.
Pausing, he looked down to Rinoa who was in a crouching position to finish the corner on the left hand corner of the room.
"Why do you think the previous owners painted this room marigold-yellow when just about every other room is in a cream colour?"
He lackadaisically shrugged. "How would I know? We never met them."
"Just make your best guess then."
Squall shot her a quizzical look as she got up and stretched out her limbs a little. "…Why does it matter?"
"It doesn't." she frankly answered, nudging him with her free hand. "I just want to hear your theories. I'll tell you mine after."
Had this conversation had occurred years ago, he would have told her to forget about it in that case. Present-day Squall however knew he didn't have that luxury. Knitting his brows together and taking a look backward at the still-marigold walls for inspiration, he searched his brain for the most logical answer.
Then it came to him.
"They used the room to torture people."
Rinoa groaned. "…Really Squall? You're going with that?"
"I am. It's a valid theory." he deadpanned. "Even you had said that this was too bright when we first saw this house so it has merit."
"You're right, I did." she admitted. The sorceress took a moment to look at the opposing wall right then, much like the commander had moments prior. "The colour still hits me like a ray of sunshine to the face but…maybe that's what they wanted, needed even — just a splash of colour in their lives, something bold to shake things up a bit, you know?"
Despite not comprehending what kind of benefits one could theoretically gain from sitting in this blindingly-yellow room versus the others painted in the cream colour, he nodded to her statement all the same based on his experiences with boldness that did not relate to choices in home décor.
"I was thinking about it for a little while and I kinda want to take to a page from their book by keeping the room something different from the rest of the house, just not as bright." she mused aloud. "…But I just don't know what."
Squall blinked. "…I thought you knew what you wanted to paint this."
Sheepishly, she told him, "I was sort of hoping to figure that out as we were putting this coat of primer on."
The commander wanted to shake his head. It would be just like Rinoa to have them prime the walls without having a clue what she wanted the final paint colour to be. At this rate, he wouldn't have been surprised if she wanted to unceremoniously plop down on the newspaper-laden floor to discuss paint colour with him next.
"Actually," she began, walking over to the mostly-empty paint tray to deposit her brush, "now would be a good time to have a break with one wall practically done and the first can pretty much empty, don't you think?"
…That hadn't sounded forced, Squall dryly thought, not at all.
Still, his arm was getting a little tired so he took her up on that diversion all the same. After heading out of the room and into to the corridor for some fresh air, they sat on a pair boxes deliberately left unopened and topped with fluffy pillows — Rinoa's idea as they were her boxes filled with books —due to a lack of furnishing in the house (the trip to the furniture store was tomorrow). Within mere seconds, the pair slumped backwards, leaning against the wall for back support.
There was nothing but the sound of their escaped breaths breaking up the stillness in that moment and the silence felt comfortable, welcomed even in the moments that had passed after it. Squall looked over to his right, only to notice the sorceress biting the nail of her thumb, eyes fixed on a patch of wall on the other side of the corridor, glazed with a certain steely resolve.
"…Thinking about the paint colour?" he lamely asked, now cursing his inability to think of any topic other than the one that was sure to put her on the spot. She moved the hand whose thumbnail she'd been biting and shyly met his gaze.
"Yeah. I still have no idea of what I want." she honestly answered. "There are just so many possibilities but on the other hand, whatever we pick has to match the furniture we buy for the room and just thinking of it all's got me so overwhelmed it's not even funny. Well, maybe it is because we could just buy the furniture and then paint the room instead of giving myself stress for no reason but then I remember that we have no idea what we want to use that room for and…aaah, I'm making no sense."
"Seems like you're worried you're putting the chocobo in front of the cart, but you're not quite sure which is which anymore."
"That sounds about right." she replied with a few soft chuckles, a sigh soon replacing them as she looked down at her ruby-rhinestone-encrusted faded jean shorts for a good hard second. "Maybe I'm just overwhelmed because we're talking about our house, period."
"…I don't exactly see why. The fact that it's our house should make it easier because you're free to do…whatever. And if you don't like the colour you picked, you can always repaint it. Or hire someone else to do it."
"That's good to hear but I didn't mean it like that Squall. I just…I can't believe we're having this discussion because we actually own a fully-paid-off house and I'm not even 23 yet! It just does not want to compute. All that wants to compute are all of those stolen moments in your single SeeD dorm and the hours upon hours of convincing you to actually spend the night at my apartment once in a while. I think I still have the slideshow presentation from the one time still saved on my desktop but that's obviously beside the point…which is that we have a house. That we are currently sitting in. Discussing paint. And that I don't need to cook up a devious plan to see you anymore. It's so… delightfully weird."
"I'll have to work on making it feel less weird then." he quietly told her, knowing that he at least owed her that much.
All of a sudden, he spotted a big ol' pout on her face. "Aw. Don't go holing yourself in your home office, I just got you all to myself!" she mock-whined. The tiniest hints of a smile tugged at his lips as he secretly admired her ability to continue to find levity in what had been a tough uphill battle for them in the past five years.
"Don't worry — I'm still very much yours." he reassured her. "Even my shirt says so."
In that moment, he could have sworn she'd held her breath alongside a girlish squeal of delight. It was a bittersweet victory in Squall's mind in the midst of an ongoing war.
"Well, seeing as you're still mine for the moment," she began, her tone struggling to downplay her excitement, "I was thinking that maybe we could go to the hardware store to pick up another roller, some more primer and try to pick out the final colour together."
Never missing a beat, Squall raised a brow at the last part of her suggestion. "…You realize you're asking the same person whose wardrobe consists of black, white and occasionally navy?"
"And sea blue. Don't forget that one." Rinoa happily pointed out. "Besides, I never said that you were the one deciding. I'm just bringing you along as a sounding board. One which I'm sure will probably be ignored 90% of the time."
"Yeah. Lowball estimate, obviously." she cutely replied. "But in all seriousness, can we go right away? Maybe get a bite to eat too?"
Despite all logic telling him he shouldn't have accepted her madcap proposal, Squall found himself telling her 'sure' without much hesitation.
"Awesome. I'll just take a second to write down the primer we used to get some more of the same kind."
And with that, she got off of the box and scampered into the kitchen for a spare pad of paper and a pen before doubling back into the marigold room. A few seconds later and Squall got up as well, using the few moments he'd have to himself to stretch a little, fully-well knowing what was—
Without much thought, he went into the room himself, only to find his girlfriend eying the wall they'd painted rather intently.
"…Something wrong?" he asked.
Turning to face him, she had slight grimace on her face. "Well…that kinda depends. Do you like this colour?"
Squall gave her a knowing look. "It wasn't primer, was it?"
"No, it was. It really was."
"But…it wasn't what I thought it was. The can we painted with was a special kind of 2 in 1 paint that had primer mixed in with it…someone must have put this in the wrong place because I know I remember reading the label from the first can I picked off the shelf." she confessed with a slight sigh. "We can either buy more of this 2 in 1 paint if you like this colour or we can start from scratch again."
Looking at the wall for a moment, the one painted in a light robin's egg blue, he paused in contemplation, eventually switching his sights to her once more. "…Would you be ok with a blue room?"
For the first time since they'd started painting, or even since they'd moved in, the mood shifted into something more somber, breaking away from this emotional vacation they'd had for the past few days.
"…Enough time's passed, I think I'll be ok." she quietly told him with a sober smile. "And it is a rather nice shade of blue too. I think it'll go nicely with the beech flooring."
He remembered that night, four years ago. She'd been wearing the very same pair of rhinestone-ruby-dotted shorts, though they were much tauter on her then as opposed to how she swam in them now.
"Yeah…I think so too. But if you change your mind, don't ever feel guilty about it."
"I won't. Thank you."
After he'd extended his arm to bring her a little closer, to hold her a little closer, she rested her head on his shoulder. He was more than willing to oblige. After she'd endured so many years of him being forced to push her aside because of where he happened to live and work, even in her most dire times of need, being able to comfort her with even the most tiniest of gestures was a very welcome change.
It would be another eternity before he'd be able to fully make it up to her for all the times she'd been shortchanged or had even suffered emotionally, but it was a start, he told himself (and would probably continue to tell himself for quite some time). And after the long, arduous journey he'd unwittingly undertaken to learn how to say no to others and yes to himself (and her) after seeing and suffering the effects of subtle personal sabotage at work throughout the years, it was most certainly a start to be proud of.
"…You don't regret any of this, do you?"
Without further thought, he found himself saying, "No, never."
"I'm glad." she softly stated. "I know it hasn't been the easiest last few years but… as hard as it's been, I don't regret a thing either. And I'm not just saying this because we're both the proud co-owners of a beautiful house either."
Although it had never been a well-kept secret, it was now especially plain to see that the woman currently resting her head against the commander's shoulder was the strongest person he'd ever known. The ordeals they'd faced in the past few years had been nothing short of hellish, and here she was, blithely stating that she didn't regret a thing. Her sheer strength and resolve made him feel equal parts envious and lucky. It also made him wonder what he'd done to deserve her, made him want to be a better partner and person.
The more he thought of it, the more he could draw parallels between her and the marigold room they'd been standing in outside his initial thoughts on the topic of boldness. While both had given him an unforgettable first impression — one which admittedly confused him in both instances…despite one sight being vastly more pleasing to the eye than the other, but that was besides the point — they also paralleled one another in the sense that although both had undoubtedly changed since then, Squall could picture them both becoming an integral part of his life, regardless of possible trials and tribulations to come.