Chapter 1: Vague Hope
Squall's closed fist didn't have the chance to connect with the door's surface before Quistis opened it and ushered him into her apartment. It was a small mercy that she let him cross the threshold at his own pace instead of yanking him in, however. While he was used to long nights, it was another thing altogether when he was summoned across town at 3 am when he was in a rare deep sleep.
As he took a step to the side and shucked off his shoes, she darted around him to lock the door. The click of the lock mechanism served as her cue.
"I may have figured out why some files start with ECC instead of ORF." she prefaced.
Had this been Selphie, he would have unlocked the door and walked out. While this was not the kind of news he wanted to hear at this hour, there was always a method to Q's madness. And, unlike their mutual pint-sized friend, the aforementioned method was not pure, chaotic glee.
"Realized how stupid ORF sounds as an acronym?"
The blonde let a long drawn out sigh as she walked across the living room to the light grey couch opposite the doorway. Squall did not follow suit. Too many bad memories were inextricably linked to instances where he sat himself on the matching loveseat in the corner furthest away from the entrance. Thankfully it was still 3 am and Quistis knew better than to pry at this hour and circumstance.
"I wish it had to do with a flash of self-awareness, but no." she lamented. "You remember the comment Selphie said a few months ago? About how her cases seemed to be less predictable yet somehow more manageable in some bizarre trade off?"
The blonde let out another sigh and pushed her glasses up with her index finger.
"Regardless, I'm just going to cut to the chase here. I don't think ECC stands for Esthar Cerebral Center like we'd presumed after I cross referenced a good sample size of your active cases with mine and Selphie's. When I looked at the logs for the intake dates, there was no date cutoff from the files that began with ORF versus ECC like I was expecting though the ECC cases didn't start appearing until last year."
Squall crossed his arms. "So you dug deeper and finally found a pattern."
"Yes. When I gathered up all Selphie's ECC files, I asked Selphie if all the unusual events she'd experienced were all from these people and most of them were. I picked her brain a little further for the ones she'd been assigned Level 3 and Level 4 observation with and most of them have all told her an anecdote or two that seemed inconsistent with the subject's case profile. This leads me to believe some different method is being used for treatment."
Squall's focus drifted towards the stack of neatly-arranged red files on the black coffee table in front of the couch. In spite of his stomach's newfound residency in his throat, he crossed the dark hardwood flooring to take a seat next to Quistis. It didn't take a genius to see she wanted him to review his own files like Selphie had. This assumption was proven correct when she said nothing when he began to flip through his manila folders.
The lingering question regarding the importance of doing so at this ungodly hour was still a mystery, however.
One by one, he quickly leafed through the contents of each file on the faintest possibility that there was something — anything — that could be gleaned from his Level 1 and Level 2 grade assignments. After the tenth and final folder, he turned towards Quistis.
"I'm not sure what you were expecting me to say here. I wasn't hired for integration-caliber observation reports."
"I know you wouldn't have much to go on but you do have the most ECC's out of all three of us. Have you noticed any kind of difference with the rate you're reporting to the lab for behavioral issues?"
"…Nothing recent is coming to mind so I guess so." he conceded with a shrug, putting the folder in his hands back onto the stack on the table. "What kind of treatment are you assuming ECC stands for?"
Quistis shook her head. "Not a treatment per se, but rather a person - E. C. Caraway. A nom de plume for a script doctor from Galbadia who self-published her first novel around the same time the files with the ECC ID sequence started appearing."
Squall tossed her a level look.
"Don't worry, I didn't call you here for a coincidence. I'm getting there." she assured. "When I was picking Selphie's brain for commonalities, she mentioned that there were a few instances with the older cases where the subject would mention something that didn't make any sense to her. When I asked or specifics, I realized it was because the comments were based on western Galbadian cultural norms and experiences I was familiar with but would be completely foreign to someone Esthar-born like Selphie. It was still strange that people with a similar background to her would be mentioning these things as if they were lived-in experiences instead of something they just looked up on the internet though so we did a little search and came across this."
On the end table beside the arm of the sofa closest to her, Quistis picked up a blue file and plucked out the first few papers to hand to him. The top page consisted of a hodge podge of screenshots of a social media fanpage with posts dating up to six months ago. Squall's eyes were drawn to the photo of a woman around his and Q's age — if not a little younger — with black hair, dark doe eyes and a fair complexion wearing a blue scarf and light grey coat. She sported a warm smile, left hand clutching the handle of a hard shell, cherry-red suitcase – the post's caption on top read, 'All packed up and ready to go on an research adventure for my new project. See you around, DC! :)'
The posts on the bottom showcased pictures of her en route in planes, trains and various pit stops until an all-too familiar sight on a post – Esthar's main intake gate. Squall looked at the second page and immediately singled out one backdrop amid all the others – his mother's retro café in Neo-Esthar.
"Selphie found the webpage you're looking at by pure luck and I did some sleuthing to find more info on her. In short, while her pen name is derived from her legal name, Elizabeth Christine Caraway, she generally goes by Rinoa Heartilly in most of her private accounts and personal life. She's 27 and the only daughter to Fury Caraway and the late Julia Heartilly." Quistis supplied. "The more recent posts suggested she's due to leave the country in about a month, give or take."
"There isn't hard evidence linking her to the cases. And even if there was, why does it matter?"
It was her turn to shoot him a level look. "The last page you didn't look at has a picture with her Dr. Jenkins in plains clothes, captioned, 'My project partner,' dated a few months back." she replied in a noticeably-clipped tone. "And you know why it matters Squall. I think she has a right to know what it is she's doing if the lab is taking advantage of her. We all had the luxury of choosing what we were getting into."
"Even if we knew with absolute certainty that she accepted freelance work without knowledge of the true intent, she's from Galbadia - they don't have the advanced neuro-technology there. Anything we'd say would sound like the ramblings of a conspiracy theorist. It's not worth the added risk - especially when there's not enough time to begin with to assess what she does and does not know." he countered.
"Squall, I know that. I'm not asking you to risk everything on principle. I just…want to say we tried." she said. "If it's too risky to out what we are, we could settle for getting her to stop before any damage can be done."
As much as he wanted to, he couldn't ignore her request. In the two years he'd known her, Quistis had never made pleas like this. Never had this kind of madness with no method besides calculation. It was positively beyond odd and possibly out of character. Then again, in their line of work, no one was immune to the occasional existential question and pondering various views on morality.
Perhaps Quistis was simply overdue for a crisis of conscience.
"Fair enough. Considering the hour, I want answers to two things before I'm crashing on the couch." he told her. "One – was there a reason this couldn't wait? And two - why me?"
"Honestly…when Selphie but two and two together about Rinoa, she told me she wasn't on-board with this plan to tell her because she thought it would do more harm than good. The reason why it couldn't wait is because even though I said it looked like she'd be here for another month, I think she might leave sooner."
She plucked out a few more papers from the file and gave them to him, pointing to the top screenshot.
"When she got here, she was posting a lot about the sights and sounds of the usual historical and tourist hot spots but the more recent updates have been infrequent with undertones suggesting she's burned out and likely miserable. I know you don't have a lot of high level observation cases under your belt but my workload is too heavy to do it myself."
Squall looked at the screenshots below and he'd be lying if he couldn't see the descent she spoke of himself. If he had to wager a guess, the research wasn't going well since she looked nothing like the denizens of Esthar in dress — most of her outfits in the pictures looked like things that would have been popular 10-15 years ago here — though she could possibly pass for someone of the northern Neo-Esthar region with her fair complexion. In their line of work, the greatest asset an Observer could have was a wealth of knowledge of human biases and reactions to use to deal with people, the most valuable being their own shortcomings.
Estharians were notoriously-xenophobic by nature, treating people like idiot tourists in the best of scenarios. Six months as a social pariah when someone was naively expecting open arms would be a culture shock.
He gave Quistis back all her loose-leaf pages which she neatly slotted back into the folder and put it back to the nightstand table.
"I'll see what the RR Café staff knows about her to start. How do you want me to approach this with her?"
"Make her fall in love with you." she jokingly replied with a sleep-drunk giggle out of nowhere.
"Not exactly an option when we have lifers and my mother at the Café who have embarrassing stories to fire at will to sabotage any attempt nigh-instantaneously. Or my general pleasant disposition." he dryly pointed out.
"You forget that you're very easy on the eyes to people who haven't heard you talk. Use that." she ribbed. "Alternatively, if you want an actual constructive suggestion for an excuse to interact with her, my personal go-to trick is to ask for a small favour. It's been scientifically-proven that it builds trust in someone because there's a natural instinct to not fail and it makes people like the asker. You could do something like ask her to watch over a laptop or something like that."
She leaned back into the sofa and crossed her arms lightly, her line of slight not focused on anything in particular.
"As far as the approach, I think it doesn't matter what it is so long as you give her a reason to stay." she suggested, still staring off into space. "As counter-intuitive as it would be given our goal, I think the best solution would be to help her with her research. You can mostly be in public places so this shouldn't seem invasive and if she is lacking human contact, it might cloud her judgement enough to accept."
"That might make it harder to reconcile should this work and she can be informed about the grave implications of her ghostwriting."
"Desperate times call for desperate measures. You said it yourself, we don't have the time." she said, lackadaisically tilting her head to the right to look over at him. "I know this is just my doubt making me ask you to state the obvious at this point but…you have the same opinion as me about this, about her?"
"I do." he replied without hesitation. "But I think the rational part of your brain knew that before you called me at this ungodly hour."
A hint of a smile appeared on her face. "The non-rational part of my brain thanks you for answering me anyway."
And with that, she nearly leaped off the couch to speed walk out of the living room and into the short hallway bisecting the right wall. Squall presumed she was fetching the spare comforter set and as many pillows she could grab from the hallway closet to transform the sofa he was still sitting on into a makeshift bed.
As he waited, Squall made a mental checklist of everything he'd have to do tomorrow.
His Observer schedule was lightened considerably by some recent case level augmentations and relocations that reassigned a number of his cases to other Observers, Quistis and Selphie included, so his weekends were generally free by happenstance for a little while now. He wasn't strapped for Gil by any means but things were becoming a little tight so perhaps he could kill two Chocobos with one stone by picking up a few back of the house managerial shifts his mother had been unsuccessfully able to fill since Xu left. Three considering Selphie's Observer districts were nowhere near Neo-Esthar.
Yes, this was the best plan, he decided, fishing out his phone to set an alarm 8 hours from now and placed it overtop of Rinoa's file. He'd read those in the morning to read over coffee and eggs when Quistis would be already gone for the day, busy battling wits and trading barbs with Seifer Almasy somewhere. Even after a few months since she'd first mentioned him, Squall still hadn't figured out if he was a high level case of hers or just a professional nuisance that she kept on crossing paths with - not that it really mattered because she'd never outright tell him which it was.
Though he could still hear Quistis rummaging in the distance, Squall decided to lay down on the couch instead of waiting for her to bring the blankets and pillows. The fact that Seifer Almasy had warranted an actual thought in his brain and not an instinctual eye roll was the telltale sign he was sorely sleep deprived and in desperate need of rest – a plight Quistis would surely understand.
Chapter 2: Your Money
The loud opening notes of one of *NSOMNIA's pop hits from yesteryear jolted Squall into a flurry of panic as he batted the pillow resting on top of his face sailing across the room, landing on the hardwood floor with a less than impressive dull thump. Looking down at the blanket – an inexplicably-adorable cartoon Ochu with hearts aplenty in the background – and his brain stopped time travelling and came back to the present where he remembered he was at Quistis's apartment and the whole discussion they had about Rinoa.
It didn't explain the switch in alarm ring tone but knowing that Quistis wasn't immune to the siren call of silly pranks, he figured that it owed to her actions on some level. He rubbed his eyes and blindly reached backwards for the offending object, only to realize it was not the source of the harmonized noise when the face of the phone was still black without the notification to dismiss the alarm. He twisted his upper body back and saw that the offender was the radio on the table on the dining room alcove.
Sitting upright, Squall hit the power button on his phone to see the time displayed was about a half an hour away from his alarm going off. Curiosity took hold as he got up to mute the boyband. Quistis was a light sleeper and one of the few people he'd met in his life who did not hit snooze ever. While she could be forgiven for not knowing he'd set an alarm of his own, it was an odd action when his earliest Saturday case routine was now hers and he was not a chronic oversleeper by any means.
Squall rubbed his eyes again - he was clearly overthinking this. Quistis probably set it as a well-meant gesture with no deep significance.
Before he hit the power button again, he looked at his reflection in the glossy surface. He looked largely presentable aside from the faintest stubble here and there, a reminder of one of the few things his father's genetics blessed him with - the inability to grow facial hair worth a damn. Hitting the power button again, he checked his text messages and predictably found three from Quistis, timestamped well over an hour ago.
Towels/toiletries are on the bathroom countertop. I laundered the jeans & sweater you left from the last time – it's in the washroom too.
The link to Rinoa's page is screencapped on the very first page in the file. Check to see if there are any updates.
Rinoa posted this morning about 'visiting her favorite cafe.' Try to be at RRC today if you can - thanks!
With the minor mystery was now solved, Squall went to go shower. Perhaps the spray of hot water would relax his mind and body enough to conjure up some ideas on how to approach Rinoa as he doubted the café made for a feasible place to pull the stuff guarding move Quistis had suggested.
He let out a long-drawn sigh.
This was well above his paygrade - men twice his size with behavioural issues were far easier to deal with than trying to figure out the best way to bait someone's attention. It went against his nature and skill sets to find ways to stand out than blend in.
Squall got to the café a little after noon and it was as dead as a doornail with the late breakfast rush all cleared out with a sparse amount of people dotting the booths and tables for lunch. The café was located around the outskirts of town in the entertainment district and not in the path of any major transportation lines so the paltry sales during the day was not really uncommon. Most of the surprisingly-devoted clientele was mostly made up of those came here to figuratively and literally unplug for long periods of time instead of grabbing food and hot beverages on the go.
It wasn't surprising as the anachronistic theme of the café went against every conceivable tenet of Estharian culture from the lack of shiny décor — the rustic hardwood-heavy interior looked more like the inside of a Winhill bar than the kitschy black-and-white checkerboard and chrome of Estharian past – to the lack of freely-available electrical outlets and WiFi, only offering connection of an interpersonal kind. It eschewed the ingrained standard of fast-paced convenience at every turn and its continued profitable operation never failed to simultaneously confuse Squall and instill the belief that his mother was nothing short of a savant for seeing opportunity that he never would have in her shoes.
"Yo Squall, when was the last time you set foot in here?"
It took everything Squall had not to flinch at the sound of Zell's loud voice carrying across the room and taking every customers' attention with it, dragging their line of sight in his direction.
He still flinched but recovered enough to stay the apex of the upward motion and delay the decent to make it look like he'd shrugged instead.
"Wouldn't know. When was the last time I did a cash float audit?" he shot back, walking up to one of the barstool seats near the front counter.
The blond busboy waved his dish rag at him from the other side of the counter. "Dude, not cool. I still have nightmares of that day when you nearly made me pay back 5000 gil because Raijin 'borrowed' my float cash for a day."
Squall shrugged for real this time. "You were the one who asked me when I was here last."
Zell sighed, slinging the rag across his shoulder. "Yeah, I guess I did left myself wide open for that one. In all seriousness though, I was starting to think something was up since there were a couple randos asking around for you lately."
"…Randos?" Squall repeated, "What did they look like?"
An ear-to-ear grin formed on the blond's face. "Naw, I'm just pulling your leg. It was your friend with the weird flippy hair and this girl with the retro outfits who your Ma ends up chatting with on the night shifts. You know the drill, moms talking about children and people they know and they end up becoming mythical Chocobos they want to see for their own eyes kind of deal."
Squall made sure to give him his best mildly-perturbed look on principle. "Not sure I like the idea of being a 'mythical Chocobo.'"
Zell shrugged. "Eh, you might - the girl is pretty cute. Erm, not my type since I'm, uh, not really into brunettes and because I have a girlfriend already."
Try as he might to maintain the façade, he couldn't keep the smirk at bay with that comment. "…Keep digging that hole Zell."
"No holes here, just a helping hand." he deflected. "Anyway, all's I'm trying to say is that if you stick around long enough, she might pop up. And don't worry, your Ma didn't tell her about the time you accidentally-"
"-Ok, I get it." Squall interjected before the whole café would hear about that particular, and rather infamous, mishap.
"Now we're even." Zell laughed. "So what brings you here since your Ma's not in 'til later? You live on the other end of the district still, right?"
"I was running a few errands for a co-worker who lives in the area." Squall explained. "Came by since it was along the way and I had time to kill."
"Fair enough." Zell shrugged. "Want me to holler at Specs to get you the usual coffee and sandwich combo?"
"Yeah thanks." he said, pulling out his wallet give him money for the order and tip. As usual, Zell waved him off.
"Keep it. Your money is no good here."
Squall wasn't in the mood to fight him on this today. He pocketed his wallet and money in separate pockets; he'd just have to slip it to the next customer who'd come in so they could get either something extra or use the money to leave a generous tip.
No sooner than the crisp Gil bill was pocketed did the familiar chime of the door ring. After scanning the other side of the counter to make sure Zell wouldn't catch him in the act, he discreetly withdrew the bill again and waited for the customer to make their way to the counter to place an order.
As luck would have it, a familiar face sat two barstools away from him; it was a damn good thing Quistis had set that alarm when she had.
In one swift motion, he slid the Gil note in her direction across the counter. Naturally, this earned him a rather perplexed look so he wasted no time to explain.
"The employees won't take my money because this is my mom's shop." he told her. "They'll take your money."
Rinoa's expression softened as she gave him a conspiratorial nod. "Can do."
She hastily stuffed the Gil note in between her fingers into one of the pockets of her long grey coat as she heaved her purse and laptop bag on the countertop. Once she fished her wallet out, she unzipped it and added the money into the folds, setting it on top of her laptop bag.
"In the interest of full disclosure, I knew who you were from the moment I saw your face. Your mom wasn't kidding when she said you were basically her boy clone." she casually admitted with a nervous giggle. "Also, I might have talked to her enough times for her to tell me stories about you. Nothing bad or embarrassing, I might add."
"It wouldn't be the first or last time if she had." he honestly replied. "At this point, I just assume I'll be embarrassed in some shape or form when I walk in here."
"Well, so long as I don't accidentally spill something on you, I'd say that today might buck that trend." she said. "Oh, and before I forget, since I do know your name, I guess it'd only be fair if you knew mine. I'm Rinoa. Nice to finally meet you."
She extended her hand for him to shake and so he took it, her grip was surprisingly-firm for a woman of her size. It was a good thing he'd brushed up on a few Galbadian customs as he would have accidentally left her hanging otherwise. Estharians usually reserved handshakes for graduations and other events of import to minimize the transfer of germs.
After their hands parted, she switched stools to sit on the one directly beside him on the right.
"This place is so welcoming compared to everywhere else." she remarked. "I'm from Galbadia, visiting here for research purposes for a novel I'm writing and to be quite honest, I've been kind of treated like the plague."
"If it explains anything, my mother is originally from Winhill, a bartender by trade." he offered. "The only thing she didn't transplant from Winhill was the distaste for outsiders. Wasn't really a need since Esthar already has the market on that."
Rinoa's eyes lit up.
"That explains so much, honestly. I couldn't put my finger on why this felt like a home away from home since all the cafes in Deling City are a lot more modern-looking." she told him. "Though, judging by the outfits and architecture around here, they would probably be rustic by comparison."
"You wouldn't be wrong." he agreed. After contemplating it for a second, he pointed at her coat. "The reason people probably are avoiding you is because coats like that were popular over fifteen years ago, which tells them you're not from around here. Most pieces of clothing here are thermo-regulated so you don't need outer layers. Buttons aren't common either."
"I had a feeling there was a reason why no one was wearing or selling coats." she said with a frown. "Though I just assumed that my body temperature was out of sorts in the different climate because Deling City is always so overcast and mild compared to the extremes here. Maybe things will change with a shopping spree."
It was at this moment when Zell came back with his food and coffee on a tray, nearly spilling the coffee out of the ceramic mug with a hard drop on the counter once he saw Rinoa right beside him.
"This guy bugging you at all, Rin?" he jokingly asked, pointing his thumb at Squall. Rinoa shook her head.
"No, quite the opposite. He gave me a starting point on how to fix my research problem." she told him. "Also, how come you've never told me about the thermo-regulated clothes you guys wear?"
Zell shrugged. "I just assumed you knew and were choosing not to buy some. I mean, the attachable patch is not cheap if you're looking to retrofit the clothing you already own so I wouldn't have blamed you there."
"Unspoken cultural norms are sooooo much fun." Rinoa said in a half-amused, half-exasperated tone. Then she bolted upright with a gasp, looking at Squall again. "Oh Carbuncle, I just remembered you guys don't really do handshakes here."
"I'll live." he replied, grabbing the coffee cup from the tray. "It's not like you have the plague."
"You're right, I don't." she replied with a smile before reaching for her wallet and turning to Zell. "But before my stomach eats itself, I suppose I should order. Can I get the soup of the day combo with the flavoured bread roll toasted and buttered? And would it be ok if I upgraded the medium coffee to a large with two creams, two sugars?"
"Sure can, big spender." he said as he took Rinoa's money and started punching in the order in the till to ring her up.
Squall took an extra-long sip of his own coffee and avoided eye contact with either of them as he heard her refuse the change, leaving a rather large tip from the unbroken bill by his mental tabulations. It was only once Zell retreated to the back to give the line cook the chit and go back to his actual duties, he dared to look to his right again.
"…Operation bill-be-gone is a success. He was none the wiser." she whispered with a tiny thumbs up. Setting down her hands on the counter, she paused for a second. "Are the flavored breads good? I've heard they're a specialty in Balamb so I was surprised to see them on the menu here. I meant to try them out earlier but I could never seem to get them before they'd sell out."
Squall took another sip. "They are. The recipe the café uses is from Zell's mother who gifted it to us as thanks for hiring him. Zell and his family are from Balamb so that might explain things."
"Ah, that's neat that it's an authentic Balamb recipe." she remarked. "Though I'm kind of confused, why give it as thanks when she could have sold it to the café and made some profit?"
"Zell didn't have a Gil to his name when he was hired." he quietly explained, pausing slightly to make sure the blond was still out of earshot before he elaborated. "He's mechanic by trade but qualifications don't amount to much when you're a transplant from somewhere else."
"…I'm starting to see why my attempts at researching went horribly awry after my research partner vanished off the face of the planet. Spent six months here and I'm pretty sure I learned more about Estharian culture from this conversation alone." Rinoa lamented, longingly looking at her laptop bag. "Anyway, I think I should leave you to your lunch before it gets cold. Thank you very much for your time. It means a lot that you lent an ear to this complete stranger."
"…You don't have to leave."
The words practically flew out of his mouth before his brain could register them. But even by that time, what registered more was the surprise widening her eyes as her gaze broke away from eyeing the laptop bag to stare at him even if the rest of her expression was neutral.
"You can stay if you want." he reiterated, hoping she wouldn't bow out of principle or a skittish misplaced sense of politeness. "I don't have anywhere else to be."
"Only if you really don't have anywhere to be."
"I don't." he said as he grabbed the neglected sandwich from the tray and pulled it closer to him.
She paused for a moment, as if she was waiting for the other shoe to drop, before slowly unbuttoning her coat in an unintentional G-rated striptease before revealing a striped blue and black sweater underneath. He took another long sip of his coffee as she then proceeded to struggle with neatly stuffing it into her average-sized purse without three-quarters of the thing spilling out. Against better judgement, he stopped sipping the coffee to say the comment long on his mind.
"While we don't believe in coats, there is a coat rack you can use by the right-hand corner behind you before the bathrooms."
"Oh. Yeah, maybe I should." she sheepishly agreed. "I have to ask though, why have it if no one uses it?"
Squall shrugged. "It's from my mother's old bar. So I assume it's either for sentimental reasons or to encourage people to dine shirtless by having a rack to hang their shirts."
When she reacted to the comment by simply staring at him like a Chocobo in the headlights, Squall found himself torn between frantically searching his mind for any anecdotes Quistis or Selphie might have told him about dealing with missteps like these during their high level assignments and turning his attention to his long-neglected sandwich start to eat it. He was fairly convinced Selphie had resorted to this tactic at one point or another at any rate.
"I have no money, but can I like, pay you to say ridiculous things with a straight face?"
Squall had to refrain from blinking hard.
"I'm not sure if you're making fun of me or if that was a cue to say something absurd."
"A…bit of both." she said with a grin. "I'm going to use the coat rack for its intended purpose and use the ladies' room. If you don't mind watching my stuff for a moment, that is."
"Go ahead." he said with a nod.
After she hung her coat and slipped past the door to the women's restroom, Zell came back with her order. As he set it down beside her bags, her absence did not go amiss as he immediately turned his attention towards Squall as he shot him an amused look.
"I take it by the fact all her stuff's here that you didn't scare her off?" he ribbed.
"And that was totally your money that paid for her order, wasn't it?"
The blond shot him an incredulous look. It was still no match for Squall's stone-faced expression and his façade remained unbroken, however.
"It so was, I know it." he maintained. "Word to the wise though, if you think she's sitting beside you for any other reason than just being too lazy to move, be a pleasant memory to her instead of a reason to stay."
The blank look on his face finally cracked as he raised an eyebrow. It was rather jarring to hear Zell talk like this, unnatural even. And especially odd considering how he was talking about Rinoa before she showed up.
"…I'm not following."
In a lower voice, he answered, "I think she accidentally got caught up in those rumored shenanigans happening in Odine's lab. The research buddy dude who 'disappeared?' Murdered. One of Dr. O's top guys if I'm not mistaken."
"Zell, you read too many Occult Fan magazines." he brushed him off, deliberately reaching for the sandwich to eat afterwards.
Before Zell couldn't even respond, the slight creak of the bathroom door swung open and robbed him of the opportunity to say another other than a polite, 'enjoy the food' to Rinoa as she sat back down and happily indulged before he retreated to the back once more.
As they ate in relative silence, Squall couldn't help but occasionally steal a glance at her every so often.
He couldn't tell what was worse - getting a possible confirmation of what Quistis had suspected or the moments he'd completely forgotten what he was here to do.
Chapter 3: Two Chocobos, One Stone
There was nothing worse than having things to do but not being able to do them because of other people - especially when there was no way around it without worse consequences.
And right now, Squall was in this boat.
Zell might have gone from the other side of the counter to flitting about the café, picking up errant dishes here and there to tidy up the place, but it sure as hell didn't preclude him necessarily from listening in. He knew Quistis for too long to assume other people didn't make a habit of pretending to do something else to lull the targets into a false sense of security in order to eavesdrop with ease.
They were both done polishing off their food and there was only so long he could slow down his coffee drinking to a painful crawl before someone would suspect something was up with the way he was nursing it. For what it was worth, he already suspected she was deliberately slowing down her pace too so it wasn't going unnoticed. He only hoped she was reading into things differently if it wasn't his imagination.
Setting down her cup once again, she unzipped the top of her laptop bag and drew the laptop out. Wordlessly, she lifted the lid and hit the power button. It was only after she'd entered in her password – Angelo9367 - that she looked back at him.
"I know, it's kind of rude but I forgot my cell phone at the place I'm staying at and I want to write down what you told me before I forget as well as a few things that reminded me of a few other things I need to do."
"It's not that big of a deal." he told her. "Not when this is a country where some people have cell phones surgically attached to them."
At first she stared at him for a solid second before letting out a belated snicker. "Your deadpan humour is taking me for a ride again."
"I can understand why you'd assume that but I was being serious." he said, draining the last of his cup in spite of himself. "There's a procedure to embed implants in your ear and wrist to send and receive texts and voicemail. I wouldn't be surprised if there was someone out there working on embedding smart phone capabilities."
Rinoa just stared at him for the longest time, furrowing her brows and scrunching her nose for added effect as the seconds passed. He said and emoted nothing to alter his expression in any shape or form when she decided to wag an accusatory finger at him about a solid minute in.
"…I'm on you." she declared under her breath in mock indignation. She wagged her finger once more. "-Onto you, even."
Squall bit his tongue so hard he could taste copper. She was going to be the death of him. Or he was going to be the death of her. He wasn't sure which. All he knew was this was going to be omitted whenever he'd get around to reporting to Quistis; it might be the death of her if she was made aware that the possible source of this grave ECC case predicament was a coat-in-bag-stuffing, expression-mangler.
Or so he rationalized to himself.
He pointed to her laptop. "You should probably write what you meant to write in that open e-document."
"Yes. Yes I should." she agreed, turning to the screen and typing away. It didn't take her long to cover most of what he and Zell had told her in bullet-point form, glancing his way no more than a minute later. "Any other tidbits of hidden Estharian culture I should add while I'm at it? I'll bribe you with more coffee and/or food if you do."
He mulled it over. Not her question, no – he was already going to say yes for obvious reasons — but rather whether or not to propose a counter-offer of dinner elsewhere for full-course meals of info instead of mere scraps. It had been so long since he'd bothered to interact with the opposite sex in anything but a professional or friendship-oriented capacity he couldn't remember if this would be considered too much of a gamble in perceived forwardness.
"I'm not hungry now but that sounds good."
He raised a brow. "Cool…beans?"
"You've never heard of cool beans as an expression?"
Squall shook his head.
"What? Really? Well, it just means cool. Not sure why we add the beans to that though to be quite honest with you." she admitted. "Then again, I think I actually got it from here now that I think about it. The only thing that seems to be sticking in my mind is that I'd heard someone actually groan with an overextended 'cool…beeeeeeeans?' in response to something. It might have even been here."
"Weird expressions and expressions evolve and morph all the time." he shrugged. "It took me awhile to realize that Estharians don't use creature-related sayings like, 'Moomba got your tongue,' or 'two Chocobos, one stone.' Most of their idioms either involve either cleanliness or efficiency."
He could practically see the lightbulb go off over her head.
"Western Galbadia or Winhill?"
"Winhill." he answered. "Moved here with my mom when I was 5. I'm 28 now."
"Ah. So I suppose that explains why you're giving me the time of day." Squall said nothing in regards to that unfounded comment before she prattled on. "So if you don't mind me asking, was it hard to adjust here as a kid?"
"It was probably as hard as it would be to move anywhere at that age, I imagine." he guessed, never really having given the question much thought before. "…I think it probably helped that my mother was already familiar with how communities intolerant to outsiders operate so she found ways to help me navigate that and pick my battles."
"So what was it about here that made it worth staying?" she asked, "I mean, I get the allure of moving here when you don't know about all the ugliness. But staying seems like another beast to conquer altogether."
"We're only here because my mother was shrewd enough to make people forget we don't belong by playing her cards right." he found himself answering. "I don't know what she had told you but…my father went missing before I was born. Was believed to have ended up here according to a few reports she found. When the last relative of hers died in Winhill, she used the sizeable inheritance she received to relocate us to Neo-Esthar. The rest was history, more or less."
"Oh wow, that's…um, quite a story." she mumbled, her eyes as wide as dinner plates before her gaze faltered altogether. "…I hope you didn't feel obligated to share that just because I asked. I know I'm nosy by nature but I didn't mean to pry."
"You didn't. I don't tell people things I don't want to."
"Ok. Good to know." she said, slowly re-establishing eye contact with him. "Was he…ever, um, found?"
Squall shook his head. "It ended up being someone else - men of his general height, build and complexion are fairly common here. Wouldn't be surprised if she knew it wasn't him before we moved but dared to hope anyway."
"…If I wasn't 99.9 percent sure she wasn't a hug person already, I'd give your mom the biggest hug ever." Rinoa uttered in a tiny and distant-sounding voice that was giving Squall flashbacks to the time Selphie was about to murder Quistis in cold blood for misplacing her model train kit minus the murderous intent. "…I've lost a parent myself and even I cannot even imagine going through that."
"Even if she were, she wouldn't want the pity." he told her, followed by a quick scan of the floor. Zell was still at the opposite corner of the place, chatting up some seniors in a likely attempt to free some dishes held hostage. "His disappearance isn't something she hides – most people learn about it sooner or later if they ask enough questions. Zell spent the first day on the job assuming he was going to be fired because he put his foot in his mouth when he asked if my dad helped out around here too."
Rinoa visibly grimaced, scrunching her nose. "Awkward."
"Very." he agreed before switching subjects. "…Getting back to the actual agreement, can you explain what it is you're trying to write that you needed the research for?"
"-Oh, right. Guess we got super sidetracked." she stammered, a small giggle taking her by surprise as she closed the lid. "As far as your question, the gist of what I'm trying to write is like one of those stories where you have different point of views from the same general area and they all come together towards the end for the main overarching plot."
She intertwined her fingers together to pantomime the last point.
"Long story short and no pun intended, my day job so to speak involves looking at various scripts and manuscripts for other people, making suggestions for dialogue or content alterations as a kind of second pair of eyes before people send them off to publishing companies. Between being an avid reader to begin with and that, I tried my hand at writing a book of my own by self-publishing. People seemed to like it well enough and it paid a few bills here and there but you know how you get that…I don't know, feeling of having to top yourself or at least prove that you can do something again to tell yourself the first time wasn't a fluke?"
"You're trying to do that with this story you're working on now?"
"It wasn't at first but I ended up with an axe to grind. After I scrapped an entire novel because it felt uninspired, I wanted to really push myself creatively." she honestly answered. "Nearly a year ago, I was doing script work on a series of these…I don't know how to describe it other than 'weirdly-detailed character biographies' for a client - I think it might have been for an indie tv series or video game. If I had to guess it was probably the latter because they asked me to take a look at each one and change the highlighted sections in the bio to something happier but something that could realistically fit in with the other bio facts so no 'they suddenly won the lottery' or 'it was all just a bad dream.' I think I was making up 'good ending' scenarios for these characters. Anyway, since all the bios were so different from one another, that gave me the idea to make my new story one of those intertwining narratives because I thought it would fit the bill for an interesting and challenging idea. Only problem is, I came here to research how I'd approach a certain arc only to realize how unrealistic all of it is because…well, a few key characters aren't from Esthar and changing their backgrounds doesn't make sense in the narrative. They're actually kind of similar to you and Zell in origin story if anything and…wow, I never realized how meta this is. Maybe this'll solve my block."
Squall blinked. "…Meta?"
"It's hard to explain but the best way I can put it is that meta means when something is referring to what it is. Like if you were to tell a joke about telling jokes or a make movie about making movies. In this case, I'm an outsider in Esthar trying to figure out how outsiders in Esthar would interact with Estharians by talking to an Estharian and you're still lost, aren't you?"
"I'd be lying if I said I wasn't. Not that it matters."
"Fair enough." she said. "So I never did get around to telling you what I need help on, did I?"
"Ok. Well, the gist of what I'm going for needs one not super-obvious way for people of different backgrounds to cross paths. Basically the antagonist uses this place to pick targets so it's hard to establish a connection at first. And maybe some other place where one foreigner and an Estharian has an excuse to talk that wouldn't require some kind of situation like this. My original plot had that second place be a shop but since most are either unmanned or there's minimal contact with clerks, that's making it extra unlikely and I'd rather not take artistic liberties if I can help it."
Squall took a moment to thoughtfully consider her question since it didn't appear to be related to her freelance work despite it serving as inspiration for it. The first requirement had a no brainer solution. The second place however, was proving to be a challenge.
"The easiest place to have people of different social and economic backgrounds is in our medical super-complexes – they host general practitioners, medical specialists and facilities for testing and rehabilitation. Each region has one and every resident has access to any of them free of charge because it's fully-funded by taxpayer dollars. Foreigners who haven't been naturalized can still access them for set fees though there are charities and programs that help with costs. I don't know the particulars of them though."
"When you say medical specialists, does that include dentists, optometrists and optional things like that?"
"Wouldn't call those optional but most of them do. If they don't, they're within a block or two of the complex."
"Unfortunately, they are in Galbadia but that's another conversation for another day." she briefly lamented before switching gears. "Crummy politics aside, I would have never thought of that in a million years. I can definitely work with that so I owe you like a million donuts."
Squall's teeth rotted and insides twisted at the thought of that many doughy confections and sent sugar high shivers down his spine.
"Wouldn't go that far." he deflected. "I don't have any suggestions for the other thing you were looking for."
"Doesn't matter. It's a huge step in the right direction. The write direction, even." she light-heartedly thanked him. It took him a few seconds to realize why she'd repeated 'the right direction' twice then he rolled his eyes and presumed she was steadily gaining life force from his reaction.
"Think a bigger step would be to leave your laptop open to write." he pointed out afterwards.
"-Ugh. Don't know why I did that." she groaned with a facepalm. "But if it's alright with you, I'd rather just pick your brain now and jot it all down later whenever you have to leave so I maximize what little time I have. I'll order whatever you want before then, obviously. Just let me know when you're getting peckish and/or too decaffeinated."
Out of the corner of his eye, he noticed Zell coming back with an armful of dishes successfully taken back from the seniors. As he got closer, he braced himself for the impact since there was no way he was going to pass by and not comment on him still being there with his plate empty and his cup drained.
As if on cue, Squall sensed a body loom right behind him a few seconds later to reach over for the dishes he'd left in between him and Rinoa.
"Surprised you're still here dude, you usually up and leave like a lightning bolt." the blond commented as he added their dishes to his already-skyscraper-tall stack.
As unnatural as it felt to do so, Squall discreetly looked beyond Zell's reach to search Rinoa's face for any reaction to the jab – not that discretion was necessarily needed since her gaze had shifted to the menu board well beyond and above the counter.
"It shouldn't be that surprising when I told you I had time to kill while running errands for a co-worker." he casually retorted as Zell flitted around Rinoa to some other dishes nearby. "Not that lightning quietly leaves the room and leaves money in its wake even if I were pressed for time like I usually am."
Sometime during his smart-aleck response, Rinoa had stopped staring at the menu in favour of opening the lid to her laptop despite what was said less than a minute ago. This attempt at excluding herself from this conversation backfired tremendously as it caught Zell's attention like a moth to the flame as he took a step back.
"Lured him into giving you more fashion tips?"
After the briefest of pauses, Rinoa looked back and nodded at him. "He told me I need to up my sombrero game if I want to fit in here so I'm going to buy a dozen. A few on my head, stomach, elbows, knees and wherever else they'll fit for coverage."
Zell blinked hard, looking over to Squall, presumably to get confirmation she was joking. Without missing a beat, Squall turned his upper body a little to give him a nod.
"It's true. I told her to forget everything we said about thermo-regulated clothes and replace her existing travel wardrobe with sombreros."
Had Zell not been holding ten million plates, Squall was pretty sure he would have folded his arms in addition to the incredulous look and wider stance he was adopting now.
"I'm pretty sure that out of the three of us, you're the only one who doesn't know what a sombrero is." he proclaimed with an ear-to-ear grin slowly overtaking his face. "I know this for a fact because I seriously doubt you of all people would be telling her to go commando and wear a bunch of wide-brim hats everywhere instead of clothes."
Instead of acknowledging that his bluff had been called out for a change, he shot Rinoa an incredulous look of his own. The dark-haired girl couldn't help but mirror Zell's grin.
"I just wanted to say something ridiculous with a straight face. I wasn't expecting you to play along – honest." She looked the other way towards the blond. "To set the record straight before any crazy rumours reach Raine's ears, I'm bribing him with food to help me spitball ideas for the problem areas of my novel."
"I figured something along those lines, I just wanted to bug him." Zell confessed, his formerly-wide grin now a light smirk. "Anyway, I gotta wash these up and clock out. You gonna be here late next week or are you shipping out by then? I'm starting my week-long vacation tomorrow so I won't see you for a while."
Rinoa shook her head. "I haven't bought my ticket yet. Fares to get back home are still insane and I have to figure a few other things out first anyway."
"Cool. Err- not cool. Eh, you knew what I meant."
"Cool. Imma go do the thing. Later!"
Once Zell rounded the bend of the counter and disappeared into the back once more, Rinoa turned to face the other way again.
"I'm going to put this out here and you're free to say no but…"
She might have trailed off but his curiosity was piqued as she looked away for a moment and tucked an errant strand of hair between her ears before looking at him again.
"…did you really not know what a sombrero was?"
Squall nearly fell off his chair.
"...You're a piece of work, Rinoa."
She let out a peal of laughter, breaking the façade she'd put up.
"In all fairness, I was going to ask you something different." she admitted. "I just needed to gauge something first by seeing how this joke went over."
This time, he was certain the slight shifting she was doing wasn't a calculated act.
"…And I think I'll be brave enough to say what you probably thought I was gonna ask is what I meant to ask." she confessed. "Even if the thing I meant to ask about doesn't happen today."
"I would but I'm not sure it's possible." he answered. "I don't think there are any shops in Esthar that sell sombreros."
Rinoa let out a long-drawn groan. "…Ok, I walked right into that one."
She shook her head again and slid her laptop over. Squall blinked in confusion.
"You want me to read something over?"
"No. I know there's no internet here but…if you want to, open a new doc and write the name of a place and time you wouldn't mind meeting me at or type in nonsense if you don't. Save it as whatever, close it and slide over the laptop when you're done. I promise not to look until after you leave today."
With a nod, Squall turned towards the laptop screen once she'd started a one-sided staring match with the coat rack. He opened up a new document and started a staring match of his own at the blank page. Two restaurants immediately came to mind – both not too dissimilar in offerings and price but the locations were on the opposite sides of the region. One was around here though on the border of the entertainment district but a hop-skip away from a subway. The other was on the opposite side of the region and a little further from the nearest public transportation line but convenient for other reasons.
Without the luxury of time to sort out this quandary, he put in both addresses with his work cell number, denoting either were fine and she could pick whichever location was more convenient and hit the keys necessary to bring up the Save As function. From there, he saved it on her desktop and christened the doc with the straightforward name of 'Answer' to ensure she'd see it. When he went to the Open option to see if it successfully saved before closing it, Squall flit through her documents folder briefly to see if there was any filename of note as he could not open them without arousing suspicion in the recent documents pane; she had nothing open aside from the document with the notes in bullet-point form and there was nothing above what she just wrote in it.
It didn't take long before he confirmed his document had saved correctly and raised a few questions he hadn't anticipated by browsing.
He closed the window and the document, carefully sliding back the laptop back to her and ending her staring contest in the process.
"What did you save it under?"
"The file's called 'Answer' and it's saved on the desktop. Hope that's alright."
"That's perfect." she said, her eyes thrumming with nervous energy as she closed the laptop lid yet again. "And regardless of what you wrote, thank you for indulging me – I appreciate that. Anyway…back to where we were, yet again?"
Chapter 4: Piece of Cake
After Zell walked out in his plains clothes with a hearty wave to the two of them, the change in the air was almost palpable. A few other customers left and the remaining amount could be counted on one hand, including them both. It was the kind of intimate hyper-awareness when you walked into a room with all eyes trained on you because there was no one else to look at. This feeling was only amplified by Rinoa herself who was now carrying herself with a little more open bubbliness than before – he gathered that she was somehow aware that he did not reject her in the e-document file.
It wasn't a bad thing considering what he needed to ascertain but it gnawed at him all the same.
"So tell me," she began to ask, "What do you do for a living?"
Squall narrowed his eyes a little in confusion. "…How is that going to help your novel?"
"It's going to help because I've come up with a new theory. Or a revised one at any rate." she declared. "While I can say that Zell would be an example of someone who treats foreigners with a little less resistance because he's also one, it doesn't quite explain your situation since you were very little when you moved here. So I figure there is something else that is making you a little more open-minded that has nothing to do with where you were born."
Thankfully, part of the facility's extensive training included what to say in the event someone asked this question.
"I don't think a comparable role exists in Galbadia but I work with a few medical facilities' outpatient programs for people who were discharged and don't have the means to come back to the facility for post-op check-ups. There are also welfare checks, rehabilitation and a variety of other things I do but that's basically the gist of it."
"So basically an outpatient program therapist kind of deal?"
"More or less."
"What made you decide on that?"
This question however, was not in the training. And while he could have skirted it easily, Squall gave the answer some honest thought instead; while this was proving to be an easy assignment since Quistis's hunches were proving to be correct so far, he was he did not want to chance ruining the momentum by doing the bare minimum. And if he was honest with himself, her earnestness was pandemic-level of infectious.
"I kind of fell into it." he truthfully answered. "While I don't mind helping my mom with the ordering and accounting aspects, I don't take an active role here because I don't have the soft skills she has to take over and keep the spirit of the place intact whenever she decides to retire."
"I'd say you could have fooled me but I know what you mean. Dealing with people on the regular, never mind managing them…it takes a special kind of skill set. Does your mom hope you'll change your mind insofar as that?"
Squall shook his head. "No. She knows I have no desire to succeed her role and respects that. And she's well-aware of my skill sets, or lack thereof." he said. "Part of why I came here today was to offer to help a little more consistently with the office work if she was in. She hasn't been able to fill the related role for a while now and never asks first on principle."
"That's nice of you to offer."
He resisted the urge to shrug and complain that it was worrisome that they couldn't ever fill the more analytical roles because most people in Esthar relegated all the analytical thinking to machines and those who didn't were poached for research jobs, leaving people like his mother in the lurch because she wouldn't ever be able to offer the kind of salary to attract them. But that was a grievance for another day.
"Don't sell yourself short, I still think it is nice that you two have mutual respect for each other. It's nice to see." she reaffirmed before jumping back a few tangents. "So how did you end up with your actual job?"
"Other people deciding my abilities were being 'wasted' and stuck me in this job when someone else vacated it, mostly."
And that wasn't a lie. Quistis had basically recommended him because he was one of those analytical people poached for research jobs. The key differences were that his upbringing helped him read people even if he wasn't the most social of butterflies and could also take a few punches if need be. It was harder for the facility to find people who could handle lower level assignment-heavy caseload since they were often more unpredictable —unlike the peer-reviewed high level cases, all outpatients start as low level until there was enough evidence to ascertain they didn't pose too much risk for a closer observation.
"Been there, done that. You have my deepest sympathies."
"You can't say something like that and not elaborate."
Needless to say, he saw an opportunity to kick the spotlight in her direction and took it.
"Touché." she conceded. "Since you told me a personal story, I should tell you one of mine."
"You don't have to if you don't want to."
"Don't worry about that, I'm like you in that department." she insisted. "Anyway…my mom was a well-known piano player and when I showed some hints that I was musically-inclined too, she gave me really informal lessons for fun. Nothing serious or anything, it was just our thing."
"But other people wanted you to be serious about it."
"Yeah. When word got out, there was this…unbelievable pressure from everyone other than her to pursue a music career. Eventually, I caved. Not sure why in hindsight, but for some reason or another, I did." she admitted, absentmindedly tugging at her one sleeve. "It was only when she had passed that I walked away from the keys and admitted to myself it just wasn't for me. And as sad as it is to say, some people were still disappointed that I 'wasn't honouring her memory.' Irony is that my mom would have been the first person to support me in quitting to do something I was passionate about."
"My mother's dealt with her fair share of people like that growing up too. Wouldn't be surprised if she takes the approach she does regarding the café for that reason." he added. "Not sure if this can help your novel but that sort of expectation isn't as prevalent here. There's less focus on sentimentality and legacies in favour of what would make that person more useful to society as a whole. Minus cases like Zell's, that is."
"It doesn't really, but that's still interesting to know on a cultural level." she professed. "Do you have any more stories like that?"
"I wouldn't know since I don't know what's universal and what's not. It'd be easier if you told me what you're looking for."
"Fair enough. Let's see…" She paused for a moment, drumming her fingers on the counter. "Hmmmm… how do people view unconventional relationships here?"
"Relationships as in romantic relationships?"
"For comparison's sake and not necessarily my take on unconventional …anything that would get a priest from Galbadia agitated."
"I wouldn't know what priests in Galbadia would get agitated over. Esthar is a secular country."
"Wow Rinoa, wow." she mumbled to herself with a hearty facepalm. She took a small breath before rephrasing her question. "Priests in Galbadia would get up in arms over any relationship that's between not one man and one woman."
"I see. To answer the question, so long as all parties involved are of age and can give consent to whatever kind of relationship it is, most people here don't care who or how many people are in the relationship."
"I figured you guys would be more progressive on that front." she commented. "What about…um, relations?"
Seeing her entire face go pink at the last word was almost…cute.
"Pretty much the same thing. If people are of age and have consent to whatever it is, no one cares."
"Cool." Rinoa tucked a few errant strands of hair behind her left ear which was now a fraction less pink. "Do you guys have the pressure about hitting certain arbitrary life milestones like, going to post-secondary, getting a job, a place of their own, married, having kids, etcetera?"
Squall had to think about that one for a moment. "I might not be the right person to ask as a son of a transplant but I think there is some existing general pressure to make something of your life even if there are no specific milestones. The person who is single who is waiting for someone they're compatible with is held in more esteem here than one who has the unhealthy relationship."
"I see. So there's more consideration to what's best for the individual person?"
"In most regards, yes. The trade-off is that sometimes you feel that you have to pick what you're talented at over what you enjoy doing – like your piano-playing example." he added. "While it wouldn't matter that your mother was a well-known pianist or not, if you were better at that than the script writing, you might feel pressured to do that instead to make a name for yourself."
"So if I understood you correctly, here it's like you're encouraged to stand out than to fit in. And even though it's a completely different approach, you more or less end up with the same anxieties like those of us trying to fit in."
It almost felt wrong hearing Estharian culture neatly summarized like that but she wasn't off base in her observations. Not in the slightest. He nearly didn't register the frantic waving in front of him.
"You ok Squall?" she asked, no longer waving at him but still leaned forward, "You look like I just ruined your childhood. Or broke your brain."
"My childhood and brain are both fine. I just needed a moment to process that."
"Good to hear." she said, scooting forward on the barstool. "I'd be mad at myself if I couldn't ask you more questions because I broke your brain."
He tossed her a level look.
"Hey, you were the one who agreed to volunteer information in exchange for baked goods and or brewed coffee, don't give me that look." she light-heartedly chided him. 'Don't make me tell your mom you were being a Meany with a capital M."
"…You're the one who made it clear that you don't care about my childhood and suddenly I'm the mean one?"
"Yup. That's exactly how it works." she teased in the most over-the-top, sing-song tone ever.
He thanked whatever god was looking after him that Zell had left and his mother was not in yet. Not…that it'd stop Rinoa from actually telling her, but still, it was a small mercy. Hell, it was an even bigger mercy that Quistis wasn't around; he was convinced that he'd be pulled by the ear and given an emergency tutorial on how to approach subjects with the proper decorum that was so sorely lacking here.
Then his phone vibrated and Squall seriously considered the possibility that divine intervention was real.
He retracted this notion in approximately two seconds flat when he read Selphie's name instead of Quistis's on the display after he'd fished it out of his pocket. The idea was dead and buried when the body of said text comprised of, 'Squaaaaaaaaaaaall ansssssswer meeee… D:'
In spite of all rational sense, he quickly checked to see the text he probably missed to warrant the last one. Sure enough, there were a string of them starting around the time he had been in the shower this morning.
'Squall! I need your brains since Quistis has my case files and isn't answering. Was the ECC1124 cowboy hat guy or was that ECC1013? HALP!'
'Good news: I figured out that ECC1124 is cowboy hat guy on my own. Disregard the last message! :D :D'
'Bad news: he's a cowboy hat guy who won't stop hitting on me. Cripes, I don't know how long you had to be a bystander to this crud.'
That one was sent a little less than a half-hour ago. So maybe his phone simply didn't catch a proper signal so it mass updated just now?
'BAD news: I'm pt sure he's confusing me for someone else. He's going on about being ~destined~ to be together. Can I lay low at your place?'
Just as he was about to shoot a short 'no' as a reply now that he was caught up, another text made his phone angrily ding at him.
'Fiiiiine be that way. I'm gonna hang out at RCC. Your mom's way cooler than you anyway :P'
His stomach dropped at the sight of the date stamp indicated it was a belatedly-sent text from twenty minutes ago. She could be here within 15 minutes at the latest and it was not an option to be seen here chatting with Rinoa or to text her if she was on the subways and bound to receive it too late. As much as he liked and respected Selphie as a friend and co-worker, he was admittedly terrified of getting on her bad side. He'd seen far too many people on the wrong end of her wrath not to be wary of it.
"…Something the matter?" Rinoa asked.
Squall put down the phone but did not slide it back into his pocket, frantically searching his mind to give her an answer that wasn't something vague and excuse-like along the lines of, 'something came up.' Things of that ilk always inspired doubt regardless of the truth; he needed something better.
"A string of delayed text messages came in all at once. Probably because of the weak reception here." he began to explain, pausing slightly. Seemingly out of nowhere, an idea struck him like a thunderbolt. "I just got word that a co-worker is coming this way and it'd complicate things if she saw me here."
Hook, line and sinker.
"The errand I was running for a different co-worker had to do with a surprise party for her. If she shows up, I won't be able to finish what's left to do. She…has a habit of clinging to people."
"Aah, say no more. I'll leave you to that then."
While he might have nodded and left with a curt goodbye, deep down, Squall hadn't expected for her to stay here without much fight. He'd anticipated that she'd find a way to finagle some reason to come with, especially given that she hadn't actually upheld her part of the deal.
Even still, as he reluctantly walked out the door, he had to remind himself that she did have his number and she'd be able to contact him once she got to wherever she called home. He simply had to trust her to call.
Or, failing that, he had to trust in himself to be confident enough to use the built-in excuse to come back here.
But regardless of who'd have to initiate what, the first order of business was to buy Quistis a cake. He didn't have to, sure, but given the fickleness of the universe, it was best to play it safe.
Chapter 5: Donuts
December was kind of a shit show insofar as updating between cons and holidays. Gonna try to pick up the pace (and at least attempt a slightly relaxed version of November's pace since Nano pressure is off). Fair warning, this isn't meant to be a super long fic so I estimate it'll end before/around 30k.
In the end, the fickleness of the universe punished Squall for not buying Quistis cake.
Mostly because he collided approximately one step post-door opening into Selphie and he didn't even get far enough to buy said cake.
Technicalities were the worst that way.
"You have some nerve, Squall. Leaving me high and dry in my time of need." she theatrically huffed after taking a step back. "You owe me a lifetime of free expresso."
"I wasn't." he lied, internally cringing at both the mispronunciation of espresso and the thought of Selphie that caffeinated. "My phone literally got all your texts a minute ago. My cell's reception isn't good here."
"Ok, even if that was true, then why did you look like you were gonna run out?"
Squall blinked as she crossed her hands and tapped her foot. He had no response to that.
"You're going to liar's jail Squall."
"Whatever. My mom isn't in there right now and neither is Zell so you'll have to pay for the espresso."
"Rats." she grumbled, kicking some invisible dirt for two seconds before dropping the act. "In all seriousness, how did you deal with Mr. Destined to Be's antics day in and out?"
"I dealt with him by not being a woman he was attracted to, I guess." Squall shrugged. "If you call him out on his bluff, he might start seeing you like a human being – the flirting seems to be a game to him. I observed a few instances where the people he had continued interactions with flatly shut down his advances. He appeared to respect their reasons and only joked about other things afterwards."
"Ok, I take back what I said and you're now officially pardoned from your sentence in liar's jail. You and your freakishly-long memory are the best."
Squall blinked. "Thanks? I think. Anyway, I need to go-"
"-Noooope you don't. You're staying here with me, lunch buddy."
"I already ate."
"Too bad. An extra donut won't kill you."
Squall honestly didn't even know why he attempted to be polite; he damn-well knew the only way he would have gotten out of here is if he had started to sprint as what he told Rinoa was not an exaggeration in the slightest. Even that wasn't a guarantee because Selphie was more nimble and agile than he was – her only handicap was that his legs were longer.
He let out a long drawn sigh. Time to bite the bullet and lie some more so he didn't end up thrown back into liar's jail again.
"…Selphie, we need to talk."
"…Can we talk inside? I'm so hungry I'm just about ready to eat my hand."
"No." he flatly said. "The reason why it looked like I was going is because there's someone in the café who thinks I left to avoid you."
"I'm not following."
"I needed to leave so I lied to her and said I still needed to run errands for a surprise party being thrown for you. If I go inside, she might try to intervene."
Squall witnessed an unheard of miracle in front of him – a completely-still Selphie.
"…Did you seriously use my texts as an excuse to hit it and quit it? I didn't realize you were capable of getting attracted to someone, never mind boning them."
"-You wanted to quit it before you hit it? Ok, that makes a little more sense but only just a little. I still remain unconvinced your lower half isn't made of life-sized doll parts."
Squall groaned in frustration and started walking away from her and towards the parking lot behind her.
"Waaaait – I'm sorry! Come back!"
He only stopped when her hands wrapped around one of his like an Anacondaur trying to squeeze its prey's innards out to eat. It simply posed too much of a health risk to dare move further.
He looked back at her with a level look. "Life-size doll parts? Really?"
"I was in shock, ok? People say strange things when they're out of it."
"…Whatever. She was talking to me because she's a regular who befriended my mom so she knew who I was."
"So she's like 50-60? Ah, I see why you'd need an excuse to leave. Old people are brutal when they're super lonely."
"She looks like she's in her 20's."
Squall normally wouldn't have corrected her, seeing as most of the current customers who were not Rinoa and himself could have fallen into that age range. But too much could go sideways as is. He didn't need to add fuel to the fire so he doused the flames with a calculated risk.
"Oh. So she's ugly and as annoying as sin then?"
"Neither, I just happened to have errands to run. Even if they didn't involve buying cake."
"So you were trying to quit it than hit it?"
"…Selphie." he warned.
"Hey, I'm just keeping you honest Squall." she countered, finally letting go of his hand. "And by the looks of things, I seem to be the only one doing that job around here since you and Quistis aren't."
"…What is that supposed to mean?"
Squall could have left. He really could have. Instead, he was letting his curiosity get the better of him. Good job, he sarcastically told himself.
"It means that I know what Quistis sent you here for." she explained, alarm bells ringing in his head even though her weird turn of phrase was still throwing him through a loop. "Since your mom's not working right now and you don't have a buttload of stock to help Zell unload – which are like the only two reasons you ever show your face around here for — I know you're here because that girl who might have had a hand in some of our cases likes coming here."
He was now mentally kicking himself. Selphie was good at her job in ways people often underestimated – lulling people into a false sense of security and getting them to admit things they shouldn't being chief among them.
"…Maybe." he coolly responded, tensing slightly.
"So would I be totally off-base in assuming she told you that I was not on-board with this plan?"
He said nothing this time. Thankfully, she didn't take it personally.
"Well, that's the official reason but not the actual reason." she confessed. "I can't stop you from getting info or even boning her…ok, ok, I'll stop joking about that right now- but anyway, in the interest of keeping this short so I don't actually eat my hand, the reason I told her has to do with the fact Q shouldn't have been able to pick apart the origin of why the stories were strange as easily as she did. Not when you're me and we pretty much grew up together. So if you get in too deep, you might have more awkward conversations than you bargained for is all I'm sayin'."
"I managed to look at a few filenames on Rinoa's laptop when she had me type in an address for her." he admitted. "This…would explain why I saw her name in there."
"I was just hoping it was me overreacting since it didn't fit the timeline. I was afraid to test that theory." Selphie let out a long-drawn sigh. "In your honest opinion, do you think she's aware of the possibility?"
"I only found out about the possible case origins after she asked me to come over at 3am last night. It would stand to reason she couldn't wait if anxiety played a factor."
Selphie frowned, kicking more invisible dirt. "There is definitely something up if she called you over then when you live across town. Well, I'm going to eat 'cause I can't think straight on an empty stomach. Did you say what the party was for?"
"Eeeeexcellent. I can work with that kind of artistic freedom – you're not off the hook about coming in, by the way."
Squall sighed as he willingly let her start dragging him back to the café by hand. "Keep in mind Quistis is the one throwing you this party. Don't go overboard." he warned. She looked back at him with a weak yet still mischievous grin.
"I make no promises, Squall."
When they walked back in, Rinoa had moved to the table to the side right before the coat rack, her laptop and bags covering every inch of the surface. The seat she'd taken had her back to the front door, presumably to make it easier to keep watch over her coat, so Squall discreetly nudged Selphie and pointed her out. She winked back at him in acknowledgement.
"Squall, I don't care if you 'already ate' or 'had places to be,' I told you I'd pay you back the next time I saw you and I meant it. Selphie Tilmitt does not need charity from her friends." Selphie theatrically announced.
They were still behind Rinoa but Squall noticed a twitch in her posture. Perfect – she noticed.
"…Electronic money transfers are a thing if you feel that bad about being a charity case, you know." he dryly replied.
This earned him an ear-splitting raspberry. Squall noticed Rinoa twitch a bit more before they walked past her and he retook his spot from earlier. Selphie however, took the barstool to his left instead of Rinoa's old spot.
"The banks don't need to get any richer than the already are. Besides, I like supporting the little guys and having built-in excuses to buy a box of a half-dozen donuts a lot more."
"Why am I not surprised there was an ulterior motive?"
Selphie shrugged. "I wouldn't call it ulterior motive so much as that weird saying that you like to use. Um…how did it go? Two Carbuncles, one rock?"
"Two Chocobos, one stone." he corrected. Squall could have sworn he heard Rinoa giggling in the distance.
"Ah, that was it!" she exclaimed. "See Squall? I am slowly getting the hang of those weird Winhill sayings. I'm closer than the time I thought it was, 'two Grats, one blender.'"
Even after all these months, this particular iteration of Selphie butchering the saying still triggered a reflexive shudder.
"Thanks for reminding me of that visual. Pretty sure I won't be able to look at spinach or green beans for another month now."
"But is lettuce cool though? I was planning on ordering a BLT."
Squall rolled his eyes and unceremoniously got up to head towards the bathroom. When he was right by the coat rack, he looked back and managed to lock eyes with Rinoa for a brief moment. She then quickly tapped the side of her temple before making a walking motion with her index and middle fingers. He didn't have the chance to respond before turning around but he hoped whatever Rinoa had planned would not clash with whatever Selphie's artistic vision was for what she thought could go down. Assuming she wasn't straight up signaling that she was just gonna leave, that was.
As he walked into the bathroom two seconds later, Squall approached the sink and turned on the tap, going through the motions to wash his hands despite not getting them dirty when he ate earlier. When the last of the suds slid down into the drain, he looked up at the mirror; much to his surprise, his appearance hadn't changed any since he peered at his reflection in Quistis's apartment a small eternity ago. He contemplated splashing his face with water but decided not to. It wouldn't change what was going to happen once he'd walk back out, especially when just about the only piece of no-tech his mother didn't invest in was the paper towel dispensers over the 2-second hand dryers – walking out of here with a wet face would probably give Selphie more ammunition along the lines of a jab to the tune of needing to cool down because a cute girl was nearby. Or something like that. Not that it mattered what exactly Selphie would maim him with. Or that she needed droplets of water to maim him.
Regardless of the method of maiming, he did allow himself the luxury of a few deep inhales and exhales since he was the only current occupant of the bathroom before walking out; Squall suspected he'd stay in here forever if he didn't act on the momentum.
After two steps, the aforementioned momentum worked against him when all he saw in his line of vision was the coat rack with no one behind it, resulting in a harder stop than he intended. The resulting wobble as he tried to correct himself earned him the loudest of snorts in the vicinity of the barstools.
He turned to shoot Selphie an unimpressed look only to have the blood drain from his face.
Rinoa was now in his seat next to the brunette and the two of them were digging into a box of donuts already, lacking the kind of formality that came with not knowing the person offering food in an environment where poisoning was a non-issue. If someone walked into the café in this moment, they probably would have assumed they were old friends catching up instead of complete strangers.
For all that could be said about his and Rinoa's earlier meeting and conversation, this was witchcraft regardless of who instigated it.
"Squall, are you going to give us your best coat rack impression or are you going to join us?"
"Maybe. …I thought you were ordering a BLT?"
"I still am - my new friend Rinoa over here bought these donuts as a thank you." she explained, plucking out a confetti-topped donut. "I gave her directions to this place she was planning on going to later today since she's not from around here and her cell phone met a tragic end in a toilet."
The only saving grace of now being entirely drained of blood throughout his whole body was that he didn't have to worry about being red in the face. Not wanting to fish for further details and risk going from white to green, he turned his attention to Rinoa. Without missing a beat, she reciprocated by setting down her partially-eaten glazed donut on a napkin and ever so subtly shifting her head towards him.
"…You didn't have to buy her an entire box of donuts for helping you out." he said, before shooting a belated unimpressed look at his co-worker. "Selphie doesn't need charity, after all. And she should give you a few Gil back."
With half of the sprinkle donut already in her mouth, Selphie responded with a shrug.
"No, it's ok – really. My laptop battery was about to die and I don't have the time to go back to the place I'm staying at to grab my charger. I was really, really grateful for the directions." Rinoa reaffirmed, swivelling her barstool to grab the nearby box on the left of her laptop and bags to place it in front of the open seat to her right. "I didn't mean to eavesdrop but I overheard the part about you being owed food so feel free to take one. Or two. Or the rest of the box so I don't eat them all myself."
"…I think Selphie's in a better position to help you with that problem than I am." he said for her benefit more so than anything else. Namely to get Selphie to stop shooting invisible daggers at the back of her head.
Not wanting to earn another comment from either of them about how he was imitating a coat rack or a wall of some kind, Squall unceremoniously took the open seat beside Rinoa. She rewarded the action with a smile as she handed him a napkin. After he took it, Squall peered into the box's contents, straining to remember which donuts weren't super sugary or dense from the by-gone era when his sweet tooth hadn't been pulled out yet. Since Selphie was liable to shove one in his mouth at random if he attempted to remind her that he wasn't hungry, he figured it was in his best interest to at least have some choice in the matter.
"The last four donuts are a chocolate glazed, apple fritter, sour cream glazed and a Chocobo Tire." Rinoa offered. Whether or not it was her intention, Squall's ears perked up at the last one.
"…Haven't heard someone call a honey cruller a Chocobo Tire in decades." he commented before pulling the aforementioned donut out to place on the napkin. Squall paid her reinvigorated grin no mind, lest he wanted to instigate a barrage of tone-deaf comments on Selphie's part.
"While I can't say it's been decades, I'll can safely say it's been too long since someone didn't look at me funny for calling it that in Esthar." she replied. "I seriously didn't realize how many Galbadian nicknames and expressions for things were embedded in my vocabulary until I came here. It's hard to temporarily unlearn it all though."
"Yeah, we don't really have too many of those kinds of colourful expressions and nicknames for stuff – Esthar's big on straightforwardness when it comes to things like that." Selphie piped up from behind Rinoa, catching her attention. "The one time I went up north to Trabia and it felt like I was always talking to people who only spoke with inside jokes. I was there for a few weeks so when I finally went home, people were looking at me as if I was speaking in tongues until I obliterated all the common sayings I'd picked up out of my vocabulary. I'm pretty sure my and Squall's mutual friend Quistis was thisclose from committing me to an insane asylum."
Rinoa moved her arm towards the donut she'd left on the napkin but ultimately stayed her hand. "That…bad, huh?"
"Yeah. Like, calling a cruller a Chocobo Tire would qualify as super-tame by what I heard there since you can see how someone could look at that donut and get the visual of a Chocobo and a tire. There is only chaos and anarchy to be found in Trabian expressions." Selphie explained, the last sentence spoken in a completely deadpan tone. "I quickly learned that context is for the weak and for people who want to get nowhere fast. So if someone tells you they're going to pass the Moomba hug to you and toss a hooded sweatshirt at your face, you just go with it."
"Yeah…can't say I've ever heard that one. We just call them hoodies for short." Rinoa commented as she broke off a piece of her donut and popped it in her mouth. As he mulled over possible strategies to leave, Squall did the same with his cruller.
"Wow. Hell froze over. I honestly wasn't expecting you to eat that instead of letting it gather dust." Selphie ribbed before the sweetness of the sugary glaze even registered on his tongue.
Against his better judgement, he stuffed the rest in his mouth and started chewing, adjusting his posture so he could see and be seen by Selphie as he did it. Her mirthful expression slipped into a pained look in the space of a gulp.
"Squall, never spite-eat donuts in front of me ever again. Watching you do that was unnatural and I felt like I needed to kill you with fire." she said, reaching over to grab the box and take it away from him. Ever so conveniently, it was now in front of her. "Also, speaking of unnatural things – d'you know why Quistis has been blowing off all my text messages and sending my calls straight to voicemail today, Squall? Soooomething is definitely up, if you get what I mean."
"…Her blood pressure?" he dryly answered in spite of himself. When Selphie narrowed her eyes into slits in response, Squall was thankful for the buffer Rinoa provided – regardless if it was acting on his co-worker's part or not.
"No, Squall. It's my blood pressure that's up." she quietly replied in a voice that make him now extra glad Rinoa was acting as a buffer between them. "Seriously, what's the deal? You totally know something if you're choosing to be a question-dodging, sarcastic jerk."
Rinoa popped another piece of donut in her mouth, now intently staring at the remainder of the confection on the napkin as if it'd turn her invisible. While not pretending to not be there entirely, Squall did leave the accusation to hang in the air for a few seconds, mostly to ride out the temptation of using any of his preferred responses to Selphie's nonsense in general. And as much as he hated to admit it, never mind execute it, adhering to the 'if you can't say anything nice, don't say anything at all' expression was a necessary evil to avoid souring whatever impression he'd given Rinoa earlier.
"…Selphie, I don't know any more than you do. I can try to text her for you if you want." he said, just barely staving off the exasperation in his voice. "That said, can you tone down the melodramatics for the people who aren't used to them?"
At least that was better than walking away altogether or piling on the sarcasm, he figured. Especially when Rinoa's gaze broke away from the donut and Selphie blinked.
"It's fine. I was just about to go after finishing my donut." Rinoa explained. "I need to be at the place Selphie helped me find in a few minutes anyway."
"No, he's not wrong. I get a little too intense sometimes." Selphie chimed in before looking at Squall. "I wouldn't mind it if you texted Q. Also, kinda on but off topic, the place Rinoa has to go to is in your neighbourhood, do you mind doing her a favour and walk her there if you're not busy? You know how confusing the transit situation there can be, after all."
His mind raced as the fear from earlier came into fruition.
Squall remained silent and stationary for a few seconds longer to pretend like he was processing the request like a normal person, careful not to overextend the pause any further and come across like he was reluctant to do her this favour; he mostly spent the time lamenting the dramatic irony involved in this convoluted charade, wondering if the people with a higher concentration of high-level assignments dealt with this problem often.
"If you want the help, I could." he told Rinoa.
"From what Selphie said, I wouldn't mind. I've had enough mishaps to fill my personal quota for the rest of this trip." she admitted before pointing at her napkin. "Give me a moment to eat the rest of my donut?"
"Yeah. No problem."
"Awesome. Thank you."
As Rinoa went to finish eating the aforementioned donut, Squall pulled out his phone and sent off a text to Selphie to pretend like he was following up with Quistis. When the lock screen showed that there was an unread message from Selphie, he clicked on it, figuring it was one of the many that were belatedly sent to him a few minutes ago that he'd forgotten to clear. This was quickly disproved as the timestamp placed the message at around the time he'd left for the bathroom.
' ;D ;D ;D '
They were definitely not going to go the place he wrote down or anywhere near the places Selphie was even vaguely familiar with on his end of town. She'd probably be there with binoculars since she didn't have the opportunity to do something ridiculous here - lack of actual, non-anecdotal evidence be damned.
Chapter 6: Derail
It was only when they got to the entrance of the nearest station after an uneventful streetcar ride when Squall reciprocated the eye contact he'd long felt boring into the side of his skull.
"What…address did you give her?"
"Just the name of the bar I went to when I met up with my research friend for the first time. Potions & Brews, if you must know." Rinoa answered matter-of-factly, only letting her amusement show at the very last word. "Though the fact that curiosity actually got the better of you when it doesn't really matter is very telling."
"What's there to tell?"
"Well, if you're going to get that cake for that party and drop it off, caring where I told her shouldn't matter in theory. Or at least in the theory where I didn't get the chance to open the e-doc and assumed the party thing might have been a polite way to excuse yourself."
"It was more of a lie to spare you from the onslaught of a Selphie armed with the wrong idea." he clarified. "The display back there was only a fraction of her powers. Her asking me to accompany you might even be a trap to lull us into a false sense of security."
Rinoa raised a brow. "You make it seem like she's a fire-breathing dragon with a hoard of sweets but I don't think she's that bad. A little loud, yes, but not bad."
"You following through on your excuse says otherwise."
This earned him an eye roll and a poke square in the chest. And it actually hurt a little.
"Loud is the enemy of vaguely pretending to be productive. It does not mean bad, ok?"
"Ok." he conceded while opening the closest door.
Rinoa walked past him but only took a few steps down the stairs before stopping and looking up at him. When he followed suit, she resumed her descent. Once they reached the bottom of the stairwell and in the ticketing area for the trains, she stopped again and looked to her right where he was.
"You…didn't write nonsense in the doc, right?"
"Did…you want to go to the place you wrote down then? Just so we don't risk having a third Chocobo Tire hanging around Potions & Brew?"
If it weren't for the far-too-familiar sight of the pristine, pink-tiled P7 subway ticketing area keeping him tethered to reality, this conversation would have felt foreign enough to push it into fever-dream territory. He shouldn't have been complaining since this was going exceedingly-well, especially given the Selphie-shaped wrench in his plans, but…it was still jarring to succeed this easily when even Quistis had made a joke at his expense regarding his lack of social graces. Mostly because it made him wonder how some of his co-workers might have taken advantage if even he of all people could curry favour with her.
"I wrote down two places because I didn't know what would be more convenient. One is closer to Potions & Brew and the other is around here so there probably isn't any benefit for evasion, unfortunately." he explained, breaking free from his internal monologue. "Since your writing time was cut short, would a laptop café work?"
"Laptop café?" she parroted, "You mean a cafe with wifi and outlets?"
"Wifi and outlets are usually standard everywhere - this is a bit more specialized." he began to elaborate. "Laptop cafés have charging surfaces built into their tables – some have designated quiet zones or soundproof booths if you want to get work done. Aside from a regular menu, most sell laptop and phone accessories."
"Sounds good but, not gonna lie, it's kinda bothering me that I didn't even know such a thing existed until now." Rinoa said, scratching the side of her head. "Are these usually hole-in-the-wall type places? I just find it really weird that I didn't even stumble across something like this before."
"You could have visited a few and not realized it." he said. "No laptop café calls themselves that – it's just an informal term for the cafes that attract a high concentration of laptop users."
"So it's basically kind of like how we call certain restaurants a hole-in-the-wall because of their qualities."
"More or less."
"Selphie wasn't kidding when she said you were straightforward as people – even your slang names are on the nose." she said, shaking her head a little. "I'd ask what kinds of nicknames and terms of endearment people use around here but something tells me that's not really a thing period."
"It's no different than Galbadia in that respect." he said, noticing a few people give them dirty looks in passing for being minor, easily-passable obstructions out of the corner of his eye. "Regardless, we shouldn't stand around like this. The café I had in mind is about three stops from here."
"-Oh, right." Rinoa concurred, opening up her bag and plunging a hand in it. "Just…give me a moment to fish out my pass again."
"…You know you don't need to do that, right?"
She stopped her rummaging to look up at him. "What do you mean?"
He pointed to her bag. "The internal readers built into the gate can read multi-day passes as you walk through even if they're in a bag - the green reader on the front of the gate is mostly for pay-per-use cards."
Rinoa took out her hand and quickly zipped the bag up, her expression stuck somewhere in between embarrassment and astonishment.
"The green reader can be used to check the expiry date on multi-day passes." he found himself pre-emptively explaining. "Truthfully speaking, people wouldn't be likely to notice your actions unless if you were blocking the gate. All the cards look the same at a glance anyway."
"Glad to know my secret was safe until you came along." she joshed, her expression taking on a more cheerful look.
While he wasn't surprised that he'd made a correct assumption regarding the root of her pained look, it did make him wonder when and where she was using the subway not to notice people walk through without tapping their cards on the reader — pay-per-use cards were more common with those who didn't use the subway enough to breakeven and the poor who couldn't afford the upfront cost.
But considering she turned around and started walking towards the gates, he figured it was best to chip away at this minor mystery later lest he wanted to earn more scorn from the passersby.
The walk down to the platform was short but from the moment they sat on one of the platform's benches, a chill in the air set into Squall's bones without the rush of incoming train to explain it away. Ever so discreetly, he scanned the area. Nothing. Just a handful of people minding their business with either their earphones in and/or their face perusing the contents of a screen. Looking up at the nearby monitor hanging from the ceiling told him the next train was due in 2 minutes, free from any delays. Good. He was just imagining things.
Now he just needed to imagine conversation topics because remaining silent with a quasi-stranger on what she probably construed as a date was probably not a good idea unless he was an in-character mime and she accepted that he wouldn't be speaking.
…It was probably a good thing the lab hadn't invented a way to read employees' thoughts. That he was aware of yet, anyway. Nevertheless, it was probably an even better thing that she couldn't read his thoughts either.
"So…what's the name of this place we're going to?"
He turned his head before answering. "Oracle's Oasis."
Rinoa let out a small snicker. "And here I thought you guys were totally unimaginative with your names here." she ribbed.
"As much as I want to say otherwise, I can't argue. Not when the café's original name was 'Café Painted in Black and Green' and many people didn't realize it was a satirical name. Or because the name change was the result of a cease and desist order from a different café with the same name."
"Ha, ha, very funny."
"I wasn't joking."
After a hard blink, she shot him a skeptical look.
"You're pulling my leg."
"I'm completely serious." he responded. "I can pull it up on my phone when we resurface and I get reception again."
Rinoa shook her head. "I'll only be convinced that this isn't some kind of long con if you take me there in person." When the faint rumblings of the oncoming train approaching incited Squall to get up, she followed suit and waltzed directly in front of him. Now standing on her tip toes, she lightheartedly taunted, "…Ready to admit that you're fibbing?"
He shook his head. "I'm not lying. But it's not far from Potions & Brew and possible interloper territory. And the only decent thing about it is the name."
"Excuses, excuses. I'm sure there won't be 'interlopers.' Plus I never said we had to stay there, just that I wanted to see it."
He shrugged. "Fair enough. Feel free to change your mind if you decide to believe me before P4 station."
"Don't worry, I won't."
The cacophony of metal screeching interrupted the mock-standoff and Squall was more than willing to leave it at that, if only to lend a little mystery to the imagination as he began his approach towards the train.
While the first two westbound stops en route to their destination were technically spent in silence, Rinoa kept on shooting him various looks that spoke volumes – mostly ones that could be charitably-described as attempts to channel a hardboiled cop who's trying to intimidate a tight-lipped criminal in custody. A handful of seconds before their former destination's stop, he cast her a knowing look back at her. She shook her head.
"Nope. I'm determined to see this through." she told him, gripping her laptop bag tighter against her body for good measure.
"Just making sure."
As the train slowed and the speaker announced the stop, Squall looked through the window opposite of them, towards the white-and-pink checkerboard tiles of this station platform. Normally, he would have been irritated at the unnecessary detour but the extra time afforded by this was more than welcome right now.
It would be around fifteen minutes before they'd reach the end of the subway line where they'd be getting off, ten minutes tops for the before they'd inevitably circle back to P1 station, another fifteen getting back to P4 and about five minutes before they'd end up at Oracle's Oasis, assuming no delays. Even if some of it was used up actively not trying to come across like a mute, a fraction of forty-five minutes to devise a plan in the loosest sense of the word was nothing to scoff at.
When the train started moving, Squall's gaze drifted from the window opposite them to glance at the current crop of posters lining the subway car's walls. Most of them were for nothing special – mostly ads for real estate agents, dating websites and computer repair shops — but he couldn't help but stare at an ad featuring a middle-aged woman with short dark brown hair wearing a light pink blazer and black skirt. He hadn't even bothered to even read the text; it was noteworthy solely because the woman's forced smile and blank-eyed stare screamed 'I eat children for breakfast' and left him oddly transfixed much in the way watching a slow motion car crash would.
"I find it very hard to believe that not even Esthar is not immune to the cult of Suzie McClure."
He heard Rinoa's remark and yet he still could not peel his eyes away. Squall was still unconvinced that no children would be eaten if he so much as blinked.
"For what reason?"
"Well… pretty much everything you've said in your mom's coffee shop is a reason." she prefaced, waving a hand in front of him to break the spell and his concentration. He reluctantly abandoned his post to look at Rinoa. "Let's just say that the overall bare bones info on that ad has nothing to do with the poster's size. She's a self-help maven from Deling City proper who goes on about, 'living your authentic, true-you self' and about a bajillion other mumbo-jumbo buzzwords. I only know this because her syndicated radio station program airs all the time on every station at home so the jargon and jingles are seared into my brain for life. It makes me wish that selective brain bleach was a thing. By the way, do they have that here?"
Squall hadn't meant for the confidence of his simple no to dilute into a last-second question but a familiar glint of ruby-red circular glasses demanded his attention as a girl otherwise dressed in black between her choker, oversized hoodie and nearly-obscured mini skirt sat herself down in one of the seats opposite them and right underneath the ad. While her hood was drawn down enough to make it harder to determine her hair colour, Squall found himself internally groaning. Rinoa either hadn't noticed the weird inflection or was kind enough to overlook it as she replied.
"Weird. You'd think they would with all the technology, labs and absence of Galbadian politics around here."
"They're the reason they don't." he countered in a matter-of-fact-like tone to sell the nonsense. As he turned to face Rinoa, their bespectacled bystander's gaze followed from what he could see out of the corner of his eye surely enough. Then an idea struck him. "Bleach is too much of a rose-coloured glasses approach."
Rinoa furrowed her brows. "I'm…not quite following. What's so rose-coloured glasses-ish about brain bleach?"
Squall counted to three as he looked away to feign contemplation before answering the question. "I suppose…that beat around the bush a little too much. The point is, what I meant was that there's a Grendel in Mesmerize's clothing a stone's throw away."
While she was looking at him, she was also not looking at him for the better part of a minute. Unlike him, wheels were actually turning in her head to consider his words.
"I think...I get what you're saying now." she said, the slow cadence of the words and cogs gradually picking up speed. "…So it's like you'd need to immediately jump ship for it to go off without a hitch?"
"More or less."
"…I don't know who Roger is." he deadpanned.
"Oh whoops. When I said Roger, I didn't mean a person. It's just a short saying that means 'I understand what you're saying.'"
Squall decided to not comment on how his joke flew over her head, figuring it was better for appearances this way. They needed to be focused in a few minutes' time and the last thing he needed was to stockpile the ammunition that was inevitably going to be used against himself later or to lose track of time with more back-and-forth bantering.
And so the exchange concluded with her words right then and there, only picking up when Rinoa used the automated announcement for the next stop as a cue to confusingly-inform Squall via a soft whisper that 'IFORGOTABOUTTHECAKE' — all in one word and one breath. This was then followed with her unceremoniously and clumsily dragging him out of the subway car, leaving a split second to spare before the throngs of people started filtering their way into the train and made further attempts to exit the train severely delayed if not impossible.
Not wanting to make any assumptions about that statement, Squall held out a hand for her to take as he walked in the direction of the subway exit. Once she took it with her free hand, he upped the pace to a brisk speed walk.
"Was the rose-coloured code words related to our interloper?" she asked as they made their way to a nearby escalator and started walking up the side of it.
"Weird. I didn't see her."
"You wouldn't have." he began to explain. "Stone's throw was the only distance-related idiom I could think of off the top of my head."
Squall left it at that. It was probably for the better that she didn't know Selphie was the one dressed up in that over the top outfit across from them if she didn't notice already - that outfit already invited far too many questions in and of itself, never mind in a situation like this. Even he was still baffled to this day why she used it so frequently to disguise herself with it when all it did was make her stand out even more.
"I figured. Still find it weird she didn't go and order that sandwich like she said she would. Is she's really that nosy?"
"Sometimes. Her being on the train might be a coincidence though. The reason why she came to the café in the first place was to avoid someone else."
"Awkward situation type deal or something serious?"
"You know, there is something terribly ironic about all of us avoiding awkward situations is begetting more avoiding of awkward situations. It's like a nesting doll of awkward."
As he reached the end of the escalator, Squall stepped off of it and walked to the side of the landing and out of the way so those travelling upward wouldn't be blocked. When Rinoa did the same, he scanned the people still on the escalator below them for the glean of ruby red glasses anywhere. Once he was confident that they were in the clear, he pulled out his phone.
"I have an idea to end the cycle." he told her, swiping his phone a few times to bring up the map function. Silently, he verified the hours of operation of the place he had in mind.
"Oh? Are we going to a quiet zone?" she asked, Squall feeling a hand touch his shoulder as Rinoa peered over his shoulder.
"No but this is probably the next best thing. What I was thinking was the kind of establishment that only takes a few customers at any given period of time."
"That wasn't vague at all." she wryly responded. "Just like the name of this place you're looking up. Cold Rain sounds like a wet t-shirt contest waiting to happen. Come to think of it, does Esthar even get rain? There hasn't been a single rainy day since I got here, now that I think of it."
Times like these, he was glad that Oracle's Oasis was not the only place in the heart of the city with an odd, esoteric name that didn't hint at what type of store or business it was.
"I'm going to continue to be vague and say that any explanation I could give won't do it justice." he told her. "What I propose is that we go to this place, which is a five minute walk to the station. The signs on the window will explain what this store is. If you're interested, we can go in. If not, it's probably a fifteen minute walk from Oracle's Oasis."
"I'm intrigued enough so I'll play. Also, since you were unfortunately right about the interloping, can you indulge me and pull up that other café on your phone?"
"I can but I'd advise you not to look at the images of it."
He tapped his phone a few times and raised it to where he presumed was right in front of her. The hand that was on his shoulder moved away to disobey what he'd just said to poke the browser button to see the images. She then withdrew it in order to bury her head into his skin.
"Told you not to do it."
He could feel the rumble of her groan heat up his shoulder blade with the resulting hot air.
"…I'm glad for Selphie's meddling. SO GLAD. Never mind Suzie McClure's jingles, that store front mural is now seared into my brain forever and ever. Is it seriously decorated with neon green…man parts?"
"Is this place we're going to the opposite of that?"