He looked down at the orders printed on the official letterhead. This couldn't be right. It had to be a mix-up or some kind of malicious hoax. Squall opened the second folder, checking to confirm that its contents were identical to the first. Him, Zell, kids... overnight? Suddenly that entire Ultimecia ordeal was starting to look a tad more appealing. Squall looked out the window at the Trabian landscape covered in a vast blanket of white. He needed a bottle of aspirin, some water, and an excuse... think anyone would believe he was severely allergic to children?
The headmaster buzzed the intercom, requesting a pitcher of water from his assistant. It appeared as if the parched young commander was in desperate need of liquid. The young woman walked in, trying to leave as quickly as possible. Rinoa only worked on an administrative level, and attempted to stay clear of official Garden matters. It felt even more awkward when Squall was around - not to mention the three were still thousands of kilometers from Balamb. Rinoa placed two glasses in front of the men, and then retrieved a pitcher of ice water from the kitchenette.
The commander's silence was finally broken, disregarding any concern about Rinoa's presence. "You've got to be...joking...right?" his voice stammered. "Isn't there anyone else in this Garden capable of handling eight five-year-olds for a night?"
"Sure, but the only experience you and Zell ever had has been with older cadets. I want to see how you handle yourself around younger students."
Squall eyed the headmaster suspiciously after all the recent events. "Sir, respectfully, I must ask if this is another one of your tests?"
"No, this one is just for fun." Cid stated very matter-of-factly as a smile crept onto his lips.
Rinoa couldn't help but chuckle at the headmaster's wry comment. There was something rather humorous about picturing Squall and Zell in charge of five-year-olds eight of them no less. She averted her eyes from the men as her laughter continued. She set the pitcher on the desk and started to walk away. The sorceress felt a strong hand grab her wrist and looked to her boyfriend biting back the laughter.
"What's so funny?" Squall asked meeting her gaze, seemingly displeased about the source of her amusement.
"Nothing, absolutely nothing," she added, covering her mouth with her free hand. "I'm sure it will be a very 'educational' trip for the children... those not fed to the nearest Snow Lion." The last part was said under her breath.
"I'm glad you feel that way Miss Heartilly. With the reduction in useable staff, I have cleared it with the Trabian Commander that you shall be the third escort on the trip."
"I knew you would be thrilled to help out." He handed an identical folder to the two already in the Balamb Commander's possession to her.
"Sir, it's cold outside! There's snow!" She protested.
"And people say you're not observant." Squall countered giving her a wink.
"You stay out of this," she squinted her eyes back at her boyfriend. Wiggling her wrist free from his grasp, she placed both hands on her hips. "Somehow I'm guessing you are getting enjoyment out of this."
Squall grinned openly, "Better believe it."
"Sir," Rinoa turned toward Cid, praying she could appeal to the headmaster's sense of diplomacy. "I have not received the proper training that would coincide with such an outing. Zell Dincht and Squall Leonhart have both been trained in the basics of outdoor survival. I don't believe having an inexperienced staff member along would reflect well on the Garden Program. Where it is true that I have had my share of instruction in the area of defense, those principles would only be used in the direst of circumstances. I believe my abilities are better suited in remaining here."
"Wow," stated Cid as he stood from his desk. "Remind me when we get home to look into placing you into the diplomatic corps. I almost believed you. Now get packing you two, you leave at 1400 hours."
Squall stood, saluting the headmaster, and then turned to Rinoa, whispering in her ear. "Bring a sweater, it's cold out there."
"Oh man, whose bright idea was this?" Zell looked at the kids lined up in the main hallway.
"Cid's..." The commander grumbled through clenched teeth. "I just went on one of these things in March with twelve-year-olds... it wasn't pleasant. Not to mention that we will find ourselves in the middle of a damn blizzard outside."
"And how did Rinoa get dragged into this again?"
"I'm guessing guilt by association. He said it was due to lack of usable staff... I mean when has the headmaster ever sent the janitor or a cafeteria worker on an overnight retreat?"
"So, it's some kind of test for you two?"
"Zell, I think everything is some kind of test with that man."
"It's like Ma used to say... You can lead a Chocobo to a remedy, but you can't make him drink it. But Squall, if anybody could make that bird drink... it would be you two."
The commander looked at him completely baffled, "What?" Then he suddenly realized that maybe he didn't want to know. Squall raised his hand quickly, waving it off. "Never mind, I need some of my sanity left for this."
The two SeeDs made their way to the main entrance, carefully observing their young travel companions. Cid was giving the students a summary of the night's events and going over basic rules of conduct. Rinoa walked up, dragging under the weight of her gear.
"Who in the world designed this stuff?" She huffed, tossing her belongings onto the floor. "And how far is it to the campsite?"
"About ten kilometers..." answered the martial artist.
"Uphill." Squall added with a humorous undertone.
"Over a large river."
"...And through scary woods."
"Haha you two are so funny." Rinoa countered, rolling her eyes. "That's it, when we get back to Balamb I'm demanding a raise."
Squall turned and looked over at his girlfriend, shaking his head. "Rinoa, are you wearing that coat? You'll freeze out there."
"Squall," she shot back slightly agitated, "I'm from Deling, it doesn't get anywhere near freezing...it rains all the time. This is the warmest coat I own."
"I'll be right back." He stated before heading towards the dorms.
Rinoa stared at him as he disappeared down the hallway, realizing somewhere along the line that Zell was watching her watch Squall. She turned back smiling innocently, trying to downplay her momentary weakness.
"So, five-year-olds... have much experience with children, Zell?"
"Nice cover Rin...would you pay more attention to me if I showed you my rear?" To emphasize his point, he turned away, slightly shaking his backside. She narrowed her eyes, playfully punching him on the shoulder in jest. Laughing, he turned back facing her. "Yeah, I've had some experience with children. Back in Balamb, I would watch the neighbor kids regularly, plus I come from a very large extended family. You?"
"A little, I guess. Just never... kids so well behaved, wearing military uniforms, and standing at attention. It just seems so unnatural. If they break into song, I'm leaving."
"Never mind." Rinoa quickly dismissed. "I'm just a little nervous about this. The only people who listened to me before were Zone and Watts, and that never went too well. Oh, and Angelo... wish she was here for moral support."
"Who is watching her?" He asked, for the first time realizing that Rinoa's furry companion was absent.
"Selphie. I just hope she isn't feeding her hotdogs and chopped steak again. The dog snubbed 'Cactuars N' Bits' for a week after our trip to Winhill."
"I remember," he added with a slight hint of jealousy. "Feeding Angelo hotdogs should be considered a form of cannibalism. Anyway, I hear Cid is heading back to Balamb soon, you going with him?"
"Well..." she tried to mask the disappointment in her voice. "He asked me to, if I felt that I was ready. Part of me wants to stay, God, a very big part... but I also know that I need to go back. My regular duties are piling up. Xu is doing her normal job, plus handling a lot of the matters normally done by Squall. It's unfair to give her the added weight of my administrative responsibilities. As much as I want to stay...I need to be objective."
Rinoa felt a tinge of guilt about not discussing the matter with Squall before. In her mind, she never wanted their time together to end. The last week had been emotionally consuming, but one she wouldn't have traded for all the stars in the heavens. She feared by returning to Balamb, he would fall back into old habits. All their progress would take a backseat to his work once he returned. She knew it was the uncertainty clouding her judgment, he would not change - they would not change. Still it was hard to let go of this time together.
She heard the echoed steps of someone walking down the corridor. It was strange; she could sense his presence without turning around. When Squall stepped into view, he held a standard issue heavy-duty SeeD coat in hand. She watched him silently as he ran his fingers over the outside of the garment, removing any traces of debris. He met her gaze, and for a second, she felt like an infatuated schoolgirl. The only consolation being that she was caught staring at his face this time - not his backside.
"Here Rinoa, take this." He held out his arm, offering her the coat.
It was hard to believe that eight days ago she had let her feelings slip. Right then, she couldn't even form a lucid sentence. The feeling overwhelming her was impossible to put into mere words. She had known him over a year, had been 'dating' for some time, but still he had this way of making her speechless without ever trying.
He looked so confused, wondering if he had done something wrong. It was just these moments that she feared losing by returning to Balamb. She chided herself, their separation would only last a few weeks. The time apart would be much shorter than the two months they were original slated for. Either way, she would have to deal with it...and soon, as the confusion on his face right now was almost priceless.
"Did I do something wrong?" He finally asked, thinking that he broke some unwritten 'boyfriend rule' that he was supposed to inherently know.
Of course, what was he supposed to think as he had still been holding the coat out this entire time? She reached out, embarrassed by the fact. Taking the coat, she smiled amiably, trying to cover her momentary idiocy yet again.
"Not in the least," she managed. "Not in the least."
She heard the loud snickering of the person directly beside her. Somehow, Zell was getting much enjoyment out of the entire situation.
"Don't mind me," he laughed. "I just um...thought of this joke and... Oh forget it, it isn't even worth coming up with a valid excuse. I'll go check and see how Cid's doing, so you two kids can be alone."
Rinoa quickly turned back to her boyfriend, hoping he wouldn't take their friend's behavior too seriously. She wasn't sure if Squall was embarrassed, or figuring a physical way to launch Zell up to the ceiling seeing if his spiky hair would stick in the tiles like a pencil.
"Squall, where did you get this?"
"I have a spare... you can keep that one. It's one of those perks about being Commander."
The young woman looked at her hands, the navy blue coat was identical to his and the rest of the group. All these years she had disliked the idea of conformity, now she viewed this small act as an honor. She couldn't help but notice the musky scent - the garment taking on the likeness of its owner. Removing her thinner jacket, she tossed it on top of her gear. Her hands trembled as she tried to align the teeth of the zipper. She wasn't sure why she felt so nervous, it was just an act of kindness she would have never believed a year ago.
Two steady hands wrapped around hers. She blinked for a second, thinking she was imagining this, although her daydreams never included him fastening a zipper. She looked up as he worked on the coat's fastener. His bangs covered his face, and she could only partially make out his features. Still each one had already been engraved into her memories.
"This zipper can be tricky," he justified, although not sure why. He looked into her eyes, as he finally managed to fasten the coat, and couldn't help smiling in return. It was this effect she had over him, like lightning to a metallic rod. "Plus, you already took my favorite t-shirt and ring. I figured that the coat wasn't far behind. Why do you think I left my leather jacket back in Balamb?"
Their mission was simple to introduce the cadets to some of the native wildlife. It wasn't on how to fight the creatures, but how to look for signs of their presence, and even teach avoidance. Combat was looked at as a last necessity, preparation being the primary focus of Garden. Because of their age, their first outing was only a single night. After that, the duration would lengthen, but Garden wanted this to be a very positive experience.
The journey itself was nowhere near the torturous trek the teenagers had imagined. Although the temperature remained far below freezing point, the warmth of the sun offered some relief at least mentally if not physically. Trabia Garden was still within eyeshot, and all of them had radio communicators assigned in case of emergency.
They made camp in a nearby cave, which was known to be abandoned, and was thus often used for such purposes. After they had gathered materials for a campfire, the cadets were given some time to undo their sleeping bags, and adjust to their surroundings. Squall called the children over after a given time, and they sat on blankets near the fire. He stood in front with several index cards. It was his job to teach the information the students would be tested on upon their return.
When they settled, the commander began reading...
"...Next, the Snow Lion is considered an elemental monster, and can be defeated easily with advanced preparations. Its main attack when threatened is known as 'Ice Breath.' The Snow Lion primarily drops 'North Winds,' with the notable exceptions of 'Healing Mails' on certain instances. On very rare occasions, they have also been known to drop 'Silver Mails.' It is considered..."
Zell and Rinoa leaned against the cave wall, lost in a trancelike state, as Squall droned on endlessly about the region's inhabitants. It felt as if they had been there for days, when in fact, he had only been speaking a little over an hour.
"Help me Rinny, I'm going to bang my head into a wall...he...is...never...going...to...stop. I can't believe it, he makes Quistis' lectures seem somehow...exhilarating."
"I've never heard Squall say so much, but say so little at the same time." Rinoa stared on in horror as she slowly lowered herself down the wall.
Zell shook his hands, trying to regain the feeling in his fingertips. "Is the numbness from the cold or from Squall's speech?"
"Dear Hyne, the speech."
"What I wouldn't do for a GF and a silence spell. Can I at least pelt him with snowballs? Pebbles? Wizard stones? I think I saw some petrified Chocobo droppings over in that corner." Zell begged, sliding down the granite wall and joining her on the ground.
"No, that would look... bad..." Rinoa smiled mischievously. "But damned funny. I think it's time we did our bit for the future of SeeD. If not, they'll send a search party to discover our frozen corpses still waiting for him to shut up about the Snow Lion."
"What are you going to do?" The blond couldn't help but smirk at Rinoa's sudden change in demeanor. "And are you completely sure that Chocobo droppings can't be involved?"
"No, that's just disgusting!" She shook her head laughing, before returning to her stealth-attack mode. "Okay... do you have my back?"
"Always. I don't care what punishment I have to endure, it has to be better than this unspeakable torture."
"...Blizzard, Blizzara, Blizzaga, and Berserk. To recap again, the Trabian Snow Lion is vulnerable to Fire, Earth, and-" Squall continued to speak, but no sound came out as he silently mouthed the next several words. He turned furiously towards the two who were now covering their faces in fits of uncontrollable laughter.
"Rinoa...you...just...silenced the commander!" Zell choked out between breaths.
"I'm sooo going to get it. But it was sooo worth it. Come on, let's go save the helpless children, before they become legal adults." Rinoa jumped up reaching for Zell's hand. He got to his feet trying to ignore the irate glare radiating from his superior. "I wasn't sure if I could even do it," she admitted sheepishly as they walked over. "I'm just glad I didn't petrify him."
"You might leave that option open for the near future... the very near future."
"Hey kids," Rinoa walked up, speaking enthusiastically to the youngsters. She avoided the 'death gaze' of her boyfriend. He'd get over it...eventually. "The commander has been battling laryngitis now for a few days. So instead of hearing more 'fascinating' information about the Snow Lion, how about we play a game using all the information he has given us?"
"...That's right!" Zell joined in, playing along with Rinoa's little charade. "And guess what first place is? A piggyback ride from the commander himself!"
"We are so dead," she whispered to her cohort.
The martial artist nodded in agreement, "I know, that's why at least I'm going to make it worth the while. I brought a digital camera this will be the perfect shot for the Garden Website."
"...or identify the 'before' shot for the authorities." She softy counted before looking back out to the audience. Gesturing with her hand, she divided the line of students down the middle. "Okay, now you four go to this side and you four on this side. Now, first we need team names. This side shall be christened the 'The Courageous Cockatrices.' And this side is now bequeathed the title of 'The Brave Blobras.' Now, I need one member of each team to come up here. If you think you have the best answer, raise your hand. The person who raises it first gets a chance to answer, but if it's not the most common one... the other team has a chance to take the points."
Two young girls walked up and stood facing the rest of the group. They seemed slightly hesitant at first, but started to relax as the two energetic teens continued having fun.
Zell spoke in his best announcer voice. "Ladies, Gentleman, and the most forgiving commander this side of Obel Lake, welcome to today's show! Now for your lovely hostess that Darling of Deling - Miss Rinoa Heartilly!"
"Thank you, Mr. Dincht! We're all excited about today's program!" Kneeling on one knee, Rinoa placed her arm around the little girl to her right, "Now can you tell the studio audience what your name is and where you are from?"
"Um... it's N-Nicky... I'm from Trabia Garden? Um... second floor?"
"What a beautiful name, for a beautiful little girl! Thanks for coming all the way from the second floor. You must be a huge fan of our show." Her arm encircled the other 'contestant,' while still hugging the first. "And what is your name and where did you come from?"
"Ah... Krissy... I'm from the third floor. Er... Trabia third floor."
"Oh wow, I've heard of the heated rivalry between the second and third floors, spanning generations! But right now, we are all united on one floor... mainly because it's a cave..."
"Rinny, maybe you should use a Silence spell on yourself," the martial artist teased toward his friend.
"Be nice Zelly, I still will not hesitate to attempt that Petrify spell."
"Good point! Okay contestants, first question - there are five possible answers. I need the most common one first: what spells can you draw from the Blue Dragon?"
Nicky raised her hand, smiling brightly. "Um... Blind?"
"Yes, blind is the first spell available at a level one monster! Do the Courageous Cockatrices think they can come up with more?"
"Okay, Brave Blobras, be thinking of other answers, in case it gets back to you. Now the question goes to the next Cockatrice team member... the next answer will be from..." She pointed to a little boy, waiting for him to say his name.
"Robert," he spoke confidently.
"All right Robert, you have an answer?"
"...Berser...no...no that was the Snow Lion. Oh, Drain!"
"Correct! Drain is found beginning at level twenty!"
Squall stood against the wall with his arms folded across his chest, and his eyes fixated on the group, watching in admiration. He would have been mad had it been anyone else, but somehow he simply stood speechless silence spell not counting. Rinoa and Zell seemed to have this natural way around children, never once doubting their actions. It was as if they could relate to them, treat them as equals, and yet still teach with a world of wisdom. He envied that.
For over an hour he watched the children laugh, play, and above all learn. He noticed how easy it was for Rinoa to handle them, to make them feel loved. A hug, a simple hand placement, a way of knowing they weren't alone in the world. Or maybe that was how he felt around her... Either way, she just had this natural instinct about her that he could never explain. It was almost magical, without ever being related to the para-magic they had grown into. This was internal, something that she had possessed since childhood he imagined. Something he knew he could never live without. Finally, their 'game show' was coming to a close and he couldn't help but smile, hidden in the shadows.
Rinoa stood in front of the group, placing her arm around Zell. "Guess what? Here on 'Trabian Trivia' there are no losers only winners. Which means each of you shall receive these wonderful prizes... take it away Mr. Dincht."
"Today you shall each receive: a year's supply of snow, fresh from the mountains of Trabia. Two Wizard Stones of your very own. A strip of fresh Mesmerize jerky, packaged with love at the local Shumi plant... And of course, a piggyback ride from the illustrious Balamb Commander, Squall Leonhart!"
Okay, his smile somewhat faded at that thought.
Zell walked over, after the kids had settled down, as Squall was forcibly finishing the last of the piggyback rides. "You did an amazing job out there Rinoa, you're going to be a natural at parenting."
Her expression immediately fell as she continued to search through her duffle bag. "Zell, because of who I am, what I've become... I can't have children."
He sat on the ground next to her, knowing how hard that had to be. Rinoa was such a caring person. Although she was still young, there was always that hint of maternal instinct toward all of them. It wasn't overwhelming, but a calming way she had about her demeanor.
"Rinoa, are you sure?"
"Yeah, pretty much. When have you ever heard of it happening? I guess it's just something that I have to learn to accept."
"I'm so sorry Rin."
"It's all right. I mean it's not like I'm even thinking about it now. Guess I thought it was something in my future, way down the line. But they say things always are meant for a reason, and I'm guessing I'm not meant to be a mother... Well, at least not have biological children."
"Man, what does Squall say?"
"Squall?" She let out an unintentional laugh. Zipping up her bag, she looked back toward her friend. "Squall and kids go together like Leviathan and Quezacotl. I'm trying to get him used to the idea of calling me his 'girlfriend,' and even that's a major challenge. I think if I even mentioned children, he'd hyperventilate in fear. Even in not having them... It would still be me acknowledging the future - for more than a month at a time. The 'future' for Squall is defined as when the next issue of Weapons Monthly is on the newsstands."
"You know, he could surprise you."
"Yeah, I'm sure he could." She admitted honestly. She knew she was making light of the situation, and Squall really did think about the future... probably more than was healthy. There was so much he was still trying to accept. He barely stepped into his role of commander, before she tossed 'knight' on him. He didn't need any more of her problems right now.
The group finished the night with a few horror stories, mainly Zell's rendition of Selphie's concert. It wasn't meant to be scary, but the thought of the martial artist 'tap dancing' seemed to leave the kids speechless. Rinoa told of how Garden became mobile, and almost crashed into the poor master fisherman at FH. Squall was quiet through the evening, letting the other two take the leadership roles.
After the tales were finished, and all the bed checks completed, they settled for the night. Zell stayed on one side of the cave with three male cadets following his every move. They had taken a liking to him, and wanted to emulate his fighting style...and everything else he did. Rinoa had settled against the opposite wall, originally just waiting for the children to fall asleep. Two of the girls had somehow managed to work their way on her legs, using them as an extra pillow of sorts. Now she felt obligated not to move, as uncomfortable as she may be. It was still an amazing feeling to be able to bring reassurance to other human beings.
The commander was the last to settle, finally selecting a spot next to Rinoa. She had already fallen asleep when he sat down. He couldn't help but think how soothing it was to have her near. Even in the almost intolerable conditions, he felt a tranquility within her company. As cold as it was outside, he couldn't have felt any deeper warmth. Something deep inside wondered if this is how it would feel to share a bed with her to wake with her in the morning. God, he hated feeling that way, wanting, yearning to know something...something that he considered to be a weakness at one time. He looked at her one last peaceful moment, before closing his eyes.
A chill ran through her body, waking her from tentative sleep. It took a second for the sorceress to regain her bearings, as the numbness in her legs was spreading. She looked down to see the two children, still resting their heads against her legs. Rinoa smiled softly, reaching out and running her hand protectively over the closest girl. Her name was Carrie, she believed. The girl looked so peaceful, so comfortable, even bedded among the dirt and scattered rocks. It was hard to believe that this little girl, these children, had a future of fighting, and years of relentless training. Kids this age should be playing make-believe and dressing dolls, not learning about what spells could defeat an Ochu the most efficiently.
For a second, she wondered how her life would have differed had her grandparents not taken her in... Had she attended Galbadia Garden after her mother's death. Her early years in Timber seemed like some of the best. Hot summer afternoons and her grandmother, always ready with a cold glass of lemonade. Her grandfather was always ready with some story, usually about her mother's childhood. Even when she was six, Rinoa could see the tinge of pain that crossed their eyes when they spoke of their daughter. But she felt that retelling the stories kept her mother's memory alive, and that helped out all of them at the time.
She wasn't going to mourn the dead, here of all places. These children had purpose, and they would find happiness no matter what, she honestly believed that. Look at her friends; they all seemed to have a positive outlook, despite their training. Selphie and Irvine were two people who found happiness among the scattered ruins. Quistis found a purpose teaching - not only textbooks, but in the guidance that only she could provide. Zell, who was quickly becoming one of Rinoa's closest friends, never let the world get to him. He always found the positive aspect even in the direst of circumstances. And even Squall... the child more lost than any of them, slowly allowing himself to live.
"Rinoa?" A voice startled her out of her thoughts. "You okay?"
"I'm fine." She answered, hoping he couldn't see the water forming in her eyes.
"Of course, Squall... just cold and a little uncomfortable."
"In this place? It's like staying in a luxury suit in Deling." He tried to joke, but he could tell that she was holding something back. It was something he wouldn't have fathomed a year ago, but he honestly wanted to know, needed to know. It wasn't just an empty question said out of habit; it was what his heart truly felt. "Rinoa... please, I know you're upset. Will you tell me?"
"Tell you what?"
"What you were thinking about?"
So much was running through her mind, she couldn't list just one thought. "Everything. Nothing. Past, future...just life."
"Is there anything I can do?"
"Yeah, just be there."
Rinoa seemed not to want to talk about it now, and he didn't want to push her. Even though she was close, a deep part of him needed to feel her. A gloved hand reached out, gently resting it on her thigh. She turned, looking at him through the glittering flames, reaching her hand down to his. Their fingers wrapped together, in a silent attempt to make sure neither was imagining. Although material separated their skin, it brought each a comfort in the union.
A question had burned in the back of his mind, yet he had not found the right time to ask. But honestly, there was never going to be a 'right time.' Part of him was scared that Seifer knew her better than he did. That thought sickened him. Was it jealousy, or rivalry, or just a sense of failure that he might not have foreseen? The conversation with his past rival had been repeating in his mind.
"So hear Rinoa is working at Balamb Garden. Didn't see that one coming."
"People change, Seifer."
"Well, Rinoa isn't all people. Other people might change. She will not."
God, she had to have changed, he did right? But was he really 'changing' or just 'discovering' who he had always been through the fear? Now she was living, working, and taking almost every breath within Garden's walls. Something, that a year ago, would have been the furthest from her thoughts. Now she was here, by his side, in a situation she once defined as 'a sad life,' blindly following other's orders. SeeD had changed its mission, but was it truly any different in her eyes? A year ago, she lived her life based on emotions, now she lived to file last weeks' expense reports. Maybe she could never truly be happy at Garden, maybe he wasn't enough. Why would he be?
"Are you happy?"
The words left his mouth, and he felt like a complete and total moron. Here was something that was bothering him, and he made it sound like one of the five-year-olds was raising the question. Sadly, any of them probably could've been more articulate than him at the moment.
"I'd be happier with an electric blanket and a Chocobo down pillow, but I'll survive." She smiled, giving him a lighthearted glance.
"No," he shook his head, involuntarily gripping her fingers tighter. "God, I just don't know how to" His voice cracked from the cold. Leaning his head against the wall, he sighed in frustration. He shouldn't be doing this now, here. What was he thinking?
"Squall?" Her expression changed, realizing he wasn't discussing something materialistic, although, she wasn't sure what he was honestly getting at. So much had happened in the last few weeks, and still a lot was left unsaid. "Please, don't be afraid to ask me anything..."
How could he not be afraid to ask? He may not want to hear the answer - for more than one reason. But it was too late now, and he wasn't quick enough with these emotional situations to cover his ambiguity. If he even tried to come up with something else, she would have sensed his diversion from the truth. So he swallowed hard and hoped that she would answer him with honesty, whether he wanted to hear it or not.
"Are you happy... happy with your life at Garden?"
"You mean my job?" She asked confused.
"Rinoa...everything...your life, your job, your living at Garden. Everything that I was concerned about when you moved in three months ago. Are you truly happy where you are at now?"
"Squall, I'm-" She stopped mid sentence, rethinking her answer. It would be easy to say something superficial like 'it's great, I love my job, or of course I'm happy - you're there!' But that wasn't what he was looking for and she knew it. "When I was younger, I just wanted to fit in somewhere...to have a big family. If you're asking me if I thought my career would consist of typing disciplinary reprimands, or memos concerning hotdog consumption, I would definitely say no. If you're asking if I can see myself staying at Garden for fifty years, and then retiring as an administrative assistant...again, I would have to answer no. I've never had a job until now that wasn't decided in a train car. I always wanted to make a difference. I'm hoping that something I'm doing somehow is...although, I just don't know. I guess the only way I can answer is with the truth... Squall, I am happy. It isn't the building or the job...honestly, the material things mean little to me. It's the people... It's all of my friends... Squall, it's you."
"Will you promise me one thing?"
"Anything." This time she grasped his hand tighter in assurance.
"If you ever feel trapped, or if you no longer feel comfortable at Garden...please tell me. Don't ever hide your true feelings, all right?"
"Okay, I promise...but Squall, the same goes for you too."
"I'm just saying, if you ever feel trapped either from being at Garden... or because of me... don't keep it to yourself. We need to be open with one another."
"I promise too. Always." He stated firmly. Maybe he didn't realize the full scope of her request, or maybe his heart understood it more than his mind could comprehend. He just knew that it wasn't Garden he needed in his life. There seemed to be an uncomfortable silence passing between them, and she felt the need to lighten the mood.
"Then tell me what the tile in the training center says." Her words were so serious at first, before they trailed into a hint of mischievousness. Still he could tell that it was something she felt ardently about knowing. But he couldn't...not yet...he would know the right time. The commander couldn't help himself, softly smiling in the iridescent light.
"Always being open with each other also means I'll tell you whenI am ready...when you're ready... Until then, you will have to believe in me...and know that we are in this togetherAnd most importantly, I will be watching your expense reports for weekend trips up to Shumi Village."
"I wouldn't do that!" she protested.
"Yes, you would."
"Fine," she rolled her eyes. "I might have done something like that before...but I've changed."
"No digital pictures sent via the internet for translation either."
"Darn, guess I can tell Zell to erase it. You should change your middle name to Meanie," she mumbled teasingly.
"How do you know it's not already?"
"Wait, what is your middle name?"
"It's on the tile," he countered smiling.
"That's why you love me."
He hadn't meant to say that. In fact, since she had told him that night, Rinoa had been careful not to say it openly. To allow him time, not to overuse the words trivializing their meaning. But right now she couldn't help it, for it was what her heart felt.
"You're right Squall Meanie Leonhart... that is why I love you."
Their eyes locked. Through the flicking illumination of the fire, they could see forever. It felt like eternity - an endless source of emotion for each to partake. Mutually they sensed an understanding passing between them in the last few minutes; it was both verbal and something reaching far beyond spoken language. Each accepted that somewhere in the future, their relationship might grow outside the confines of Garden. There would be no given time set, no defined outline... It could be a year or it could be a decade. But the reality was that along the line they, as a couple, might follow another path away from Garden.
He stared in awe as the fire reflected in her eyes. Each flame set ablaze a wonderment in his mind; intense, fierce, and crackling under the smoldering embers. The glow was beautiful, giving her warmth and compassion. He had never seen her in the fire's light, and for a moment, he couldn't believe that she was with him. Still with him after all the heartache, and after all the pain... His body was oblivious to the fact that he was in freezing conditions, as a warmth coursed through his veins. A part of him was beginning to comprehend that he needed her, both mentally and physically. To feel her touch on his skin was a comfort of which he would never tire.
"Come here," he whispered leaning toward her.
She smiled consciously, shifting in his direction, "Squall... you're so bad."
"They're asleep." He responded before meeting his lips to hers.
It was a moment of solitude in a room full of people, all of who were sleeping under the protective arms of the cavern. He could taste her strawberry flavored lib balm within his own mouth, and she could feel his lips lightly chapped from the elements. The smoothness and roughness mixing in a perfect moment of unity. His mind reasoned this was inappropriate, this wasn't the responsible thing... But his heart was screaming something else entirely. He felt weak against her, and that thought scared him to death. As reason reigned over frivolity, he started to pull away. From across the room, they heard the rustle of a nylon sleeping bag
"Eeewwww gross!" A mocking childlike voice spoke through the darkness.
It wasn't from the fire that the commander turned a thousand shades of red, acting as if he had been caught doing something blatantly criminal.
"I think Zell is awake." The young woman sarcastically replied. She quickly averted her own eyes in embarrassment.
"Don't you two know that there are impressionable minds present?" The martial artist teasingly responded. "And the kids may also see you!"
Squall and Rinoa turned in unison looking across the room. Zell was completely awake and grinning from ear to ear. A small boy resting nearby appeared to have also caught the guilty parties. The cadet didn't seem phased asking the commander, "Is she your wife?"
Rinoa covered her face as a combination between a laugh and snort escaped from her mouth. There was some morose humor in watching Squall squirm like an Abyss Worm in water. Zell too found immense humor in the question, outwardly chuckling at the commander's reaction.
"Ah...no...Vick...she's my girlfriend." Squall finally answered after listening to his comrades' laughter.
Zell jokingly pointed toward Rinoa with his thumb. "Yes, his wife doesn't know about her."
"Shut up Dincht." The commander deadpanned before looking back to Rinoa. She smiled knowingly, closing her eyes and leaning her head against the wall. Still their fingers were intertwined, bringing a sense of closeness. They fell back to sleep that way, bathing in the warmth of the fire and each other.