Specks of dust mirrored the movements of falling snowflakes, as the windows allowed light to sieve into the room. The Trabian students were divided into several groups, each containing four to five members. Within each, a leader had been appointed, preserving the military hierarchy. The groups had been assigned a specific section and task inside, taking into account any individualized skills that the students may have had to contribute in the restoration.
And like that one moment in time when all the planets aligned, and all the sands shifted, and a great force was unleashed upon the world... Zell Dincht was named head of his group. Which is why he would covet his newfound, albeit extremely temporary, leadership role for every precious second.
The martial artist had been appointed based on his previous experience, three summers working with his uncle in his family painting business. Zell's fate could have turned out to be very different had he failed to become SeeD. Instead of saving the world, he could've been coating it one primer at a time. It was on this assignment that he temporary outranked the commander, at least for appearances sake. Somehow, Zell was having a little more fun with his authority than should have been allowed. Then again, with Rinoa as his cohort, Squall had a better chance of being treated with more reverence by Mayor Dobe of Fisherman's Horizon.
"What?" His voice shot back, rather emotionless.
"You're supposed to be painting the wall by making a small 'N' pattern with the roller, that definitely does not resemble the letter 'N.' It looks more like a small white rainbow. We do not paint rainbows here."
"It's a lower case 'n'." The commander deadpanned, without missing a stroke.
"Lower case? Nobody would assume it to be a lower case letter Squall! You're just being difficult aren't you?"
Squall never had the opportunity to answer, as Rinoa decided it was best that she play the referee. Somehow, her heart went out to Quistis after the last few days, always being the necessary peacemaker. That was just with two of the 'boys,' she could not imagine throwing Seifer and Irvine into such a mix of lunacy. Squall had this subtle way of getting to Zell, with little or no words; it was almost amusing. Yet, the best part was Rinoa knew that this time, it was done good-naturedly. The martial artist also had become extremely overzealous with his provisional leadership, yet all were taking a lifetime of experience with them.
"Hey, I would like to take this time to lodge a formal protest to the man in charge," Rinoa began, casually trying to push her bangs out of her eyes. "I think I should have at least one chance to prove myself... Again, I want to state on record that the 'Deling Train Car Incident' was not valid evidence of my work. As I stated back then, it reflected my feelings towards Vinzer Deling, and not my ability to paint as a whole."
"I'm sure it doesn't Rin," Zell tried to defend his decision diplomatically. "But right now you are the biggest help washing out the brushes and rollers, plus refilling the paint trays. I know the job itself is rather tedious, but you're responsible for so much. We're all depending on your abilities here."
"That and your train car really did suck." A low voice stated from above her.
She turned, looking behind her clearly irritated, and then placed a hand on her hip as she glanced up. "Excuse me Mr. Leonhart, was that an opinion that you just expressed?"
"Well, technically I thought it back then, I just didn't say it. So let's just call it a delayed reaction. Now, if you had taught Angelo to paint it..."
"Squall Leonhart!" the martial artist spoke rather firmly, "I will not have you insulting one of my hardest workers. That is not the 'team-orientated' attitude I expect from my senior SeeDs. You of all people should be setting an excellent example." Zell finished his statement by offering Rinoa a wink. She chuckled as Squall rolled his eyes, obviously biting back any further comments.
The group continued to work throughout the day, listening to Zell's choice of music, which ranged from Country to Salsa. Rinoa believed it was just another test to see how much Squall could tolerate from the newfound leader, yet found herself wordlessly enjoying the torture. Then again, she had been around plenty of paint fumes that day. Her entire day consisting of nothing more than opening and closing paint and primer, and the washing of paintbrushes until...
"Owww!" She screamed as the hammer hit the floor with a resounding 'thud.' Rinoa clamped her thumb tightly, while jumping to avoid the hammer's rebound. It recoiled off of the floor, narrowly avoiding her toe on its descent. She mumbled a few other inaudible syllables, which was a small reprieve to anybody within earshot.
Only the blond spikes of Zell's hair peeked from around the corner of the wall. "You alright? Whadya do?""
"Fine hit my...self. No biggie." She lied...it hurt...bad.
Why is it that people do not wait until the pain has subsided before asking the obvious? Hammering of paint lid abruptly stops, hammer falls to floor, and then person writhes around in pain holding finger... She held back any sarcastic remarks, but this question plagued her often. Then again, she had the keen knack for being injured often... She knew Zell, like the others, meant well, but could they just realize the obvious?
"You're not supposed to hit yourself Rin."
Or state the obvious.
"Thank you." She snarled under her breath, trying not to let the insincerity seep through.
Squall climbed down the ladder, extending his hand to her. "Let me see."
It was clear by her demeanor she was in pain, as she pulled both hands away protectively and held them to her chest. Rinoa didn't want him thinking she was being melodramatic, trying to hide the bruised digit that once resembled a thumb.
"Squall, I'm fine I just tapped it." He wasn't going to buy that excuse; she wasn't even buying it as the words were leaving her mouth. Maybe if she hadn't screamed like a banshee in the seconds before, it might have been a tad more convincing.
"I saw blood. Give me your hand."
"No, I'm fine really." Not a chance...he wasn't buying any of it. She should just give in...but now it was a matter of pride.
Zell listened to the exchange continue, knowing neither would back down from their innate stubbornness. He peered around the corner, pointing accusingly at them with his paintbrush for emphasis. "Hyne Rinoa, just give him your hand. Obviously, you two just need to find some excuse to touch each other. So, just get the touchy-feely stuff over with and spare someof us the torture. That is an order...from me."
"Whatever." Rinoa rolled her eyes at the realization she was picking up more and more of her boyfriend's vocabulary skills with each passing day. She gave in, hoping Squall would ignore the editorial comments from the peanut gallery. "See, just a small tap on my thumb no biggie."
"Are you sure? It looks bad...it's already bruising. You should go to the infirmary. Get it bandaged or..."
"I'm sure Squall, I'm fine."
"No you're not."
The martial artist sighed in frustration, "Okay you two really get a darn room! There's one conveniently located two halls over." He motioned with his paintbrush to where the Disciplinary Committee's holding area was located. "I'm seriously feeling extremely nauseous here. Seriously."
"Zell!" Rinoa protested, giving one of her bothered looks, again squinting her eyes, and placing her uninjured hand on her hip.
"Hey, I'm just saying there's enough tension in this room to smother a Behemoth."
The commander turned toward his friend, his expression one not to be taken lightly.
"Yeah, alright, a small behemoth, but a behemoth nonetheless."
"Behemoth this," Rinoa whispered to Squall with annoyance. The commander couldn't help the grin that crept across his face at the implied meaning.
Holding Rinoa's still tender hand, he led her to a corner, hopefully outside of Zell's earshot. "Go to the infirmary, all right? Don't force me to have Zell make it an order."
She sighed in defeat. "Fine, but what's the worst that can happen? I tell you I'll be fine."
He looked at her thumb again, this time she noticed the slightest cringe at his examination. He returned his gaze back to her eyes, trying to answer with the utmost seriousness. "It could spread into a severe bacterial infection or or the fingernail could fall off and "
"Squall Leonhart!" interrupted Rinoa eying him suspiciously, "you can't handle the idea of a fingernail falling off, can you?"
He knew there was no way of covering, so he didn't even try. It was just easier to look out the window and hope she would drop the subject, or at the very least, talk in a lower tone so Zell 'Capital 'N' Dincht didn't hear.
"So you can run into battle, and see things worse than death, yet you can't handle the idea of a fingernail falling off?"
"That's just disgusting all right?"
Rinoa giggled as he let go of her hand, and immediately she brought her thumb protectively to her body. "Okay, you win I'll go. But know this is for you, because honestly, I'll be fine. I just don't need you to be traumatized." Standing on her tiptoes, she leaned forward giving him a kiss on the lips. He hesitated, before quickly reciprocating.
"A room, I tell you two get a darn room!" A voice echoed.
"How did he even see that?" She wondered aloud.
"Do you think it would be 'un-team-orientated' to accidentally drop a bucket of paint on his head?"
Smiling she added, "You really are a meanie, aren't you?"
For a moment, Rinoa honestly believed that she was experiencing a mild form of vertigo. Her head was numb and starting to spin like a carousel gaining momentum with each turn. No room should be this small, this white, this bright, or nowhere near this sterile. It was driving her to the brink of insanity...this room was an anomaly that went against the laws of nature, moreover, against the laws of Rinoa Heartilly.
Yes, this was the infirmary, but still there could be a splash of color or a touch of personality. It made her long for the pediatric ward back in Deling. Okay, Garden did technically have illustrations of purple and pink internal organs posted on the backside of the door, but those didn't really count as 'color' in her opinion. Nor did translucent views of the human body classify as art. It was a biology lesson badly disguised to discredit the name of art. Only someone like Squall would find some macabre curiosity studying the inner workings of the pancreas. As long as it wasn't diagramming on how fingernails grow back. Hyne forbid it show the formation of a fingernail...that thought at least made her giggle.
After a few more minutes of frustration, she sighed, falling back on to the examining table...all this over hitting her thumb. The paper below made a crinkling sound, which echoed as if it was thunder in the otherwise silent room. The door opened abruptly, making her jump into a sitting position. Of course, as per her norm, she whammed her already injured thumb on the underside of the table, yet somehow she restrained herself from making any inappropriate comments. The last thing she needed right now was additional humiliation.
"Miss Heartilly?" The older woman feverishly ran her pen across a clipboard, scribbling as if taking notes on the current placements during a Chocobo race. Although, never once looking up, or establishing any type of eye contact with her patient.
"You can call me Rinoa."
"Lovely." The woman pushed her dark-rimmed glasses up to her nose, glaring at the chart callously. The small chains attached to the stems dangled back and forth, making the only sound in the room. Rinoa suddenly had flashbacks of disciplinary moments in school she'd rather have left repressed. "Miss Heartilly, let me take a look at this 'medical emergency' that I was whisked away for other patients to examine."
Then and there, Rinoa made a mental note to make Squall suffer for this trip to the infirmary. As a Garden Commander, he had to have had some suspicion of Trabia's medical staff, right? She would find a way to get some form of retribution - country music, salsa music. At this point, surprising him with his own singing tape may have been the closest thing to justice.
"Exactly how does one hurt themselves in this fashion, while using a paintbrush composed entirely of Moghair?"
"I wasn't doing the actual painting. They...won't let me after last time with the President's train car... I mean not a real train car, a model one. I wouldn't paint the real one. That would have been impractical; we had that professionally done. Really." She wished she had that hammer to hit herself on the head with, this woman was staring at her like she was a babbling idiot...and well, at the moment she was one. Somehow, people in authority had this effect on her brain sometimes.
"Whatever. A member of the debate team you are not."
"A-Ah...no," Rinoa finally managed, wondering if there was a possibility of her boyfriend having a long-lost relative currently on-staff in Trabia. She really thought she was over this awkward thing, well with the notable exception of Squall. "Hammer. I um...hurt my thumb using a hammer to seal a can of primer and missed."
"Nor a member of Garden's Sniper Division."
"Actually, not a student of Garden...I'm an Administrative Assistant from Balamb."
"Great...a secretary," she snidely commented, poking at the bruised thumb with reckless abandon.
"Eew-ouch." Rinoa yelped, noting that 'bedside manners' seemed to be as absent with this woman as appeared to be clothing tailored within the last two decades. Yet, in typical Rinoa fashion, the sorceress gritted her teeth, trying to continue with some form of conversation. "Actually, I'm Headmaster Kramer's personal assistant. I'm here to help with the restoration."
"A secretary with an expense account, bully for you. Now, if I could return to the future workman's comp claim at hand." The nurse followed her feeble attempt at a pun with what could be best described as a 'wheezing snort.' Rinoa could only assume it was some bizarre form of laughter radiating from a parallel universe. "We amuse ourselves sometimes, don't we?"
"Uh-huh," Rinoa answered hesitantly, noticing that she and this woman were still the only two people in the room. The sorceress would have faked a laugh if she could, but really, the only kind she may have been able to believably pull off was one of those 'nervous fear' type things. The young woman swallowed hard, before finding the courage, or stupidity, to again attempt engaging in conversation. "Have you...worked in Trabia long?"
"No. I'm from Deling General, I was sent up here on a Nurse/Practitioner Aid program. I hate kids, I hate cold, and I hate SeeDs. But for some reason my bosses decided that I was the perfect candidate for this assignment. Swear they had a party, it's all political hoodwinking I tell you."
"You do sound like the obvious choice," Rinoa tried to say with a straight face. Well, maybe the woman was in the top of her field at work.
"Great, when I want the opinion of an overpaid coffee-gopher, I'll know exactly who to ask."
Then again, maybe the woman had some blackmail photos of somebody somewhere on the medical board.
"The good news is it just looks like it's bruised under the surface. The purplish discoloration is blood. You'll have to have it drained, I'll have someone come in and do that in a moment. It doesn't appear that it was separated from the matrix, so you shouldn't be losing your nail, barring any complications. That would be a national tragedy, I know. We wouldn't want any of those unforeseen 'typing emergencies' out on the field, now would we?"
Rinoa took a deep breath, slowly exhaling as she managed a smile. It took a lot for her to lose her patience, but somehow this woman, this room, and the last thirty minutes was starting to test her boundaries.
"Thank you," Rinoa forced the words out. She was unsure why she said them, but they were a lot nicer than the actual thoughts going through her mind.
"Just wait in here, I'll have one of the interns take care of your hand...that is if you don't have to scurry back to your keyboard."
Running her right hand through her hair, Rinoa wondered if this 'visit' was ever going to end. At least she was glad to be alone again. With every moment that passed, she felt it had been a huge waste of time, and also wondered how she was so easily influenced to come to the infirmary in the first place. But one look into Squall's eyes, and hearing the voice that she so often thought about before falling into her dreams, asking her to come here...she felt helpless to deny his request.
"Rinoa Heartilly?" An unknown voice called from the door, waking her from her daydreams.
"No problem," the intern laughed slightly. "Trust me, you are not the first person to drift off in one of these rooms. Half of the patients are asleep, and lately, the other half are making voodoo dolls of Agnes...so don't worry."
"Really, I'm not the only one thinking it?"
The young woman smiled, pulling out supplies from a nearby drawer. "Not in the least."
"Her name is Agnes? I don't recall her ever saying..."
"Well, trust me...she has a few, but that is the one I can repeat to you."
"Guess, I don't feel so bad now." Rinoa giggled.
"Don't. We didn't have to call security on you, write up an incident report, or notify the Headmaster with a complaint...so I would say that you are in the top eighty-five percentile of all our patients."
"...You've had to call security? I can't believe any member of Garden actually was that bad... Not that I don't have some sympathy, but still..." Rinoa smiled.
The intern walked up to Rinoa, carefully taking her hand and inspecting her thumb before starting to clean the wound. "Actually, that was just yesterday. We really didn't have to call...it was more or less a threat. Instead, we ended up giving Mr. Almasy a mild sedative... Honestly, the bad part is that most of the permanent staff was secretly rooting for him...someone finally had the nerve to say what we have all been thinking."
"Is there any other?"
"I guess not..." Rinoa admitted softly, torn between memories of the past and concerns of the present. Part of her didn't want to ask, but she had to know. "Why...why is he here? Is he okay?"
"I'm sorry, I really can't give you any details about a patient's condition..." The intern answered awkwardly as she started wrapping the nail. Even the sorceress could tell the other woman was avoiding eye contact, realizing the mistake in mentioning Seifer's name. It seemed that Rinoa's private life was...well, not private, not even up here. But still in Trabia, the students seemed to have more important issues than the Balamb Commander and his girlfriend.
"Miss Heartilly, I honestly didn't mean to say what I did...it just kind of slipped out inadvertently. But what I can tell you is, that particular patient is still two doors down..." The young woman looked at the sorceress, and somehow knew she was honestly concerned. Present situation withstanding, the intern felt that the woman sitting in front of her, still seemed to care about the wellbeing of an old friend. At least, something in her heart truly believed that was the type of person Rinoa was.
Maybe sometimes, rules were meant to be bent, to put another patient at ease. "Off the record, don't worry too much about Mr. Almasy... I'll tell you, the only 'real' danger he is in, is getting a few very intrusive medical procedures if he doesn't learn to behave... Agnes has a very dementedsense of humor."
"I understand, thank you." And at least this time, she meant it.
The sorceress held her breath as she walked through his open door. Really, this was one of those moments she wasn't planning on facing today, and maybe even hoping to avoid the next millennia or so... Although Rinoa and Seifer had been in the same building, there was a mutual understanding to keep their distance. If they had seen each other in passing, it had been nothing more than an acknowledging nod and a smile from her end. Maybe in a way she wanted to talk, to say more, to understand more, but in another way, she wasn't ready... or Squall wasn't ready... or Squall and Rinoa as a couple weren't ready.
Yet, somehow with Seifer injured, this broke the unwritten truce they had wordlessly agreed on. She knew Seifer and Squall had talked after the Training Center, maybe she and Seifer should at least have that chance before she left for Balamb...but somehow...she felt as if she should have let Squall know.
"Great... I don't suppose you are just here to drop off the latest copies of Weapons Monthly or Better Dorms at Gardens? If not, you better at least have cigarettes... or at the very least, have smuggled in a chocolate bar... 'Squallzilla took the last one from me."
"Seifer, what...what happened?"
"Simple really, she said it wasn't on my 'approved diet' list. It couldn't fit in the IV tube...or some crap like that... I kinda pictured dear Agnes as the love spawn of Squall and Godzilla so naturally..."
"Stop it, you're doing it again!" Rinoa interrupted, folding her arms and looking completely serious. She moved forward, sitting on the bed, and seeming to defy his behavior. She had known him too well, his sarcasm was a defense mechanism when he felt vulnerable, or if he didn't want someone getting close.
She asked the same question with forcefulness. "Seifer, what happened?"
"To me? Haven't you been keeping up on the memos in the last year? Didn't realize that Commander Nitwit had you that entranced? Cliff notes version: betrayal, Sorceress, Lunatic Pandora...big ugly mess..."
Rinoa grabbed his arm, making him look her in the eyes. He only held her gaze for a second, before breaking visual contact and turning toward the wall. His arm was in a cast, and an IV tube was running into his left wrist. He had multiple bruises and abrasions, a large dressing surrounded his head. Of course, he was still wearing the bandage over his nose from Squall's initial 'encounter.' Officially going down in Garden's paperwork as 'Mr. Almasy tripping over a fallen tree limb in the Training Center', Seifer's story...never Squall's. Cid knew the truth. Nodding his head, while putting his hand on Seifer's shoulder in understanding, Cid took the report. Maybe that was something between two former knights that Squall and Rinoa were never meant to understand. Maybe that was a good thing.
But right now, she wanted answers. Rinoa put pressure around his arm, not out of anger, but frustration. "Stop, Seifer! Just stop."
"Fine... a few students here shared the same sentiments as your boyfriend. Can't blame them. Guess it's par for the course. If sending me to Trabia was going to be easy, I don't think it would have been an option."
"They...beat you up?"
"Yeah...some students...I don't know which ones...before you start a federal inquisition. Even if I did know who, I don't think I would turn them in... Even now I can only feel a portion of the pain they feel...and I get medicine. Look, I really don't want to talk about it. I've spent all day talking about it to different people. Not you too, okay?" His words were soft and his eyes still refusing to look back at her.
"Okay." She replied, finally letting go of his arm. She honestly could tell it was bothering him, not the fact he had been beaten up, but knowing the pain he had caused. This was far worse than rotting in any jail cell in Deling, for this punishment was going to slowly tear him apart...but maybe in the end he would become a better person. She could never forget, but somehow she believed that maybe he could find some kind of peace.
He finally looked back at her, giving her a questioning stare. "Shouldn't you be going back somewhere? I don't imagine Mr. Personality would be too happy if he found you in here behind enemy lines. Trust me, the painkillers I'm on, aren't that strong...I don't think I could handle another direct assault today."
"We're painting... I mean Squall and Zell are painting... It's okay, he wouldn't care."
"Trust me, he'd care."
"What are you talking about?"
"Because, I would." He sighed, deciding to forgo any further explanation on that matter. "Why are you here anyway? Unless your sole purpose was to come to the infirmary and physically harass the patients."
"I..." She paused, not really wanting to admit what she knew had to be said, nonetheless holding her thumb up to emphasis her reason for being there. "I hurt myself painting, but I wasn't painting, I was using a hammer, again not painting! Anyway, they don't think I am going to lose the nail...so yeah, I hurt myself."
Squall walked into the infirmary, checking his watch once again. Part of him worried about what had taken her so long, it was only a simple finger, right? He still wasn't used to this worrying about someone else thing, and part of him honestly didn't like it. Of course, he liked all the other times that didn't involve the worrying, so he would take the bad, with the immeasurable amounts of good that accompanied it. As he entered the infirmary, there stood an older woman looking at a clipboard. He didn't see anyone sitting at the reception desk, so he approached slowly...
"Ma'am I'm sorry to interrupt, but I'm looking for someone who might have stopped by this afternoon, Rinoa Heartilly."
"And you are?"
"I'm Squall Leonhart, Commander of Balamb Garden."
"Why yes...and the puzzle pieces fall in place now, don't they? Miss Heartilly was our top priority." She answered mockingly, although the comment was slightly lost on him. "Last I saw of her, one of the interns was wrapping her hand, and then the med staff was deciding whether to airlift her to Esthar."
This time he caught the sarcasm. He was turning around to say something, when the woman pointed a pen toward the hallway.
"She is down the hall and to the left, room five, last I saw her... And buddy, before you even say a word... First and foremost, I am not Garden staff, I am here on a semi volunteer/semi forced basis. I have been working the last twenty hours straight and, at this rate, will be lucky to grab a few hours of sleep... I have had one granola bar, that was five months past its expiration date, for my only source of nutrition today. I have been thrown up on twice in the last five hours, and will be grateful to make it out of this with some sanity intact...so excuse me if I seem a little irritated...your girlfriend is nice enough, okay? It's just that overprotective boyfriends are not high on my list of things that make me all warm and fuzzy inside, understand."
"Uh huh." Now it was the commander's turn to remain speechless. Honestly, that outburst was the last thing he had expected. Although a huge part of him was aggravated this woman showed his rank so little respect, there was a strange part of him that liked being referred to as an 'overprotective boyfriend' - two words he never thought would be used to describe him.
He decided it was for the best to head into the hall, never turning back around...somehow he didn't want to look her in the eyes. Years of training had taught him to let some things be, and right now "Ms. Warm and Fuzzy" seemed to be one of those things. He arrived at room five only to discover an empty bed.
Then he heard it...it was strange, he heard her laughing and it made him feel better. Not that he should have been worried, it was just something he couldn't help whether he liked it or not. Leave it to Rinoa to spend time in the infirmary, probably with one of the many cadets she had grown to know over the last weeks. It wouldn't surprise him; nothing did anymore.
Okay, forget that last statement, a few things still could shock the hell out of him.
He took a step toward the sound of her laughter, and found himself unable to move. His heart was suddenly torn between trust and doubt. He trusted her, he honestly did. But there still was that childish side of him that knew Seifer, and could only see him as the bully who tormented him not only with words, but with actions that went far beyond anything spoken. That hurt far more.
Hearing Rinoa's laughter, resonating throughout the infirmary, made his heart soar and crash all in one fleeting moment. To hear the innocence of something so pure in his mind, only be tainted by something to him that was stained with the purest of evil. It was a deluge of new emotions, all within a few a few heartbeats.
The commander saw Rinoa reach over to the small table, picking up a glass of water, before handing it to the man lying before her. He took it. They were laughing as he accepted the small cup from her hand. Their fingers touched. Squall knew it meant nothing, he had sworn to himself that he could handle something like this.
The rivalry and the bitterness...they belonged to the past, they were meant to be a closed chapter of his life, something repressed in the darkest of memories. He had come to an uneasy 'truce' with his old rival, but that was merely conceptual, not to be taken literally. In his mind, he still felt that Seifer had no right to sit with Rinoa, nor laugh with her. And for the sake of everything that he ever believed...to damn well not touch her. Rinoa was sacred.
Didn't he know that?
Didn't she know that?