Fire Petals Chapter 18
El Amor O Muere
Rinoa stepped carefully onto the second-floor balcony, the door sliding silently behind her. Squall was there, as she'd supposed he would be, his back to her as if he didn't know she was there. Rinoa had no clue what to say to him; she didn't know what he was thinking and didn't want him to respond in the wrong way to whatever it was she ended up saying. She stood there and stared uncomfortably at the furry fluffs of his jacket-collar twitching in the breeze for a few minutes, glad that she didn't have to look at his face any more, and finally decided that there was only one thing she could do: be completely honest with him: "Squall . . . I don't know what to say. . ."
She had figured he'd remain silent, making this whole task more difficult for her, but instead he gave her something to go on. "You don't need to say anything." he mumbled, barely audible over the strengthening breeze. He kept his eyes to the horizon, sure that if he looked at her, something would fall apart inside of him. He'd never be able to look at her again. All he could see in his mind, playing over and over, was her sobbing face when his fist rammed into her cheekbone, when he was being hauled away to find her tucked safely into Zell's arms . . . the pictures were killing him, and the last thing he wanted to do right now was add another one to the growing pile in his mind.
"Squall . . . something needs to be said . . . we both know what happened in your dorm room, and--"
"Rinoa, I don't want to talk--"
"--and I want to offer you my forgiveness."
"I can't accept it, Rinoa, it's that simple."
"But Squall, I know it wasn't your fault! Ellone explained it to us all. . . you have no reason to be ashamed."
"I have every reason." he replied, straining to keep his voice from rising.
*Why is he being so DIFFICULT? He's acting like I did something to HIM. . . . . . Okay, Rinoa, keep your cool . . don't make things worse . . .* "Squall, please . . . I'm not angry with you. I know it was Seifer. I know it was his fault. How could I hate you for that?" She gambled to move a step closer to him.
"I did nothing to stop him. I was there, Rinoa, I watched . . . I felt everything he did to you . . . and I didn't stop it."
"And why didn't you?"
The back of Squall's throat began to ache. Rinoa, though not completely wanting to for fear of returning memories, was now able to see the side of his face, and noticed him blinking a few times. "Go, Rinoa, just . . . let me be." He couldn't admit such a weakness to her . . . this emotional weakness, a hole in him that he allowed Seifer to create, that Rinoa seemed to misunderstand, that he himself only tried to ignore. This time, though, Squall was unable to fool himself into feeling indifferent. It was a battle between the person he loved and the person he hated, two people he cared deeply for in opposite ways, and he was stuck in the middle. There was nowhere for him to go, no dark corner left in his mind to hide in. His thoughts were filled . . . by Seifer, Rinoa, himself . . . he didn't know. It seemed he didn't know anything anymore.
And now Rinoa was even *angrier* with him. *If I had just shut my mouth in the first place. . .*
"Why didn't you, Squall?" Rinoa repeated, her voice beginning to shake as she realized that Squall was done conversing with her for the time being. "Fine, Squall, just ignore me . . . . I came here to try to fix this crap between us . . . and all you do is turn away from me . . . I want to fix things because don't want to see Seifer when I look at you anymore! Can't you understand that?!"
When Squall refused to reply to her second question, only lowering his gaze to the sea far below in response, Rinoa opened the steel balcony door and tore down the hallway, not knowing what else to do. Squall whipped around at hearing the door slam behind him, to find that she was already long gone.
He'd made her cry by barely even saying anything. Rinoa would never meaningfully forgive him, he could see it. Especially if she didn't see that he hadn't been able to control what his body did to her. He could see that she didn't mean it now--she still held a grudge against him. And now, though Seifer had been gone for a long while, Squall still felt like he wasn't in complete control of his actions. He had wanted to tell Rinoa that there was nothing he could do, that Seifer had again beaten him, beaten him right into the ground and he couldn't do a thing about it.
He slowly returned to his pervious position with his elbows resting on the balcony edge, head low, and watched a tear fall further below him than he could see before lifting himself over the balcony ledge. He sat on the edge, looking down, a sudden gust of wind almost knocking him off-balance, giving him a strange rush that he wasn't sure he loved or hated.
But instead of being honest with Rinoa, he had reverted into his Iceberg Shell again, as though it offered shelter from something he didn't even know. No--he knew what it was: it was shelter from being exposed to Rinoa, being emotionally naked for her unforgiving eyes to see and thin lips to snigger at. That was when the Shell always came into effect--that was when it was most handy. Before, when he used his Shell, it had frozen him inside out--numbed him from deep thought, or from pain, or from knowing he'd been exposed in some way. Now . . . all it was was a sheet of ice trying to cover the sun, barely able to handle his outside, let alone his inside.
Oh, how he wished for that feeling he'd been without for ages, the feeling he got when he acted so indifferent for a time that it became how he felt. It was slowly leaving him, seeping from emotional wounds nobody other than himself, not even Rinoa, could see.
*I just care too damn much.* His fingers gripped the edge of the rail behind him tightly, his black gloves practically digging into the thick, rough cement. He leaned forward, arms straight at small angles behind him, to see more of the sea, watching the few dolphins that frolicked in the Garden's wake and the seagulls that followed close behind.
*I couldn't make Rinoa cry anymore if I was dead.*
The sudden thought hit him like more wind, only harder: a hurricane, tensing his nerves and making his heart seem to sink further into his chest and beat fifty times faster. Another rush--the thought of momentarily flying right behind those seagulls as his last living memory was morbidly appealing.
*This is the one thing I have control over: whether I live or die.*
Or maybe not even that? As far as anyone knew, Seifer could re-enter Squall's mind at any time, and who was to say it wouldn't be Seifer who finally pushed him over the edge? Who could say how far that bastard would go?
*So why not do it now?*
He leaned forward a little more, fingers gradually relaxing their tight grip on the cement ledge, as he watched the gulls below his dangling black boots. One of their tiny feathers floated up to him and almost *hung* in the air, just a few feet from of his face.
*If I had one of those, I could fly, too. Or make a wish . . .*
Squall stretched out to catch the little white fluff, just as a sudden gust of wind blew it far from his reach. He wavered there, almost in midair, for a second, his eyes widening in surprise, and lost his balance.
Zell had noticed, not long after leaving his dorm room, that the Garden was moving. He half-laughed at himself for forgetting that Balamb Garden could now fly, or sail, or whatever you wanted to call it. While in his room, he had thought they were still on that small island-continent, next to Balamb, near his mother, near everything he'd grown up with. Looking past the graceful girders holding up the ceiling as he headed down the dorm hallway, he found that they were still surrounded by sea. Endless, timeless sea. He couldn't help but feel incredibly disappointed. The imagined taste of Caterchipillar Stew now left his mouth. He found himself hungry.
His path had turned to the Cafeteria, as he now had nothing to inform anyone of. He would not be leaving--he had nowhere to go. Now he hoped that by some miracle the Caf would still be stocked with some of the day's leftover hot dogs. Hot dogs were to him what Triple-Chocolate-Fudge-Ripple Ice Cream was to an ailing teenage girl, and he knew damn well he needed comfort.
Upon reaching the Cafeteria counter, he plunked his elbows down on it loudly, resting his face in his hands as Margaret, the shorter and fairer-skinned of the two women who worked there, walked up to him. With one look at Zell's sad expression, hers turned to worry. "Something buggin' ya, sweetie?"
Zell shrugged. "As usual."
"Well . . . I think we have just what you need right here . . . oh, come on back here if ya'd like."
Zell was obliged. He swept around to the end of the counter and headed through the hinged gate at the back. He should have known that Margaret would come to his rescue--she had always been there when he couldn't talk to his mother. They'd chatted numerous times on those early weekend mornings when Zell found enough energy to get up at four and wait for the hotdogs to be ready.
He could already smell the hot-dogg-y fumes emitting from the kitchen. "Oh, Margaret, thank you so much . . ."
"Yeah, well, I figured I could spare a couple o' these 'til tomorrow . . ."
"You're the *best*." Zell replied, mouth gaping open at the sight as Margaret handed him a paper plate, stacked high with *five* of them.
"It's nothin'. You know you're my favourite. Remind me of my own son. He's a hyperactive kid, too."
Zell would have grinned and shook his head at her, but decided not to, as his mouth was already stuffed with food.
"Look, kid, I gotta go. My shift was over fifteen minutes ago."
Zell looked at her with puffed out cheeks and the biggest, sweetest puppy-dog eyes he could muster. "Aww . . ." he groaned, having hoped she'd be there for him to talk to.
"I'm sorry. I know you love me Zell, but Agatha's comin' in to work and if she see's you back here. . . "
Zell's face changed to an expression of extreme distaste. "Ugh. Are you sure that bitch isn't really a man?" he asked as Margaret began to push him out of the kitchen. He allowed her to, although if he wanted to, he could have stopped the tiny woman in a second.
"Unfortunately, yes." she replied, stifling a giggle as she shut the swinging door behind him. "Bye Zell, come back to see me tomorrow!" she called as she left out the back door. Zell slumped himself into the furthest booth at the back, throwing his backpack to the seat beside him. He picked at his hotdogs, no longer very hungry as he wallowed in his disappointment. After a few minutes, he heard the Caf door open and a few light steps.
"Excuse me?" called a girl's voice. Zell looked up, a little startled, to find a petite girl who looked about sixteen in a SeeD uniform by the doorway.
"Well, there's no one else here."
Zell looked around to find that she was right but didn't answer her.
"Have you seen Margaret today?"
"She just left. Why?"
"Well, I was hoping to catch her after her shift was over." the girl replied, a brown ponytail bouncing behind her head as she walked over to his table. He knew he recognized her . . . where was she . . . *Library! She's from the Library! How could I forget that??*
"Y-You missed her." Zell replied nervously. He became anxious as soon as a girl came more than ten feet away from him. If she was talking to him. And *looking* at him like she was. And *hot* like she was. The only girl he felt sort of comfortable around was Rinoa. And he was just too afraid of where that was going.
"Darn." the girl's foot stomped the floor lightly, coming off to Zell as extremely cute. "Hey--is your name Zell?"
"Uh . . . . . yeah." *Geez, buddy, the hell's wrong with you? Can't remember your own name?* he scolded himself.
"She talks about you all the time. I could tell it was you by the hair." This remark made Zell's cheeks burn. "Cuz y'know, I've seen ya 'round, but I never made the connection . . . Oh, Margaret's my mom by the way."
"Oh! Well, she, uh . . . she said she had a daughter. Hey wait-- um, you don't happen to . . . work in the library do you?"
"Yeah, I do. Mind if I sit with ya?" she asked, inching a little closer to Zell's table, "I gotta wait for my mum to get outta there."
Zell waved his hand, concentrating hard to keep it from shaking, "Go ahead."
"So what's wrong with you?" she asked as she planted herself into the seat across from him.
"You're so . . . mopy. The couple times I've seen ya, you've been jumping around like a loon."
"Ah . . . . I dunno. Just that girls suck."
"Oh gee, thanks a lot."
Zell tensed up, trying to cover his boo-boo. "No, not you! That's not what I meant--"
The girl reached across the table to lightly slap his arm. "I know. I was *kidding* with you. Geez, guy." She smiled at him.
*Perfect teeth,* he noted. *Dude . . . she's ~flirting~ with me . . .* The thought made more butterflies erupt into his stomach. Happy butterflies.
"So what's goin' on? Just get dumped or somethin'?"
"Uh . . . not quite like that . . . my best friend's girlfriend . . . at least I think she's his girlfriend . . . I don't freakin' know."
She let out a low whistle. "Ooo, that's rough. So I'm figuring you're all hung up on this chick?" The girl's eyes seemed to change; to lose a little of their hazel glow.
"Yea--uh . . ." *Duh! Don't tell her that!* " . . . Nah, not really."
The girl smiled. "Cuz ya know, if it doesn't work out with her, I'm sure there's lots of girls that would take you in."
*Who? You? Tell me!* He shrugged, "I dunno. Doubt it."
"Wanna bet?" she replied, leaning forward on the table.
*Wow, what's up with this chick? She's all . . . nice and flirty and stuff . . .* "Um . . ." he faltered, without a clue as to how to respond.
"Lathaina! There you are! I thought I said you could meet me in the back!" It was Margaret's voice, calling from behind the counter, changed from her Caf-lady uniform. Zell made a mental note to thank her for saving him from the slightly uncomfortable situation.
"Wait a sec, mum!" the girl replied, getting up from the table.
"So, your name's Lathaina, huh?"
Zell stood up as well, noticing that the girl only came up to his chin, or a little higher. He didn't notice when sitting down that she couldn't have been more than five feet tall.
"Oh, crap, I never told ya, did I? Great manners I've got. Sorry 'bout that."
"No prob. Hey, um--"
"Hurry up, dear!" called Margaret's impatient voice again.
"Hey, I'll see ya 'round, k?" Lathaina said hurriedly, glancing at her mother past Zell's shoulder, "I gotta go . . . she gets pissed."
"Bye." With that Lathaina turned and followed her mother, as Zell waved to her back. When she was gone, he gobbled up his remaining four hotdogs, his appetite having returned ten-fold. As he left the Cafeteria, needing to tell *someone* about this good stuff, he jumped up to slap the wall over the doorframe so enthusiastically that a crack formed in the paint.
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