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The First Watch

By Luna Manar

Author's Note: To completely understand this fic, you must read "The Camping Trip," also located in this fanfiction archive.

*

"I wish into your eyes
the truth of what I am behind the mask
beyond the past."

*

"Yeah. If there’s a problem, just yell or something. Whatever. I’m going to sleep." Squall waited for Quistis to nod in understanding, and turned away from her and the rest of the SeeDs the moment afterward. He did not find himself alone with his thoughts as he might normally have been used to, however; he came, more or less, face to face with Rinoa. She was watching him quietly, curiously. Something about her expression seemed hopeful to him, asking something of him silently where words might have failed them both.

It was an easy request to understand. Squall averted his eyes, took a step in the direction of the shadowed corner he’d chosen earlier, paused and looked back at her again. He turned away and started walking for that corner, leaving his silent answer to her equally silent question. She understood the permission he’d given her, and followed him after a glance at the others to be certain they weren’t watching.

Squall reached the corner, leaned against the stone wall there. The place was dry and hard, cool, and no breeze reached in to stir the air there. It was quiet, dark, and calm. Exactly the kind of environment Squall’s muddled thoughts needed.

The spot the group had chosen as a suitable resting place was nothing more than a paved ledge at the corner of the citadel, roofed high overhead by a constructed stone overhang—the underside of the floor to the upper wing—and surrounded by the grey, empty nothingness outside. It resembled nothing so much as a tall, wide, shallow cavern, deep enough to shield them from the wind and secluded enough to—they hoped—provide temporary sanctuary from the repulsive inhabitants of Ultimecia’s Castle.

With a stiffness he hadn’t noticed until now, Squall crouched and turned his back to the wall. He sat down slowly, leaning his head against the rock and closing his eyes as Rinoa neared him. She had followed his short path to the shadow, but hesitated yet. He heard her move to sit a couple feet from him, no more. As usual, her proximity made him uncomfortable. Now, though, as with the last few times, the discomfort was for an altogether different reason than he would have expected. She was not sitting too close to him; she was not sitting close enough. He felt a kind of surface tension, one that he resisted. Still, he acknowledged it, which was more than he had deigned to do in the past. Or dared to do. He wasn’t sure which. He kept his eyes closed.

Rinoa sighed quietly and was silent otherwise for what seemed like a long time. Usually, Squall wouldn’t have noticed, would have waited out the silence and used it to center his own thoughts. But right now his thoughts were not on himself or the arduous task before him. Right now, he couldn’t focus on that. He was waiting, he realized, for Rinoa to say something. When she finally did, her tone was subdued, her voice quiet and a little unsteady. Had Squall not been listening intently to her silence to begin with, he would not have understood what she said.

"Are you scared?"

Heavy eyelids lifted slightly, but the blue eyes they uncovered did not look at her. The eyes stared out at the ceiling at the other end of the huge room. "Sure," he said simply. He watched a small bat shift restlessly as it hung upside-down from the rafters.

"When we get to Ultimecia, what do you think you’ll do?"

The eyes remained solemnly motionless. "No clue."

"Do you think…" She stopped, not wanting to finish her question, but made herself do it. "Do you think she’ll try to kill us?"

"Probably."

"Do you think we can stop her?"

This prompted his malevolent stare. He watched her silently. He didn’t answer.

She looked away from his gaze, down at her hands.

That look… so cold. Rinoa cast a tentative glance at Squall, but only for a moment before she had to drag her eyes away again. But he’s not. She bent her legs up close to her body, wrapping her arms around her knees and cuddling them in a fruitless attempt to warm away the chill that was growing in her chest. I know he’s not. I feel it, but he makes it seem that way. How does he do it? How can he admit to being afraid and still look like it doesn’t mean a thing? This could be the last night we ever see… She refrained from ending that thought with the word "together."

"Anything you want me to do?"

The question caught her off-guard, but this time she did hold his icy leer, which had not thawed at all since she’d last glanced at him. Yet there was no mockery or scorn in his expression or his voice, nothing but sincerity in that heartlessly honest gaze. She shrugged a little, helplessly. "I don’t know."

"You sure about that," he returned, in a soft tone she had rarely heard him use, "or are you just scared to tell me?" He dared to move over a little bit, closer to her. He told himself it was because they were whispering and it was hard to hear her.

Rinoa pulled herself into an even tighter ball. "I don’t know," she repeated. She knew he didn’t like it when people couldn’t give him an answer, so she fumbled her way through her thoughts. "I, don’t, want to ask anything of you. I know you’ve got this mission to worry about, and you probably don’t want to be distracted. I guess I’m trying…to be able to say something and not get in the way at the same time." It seemed a fragmented and confusing answer to her, and she wondered if he’d understood anything of what she had meant to convey. He didn’t seem annoyed or frustrated with her as she’d expected him to be. He only took a moment to think, sorted her words out in his mind.

"You don’t have to worry about staying out of my way." He blinked once, calmly. "Don’t think about this as a mission. I don’t." Reluctantly, he looked away from her and toward the rafters again. "Not anymore."

Rinoa watched him consider, watched him argue with himself, watched him reach a decision.

"Don’t be afraid to come close to me. Or to stay close to me. I’m not gonna get angry."

Rinoa looked down at the floor, considering the familiarity of his words. "I’m not really afraid."

"You are right now." He was staring at her again.

"I just…I don’t want to do anything that might upset you."

Her voice had shrunk, such that Squall had to strain to hear her. It took a while for him to formulate a response. He understood her uncertainty. Even recently, he’d retained his "bubble" to himself, told her to stay close and yet kept her at a distance. It must have been so confusing for her. This bothered him. It was easy to keep her within arms reach when there was danger. When things were calmer, when life became less urgent and he’d felt more at ease, it had been just as easy to let the independence he was so used to sporting take over again. His attitude was intimidating. Likely, there were times when she felt she wasn’t a part of the group…

But she was, and Squall knew it. He felt horrible about telling her to let him handle it, to be quiet while he thought, to let Quistis and Zell take care of it when he knew that Rinoa had been just as capable of a task as they were. He’d made her feel like a hindrance again. It had to stop. But what could he do? What could he do to catch himself before he snapped at her or denied her again? At times like this, it was simple enough to think of these things, but when he wasn’t thinking about it, how could he rid himself of a habitual attitude he had exercised for years?

"Sorry," he said quietly. "I get caught up in what I’m doing sometimes. I mean…" He grunted a little in frustration, forcing himself to speak more coherently. "You know, just because I bitch about something, you don’t have to take it as an order. We’ve got a contract, right? You hired me, not the other way around. It’s not like you’re under my command." He smirked slightly. "Look, from now on, if I’m a jerk, just shove it back in my face. Like you did before."

He had meant that as a joke. He managed a very small, very brief, and yet very real smile. Uncertain what to think of it, or even if she had seen it at all, Rinoa said nothing.

Squall spoke to break a silence that ached in him for every moment they wasted in indecision. "Maybe I’ve changed, but I’m not any different than who I used to be, even if it is more personal, now." Even in this, he was toneless, and noticed it himself. He sat up straighter against the wall, continued to watch her, motioned vaguely with one hand. "I know I screw up. I’ll probably keep screwing up. But I’ll try not to." Again he found the air plagued by silence. He had so much more to say, was so uncertain of how he could. "I’m not planning on going anywhere." This was whispered, and his eyes narrowed as if in concentration. "And I’m not thinking about letting you go, either." He watched her for some sort of reaction, could see little if any, and fumbled desperately for something else to say. "Please." His stolid countenance faltered, but only slightly, and he instinctively scrambled to hide the anxious fear that began to crawl in his gut, the fear he was about to admit. "Don’t let me chase you away. Don’t be afraid of me. If there’s anything that scares me right now, it’s the idea of losing you. I’ve never felt this way. I don’t know what to do. I want to keep feeling like this. I don’t want to lose it. It…" He trailed off. He would not say: ‘It would kill me.’

"Sometimes…" Rinoa had to stop and make up her mind to finish her sentence. "I’m afraid to so much as touch you, or even come within three feet of you, because you seem like you don’t want it."

"Sometimes," Squall murmured back, "I think I push away when you come near, because I do." He ended it quietly. It scares me. He looked away, examined the wall to his right. The continuously pervasive void unnerved him. He wished he could say something more, but found no words. He wished he could do something, anything, but was frozen in indecision. Squall heard a shifting at his side. Rinoa had edged closer to him until she was just a couple inches shy of sitting shoulder to shoulder with him. He remained still, wondering, What’s the matter with me?

"What is it?"

His shoulder tingled. "Nothing." What am I afraid of?

Rinoa leaned a little closer to him, and her soft voice was warm to his ear. "I don’t believe that."

He fought a chill, a shiver to shake her away. "I don’t know. Something is scaring the hell out of me."

"Do you know why?"

"No."

"Is it a good scared or a bad scared?"

"I don’t know."

Rinoa kept watching him, but he didn’t look at her. Though she wished he would, what she cared about the most was staying with him. She didn’t want for tomorrow to happen, if days and nights meant anything in Ultimecia’s realm. Tomorrow could bring…

She did not want to think about it. She relaxed her knees and let go of them, leaning back on her hands and staring out into the timeless gloom. Even among the others, no matter how accepting they were, she felt alienated. Aside from the fact she was not a SeeD, there was something else that set her apart from them. Not her sorceress powers alone. That was a detail. She was different because she was powerful, and because she was now a part of history, part of a legend.

Quistis, Zell, Selphie, Irvine—all of the people she had known or had met in the last few months—they all treated her so kindly, treated her as an equal, but they made a point of doing it. They had to not think about the fact that she was a sorceress. But it was impossible for them to ignore completely, no matter how much they wanted to. She was different from everyone else, and underlying that was the fact that she had great power; she was not readily controllable. She was dangerous.

She hated it.

Everyone looked at her in a different way than they used to. Everyone treated her with more respect than she was accustomed to receiving, and it felt like a mockery. Everyone she knew as friends smiled when she looked at them, smiled to be amicable and to assure her that they didn’t mistrust her or hold anything against her. Everyone knew she wasn’t just another person. Everyone had to remind themselves that she was Rinoa, as well as a sorceress.

But not Squall. His treatment of her as an individual had not changed as the others’ had. Indeed, he often seemed to forget completely that she was a sorceress at all. The fact was a semantic, only acknowledged it when it was relevant to the situation, only addressed when her powers might come into play. He treated her potentially dangerous ability as though it were a skill, not an attribute; her sorceress powers were no more strange to him than his own adeptness with a gunblade. With such power came responsibilities and discipline, yes, but it did not alter his impression of her as a person. She had a new and dangerous skill, but nothing more.

To Squall, she was still human. What she was, had not changed.

All he saw, all he addressed when he spoke to her was Rinoa. Being a sorceress wasn’t an issue or a consideration; Insofar as he was concerned, she was Rinoa and no one else unless and until she proved otherwise. Or so she gathered from the way he acted.

She hid a smile as she thought. Squall, he was different, too, unique in a caustic sort of way. It was a distinction that set him apart from other people, closed out the world and left him isolated. Even among friends and comrades who would care about him, he was on his own. Before, this difference had intrigued her. Now, he was the only person she could truly relate to because of it, and only because she acted in just the opposite manner.

There was also another sensation. More subliminal, but one Rinoa could never rid herself of. It was a feeling, a fear and a hope that had followed her since the moment she was able to comprehend it, five months ago. If it came about in a different manner, Squall shared this fear with Rinoa, whether he realized it or not. She watched his expression grow distant in the shadow. The Fear was as real to him, yet it took a different form. And unlike Rinoa, he was no stranger to it.

It was a terrible fear. A fear of death, of nothing. A fear of non-existence. A cousin to her fear of ultimate failure, of the idea that there wasn’t really a light at the end of the tunnel and that everything wouldn’t really turn out all right.

A fear of being utterly, hopelessly lost.

She didn’t want to feel this way, didn’t want to weather this fear. She knew Squall must hate it as much as she did. She saw it in his every action, heard it in every word he spoke. However it had come to haunt him, she knew it was the Fear that drove him to act so blatantly cold, and it was the Fear that channeled the lone-wolf mentality that had chiseled his attitude into hard granite. Still, he was searching for the same thing she was—whatever that was—or something very similar. She could feel that somehow. No matter their differences, this odd fact had become a kind of unspoken understanding. Understanding had evolved into respect. Respect had opened a door to a strange kind of love that neither of them understood.

It was a perplexing thing for her to think about. Squall was nothing that she had ever wished for. He’d been trained to be ruthless, or had trained himself to be, and had no second thoughts about killing, a practice Rinoa despised. He was unpredictable in some ways. She could never be sure how he would react to anything. He was rarely angry, but he had been on occasion, and there were few things that could have terrified her more. For some reason none of that ultimately mattered, either. Still—on top of it all, his job would likely have made it next to impossible to see him very often. But she was willing to wait.

She didn’t know why, couldn’t understand what was happening in her heart, but she trusted it. Just as she trusted Squall; for no other reason than that she did. It felt right—and at Sorceress Memorial, it had been strong enough to bring him rushing to save her from her own fool choices in a most un-Squall-ishly heroic fashion. But even that moment had seemed right. So right, she hadn’t wanted to let go, would have stayed in his embrace forever if she could have.

That drama was over. Oh, it had been wonderful, meaningful and all that, but it was over, and now they were faced not with the comforting blanket of raw emotion, but with each other, individual to individual. It pulled knots in the stomach. For certain, they were in love. But it couldn’t be that way, and they both knew it. They were too different.

But nor could they leave each other and survive.

Here, now, when they could die at any time, what good was worrying about the long-term? What mattered was now—if ‘now’ meant anything anymore—and for now, it was real. For now, at least, the love was steady and without scars.

It was more than just love. Another detail. Rinoa had never understood anyone so well. Nor had she ever found it so difficult to communicate with someone. The fear drew them to each other, and stood between them. Perhaps that was all it was, she mused. Perhaps love was nothing more than a kind of fear. The difference between her and Squall was that she still considered the fear and its purpose. He had given it up, locked it away and forgotten the key. It had festered inside of him. Left to himself, it would eventually kill him. If Ultimecia didn’t do that for him, first.

Rinoa frowned. Would that he could hide from his worst fear, now. Instead, he had to face it: Inevitability. And more than anything, he doesn’t want to die.

She alone had understood his outburst at Galbadia Garden; he didn’t want to become a memory, a has-been to be lost in history. To the others it had seemed a strange and random action on his part. They’d dismissed it as stress. "Poor Squall," they had said.

Rinoa knew he would have hated to hear that.

If the only way he still existed after he was gone would be through other people’s memories, he could be twisted and changed in any way that they chose. Would he face that fate with the darkness’ dawn? Or could he survive it, if he faced it with her, followed his heart instead of his fear?

She watched Squall shift uncomfortably, and wondered if he was thinking about the same emotion she was. "You know," he muttered quietly, so suddenly it made her jump, "I’m not gonna bite you."

Her dark gaze narrowed, taking a moment to understand what he had implied. What does that mean? "Is that your way of asking me something… Is that some sort of invitation?" She watched him, nervous, hoping to high heaven—whatever good that would do here—that she wasn’t wrong.

His eyes were half-open and staring into nothing. "You could call it that." He answered, as tentatively as she had asked the question. Despite his caution, his expression was sure; for the moment, the barrier of uncertainty was rapidly vanishing under the power of a certain dangerous magic they both knew and felt, but feared.

Slowly, Rinoa reached up with one hand and laid it gently on his shoulder.

Squall let her do this without any objection. What had he to lose that wasn’t already at stake? A small shiver carved his spine and he fought to hide it, but doubted he did a very good job of doing so. He wondered distantly why her simple gesture of concern frightened him, and at the same time he let go a quiet breath of relief. What they were doing now—just sitting here, talking, staying close, getting closer, slowly—was seemingly meaningless in comparison to what had happened in the recent past: He’d stormed Sorceress Memorial to get her out, had held her safe for just a few wondrous moments; he could not recall ever feeling so right as he had in that short time. Even before that, he’d embraced her on the Ragnarok in a helpless attempt to chase away the fear that had ended her up in that terrible lab in the first place. He’d promised her he would always be there for her, he had promised to wait for her. He had let her stay beside him one night, let her hold onto him that night. He had even admitted his love, if only once, and only in a voice that hadn’t begun to convey what he felt. In all of these incidents, he had felt this emotion so strongly it was difficult to think about without starting to feel it again. Now, he was more afraid of the overpowering sensation than ever. But what was different?

There’s no excuse, he answered his own question, placed his hand over hers on his shoulder. His face betrayed nothing but a sense of determination that went abreast of the acceptance that he could not run from this feeling, could not pretend that he had not been bound to it, and therefore, to Rinoa because of it. Before, any touch had been a matter of course, for there had been a useful and obvious reason for it: to comfort, to protect, to stay together and keep from wandering far from each other. All emotional reasons, but all of them coldly logical as well.

I didn’t have to think about it, his thoughts spun out like a tightly-wrapped reel, I didn’t have to admit anything, I didn’t have to need it. He felt her grip tighten on his shoulder, returned the pressure. Now we’re just here. Just Rinoa, just me. He gently took hold of her other hand. I’m in it up to my neck. Pretty words, heroics in a containment lab, breaking the rules—fine. But love? What do I know about relationships? Rinoa… Do I even know her? How can I? She seems to know so much about me. And I promised her I’d be there. Damn. At first it was a feeling… just an emotion.

Now, somehow… it had become a reality! How could he follow through?

Now what? I don’t know. I can’t think. I can’t go back.

Squall felt horribly immature and foolish in that moment. What he felt, he didn’t understand, but for once that didn’t matter. It was real enough, perhaps more tangible than any other emotion he had ever experienced. But it was one thing to feel love. Now…to live it? Could he? Was he capable of showing that kind of affection? Could he trust someone that much? No excuses…but I don’t need an excuse. The only reason I have now is that I want this. He froze in place, lost.

As minutes passed, they both relaxed. "We’ll figure out something," Squall murmured uselessly.

Rinoa held on tightly to his hand. "How did we end up together in this mess?"

"I don’t know." He didn’t, truly. But he did understand what he was here to do. That, at least, was clear, for even Ultimecia’s twisted home was tangible and visible. Not at all like the snare he found himself in with Rinoa. "Until we find a way to beat Ultimecia, though, we’re trapped here." And his situation was a trap, by and far the most deadly trap he had ever been caught in. At this point he was too weak to struggle, anyway, nor would he have tried if he’d wanted to. He had to take the chance. The trap would either embrace him or it would tear him apart.

He was afraid. What he had now, he would do anything to keep. He knew that to lose it meant his own destruction. A shutdown. Caused by loneliness, heartbreak.

Foolish indeed.

The fear inside him was reacting violently with his love, and the conflict was eating him alive from the inside out, just as it had when Ellone had vanished.

Ellone…is that it? Is it you? Am I like this because I thought you were gone? The questions seemed to come directly from the cold pit in his stomach. Everything I’ve ever believed…was it just because of that?

Had he learned the wrong lesson?

He could have, should have listened to Quistis every time she had told him no one could live their life in isolation. He had tried and thought he had proven her wrong. He had achieved everything on his own. Even working in groups, he was alone—a single soldier. Isolation to avoid pain. It was so simple. That way he couldn’t lose anything except himself, and he’d made damn sure that he never gave in to anyone. He thought he had been free. Life had been just right. Until…when?

Well, it used to make sense.

Nothing lasted forever. It was far too late to change that mentality now; it had become a part of him, an instinct over time.

An instinct that was killing him now that he was faced with his heart’s inescapable need. Though every value in his mind told him that this was wrong, his emotions proclaimed otherwise, and for once, they were taking precedence over reason.

But the war inside him had piled up too many casualties. He would never recover completely if he lost her. Not with his heart intact. He was sure of it. Then, even if he defeated Ultimecia, would life be worth living without her? Yes. Would he survive? Possibly. Would he be content with that outcome?

To this question, he was forced to answer: No. Never.

Rinoa’s hand released his shoulder as he used his arm to silently guide her to rest against his side. He watched her blink a few times, felt her lean into his side with her head against his shoulder. A shudder rocked him. If he did lose her, and he lived to remember it, surely the wound he had protected so viciously would never close, would never truly heal. A piece of him would go with her. That part of him would be dead inside.

Ashamed at his own weakness, he felt as he had thirteen years ago, once again flesh and blood. But he couldn’t handle it the way he had years ago. Total independence was not an option. Stark indifference would do no good either.

He couldn’t turn back. He couldn’t just get it together and pretend he was all right. That was what he had been doing all along, and as such he had damned himself; he had believed his own lie.

Shaking his head as though to rid his mind of the confusing thoughts, Squall admitted to himself that rationality meant little to him at the moment. Damn "realism." Damn what was right. Damn what was responsible. He didn’t want any more chances after this.

He tensed as though steeling himself. By putting his heart in her hands, he would be leaving himself wide open for a deathblow. After all that had happened, every crisis he’d survived, every life-or-death decision he’d had to make, he was at his limit. The world’s survival counted on him to lead the fight to destroy Ultimecia. This was not about pride. It was not about giving it his best shot. It was about life or death. He had one chance, and if he failed, there would be no more Earth, no more time as anyone knew it. Despite his attempts to stifle it, the tension of this fact had twisted his insides into such knots that he was ready to snap, whether he looked like it or not.

Rinoa needed him, and he needed her—now more than ever, with Ultimecia’s black inevitability looming before them. He was already on the brink with fear, and only Rinoa knew—only she could understand—how weak he felt right now. Somehow, she had reached him despite every principle he lived by, with the fear at his back every step of the way.

He couldn’t help what he felt, couldn’t stop it, or avoid it. He loved her. It was a terrible risk to be taking at such a critical time as this. But by denying himself the freedom to do so, he would destroy himself all the same, and everyone else with him.

So it’s everything or nothing.

So be it. He could lose her, and he would accept the consequences of that risk. She was his weak point. But also, she could be his strength.

Quistis was right. I was a fool. But not anymore.

Thinking this was a release of sorts. He began to actively pay attention to what he felt: He wanted to reach out and touch the face that stared up at him, waiting for him to say something. But he was startled to see a tear trail down Rinoa’s cheek, tightened his hold on her when she tried to turn away to hide it. "What’s wrong?"

"I’m sorry," she answered him quietly, still keeping her head bowed. "I’m doing it again. I don’t mean to. I try not to. I just can’t seem to hold it all back when… I’m scared."

Squall closed his eyes. He’d given her a hard time in the past about crying, had told her it wouldn’t do any good and that it usually only made people feel worse. Now, he wasn’t so sure. "Maybe," He struggled for words, opened his eyes halfway once he’d found them. "Maybe you can’t keep from crying when you’re upset…but you cry." He wasn’t certain he had made any sense, doubted his words were of much comfort to her. "It’s okay," he blundered helplessly, "if you need to." She didn’t respond to him. It was as if she hadn’t heard him at all.

Too much. He couldn’t take it anymore. Words were not enough; he had to do something. Hesitantly, he let go of her hand, and with the gentle caution of any curious child, brushed her hair back over her ears, out of the way of her eyes. "Hey…you gonna look at me?"

She did, if only because of the way he had asked the question. His face had not changed beyond a slight hint of concern, but his voice, that had sounded different. Still Squall, but the sound had had a smoothness to it that Rinoa had not heard before. It didn’t sound like the right-angled tone of a SeeD officer. More than anything else, it had sounded like the worrying of the eighteen-year old boy he was. She shook her head slowly. "I don’t want to embarrass you."

"In front of who?" He glanced briefly in the direction of their allegedly slumbering comrades. The edge in his voice was back. But Rinoa knew what she had heard. "It’s just us," he followed up on his question.

Just us. Rinoa managed a small smile, blinked still teary eyes. "True." Her whispered response was almost meek.

"I’m scared, too. Scared as hell." As he spoke, he reached around Rinoa so he could free his hands of his gloves without having to let go of her. "I guess when it comes down to it, I don’t know what I’m doing." Especially now.

Rinoa answered him quietly, almost sadly. "You do a good job of looking like you do. But I can understand. No one knows what Ultimecia is going to do when she sees us."

"That’s true, too." As gentle and hesitant as he had been before, Squall touched now-bare fingers to her damp cheek. "But I’m not talking about Ultimecia." He watched Rinoa close her eyes, cupped her cheek gently in his hand. "She doesn’t matter. I don’t care about her. Right now I’ve got a different sorceress on my mind." Tracing lightly over her face, his thumb touched the weeping eyes, followed the path of her tears and tentatively brushed against trembling lips. If he lost her, if he was left alone, he at least wanted something, some memory, some hint of hope to remain—even something as simple as the shape of a face. If this was it, then every moment mattered. Squall felt an unusual kind of dread. Not normal fear, something different. He wasn’t sure what caused it. Nor did he care. The notion was miniscule compared to what he was feeling right now. Now that he was letting himself feel it.

‘Now.’ What was that, anyway?

Rinoa tilted her head into his hand, shaken by his gentle gesture and surprised by his unexpected warmth. He felt almost feverish. It was something she had noticed in Bahamut’s captive domain, but hadn’t had the time to think about. For a moment she forgot her tears, took hold of his hand and held it gently so she could see it. Curiously, she started to reach toward his face. He stared at her intently, made no indication that he objected. She touched her hand to his cheek, then pulled it back. Though he was fair, almost pale, he was hot to the touch, so much he could have passed for being ill. Had he always been that way? She’d noticed before how he chilled easily, but had always stood up against the cold of the north better than she or any of the others had. She’d heard of a genetic anomaly that caused such a constant high temperature. Did he have it? If he did…did it embarrass him? She wondered. "Is that why," Rinoa mused quietly. "Is that why you wear the jacket everywhere?"

He nodded once. "Yeah, sort of. You have a problem with it?"

"No," she said quickly. "I just… I’d wondered. Actually, I…" Nervously she took his hand again, his right hand, studied it, counted every finger as though to be certain all of them were there. She was avoiding his eyes, and a hint of color unrelated to her tears tainted her cheeks. "…I kind of like it," she finished awkwardly, then stopped and inspected a small but clearly visible scar just behind his thumb.

"Stupid mistake I made," he explained. "Got myself with a steak knife when I was twelve."

Rinoa laughed a little, quietly. "Funny. You would think someone in your line of work would get scars from training accidents and fights instead of food utensils."

"Got that, too." He glanced upward with his eyes as though to try and see the scar on his forehead. "Can’t really hide this one, though."

She stopped staring at his hand, but did not let go of it. "Actually, it’s a little hard for me to picture you without it."

"You never saw me without it."

"That’s true." She looked away thoughtfully, to inadvertently end up staring straight at the roaring symbol of Griever. "But it draws attention, you know?"

"Yeah. I kind of noticed..." Even in a corner of a crowded ballroom.

She was looking up at him again, paused, waiting for a memory to play itself out again in her mind. "I want to ask you something."

"What’s that?"

Her smile returned halfway. "Promise me you’ll answer with a ‘yes’ or a ‘no.’"

Squall’s expression had not changed, and did not, save for a slightly raised eyebrow. "I guess so."

"No, you have to promise," she insisted.

"Fine. I promise. Yes or no."

Still, Rinoa took a while to manage her query. "Did…the night we met, and I dragged you out there to dance, did you have fun?"

Squall started to say something, then remembered his yes-or-no oath. He took a moment to think, and Rinoa let him. Finally he answered with a slight nod. "Yes."

Rinoa smiled again, but her smile faded quickly. "You were happy for a little while." She lowered her stare, ashamed. "And then I just upped and left you without a word. Out in the middle of nowhere." Her hands tightened around his. "Just disappeared on you for no reason. Right?"

Squall did not answer. He couldn’t.

"I’m sorry I did that. I shouldn’t have."

"It’s alright. You didn’t know me."

"I wish I had." Rinoa cringed after she said this—she wasn’t certain how Squall might take her words. He said nothing. The silence that followed made Rinoa re-realize their surroundings, and she remembered in a rush where they were. "Squall." She closed her eyes, sat staring at him sightlessly and holding his hand desperately. I’m scared.

He may have heard her silent plea, or sensed it in her attitude. She felt his hand free itself from her grasp, and leaned into his embrace. She felt that if he had not been there to hold her in that moment, she would have fallen over sideways to the hard floor, too weak with fear to have done anything else. Instead her weight met his comfortable support. She nearly lost her tears again, so intense was her reaction, like an explosion in her heart and mind. It wasn’t simply the feeling of safety or attraction or even content. All of these were present, but none were so overpowering as another thought: the notion that it was Squall—forgetting the anti-social, untouchable, close-minded, cold-hearted SeeD commander. It was Squall who was doing this, Squall who was holding her, for no other reason than he wanted to. Best of all, Rinoa knew that the safety of his assurance was real, and his intent was genuine.

It seemed like something out of a fairy tale, with the stolid warrior charmed by a strong-willed princess and faced by the evil powers of a vain and ruthless witch. But the glory of it all was that this was no fairy tale, no fantasy, and the situation was not so simple and hollow. In all seriousness, weeks ago she would not have thought Squall capable of acting in any sort of gentle manner. Now…

But what had she done? What had she done to him that had made him feel this way? All she could remember doing in the past was bickering with him…

It seemed so unfair that this had only just happened, and here facing them was the possibility that it could all be torn to pieces. Rinoa had seen Ultimecia. She had heard the sorceress’s thoughts, and knew how cruel the woman was. If they lost to her, Ultimecia would not only kill them, she would torment their souls, first, for her own amusement. Rinoa couldn’t bear the idea of Squall at the mercy of the terrible witch’s anger. She hated that she feared it, for Ultimecia could reach into the hearts of people, discover what frightened them the most, and play on those terrors.

She opened her eyes, banishing terrible images, stared up at Squall with a tight, desperate look. "Can I ask something else?"

Squall hadn’t expected himself to move as he had a moment ago. He hadn’t actively thought of holding Rinoa so definitely, had surprised himself. He had not done anything of the sort since Sorceress Memorial. Still recovering from the surprise, his spooked eyes hidden from her as he rested his chin in her hair, he barely found the nerve to speak a one-word answer: "Sure." He managed composure again, straightened his image so he could face her.

Rinoa took a breath, reached up to touch his face again. "Let it go." Her hand drew across his cheek as though to remove the mask she spoke of. She quickly pulled her arm back again, leaving him to her request and the odd tingle her fingers had left behind.

At first Squall didn’t understand her, drew his eyes up in puzzlement and not a little reserve; he wasn’t sure how to interpret her words. What was she asking him to do? Let what go?

Of course, the first thing that came to his mind was utterly ridiculous. Surely she wouldn’t expect him to—not now, not here! That couldn’t be it. He forcibly stuffed such annoying hormonal reactions into a closet at the back of his mind and made a point of bolting the door.

Calmer after his initial, internal panic, he remembered her touching his face. Only then did he understand, and very suddenly. He shook his head slowly. "I don’t know if I can."

"Please?"

"How?" He felt suddenly annoyed. "Things are too messed up right now. I can’t just let myself lose it." As it was, he didn’t know what expression he should be wearing, what visage fit his feelings. And what if he stopped trying to keep his composure. What if he really lost it? What if he broke down? He couldn’t risk that now, not with a threat like Ultimecia waiting for him deep within this dark fortress that grew like a gnarled, ugly weed from the dirt of the broken world around him.

Rinoa shook her head slowly, watching him debate with himself. He was squinting, looked as though he was trying to hold up some great weight, but was buckling under the strain. His eyes quivered, but otherwise he did not move.

"Please," she coaxed, "it would be easier to talk to you if I could just see what you’re feeling. I can’t always tell."

"Too many things."

"There’s no reason to cop a scowl around me." She sounded suddenly frustrated, looked away from him. "What good will it do, when I already know it’s made up?"

"It’s not ‘made up,’" he snapped. "I’m sorry. I can’t help it. You don’t understand. I’m not trying to hide anything, it’s just the way I’ve always been." He shook his head at her defiant look. "You can’t change that."

She smiled sadly. "Didn’t your mother ever tell you that if you scowl all the time your face will freeze like that?"

Squall closed his eyes. "I don’t remember my mother."

The answer stung. "Of course." Rinoa sighed quietly, out of ideas to convince him with. She pressed her forehead against his shoulder, closed her eyes, and gave up. In the end it didn’t matter. What mattered was that he was there.

"What do you want me to do?"

She pulled suddenly out of her grim thoughts. There it was again, his voice, without the hard edge or the carefully contrived steadiness, but no different otherwise. It was still strong, still low, but he sounded years younger than he had only moments ago. But he still had his eyes closed. His face was a little more even, and he looked almost as he would have if he had been sleeping, completely unaware of the world around him and not conscious to maintain his mask.

"Open your eyes," she urged him gently. "I wish you’d look at me." She wanted to see him without the steady façade, wanted to see what he felt even if she already knew. "If you wouldn’t look away, if you just kept your eyes on me."

Eyes…on me. Those words, so familiar to Squall. It finally came together in his mind, the title connected with the music that had seemed to follow him wherever he went. The reason Rinoa knew the title, something he hadn’t thought to notice, virtually slammed into him. Caraway…Caraway married Julia. Julia wrote that song! Now he knew why that tune had dogged him. Slowly, he did open his eyes, and fixed their stare on Rinoa.

It was a vastly different stare. His face had relaxed, his jaw was no longer set and tense. His eyes opened completely, where normally they were skewed in a fixed scowl. He did seem younger and he looked, for all Rinoa could tell, as frightened and confused as any other person would have been in his place: dragged out of his normal life and hurled into the position of a leader he had never dreamed he would be, had never wanted to be. No nerves of steel resided here. Only a person, a human being. Fallible, vulnerable.

Something about him seemed weathered and damaged. In this atmosphere, looking into his eyes was like gazing upon what remained of a stained glass work after dozens of rocks had been hurled at it. The design was still recognizable, and had obviously at one time been beautiful and vibrant with color and personality. But that brilliance was gone now, had faded to a glimmer of its former radiance. Whatever punishment Squall had suffered in the past, he had kept to himself, let the sharp broken edges splinter and cut him every time an old wound was jarred. His pride still flaunted the angry luster like battle scars, and had proclaimed to the world that he was broken, proud of it, needed no one, and bore sharp edges that were dangerous to touch, drawing the blood of any who dared. That pride had left him with only his own strength to hold him up, and the years had worn away at him as a continuous, harsh wind. Now, like so much stressed glass, he threatened to crack and fall to pieces if one more stone was thrown his way. A great deal of his suffering had been his own fault. And he knew it.

Despite this, he had no crease of melancholy on his features. Curious, hopeful, frightened, confused. Tainting all these things was a sense of defiance, a vicious passion that would not bend to any weakness. And another, far more gentle inclination.

It was this gentleness that finally moved his face as she watched him, that softness she had heard in his voice only moments ago. She guessed it was that gentleness that made him vulnerable. Such a bizarre paradox: he acted so cold because he cared so much. Caring was dangerous to him, and so he feared it, avoided the soft shards of razor-edged compassion.

Rinoa realized then that to help put the pieces back in place, she would have to risk cutting her hands.

"Julia," Squall said, shattering her dark musings. "Your mother’s name was Julia."

"Yes." She blinked, belatedly realizing what he had said to her. "That’s right. How did you know that?"

Squall kept his eyes on Rinoa, and explained carefully. "You said, ‘keep your eyes on me.’ Eyes on Me. Julia wrote a song by that name. In the dreams Ellone gave me, Laguna used to come to the place Julia worked at, just to listen to her music. She said that because of him, she could come up with the words for a song… But then, he left." Squall’s eyes narrowed in a wince he didn’t bother to fight, and nearly looked away, a dull ache twisting unchecked in his stomach.

All Rinoa did now was watch him. He reacted to his own words as if someone had stabbed him with a knife. It seemed so unusual, and yet it was unsurprising.

"He left," Squall repeated blankly. "He never came back." His voice quieted. "It wasn’t even his fault. At least not completely." He found himself suddenly unable to fight off a slight tightening in his throat, though he felt no inclination to weep. The constriction choked his words. "Julia wrote the song after that. Raine mentioned it, so I know the name. By the time Laguna had the chance to ask about Julia, she’d already married Caraway. If that hadn’t happened…" He closed his eyes and drew in a slow breath, calmed himself. The levelness returned to his voice. "If none of that had happened, you would never have existed."

Rinoa felt a chill. This concept frightened her. To not exist. Then again, to exist because of someone else’s misfortune? "Squall…" She didn’t know what she could say.

"But it did happen." The fear eased, and the gentle calm took precedence once again.

It occurred to Rinoa that the gentleness was for her.

Squall took a breath, and his tone became more fervent, almost desperate, and he spread his hands outward in emphasis, without letting go of her. He had only one plea: "Help me."

But he felt terrible for asking it—his problems were not her responsibility. And help him to what? Not make an ass of himself? No, just to understand what she did, what he couldn’t seem to grasp; Why did he need this love so desperately? What respite came from letting one’s happiness depend on other people, when in the end there was nothing for it but loss and misery? Everyone else seemed to understand some sort of value in such trust and emotional interdependence that had eluded him. Or had he just missed it? Or ignored it? Refused it…?

He could not help wondering if this was a terminal condition that no one could save him from. But what if she could?

"Help me understand. If you can. If you want to."

Rinoa seemed unfazed by what was to him a monumental request. She squeezed his hand. "If you’ll trust me." She was obviously determined to make her claim true.

"I trust you." He had no choice. He wanted no other choice. But trusted only her, and Ellone; he could think of no one but these two who he could believe would understand.

Rinoa continued to stare at him. She sat up so she could see him at eye-level. She didn’t want to look away, not for any reason, for she knew that at some point, Squall would don his scowl again. After that, there was no guarantee she would have another chance to see the face she saw now. "You look scared."

He tilted his head slightly to one side. "Yeah." He did appear frightened, but more relaxed than he had been, seeming more comfortable without the steadying scowl that normally shielded him from anything that would try to tear him down. Next to him, Rinoa could tell that despite his vulnerability, he was breathing easier. "I’m all right."

"What are you thinking about?" Her hand brushed the side of his face, and she did not feel nervous about it as she had before. He seemed to resign to it, though not through any lack of will, accepting her touch rather than allowing it.

"Nothing." His voice was quiet but clear. "Everything," he amended quickly. "Stuff in my head goes too fast. I couldn’t keep up with it if I tried." He frowned, closed his eyes. "Keep thinking I wanna do something or say something. I don’t know what." Or don’t know how, whichever comes first. He felt a shiver trail through his nerves, glanced briefly, curiously out the corners of his eyes at her cool hand against his cheek. "Why are you doing that?"

"I already answered that."

"No you didn’t. When?"

For a moment Rinoa’s expression saddened, and she shook her head, reached out with her other arm to grasp his shoulder tightly. "One time, Squall," she breathed softly. "Not long ago, and not on this world. It’s so clear to me…can’t you remember?"

The memory passed through his mind in a brief rush. ‘Why are you holding onto me like this?’

‘You don’t like this, Squall?’

‘Just not used to it.’

"Still not used to it," he murmured aloud.

His eyes pulled up a little, but he did not smile. Rinoa did, if only because she had seen those eyes brighten for an instant; his comment had been made in a mild sort of humor. "Am I bothering you?"

"No." His expression intensified. There was also longing there, true and natural, that held a fervency that bordered on his fear. "I don’t…don’t mind, not…at, all." His sentence broke up as he realized exactly what he was saying. As though to prove this quiet desire to himself, he repeated, "I don’t mind at all."

Rinoa felt a great relief rise within her like a cloud of cool vapor. She hadn’t realized how much she had wanted to hear Squall tell her what he just had, to let her know for certain that it was all right to be so close, just to touch him or hold onto him if she wished and not have to worry so about doing something wrong. She pulled her hand back, curled up next to him, pleasantly aware of his supportive arm around her. "I just want to know that I can say that we’re together. I want to know if you see it that way. I want to belong here."

He knew by "here," she didn’t mean Ultimecia’s castle. Here. With him. That was what she meant. "I want you to," he answered quietly. "You’re welcome here."

Rinoa smiled at him. The affirmation alone warmed her. "Have you ever actually heard the song?"

"Not really," he murmured, directed his stare to the rafters as he had once before. "Just the melody. Not the words. I don’t usually listen to that kind of stuff."

"One of the songs we danced to was a version of it."

His eyes strayed back to her, looking skeptical. "You mean there’s more than one?"

She smiled. "It became pretty popular. Mom liked different kinds of music, and she liked to hear songs played in a lot of different ways. But she always liked that one best. …Part of it, I’m thinking about right now." She toyed gently with his hair, absently brushing the soft brown strands back and behind his ear, slowly repeating the motion over and again as she spoke. He stayed silent, content simply to watch her, listen to her voice and feel the simple touch. "It reminds me of the way I feel right now."

"What is it?" he asked when she didn’t say anything else.

"Oh, it’s…" She started to look away from him but caught herself, trailed off, searching his stare. He was calm, patient, waiting. Very carefully, her lips formed an answer, but this time her voice kept the rhythm of the song, and she answered not only in words but in music:

"So let me come to you,

close as I want to be

Close enough for me

To feel your heart beating fast

And stay there as I whisper

How I love your peaceful Eyes On Me,

But did you ever know

That I had mine on you?"

To hear the words paired with the melody that had haunted Squall for months was strange to him. The familiar song in the form of Rinoa’s voice sent chills through him; the words seemed to have been written at the moment she sang them, speaking to him rather than someone of years past. He blinked slowly as he listened to her, and noted now that she was no longer simply reciting the words, but directing them toward him.

"Darling, so share with me

Your love if you have enough

Your tears if you’re holding back

Or pain, if that’s what it is…"

Rinoa faltered here, her voice fading into silence like a distant echo that still pervaded long after it was gone.

When Squall could stand her mute stare and the afterimage of the song in his mind no longer, he released his breath in a small rush, glanced briefly off to the side. "Do you wanna…go for a walk someplace? Not far, just, I gotta move." Too many of his feelings were welling up inside of him; he had to get up to keep them from boiling over. Even a short wander would do. He just didn’t want to stay here, sitting idly against a hard stone wall.

"As long as you’re with me." Her smile put him at ease.

"Of course."

It took a brief, dumb stillness for either of them to realize that in order to get up, they had to let go of each other. Out of habit, Squall’s face went taut again, his eyes took on the shapes of spears as he quite nearly had to force himself to release Rinoa. She stood up with him.

"Oh—!" The short exclamation was plaintive. She’d started to reach up to his face again, but stopped herself, staring at him in dismay.

Even before she’d made the sound, Squall had been about to put his gloves back on. He froze in the middle of fitting the first one. Unmoving, he stared at her from the corners of his eyes. His scowl faded some. Slowly, he turned to face her expectant audience. Once more he held his hand out to touch her cheek lightly with the ends of his fingers, and smiled, as best as he could manage with all that was happening, with all that they stood to lose. But he held the smile for a little while, nodded slightly, to assure her: not to worry. He was still there.

As if by reflex, Rinoa snatched at his arm when he finally started to pull it away. He didn’t try to jerk it back as he had in the past, but narrowed his eyes at her, curious about her reluctance to let him go. It wasn’t as though he was about to leave.

"It’s just that I’m afraid," she explained quietly, "that if I look away for a second, I’ll look back and you won’t be there. Something could happen…" She trailed off, getting tangled in her words. She stared at him apologetically.

And I could disappear… "You don’t have to let go of me." Indeed, he hadn’t tried to disturb her hold on him even as he went about putting his gloves back on.

Rinoa found consolation in his words and took them to heart as they started walking. They kept to the inside wall. Rinoa held on—not too tightly—to Squall’s left arm, and he set the pace.

"Funny, isn’t it?"

Squall didn’t understand her abrupt question. "Funny?"

"How everything happened." Her eyes were on the ground before her. "You know, you’re right. If all that hadn’t happened, and Laguna hadn’t left…we wouldn’t be here talking."

"You were thinking about that?"

"Lots of things." She kicked at a loose stone on the floor, watched it bounce and spin away from her. Before the stone had rattled to a stop, she halted and spun around to face Squall. "You said you don’t remember your mother. Do you think she’s still alive, somewhere? If she is, then maybe you could find her. It’s not every day someone names her child ‘Squall.’"

"I doubt she is," he answered quietly. "Someone would have told me. And most of the kids at the shelter who were there because they’d gotten separated…got picked up by their parents at some point."

"No one ever came for you."

"No."

Rinoa’s face fell. "That’s so sad."

Squall continued walking, and she did the same. "Not really." He spoke tonelessly. "I never knew them anyway, so I couldn’t exactly miss them, I guess. Matron was sort of like a mother to a lot of us. If someone had come to get me, I probably wouldn’t have wanted to leave."

"What about when you came to Garden?"

"Cid and Edea told us about Garden…they told everyone. Most of us didn’t go at first. Seifer and I were the only two who didn’t go to foster homes. I don’t know why Seifer stayed. I think I just wanted to go where Matron was going. Or something."

"What about now? Are you happy with what you chose?"

"Compared to what?" Squall stopped suddenly, frowned. He aimed an irritated stare at her. As if I had a choice.

"Nothing. I’m sorry." Rinoa cowered from his scowl. "I’m not saying you shouldn’t have. I just wondered…"

Squall took a breath, calmed himself. He wasn’t sure what had pulled a string in him. "I just don’t wanna regret the past. It isn’t worth it."

"Who said anything about regret? I didn’t mean that."

He thought in silence for a long time. They had reached the edge of the wall and were turning around to head back before he said anything else. "I’d never find Ellone by leaving. Or that’s what I thought. I didn’t want to be somewhere else if she ever came back. And if I made it into SeeD, I’d travel the world, and maybe then I’d come across her."

Rinoa smiled slightly. "Ellone was with you for a few years, wasn’t she?"

"Not a real long time. But as far back as I can remember. To me it seemed like a long time."

"Maybe she would know? About your mother, I mean."

"I doubt it. We’re not related."

"How do you know?" Rinoa teased. "She could be your big sister and you’d never know it."

Squall smirked at the idea, answered dully, "Ha, ha."

Rinoa entertained a small grin. She briefly debated her next words. "You know, I’ve never heard you laugh, I don’t think," she said finally. "What do you think is funny?"

Squall shrugged. "Nothing."

"Liar. I have seen you snicker. And if that little stunt you pulled in Kadowaki’s office was any indication, you’ve got a sense of humor in there somewhere."

Another smirk. "That was months ago… Now that I think about it, though, I probably wasn’t joking…not completely, anyway." He cast a sideways glance at her. "I thought I was."

"What about now?"

"What about now?"

"Change your mind?"

"I don’t know. You still worried about people getting the ‘wrong impression?’"

Rinoa stifled a laugh. "No."

"I guess I’m not joking anymore." He slowed down, stopped, seeming stunned. "I don’t know." He regarded her with a calm stare that hinted about a grin, but never formed one. "What do you think?"

She folded her hands neatly behind her, leaned forward and made a show of scolding him. "I think you’re amazingly dense."

"Still afraid of me?"

She shook her head and straightened her posture. Her tone became more serious. "I don’t think so." One hand sneaked out from behind her and lightly gripped his arm. "Not…not anymore."

For the third time that night, a smile flit past his face. "Good," he said. "Don’t be."

Sighing, Rinoa leaned a little of her weight into his arm, closed her eyes both thoughtfully and in simple weariness. "Back in Bahamut’s cave," she whispered after a while, "what you said—you really meant it, didn’t you?"

"Yeah. Maybe it didn’t sound like it."

"No, it isn’t that." She looked up to find him watching her, shook her head at his worry. "I didn’t doubt you meant it. You wouldn’t have said it if you didn’t. I only asked…" She stopped, thought, and finally admitted: "…I think, because I wanted you to tell me again." She watched him look away from her, saw his composure falter under his uncertainty. "You don’t have to," she added quickly. "I wouldn’t doubt you even if you hadn’t said anything to begin with."

"But there’s no other word for what I feel." In the silent moment that followed, Squall fought an intense desire to embrace her, hold her, to do something, anything that would show her, that could express for certain what he felt that words could not. But again, here was not the place, now was not the time. He knew this. Still, he was sure he had never struggled with any feeling so powerful as this. He saw the wish reflected in her black eyes, hated the fact that his situation prevented him from coming closer. "I hate words," he snarled quietly, tearing his gaze away and closing his eyes to the ache that was building in his chest. "People can say anything they want, and it can mean nothing at all. Words can be pretty, but when it comes down to it they’re shallow as hell." He folded his arms. "How do you gauge sincerity in three words when their meaning can be as worthless as hello and good-bye?"

"By the person who says them. Sometimes the tone of their voice, or the look in their eyes." When he said nothing, Rinoa added, "It isn’t a crime, Squall. If you say it, and feel it when you do, it’s not worthless. It means more than anything else you could ever say to anyone." She placed a hand on his shoulder. "But it’s okay. You don’t have to. And don’t ever think you have to say something just because you know I want you to."

Why not? Squall watched her, fashionably wordless. Finally he turned his attention to the air in front of him and started walking again.

This time, when they reached the corner, they did not sit down right away. Instead they stood in place, each staring at the wall but not seeing it.

Rinoa was pulled out of her thoughts by an obnoxious nearby noise. She glanced over her shoulder and frowned at Irvine’s snoring. Even around a stone wall, it was nerve-grating.

She heard Zell’s irritated voice: "—ey, shut up, man!" A few seconds later there was a quiet thump, a half-awakened "mrf," and then silence.

"Are you tired?" she asked Squall.

"Sort of," he said distantly. Her voice reminded him of where he was, and he moved to sit down again, an action Rinoa mirrored.

She continued to stare, but Squall didn’t seem to notice. If he did, he either didn’t mind or didn’t care. She wondered what he was thinking about, but decided not to ask. She contented herself with watching him.

It may have been hours or minutes—here, time didn’t matter anyway—that Squall spent trying to sort out his chaotic mind. He’d watched the starless darkness outside since they had arrived in this little niche, and he had noticed that in fact, time seemed to mean nothing in this twisted realm. Night had fallen, but it had not progressed. Not a moment had passed since he had stopped thinking about time and started his conversation with Rinoa. The sky remained dark, but not black, and the walls cast no shadows. Time was an option here, he was beginning to realize; something that only mattered if you acted like it did.

Something that could have trapped them all in eternal darkness, had he and Rinoa chosen to fall asleep. Trapped in time.

Good thing we decided to take the first watch, he thought humorlessly. Clever booby-trap, Ultimecia.

But the would-be curse could also be a blessing, and the timelessness of this world roused in Squall a kind of bitter relief. He could talk to Rinoa here as long as he wanted, as long as they could keep from thinking about time in the first place. For this reason, he decided not to mention his observation to her.

She was staring at him, and he knew it. He didn’t mind it. In the past, it would have made him uncomfortable, but he understood now that her gaze was not judgmental. If she was watching him, it was because she wanted to and for no other reason. The fact that she wanted to both confused him and nudged at his pride. Why did she want to look at him for so long, and so intently? He answered his own question with another question he already knew the answer to: Why did he want to look at her?

"You know what," her soft voice brought him from his trance. He said nothing in response, but waited for her to continue. She did, finally. "You’re a beautiful boy, Squall."

Squall held his breath briefly, stared at her through half-lidded eyes. "What am I supposed to say to that?"

She shrugged, smiled wryly. "At least I said it to you. If you had been Seifer, you would have told me to stop calling you ‘boy.’" She shook her head, waving away the rising jealousy in Squall’s eyes. "No, seriously. I’m not expecting you to say anything at all. I just wanted to tell you…that I think that. And I mean it."

Squall relaxed, searched for some way to reply. "Well…thanks," he said lamely.

He lowered his stare to the floor. He wanted to tell her she was beautiful to him. He wanted to say so many things to her. He couldn’t. Everything he thought of to say seemed so stupid and cliché. Nothing important could be conveyed with words. Everything he thought to say had already been said by someone else in the past, in some book, in some movie, in some other person’s lifetime. Phrases and their meanings had been used to the point they had become redundant. There wasn’t a relevant word he could think of whose meaning hadn’t been used up.

How he hated words. He couldn’t even tell her that he loved her, not without coming up short of the truth. Even that, especially that, sounded too meaningless to him. The term "love" was so commonplace. What he felt wasn’t a common thing. Not to him.

A distant part of him wished she could read his mind, if only so she could understand the enormity of what he thought and felt. Nothing he could say could do any of his thoughts justice. Nothing.

He shivered, closed his eyes. He wanted to show her some sort of affection, more than what he had already done. He wasn’t quite sure what was keeping him from doing so. Perhaps he just didn’t know what he could do. Then again, maybe he did, instinctually, and too well. He was afraid he would lose himself and go too far.

But what was too far? Anything? For all he knew, they would all be dead by tomorrow. But his own forbidding logic kept his more impetuous desires at bay. Such feelings meant little for now, he reasoned. The idea didn’t feel right. And it wouldn’t, he decided, not without trust, a kind of trust he knew could only be achieved over time. That kind of time, he realized as the ache surged again in his chest, had nothing to do with hours or minutes or the passage of days and nights. That kind of time existed in the same realm as his feelings for her. It was not for words to describe or explain. But even if they survived this "mission," chances were that their partnership wouldn’t last. He knew that, hated it, hated that they were so irrevocably different from each other, hated that his life would never allow him the time for her. His own personality wouldn’t allow him to focus on her. No, he was not for her in the end. Impossible.

But for now…

The future didn’t matter to him now. For now, they were on level ground with each other, with a common goal. For now, he could give her the comfort and stability that she needed. Now, he could allow himself his love for her. For now. If this was the end of their lives, then he would spend that last day by her side, fight alongside her, die alongside her. That, at least, he knew was right. And as long as it lasted, he would not waste it.

Be with her, he told himself. Comfort her. Don’t covet her.

He felt Rinoa lean into his shoulder again as she had not so long ago, in this same place by the wall. He looked down at her to find her eyes distant and half-closed with fatigue.

The fear began to creep through him again. Don’t leave now— He nudged her lightly. "You falling asleep on me?" He hadn’t meant the question quite so literally, but he supposed it was accurate either way one chose to interpret it.

"Sorry," came the murmured response. "I’m tired…"

Don’t leave, his heart pleaded silently. If she fell asleep, he’d have to stay awake to allow the morning to come. Don’t leave me alone here! "Comfortable?" Is all he said aloud.

She smiled up at him, sleepy-eyed. "Yes. Are you ever going to sleep?" She sat up a little against the wall, eyes still trained on him.

"Probably not. Someone’s gotta stay up…keep watch…" His voice faltered and his words crumbled. He was staring at her, almost eye-to-eye. He became suddenly, frighteningly aware of just how close his face was to hers. His quickening heartbeat became so loud, he feared she might hear it. He closed his half-open mouth, looked away from her while at the same time releasing a tense breath of suffocated air.

Rinoa put a hand to her lips, belatedly realizing what she had almost done—or had it been accidental at all? She shrank a little, not away from him but closer to him, averting her stare to the dark brown of his jacket. "I’m sorry, I didn’t mean, I wasn’t trying…that. I just looked at you, I didn’t think I’d…" she trailed off meekly.

Squall could find nothing to say. He couldn’t forgive her; she’d done nothing wrong. It was an accident. Nothing had happened. Nothing happened… He closed his eyes, trying to shut out his muddled senses and calm his drumming pulse. Was he relieved or disappointed? Damn, I need to sleep. But he couldn’t sleep.

But why the hell not?

"I’m gonna go wake Quistis up so we can sleep," he announced flatly, started to stand.

Rinoa stood up with him. She followed him closely, afraid to stray from his side, lest he might vanish and be separated from her.

Quistis startled awake when Squall nudged her with his boot. She fumbled about the ground in front of her for a moment until she found her glasses, put them on and blinked blearily up at he who had disturbed her.

"It’s been a few hours," Squall said, kneeling next to her so he could keep his voice down. "Near as I can tell, anyway. I need some sleep. You think you can take over for a while?"

"I…suppose I could," Quistis sighed, silently lamenting that she had been chosen to take over the watch. But wait, what watch? No one had said anything about a watch before. "Take over what?" came the delayed question.

Squall had been waiting for it. "Someone needs to stay awake," was all he said. From his tone, Quistis knew better than to ask why. She glanced at Rinoa, who was hovering behind Squall, staring out into the grey nothing. The young sorceress seemed not to be paying any attention to their conversation.

"Well, all right," Squall’s ex-instructor agreed reluctantly. "Should I wake everyone up at…’morning?’"

"Yeah."

Quistis sat up, propped herself on one hand, and waved Squall off with the other. "Go on. Get some sleep, Squall. And you too, Rinoa," she added. Rinoa looked away from the nonexistent horizon and smiled wanly in the SeeD’s direction. She said nothing.

Squall stood, glanced at Rinoa to be sure she was with him, and started back for "his" corner. He turned toward Quistis as he walked past her, hissed firmly, "Stay awake."

Cocking an eyebrow at his insistence, Quistis nodded slowly.

Moments later, Squall leaned back against the hard wall, inclining his head and closing his eyes, wincing as though he had a headache. He sank into a sitting position, seeming to ooze down the cold stone as though attached to it by an invisible slime.

Rinoa sat down in a much less dramatic fashion. She settled into the embrace of his left arm and leaned into his shoulder, curling up beside him and closing her eyes in fatigue. She didn’t want to wake up to the morning, but she was so tired. As long as sleep did not separate her from the one person that she found respite in, then she was willing to fall prey to it. Her hand clutched the side of his jacket firmly. "I thought you said ‘just this time,’" she murmured. She felt him sigh quietly. His answer was delayed, almost inaudible, but clear enough to Rinoa that his words made her smile.

"I lied."

Content for this to be the last thing she heard from him before falling asleep, Rinoa let go of her awareness and said nothing more.

Squall closed his eyes and tried his best to relax. It wasn’t too difficult; he was inexorably tired, his mind too mixed up to think clearly. Even against the hard stone, he felt comfortable with Rinoa at his side, safely in his grasp. Quistis was awake to keep the "watch."

He could have kept Rinoa awake, too, could have spoken with her for as long as he wanted. He could have spent a small eternity here with her. But what purpose would that serve? Every word and every action would be tainted by the ever-present, looming fact that at some point, it would all end, and they would have before them the cruel power of Ultimecia to face. In actuality, Squall wanted the morning to come as quickly as possible. He wanted to face Ultimecia, rid himself and everything in his life of her menace. His issue with her had become personal. Ultimecia had made it personal when she had taken control of Rinoa and nearly killed her. He hated Ultimecia, and everything she had done to make his life a living hell. He wanted to show the witch that by playing on his emotions, by inflicting everything she had on him and the people he knew, by trying to control his life and Rinoa’s as she had Seifer’s, she was making a terrible, fatal mistake.

Whether or not he had known it at the start, he had trained his entire life for the sole purpose of defeating Ultimecia. He wanted to live up to his purpose. Not a purpose that had been dictated to him by some higher power. His purpose. The path he had chosen to walk himself, whether or not he’d had much choice as to which roads he could take. At least he had chosen to keep going.

But more than anything else, he wanted it to be over with. He didn’t want to have this nonsense to think about anymore. And, strange, the acceptance that morning could bring his death found in him not fear, but an odd sort of peace. To not exist… How could one fear nothing? He decided it was impossible. No one had no fear, not even Seifer. And no one feared nothing, not even Squall. Were these two facts one and the same? He supposed it didn’t matter. All that mattered, was now.

He would fight Ultimecia. He would destroy her. He would be safe. Rinoa would be safe. He and Rinoa…

His consciousness drifted. Warm blackness descended.

Morning came. But the darkness never lifted. 

~*~

“Hold back tomorrow!
Hold back the morning light
You’re all I’ve hoped for
We just need time on our side.”

~*~


Luna Manar's Fanfiction
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