Selphie bit her lip and stared into her pina colada with a glum expression. Squall was late. He was never late. She stirred her glass in front of her and sighed softly. He was probably weighed down with work, but she had been looking forward to being with him that evening. He was opening up so much! She grinned at the thought and then wondered where Rinoa had went. It bothered Selphie that the raven-haired wench had been so much trouble to Squall. A frown overcame her smile, Rinoa was nice, but…she didn't fit in with the rest of him with her rebellious nature and flair for drama.
“Selphie, if your expression changes one more time I’m going to think you’re crazy,” Quistis spoke up, after watching the quiet brunette.
“Well...I was wondering where Squall was, and then I was wondering where Rinoa was and I was thinking about how happy Squall has been lately or at least he hasn’t been sad or anything and he’s been acting so sweetly to me lately, you know I think I really am starting to like him. I really like that sort of guy, competent, strong, fantastic fighter, he’s so hot, too, it’s like a win-win situation or…well…it wouldn’t be if he didn’t like me back but you know what I mean right? I just wish he had came tonight because I was looking forward to seeing him relax and stuff and—”
The other three let her babble on but the absence of Squall was noticed more clearly by them as Quistis checked her watch and raised her eyebrows. He had said he would come. She exchanged a troubled look with Irvine before turning her gaze out the window into the darkness. She was staring there for another seven minutes before she saw Squall appear in the doorway.
“He’s here!” She announced victoriously, sending Selphie leaping to her feet.
“What the hell?” Seifer asked, his hand clamping on to Selphie’s as the other three froze.
Squall’s hand was clutching none other than Rinoa’s. She looked like a wreck in strange clothing, with darkened eyes, bruised cheeks and the inability to walk. He half-lead, half-dragged her over, trying not to look directly into Selphie’s crushed eyes as she sunk back to her chair and stared into her drink.
“I’m so sorry!” Rinoa whined as soon as she reached the table, collapsing and bringing another sigh from Squall as he hefted her up, “I’m such a mess right now, oh, if only I didn’t leave! There was this guy and he seemed so nice I just started talking and then I heard he took Selphie—”
Squall’s eyes widened and then promptly twitched on one side. He dropped Rinoa’s hand like a hot rock as his seated companions all closed their eyes one by one to avoid looking at the tattered princess.
“Squall, at least listen to me!” Rinoa pleaded, her eyes and nose beginning to water.
The SeeDs sat frozen at the table, unsure of what to do with an unraveling Rinoa. Usually her temper sided towards fiery outbursts but this was an absolute breakdown.
“Tender!” Squall called, looking back, “Get us some…uh…clothes…and stuff.”
“Squall please!” Rinoa lurched at him and groped for his hand, making him back away in revolt.
“You always rescued me before! I need that now! I just don't know what to do anymore, I had a purpose, I had a goal, and now that everything is over I'm just useless! I get that I made mistakes but I want to try again.”
Quistis turned away, unwilling to see anymore. Rinoa had always been so concentrated on her looks, and to see her so disheveled was making the blonde uncomfortable. Squeezing further into the booth she tucked herself close to Seifer and was relieved when his arm wrapped around her. Rinoa with a purpose was an entirely different creature to Rinoa post-fame and ambition. It made Quistis reflect that both of them strove for a goal, and having a goal oriented their energy, but the loss of momentum had really hit Rin hard. They had been close, once, but after the Ultemecia affair their relationship had changed. Rinoa made Squall the centre of her universe and everyone else faded into the background.
On the other side of the table Irvine was stroking Selphie’s hair as she watched in horrified fascination at Squall and Rinoa. They had been the ‘perfect couple’ in so many eyes. Jealousy seeped into Selphie but she forced it down, she couldn’t act that way. Squall had been opening up to her, volunteering to stand next to her, now he was her knight. Selphie looked down and bit her lip. Sometimes she just wanted someone too. She knew that wasn't wrong, but she couldn't let it influence her into negativity.
“So...you spoke to Morgan?” Selphie asked in a wavering voice.
Rinoa finally noticed Selphie’s presence and she looked up with wild eyes, “Yes! He seemed so nice so I told him all my problems about Squall neglecting me for the Ar—”
“Shut up!” Selphie shrieked, jumping up and clamping her hand over Rinoa’s mouth, “Don’t say it, you idiot!”
Rinoa tore away and ignored Selphie, shoving the brunette back into the booth so she could try and grab at Squall once more, “But I don’t care if you neglect me until that stupid ship is built, we can work this out, can't we? We can move on to bigger, better things! Once the Aries is done we can focus on us and new plans. It's a compromise, Squall, I think that is fair.”
Squall was at a complete loss. He had no desire to be anywhere near Rinoa and yet half of him wanted to smack her upside the head for ruining their plans for the Aries and leading to the capture of Selphie. Rinoa looked like she had gone through a complete breakdown and he wasn't sure how to handle it. He didn't want to handle it, he realized. He had to clean up the mess she created and protect his fellow soldiers and Garden.
“Go away.” Squall sighed as the tender came and gave the SeeD some cloths soaked in hot water, “Clean yourself up and go away.”
“You mean until I’m pretty? Then you’ll take me back? Is that what the problem was?” A careful frown of cluelessness came across Rinoa’s face,
“No, I want you to leave, you don’t belong with us, SeeD is not your purpose, Rinoa, I can't deal with this right now and I can't make compromises away from Balamb. I hope you get better.” Squall said in an even tone, his hands shaking with the effort,
“Why? Squallie are you with someone else?”
Squall cringed, closed his eyes and muttered, “Yes.”
“WHO?” Rinoa snarled and glared balefully at him, “You mean you forgot how good I was to you? Who’s the tramp? I bet I’m better than her in every way! How could you switch tracks so soon?”
“Quit your bitching Rinoa and do what the man said, just get out of here,” Seifer spoke up, looking irritated.
“What are YOU doing here?”
“He’s SeeD. Rinoa, you need to go,” Squall nudged her towards the door like one might nudge a dead carcass off the road.
She refused, staring wildly at them with huge crazed eyes. It was obvious she hadn’t slept for a long time, and that she had been trying to find Balamb for some time as well. As she whirled back and forth, looking at them with jerking movements of her head she upset her balance and threw out her arms. Four red lines appeared on Squall’s cheek as her brittle nails slashed him.
“Squall!” Selphie was on her feet in an instant, worried emerald eyes looking at him, “Are you all right?”
Rinoa paused, her back curved and head low, eyes squinty at them. Selphie and Squall. Selphie and Squall. Selphie and Squall.
“You!” She hissed.
Selphie looked warily at Squall who was looking warily at her. The young man grabbed Selphie’s hand and then bolted from the Pearl! Quistis stood in exasperation as Rinoa shrieked and scuttled after them but Seifer pulled her back down lazily.
“Don’t worry doll,” Irvine smiled in a strained manner, “He’ll jus’ lead Selphie an’ him somewhere safe and let Rinoa’s exhaustion wear her out.”
“I’ve never seen her look so bad,” Quistis whispered, shocked, "What on earth happened to her?"
“Don’t worry, she’s an actress,” Seifer growled, “Worst girl to date EVER.”
Squall’s boots pounded over the planks as he led Selphie out into the night and lightly falling rain. Selphie was silent, her breathing being the only sign that she was behind him, and Squall didn’t say anything either as he ducked into alley spaces and through streets. Rinoa was not too far behind but she lagged because her legs wouldn’t move straight, she teetered to either side in her weariness, her mind consumed by tangled emotions and guilt.
It was only 15 minutes of solid running later that Squall was convinced he had lost the waif and he found a shed for them to hide in. Opening the door and turning the light on inside he slammed the entrance shut and leaned against it, pulling Selphie to his chest and looking down at her. They stared into each other’s eyes for a moment and then burst into laughter.
Selphie shook as she giggled, a breathless laugh from their fast flight, and rested her forehead against Squall’s chest.
“I never thought I’d actually be scared of Rinoa,” Squall sighed, wrapping his arms around Selphie comfortably.
“She’s gone crazy,” Selphie agreed, “It’s sad, but her father will find her and take her back home, either that or she’s faking,”
“Probably faking. She pulled a stunt similar to that during one of our last fights. Made herself look distraught and begged…it’s more annoying than saddening, I don't know why she does it, she's smart, she has so much energy, but she just loves drama.”
“Hey Squall?” Selphie looked up into his stormy eyes, “You said you were with someone else…?”
Squall let out one of his rare smiles, though; lately they hadn’t been too rare, and squeezed her a little, “If it’s all right with you…”
Selphie’s eyes widened and then a little grin lit up her face, sending a blush across her cheeks, “You’re the BEST!”
She jumped up and threw her arms around his neck and her legs around his waist, making him laugh in surprise and hold her closer, “I thought…I thought you liked me for me, and she…doesn’t,” he said almost shyly.
Selphie grinned and snuggled closer, “I do Squall, you’re my hero and one of my best friends, I…I really, really like you.”
Squall looked down and then blushed a little, making her squeal. They fell silent again, lost in each other’s gaze, and then slowly their faces tilted towards each other…sealing their feelings with a kiss.
“So where’d Rinoa go?” Seifer asked conversationally, in reality he really didn’t care.
“Running back to daddy-dearest with a pout on her face and a ruined plan to get Squall back.” Quistis replied, “She phoned me in tears last night, demanding I tell her how long Selphie and Squall had been a couple. Of course, they aren’t, or weren’t, so that complicated things a little. I don't know what she was thinking, blabbing about the ship to a complete stranger. She must have been drinking.”
“I’m happy for Selphie,” Irvine announced, “She’ll be good for Squall.”
“And what about you Cowboy? The Balamb Moonlight Festival is coming up, who will your date be?” Quistis looked at her pocket calendar before turning a curious gaze up at the man.
The three were in Quistis’ room, lounging on her couch while an Autumn storm raged outside. In two hours the mission would begin and this was their last sit-down time for awhile. Irvine sighed, looking troubled and then lowered his indigo eyes to the floor.
“Well, if I could, I’d pick Miss Trianon, but she won’t have none of that,” He pursed his lips and then shook his head in defeat, “I’ll probably take Michelle.”
“Aw,” Quistis patted his arm in consolation, “Michelle’s nice though, and you two get along.”
“No time to worry anyhow,” Irvine said to change the subject, “We should load our gear into the Ragnarok.”
Seifer took the hint and stood up, finding his bags piled near Trepe’s doorway. He threw one over his shoulder and stepped into the hall. They filtered out behind him and strolled down to the Ragnarok where Nida and Selphie were making some adjustments to one of the wings. A somber Trianon observed them quietly from behind, Irvine was further disappointed to notice that she didn’t even look up to see him. And he had thought Quistis was cold.
Inside he sat down in a padded red chair, fiddling with his belt, then his sleeve…a shoelace…his watch…
“Irvine, for Hyne’s sake just sit still,” Quistis snapped, “You’re driving me nuts!”
“Sorry Quistis,” Irvine gulped and looked down, “It’s not good that I can’t get her out of my head,”
“It isn’t,” the stoic blonde agreed, “just…don’t drive yourself crazy waiting on her, Trianon is...different.”
Irvine nodded and leaned over the glassy table top, resting his chin on folded arms and sighing softly. He had been lonely after Selphie and he had broken up, even though it was for the better. It was strange, not having someone to hold on to for no reason at all, though the little brunette had been generous in sharing her hugs with him. Deciding that Selphie must have known how he felt, Irvine since then became a protective older brother figure to her. He owed her that much at least.
Quistis sat down across from him, her blue eyes deep that day as she looked out the windows, clouds reflecting in her glasses, and sighed softly. She could see Seifer in the window reflection, watching her…watching her watch him, no doubt. Tinted blue from the window pane and in his usual “could not care less” stance, the blonde man was gazing at the back of her head with slightly narrowed eyes. A smile graced Quistis’ face as she wondered what he was thinking. Her eyes watched him frown, trying to figure out what she was pondering, and after giving up, close for a moment before he slid across and sat beside her. Quistis moved her fingers over his, exploring his hand while he watched her. They had been stealing little touches from each other for some time now, both feeling mutual affection but neither wanting to bring verbal attention to it.
Quietly, not wanting to disturb them, Irvine rested his cheek on his arm and closed his eyes. They’d reach Esthar in an hour or so and be rushed into the plush rooms of the Presidential Palace.
Selphie gazed down pensively at the barely-made engine in front of her. From behind her mask her blowtorch appeared violet and she lowered it down to an assortment of components, beginning to sear them together…the casing that she would assemble the engine inside of.
Behind her the ever-stoic Trianon was standing straight-backed and silent. The woman’s eyes flickered over every shadow and her entire body seemed to be made of fluid when the door was opened. In mere seconds she would be in front of Selphie with a weapon out, a strange liquid grace having been used to get there.
A multitool clattered to the ground as Selphie reached for a new accessory to wield. The mechanics room was dead silent save for her tinkering, Selphie couldn’t even hear herself nor Trianon breathe. The presence of the woman quite often faded from her mind since the instructor was being so quiet. At times Selphie would look around and think that Trianon had disappeared but later she’d locate the woman by chance alone. It was unnerving.
Hours floated past with Selphie beginning to perspire on her brow. Her tongue peeked at the corner of her lips and a permanent frown had made its way on to her forehead. Fingers were darting over the smooth metal pieces, fitting them together, testing, pulling wires and connecting nuts and bolts. She was anxious to get the engine done, but scared to finish and leave a perfect ship able to be captured. If it had been up to Selphie she thought they should just scrap the Aries…and leave Selphie to design something completely different.
Weapons had always been an object of mystery to the girl, and she thought it might be more useful if she expanded her horizon to something other than repairs for the Ragnarok and malfunctioning sliding doors. Instead of building a stealth ship that by now was not a secret to any of their old opponents, Selphie wanted to do something new, since Garden had lost the upper hand.
Selphie looked up to see a rather nervous man staring wildly at a deadly Trianon, whom had glided out of nowhere with a knife in hand, and clutching a piece of paper. Selphie balked and then shooed the instructor away, since she recognized the man as a simple messenger.
“Is it for me?” She asked, green eyed curious.
“Y-Yes,” the man, a young cadet, nodded.
“Thanks,” Selphie took it and plopped back on the floor amid her engine pieces and the core of the Aries that loomed around her.
The paper was twisted from the man’s fear of the instructor but the SeeD could still read the spidery writing. Her eyes traced the top of the document, narrowing as she saw the crest of Galbadia Garden.
“’Dear SeeD Tilmitt’,” Selphie read aloud, “’We have been informed of your mechanical prowess and had decided to offer you the rare and glorious opportunity to join the ranks of the world’s top Garden. Galbadia will pay for room and board in exchange for your skills in airship making and repairing. We are most interested in your recent stealth ship creations, namely, the Aries—‘” Selphie stopped.
Trianon gazed at her sedately, unperturbed by the offer that the young woman had just received. Selphie was staring at the sheet in awe and continued to read aloud.
“’…and we would like to offer you the chance to expand your repertoire of mechanical pursuits by adding armour and weaponry, using the finest instructors to teach you the basics and let your creativity run wild,’”
“A decent offer,” Trianon spoke up in the silence that followed.
Selphie nodded numbly. She had never really had anything against Galbadia, just some of the higher ups, and now that they were gone the Garden wasn’t so bad. But would a dream chance at Galbadia be worth leaving her friends? Or would she be able to keep in touch with her SeeDs back at Balamb. Worse, if she left, would Squall still want to be close to her at all?
“I’m crazy for thinking about this,” Selphie breathed softly.
Out of the corner of her eye she could see Trianon watching her quietly.
Amber eyes opened in the darkness. A stinging pain crossed his forehead as Morgan sat up. Every cell in his body ached, he felt as if he should be dead, and from the lacerations across his skin he realized he probably should have been.
Morgan squinted as a golden light broke out overhead. His lips trembled when he tried to speak but nothing came out. A tall, bear of a man stood in front of him with an oily smile and a smug expression. Morgan recognized him to be the con leader.
“You’ll be happy to know that all your men are dead. You’ll also be happy to know that you have a mission. If you fail you die. If you succeed, we get the Aries, and you die, anyhow…”
Morgan swallowed and felt the blood drain from his face, pool elsewhere in his body, and cause him to crash into blissful unconsciousness. He was going to die. His entire life cut short.