Ace of Spades
By Luna Manar
"It can be the most powerful or the least useful card in the deck...which one depends on the game you play."
Nighttime around nomadic Balamb Garden was graced with quiet radiance. The light of stars flashed and dipped in the waves of a vast ocean, liquid diamonds accenting the golden glow of massive propulsion rings that shone beneath the sapphire waters. The Garden sat on a circular patch of luminescent emerald, treading the currents with steadfast determination like a majestic old sea ship bound for home.
But ‘home’ was a relative term, and right now, Quistis felt farther away from home than she had ever been in her life. Halfway into the two-day journey from Fisherman’s Horizon to imperiled Trabia, Garden was already preparing for the worst upon their arrival, readying to take on the casualties of the Galbadian missile attack. As the mobile campus trekked northward toward Selphie’s home, the familiar warmth of Balamb and the southern hemisphere faded away into memory, and an oppressive chill was beginning to taint the pleasant scent of the salty ocean breeze.
Quistis folded her arms and hugged herself, lithe-fingered hands gripping her elbows in an attempt to fend off both the cold and her anxiety. Wayward winds blew her brazen hair in dry waves as she looked out over the ocean from her vantage on the second-floor balcony. She stood just behind the metal balustrade, contemplating the jewel-encrusted surface of the water a few dozen meters below. A steely wind whipped past her, and she squared her stance to keep her balance as the Garden tilted ever so slightly in the wake of the starboard draft. She backed away from the view as the floor settled again, shivering at the thought of the unforgiving waters rising up to meet her, should she fall.
Would that she could escape the cold current of her thoughts just now. A flood of muses thick with stinging memories inundated her mind, and the feelings welling up inside her were beginning to cut so deep, she feared at any moment she might drown in the rising waters of the emotional dam she had built around herself.
The sight and smell of the ocean did not soothe her as they usually did when she felt this uptight. There was something unfamiliar about this dark sea, an atmosphere that was sinister, hanging low over the surface like coils of predatory mist. Still, she resisted the urge to turn away from it; hiding from her misgivings would do her more harm than good, and at the moment, she needed all the good she could lay eyes on.
So many problems. Too many questions, too few answers. Why was the Sorceress looking for Ellone? Why this sudden attempt from Galbadia at world conquest? Cid had talked about SeeD’s ultimate mission. What was it?
All very important questions, but none of which plagued the ex-instructor’s mind just now.
His mission with her was over weeks ago. Why is she still here?
Alone in her reverie, Quistis dared to allow her eyes to shimmer. Still not a tear fell to betray the tide of her swimming emotions.
She was privileged with so many things at Garden. A home, a life, friends—even a following of wannabes, annoying as they could be. There were so many people who knew about her, respected and even revered her. But on this cold night, she felt hollow and abandoned. Everyone knew her name, but no one really knew who she was.
And the one person she needed to understand, was the one cold shoulder who would never deign to care.
Then she had come along. Quistis’ heart sank into an abyss of hopelessness all over again. If her chances to gain Squall’s respect had been slim before, they’d eroded away to nothing, like dust in the wind, once Rinoa had been brought into the picture.
She supposed it was just one of life’s cruel ironies. She didn’t dislike Rinoa, but the girl was too outgoing and too impetuous about her unspoken, but well-realized attraction to Squall to allow Quistis any room to breathe. It was a hard truth she found herself struggling to accept: she’d been outdone. In a heartbeat. By a spry upstart of a girl who, three weeks ago, she hadn’t even known existed.
It was as if Rinoa had some sort of tragic, magic touch. She’d walked up to Squall, a total stranger, and in the course of thirty seconds, pulled him out on the dance floor. True, he’d had perhaps a bit too much Chardonnay, and true, she’d half-dragged him away from his solitary spot on the wall, but the fact remained that he had allowed her to do it, and that in itself was a phenomenon Quistis had trouble stomaching. Watching them dance, once Squall had gotten the hang of it, had been punishing. Even recently, her mind kept returning to her failed attempt to reach through the now-commander’s impregnable shell. That impossibly clear night—it had been much like this one—and the image of his uncaring back and maned shoulders haunted her more than that of his emotionless eyes. In a single sentence, he had made his position clear to her.
‘Go talk to a wall.’
Since then, she’d found herself staring at walls quite often. But she never spoke to them.
How many things had she failed to do, in the past three weeks? She’d failed as an instructor, failed to keep Seifer under reign, failed to follow orders in a critical SeeD mission, and, worst of all, failed to persuade a person, whom she held very dear, to so much as acknowledge her existence as a human being.
She was hailed by many people as being a prodigy. Why didn’t she feel so confident?
SeeD at 15, an instructor at 17. Multiple honors in as many fields of expertise...she could certainly say she was successful, even though she hadn’t kept the instructor’s license. But what did success matter, if she had no one who cared enough to share it with her? Success was no substitute for acceptance.
As she leaned on the railing, staring at the Garden’s rippling reflection, her thoughts strayed again to Rinoa, and how the girl had shared that dance with Squall. There must be something wrong with me, she fretted, shifting her weight uncomfortably from one foot to the other. I should be feeling jealous...but I don’t. Quistis held no resentment for Rinoa at all, in fact. She was envious. Never in her life had she felt so left out, needful of a thing she could not name. She had thought it was love. Now, she was not so sure.
As if to compound the weight on her heart and mind, she was startled from behind by a sharp buzz that announced the door to the stairwell was about to open. A moment later it had, and through it walked Rinoa Heartilly.
Quistis closed her eyes for a moment, letting her unfallen tears disperse beneath her eyelids before she looked to the side, where her visitor had come to stand next to her.
"I hope I’m not interrupting anything," Rinoa disclaimed, resting her hands on the cold rim of the railing and leaning over a little to stare down at the water. "I was just wondering if you’d seen Squall."
Quistis’ face hardened, and she mirrored Rinoa’s example, trying her best not to let her expression show as she answered. "Not recently."
Rinoa smiled, seeming not to have heard the tightness in the SeeD’s voice. "It’s beautiful, isn’t it?"
"The water," she clarified, standing straighter and glancing amicably at Quistis. "I think it’s really pretty how the stars reflect in it. It’s even better on the other side of the Garden, where the moon is. It looks a little happier, because it’s so bright."
"Oh yes," Quistis replied, somewhat blandly. "Yes, I suppose it is..."
Silent for a minute or two, Rinoa continued to stare out into the distance. The wind caught her hair as well, and for a time the two stood still, standard-bearers alone in the great expanse of the ocean.
Quistis observed her visitor curiously, wondering how anyone could find the time during a crisis situation like this to notice something so subtle as how the light of the moon affected the mood of the sea. She wondered if the girl grasped the enormity of Trabia’s plight.
As if to challenge the SeeD’s critical thoughts, Rinoa turned to stare in the direction of the Garden’s path. "Do you think there will be anything left when we get there?"
Hesitating, Quistis again copied Rinoa’s actions, gazing sightlessly to the north where their destination lay. "It’s hard to say," she answered finally. "Trabia Garden is a giant building, but, those missiles were powerful enough to level small mountains. If it was a direct hit, I don’t know if it could withstand the force."
Rinoa’s next question was more delicate. "Do...do you think there will be any survivors?"
"That’s what we’re counting on." It was the only answer Quistis could give.
"And Selphie...whatever happens, I hope she does all right. If there’s a lot of destruction, this will be hard for her." Turning around suddenly, Rinoa aimed a curious, calculating stare in Quistis’ direction. "I know SeeDs go through a lot of training to prepare themselves for things like this, but Selphie is always so...chipper. She doesn’t act like a battle-hardened soldier."
Quistis almost laughed. "What gave you the idea that anything can prepare you for losing your home, your friends and your dreams?" She snapped her mouth shut on the last word. Rinoa visibly shrank away from her, frowning defensively.
"I...I didn’t mean it like that."
Sighing, Quistis pressed the end of her knuckles against her face, shook her head and leaned wearily on the balustrade. She looked as if she were about to be seasick. Her voice softened, and her eyes drew up sharply in frustrated repentance, angry at herself. "I’m sorry, Rinoa. I shouldn’t snap at you like that. I’ve been doing it to you ever since I first met you, and I’m sorry. I’m just a selfish perfectionist who’s finding out she’s not very perfect, after all."
Smiling weakly, seeming unsure if she should offer sympathy or keep her distance, Rinoa went back to staring at the horizon. "Don’t worry too much about it," she said. "Considering the situation, everyone has a right to be upset.
"I’m not a professional like you," she added, "but if you need to talk to someone, I’ll be glad to listen."
Quistis waved the offer away with a weak, slightly embarrassed smile. "Oh, that’s all right. It’s...not necessary. I need time to think, that’s all. I’ll be fine."
"Be careful, or you’ll start to sound like Squall."
Though the comment had been meant as a joke, Quistis couldn’t help wondering silently if the observation wasn’t in some way accurate. She offered another uncertain smile to meet Rinoa’s bright gaze.
"Br-r-r, it’s cold out here." Rubbing her hands together, Rinoa started for the door. "Well, see you later, Quistis. I think I’ll look in the training center next."
The hair rose along Quistis’ neck. "The training center?" Straightening, she turned on her heel and took a step after Rinoa, holding her arm out as if to stop her. "Rinoa, you can’t do that. It’s dangerous in there."
Two steps from the door, Rinoa stopped, half-twisting to brush off the SeeD’s warning. "I’m going to find Squall. I’ve looked all over for him and I can’t think of another place he might be." Smiling, she winked, as if she knew some great secret that Quistis did not. "Don’t worry, I’ll be careful."
Quistis frowned. Did this girl have a death wish? "What do you want to say to him? I’ll give him the message."
"Nothing. I just want to talk to him."
The SeeD snapped her arms down by her sides. She couldn’t believe what she was hearing. "In the training area?"
"If that’s where he is, yes. What’s wrong with that?"
"You’ll be rexaur food if you set foot in there, that’s what’s wrong with it!"
"It’s okay," Rinoa assured her fervently. "I’ll arm myself first. I may not be a SeeD, but I know how to defend myself."
"Didn’t I hear you say one time that you couldn’t fight on your own? At least get someone else to go with you—"
"That’s not what I meant." Looking a little annoyed, and very uncomfortable, Rinoa waved her hand and shook her head in defiance of Quistis’ qualms. "Trust me, I’ll be all right. If I can’t fight, I’ll run away."
"Don’t let your feelings make you do stupid things, Rinoa!"
Somewhere in the back of her mind, Quistis wanted to smack herself. That was the second foolish thing she’d said to this poor girl in the span of ten minutes. But her blood was up, and somehow, she couldn’t stop herself from following up on her explosive allegation in the face of Rinoa’s shocked and questioning glare. "You’re taken with him, aren’t you?" She pointed an accusatory finger. "Don’t try to hide it." Her other hand balled into an involuntary fist at her side.
Struck dumb, Rinoa could only shake her head mutely, her mouth half-open and empty of words with which to respond.
It seemed to Quistis an angry demon was at work in her own mind. She fought the vicious fever of frustration, but the dam had already split, and there was no stopping the rush of fury that fueled her next words. "It’s so obvious. I don’t see why no one’s said anything. But it’s foolish, Rinoa. I’ll be the first to tell you, you’re barking up the wrong tree. You might be able to get Squall to be your comrade, but he’ll never be your friend. He’s too wrapped up in himself to be anyone’s friend."
Suddenly coming to her senses, Rinoa spat back before Quistis could say anything else. "I suppose you’re the resident instructor on ‘Squall 101?’"
There was a short lull full of tension. Part of the SeeD’s heart reeled in the face of Rinoa’s retort. I used to think...oh, but what do I know? Then a reflexive surge of anger pushed aside her self-pity, directing her pain at Rinoa instead. "You’re trying to get close enough to the world’s sturdiest poker-face that you might get a look at his cards." She motioned desperately with her arms, as if moving in time with her biting words might somehow make them penetrate deeper. "I’m simply letting you know that it’s no easy task, and more than likely, you’re going to end up folding." She took another step toward her target, seeming to tower over her despite being only marginally taller. She summed up her point with a fiery leer and staccato tone. "When it comes to getting personal, Squall is an ace of spades. If you gamble with him, you’d better have a strong hand, or be ready to receive the royal flush—down the toilet." Then, just as suddenly as it had come on, the red flood was over. Quistis stood there in the void, drained of her rage. A fear colder than the sea waters began to creep around her heart. She’d lost it. And now she was going to pay for it.
Rinoa’s uncharacteristically stolid expression preceded her quiet, unarguable reply. "You’re no queen of hearts, yourself."
Quistis stiffened, willing herself not to back away and hide her face in shame. But she could not bring herself to meet Rinoa’s stare any longer. Slowly, her eyes fell to the steel plates of flooring beneath her feet. Her arms, suddenly weak and limp by her sides, struggled to regain the chill-fighting self-embrace she had adopted only minutes ago. The air had become yet colder in the past thirty seconds.
Rinoa carefully stepped away from the door and returned to the balustrade, giving Quistis a wide berth. She stood with one hand on the railing, her face tilted toward the sky. "I don’t like to fight with people," she muttered calmly, then looked away from the stars and fixed her eyes on Quistis’ blank, averted expression. Her voice gained in volume. "But let me tell you something, and I don’t mean to sound coy." Her feet shifted slightly so that she was facing the SeeD directly. "You can’t do anything unless you try."
Confused, having expected a rebuke and gotten none, Quistis dared to cast Rinoa a puzzled look.
"I’ve been told in the past that my ‘infatuation’ with the resistance would never amount to anything." Again Rinoa gazed down at the water. "Maybe it didn’t play out like I had it planned, but I’ve come a long way, and I’m not going to turn back, even if the situation looks hopeless. I tried to free Timber, and I still mean to do just that. If it means becoming part of something much bigger than myself, okay. I’ll plan what I can and roll with the punches." Pacing to the edge of the balcony, she leaned on the railing, reclaiming her past occupation observing the reflection of diamonds in the waters. She continued to talk aver her shoulder, loud enough for Quistis to hear if she listened. "Squall has helped me so much since I first met him. I don’t know if that’s because he wants to, or because it’s his job, but he’s gone through a lot because of me. He’s worked really hard." Silent for an uncertain stretch of time, she added her next admission quietly. "I admire him." She turned her face in the direction of the wind, letting her hair catch the drafts and flutter gently in their wake. She closed her eyes, relishing the flighty sensation.
Quistis was watching her intently now, intrigued by Rinoa’s suddenly distant attitude, and further surprised to hear no trace of animosity in her words.
"I know he’s not perfect, but who is?" continued the dark-eyed, dark-haired girl who had seemingly come from nowhere to join Garden on this journey into an uncertain world that had been suddenly turned upside down. "He does the best he knows how to do. You said yourself he was just commissioned." Pulling herself from the wind, she turned toward Quistis and pointed above them in the general direction of what had once been Cid’s office, was now the bridge of their giant moving base. "Now, he’s in command, and I’ll guarantee you he never saw that coming. He did it anyway, and he’s a good commander, even though he has almost no experience. Do you have any idea what it must be like, going from a raw cadet to a respected leader in two weeks? I know I don’t." She folded her hands behind her back, stepped forward on one foot and looked pensively up at the stars. "What is it like to be him...?" Relaxing, she directed her questions at Quistis’ patient audience. "What is he always hiding? How does he do it? Sometimes I wish I could do the same. But you and I both know that you can’t do everything by yourself. I think the only way he can keep from going mad from the pressure is by holding it all inside so he doesn’t have to deal with it. If he looks okay, then people will think he’s okay. And if people think he’s okay, he feels more in control. There’s probably more to it, but that’s what I see." Her already serious expression darkened further. "Eventually it’ll get to him. When it does..."
A particularly strong blast of wind rocked the Garden, interrupting Rinoa’s speech and forcing both she and Quistis to fight for balance.
Once the bucking floor settled, Rinoa finished her sentence as though nothing unusual had happened. "I wanna be there. I think he really cares about everybody. I want to know if that’s true." She brushed her arm slightly to rid it of a few drops of sea spray. "And even if I’m wrong, I still went the distance to prove it. There won’t be anything to regret."
Quistis stood motionless, wordless. She wasn’t sure what to say, if anything. If she’d had the words to answer, she doubted she could find the motor skills to speak them at the moment. Her entire face felt numb.
Finally, Rinoa moved toward the door again. Chill bumps were prominent on her arms and legs. She didn’t seem to notice them. She paused in front of Quistis. A sympathetic smile touched her cheeks. "In the game of hearts...the most dangerous card can also win the game. If you choose to keep it, it’s all or nothing. You either shoot the moon, or you lose your shirt." Her smile faded, replaced by a solemn, pale mask that did not obscure a sudden sadness in her dark eyes. "My life is more than a game to me. Believe me, if I’m willing to ante up, I’m just as willing to take the fall. What amazes me the most about Squall is that no one else here seems to take my bet seriously. I only offer what I have to give. If that’s not enough...so be it. At least I did my best." Waiting for a few moments, she searched the SeeD’s eyes to gauge if she would receive an answer. Finding none present, she slowly turned away and disappeared beyond the heavy steel door.
Quistis did not follow her. Walking deliberately to the edge of the balcony, she stared down at the cold waters and began to count the seconds until she would once again feel anything other than the painless ache behind her eyes.
SNAP. CRASH. BOOM. THUD. SNAP, SNAP.
He knelt at the edge of a devastated balcony once known as the "Secret Area." The Garden’s sudden departure from its foundations had ripped the isolated hideout in two, and no one came here anymore, as it was useless for romantic outings in its current state. No one, that is, except Squall, and for that very reason.
That is, until now.
Peering disdainfully over his shoulder, Squall narrowed his eyes at Rinoa, who, from the looks of it, had just partaken in a lively game of cat-and-mouse with a thirty-foot monster. He watched with bored detachment as an angry rexaur snapped, snorted and clawed at the narrow doorway. Alas, the walls of the training area were perfectly capable of holding up to the battering of ten dinosaurs of such immense size, and the ancient beast’s attempts at pursuing his prey were ultimately futile.
He sighed and looked away as Rinoa padded over to him, wondering idly what horrible crime he’d committed to deserve his life. "Do you always make that much noise when you walk through a room?" he growled irritably.
Rinoa plopped down beside him, letting her legs hang over the torn metal edge of the floor. On her left wrist she wore the odd crossbow-like chakram-launcher. The other hand held a pint-sized bag of chocolate chip cookies. "I tried to tell him cookies are bad for you, but he wouldn’t listen." This said, she popped one of the tiny snacks in her mouth, swinging her legs lightly. She glared over her shoulder at the rexaur, who, seeming to realize he was out of a meal, gave a plaintive moan and stomped off in search of easier quarry.
Squall glanced at her, then at the icy waters far below, considering her precarious position. No fence barred either of them from falling over the edge and plunging to their deaths. "If you fall, I’m not gonna dive in and save you," he muttered gravely.
"I won’t fall. What are you doing here?"
"...Just wanted to be alone."
"So what else is new?" Munching on another cookie, Rinoa shot him a condescending leer.
"What are you doing here?" Squall bit his tongue, regretting the question; what did he care, and the last thing he needed was to invite a conversation. Mentally kicking himself, he stared at his gunblade, which lay by his side. Perfect. Now I’m in it for the long-haul.
"Came to find you," Rinoa answered him, predictably. "Thought you might want some company."
Squall snorted in derision at her reasoning. "Sorry to disappoint you."
She held out a cookie to him. "Want one? It’s chocolate chip."
He didn’t look at her. "No."
Her hand didn’t move. "I won’t leave unless you take it."
Oh, man...this girl is crazy. Taking a breath to bide his patience with, Squall leveled a malevolent stare at her and grudgingly snatched the cookie from her fingers. Then he waited, watching her expectantly and holding the cookie suspended in his grasp a few inches over the floor. Finally he nodded toward the door. "Aren’t you gonna leave?"
She returned his stare gamely. "I never said I’d leave immediately."
Squall’s fist tightened around the cookie, noisily crushing it.
Rinoa raised an eyebrow. "Aren’t you gonna try it?" She pointed at his clenched fist.
"You never said I had to eat it." Opening his hand and holding it over the edge, Squall brushed the cookie’s deplorable remains into the sea.
Crestfallen, Rinoa sighed and upended the bag of cookies into the water far below. "Touché. At least some fish will be happy." She crumpled up the bag and placed it on the floor beside her. She pulled her legs up, leaning back on her hands.
Squall finished dusting his hands off and resumed his silent vigil of the sea, deciding that as long as Rinoa didn’t say too much, he could tune her out and think at the same time. Much as she seemed to enjoy imposing on his free time, she wasn’t particularly annoying as long as he didn’t try to get rid of her. At least she understood he wasn’t a fan of pointless conversation. Generally, she let him muse undisturbed, unless she had a question that was relevant to the moment. He could not help noticing, however, that even when she let him do this, his thoughts usually ended up revolving around her in some manner. Curious, how that worked, one’s mind straying toward issues having to do with the people in the immediate vicinity. He’d never noticed it before.
"What happened to this place?"
Duly interrupted, Squall ran his fingers over the twisted metal of the Secret Area’s sundered edge. "Used to be a balcony," he explained. "Got ripped up when the Garden took off. It’s been blocked off ever since."
"Oh, I see." Rinoa laughed, a smooth sound, not unbearably squeaky like Selphie’s giggle or painfully sharp like Quistis’s snicker. Still, it made the hairs rise at the back of Squall’s neck, though he couldn’t cite the chill as being uncomfortable. "A perfect place to be alone, since no one’s allowed to come here anymore."
And yet she had found him here. Squall shook his head. "I guess not." He fished his black gloves out of his pocket and put them on.
"Any reason you’re here, other than that?"
"...Just got bored." Taking up his gunblade and standing in the same motion, Squall shouldered his weapon and turned toward the exit.
Rinoa hooked her hands around one of her knees, letting her head fall back behind her shoulders so she could stare up at him from a comically inverted perspective. "You get bored easily? Maybe you need to find a way to make everyday life more interesting."
Squall stood still for a moment, not looking at her. Then he started for the door without a word.
Rinoa did a backward somersault onto her feet, blocking his way as she straightened up. Pretending that cutting him off had been a coincidence of her maneuver, she flicked a wayward hair from her face and toyed with the plain silver ring on her necklace. "Hey, um...I was just thinking, are you hungry? I mean, I am, but the cafeteria is closed."
Squall motioned dismissively with his free hand, as if indicating something behind him. "You’ll have to wait until morning. They don’t serve anyone after 1900 hours."
Appearing pensive, Rinoa still stood firmly in Squall’s path. "Isn’t there a vending machine or something? Just a snack?"
He shook his head, momentarily searching the floor at his feet. "This isn’t a hotel resort," he growled, irritated at being kept at bay for so long. "We don’t offer a lot of the accommodations you might be used to."
"I asked for a snack, not a luxury sofa."
"So go find one." Pushing past her, he walked with determination through the door and down the ramp leading into the training center. "I can’t help you." A quick check revealed no predators lying in wait for them, so he continued down the shortest trail to the opposite exit.
Rinoa followed him stubbornly, but smartly readied her weapon as she left the relative safety of the ravaged balcony. "You must be a master of all-nighters," she blurted as she fell in stride. " I’ll bet you ace written tests and essays left and right."
Squall turned away from the path, his feet glancing off a series of rocks across a stream. He landed firmly on the other side and moved up the bank. It was a shortcut he’d taken many times before, a beeline straight for the exit. "What makes you say that?" He didn’t wait for Rinoa to stumble over the river rocks, was already meters away when she finally managed to reach the opposite edge.
Unperturbed, she ran to catch up with him, wringing out the blue tail of her outfit, the corner of which had gotten clipped by a splash of river water. "Because," she asserted, "you’re always so focused, even when you don’t care that much about what’s going on. I’ve never been like that. I always get distracted when I’m bored. I can’t finish a project unless it means something to me."
"With an attitude like that, it’s no wonder your resistance effort was so puny." They slowed down as they approached a looming boulder behind a plume of palm trees. Keeping close to the stone, Squall edged around the obstacle, wary of anything living that might be hiding around it somewhere.
Not to be outdone, Rinoa followed his example and watched their backs, in case of an attack from behind. "That’s why we hired you. You not only failed in our cause, you failed to assassinate the sorceress, too, and that was an order from Garden. I guess even trained professionals can’t do some things."
Squall stopped. He scowled sideways at her. "If you have a complaint, take it up with the headmaster."
"Actually, I’m surprised we all came out alive in the end." She seemed to debate with herself for a moment. "I think you did a good job. I’d hire you again." As Squall’s eyes narrowed skeptically, she continued before he could respond, speaking quickly. "Not that I have to. Timber still isn’t free, and until it is, you’re stuck with me." She left no room for argument in her matter-of-fact tone.
"Wonderful." He looked deliberately to one side for a moment—a motion Rinoa had come to understand was a Squall-ish version of rolling one’s eyes. She watched as he relaxed a little against the stone and examined a chink in the barrel of his gunblade.
"I was wondering," she ventured, curious why he’d chosen to stop. "Once you become a SeeD, how long do you stay in service?"
Squall emptied the chambers of four used shells and went about replacing them with new ones from hidden sheaths beneath his armored belt. "As long as you’re able."
"Oh." She nodded, seeming surprised, but accepting the answer. "Think you’ll be doing this your whole life?"
I’ll probably die doing it. "I don’t know."
"Well, I hope you stay around. I can’t think of anyone else I’d rather have on my side, even if you are a hired hand."
Squall slapped the barrel shut and gave it a short spin. Apparently satisfied, he lowered the weapon’s tip to the grass and pinned Rinoa with a cold glare. "I never asked to be on your side."
"But you are," she shot back. "It’s your duty. If you don’t like it, maybe you’re in the wrong job." She grinned wickedly, unfazed by his deepening scowl. "There are less dangerous things. I could see you as a hotel manager—you’ve got the organization skills for it—or a martial arts teacher."
Squall turned away. "I’m not interested in those things."
"Why do you give a damn what I do for a living?"
Rinoa had to think about that for a minute. "Mercenary business is dangerous work," she answered carefully. "You’ve already gotten hurt a few times. I care about you...just like I would care about any friend."
Having been about to leave, Squall suddenly found his feet unable to move. Unsure of what thought was keeping him nailed to the floor and annoyed that he could let himself fall prey to it, he pivoted around to face Rinoa. A friend? His attention, previously divided between his conversation and the jungle around him, focused solely on her. His voice quieted dangerously. "What makes you think I’m your friend?"
Rinoa stood a little taller, steeling herself. "Well, even if you’re not. I’m your friend. I wouldn’t expect you to be mine. I bet you’re probably not supposed to start caring about any of your clients, right? Don’t let emotions or sympathy get in the way of your job."
Feeling peculiarly unsettled, Squall nodded slowly, wary or her, as if she might be a monster in disguise. "...That’s right."
"I see..." Folding her hands behind her, Rinoa took a few tentative steps toward him, her gaze fixed on the ground at his feet. "So you just...go by the contract, right?"
"I do what I have to do."
"What about what you want to do?"
"...If it’s left up to me, I’ll do whatever makes sense."
"Soooo," suddenly smiling, Rinoa leaned forward a little, hands still clasped behind her, eyes bright and knowing. It was an expression and a stance Squall had come to dread from her. It meant she had him right where she wanted him, and there was absolutely nothing he could do about it. "It makes sense to fight your way through a monster-infested jungle and hide away on a half-broken balcony where no one is allowed to come, so you can be alone."
"...Yeah," he replied nervously when he realized she was expecting an answer.
"Annnd, it also makes sense to take me on a tour of the Garden, and later a walk, and then to a concert, just to get me to shut up."
"I guess so."
"Then it must also stand to reason that SeeD officers fresh out of training make pretty lousy commanders."
"So?" Irritated at having gotten himself into this conversation and increasingly uncomfortable with where it was going, Squall jerked his arm at the air in silent protest. What’s her point?
Whether Rinoa took the hint, or if she had simply run out of things to cite, she was silent long enough for a wild bird to cry out twice from high in the canopy. "Let’s see," she purred finally, "I found you in your hiding place, you never got me to shut up, and I think most people will agree you’ve been a pretty successful leader." She smiled. "Tell me if I’m missing something, but so far, it looks like your whole philosophy is incurably flawed."
This time, Squall did roll his eyes. I don’t have time for this. I’ve got things to do. We’ll be arriving in the morning. Nevertheless, his feet remained glued to the ground. "I didn’t come here to have my ‘philosophy’ questioned by you."
"Is it really any worse than mulling over everything yourself?"
"Maybe not." She walked deliberately toward him. "There’s a lighter side of the coin, Squall."
He took a step back. "Whatever." Feeling an intense need to flee this discussion, he turned and resumed walking.
He did not get far. Rinoa ran up behind him and once again deliberately planted herself in his way. Her dark brown eyes seemed brighter than usual as she nailed him with a frustrated, narrow-eyed stare. "Does it really bother you so much that people care enough to wonder why you do the things you do?" Squall tried to move around her, but she matched him step for step. "Well?"
Finally he stopped, slashing violently at the air beside him. "If they’re wasting their time thinking about my state of mind, maybe they’re in the wrong job."
"Being someone’s friend isn’t a job. It’s a privilege."
Squall snarled wordlessly. He felt like a rabbit squirming in the jaws of a wolf. All he wanted to do was get away to some dark, silent hole where he could be still and safe. "Yeah?" he snapped, raising his voice until it boomed off the high-domed ceiling. "How’s that? I never offered you anything. Stop trying to get to know me. You can’t begin to. No one can, and I want it that way." He stepped toward her menacingly, and for the first time, she retreated a few paces. "You wanna be my ‘friend.’ You wanna show me the ‘lighter side’ of life. Well let me tell you something." His blue eyes flashed. "There is no lighter side in my world. You think if you spend enough time around me you might figure me out? I’ll help you. I don’t give a damn."
Rinoa flinched. Very suddenly, she found herself fighting to hold back tears as she considered the notion that Quistis may have been right after all.
‘Squall is an ace of spades...’
It seemed so in that instant. He knew just what to say, when and how to say it, to send his words clean through to her heart.
Careless of her injury, Squall kept on attacking, relentless. "You and everyone else seem to think you can turn me away from the Dark Side. I’ve got news for you. I don’t want your compassion. I don’t care about you, your resistance, or anyone, or anything else, and if you don’t believe it, you’re even stupider than the rest of the morons who think I’m cut out to be SeeD’s heroic leader!"
Shaken and wounded by his words, Rinoa felt her resolve begin to falter. He was so angry—she couldn’t ever remember seeing him like this. It was terrifying.
‘You’re going to fold.’
Rinoa shook her head to clear it. No, she declared to herself. I’m not backing down! Her eyes quivered, and she swallowed her tears. Suddenly, she was in his face, firing back at him with as much ferocity as she could muster. "You sure know how to put up a fight, don’t you? No wonder you scare so many people away." Repressing a smile at his subsequent look of surprise, she pressed her advantage. "Well I don’t buy it. Is the reason you let Selphie lead the mission to the missile base because you didn’t give a damn? Tell me you and Irvine came to rescue me from the gargoyles because it was just protocol." They paced around each other, circling and staring like a pair of angry cats. Rinoa continued to spit fire at him. "You could have said ‘stay close to Irvine,’ but you didn’t. You said, ‘stay close to me.’" She straightened up, sharply closing the distance between her fevered glare and his defensive gaze, while lowering her voice to a hiss. "There’s a person behind those eyes, Squall, and I can see straight through to him."
"Whatever," Squall growled, mind racing for a better defensive retort.
She coughed a humorous laugh. "Oh, spare me. That just means you’re too scared to answer. You’re not as tough as you look. One of these days, you’re going to be faced with something that’s so much bigger than you, going it alone won’t even be an option."
Squall and Rinoa stopped circling each other. For a time, they stood still by the stone, and there were no more words. Only two angry faces and a pair of bruised hearts, both nursing bleeding wounds that no one but themselves could see.
Squall dared to speak first, quietly, shaking his head at the futility of this struggle. "Why are you doing this?"
"Because I’m the only person you can’t scare away," his opponent answered levelly. "I’m not afraid of you, or your words. Whether you like it or not, I’ve already gotten under your defenses. I can see right through you. Show me your cards, Squall. I’m calling your bluff."
His scowl deepened, eyes thin and cold, silently judging her seriousness. Rinoa held fast to her resolve as she watched him size her up. If he was gauging her certainty, showing any sign of fear or doubt would give him the chance to jump on her claims and tear them to pieces. One opportunity would be all he’d need, and she would lose this battle with him.
Finally he spoke, sounding miles away though he stood only a few paces from her. His lips barely moved as he asked, "What if you’re right, and this fantasy you’ve conjured up is true? So what? What then?"
Rinoa blinked deliberately, never once looking away. Her expression remained unchanged. "That’s up to you."
"And what if you’re wrong about me? What have you lost?"
"Someone I care about very much. Not only that..." Her dark glare became grave with warning. "If I’m wrong, then Cid made a very serious mistake choosing you to lead this Garden. If I’m wrong, Squall, it won’t just be me who suffers. Everyone will." Her eyes softened as she whispered sadly, "Especially you."
A deep growl tore the heavy air. A small tree went down across the river.
Startled, Rinoa twisted in the direction of the disturbance. "What was that?"
"Take cover! Stay against the rock!"
She knew better than to question Squall’s sharp command. Ducking the inferred danger, she backed herself against the stone obstacle, searching frantically about for an attacker. At first she saw nothing.
Not even Squall. He had vanished.
A harsh grunt and heavy footsteps heralded the arrival of a young rexaur. It crashed into the small clearing beside the river and promptly leapt across, landing with a ground-shaking thud and continuing in a lumbering canter up the bank. It was smaller than the beast that had chased Rinoa before, its thick hide a little redder, its stripes a little paler, but it was no less fearsome, and certainly nimbler. And, to Rinoa’s horror, its hungry eyes found her. Uttering a thunderous growl, the young dinosaur lunged toward her at a full charge, mouth agape, teeth bared and ready to slice into their next meal.
A name caught in Rinoa’s throat and stammered past her lips. "S...S, Squall?"
Had he left her here to die?
She threw herself to the side as the massive jaws snapped closed on empty air where its prey once stood. Unable to stop its charge, the dinosaur cracked its head against the stone. Snarling, the rexaur backed up and lashed its powerful tail. To Rinoa’s astonishment, it did not even seem fazed by the impact, and turned readily toward her to resume its attack.
Eyes wide, she readied the strongest ice spell she had stored away, all the while knowing that this would not be a battle she could possibly win on her own. The larger rexaur she had encountered before was too big and slow to easily catch a nimble human in close quarters, but this half-grown beast was swift enough on its toes to outrun and outmaneuver her before she would even have the chance to make it to the safety bridge.
She held her breath. The dinosaur lunged.
One of two giant bounds away from its intended snack, the young rexaur bellowed in anger as he was ambushed from above; Squall leapt from the top of the boulder where he’d been lying in wait, coming down hard on the beast’s back and driving his weapon point-first into its shoulder.
Halting its charge, roaring in pain and struggling for purchase in the muddy ground as the force of the SeeD’s assault knocked it off-balance, the rexaur twisted its neck around to grab at its attacker with its mighty jaws, fully intent on plucking a tasty, if pesky morsel from its back.
Squall had no intention of making it easy on the prehistoric creature. He kept just behind its neck, out of sight and reach, and roughly yanked his gunblade free of the animal’s rocky flesh. Holding tightly as the rexaur bucked and bellowed in pain, he brought a blinding spell to his mind. The telltale jingle of another spell being cast somewhere close forced him to hold off on throwing his magic, though. A chill blast of dry air rushed around him. The rexaur screamed in outrage and frustration as the lower half of its body was suddenly trapped in an explosive growth of ice. Rinoa must have decided to help, instead of run.
With the beast distracted, Squall chanced sliding down its side to the ground. It was a choice he regretted.
Thrashing to free itself from its freezing shackles, the rexaur’s head swung around just as Squall jumped. Its 4-inch teeth caught the vagrant edge of his coat, and the jaws slammed shut on the leather prize. Growling triumphantly, the dinosaur snapped its head back, snatching Squall from the air and swinging him bodily back and forth in a sweeping arch.
With his coat caught in the creature’s teeth, though he himself was unscathed, Squall gagged as the breath was forced from his lungs with each vicious shake. His gunblade fell from his nerveless hand, the circulation cut off from his arm by the ever-resilient jacket, which was riding up his back under the force of the dinosaur’s powerful grip and subsequently tightening painfully around his shoulders. Still, he counted his blessings and tried to think of a way out of his predicament; if the rexaur had been a full-grown adult, like the one that had been chasing Rinoa, the sheer strength of the beast would have been enough to snap every bone in his body whilst he was being shaken like a dog.
He wished he’d had time to cast that blindness spell. She couldn’t do it now, not when he couldn’t see his enemy’s eyes...
A sudden click was music to his ears, but not nearly so relieving as the saurian snarl of pain that followed and the release of the pressure on his arms as the rexaur let go of him to gnaw at a wide-bladed silver chakram that had imbedded itself inches into its thick flank.
Squall landed on his feet and ran toward Rinoa, snatching up his gunblade from the ground as he moved. She met him halfway, but he spoke before she had the chance to ask if he was all right. "Let’s go! While it’s busy..." He cast a quick glance over his shoulder at the rexaur, who was still marred in the ice and trying fruitlessly to reach the painful steel lodged in its side, looking angrier by the minute.
Rinoa didn’t argue. She could buy a replacement later. Pausing not another instant, she and Squall sprinted for the bridge leading to the exit and safety.
They had only gotten a few yards toward their goal when a cascade of deafening roars literally knocked them backward. Squall stopped and Rinoa ran into him, stumbling before regaining her balance by his side.
When she looked up again, any hope she might have had of making it out of the training center unscathed vanished into the fear that reached out of her gut and clutched at her heart. Before she realized what she was doing, she’d grabbed hold of Squall’s arm, locking her fingers around his elbow in a death grip.
"...He must have really wanted those cookies."
The dry humor of Squall’s sarcastic quip was lost on Rinoa’s mind as she stared up at the towering figure of the gargantuan rexaur she had fled from in the beginning of this luckless venture. The dinosaur was almost thirteen meters from the end of its thick nose to the tip of its tapering tail, a monster even for its species. It was easily the largest rexaur either Squall or Rinoa had ever seen, quite a contrast to the half-grown creature that had attacked them moments ago. But it was not alone. It had brought friends.
Three more rexaurs, all of good size and looking very hungry, followed in the lead dinosaur’s tracks. Their bloodthirsty blue eyes fell on Squall and Rinoa as though targeting them.
Rinoa frowned at these unwelcome arrivals. "Who puts these things in here?"
The young rexaur behind them yanked the chakram from his flank. With a macho roar, it broke free of the ice and trotted over to join its kin, limping slightly. It closed in on the two humans in the narrow stretch of open ground, effectively trapping them.
Squall snatched his arm away from Rinoa’s frightened grasp. "Now you’ve done it," he snarled.
She gawked at him. "I’ve done it?! If it weren’t for me, you’d be that little one’s dinner by now!"
"I still might be. And if it weren’t for you casting that spell, I could have blinded him and we wouldn’t have to worry about all this in the first place." Holding his sword ready, Squall searched the circle of tooth-filled maws for any possible routes of escape.
The youngest rexaur charged straight for them. Squall finally got the chance to cast his spell at the impetuous beast. Suddenly blinded, the creature tried to stop and slipped on the wet grass. Squall and Rinoa casually sidestepped the beast as it slid, backpedaling, into the throng of other rexaurs. It careened into the first giant, who snorted irately and shoved the blind, flailing annoyance to the ground. In a shower of uprooted shrubs, the confused young rexaur tumbled down the side of a ravine, clawing desperately at the insubstantial ground as it fell and ultimately splashed into the shallow creek two dozen feet below.
Squall and Rinoa were already running in the opposite direction, having used the distraction of the hapless dinosaur to beat a hasty escape.
More cognizant than their young friend, the other four rexaurs pursued in heavy bounds, splitting into two pairs. The largest of the four chased behind the fleeing humans, the smaller pair circling around to try and trap the bite-size morsels.
Squall ducked into a convenient thicket, Rinoa close at his heels. He spied a particularly thick collection of ginkgo ferns, and quickly darted in the midst of them, stopping only when he was certain the rexaurs could no longer see him. Keeping low and watching from his vantage point as the huge creatures searched and sniffed the area, he finally calmed down enough to shoot a furious glare at Rinoa, who was crouched beside him. "If we get out of this alive, I’m having you confined to quarters."
She casually stuck her tongue out at him. "It’s not my fault you’re so antisocial. Next time, go hang out in a normal place, like the Quad."
"I didn’t say I wanted your opinion."
"Ask me if I care."
Squall put his free hand to his forehead. "You are the most stubborn person I’ve ever met."
"Takes one to know one, buster. You’re no straw house, yourself."
"At least I know what I’m doing. You can’t walk through a place without attracting every four-ton predator in the area." No one’s ever caused me this much trouble!
At this, Rinoa smiled. "Seems there’s only one predator I can’t attract."
A loud crack exploded from the ground next to Squall. For a moment, the entire training area went silent. Even Rinoa’s face went blank.
Slowly, Squall looked down at his right hand. He grit his teeth and willed himself not to spit every swear word he knew. The barrel of his gunblade was smoking.
...I can’t believe I just did that.
In the tension of his and Rinoa’s flame-fest, his finger had closed involuntarily over the trigger, and the weapon had gone off. Four excited roars rocked the training dome.
Rinoa raised a thin eyebrow, nodding at his hand. "Nice one, Einstein. While we’re at it, why don’t I stand up and wave them over here?"
"Because if you do, I’ll shoot you, and let them eat you while I escape."
"You could have done that ten minutes ago."
There was no more time for arguing; the rexaurs found them again. Four giant heads burst suddenly through the thicket. Both humans were hard-pressed to keep away from the snapping jaws and teeth.
Fortunately, there was a break in the foliage wide enough to allow them both to slip away as the rexaurs thrashed and howled, having more trouble dislodging the wall of brambles that had become entangled with their heads than they had punching through it.
Squall headed in a straight line for the bridge. The ravine it crossed was too wide for the rexaurs to leap, and the bridge itself was designed to fold away like a trap door if anything over five hundred pounds attempted to cross, dumping any pursuing giants into the steep-walled moat.
He heard a cry behind him, and a light thud.
Stopping long enough to look behind him, he saw Rinoa had tripped, and was scrambling to get up as the first of the rexaurs—the largest one—approached at an earth-shaking gallop.
He hesitated. She was too far away... "Damn!" Certain he was insane, and cursing himself for it, he turned on his heel and rushed the incoming dinosaur, which was already bearing down on the young woman. Swinging his weapon behind him, he barked a warning at her. "Get down!"
The rexaur had just bent down to snap up its meal when a very hard, very sharp metal edge connected solidly with its sensitive snout. Howling in pain, the rexaur yanked its head back and clawed the ground, lurching forward and threatening to trample anything that lay directly in front of it.
Squall dragged Rinoa to her feet seconds before the rexaur lost its balance and fell forward, and the two escaped the crushing weight of the creature’s head as it crashed to the ground. They ran for the bridge, as the other three rexaurs thundered after them in hot pursuit.
Squall calculated the distance to the bridge in a three frantic heartbeats. They wouldn’t make it in time. Cumbersome as the rexaurs were, once they got up speed, they could outrun a human in a few strides.
He sent an urgent summons out to the Guardian he knew would answer him the quickest. In seconds, he heard the thunder bird’s caustic, silent reply in his mind.
A flash of blue light signaled the Guardian Force’s arrival. Squall and Rinoa finally made it to the bridge and dashed across, stopping once they reached the other side to turn and watch, panting, as two of the three pursuing rexaurs were intercepted by a giant, screeching bird. Lightning splayed in the thunder hawk’s wake, showering the dinosaurs with stinging bolts of superheated energy. Startled and outmaneuvered, the two giant creatures turned tail and retreated, stepping on their struggling big brother as they fled. Quetzalcoatlus vanished in a spray of sparks.
The last rexaur ducked under the bird and continued his fevered chase, only to drop like a brick as the safety bridge gave way beneath his clawed feet. He plummeted, bellowing, into the shallow water of the ravine.
Still shaking from fright, Rinoa looked up at Squall. She grinned weakly. "Well...we’re alive."
Squall didn’t get the chance to answer. Another loud bellow echoed off the walls as the young rexaur, apparently having found some way of scrambling up the steep side of the moat, leaped out from the brush beside him and swung its heavy head, landing a hit with its muzzle directly in the center of his chest. The blow sent him reeling onto his back. Somehow, he managed to hold on to his weapon, but he lost his breath as it was knocked from his lungs, and in another moment the rexaur was on top of him.
A heavy weight fell on his chest, but to his surprise, it was not the rexaur’s foot that was draped across him as the beast’s toothy maw descended toward his head. In what he could only guess was some sort of natural reflex, his free arm clutched Rinoa against him. He closed his eyes, and prepared to feel the deadly crush of the monster’s teeth.
A whoosh and a staccato crack sounded directly above him, followed by the sound of clinking chains and a muffled, angry-sounding snarl. Squall opened his eyes.
The dinosaur still hovered over him, but the only teeth he could see were the ones long enough to protrude beyond its upper lip; a strong chain-link snare was wrapped thrice around the beast’s muzzle, holding its jaws shut. It was straining in a futile effort to snap the bonds.
Squall let his head fall back against the ground and released the exhausted breath he’d been holding for the past ten seconds. He closed his eyes and silently thanked whoever it was that had saved them.
Wait a minute. ‘Them?’ What ‘them?’
Growling deep in his chest, Squall let go of Rinoa and held his arm away from her, as if he’d touched something unspeakably filthy. She was lying splayed out on top of him, clinging to him and trembling, seemingly unaware that the danger to both their lives had finally passed. He continued to stare darkly at her until she finally came to her senses and lifted her head slightly, raising her gaze enough to meet his venomous scowl.
After taking a moment to look around, she seemed to realize that she was indeed still alive and unharmed. At last her attention focused on him and she lifted herself up on her arms—only enough so she could see his face. She grinned sheepishly, red painting her cheeks, embarrassingly aware of her position astride him.
Squall’s eyes narrowed. He spoke very quietly, and it seemed his teeth were the only things that kept him from spewing tongues of flame in her face. "I’m only gonna say this once," he murmured in a tight, strained voice, then took deep breath, pronouncing his next words very, very clearly. "Get Off Me."
Their savior chose that moment to come closer, standing tall over Squall’s head and holding tight to the chain whip that held the now quiet young rexaur in tow.
Quistis smirked as she stared down at Squall’s cross expression. "I hope I’m not interrupting anything."
Quickly standing up and removing herself from Squall’s vicinity, Rinoa dusted herself off, though she wasn’t actually very dirty. "Only a dinosaur’s dinner," she said, sounding calmer than she felt.
Squall sat up, in the process finding himself face-to-face with a muzzled and paralytically perplexed rexaur. Snarling, he shoved the beast’s nose out of his face and stood up, hooking his weapon on his belt and facing the ravine. Three of the rexaurs were long gone. The biggest one was only now managing to stand itself upright again. He glanced at the relatively small one ensnared by Quistis’ whip. The poor beast looked utterly puzzled, completely unused to being this close to three potential meals whilst unable to open its mouth. The dinosaur looked from Quistis to Rinoa to Squall, eyes wide and confused, as if begging one of them to free it so that it might feast on the lot of them.
Quistis walked calmly up to the befuddled creature and petted it on the head as if it were nothing more dangerous than a chocobo. She stood without fear beside the rexaur, and looked from Rinoa to Squall and back again. "Do you two always make that much noise walking through a room?"
Squall and Rinoa slowly looked at each other.
Squall folded his arms and stared at a plant.
Rinoa put her hand to her face and shook her head, laughing.
A deep grunt of protest was the final sound uttered by the young rexaur—now safely muzzled—before the metal door to the huge holding cell closed with a clang.
The keeper of the training center’s deadlier wildlife dusted his hands off once the steel locks to the cell had been secured. Quistis stood at a safe distance, rubbing her hands ruefully. She was still trying to get the circulation flowing to her fingers. Even hampered by her chain whip, the rexaur was a powerful animal, and it had required a great deal of strength on her part to keep the coils taut, and the dinosaur’s mouth shut.
"Thanks for all your help, Ms. Trepe." The keeper nodded appreciatively in Quistis’ direction. "We had a lot of trouble rounding the little ones up today. Thought we had them all in their pens for the night, but I guess we missed this one."
"I’m afraid your praise is misplaced. I didn’t find him. You have Squall and Rinoa to thank for that. He almost ate them."
The keeper, a tall, burly man with short, prematurely grey hair, scratched his head thoughtfully. "Rinoa...that girl from the Timber resistance?" His face twitched, as if holding back a scowl. "I worry about someone like her hanging around here. I heard she’s General Caraway’s daughter! With ties to a man like that...I don’t see why they even let her in here. And the way she looks at Leonhart, I’d be worried about him, too."
Quistis frowned, feeling suddenly defensive for a reason she could not pinpoint. "How can you judge someone so quickly when all you know is semantics and hearsay?"
"Well...she is Galbadian, after all."
Galbadian! Is that the only reason? "Rinoa led a resistance against Galbadia!"
"Still." The keeper motioned around at the many armored animal cages in the room, though his meaning extended well beyond the thick walls. "This is my home. I’ve lived here since I was a kid. I’d die if something happened to Garden. You understand, don’t you?"
Quistis didn’t dignify the question with a reply. Inexplicably irritated, she turned for the exit and silently marched out the door.
The "safe-zone" around the perimeter of the training area was separated from the "battle-zone" by a very high, thick wall of strong metal, beyond which fell a deep drop-off, followed by a series of high-voltage wires that even rexaurs would balk at challenging. She whisked through the curved corridor, fuming inside. She headed for the main dome, ultimately bound for her room in the dormitories, all the while hoping against hope that no Trepies stopped her along the way. She wasn’t in the mood to deal with fawners.
Halfway to the dorms, she slowed her grueling pace and took up a stiff walk along the inner circle of fountains. She stared at each water-spewing fish as she passed it.
When did I become such a dry weed?
Try as she might, she couldn’t understand what had made her so angry just then. It did annoy her that the animal keeper had been so shallowly biased, but it was an understandable sin. Most every citizen of Galbadia that happened to walk through Garden’s doors was a prisoner, and for good reason. The tyrannical "republic" was, in general, every bit as hostile as it was made out to be, not because of its people, but because of its government. Most of the general populace of Galbadia’s territories were not allowed outside its cities for more than a few weeks, and even the railroad system between continents was too meager to allow the escape of many refugees. Most Galbadians did not have enough money to live comfortably outside their overpopulated society. It was the sole positive aspect of living in Galbadia; everything was cheaper. But then again, wages were poorer, money was tighter, and the government reaped most of the commercial rewards. There were more uneducated and under-paid people in any one of Galbadia’s cities, with the exception of Timber, than in every other country in the world combined. Still, it wasn’t a good reason to judge any single individual as dangerous.
But that wasn’t all that had Quistis annoyed. In fact, she probably would have let the man’s remarks slide, if it hadn’t been for one comment:
‘...the way she looks at Leonhart, I’d be worried about him, too.’
That had flung a dangerous spark in Quistis’ direction. Even now, the recollection made her simmer. Who was anyone to insinuate that Rinoa could be a danger to Squall? The girl hadn’t a vicious bone in her body. She was headstrong, to be sure, but her relentless nature was not wicked. Truth be told, it was probably healthy, in some ways. One had to give Rinoa credit for assembling the successful capture of a Galbadian train car—even if it had been a decoy—with very few resources and even less money. Such an accomplishment took determination and good planning skills.
And Squall—well! He was no one to not recognize any indications of a spy. If anything suspicious happened, he’d be sure to do something about it. He may be stone-hearted, but he wasn’t stupid. He wouldn’t let himself fall prey to any sort of malicious seduction. He was a skeptical person, critical of everyone and everything. If he could see no deception in Rinoa, then there was none. Unless he, too, was a spy, and that was a ridiculous notion.
Rinoa was only trying to help him. And it looked like she might just be succeeding. Despite what she’d said on the balcony, even Quistis had noticed a change in Squall’s attitude since Rinoa had gotten involved in the picture. He’d seemed no more receptive than usual, but perhaps, less evasive than he normally was. He would give someone a little more than the time of day, which was better than could be said of him a month ago.
Of course, it could have been a change brought on by command. The higher up in power you were, the more you had to be open to suggestion and ridicule. But somehow, Quistis couldn’t imagine that being in command had brought on the changes she was beginning to see. You didn’t have to lighten up to be put on a pedestal. Quistis had heard two stories already of Squall making or taking a joke in the past few days. She hadn’t seen the incidents herself, but even she felt that the dark air around him had cleared just a bit. Particularly when she’d caught him with Rinoa thrown protectively on top of him, he’d seemed just a little bit...disarmed...in a way she had never seen him. Perhaps it was the tone of his voice or some nuance in his lack of expression. It wasn’t a difference that was outwardly obvious. Nor did it matter. He was still himself, that was clear enough. But...
When he and Rinoa had left the training center, they’d done so side-by-side. And Squall hadn’t seemed to notice, had not tried to out-pace Rinoa as he might have someone else. Quistis at least knew him well enough to recognize this slight, but significant change in his attitude—something only Rinoa had ever been able to catalyze for as long as anyone could remember.
And here someone had been insinuating the girl was dangerous and should be kept away from him.
That’s ridiculous. We can’t keep her away. He needs her!
It was this thought that stopped Quistis dead outside the door to her quarters. She stood motionless, staring into the unlit room as if it were the deepest void of blackness she had ever seen.
I thought she was in love with him like me...but he never gives me a second glance. I’ve seen him stare at her for minutes on end. If it is Rinoa who is convincing him to change, either you need more than love to make someone listen...or I never was in love, in the first place.
She felt suddenly weak, like her knees were melting away from her legs. She’d wanted Squall to know what it meant to laugh and to love, had wished he would open up to someone in order to dispel whatever chaos existed within him that drove him to be so callus. She had thought she could do it, since she’d known him for longer than anyone else in the Garden, save Cid. In the struggle to help him, her goal had become a passion. The need to see to it that Squall learned to trust someone had become so strong, she’d assumed the terrible ache it caused in her heart was love. But despite all her efforts, she had failed. She was no different in Squall’s eyes than any other nameless person in the world. And in light of Rinoa’s success, her passion was fast fading.
Maybe it was true. Maybe she didn’t love him.
Not in a romantic sense, at least. I’m still thinking about it, aren’t I? It isn’t as though I don’t care.
She knew Squall needed someone to count on. Someone had to teach him, if he was going to succeed in the long run. But she was slowly beginning to understand that she wasn’t the one to do that. Squall knew her. She had been his instructor for a year. She’d come to Garden when Squall was nine years old; he’d literally grown up with her. She was too familiar. Whatever image she had exuded over the years, whether or not it reflected who she really was inside, was not something he’d be able to drive from his mind on a whim.
Rinoa was new to Squall, and as such, everything about her was a surprise. He didn’t know her, and her outgoing, honest-to-a-fault personality could sometimes seem erratic and unpredictable. She kept not only Squall, but everyone guessing, and if there was something about her that could reach him, he had no real defense against it because he did not know what to expect. And it was clear to Quistis that there was ‘something’ about her. The fact it was something she couldn’t put her finger on made it seem all the more genuine.
So what about me? Slowly making her way into her room, she sat down in the darkness, on the edge of her mattress, still staring sightlessly ahead. No one knows who I am. I need someone to know. Squall has Rinoa. Who do I have?
A cold knot began to grow in her stomach as she realized that that was her problem, not any else’s. Perhaps that, too, had contributed to her belief that she loved Squall. If she didn’t, did Rinoa?
And if Rinoa did, would Squall ever return the affection?
Maybe he didn’t like Rinoa, but she did have an effect on him that no one else had been able to duplicate in over thirteen years. Thirteen? Quistis frowned and cocked her head to one side, as if to dump brain-clouding garbage out her ear. How could I know that? I haven’t even known him that long. Where did that come from? Still, she didn’t feel the passing thought had been in any way incorrect. But that insinuates he hasn’t always been like this. If that’s it, then why? Was there someone else, long ago? And when? When had Squall ever been anyone but...Squall?
Her mind swirled with conflicting notions. She had a picture in her head of Squall as a young child, smiling—but where, she couldn’t remember, or why. A smile would seem so out of place on him now. Still, she was sure the image was real. What was she remembering? Confused, torn, and no closer to answers than she had been three weeks ago, Quistis laid out on her back, not bothering to change into her night clothes or get under the covers.
At the moment, it seemed nothing could banish this chill affliction of her heart, and what frightened her the most was that the cold was fast becoming so intense, it was a struggle for her to feel anything at all.
Is this what he feels all the time, she wondered. Did something happen that left Squall barren like this? Is this some sort of cruel disease of the heart?
By myself, will I end up...just like him?
"You saved me."
Rinoa walked with Squall down the quiet breezeway connecting the training center to the heart of Balamb Garden. The corridor was well-lit despite the dimness of its walls; above, the moon shone brightly through the windowed structure, and stars joined in the radiance on their tireless journey through the heavens. Rinoa’s attention was focused on the nighttime splendor, though her words were for her reluctant companion.
Squall paid the common celestial light show no heed whatsoever. "No I didn’t."
Rinoa grinned, finally coming back down to earth. "You did so! You got between me and that thing’s teeth. That counts as saving me."
She grinned as they passed under a short stretch of windowless connectors and emerged into the huge expanse of the Garden’s center. "That’s right. And I won’t quit until I see a bag of potato chips and a soda. I’m still hungry."
Squall stopped and turned to stare at her. He didn’t want to get into this argument again. "If I show you where there is one, will you leave me alone?"
"Deal. Just for today, though. Tomorrow I’ll be hungry again."
"All right." Relieved that the solution to his problem had been so simple, the grouchy, tired SeeD resumed his course toward the dorms. "Come on. I know Zell keeps a stash in his dorm. I’ll see if he’s willing to part with some of it."
Rinoa sneered at the idea of eating anything ‘stashed’ in Zell’s room. "I don’t know...maybe I should just go steal something from the cafeteria."
If Squall hadn’t been so tired, he might actually have laughed. Some. Rinoa was, technically, his guest. If she did anything regrettable, he would be held accountable for her actions, since he had invited her into the Garden in the first place. She had already almost gotten him killed—numerous times—while arguing with him over the facts of life. The last thing he needed was for her to start snatching things from the Garden’s precious food stores. "Hey Dr. Love? I wanna have a job when I wake up in the morning."
She interrupted him before he could say anything else. "Did you just use the word, ‘love’?" Her voice quivered with a repressed laugh.
Squall bit his tongue. Big mistake. "No."
"I can’t believe it. I didn’t even think you’d say it in a joke."
"Don’t get too excited..." At the end of the dormitory breezeway, he turned right into the men’s wing and headed for the end of the hallway, where Zell’s room was located.
"Wow," Rinoa exclaimed as they moved down the shadowed rows of doors. "The dorms are really dark at night."
"Probably because everyone’s supposed to be asleep," he pointed out, an edge of reprieve to his tongue. "Quiet." Finally stopping in front of Zell’s room, the third-to-last door on the left, he motioned for Rinoa to stay behind him and knocked once, trying not to be too loud, himself.
Sighing, he tried again—pounding a little louder this time. Behind him, Rinoa winced with each knock.
Thankfully, Zell was a light sleeper. A muffled, yawn-y voice drifted to them from beyond the door. "Wuah...? Whuizit?"
Squall tried to be casual. "It’s Squall."
There was a short, shocked pause. "Y’know wha’ time it is, man?"
"Open up, I wanna talk to you."
"Ohhhay, ohay...ahm humin’..." The door slid open with a vvp noise that was too loud for comfort in the usually voiceless hallway. Zell leaned on the door frame, in his night clothes, looking like a dragon had just chewed him up and spit him out. Dark streaks lined the underside of his eyelids, and the left half of his crest of blonde hair was sticking out sideways from his head, as if someone had shoved it through his brain. He blinked sleep from his eyes as he tried to make sense of the odd scene he saw in front of him. "What is this, a late-night date?"
Squall felt his blood start to boil. Why does everyone think that just because a guy has a girl with him, he’s on a date? "She wants something to eat," he answered, his tone no more agitated than usual. "Wouldn’t leave me alone until I got her something. I know you’ve got food stashed away somewhere."
Zell scratched at his lopsided hair. "Huh?" A vicious growl from Squall made him remember. "Oh...yeah, but I—"
"Just chips and a drink, that’s all she wants."
"Hey," Zell snapped, suddenly awake, "this ain’t a fast food joint. I’m not taking orders."
Come on, Zell, just this once, don’t give me an attitude! Squall had an idea. It wasn’t a particularly fair tactic, akin to something Seifer would pull, but at this point, he just wanted to be left alone, and the only way to have his wish would be to get Rinoa her snack as she demanded. Leaning forward so that he loomed over the shorter SeeD, his eyes narrowed in an unusual expression of shrewdness. "I’m sure Cid would love to learn about you and your friends’ midnight pizza parties," he rumbled coolly, watching with satisfaction as Zell’s eyes became saucers, "especially since you kept me up with all the noise every Friday last month."
"The...aheh..." Again, Zell scratched his head, though this time the action was more of a nervous fidget than to stir his thoughts. A sheepish, overly-amicable smile burst suddenly onto his face. He jerked his thumb behind him. "You want fries with that?"
Squall trudged back toward his room, Rinoa happily munching along behind him.
He stopped at his door and glared her. "Don’t tell me you forgot your way back to your room."
She took a sip from her soda. "No, I’ll leave," she assured him. "I just wanted to say something to you."
Go figure. "What is it?"
Her expression sobered. "Squall...I want you to know, even if we did argue, and the rexaurs almost ate us...I’m glad I came and found you."
He nodded slightly, though if it was a gesture of agreement or merely an acknowledgement was unclear. "I know you mean well, but...you can’t change me, you know."
At this, Rinoa smiled sadly. "Believe it or not, I never had to." She started to back up, a step at a time, seeming reluctant to turn away. "You did that on your own."
Squall watched as she finally made herself turn around and walk away, her image fading into the shadows as the distance swallowed her into the west wing of the dormitories.
Silently, he retreated to his quarters. Though he had a shower to take, and blood to clean from his weapon, he first spent a few minutes standing motionless, staring out his window and into the crystalline waters below.
The last thing she had said to him lingered in his mind, and though she was gone for now, he could not get her words to leave him in peace.
Squall awoke early the next morning, sore but well-rested.
He marched through his morning routine with the mechanical efficiency of an assembly line, moving through every step exactly as he had every day he could remember of his life at Garden. When he emerged from his room, he was clean, dressed, shaven, and even his rather unruly hair was combed out in as much order as it could be.
He stalked down to the cafeteria, shrugging off the last of the morning chill that often assailed him. He waited patiently in line for his breakfast, took the tray to the same table he always sat at, in the far corner. As he sat down, his foot nudged something under his chair. He bent down to see what it was, and to his surprise, picked up a packaged deck of old-style playing cards. Placing the decorated box on the table, he mused over it as he ate. It had been a long time since he’d seen someone playing any card game other than that stupid Triple Triad thing everyone was so addicted to. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d seen a box of plain poker cards.
Deciding to entertain his mind while he ate, he opened the box, set aside the jokers, and started a game of solitaire. He had just unearthed the third king when Rinoa approached and sat down across from him with her own tray in hand. He continued playing as if she didn’t exist. To her credit, she let him do so without interruption.
He lost. Putting the cards back in a deck, he straightened them, slid them back into the box, and finally looked at his visitor. She smiled, but said nothing to him.
"What’s with you?" He stirred his grits, having no intention of eating them. "You never wake up this early."
He had to wait so long for her answer, he briefly considered if she was giving him the silent treatment to make some point. At long last, she spoke, but he wasn’t certain if she was really answering his question, or just blurting the first thing she had to say.
"I have a question."
"Another one?" He bit into a sausage biscuit. Another long silence followed. After he’d finished off the biscuit, he leaned his elbow on the table, contemplating the queerly confident smile on Rinoa’s face. "Even if I don’t answer, you’re gonna ask it anyway. So get it over with." Actually, the prompt was an excuse—he was in an oddly curious mood, and the question she was dangling just beyond his reach was making him squirm inside; the suspense was killing him.
Rinoa leaned forward, looking very pleased with herself, like she had just won a decisive contest with him. She followed up with her question. "How come you know exactly what to do all the time? You think so fast..." She sat back, pressing her hands against the edges of her chair. "When I get stuck in situations I don’t know how to get out of, I always end up muddling through and looking pretty silly doing it. You always seem to have an answer for every tight spot...why is that?" She giggled. "You make it look like you’re psychic."
Squall chewed on a strip of bacon, thinking. Tossing the remnants of the floppy meat onto his plate, he cleaned his hands off on his napkin and picked up the box of cards once again. Opening it, he placed the unshuffled deck in front of Rinoa. "Choose any card," he instructed her. "Don’t tell me what it is."
Grinning curiously, Rinoa picked up the deck and thumbed through the cards. She picked one out and set the rest back on the table.
With a quick sweep of his hand, Squall cascaded the rest of the cards, all face-down. "Now put it back." He watched Rinoa place her card somewhere in the center, then gathered them all up, shuffling them many times. Then he spread them out, this time face-up, and picked out the third to last at the right end of the line. He held up the five of clubs. "That your card?"
Rinoa’s eyebrows shot up. "That’s amazing. How did you know that? It’s like magic."
Squall put the card back in the deck. "It’s not magic. It’s observation...and a little slight of hand."
She tilted her head to the side, thoughtfully picking up "her" card again. "You’re saying, that when you’re in a jam, you take note of everything, then rely on that and the tricks you’ve learned in the past to get you through it."
He nodded. "Something like that. But you have to know the tricks, first. The rest...is just working with what you’ve got."
"And if you run out of tricks?"
He reached over and snatched the card from her hands, placing it back in the deck. "Two cards this time." He straightened the deck, and again put it in front of her.
She chose carefully, trying to find two that were completely different. She put the deck back on the table and watched as Squall spread it out again. Noting the seemingly meaningless motion, she hesitated before placing her cards back. "Don’t look."
Squall stared at her for a moment, then obligingly turned his head.
She placed the cards in the deck—twice—pulling them out and putting them back in, trying her best to make sure they lined up with the rest so they gave no telltale signs she had chosen them. "Now try it," she challenged in a deceptively friendly tone.
Squall picked up the deck and shuffled it. This time he thumbed through without allowing her to see the cards. He put the deck down and held out the two cards he’d chosen, both of them face-down. He stared at her seriously over the tops of the decorated paper rectangles.
"...Are these your cards?"
Smirking, knowing she’d found his trick and that he couldn’t possibly have found her cards—the eight of hearts and the jack of diamonds—she took the offering from him.
Her smirk faded away into nothing as she held them up to see.
They were not the cards she had picked. But she was more shocked by his choices than she would have been if he had guessed right.
"Two rules you always follow," Squall murmured coldly in answer to her second question. "Know yourself...and know your enemy."
Slowly, shakily, Rinoa put the cards down, speechless. Her eyes met Squall’s ruthless, unforgiving scowl, and this time, she had no words with which to fight. Defeated, she lowered her gaze to the table and the two cards lying face-down in front of her.
Three ascending chimes preceded Nida’s voice on the loudspeaker. [Attention, all SeeD members: we are approaching the Trabia border. Please report to your assigned duties immediately. Squall, you are needed on the bridge.]
Without a word, Squall got up, took his tray, and left.
Rinoa waited for several minutes, until she was sure he was gone, before finally mustering the will to reach out and pick up the two chosen cards so she could see them again. One after the other, they shocked her again and again as she flipped them over.
The Queen of Hearts. The Ace of Spades.
Know your enemy. Know yourself.
The Garden shuddered as it raised itself from the water and into the onslaught of Trabia’s bitterly cold winds.