The Camping Trip
By Luna Manar
-This is insane. I feel like I'm on a camping trip.- Squall glanced at Rinoa as she rummaged through a duffel bag not six feet from him. "Remind me again whose idea this was."
"Yours," she piped in response, grinning over her shoulder at him in amusement.
Squall shook his head and continued about the task of unrolling his "sleeping bag," or semblance thereof. It was a thus-shaped winter comforter he'd happened to find in "his" room on the Ragnarok, but for its purpose, it would do. Nevertheless, Squall felt severely out of place, setting up for sleep just inside the mouth of the cavern that marked the turmoil of the past day. A once cylindrical pillar of crystal glass lay shattered near the center of the cave. Staring briefly at the wreckage, Squall repressed a tremor at the memory, trying to shake the still haunting feeling of draconian claws and teeth...
He shook his head. -It's over now. No point in worrying about it.- Why he had chosen here as a sleeping place was beyond him. His reasoning was that it would provide shelter from the night winds or any possible sudden storm that might approach during the starlight hours, but even now that seemed a lame excuse in his mind. The sky was so clear, even if a storm threatened, it would be easily seen and heard well before it arrived. And it wasn't that cold out. Well, not to me. He idly straightened the edge of the makeshift sleeping bag, having stared blankly at it while thoughts leaped through his mind at breakneck speeds. It seemed that no matter how calm the environment, his mind never stopped running...
"Squall, you got a flashlight or something?" He shook himself from his reverie to look over his shoulder at Zell, who was (or was supposed to be) unpacking the larger bags they'd brought with them.
The five of them--Squall, Rinoa, Zell, Quistis and Selphie--had left the Ragnarok early that morning to investigate this strange island assuming that they would end up having to spend the night there; the red dragonship, ailing for fuel, had left for the Esthar Airstation, presumably to return the following morning. Squall only hoped that things went right for once and there were no delays. He was more than ready to get off the eerie place. He'd had quite enough of dragons and monsters, sword-wielding demons and undersea deathtraps for one day.
"No," he said in a flat answer to Zell's question. "Why do you need one?"
Zell turned away from the cave entrance to face the ranking SeeD. He gestured vaguely with his other arm. "Just...feel better having one. This place gives me the willies."
Quistis, who seemed to be the one who was actually doing the unpacking, looked up and narrowed her eyes in a wry smile. "Need a nightlight, Zell?"
"No," he spat indignantly. "I'm just sayin'..." Too late. All present were laughing quietly at Quistis's query. Save Squall, of course, who was busy etching something in the dusty ground. It didn't take long for Zell to notice and jump at the opportunity to turn the attention from himself. "Hey, whatcha' doodling, there?"
Apparently startled that he'd been noticed, Squall glanced up quickly as he brushed away whatever image he had been drawing. "Nothing...just an idea."
"Tch. Right, Scrooge, if you say so."
"Whatever." Squall looked over to where Rinoa had been to find she had moved. He glanced around, saw no sign of her, and before he could catch himself: "Where's Rinoa?"
Quistis stifled a snicker. Squall frowned in annoyance.
"She went to the little girls', um, bushes," chirped Selphie from the corner she'd just rounded. "Oh, all's clear, by the way! No ugly mean monsters anywhere close."
Before Squall could say a word, Quistis put in her two cents. "I think Mr. Leonhart's heart is getting too big for his chest." She laughed. "He's just worried, that's all."
"Look, it was just a question, okay? Don't blow it out of proportion," Squall snarled, jumping to defend himself. "Besides, I need to know where all of you are at all times. I can't afford to lose track any of you. If I did, it would be my fault if something happened to someone."
"A SeeD officer to the end." Again, Quistis tried not to laugh.
Zell sat down on a small outcropping of stone that jutted from the cavern wall, resting his arms on his knees and grinning at the exchange, amused. "Aw, c'mon, Squall. Admit it. You're head-over-heels for 'er. After that little show at Sorceress Memorial, it's pretty obvious."
Selphie grinned ear to ear, plopping down next to Quistis. "So it's cuuuuute!" She nearly squealed the word.
"Give me a break." Squall leaned back on one hand, resting his other arm across his knee. He looked toward the back of the cave as though he'd heard something in that direction.
Apparently deciding to leave their grouchy captain alone, Zell shrugged and hopped back to his feet. He set about unloading what was left of the bags of various overnight paraphernalia, aided by Quistis and Selphie.
Squall might have helped if his thoughts hadn't caught up with him again. He stared out the cavern entrance at the starlit horizon, counting the constellations he could make out. There was so much they still had to do, and so little time to do it all. Who knew what would happen in the next few days? People could die, and so would be the case if Ultimecia had her way with Adel. Squall wasn't about to lose anyone "under his command," but the possibility still remained. What would he do if that happened? What could be done to prevent it? He didn't know the extent of Ultimecia's power any better than the next person. How could he prepare for something he knew so little about? What if someone died because of negligence on his part? What if he died? What if--
-Stop it.- He shook himself from his morbid trance, refusing to let himself be dragged down by his own worries. -Don't think like that. She's not going to die, I'm not going to die. We'll make it through this... God, I'm tired.-
"Hey uh, Squall?" Zell again.
"What," he snarled testily, tired of having his thoughts, however solemn, interrupted.
"There's a bag missing."
Annoyance forgotten, replaced by surprise and a strange sort of fear, Squall's attention turned fully on his friend. "What?" He repeated, nearly shouting the word this time around.
"Just what I said." Zell shrugged. "There are only three other sleeping bags in here. Someone's either gonna have to double up, or sleep on the rocks."
"Who? Which one's missing?"
Squall stared at Zell, studying his expression carefully. Zell looked too surprised, too innocent. He had been appointed the task of gathering everyone's gear before the Ragnarok had left the island. And Squall wouldn't put it past him to...
"Guess I must've missed one on the way out." Zell's "helpless" shrug sealed his suspicions. "Oops."
"You did that on purpose." His eyes narrowed, glinting a dangerous disbelief.
Zell pointed at himself. "Moi? Psht!" He gave the notion a dismissive wave.
Squall wasn't fooled. "You jackass, you set that up, didn't you?" He almost got up, narrowing his eyes to angry slits as Zell turned around. "Didn't you!"
"You're makin' stuff up, man." Zell grinned impishly over his shoulder.
"I can't believe you!" Squall protested. "You left one out on purpose." Quistis and Selphie were giggling madly. Squall didn't see anything at all amusing about Zell's prank.
-He's kidding. He just hid it. He must be kidding!-
"If this is some sort of joke, it isn't funny."
"No joke," Selphie piped. "There's only three here, and this one's mine!" She hugged 'her' sleeping bag as though it were her life.
"That goes for me, as well," Quistis helped, taking up her own sleeping bag and toting it off to the other corner of the cave.
Squall glared at Zell. "We'll see who sleeps on the rocks."
"No way, man," Zell hefted his still rolled-up bag onto his shoulder, backing away with it. "This one's mine, from my dorm. I paid for it, yo?" Not allowing for any response, he turned and headed for his chosen spot, as did Selphie, leaving Squall to stare helplessly after them.
Squall could only sit and fume. -Goddamn it, I'm gonna kill that bastard.-
And then Rinoa rounded the corner as though on cue, heading toward him and glancing at the now-empty traveling bundle, endeavoring to find the whereabouts of her sleeping bag as the others had done. Before she could realize there was no such object, she saw Squall watching her, an almost angry, almost frightened, almost confused and definitely nervous feeling behind the eyes set in an unreadable face.
She tilted her head at him curiously, smiling a little. "...What?" She was unsure if it was really her he was staring at, or if there was something she had missed.
Squall sighed, reluctantly answered her in a whisper. "A prank Zell decided to play on me. There are only three 'other' sleeping bags." He sighed, watching her eyes turn up in surprise. "The one that's missing is yours. You can take mine if you want to, but one way or the other, one of us has to sleep on the ground."
"And that would inevitably end up being you, because I wouldn't unless my life depended on it." She managed to hold her quiet laughter until Squall scowled at her. "I'm just kidding," she giggled. "Really, so what do you think?" She came to crouch beside him, peering at him, not allowing him to look at her without making eye contact.
"Well, I don't...I don't know," Squall blundered. "I don't wanna sleep on the ground, but I will if I have to. It's not like I'm going to force you to, or anything."
Rinoa laughed again at his uncertainty. "Oh, of course not. That wouldn't be very nice. But, then again, it would be pretty undignified for Squall Leonhart to sleep in the dirt, wouldn't it?"
"I'm beginning to think you helped him set this up."
It took a little while for Rinoa to calm her laughter this time, but she shook her head once she finally managed to quiet herself. "No, but it doesn't look like there's much choice but for one of us to take the ground. The only other alternative is to share this one." She smiled slightly, not unpleasantly, looking a little embarrassed. "Even if we did, I'm sure the rest of them know we're both better than that."
"Out of the question."
"Why not? Not that I'm suggesting it, but..." She trailed off, thought a moment, finished with a small shrug. "It's not like we'd 'do' anything."
"That isn't the point," Squall grumbled levelly, leaning back against the nearby wall, quickly discarding his boots and setting them aside--an activity which had the sole purpose of giving him a reason not to look her in the face. "It's...I don't know. It's too weird."
"Because it is." Squall was tempted to offer the most logical solution--for one of them to start out on watch--but was prevented from doing so by the simple reason that they did not need a sentry; the mere danger-sensing presence Squall's own three-headed Guardian had seen to that.
"Sorry if the idea really bothers you. It's okay. I'm sure I can find a place."
"No," he snapped before he could stop himself. He scrambled for a way to back up his argument. "It's chilly out. You don't have a coat. You need the thing more than I do."
"So where are you going to sleep?" Rinoa indicated the surrounding stone and dust. She watched him put a hand to his face in indecision. "No no, really," she amended hastily, "I don't want to make you uncomfortable. I just don't like the idea of you having to sleep on solid stone. You could hurt yourself."
"Right. Wouldn't be the first time. You worry about yourself." Rubbing two fingers thoughtfully over his scar, Squall silently wrestled with himself.
Rinoa frowned at him. "Quit trying to act so tough. You need the sleep, Squall, more than any of us here. I can find someplace. It's no big deal--"
"Fine," he snarled behind his hand. "I'll take the damn bag. But don't say I didn't give you a chance."
"I wouldn't." Her frown softened.
As did Squall's voice. "Sorry..." He inwardly kicked himself. He had gotten irritated again. And for what reason? All she was trying to do was help him. A deep breath helped him regain his calm. "I know you wouldn't. I just can't think right now."
"You need sleep, Squall."
"I know." He stared at her from between parted fingers. "But you shouldn't have to sleep on the rocks just because Zell conveniently left your bag back on the Ragnarok." He let his hand down over his knee, inclined his head to the side to regard her seriously. "You know what he's trying to do," he finished quietly after a few uneasy heartbeats.
"Right, but he's not giving us much choice." Her black hair swayed as she shook her head slowly, causing her face to drift in and out of shadow. "I understand if you won't allow it, though." Her gaze fell resignedly to the hard floor. "It would be a little close, after all."
Squall's face took on the vaguest hint of solemn amusement. Then his eyes half-closed, and for a moment he looked more fatigued than Rinoa could ever remember seeing him. "Like you'd mind," he murmured, too calmly.
It was Rinoa's turn to feel scrutinized, and she followed Squall's shoes-off example in order to keep from meeting his gaze for long enough to formulate a response to his assumption. But despite her unease, she hadn't felt what he'd said to be accusatory. More it had been a simple observation on his part, not to contend with her, but to point out an unarguable truth.
Finally, setting her shoes off to the side, she pulled her legs up against her chest and wrapped her arms around them, resting her chin between her knees and staring back at him. "I guess not," she admitted. "Not if you didn't."
Squall exhaled sharply in what might have been a form of laughter. Rinoa couldn't tell. Without any more musing, he folded back the corner of the cloth, as an afterthought tossed his gloves over to where his boots stood discarded by the wall. He settled down into the sleeping bag-shaped comforter as best he could and closed his eyes, seeming to forget Rinoa's presence completely.
Watching him, a random observation struck Rinoa as humorous. She giggled.
Squall looked up at her. "What."
She tried to stop laughing. "Oh, nothing. I just noticed something. It's really not that funny."
"Whatever." He put his head down again.
Rinoa sat in silence for a few minutes, not wanting to leave nor having anywhere to go, but scared to death of staying. If only she knew... "Squall?"
"Do you..." She hesitated. "Do you mind if I just sit here for a while? I'll be quiet. I just feel like staying here."
"If you want to."
Silently, she edged a little closer to him, tilting her head to one side, watching him. -Why is it,- she wondered, -that almost everyone, no matter how stoic they act normally, or how nice or mean they are, why do people always look so innocent and peaceful when they close their eyes to sleep?- Suddenly a fear from earlier that day gripped her, without warning, without reason. A reflex of momentary panic moved her, her hand brushed his shoulder before she realized what he was doing.
Protected though he was beneath his jacket, Squall must have felt the touch, for he opened his eyes and stared at her as she pulled her hand away.
"I'm sorry." She shook her head, keeping her voice low. "It scared me, so much this morning. When Bahamut... I...I thought you wouldn't open your eyes again, Squall, and for a second, I guess I just..." Why couldn't she speak coherently? She fought the rising pressure in her throat. "For some reason, the feeling came back." She only hoped her fragmented explanation made sense to him. She watched him nod and close his eyes once more, but found herself speaking again. Whether it was to Squall or to herself, she wasn't certain. "I'm almost afraid to go too far from you, because with all that's happened already, anything could go wrong. Something could happen to one of us and we wouldn't be there to stop it."
Sighing, Squall propped himself up a little on one arm, looked on with a calm, uncharacteristic patience as Rinoa struggled to keep her tears at bay. "Listen to me," he said finally. "The next few days are gonna be really hard on all of us. Our situation isn't pretty, and it isn't getting any better. That's why we came here, to see if we could find anything we could use. Even with Bahamut, we're coming up short of what we hoped for, and that means we've wasted more time than we've gained. After they come back to get us tomorrow, we're going to be on the move non-stop, and we can't afford to slow down for anything. Are you hearing what I'm saying?"
Rinoa closed her eyes, in frustration brushed away a noiseless tear, and nodded jerkily.
Squall continued quietly. "There's going to be a lot of fighting, probably a lot of killing. Some of us could die in the fighting. But you're in the middle of it with the rest of us, which means you've got to keep up. You can't back down to fear. There's no room for that anymore. If you let it get in the way, you're gonna hesitate, and you won't be able to think straight. You'll end up dead that way, maybe bring the rest of us down with you. You're a sorceress now, and that means problems for you. But as much as I wish I could, I can't rescue you from Ultimecia's power. If she tries to control you again, the only one who can resist her is you. There's no way you can hide from that. There's nothing I can do to stop it. The only way out of this is for us to keep going no matter what happens. Now isn't the time to be afraid. You've got to know when to fight."ć
Rinoa had quelled her tears, was staring at the ground blankly, listening to him. She said nothing.
"I've seen what you can do," Squall added firmly. "You've got more power than you're willing to admit. Without you, those things on the Ragnarok would've had me for a midnight snack. Without you, there's no way any of us would have survived Bahamut's first strike. I know better than anybody you're strong as hell. Power like that would frighten anyone with half a brain. But since you've got it, you might as well use it. Use it to _keep_ people from dying, and to help us defeat Ultimecia." He saw her start to shake her head, raised his voice slightly, insistently. "Don't think about all the things that could go wrong. If you hesitate because of that, it could mean the difference between staying alive and getting killed. You don't have to like it, and it doesn't have to be easy. It's just the way it is. You've got to live with that. Don't let yourself die from it. It wouldn't be fair to you, or to anyone else."
"You're forgetting something," she blurted suddenly, surprising him.
"I can't fight alone." She folded her arms, shivering a little in the chill air. "If I get separated from the rest of you...I can't do anything. I can't." She looked at him, briefly silently pleading his understanding. "It might be selfish and weak, and maybe I'm just being stupid, but--"
"No," he cut her off. Someone coughed in another corner of the cave. Squall counted his breaths. "Rinoa, look at me."
She did, was a little startled when he reached out and took her hand to clasp it tightly between his.
His eyes denied any argument. "You're never alone."
Rinoa felt his hands tighten around her fingers, and she blinked at him in mute surprise. She felt a chill run down her spine. Not since she'd taught him a dance at that party--was it really seven months ago?--had he so much as touched her without the black gloves he so often wore. Now he held onto her with honest care, and part of her noticed the unusual warmth of his grip. She stared at him with her mouth half-open, unable to move.
"If you ever get separated from us," he lowered his voice to a near-whisper, "even if you can't find us again...I'm not gonna give up on you. You're not forgotten, and I'm counting on you to keep yourself alive. If you get lost, I'm not going to stop until I find you. You remember that. And you believe it. I won't lie to you. And there's no way in hell I'd just let you slip away. Even if you're by yourself...you're not alone. Not ever."
Rinoa didn't know what she could say. She could only stare at him, trapped in his expression, the heat of his hands and the words he'd spoken to her. She finally managed to nod slowly. She felt the cold air around her close in as he finally released her. She watched him watch her, and made a few unsuccessful attempts at moving her mouth before she finally managed to talk again. "Um...I guess...I guess you should get some sleep. We're going to try again to get to, um...through Lunatic Pandora's defenses, tomorrow, right?"
Squall nodded slowly. "Yeah."
"I...guess I'll go find a place for myself." She didn't move to get up. She found herself staring at him again.
"Back at the shelter," he motioned over his shoulder with his head, "You were afraid you'd have to fight SeeD again. Remember what I said?"
Rinoa smiled a little. "To stay close to you."
He shrugged a little, his stare straying from hers for a moment. "I wasn't just playing when I said that. I meant it."
She laughed nervously. "Since when do you ever play around?"
"It's been known to happen."
She cast him a sad smile. "Not very often, huh...?"
"Why are you still sitting there?"
The question made Rinoa replay his words in her head to be sure she'd understood him correctly. "What?" He had actually sounded somewhat annoyed. She wasn't certain what she'd done to offend him.
His scowl faltered as he realized what he must look and sound like. "Well, you're obviously not going anywhere." He spoke very quietly, wanted no one else to hear, but his voice was unusually expressive; there was something unhardened in his tone that Rinoa noticed. "It's getting cold out. You're either gonna sit there and freeze, or you're gonna do something about it. Here, or the ground?" His expression never changing from its impassive mask, he motioned vaguely behind him.
Now it was Rinoa who became a little nervous. "I don't know. Are you sure you don't mind? I...I don't want to embarrass you."
"If I felt embarrassed about it, would I even be offering?"
"Are you going to give me something to be embarrassed about?"
Rinoa giggled slightly as she answered, blushing despite the cold, "No."
"If you keep your knees out of my back, then fine. No curling up into a little ball like I've seen you do."
Smiling weakly, she nodded.
"Just this time, though, and I'm NOT kidding."
Before he had even finished speaking, Squall found himself embraced tightly about the shoulders. He stayed stiffly in place for a moment, then slowly, almost unsure of how to do so, lightly returned the hug with his free arm. He felt her chin rest against his shoulder, heard her whisper to him.
"I love you, Squall."
Closing his eyes briefly, he allowed himself a shiver. His expression did not change, his eyes simply stared out into nothing, but after a while he managed to answer her in a tight, almost weak voice. Still, his response seemed too casual to him, meaningless and apathetic, spoken too quickly and too calmly to hold any notion of sincerity. "Yeah. Yeah, I love you too." His words sounded as though they meant nothing of what he felt. He only hoped they were enough.
The exchange was brief, they released each other with little more than a glance to match stares. As Rinoa stood up, Squall settled down, closing his eyes and replaying for his mind's eye the past few awkward moments. He wondered vaguely if the others had seen the little drama from their respective areas of the cavern, but, frankly, he didn't care whether or not they had. His halfhearted confession had been strange and alien to him, but he'd meant every word of it.
And he would live up to it. He'd be damned if he didn't. -But what if,- some small fear in the back of his mind screamed as it did every night, -I can't find her when she's lost? What if I never wake up again?- He forced the notion away, forbidding doubt.
Rinoa‰s unfamiliar presence at his back made him consider whether or not he would actually be able to get any rest at all. This was the last thing he would have ever thought he would allow. Even now, he wasn't sure what to think about it. He'd always, always slept alone, in his own corner, away from everyone, as far back as he could remember. He wasn't sure if he knew _how_ to fall asleep next to someone else. If he could. As it was, he was so aware of the fact that he wasn't alone, he hardly dared to fall back into his mind as he normally would, as though by sheer proximity, Rinoa might hear his thoughts.
Nevertheless, his worry slowly faded, he felt himself start to relax for the first time in...how long? It seemed there had been no rest for days. Weeks? And who cared? Too long, was what it came down to.
His eyes opened and strayed to the opening of the cave, the star-dotted sky beyond. -What am I supposed to do,- he thought to nothing and no one, expecting no answers. -Where do I go from here?- He felt Rinoa nuzzle tentatively at the white fur at the back of his collar. He took a breath, released it, didn't object to her. He felt weight against his back, and this, too, he allowed without a word. Then all movement ceased, save for his breathing, and--so strange--the lighter breaths behind him. An additional rhythm to the one he fell asleep to, different than his...and somehow, more than a little pleasant.
He got an answer to his question, through from who or where, he couldn't tell, nor could he think about it; he was drifting off, into the stars he stared at.
-Home,- came a soft, soundless reply, and he vaguely noticed his own fingers curl once more around the smaller hand that had reached over to hold him, before he finally, mercifully lost himself to fatigue.
-We'll go home.-