Provisos: Fortunately, I own none of these characters or locations. That would be Squaresoft. If I did own them, I wouldn't get to write such delightfully verbose fanfiction about every aspect of their non-existent lives.
The idea for this piece came to me over a hot cup of tea one morning and it fit directly into my quest to better understand the Heartilly girl. For some reason, this pairing really appeals to me. I'll most likely be lynched for it. Heck, a month ago, I'd've lynched myself. But here it is nonetheless. Do with it what you will. I plead for mercy on the corniness of it all.
"You are what you dream." ~ Erica Jong, Fear of Flying.
Sharp, tiny white teeth peeked out from soft pink lips and nibbled at the corner. Tilting her head, Rinoa furrowed her brow and wrinkled her nose. Her shining dark eyes, bordered by spiky black lashes that grazed smooth cheeks, narrowed and focused downward. She put all the energy to studying the game board in front of her that most put to a dizzying mathematical question. Observing her independently, one would imagine she was measuring the arguments of a great philosopher concerning the origin of species, rather than her next move in a hand of Triple Triad. To her, it was just as important as the survival of the next generation.
Across the table, Zell fidgeted and wriggled in his chair, all patience and guile. If he had been playing against anybody else in the world, he would have bent forward, both elbows on glass, chin buried in two hands. But his mother had taught him manners and courtesy. Even though card games were not his especially favoured method of passing the time, he was polite enough not to show it outright. Raising his arms into the air he stretched languorously, leaning back ever so slightly. His spine let out a satisfying crack and he grinned, sheepish, when Rinoa immediately glanced up.
"Sorry." Forehead crinkling and blonde brows ruffling, he reached up to scratch the back of his neck, the base of which had begun to noticeably heat up. Quickly, he righted himself and engrossed himself with the board, inwardly mocking his internal embarrassment.
"No worries." Letting out a quiet giggle that did a lot to relax his anxiety, Rinoa shook her head and licked her lips. She took a deep breath and decided to go for it. If she did nothing else the rest of her life, she was going to master this game. No matter how long it took.
Scanning the hand in front of her for the zillionth time, her slim fingers slid over the plastic surface of her chosen card. She was about to pick it up when she heard Zell suck in his breath. Very nearly pouting, a tendency she loathed within herself, she dropped her hand and met his gaze. "No good?"
"Well, it's just…" Zell tried to plan his next words to sound diplomatic. "You could use that card, it would totally flip over the Gayla. But see the ones you would leave open? And if you look at the cards I've got, no matter what I'd hav'ta flip it."
Frustrated more than she thought possible, Rinoa's teeth made permanent indents in her bottom lip. "So what am I supposed to do then? Your cards are like ten times better than mine."
If she'd been anywhere else but Balamb Garden's cafeteria, she would have been tempted to knock over the cardboard and storm away. But this wasn't her house in Deling where there would be servants to clean up the mess. And she could no longer indulge in a good tantrum at a whim. Just because she'd felt completely out of her depth every second of the past month was no reason to lose her wobbling cling on control.
These were SeeDs she was surrounded by now, warriors, mercenaries, the elite of the elite. She was but a whiny, high-maintenance, princess to their eyes. Daddy's poor little rich girl who stamped her foot when she didn't get her way. They were all grown up. Strong, independent adults with job security and pension plans and up-the-ladder career paths. She was still waffling over what to be when she grew up. Her dreams were still fresh, ever-changing. Cripes, she still had freckles dotting her nose. How could she think of matching up?
"Not really, it's all about strategy. You just gotta think defensively first, build up a wall, and attack." Sensing her distress and hoping he wasn't the cause, Zell shifted forward to show her where to start from.
"See? Since this one is weak all on one side, if you put it against the corner here," he tapped the board, "the stronger numbers will be kinda like a deterrent. Since we're just playing basic rules here all ya really gotta do is prevent your opponent from getting any points."
"I see." She didn't, not really, but she appreciated his kindness. "So if I played the Gesper instead," she picked up the card and placed it beneath his on the board, "I wouldn't flip any over but I wouldn't be making myself defenceless either."
"Exactly!" Encouraged, he slid his chair closer and smiled. "Save your best, solid cards for last. Just like it's a battle."
They played for a few more minutes more, her confidence growing at each turn. Every time she picked up a card she would lift her eyes to gauge his reaction. He would offer words of advice or cheer. Eventually her shoulders straightened and a smile brightened her nervously pale complexion.
Triple Triad was, to Rinoa, a symbol of everything she was not and longed to understand. The measly little deck she'd picked up in Fisherman's Horizon was currently her most prized possession. It was a key, an in, to the society she had found herself surrounded in by a wash of circumstance. Everyone at Garden played cards, everyone had their own deck. Some were masters, some were amateurs, but they all grasped the basic rules.
Maybe, just maybe, if she got this, she could eventually get other things as well. And maybe one day she would fit in. Hoping against all odds, she skimmed a fingernail under her last card and laid it out for reckoning.
"Oh yeah!" Zell leapt out of his seat and pumped his fists in the air in jubilation. "Did you see that? You totally just kicked my butt!"
Laughing in spite of herself, she grinned up at him and put her hands on her hips. "You let me win."
"I did not." His jaw dropped, opened and shut, as if he was too shocked by her accusation for words. He put his hand to his heart. "I'm wounded. Just for that you're gonna haf'ta take two of my cards."
"No way. That's cheating." Unsure of herself once again, she peered out over her selection. "I don't feel right taking any."
"Too bad, that's the breaks of winning. If I didn't know better, I'd say you'd cheated. I happen to be a pretty good player round here, ya know." It was an out and out lie. He rarely had the tolerance to last out a game, let alone the ability to snare the attention of the famous Card Club. But it meant something to her and he was never one to turn away a friend in need.
"Oh, stop it." Her jaw tightened in consternation. She reached out for a low-end card when his firm tone brought her fingers to a halt.
"If you take anything else but the Tonberry, I'll make you regret it."
"You would not," she said primly, scrunching up her nose. She glanced over at him out of the corner of her eye. Her hand hovered over her original choice. "You're too nice."
"What makes you say that?" Tucking his hands in his back pockets, Zell observed her, head cocked to one side, blue eyes glinting in the fluorescent light.
"You were always nice to me, from the very beginning. In Timber, on the train, in Galbadia, and Deling, all this time at Garden…Even when everyone else made me feel like a total ditz, you've always been the perfect gentleman." Smile warm and soft, she looked at him fully, as if for the first time. "I trust you."
Discomfited, as he usually was when girls turned all serious around him, he removed his hands from his shorts and ran them over the top of his hair. Coughing, he looked at the floor and shuffled his feet. He needed to lighten the mood, and fast, before his face turned into a tomato.
"Yeah, well, y'know what they say about nice guys."
"No, what?" Her voice was as sweet as her smile.
"They ain't to be taken for granted!"
Swooping over, he hefted her up, chair and all, in his arms and spun them both around in a parody of a children's carnival ride. Her high-pitched cacophonic shrieks did nothing to phase him. The gales of laughter that sprinkled erratically between each succeeding screech were like individual lyrical sonatas.
Eventually his arms grew tired and his head giddy from all the spinning and he set her down as gently as possible. The eyes of the despotic cafeteria manager impaled his skull due to the ruckus he'd caused but he shrugged in indifference. It was five minutes till closing, it's not as if they'd disturbed anyone.
Dropping down into his vacated seat, he pretended to wipe his brow and gasp for air. "Still think I'm just a nice guy?"
Tapping a finger on her chin, she feigned deep thought. "I'm afraid so." Her smile was guileless and she snapped up the two-dimensional monster card, cradling it in her palms. "But I'm taking your card anyway. I wouldn't wanna make you collapse by forcing you do to that again."
If he wasn't out of breath, she certainly was. He was more than just a sweetheart after all, she thought. He was nuts. And altogether wonderful.
If only every male could have a little more Zell Dincht programmed into him. Perhaps kind of like a serum. They could market his DNA as a product and make millions. She could imagine the television advertisements. 'Your boyfriend's too serious? Too self-centred? Too closed off? One vial of Zell Dincht and you'll live happily ever after.' Giggling at the ridiculousness of her mental tangent, she twirled a lock of sable hair around one finger.
If only it were so easy.
"Uh oh, I heard that."
"The sigh. It's not allowed this time of night."
"Nope." Standing once again, Zell slipped his meagre deck into one of his back pockets after they'd folded up the board. "Garden Regulation Part C, Number Ten Point Three. No sighing, sad faces, or otherwise gloomy behaviour after curfew. You're gonna get the both of us kicked out if you keep on with that."
She too had noticed the way the frightening keeper of the kitchen had been eyeing them for the past few minutes. Rinoa valued her position in the institution too much to provoke even the lowest levels of management. Following his lead, she rose and put her cards away, delighting in the feel of even one new addition.
"You won't be saying that when we're out on our asses, peddling in the streets." He waited until she stood next to him before departing the area, matching his stride to hers. It wasn't difficult given their closeness in height. If anything, her legs were longer than his, a fact he was used to.
Throwing up her hands, she gave in and decided to play along. "I guess you're right. Whatever will we do?"
"We'll just hav'ta cheer you up. And I know just the thing that'll do it. C'mon!"
Rinoa took his offered hand without stopping to think about what he could possibly have in mind. He pulled her along the corridor at a swift pace until they reached the main hall. She would have stepped out but he flattened himself against the wall next to the corner, forcing her to stand beside him.
Her expression was one of bewilderment. "What on earth are you doing?"
"We're not supposed to be in the halls after curfew, either." His voice was a whisper. He leaned out and peered down the circular walkway behind them.
"I thought we'd gotten rid of the faculty a few days ago." Automatically she found herself whispering back.
"We did, but since then Cid's installed something even worse." For effect, he turned back to her and dropped his tone one fifth. "Prefects."
Insert terror organ fanfare here, he joked inside his head. It had been but a day and already he'd fallen victim to the overbearing student-formed dictators that now roamed the halls, seeking for misbehaving prey. The kid who'd apprehended him earlier for, what else, running in the halls, had been fourteen at the oldest. It was enough to make a guy wish for a return of the self-appointed Disciplinary Committee.
Deciding the way was secure for now, he tugged on her hand. "All clear. Run for it!"
Embarking forward at a crazy gait, Rinoa scrambled up the stairs toward the elevators. His steady grip really gave her no choice in the matter. His hand was warm and strong, friendly. She had no reason to pull away.
The lift doors opened as soon as he pushed the button and they hurried inside. Zell released her hand and wiped his brow. They shared a happy congratulatory grin. "Whew. I thought I'd seen a uniform rounding the corner. We'd've been goners for sure."
"You mean, you would have been. I'm just a visitor." She linked her hands behind her back and leaned forward, unable to resist a slight tease.
Zell widened his eyes and gave her a beseeching look. "But you wouldn't just leave me to them, would you? After all I've done for you? Let you in on all the master secrets, bought you a milkshake. After all we went through together at the missile base? You wouldn't abandon me like a dog, would you? Who knows what they'd do to a guy like me?" He dropped to his knees in front of her and clasped his hands. "Man, I played piano in public for you!"
By the time the lift had reached the second floor, Rinoa was laughing too hard to walk. Clutching her stomach and wiping tears, she tried to speak. All that came out were more chortles and a choking rendition of what he imagined was his name.
Thrilled with himself to the core, Zell rose and dusted off his knees. "Our stop, gotta keep movin'!"
Helpless, Rinoa did her best to keep up. Her giggles echoed down the empty hall as they raced.
He came to an abrupt pause at the door of the gallery and she crashed right into his back, letting out a soft peep. Zell turned around with a finger to his lips, calmly urging her to quiet. He bent forward to observe the cement area of the balcony that jutted off Balamb Garden's left side. Satisfied, he walked through, motioning her to follow with an eager hand.
"Jeez, are we lucky or what? No one's even out here."
The cool rush of midnight air hit her almost immediately as she stepped forward. It wasn't an unpleasant feeling. The gooseflesh that rose on her bare arms wasn't enough to make her turn away from the dazzling spectacle of the night sky. Their current location was somewhere in the middle of the ocean. No land in sight just endless magnificent waves bouncing over the scope. The quarter moon lent its radiance to their power.
Garden itself was making its way from Fisherman's Horizon to Balamb. The going was slow and drifting, almost lazy-like. As if it had all the time in the world. It was summertime. There was no need to rush. As if the world was saying, 'take this chance to breathe, to appreciate, it won't last long.'
Rinoa breathed and appreciated and soaked in all the respite she could. What waited in Balamb the next day she knew not. And as long as they continued to glide along the water, she would not have to.
"Pretty cool, huh?" Zell was watching her awed expression with a smile of his own. He had discovered the place himself the other night when he had been unable to sleep after their escape from the bowels of the Galbadian robot. He felt it was only right to share.
It was even more amazing now that they were away from the city. The sea air carried a delightful perfume as compared to the urban smells of Fisherman's. It was quiet as well, last night the clanking of tools and grind of machines had disturbed the tranquillity. Now only the soft hum of Garden's engines meshed with the natural waves. This was true peace.
"It gets even better. C'mon." Urging her further, Zell headed over to the wall where a metal ladder was fixed to the side.
Rinoa nodded and began to climb after him, her light shoes only slipping once or twice. Once at the top, she pulled herself up and fought to maintain her balance. She was grateful the Garden's speed was low now for more practical reasons. A glance down showed her it would be a mortifying tumble. Adjusting her clothes, she darted her eyes around for her guide. He was sitting a ways over, legs bent comfortably.
Determined to make it across the roof herself, she put out her arms slightly to maintain a semblance of equilibrium. One foot in front of the other she made it without difficulty and eased down next to him with as much poise as she could muster. She knew though if she had stumbled Zell would have been there to catch her. No sneers, no blank stares, no double entendres. That was just the kind of person he was.
Zell felt her eyes on him and looked over. Detecting her smile in the moonlight, he smiled back awkwardly, rubbing at his neck. The twinkle in her eyes was warm, affectionate, and he was not quite sure how to respond.
He had liked Rinoa almost upon meeting her. She was nice to him, really nice. She had even stood up for him a time or two, which went a long way in his books. There had been so few in his past willing to do so. He could tell she really cared about what she did, about what was going on in Timber. And she was honest. Compared to all of the other girls he'd known, which weren't many to be truthful, Rinoa seemed to be the trustworthiest.
She was struggling, he could tell, just like him, to find her place. He didn't understand how a girl like her could have any problems at all but he wanted to pay her back for all the things she'd already done for him. Even if it meant humiliating himself in the process. She was worth it.
"So, you gonna 'fess up or am I gonna need to drag it outta ya?"
Startled from her inner dialogue, Rinoa turned from the stars to face him. "Fess up what?" Her dark brows knit in a confused line.
"What that sigh was about before." Zell shrugged. "You don't have to tell me if you really don't want to but I'm willing to listen. If it helps at all." Seeing her blank expression he shook his head. "Nevermind. Forget I said anything."
"No, Zell, thanks." She shifted closer, touching his shoulder. All of a sudden she felt the need for contact. "It helps a lot." The wind ruffled her hair and she pushed it back off her forehead. "I just don't know where to begin." She gave a little laugh and tried to toss her sliding bangs out of her eyes when the breeze released them once more.
"When I was a kid," he began, eyes moving over the ocean. "I used to climb up on the roof all the time, look at the stars and make pictures out of 'em. Y'know, like constellations? Except I was too young to know the real ones so I made my own up. It was great, like my own little world nobody else knew about." He wasn't sure why he was relating the story to her, but the words wouldn't stop. "Ma caught me once and freaked, said I'd deserve it if I fell. But I was never scared cause, well, it was my place. Nothing could get me up there. Not the stupid fat kid around the corner, not the old lady's mean dog. Nothing."
Rinoa watched as the expressions on his face flickered. For a moment she wished she could have known that sweet little boy who'd found his refuge on the housetop.
"Man, Balamb nights were the best back then, before the city started growing. I mean, it's no Deling or anything, but even now the lights are too bright to really see the stars anymore. And the sunrises? Just awesome! You'd love it." Realising how much emotion had seeped into his voice, he blushed and shifted uneasily. "I mean, y'know, it's pretty neat to see at least once."
"I'd like that a lot." She smiled again.
Zell nodded his head emphatically, trying to detract her from his pinkened cheeks that he was sure she could see even in the darkness. "Right on."
They sat in silence for awhile. Just enjoying each other's company. Rinoa liked how there was no need to talk, no need to constantly keep up a stream of chatter to make up for her inadequacies in other areas.
Zell didn't expect her to be anything other than herself. He never looked at her like he was trying to figure her out, like he was trying to categorise her into some kinda piece of a puzzle. He just let her be. She didn't wonder where she stood in his estimation. He was honest, open. Of all the guys she had ever known, he was the first to treat her like an equal. She owed it to him to be the best friend she could be in return.
"Do you think Squall likes me very much?" It came out soft, timid.
"What? Of course he does!" Loyal to the end, Zell could not see how anyone could do otherwise. His eyes were earnest. "Why wouldn't he?"
"I don't know." Rinoa tucked her legs at her side and drew designs on the roof with her nail. "He's always so mysterious. Even tonight at the concert. I never know what he's thinking."
"Well, that's just the way he is." Baffled, the male spoke the first thoughts that entered his mind. "But I'm sure it's nothing bad. Squall's really cool like that. He'll be all quiet for a long time and then say something wicked that'll make everyone pay attention. He's one of the best." He spoke with a dollop of pride and envy.
Rinoa nodded and smiled slightly. The reverence written all over his profile was endearing. She didn't want to say anything that might spoil the image of his hero, as uncertain as she was. He had known the other male longer than she anyway. And hadn't she seen glimpses inside, as quick as they were? If he hated her he would have sent her away.
"You're right, Zell. It was silly of me to doubt."
Her companion was sharp enough to catch the lingering scepticism in the curve of her brow. He wanted to dispel all worries but wasn't sure if he should be the one to do it. He didn't know where to start. The intricacies of females were Irvine's and similar guys' bags. Not his.
"Don't worry. Squall's decent. And if he isn't you come to me and we'll have words. Okay?" He put out his fist.
"Okay." Her smile reached her eyes this time and she punched her fist on his.
Rinoa yawned before she could muffle her mouth with her hand.
"You tired? We can head in if you like. It's probably getting cold too." He started to stand up, though reluctantly. "You've got goosebumps."
"No." She nodded, making him laugh.
"Which is it? "
"No, I want to stay here. Just for a bit longer." Her dark eyes held him in place. "Please?"
"Well, all right. But we should go in soon, before you freeze to death. And we'll be needing our sleep." The mission was not over yet, he knew. Not by a long shot. He wanted to make sure for himself Balamb was still safe. He wouldn't be able to relax fully until then.
"I know." He settled back down in his former position next to her and she leaned her head on his shoulder. "But I wanna see the sunrise."
"It's a long time till then," warned Zell, comfortable for the first time in ages. "Six hours at least."
"You'll entertain me. Why don't you show me those constellations you were talking about before? The ones you made up? I bet they're better than the real ones any day."
"Really? It's pretty dorky." His free hand ran through his hair bashfully. "I don't even know why I told you all that. I was a dumb kid."
"You were not!" Sitting up, Rinoa placed her hands on her hips. "I wish I had grown up in Balamb instead of crappy Deling. You can't even see the moon from there half the time. I want to hear all about it."
"Really?" He couldn't imagine why.
"Really. I wish I'd had a friend like you back then." Their gazes fixed and held in a sweet moment of pure understanding. There were no rainbows, moonbeams didn't swirl around them in dizzying circles. But the warmth that welled up in both their souls in that instant was more than enough.
"You do now."
"I do now." She repeated and grinned. All of a sudden, life felt simple. "Promise to stick around no matter what happens?"
"Only if you promise not to tell anyone you beat me a triple triad." His smiled was teasing. "I'm gonna win that card back one of these days."
She giggled. "It's a deal."
And it was. She now had her very first best friend, the best card of them all. She wasn't letting this one go.