Quick notes: I'm sorry about the delay; it's been for personal reasons. As some of you know, my daughter has been ill. It comes and goes – it's been an ongoing process to find out what's wrong but, as of now, we still know nothing. I'm sorry about not keeping up with communications over the last few weeks, it's been difficult. I thank everyone so much for the wishes, on here and on the Facebook page; I'll do my best to keep everyone up-to-date. Honestly, writing has been a great escape for me - I have all of you to thank for that.

Okay – happier things. I've also been working on my AU - "The Meaning of Resistance." I'm up to chapter 13, but wanted to alternate so I can finish this (and yes, eventually go back to Somewhere in Between, it's the plan. Promise) but really enjoying working on an alternate universe story. It's actually rather fun, but challenging, to create their back-stories while keeping it grounded in the canon.

And thanks to everyone who supported me here, at Facebook, and the people who put up with me in person. Love you all… and I need to sleep. I'm sorry about any mistakes, I tried to fix things and usually end up making new ones. Go me!

This was supposed to be my Valentine's Day chapter, but things got a little…behind. So Happy Belated Valentine's to all!

Chapter Eighty-Seven: Haven

He knew what it was like to be lost inside your own mind amid the desperation and loneliness. Even if her retreat was only temporary, he'd help her escape.

As she looked out the Ragnarok's window, she saw so much more than the dry-dock - she saw the world. It was life outside the bubble they'd both been guilty of creating. To a point, he was used to this, used to living a dual life while on a mission - it was something she couldn't just 'get used to.' His death, their isolation… it had been both good and bad, but it was finite, with limited interactions and that would all end.

Squall understood that separating the aspects of his personal life from the confines of the mission was difficult. It was an ability that only he'd had experience with – to her it was as foreign as Esthar's soil. And as she stared at the city's distinctive skyline, the buildings and lights had somehow manifested into a physical representation of her world's colliding.

That's why he hadn't said anything at first, allowing her to process and say what was on her mind. But the longer she looked out there – into the glass and night - the further she withdrew from him.

He knew more than anyone that the further you withdrew, the greater force there was to your rebound. He knew that intensity – the power often too overwhelming. He'd had a lifetime of experience in wading through confusion and he wouldn't let her lose herself, even for a night.

Reaching out, he softly placed a hand on her shoulder. Her muscles had been so tense beneath his fingers that, on instinct, he moved behind her and began to massage the tension from her body. It pained him to see her this way - he wanted her to let go, let him into her thoughts… but the irony of being shut out wasn't lost on him.

Also, there something important earlier that didn't go unnoticed - for someone he heralded for having innate stubbornness, she'd been too agreeable during the briefing between Lauren and the others. When it had to do with Rinoa, things were rarely that simple.

His thumbs found pressure points on either side of her upper spine as he pleadingly-whispered for her to let go. "Don't. You're not alone."

"Hmmm?"

He wanted to laugh; she was as transparent as he was.

Firmly massaging between her neck and shoulders, he leaned forward, speaking softly into her ear. "Rinoa, even though time's past, I'd still like to think I know you. I know something is on your mind. I could always tell when something was troubling you, just like it is now."

Her body stiffed beneath his touch. He knew. His words had struck a nerve. He couldn't change the past, nor would he ask for forgiveness. He wasn't always proud of who he was, but it was simply who he was. For the sake of the future, both moved beyond apologizing for a past that couldn't be changed.

He swallowed, hoping that she'd understand. It still wasn't easy to open up, to admit his limitations and fears. To anyone else, they'd be simple words but, to a man like Squall, it was the equivalent of stripping down, revealing an emotional nakedness, exposing a mental weakness. Closing his eyes, his arms wrapped around her as he pressed their bodies together. Before he could stop himself, he found himself whispering in her ear.

"…I have many regrets."

Compared to everything else, this shouldn't have come as a shock to her. She'd already been mentally impaled with a thousand Cactuar needles - what harm could a thousand and one do? Yes, it hurt to know that, years ago, he knew when something was bothering her and played – for lack of better word – dumb. But after the first hundred or so needles, one's perspective changes and, to be fair, she was upset a lot back then. Sometimes the reasons were small, sometimes imagined or misunderstood, and yes, some even valid. He had enough on his plate, how could he differentiate between everything?

So yes, after the first thousand needles, you can take a confession like this as either good or bad – to either think your boyfriend couldn't have been bothered, or to take the confession at its lowest common denominator.

Stepping away, she turned to confront him face-to-face. His eyes betrayed the confusion as he took a step back, not sure what kind of reaction to expect. She reached for his hand and as he was momentarily distracted - looking to where their fingers intertwined - she caught him off guard, pulling him into a kiss. He was hesitant, still unsure, even as he found that he matched her intensity. Her action had been calculated, yet forceful, and just when he found that he was finally letting himself go to her, she pulled away – the action just as deliberate.

Looking down at her, his brow furrowed and if honesty was truly the best policy, now would be the time to put that to the test. "Rinoa, I don't understand."

"Let's just say that's for being a combination of a gentleman and a jerk. Figure that one out." She forced a laugh knowing that he'd even be more lost after the statement. She licked her lips before the inevitable smile came; somehow, he'd ironically made it easy to talk to him. Even though he was someone who rarely opened up, she always wanted to do nothing more than open up her heart to him – to say so much so he knew her in every way. In the past, she'd hold back, but not anymore; his simple confession reminded her of this.

She stepped in, leaning against his chest as he moved his free arm loosely around her waist. "Squall, it's just back then I thought you were too… um… clueless to know when I was upset. No offence."

"Slight offence," he corrected with the deadpan humor she'd witnessed only a handful of times before their reunion. Placing a few kisses on the top of her head, he felt the need to follow up, "but it was probably deserved, so I won't complain too much."

"Probably?" she repeated playfully, snaking her arm around his back.

"Maybe then?"

"Yes, almost certainly," she laughed, almost forgetting her point all together. "You're just being difficult."

"No, I'm being clueless, remember?" He actually let out a small laugh, making her smile. God she loved being with him. She loved him. But in a few hours, he wouldn't be just hers, he'd be the world's. It was selfish, but damn it, she wanted to be selfish once in her life. Still, she needed to tell him about wanting to confront Zone on her terms – she just hoped that he'd still be in such good spirits after that bombshell.

The first thing she had to do was step away from him as being this close was often… distracting. It became even more so when they were alone and could be left to their own devices. She'd grabbed both of his hands, looking him in the eyes.

Her mouth felt dry again, finding herself nervously licking her lips before talking. "In all seriousness, I'm not mad that you knew when something was bothering me. The memory of the teenager within me is probably... um, maybe…fine - is - a tad bit upset that you were well, for better term, ignoring 'her.' But that's all right because the person who married you – she's the one that's glad you weren't emotionally naive. What you just said meant you knew me - I wasn't just some stranger. Squall, this isn't about the teenager being upset for what didn't happen in our past, it's about the adult believing the best for our future."

"You were never a stranger, Rinoa. Don't ask me how that's possible, but it is." Gingerly, he moved one hand up, his fingers lingering against her cheek. "Rinoa, I think it's not that I couldn't read people back then - to be blunt, I didn't care to. Somehow, you shot that philosophy to hell. Still, I could always read you… Actually, it was more like this feeling. It was a blessing and a curse. I found that knowing and understanding another human being was terrifying as hell, especially when I couldn't understand myself."

"You're still terrified," she whispered truthfully, leaning into the palm of his hand.

"As hell… but I've come to know myself better. Part of accepting that was knowing I don't want to do this without you. I would. I could. I simply don't want to, but…" he drawled out the last word, removing his hand and looking her directly in the eyes. "…but part of the problem is, I still know when something is bothering you. And you're going have to accept that if it's bothering you, it's bothering me. Don't keep it inside – that's a dangerous thing."

"I was going to tell you." She knew that sounded a little too well-timed but it was the truth. "Actually, this probably won't make sense, and don't expect it to, but hearing what you said… It was what I needed. Well, that or the back rub, because that was good too."

He offered a brief, but reassuring smile as he reached for her hand. She was slightly confused, but he led her to the bed. He made a gesture for to sit, which she did willingly. It actually was nice, namely because she hadn't realized how tired she was until she'd sat down. He then gently ushered her so she turned and, to her surprise, he continued the massage. Not that she was complaining, but there was a really awkward distribution of thoughts between what she had to do and what she wanted to do.

"Rinoa, you are far too stubborn for your own good. And downstairs you were way too willing to sit quietly without objections. So, now that we've just finished one of our legendary rounds of speaking in circles… we've probably, maybe returned to the starting line. My original point stands – don't. You're not alone."

He couldn't see her, but her mouth fell slightly agape from the momentary shock. He was good and scarily intuitive, although maybe in this case, she was the open book. He was wrong about one thing, they hadn't talked in complete circles, more like a large oval – she understood him better along with his advice. He knew something was wrong and was telling her to open up, that he was there.

"…Tomorrow, I want to be there."

"I figured." He exhaled deeply, but kept kneading the muscles in her back. No, he wasn't thrilled, far from it, but he also knew that she wasn't the type to quietly remain on the sidelines.

She felt her heart race, realizing her mistake. He was way too calm. That's why she should've been more selective in her word choice. She hadn't noticed that one of her hands had reached down, nervously pulling on the sheets.

"Squall, wait, I knew I'd end up screwing this up… I'm saying I don't want to just be there, but I want to be the only one there… the one that talks to him."

In all honesty, this was his worst-case-scenario. He couldn't retract his hands fast enough, running one through his hair to try to curb his anger. This was the point that he'd blow up if one of his subordinates came to him with such an asinine request. He'd offer them a word or two, neither of them polite nor friendly or even suitable to be repeated in outside company. The next few minutes weren't going to go well but, he was adamant, and there was no fucking way in hell.

"Damn it, Rinoa. Out of question."

So much for her worrying about the correct wording. Still, she wasn't about to roll over, offer a salute, or kiss his ass like any cadet. Thankfully, unlike any other cadet, he'd actually listen to her, once he got over the initial shock. She could be disappointed his reaction, but not angry with his decision. That had been an honest response and it wasn't about pulling rank, it was genuine concern.

No, more than that - it was a response born out of fear and love.

Shifting to face him, she knew that the most important thing was to present a valid, well-reasoned case.

Taking a deep breath, she tried to quell her growing anxiety. Their eyes met and, after being paralyzed by the initial pang of fear, she did her best to convey the confidence she had. This wasn't some emotionally-driven idea done on a whim – this wasn't her past - this plan would work.

"First, I understand that on the surface it seems like a bad idea. So yes, I'm willing to concede to that this could, in fact, very easily be a bad idea. I'm not asking for you to agree right now; I'm just asking that you give me the fair chance to explain and counter the possible bad with the possible good."

Damn it, she had him. He actually longed for the day where her counter-arguments consisted of 'you're a meanie,' but here she was being so damn annoyingly-logical. In this particular case, he was torn. He didn't like the idea of having her anywhere around Zone. Hell, he'd prefer she stayed in the Ragnarok, but that argument wouldn't fly, unless he wanted to spend his second night (and possibly beyond) of marriage in the dog house. Still, as conflicted as he was, there was a part of him that was secretly impressed. No matter how fleeting, he saw a glimpse of his wife's true persona – who she was beyond their bubble. It was how she handled herself in diplomatic situations.

Whether he liked it or not, he begrudgingly agreed to listen to her points. "Fair enough."

"First, it isn't just Zone's safety or even mine. The people around him are my friends and colleagues. If you're seriously thinking about confronting him at work, then there needs to be some degree of trust and having random SeeDs storming in isn't going to build that. I know that SeeD isn't going to go in, guns-a-blazing because there is still protocol involved. I know that building, I know those people, and worst case scenario, I know they'll listen to me. And, if it works out that you apprehend him on the street or at his apartment – somebody is going to be in the line of fire and, yes, that includes Zone. Squall, not everything requires special ops, special SeeDs, or whatever - sometimes it just takes a special friend." She bit her lip before letting out an awkward laugh, "Yeah, okay… that sounded wrong. You know what I meant, special friend as in best friend – not 'special' friend as in like boyfriend or you know… just a boy friend-friend."

"I get it." He wasn't about to nitpick wording, especially when the context was obvious, although watching her concern about his possible concern was rather endearing. Although he'd found a newfound respect for the more eloquent-sounding Rinoa, he'd always have a soft spot for the one he'd first fallen in love with. 'She' was the one that had no idea her cheeks blushed when she became flustered, nervously stumbling over her own words.

Her voice cracked, softening ever-so-slightly as she made one final plea. "Squall, I promise, promise, that sometimes simple is better and this is one of those times."

He pressed his fingers to either side of his temples. His actions had become deliberate, bordering on painful, as his fingers traced through unruly hair. Following the natural curvature of his head, his hands forcefully clasped back together before resting at the base of his neck.

"Not my call." It was blunt, but accurate and true for more than one reason. "I do appreciate your insights, but you're really not giving a reason. And while those in charge will agree that this isn't a battlefield, they won't agree that it isn't a battle. To SeeD strategy itself is considered a battle – something that can either be won or lost. Either way, informed decision or not, none of this is my call to make."

She sighed, looking away.

"Don't," he responded with an outwardly-abrasive overtone. "Rinoa, I know you're going to interrupt that as some sort of insult… please don't. It wasn't meant against you, because I do understand what you're getting at. The fact is, as of now, anything that either of us actually believes boils down to our opinions. I know that Zone is your friend, but there are aspects that I'm more familiar with. Until I see floor plans, then map and assess the situation, you're asking me to go in blind. I can't."

"No Squall… I'm asking you trust me."

That stung. "That's not fair and you know it."

"Whatever." She blinked a few times. He knew that she was trying her best not to cry. He felt bad, but feeling bad and doing the right thing were two separate entities.

"Rin, we don't know how he's going to react… I've never believed in living under the umbrella of assuming, but this is different – this is about erring on the side of caution. We have to believe that Zone could be a walking time bomb. And taking his level of emotional attachment into account, the surprise of seeing you could be the spark that ignites the bomb. It's going to raise questions and uncertainty, and that's what we can't have. The fact that you stroll into work, without any communication to your best friend, it's going to raise a huge red flag in his mind. Right now, Zone believes that you're still in Esthar… and, if I'm not mistaken, the main reason you gave was to spend time with Laguna. Then the day after Sirtis is captured you up and leave? Honestly, that's when you'd both need the most support. Seeing you is going to scare him and it's that initial emotional reaction that scares the hell out of me."

"Correction commander, I still am in Esthar."

"Rinoa, stop with the semantics. You know what I mean." He was scared; if only he could admit how much.

"Do I?" She turned back, she wasn't crying, she wasn't angry - her inner willpower was the glue holding herself together. "Maybe I wouldn't detonate a bomb, maybe I'd diffuse it." She paused, choosing her words carefully. Truth be told, Zone was the wildcard in this situation. "I'll concede that Zone's… misguided, but he isn't going to hurt people. He isn't going to hurt me."

"Misguided, are you fucking kidding me?"

So much for picking her words, but the whole subject was a loaded minefield. She could tell he was trying to suppress his anger. They were both tired – physically and mentally - and neither wanted to fight. Honestly, it was a rather awkward day to start your first full day of marriage - discussions about confronting your husband's would-be killer tended to be a mood killer no matter how it was worded.

Squall needed… hell, he needed a lot of things, but his most immediate need was to end this conversation before it took an ugly turn. Fighting with her still wouldn't give her an answer, or at least one that she wanted. He stood up, removing his shirt; at the very least they could both get some much-needed sleep. There also was a secondary reason - he needed to remind her of just how real this was, how real it could've been.

Standing in front of her, he reached for her hand, placing it directly on his stitches. She honestly didn't know where to look, too ashamed to meet his eyes. This time when he spoke, he remained unfazed and his tone bordered on seductively-soft.

"Rinoa, this isn't the result of someone who was simply misguided. This was intentional. It was skillfully planned out, which includes the fact he almost successfully pinned it on someone else but, worse than all that, he endangered not only me, not only Zell, but everyone else in the area. It may be hard to hear and impossible to understand, but this wasn't a battlefield. There were kids, families, and other innocent people around me. If Zone's already shown that he's not above putting the welfare of others at risk, how can you look at me, this wound, and then tell me you can guarantee that he won't hurt anyone else?"

Still holding her hand, he pressed it down just enough that the direct pressure made him wince.

That's all it took. She snatched her hand away, whatever point he was attempting to make, he didn't have to play that dirty. She'd seen the wound before. No, she hadn't felt it with her hand directly, but still she'd made contact with it. He'd only had it not bandaged for the last few days. She wished he would cover it, but she hadn't broached the subject. Part of that she figured was he'd run out of supplies and didn't ask, although he was still caring for it and making sure it was cleaned. She hated it. It was always going to serve as a reminder for so many things – the most important being how close he'd been to truly being lost.

Why did he have to play so dirty?

The room suddenly felt as if it was closing in. Standing up, she couldn't even begin to compose a response, which also made her angry. She was suddenly transported back into that feeling of helplessness from five years ago, when all she could do was silently and desperately want her voice to be heard. But to be heard, you had to speak – she couldn't. She looked at him, shaking her head before finally having to brush past him to get to the bathroom.

Squall found himself sharing the same mindset. So much for their night on the Ragnarok, it seemed like this was destined to mirror their first time aboard, complete with the regifted bag of mixed emotions. Worse than before, he felt trapped. He didn't even have the luxury of walking around the ship or kicking a Propagator's ass. He found pacing futile as it only took three strides from one end to the other. He began to feel as if he was actually just spinning in circles - or was it brooding in circles? Whatever. He needed a distraction.

The commander was not a curious person by nature, although he'd gladly classified himself as extremely observant – two separate entities. It often boiled down to the difference between necessity versus genuine interest. For example, he'd already noticed a larger bag on the built-in countertop. Normally, he'd let it go after assessing that it wasn't a security threat, whereas some people (possibly led by their ringleader, Selphie) would feel the innate need to snoop. Yet, in the midst of needing a distraction, he realized that it piqued his interest more than normal. He had no idea if the larger bag was meant for them or for the ship's crew, but there was a rather noticeable note stapled to the drawstring.

…Curiosity, cats, old adages, and all that. He grumbled those seemingly random and nonsensical thoughts trying to justify the situation to himself. Screw it. Squall used to pride himself on wanting to possess the strength of a lion, but the reality was that they were just large cats. For once, he decided to make his life easier and embrace the cliché and the distraction.

"Thought you two might like these! Compliments of the hotel management."

It was simply signed with the letter "L" followed with not one, but two smiley faces. Yeah, that's what he needed. He could only guess that those smiling faces were supposed to represent him and Rinoa. Showed how little Laguna knew him. He also decided dwelling on the fact that his father shared the signature of a thirteen-year-old girl was not in his best interest. Rinoa had said that the Ragnarok meant something to them and this was probably Laguna's way of making them be a part of it. It was a small gesture, but one that would be remembered.

He looked to the bathroom, thinking of what could've been. Still, maybe he wouldn't give up hope. Positive-thinking wasn't usually his forte. It felt… wrong. Shaking his head, he mumbled "What the hell happened to you Leonhart" to himself as he opened the box.

Inside he found two matching Ragnarok t-shirts and a set of very nice button dress shirts embroidered with the ship's logo. He instantly knew that these shirts weren't something picked up at the corner souvenir shop, all this was official crew gear. It also wouldn't be something he'd normally wear, but there was something endearing about it. In fact, even in the midst of his foul mood, he hadn't noticed the trace of a smile gracing his lips. Who would've thought that clothes from Laguna, of all things, would make him feel this way?

Walking over, he knocked on the door. He wasn't surprised when there was no immediate answer. He immediately berated himself for that comment; he had to remember everything she was going through. It was easy for him to stand on the sidelines and judge but, in a very short span, her world had been shattered, been rebuilt, and now collapsed again – or more like imploded. At least the only way to go was up. Inwardly, he let out a bitter chuckle, this 'optimistic thing' felt so very, very foreign to him.

"Rinoa, I'm not here to start anything. I wanted to let you know that I opened that box and it's clothes for us. There's a Ragnarok t-shirt for you to sleep in… if you're interested." He paused again, finding himself in the unfamiliar position of rating clothing, "It's… um, nice."

That last statement must've drawn genuine curiosity because she opened the door. Her hair had been put in a high ponytail and traces of water remained on her face. She held a washcloth in her hand as Squall tried desperately, albeit unsuccessfully, not to notice the fact that she'd removed her shirt, wearing only a bra. This proved to be a rather unexpected distraction.

"A nice t-shirt? Huh?" She looked at him skeptically before putting her hand out. "Fine."

Her eyes met his with a look that screamed, 'if they're so 'nice' why aren't you wearing one?' Which, was a decent question, even if he hadn't thought that far ahead. Then again, he could've been reading way more into her body language than she was saying but, either way, he decided it best not to push his luck - yet. After handing her the top, he walked back to the counter, putting on his t-shirt.

Killing time, he picked up the dress shirts and happened to notice a second note placed at the bottom. Without knowing for sure, he had a nagging suspicion that Laguna had an inexplicable love of scavenger hunts - a gene that thankfully wasn't passed down to him.

"Hope you like these, but you picked up the shirt, so that's a good sign, right? I got it! How about if you do, look in the closet. If you don't, ignore this note."

This time it was signed with just the letter L minus the smiley faces. There was a certain charming aspect to this, even if pained Squall to admit. He certainly couldn't handle it all the time but, here and there, a little dash of whimsy couldn't hurt.

…And what the hell. Between that thought and optimism, he was feeling nauseous.

Maybe there was something in that pizza earlier or maybe somehow he'd accidently ingested some of Rinoa's headache medicine – those seemed like the most plausible explanations. Though pushing possible drug-induced thoughts to the side, it was impressive that this had been set up so quickly. Squall had to assume that Laguna had only dictated to an assistant or something… a job that probably didn't pay enough. Adding smiley faces to the Presidential signature seemed a tad humiliating; then again, one could only assume the job would be chalk-full of variety. He'd personally loath something so demeaning. Rinoa, Selphie, and Zell on the other hand….

All thoughts were put on hold as the bathroom door opened and Rinoa came out in her t-shirt - and only her t-shirt. Turned out that he was one hundred percent correct, the t-shirt was… nice.

They were also extremely comfortable, even Squall would attest to that. For a country that produced such god-awful robes, they'd perfected the market on t-shirts. Then again, maybe they were standard under-robe attire.

He silently watched as she sat on the edge of the bed; she was either unable or not trying to mask her irritation. She also avoided eye contact – an extremely calculated move on her part. He had a feeling she wouldn't be that upset with him if she looked into his eyes. It had always been her weakness and one he had every intention of exploiting. No matter what, the Ragnarok was special and differences aside, they could come together on that; he wasn't about to let her regret this opportunity. No matter what was said, it may never happen again. With that in mind, he went to the bathroom to get ready for bed.

So far, so good.

It wasn't easy, but Rinoa had managed to hold her ground. After crawling into the bed, she turned away, breathing a sigh of relief when the bathroom door closed. There was so much she wanted to say to him, but he'd be there with a counter-argument every step of the way. Tomorrow she could plead her case to Lauren, although she doubted that it would yield any different results.

Honestly, she had no fathomable idea about how she was supposed to sleep; her mind was like a storm with a thousand different thoughts pelting her in every direction. What had been done, what could be done, and what should be – and yet not one of her thoughts was coherent enough to make sense. It wasn't too long after that she felt him getting under the sheet with her – irritated or not, she knew one thing – he made sense. Okay, it wasn't good sense, but as he laid next to her, he remained the one thing that she didn't question.

Thankfully, he'd already turned the lights off because, in the darkness, she'd be less tempted to look into his eyes - either by accident or by design. Honestly, since that first dance in the ballroom, staring into his eyes had become a private, intimate exchange. That's also why arguing with him proved futile in the past - mutual silence led to impromptu, intense staring contests.

She could laugh about it now but, as a teenager, she'd been half-convinced that his eyes should've qualified as one of the world's natural wonders or at least one of its greatest mysteries. In fact, she often believed that he wasn't just staring at her - but through her. Maybe he secretly had the ability to see beyond the physical and into something much deeper. Of course, as an adult, she'd readily admit that registering Squall's eyes as some sort of national treasure was probably slight overkill. Still, moving beyond random bouts of adolescent romanticism, she'd never deny that his eyes still had power over her.

Then again, maybe she wasn't alone with her thoughts as she'd also caught him taking his fair share of stolen glances.

And it was those moments where they shared their unexpected, yet intimate, moments of silence that she'd felt completely loved. Sometimes, she'd tense, feeling the ghost of her teenage self - the one that still wanted to know the mystery behind the stare. That young woman once wanted to know everything hidden behind his eyes, but not now. Rinoa never wanted to know entirely – sometimes the best mysteries were those left unsolved. Still, if he really wanted to, all it took was one poignant glance and she'd feel weak.

Now that they were married, or unless she planned to conveniently forget to pay the electric bill, she'd need to learn how to even the field. Then again, that's why the situation suddenly had potential - the darkness could be an advantage. Maybe she'd try one more time to appeal to his… well, she wanted to go with 'logic,' but that wasn't right. When it came to logic, Squall was the one who was being sensible. So, she'd do her best to reach out to his humanity. If it had been Zell, Irvine…or any of his friends needing help, he'd insist on being there. Rinoa realized that she'd been wrong as logical reasoning was well and good when something was logical – emotions were anything but.

She rolled onto her back, looking up to the ceiling. Her eyes had adjusted and the light filtering through the window was a little brighter than she'd believed. Then again, it was impossible to judge things accurately with your eyes closed.

Her voice came out surprising somber. "Right now, I wonder how different it would've been if I hadn't told you. If I'd just returned to work and confronted him on my own."

"You could've," he conceded, "And I couldn't say that's not what I would've done, because honestly, I probably would have."

"…Then why?" she softly pleaded, "Why can't I get some sort of credit for that? Squall, you're my backup. Not SeeD, but you… there's a difference. Maybe I'm not trusting in Zone as much as I'm putting my faith in you."

He rolled over. She expected him to go onto his back, but he turned to face her instead. It was already a snug fit, and now on top of that, she became completely aware of his proximity. A fact that something told her he was relying on.

She let out an involuntary 'yelp' as his arm went across her stomach. She didn't know why, but she hadn't been expecting that. If she thought he'd been playing dirty before, this move was off-the-charts.

"Rinoa," he sighed, making her stiffen as he nudged into her. Squall Leonhart did not play fair. "It's really not my call to make. I do have to… let's just say stay under the radar, but yes, I will have influence."

It wasn't a no, but it wasn't a yes. Then again, maybe she could play a little dirty too. She turned onto her side to face him. Propping herself onto her side, she reached out and started to casually to play with the long strands of hair that fell over his face. She tried to sound as sweet as possible, although probably overdoing it a tad. "…A lot of influence, right?"

"Not as much as you think you have right now but some." He let out something akin to a laugh to which she jokingly took offence to – maybe it had been more than a 'tad.'

"Whatever." She moved her hand, pushing his shoulder. He had no idea if she was trying to push him off the bed or just move him, but it was a failed attempt on all accounts. He found himself laughing again.

"Laugh it up," she said with hint of playfulness, "I'd have loved to see the newspaper headlines –entire Garden looks like a collective bunch of fools as lone Timber woman solves mystery in Balamb commander's attempted murder."

"That is..." He purposely paused, making sure she got the full dramatic effect, "…a really, really long headline. Did my father write it? Because seriously, sounds like him." He teasingly ran his hand up and down the sheet next to her. "And seriously, fools? SeeDs been called far worse. I've been called worse. Hell, I've been called worse - today. I'll get you to change your mind yet."

"Fine, foolish meanies. Happy?"

"Almost," he whispered.

She closed her eyes as his hand moved from the sheet to her arm. Rinoa knew she was going to cave very, very soon and he was well aware of that too. "And foolish meanies? Those are fighting words, miss. You know, I do believe that they could even be considered an act of aggression and you could find yourself the target of all-out war. See, I knew you'd want to reconsider your early headline. SeeDs are nothing if not efficient. We get the job done."

"Efficient? Hah, you guys make counting to ten a forty-two step process, complete with diagrams and back-up strategy, you know, in case number six is out to lunch or something."

"Again, you're mistaken. Everyone knows that number three is a prima-donna." He had to laugh at how ridiculous his statement was; he had no idea why he'd even say that.

By now, she'd joined in his laughter. In retrospect, she really had given a horrible example of a headline, not to mention that this entire conversation had veered off course, although she was glad to have the tension broken. Even more than that, she loved it when he joked around. It was difficult to put into words, but she'd never known humor, especially laughter, could be such an intimate experience, yet with him, it was.

"Fine, Squall you win… Let's just say I was paraphrasing the entire article. You know, me and my awesomeness."

"Awesomeness-ness?" he deadpanned in response.

"Thanks Zell," she replied sarcastically.

That was the last straw, in more ways than one. He sat up, laying on top of her, gently holding her arms so they were pinned beside her.

Clearing his throat, he tried his best to come across as authoritative. "Mrs. Leonhart, from this day forth we're setting some new rules in place. First, while in bed, we never, ever mention my father. Second, while in bed, you will never refer to me as Zell. Actually, let's say that you never refer to me as Zell, no matter the location."

"Oh god, I didn't think of that… and now, I just…" She groaned outwardly in disgust. "Damn it Mr. Leonhart, why did you have to go and point it out? Now I'm scarred. Thankyouverymuch."

"You're scarred?" He let out another dry laugh. "You?"

"Good point." She'd barely managed the words before she felt his lips tickling her, stopping her laughter dead in its tracks. He'd been purposely been holding back - he really wasn't playing fair.

"I… will…" he kissed her in between each word, slow and calculatingly. She was torn between wanting him to actually give her an answer and wanting him to give her a kiss that went beyond mere teasing. She struggled with the thoughts as he finished. "…keep… the…options open for tomorrow."

She'd been straining to meet him, but pulled back when he said the last word. "Really?" She didn't want to get her hopes up, but he wasn't the type to mislead her.

"Yes." He'd also pulled back, one of his hands reaching for her face. His fingers slowly traced her jaw line before coming to rest on her lips. "I've asked a lot of you, SeeD's asked a lot of you. Today, I put you in a room with a fucking serial killer…another in my long line of mistakes. And yes, letting you talk to Zone will likely be another one… but who am I to justify one over the other? But you'd better believe I will be there if it goes down like that and at the first sign of danger, you're out. I'm serious, at the first flinch."

She nodded beneath his touch, too stunned to even articulate her answer. His sudden change of heart made no sense.

"Rinoa, I just-" He stopped. Everything about him seemed to change and she so desperately wanted to urge the words from him, but she felt something deeper – he was terrified. He rolled off of her, lying on his back. "I'm sorry." His apology was forced, as were the next words. "We should sleep."

Finally, she'd received the answer she'd wanted, but it had come at a high price. She'd not meant to guilt him into anything or imply that he was a hypocrite for having her face Sirtis. She understood why he did what he did today. He did what he thought was right – just like tomorrow was about what she thought was right. And yes, putting her in with Zone would always be some sort of danger, but somehow no matter how lost Zone was, she still believed that there was a part of him that would never hurt her, he'd be far more likely to — and with that, it hit her.

Mirroring his action, she moved on top of him. He tried to turn away, but she'd gently guided him so he was facing her.

"…I said we should sleep." He tried to repeat the sentiment, although his heart was hardly in it.

She ignored him, resting her forehead against him. "It's not the same."

"Don't," he warned with the absent intensity as his other words. He was just going through the motions, which to her was scarier than his anger - he'd mentally retreated.

"…And it's not going to go away."

A bitter laugh escaped his lips as he turned his head from her again.

"Squall, you're not the same and neither are the situations. We have to believe in each other… and trust in each other. I'm going to need you to have my back tomorrow - not because I think I'll need the protection, but because I need you."

"He's unstable, Rinoa. He's shown that. There's no way to predict his reaction."

"…Squall, stop trying to predict his reaction - that's where you're going wrong. Not everything can be predicted, analyzed or explained, and wasting all the energy doing that isn't always worth it. It's like thinking about everything you don't have instead of focusing on what's in front of you. " She placed a soft kiss on his cheek, hovering just over his ear. "I love you… and I believe in you… in all these years, that never wavered. And right now, I'm the one asking for your support."

As he looked back up at her, he took time to memorize all her features among the shadows. The glow of Esthar's lights mixed with the ship's interior bathed the entire room with soft blue light. She was beautiful- everything he'd remembered and yet, so much more. It was times like these, as the soft light kissed her skin, she was more angel than mortal and he had to remind himself that he wasn't going to wake up from this dream. Too many countless nights he'd reach for something that wasn't there, or even worse, when he'd reach and there was something there – only to come face-to-face with the truth.

He had to hide his fear, for her sake. She was the one that feared everything would change after tomorrow – so had he. She worried that Garden would keep him, hold him back from living whatever this life was they were going to piece together, but he feared the opposite. She'd wake up and realize her mistake; know how damaged he truly was and not see a future, their future. And no matter how gently she'd break it to him, the reality would sting more than the nights he reached out and she wasn't there.

But he could do this for her – or at least try. Marriage was give and take, or so Selphie had informed Irvine quite readily, but he doubted few faced such challenges.

Reaching up, he did something that felt completely wrong – which is why he believed, for them, it had to be right. "I promise you, I'll do my best. I'm sure I can persuade Lauren. But just remember, it's not a concrete yes, but definitely not a solid no."

"That's all I can ask right now." She paused, suddenly feeling extremely wrong. "Okay, maybe not all I could ask. Rule number three, along with Laguna and Zell, we don't mention-"

It pained him too much to hear her repeat that name so he cut her off. "-Don't say it. I know."

She rested her head on his bare chest, letting out a long breath. She was halfway between comfortable and uncomfortable, but yet she had no desire to move. As his arms wrapped around her as he pulled her near, it seemed both had found solace in the moment – the last few minutes of calm before the storm.

He should've let it go, but again, he found himself unable to concentrate as his thoughts were too focused on her.

Rinoa not only heard, but also felt his voice as it reverberated within his chest as he spoke.

"Please don't take this the wrong way, but I'm worried about you, Rin. I know this has got to be tearing you apart, but you haven't talked about Zone besides wanting to be there. I do want to support you, but that means right now too."

She smiled. He cared enough not to keep his thoughts to himself. Her hands held him tighter as she began to talk. "You know, things must be really bad when you're talking to me about feelings." Reaching up, she gave him a chaste kiss on the lips before continuing, "But you're right, Squall. I know that I'm probably coming off as… well, indifferent, maybe? I think it's the way I have to deal with it for now. It's not right, but I'm not sure it's wrong either."

She found herself readjusting so she could look out into the city. It had become her new favorite view, well besides the one directly beneath her. "Maybe there's some part of me that still hopes that when I talk to him this will all be some stupid misunderstanding. Maybe it's hard to accept as real until I see him with my own eyes, hear him with my own ears."

He shook his head. He feared something like this - sometimes it was a bad thing being the eternal optimist. "Rin…"

"I know, I know." She had to stop him before he said it. "You're right. No matter what, I know I'm kidding myself. I think it's just the process my mind has to go through to get through tomorrow… Don't ask me then what will get me through the following day." She sat up again, looking him in the eyes. "No, I know what will get me through that and the day after and the day after… The same thing that's going to get me through a very long time."

"I got the only miracle I'll ever need." Even in the dark, he could see her smile - it had never been so radiant in his dreams.

"So um, Squall, while we're here… I mean aboard the Ragnarok." Rinoa nervously licked her lips before finding the courage to ask him. She had no idea what was possessing her, but he was her husband now. She figured there had to be some unwritten law about being truthful, even about long-repressed, possibly embarrassing realizations coming to light. "Can I um… ask you something?"

"If I say no, are you going to ask anyhow?" Honestly, he felt just a tad bit scared.

"Yes."

"Shocking."

"So yeah, when we were on the Ragnarok last time, you know up in space, did you ever think about you know…this?"

"This?"

"You're going to make me say it, aren't you?"

"Do you mean devising a complex plan to pretend to be dead in order to set a trap for a serial killer? Yes, absolutely. Don't worry, I won't make you say it," he said before sarcastically adding, "Or wait 'this' as in the other thing – as in being in a group of meddling slightly-older-than-teenagers solving crimes in badly-painted van that include a hot girl and an annoying sidekick. Thankfully, the oversized dog stayed home. Who knew that childhood dreams could come true – not mine, everyone else at the orphanage."

"..Wha?" She laughed unable to stop that seemingly-insane scenario from popping into her head. "Does that make cheese fries - Zell-snacks. Seems the same."

"Touché. But yes, you're right, that's exactly what I thought about after jumping out in space. I'm so glad I could finally get that off my chest."

"Yeah… speaking of chest. I'd better be the hot girl in that group."

"Wouldn't you like to know?" Turning his head, he let out a fake cough. "…Annoying sidekick."

"Your humor is so…wrong. Very wrong." A genuine laugh escaped her lips as she inched her way up his body and, as their foreheads pressed together, she became exceedingly aware of their bodies' proximity. Nervously, she swallowed while subconsciously licking her lips. It took everything she had (and more) to focus her attention into her question rather than the man directly beneath her. "Squall…yeah, I feel strangely compelled to ask about your brain's modus operandi here. How did you possibly manage to go to the question you answered from the question I'd actually asked? Sure, I get how the rest of the world's population may do random, but you… not so much."

He shrugged. "Repressed childhood memories that should've stayed repressed. Still, there's a positive. If I try to 're-repress' everything now, Zell's existence gets caught in the wake. Makes it an absolute win-win for me." He then paused, knowing how she was going to respond.

The next two words were spoken in perfect unison, "Be nice."

She giggled at the way his serious attitude countered hers; she also made a mental note to re-examine her predictability after this.

He loved hearing her laugh; earlier today his only wish is that she'd be able to do just that. Still, it was probably best for their relationship if he confessed yet another deep-dark secret… for what was clearly a lack of a better term "Fine, maybe, just maybe, I really didn't think about solving crimes the last time we were on the Ragnarok. Of the million things that crossed my mind, that wasn't one of them."

"I'm so hurt and shocked. Really." She feigned being upset. "Here I thought we were kindred spirits. I was already making plans to sell my house, but it turns out that our shared dream of van-cohabitation was all an ugly ruse. You are a meanie, simultaneously obliterating my dreams of both crime-solving-slash-meddling and van ownership. 'Disappointment' aside, I'm forced to circle back and again ask – why, just why?"

"Vicariously reliving Selphie and Zell's childhood obsession, maybe? I wasn't kidding about the repressed aspect, I'd forgotten about it until recently – thankfully. About two weeks ago when the van was parked outside of Dollet and Zell was searching through the funeral footage and he and I disagreed on basic needs. He thought he needed a television break, while I thought he needed a black eye. I won."

"Oh, wow, two full weeks ago? That explains sooo much - you were a far less personable back in those ancient times of yore," she spoke mockingly.

"I really was." Exhaling loudly, it bothered him that he'd only been partially kidding. Honestly, his behavior towards Zell had been simply abhorrent. "How about I purchase him an entire collection of the cartoons in high-def – will that make up for it?"

"…It's a start. Squall, you gave him a black eye for trying to help… Maybe consider purchasing him the high-end video player too. Trust me, I've had the joy of being your van-mate too…So yeah, with that in mind, you may want to throw in a large-screen television too." She followed that by giving him a tender kiss. "You know what's the worst part about this? Nobody will believe me if I tried to tell them what you just said."

"Probably not. That's what makes it so damn perfect. And speaking of perfect…" He snaked his hand around her body, working his way to her head. "Have I told you how much I love my wonderfully-annoying sidekick for life?" He then gently pressed their lips together, momentarily forgetting about anything else. As he deepened the kiss, it almost worked.

"Hmph…" she managed, pulling away. Narrowing her eyes, she'd caught on to his highly-effective diversionary technique. "You… you are avoiding my question."

"Question? I never actually heard one."

She groaned. "I knew you'd make me say it. You so know - and I know that you know. Fine, I'll play along. Last time when you and I were aboard the Ragnarok, did you think about us at all… I mean, more than just a hug to know we were alive… kissing, sex, anything?"

"Rinoa, I was a trained military commander, facing a life or death situation. We were trapped in space, floating around lost, losing oxygen, with little to no hope of getting home – hell, I didn't even take time to even give you the hug - it wasn't time-efficient," he then sternly added, "Of course, somewhere amid all of that I thought of sex."

Any laugher earlier paled in comparison to now, "Oh..my.. God…Squall…"

"Yes, it my mind it went something like that," he deadpanned.

It took her a second to grasp the double entendre but, once she did, she ended up rolling off him and onto her back. She was afraid that in her state of doubled-up laughter that she'd end up hurting him in one form or another. True, maybe the question was a tad loaded, but there'd always been genuine curiosity after an off-handed comment by Irvine. She believed that the idea was entirely far-fetched – that Squall Leonhart wouldn't have such pedantic thoughts. However, Irvine strongly disagreed. In fact, he was adamant enough in his beliefs that he'd bet her ten Gil that no matter how straight-laced Squall seemed, the thought had crossed the commander's mind – and more than just in passing. It looked like the cowboy won at least one of his outstanding bets.

This time, it was his turn to surprise her, capturing her hands again, carefully pinning them over her head. Even though they'd somehow returned to their original positions, a lot of understanding about tomorrow had passed between them. By now, she'd laughed to the point where tears had built-up in the corner of her eyes. He knew it was more than a reaction to his simple comment, but rather a form of emotional release.

He smiled. "Sorry if I tainted whatever image you had. I can pretend it didn't happen if you'd prefer."

"No, it's actually very sweet."

"Yes 'sweet' is exactly what I'd call it." Again, it was his delivery that made it hard to catch her breath. It was hard to put into words, but somehow this felt like one of the most 'real' moments they'd ever shared. Not only had he'd been honest, but he had been honest about a rather vicarious matter.

To him, any embarrassment was worth it when he saw her infectious smile beneath him. He slowly started to plant butterfly kisses between her neck and collarbone as he spoke. "To be fair, I did think about all those other things too - from what genius genetically coded Propagators so they'd have to be killed in such an asinine way, to more of our baser needs." His lips brushed kisses to emphasis each of his words, "From food, water, oxygen – then to things like landing, and losing you… then to kissing you and maybe even what it would be like to someday make love to you."

"Someday?" she gasped as his warm breath tickled her.

"Yes, someday…" he leaned up seductively whispering in her ear, "…or right there and then in the pilot seat, whichever."

So much for seductive. Rinoa found herself trapped in this awkward combination of desire, laughter, and honest-to-goodness shock. He continued to expertly kiss the sensitive skin on her neck as he whispered secrets he'd never intended confessing. "Of course, at the time I tried to deny these thoughts even crossed my mind, but you decided to make it impossible... especially when you decided to plop yourself down on my lap. Let's just say that I became very aware of a few of those baser needs that weren't food or water… and it may or may not have played into why I told you to get back to your seat, before you noticed I was very aware."

"You are kidding right?"

"You'll never know, will you? But as much as I'd love to reminisce about awkward moments in my teenage life, we need to sleep. It's going to be a long day tomorrow."

"Squall, that's so not flying this time." She chuckled again, hooking her legs around him. "Let's just say that this time I'm very aware that you're aware of exactly where this is headed."

"Well, that only took you seven years to catch on." He softly laughed no longer holding back.

"Probably, maybe," she reiterated from earlier, gasping as her breath hitched. "…Most certainly."


Sleep hadn't come easily, but she had tried. Every time her eyes would close and she'd drift off, she'd wake herself with a start. Yet as she woke herself up this time, everything suddenly felt different. She couldn't say when or how, but the steady vibrations of the Ragnarok shook her entire body. The slow back-and-forth rocking motion would've been comforting, had it not been for where they were headed.

She'd let out a sharp breath as the realization they weren't flying dawned on her. She knew they weren't in Esthar anymore, that she'd slept through the trip. When she finally opened her eyes, looked out, well… her adoptive homeland would never be so heartbreaking. She didn't even have to move to know Squall wasn't there; she wasn't surprised, but that didn't mean she wasn't disappointed. Of course, he thought he was doing the gentlemanly thing by letting her sleep in, but he'd never understand how hard it was to wake up alone – especially today.

Honestly, she'd rather be deprived of sleep than to open her eyes with the overwhelming feeling of emptiness. The ship suddenly jerked again, as if it had shifted gears or was powering down. She'd realized that it was probably the Ragnarok's descent that had roused her from her already-turbulent sleep.

"You're awake." It wasn't a question, but a statement – it was one that she hadn't expected. He wasn't in bed, but he wasn't gone. He hadn't left her.

"You're here," although it was spoken in thankful desperation, it came off as nothing more than stating the obvious.

"I am."

It was enough encouragement to open her eyes. The first thing she saw was Squall bending over, carefully holding out a coffee cup to the side as he placed a quick kiss on her lips. It was his way of saying good morning, in a morning that was anything but – the words would hold no meaning and she knew that's why he didn't say them.

He sat on the bed, fully dressed in his clothes from before, with the exception of his shirt. He'd had on a black button-down - what she'd qualify as a casual dress shirt with the Ragnarok's logo. He looked amazing. There was a twinge of sadness at the thought, how long would it be until she'd be able to spend another morning with him. Maybe it shouldn't be one of her first thoughts considering, but dreaming of the next time she'd wake up just to be greeted by him – that was a thought worth fighting for.

"We're due downstairs in fifteen minutes. I was… letting you sleep in."

"I kinda figured. Thank you, I guess. Maybe I needed it, I suppose."

After taking a sip of his coffee, he placed his free hand on her shoulder. She'd still wrapped herself up in the sheet, but her bare shoulder was exposed as he gently massaged it. "That's a lot of decisiveness in one statement. That's why I fell in love with you sorta."

She snorted a single-syllable response, unable to articulate anything else. She had a feeling she'd already hit the height of her decisiveness. God help them if it was all downhill from here.

"There is water pressure in the shower. It's weak, but you should have a good ninety seconds of warm water and two minutes of tepidly almost-tolerable-for-Rinoa water. I know you love your showers on the hot side, but apparently hot showers and space travel don't mix, although I don't believe we were expected guests."

"Tell me there's at hot water for coffee. Today is not a cold coffee day."

"Don't worry, you're safe. Zell brought up two cups. …Have to say you're slipping though, figured that would've been the first words out of your mouth today." He made a sound which she'd come to recognize as a form of laughter before doing his Rinoa impression. "Coffee. Now."

"Yeah, not sure if that's supposed to be me or Fujin… because I think you're missing a 'meanie' in there."

"No, she's not missing – she's still in bed."

Even under the circumstance, she managed a grumbling-laugh as she rolled onto her back. It had been forced, but she appreciated that he'd tried. Looking up, she had to blink a few times before the ceiling finally came into focus. Last night, as she tried to lull herself into sleep, she'd spent far too long staring up at it. Still, she managed an honest smile as she contemplated his earlier comment. "If you must know, after I realized that I wasn't alone… I believe my first thought was, 'where the heck are my clothes?'"

"Everywhere… seriously, everywhere. I'm not positive how you managed that, but now they're folded on the counter. Would you like them?"

"No, I wanted to show up downstairs at the meeting with Laguna, Lauren, and the others naked."

"Let's call that plan B." He let out a soft chuckle. "But let's stick with plan A. That's the one where I clarify my earlier statement – would you like me to hand them to you?"

"Plan A sounds better."

"Much." He got off the bed, gathering her clothes and handing them to her. "You have one of these shirts too, if you'd rather wear that over what you have there."

"No, it's fine, I'll go with the t-shirt. We've not even been married 48 hours so I think showing up in matching clothes to the meeting is going a little… overboard."

"I can't really comment on that subject since this coming from the guy who spent a good chunk of his life dressing like everyone else around him. Still, I completely understand."

"Squall Leonhart and conformity – there's some irony in there somewhere, isn't there?"

"I suppose, although I'd say Rinoa Leonhart and conformity is even more ironic."

She didn't have time to respond before someone knocked on their door. "Yo, sleepyheads, you are being summoned. Err…maybe summoned isn't the right word, since it's not like you're a GF, although Squall's grumpy enough to be one and have you ever noticed they're all like totally grumpy? I guess if I was trapped-"

"Stop." Squall whisper-yelled, pinching the bridge of his nose. "I'll be down, just stop."

"Tch, fine. See, you're grumpier than Diablo or Ifrit – Squallfrit? Squallablo? Yeah, heard myself… going." There was a quick pause, before he yelled back. "Oh, mornin' Rin, coffee's on."

"Thanks." She tried to sound polite, but her heart unfortunately wasn't in it. She sighed as she sat up, still holding the sheet to her chest. She didn't really need to, but it was just a random mental hang-up of hers, especially when they were having a conversation with a third party.

"He's so happy… I can't blame him. He gets to go home. I need to remember that."

Reaching over, he set his coffee cup down on the built-in nightstand before pulling her into a hug. She leaned against him, taking solace in knowing that these were their last few minutes. Still, she appreciated that he was there in the first place, that he could've been downstairs, that he should've been down stairs. One quick glance to the small table confirmed that he was working though he'd stayed with her. Resting against him, she had this oddest feeling as she looked out the window to see her first glimpse of Timber's skyline. It was such a stark contrast to the glass iridescent lights that Esthar had been known for.

"You know we're home for the first time."

"Actually, I do." He kissed the top of her head. "Welcome home."

She gasped, pulling back so she could look him in the eyes. "Before Zell stopped by, you called me-"

"Shhh I know," he'd stopped her from saying anymore as he offered a knowing smile. His abrupt interruption wasn't intended as an act of rudeness, but he needed her to know that she didn't have to say it – he knew already. "I'm going to have to head downstairs. Your coffee is on the counter and there will be food downstairs. Eat. I know you won't want to, but you're emotionally and physically drained, so no arguments, all right? And no matter what happens today, I'm here. We'll get through this together and remember Rinoa Leonhart, we're home."

"Thank you."

Standing up, he reached for his coffee before leaning over to give her another kiss before he left. He offered her another smile, speaking with conviction. "You're an amazing, strong person."

She did her best to smile in reply, although it ended up looking like a pathetic attempt at best. It hadn't been his intention and it was ill-timed, but she looked so cute that he gave another soft chuckle before one final kiss.

She watched as he left and after the door closed and a few seconds past, she found herself whispering, "I love you too." He hadn't said it in words, but she knew now more than ever that he had said it.

With the sheet still wrapped around her, she got out of bed, making her way to the picture window. Timber had never looked so big, yet so small. She had to be strong and she had to be the one to do this – this was more than about Zone.

It was about Zell's future engagement.

It was about a bullet's path veering a little off course.

It was about reunions with friends

It was and about a wedding and about newfound family.

It was about going home.

-o-o-o-

Author's Notes: Well, they're back in Timber and I promise, it's almost over. I don't know who is still reading - as so many things change over the years - but After the Fall is finally coming to an end after eight years; it's surreal I've been working this long. It's helped me get through so much – it's hard to explain, but I truly do believe this story has become a part of me. Seriously, thank you all for everything. It's been a very difficult year, especially over the last few months and sometimes I wanted to breakdown; I'm so glad that – if even for a little while – FFVIII can help me be a part of something else. *hugs*