Chapter Ninety: The Vengeance Factor

Squall Leonhart had become the SeeD Commander.

Returning to duty felt as natural as breathing. He didn't classify that as a good thing – it was merely fact. He thought there would have been a period of transition – from the man he was on the other side of the door to the man they had groomed since childhood. There wasn't. After that first salute, he'd instantly reclaimed the role he'd been playing all his life. If he thought about that at its core, the implications were terrifying.

Was this who he really was, all he could ever be? Or was he the man who woke up next to his wife this morning – naked and emotionally exposed? If he had any say in this, the latter was the man he wanted to be. The husband. The son. The friend. But the role of commander fit him like a second skin while the other felt like he had stolen someone else's life. But he didn't mind being a thief and, rightful owner or not, he refused to give it back.

Maybe the fault lied within him because when he walked on deck, he'd expected the two worlds he'd been living in to collide and explode upon impact. Now, as he continued on SeeD assignments, he realized that had never been in the realm of possibility because those two worlds weren't on crash course – this time, they ran parallel. He had to be the best SeeD he could be so he could be the best husband he could be.

Of the eight SeeDs on the Ragnarok, four were from Balamb, one from Trabia and Galbadia rounded out the rest. There were no doubt the ones from his home Garden had been in the most disbelief but, after the shock had worn off, they too had fallen back into their roles – like him, it came naturally.

If he took a moment to take a step back and looked at it with newfound objectivity, it was almost sad – being lied to hadn't phased them a bit. There was no real emotion, only salutes. It was part of the life they had all grown up into - subterfuge was as normal as breathing and killing.

It sickened him; that was the moment he knew who he was for sure. He wasn't standing there as Balamb Garden's Commander and SeeD's savior, he was finally the man he wanted to be – Squall Leonhart. Today had become more than a mission - it would serve as the epitaph to his SeeD career and the prologue to his future.

As for now, he was studying blueprints, committing them to memory. Kiros had secured the plans to the building that housed Timber's key governmental offices – a fairly straightforward design, albeit three stories. Squall and Lauren had the large grayscale paper spread like a tablecloth over a break table in the Ragnarok's crew area. From the blueprints registered with the city, the bottom floor looked as if it mostly consisted of offices that dealt with public relations - zoning department, city auditor, a room for town hall meetings and, ironically, a vault that housed blueprints and floor plans registered with the city. The second and third stories housed the heart and soul of Timber - with the exception of a few conference rooms of varying sizes, the two floors were comprised of offices. From what he gathered, the target should be on the third floor but, for safety concerns, they'd have to begin evacuating the building in a precise and orderly fashion. Of course, he couldn't be entirely sure how up-to-date these blueprints were. When Rinoa showed up, he'd run all this by her to make sure their information was current.

For over fifteen minutes, Squall had been instructing the SeeDs on how they would proceed as Lauren stood intently beside him. The interim-commander wasn't overly thrilled but, for now, she abdicated all authority to him. But once they hit the ground, the heart and soul of this mission would be hers. She was aware – very aware – of this fact. So, she remained vigilant, listening to orders from Balamb's current commander for a final time.

It hadn't been too long after Squall's arrival when Zell had made his grand entrance, which had been made a lot less 'grand' after he was showed-up by a dead guy. Squall almost felt bad that he'd stolen the martial artist's big moment. At least, if all went according to plan, Zell would have a full day or so of hero worship before Squall returned to Garden. Personally, anything that differed attention from him was considered a good thing in his book.

As far as assignments, Zell would be working with the Estharian forces today. He'd opted out of Squall's briefing as most of it was simply going to be the rehashing of information. After the initial entrance and mandatory salutes, he'd said a few words to the SeeDs he knew before going over to Laguna. It seems that the President was apparently still guarding his space in front of the window from the evil SeeDs as Squall hadn't seen the guy budge a centimeter. Whatever his father and Zell were discussing, the latter seemed overly animated at the situation.

Honestly, Squall had no idea what the two were talking about, or if it was even mission-related; honestly, he was afraid to venture a guess. All he could say for sure is that, from his peripheral vision, he constantly saw arms flailing about like wayward Malboro tentacles. It was…distracting, but at least his friend seemed passionate. Zell could literally be talking about anything under the sun – from this mission to Chocobo racing. Whatever it was, Squall was positive he'd be filled in on every minute detail later either by one, or likely both, of them. Maybe it was a bad idea to have them working surveillance together. At least Squall and Kiros would be there to keep the duo in check, although it wouldn't be needed. No matter what, all jokes aside, those two would take this mission seriously so he harbored no doubts.

As for Ward, he was still on the Ragnarok's flight deck as far as the commander knew. The aide was serving as liaison between both Timber's police and SeeD. Once they landed far enough outside the city, his first job was to contact Timber PD and alert them to the ship's presence so they wouldn't be alarmed. Right now, the cover story was that the Ragnarok was parked on the mainland to meet up with SeeD cadets from Galbadia Garden; once everyone was aboard, the ship would be flying to Nanchucket Island to run training exercises. Thankfully, because the area was centrally located, they had done something similar many times before, so it didn't raise suspicion.

And his wife? Squall suspected that she'd needed a few minutes to herself…either that or she was currently engaged in an epic battle with the Ragnarok's shower. Unlike randomly encountering monsters in the field, this fight was destined to be one-on-one as he, himself, had gained experience earlier.

Poor Rinoa, she had no idea of the enemy that lay in wait. He imagined that the shower's opening move would be the time-honored 'fluctuate between scolding, lukewarm, and freezing' water temperatures. She'd then attack with 'profound grumbling' or maybe even 'the rare curse word.' However, not to be outdone, the shower would quickly mount a counterattack with 'low water pressure' – sadly, this would also be its finishing move as it celebrated in victory. He made a mental note to comfort her tonight about the traumatic defeat or, if in the rare event she'd won, to write a check to Esthar to cover the cost of repairs.

As for him, although he regained his position, he knew that Lauren was like a shark circling. So far she'd been silent, even still, her presence was definitely known, although he'd stop short of saying, "Because her fin was sticking out of the water" as he had more respect for her than that. She excelled at leadership and he did care about her, but that also didn't mean that he'd purposely dangle his feet in the ocean. If she sensed any weakness, especially in regards to Rinoa, she wouldn't be shy about telling the headmaster he was unfit for duty.

Lauren didn't know his history, yet with a single scenario, she could take this mission away – he'd be damned if he allowed that to happen. He'd make sure that he and Rinoa's fate would not be in Lauren's fucking hands.

"Two and two at all access points." Squall pointed to the main entrance and then the second floor landing. "The sweep will be done systemically, room by room. Dawson, McNeill - clear the first floor. Phillips and Ryan - the second."

"Barrett and I will approach the office from the-"

Talk about fate.

The first time Lauren opened her mouth, she couldn't even finish a single instruction. Her words abruptly ended mid-sentence. It appeared as though something had taken precedence over actually accomplishing something. A mistake the SeeDs would not make twice. She turned to the left, the direction most of them were looking. Surprise. Honestly, she should've predicted this, but maybe that spoke to her abilities, given the fact that she hadn't. It was a severe oversight on her part, one she'd make damn sure wouldn't be made twice.

That didn't mean that she wasn't irritated, if anything, she was even more so. However, her ire wasn't completely directed towards the SeeDs' insubordination, rather toward Leonhart and his continued streak of making poor choices. Honestly, she understood her squadron's momentary shock, although it spoke volumes that having their dead commander walk through the door was far less horrifying than having Rinoa walk in.

This also solidified her concerns. No matter how brilliant the commander's normal abilities were, Lauren had to question whether he'd be in top form given the newest distraction that sauntered through the door… You know, as if they weren't having an important briefing that could mean the difference between life and death for all parties involved. But, by all means, have the glorified secretary be an equal part of the mission just because, to quote a Galbadian pop star, Leonhart decided to 'put a ring on it.'

Maybe she shouldn't be so bitter, but this could singlehandedly be the most important day of her entire career and Rinoa decided the logical course of action would be to waltz on deck in front of her entire squadron. Lauren had wrongly been under the impression that the newly-minted Mrs. Leonhart would employ basic logic – as in stay in her quarters and out of the limelight until the SeeDs left.

But alas, the interim commander had been severely mistaken - like a moon stone or energy crystal, logic was a rare and valuable commodity around here, apparently.

She also feared that with Rinoa around, Squall's attention would be split. Right now, his ability to lead, how he went about handling this situation, would set the tone for the rest of the mission. Then again, how she, herself, handled it would also speak volumes.

"Eyes forward." By itself, the tone relayed the severity of her order. The SeeDs complied, but it was only a temporary solution at best. Years of building animosity wouldn't miraculously be smothered by giving them the command to simply 'get over it.'

"Listen to Commander Rachels." Squall excused himself much to Lauren's dismay, although he did offer a stern word of warning. "You are SeeDs. If you want it to remain that way, fucking act like it."

Rinoa knew that there would be some resistance. She'd hoped that her social-pariah status would've peaked at Irvine and Selphie's wedding and then hit a plateau at the funeral but, given their looks of unadulterated hatred, she was wrong. However, she had something major going for that she didn't have at either of those – Squall standing with her…okay, having him stand across from her in the wedding party did not count on a technicality. But to be honest, he didn't look overly thrilled to see her.

"We had an agreement. You were to call to the bridge for an escort."

The expression that accompanied his words said it all; Squall was being formal, trying to keep himself emotionally-distant. She suddenly had the feeling she'd made a huge mistake.

"Squall, we cleared the ship of Propagators, think I can handle a SeeD or two… Especially if they're walking as matching pairs," she began with a forced smile, trying to ignore the accusatory glances. When he was silent, she thought maybe referencing their earlier conversation may help…she just needed something because all she was getting was nothing. She'd lived with nothing before - it wasn't good.

"Hey, as you can see, I opted for plan A and showed up fully-dressed…although with the looks I'm getting, I don't think it would've mattered if I'd chosen plan B."

Her attempted humor didn't faze him and neither did the dig at the SeeDs. His expression remained firm and his posture tense. Then it hit her – this was it. It was that feeling, that fear. The very thing that scared her since the moment their eyes met in the rain. The fear that once he went back, she'd be an afterthought just as she was before; she could never be his first choice, because he'd always belong to SeeD.

It was a lot to take in from silence, but it was easy to jump to that conclusion. She saw how he couldn't look directly at her – and she was pretty damn hard to miss.

"Maybe I shouldn't have come down," she whispered softly. So much for her plan to speak to all of them about her idea - she couldn't even speak to her husband. Maybe the best thing to do was to play it off, act as if it was a mistake. In a way, it was.

"I mean…I said something about showing up at the meeting and you didn't say not to so… I sorta thought we talked about it, but I probably misheard." She ended with a pitiable laugh.

An awkward silence followed. She felt the heaviness of his eyes mixing with the weight of all the others.

"I'm sorry...I'll go to my room." She purposely said 'hers' instead of 'theirs' to make a point, but the guilt was immediate. Rinoa let out a defeated sigh. "I'll follow orders and ask Laguna to be my escort."

….Fine. Maybe not that guilty.

At least there were two friendly faces in room. She couldn't be sure, but they appeared to be just as confused by Squall's actions – or lack of – as she had been but, she doubted they could be anywhere near as hurt. Yet the moment she began to leave, a hand grabbed her bicep, but it retracted just as hastily. If Squall wanted her attention, he had it. It wasn't so much by his action, rather by the hand he used. It was his left - wedding ring and all.

"Wait," he mumbled under his breath.

She did.

Placing his hand on his forehead, he needed to quickly organize his thoughts. This process would normally take far longer, but given the situation, he had to settle for the extremely-condensed version. Still, no amount of sorting, self-scolding, or realization would ever make up for how fucking stupid he'd been. Part of being a SeeD was to be actively aware of all possible outcomes, not just those that happened to be convenient – that didn't even take into account he wasn't just any ordinary SeeD, but the goddamned leader.

Being the commander also meant knowing that drama, especially unnecessary drama, was a bad thing, a very bad thing.

That went beyond a cadet-level mistake. It was more along the lines of a 'first day at Garden' mistake – sadly, that was only a slight exaggeration. On the first day of class, students are divided into groups where they listen as instructors offer firm warnings. One of the first rules the children hear is something like, "In class we do not chew gum as it sticks to everything." In the next breath, "We also do not to get caught up in gossip and drama – those too have a way of sticking to everything."

Right now, gum stuck on his shoe would've been far more preferable to the mess he found himself stepping in.

Yes, in their quarters, he and Rinoa had openly discussed her showing up. The words seemed easy, but there'd been far too much wishful thinking and not enough actual thinking. He still wanted Rinoa to help, but sort of in that behind-the-scenes way, much as how the entire mission had been. Now he realized that they should've talked this out a little more. When spending so much time staring at the big picture, it's often the little things overlooked in the process – a fact that Lauren had become acutely aware of.

Squall didn't know what was hyperbole or what was accuracy, but he was fairly certain that her eyes were currently boring through the base of his skull. Thankfully for him, Lauren didn't possess any mutant-like powers or laser beam eyes that cut through bone with surgical precision but, it felt strangely close. It also didn't take a genius to know that she wasn't alone in her efforts. It was a safe bet that several pairs of eyes joined in her one gigantic death glare.

Unfortunately, it was an even safer bet that the SeeDs' anger had been vastly misdirected - therein lied the problem. Today, several agencies needed to work in harmony and, like a building, there had to be proper support and, in this instance, it had to be a sturdy foundation of trust.

…And yet all he could see was the splinters and cracks.

If Squall were to do an about face, calling them out on their game, he'd likely find only one person looking at him – the one person holding him rightly accountable. For everyone else, it was about the drama and the perceived source of it. In their eyes, that was a line drawn long ago and it ended right at Rinoa.

He remembered this feeling and if familiarity bred contempt, he should be seething by the bucket.

Personally, he'd be hard-pressed to classify it as déjà vu; however, he knew that the majority of the SeeDs standing behind him had already drawn their own conclusions. In their eyes, there was no question that it was déjà vu and the only thing different was the year printed on the calendar. It didn't matter how loosely the truth was applied, they'd find a way to parallel this situation to the past, especially when the 'common denominator' just so happened to walk in the room shortly after he did.

It was because of that, and from past experience, he knew exactly how the dots connected in the SeeDs' mind. The problem was that those dots turned into notes, until they formed a familiar tune of the past. No matter how obvious the differences were to him, for those who truly didn't understand, would echo their own chorus. Like the fact that Rinoa had 'stolen' him from Quistis and now from Lauren - different verses, different women, yet the same flubbed notes.

In that moment, Squall realized that certain realities couldn't be stopped and, try as they might, the past would always find a way to repeat itself. And because of that, it didn't t matter what Squall said to those in the room, any effort would likely end up even more damning. Trust had taken him years earn, yet only a fraction of a second to break; he was never more certain that trust in its purest form was the most fragile thing known to man.

He was torn. He knew exactly how they felt about Rinoa, but he also had grown to the SeeDs serving under him; he never regretted his decision, but he regretted they found out like this. He'd found a camaraderie with many at Garden after he hit bottom and, in turn, many felt invested in their commander. When he finally opened himself up to a new relationship, he found unlikely support from those at Garden as many viewed Lauren as 'one of them.'

And that had been the catalyst to today's downfall – that investment, that support - those were aspects that he'd glossed over. To every SeeD, present or otherwise, Lauren was Squall's girlfriend – long term girlfriend at that.

When Squall walked on deck and Lauren remained unfazed, not even an extra blink, there was an implied assumption that she'd already known. Which, she did. To them, she and Squall were partners in the mission. Which, she was…well, sort of.

All of that was well-and-good – that was until his former-sorceress-girlfriend sashayed onto deck. Lauren looked slightly taken aback to that, so the SeeDs would've taken that into account too. With his past and current girlfriends both within arm's reach, the mission's parameters became even confusing….actually, confusing was an understatement. Hell, the way that the majority first glared at Rinoa, it probably wouldn't have made a difference if she had opted for plan B – or what she'd earlier joked about as showing up naked. Honestly, once the rumor mill started churning, that would turn into the script of how this went down…well, almost. Add in the details she was carrying his balls and, before Lauren could utter a single word, the sorceress mercilessly cast a Death spell on the unsuspecting SeeD.

The truth? In Squall's opinion, a far more likely scenario would be Lauren casting the Death spell on him instead – the anger in her eyes having not gone unnoticed.

The even bigger truth? Lauren had absolutely every right to be upset.

When it came down to it, command demanded respect. If the SeeDs no longer respected him or his decisions, those raw emotions could subconsciously bleed into their work. He could continuously roar verbal warnings one on top of another but, without respect, his words would simply have no merit. The SeeDs may have interpreted this as betrayal…a pattern Squall found had had repeated itself far too often as of late.

Putting all that aside, Squall had done something far worse, but sometimes the smallest threads could do the most damage, he could have inadvertently unraveled the entire mission. He'd not only fractured his trust with the others but, both through actions and inactions, he'd jeopardized Lauren's standing with SeeD as well.

He could blame it on his injury, his lack of sleep, or several other things, hell some may even be valid, but those were excuses and taking responsibility for his own actions had sort of become his new life's motto.

"You didn't mishear. We both know that," he finally admitted as he contemplated his next move.

Right now, it was about damage control and they'd have to find a way to move forward accordingly, Rinoa and Lauren included. However, the real key to this would be the SeeDs – the mission's failure or success rested on them. Whether they believed it or not, Squall's warnings had been entirely serious; they'd also be entirely reiterated until they sank in because, personal feelings aside, they represented SeeD and needed to fucking act like it.

Maybe it was time he tried not only to convince them, but also himself, that Rinoa's appearance was a life lesson that went beyond the mission. No matter what path they would end up choosing in life, there would always be unforeseen factors, obstacles, or distractions – even a single person. Or, in extremely rare cases, it could even be about a random girl at a dance who just happened to look up at the right time. Being successful wasn't about becoming angry or placing blame and, if they happened to fall along the way, or trip over someone like Nida and his date on the dance floor, it was how they got up and carried themselves afterwards. The key was being able to think on your feet, mitigate damages, and then continue to move with the music.

"Squall, I'm so sorry." Rinoa choked out the words, but she held no illusions. She'd expected to be met with an icy reception, but what she didn't expect was the same from Squall.

For much of her adult life, she'd been at odds with SeeD and no difficult-to-muster apology would set things right. It never got easier to walk into a room were half of the people cursed your very existence, the other half just plain didn't like you. But walk in she did and with held head held high, although some of her courage was an illusion – or maybe it was just the product of stubborn will. Still, no matter how difficult, it paled in comparison to what she felt walking into her friends' wedding and then the funeral without anyone at her side.

For that fact alone, she'd credit the man standing in front of her, because icy reception or not, he was on her side – even if he wasn't physically 'at her side.' She also realized how difficult this was for him as he'd found himself planted smack in the center of another crossroads. So, she'd give him a pass - even if it was an icy reception, ice was known to melt.

It was then Squall opened his mouth as if he was going to say something, but stopped himself just as quickly. Instead, he found himself looking towards Zell and Laguna in some sort of unspoken guidance – that was a reality that hadn't quite sunken in. He'd already found himself drowning under the weight of pressure and it bothered him to think that they were over there silently judging him too. To be fair, whatever their opinions were in regards to him and his actions – they were absolutely right. Squall already felt as if there were too many cooks in the kitchen as it was and he was feeling like a fat, juicy filet mignon.

This time when he opened his mouth, actual words followed. "No need to apologize…. I've made some recent decisions that could've been thought out better - decisions that may require some damage control."

She had to blink…and then blink again.

As if this whole thing wasn't surreal enough, he made it even…well, she'd go with 'surrealer' - because non-made-up words just wouldn't fit the occasion. If she was apologetic before, she wasn't any longer.

If she was apologetic before, she wasn't any longer.

It wasn't so much his words, although she was none too thrilled with them either, but it was detached tone – no, overwhelmingly-detached tone. He could have been talking about paint dry with more feeling. It couldn't even be classified professionalism, she'd get that. Instead, it was a severe lack of, well, literally everything. And yes, she meant 'literally' as it was just that void of everything and she was just that irritated - so over exaggerating and misusing the language felt entirely warranted in this case. Worse yet, he'd taken her silence as an invitation to continue, an invitation that she would quickly feel the need to reply to.

"Rinoa, I don't mind that you want to be involved, but I should've-"

And that was it - there would be no more blinking in confusion. Correction: there would be no blinking in confusion on her part. However, after she said a word or two – or a hundred and two – her husband may be the one blinking. For his own good, she's stop him from finishing whatever cockamamie thought he was in the middle of – call it a compassionate act of humanity, at least for the sake of their marriage – she'd point that out later in private. Rinoa was still mindful of the audience, so her feelings were demonstrated through tone rather than volume. In fact, her voice was barely a whisper.

"You don't mind that I want to be involved? Was that before or after you showed up not once, but twice at my house? Was the not minding me being involved part before or after you sent me out in FH to gather information at a crime scene and speak to the victims children? Or better yet, when you didn't mind me being involved as human bait to persuade an alleged serial killer into confessing? Those are just few highlights. I could list plenty more, but I'm sure you wouldn't mind being involved in this conversation."

After taking a deep breath, she returned to a normal tone, although it was doubtful the SeeDs could hear them over the ambient sounds. Then again, they were probably straining to hear every syllable that they could piece together and/or practicing the highly-skilled art of reading lips.

"You don't mind that I want to be 'involved'?" she said again, as maybe repetition would drive home her point. If he still failed at rudimentary logic, she'd also placed her hands up to make air quotes this time. "Seriously? Today is about Zone, of course, I'm 'involved.' He is my-"

"Your ring…you took it off?"

And just like that, she'd become completely disarmed.

Behind his eyes, there laid an almost primal fear. The emotional rawness had caught her off guard, yet there was something deep within the rawness that she found beautiful. It was real, genuine. There was an almost intimate quality reserved just for her.

She wanted nothing more than to reassuringly gather him into her arms, but that wasn't happening anytime soon. So, she'd have to find another way to ease his mind. With a quick motion of her finger, she pointed to the large window, the one that stood directly opposite to where Zell had his father had been working.

She never questioned that he'd go; he never hesitated to follow.

It was surprisingly easy, using her eyes to guide him so he was beside her as they both remained mindful of the distance between them. He stood closest to the SeeDs, slightly blocking their line-of-sight, a maneuver entirely by her design. In silence, they stood together each facing the window, looking at the borders of Timber's northern forests.

Maybe all this secrecy was entirely in vain as even a five-year-old could realize that they were back on speaking terms. Rinoa cleared her throat to gain his attention and he quickly obliged, turning his head towards her, although his body remained forward. This time, when she put her hand up, it wasn't to make air quotes, it was so she could clasp the ring through the material of her t-shirt.

He knew.

The moment her fingers retraced their once-familiar path, no explanation was needed. No matter the gossip going on behind her, she managed a content smile. It was small, but genuine and, for now, that's all either could ask for.

And maybe her smile was contagious, because he couldn't help himself as his lips turned up into a thin smile. It was relief. It was an apology. It was a genuine moment of happiness. And most of all, it was silent communication between two who understood the language.

Rinoa caught a glimpse of his smile, but that had been intentional. Turning back, he rejoined her to admire the view but, in the process, ended up making a breakthrough discovery, one that actually seemed a tad bit obvious given their environment. He found that with a slight shift to the right, the glass acted like a mirror, superimposing her image over the darker pine trees. It had taken him far too long to realize this, but he did have more important things on his mind until now – at least, that was the story he was sticking with if she brought it up later. It was obvious by her Cheshire-grin like smile that she'd already discovered this and was likely feeling confident with her victory. He'd give her that…he'd also give her credit regarding the ring. As far as that went, he couldn't blame her for removing it.

Talk about irony, Rinoa had been the one to side logic while he landed on the side of emotions. Somewhere in the past, his seventeen-year-old self would like to have a serious talk with him – and somewhere else in the past, seventeen-year-old Rinoa would like to 'squee' while flinging herself into his arms.

"Mr. Leonhart, it really is just like old times, isn't it?" She kept up formal pretense, but her tone was different - mature and soft. "Here we are, standing aboard the Ragnarok, worried about what comes next and, once again, I'm wearing a wedding ring around my neck, holding it for comfort."

"A ring, you say?"

This was a far cry from how he'd spoken to the SeeDs just minutes before; moreover, it was a far cry from how he'd spoken to her just moments before. His tone bordered on professional and held an air of confidence, even if the actual words betrayed that. Something in his cadence was reminiscent of how he sounded at meetings; to his own ears, it sounded like all those times that he'd been forcibly made to address the higher-ups. Using it with her, felt unnatural-natural. Still, nothing to her was spoken 'forcibly' and, most of all, unlike those meetings, he believed every word spoken.

"I guess that means that wherever you go, you'll know that someone is always thinking about you and loves you very much."

"That would mean the same for you sir… I see you're wearing a ring too. I guess that also means somebody loves you very much."

"It does."

He let out a sound that Rinoa assumed was supposed to be a small laugh, although it came across something akin to a small snort. It was cute, an opinion she was smart enough to keep to herself. Instead, she tried to mask her smile as he continued.

Squall changed the topic slightly, nodding towards the ring that she was still clasping over her t-shirt. "String?"

"Huh? What? Did you…Oh! No, no, not at all."

Many people were fully aware of the five stages of grieving but, according to Zone and Watts and the official document they had framed for her office - Rinoa had mastered the five stages of confusion – confusion, more confusion, questioning, understanding, and finally, answering. Sometimes she'd adlib, tossing in the bonus sixth stage of 'even more confusion' but the graphic designer had run out of room and said that he'd have to charge for the larger size, so they'd kept it at five. It was oddly accurate on many occasions, such as this. However, once she worked out the meaning of Squall's one-word question, the answer left her mouth with a mischievous giggle.

"You know me, risk taker, the type who likes to dance naked in the rain. String would've been too simple and I tend to prefer the complex. So…spare wire."

"Resourceful…and interesting."

"Thank you, I try." Try? She didn't know what she was trying because she'd only been naked in the rain once and that was with him. Still, maybe she'd make him wonder for a little bit. "To be honest, it wasn't easy, but I saw a small cabinet in the bathroom. Took a little luck and a lotta balancing, but it all worked out."

"My ring and a cabinet, you're on a roll. It also means that someone is far more observant than the group of highly-trained mercenaries over there. The same group who wrongly believe they are pulling off 'stealthy' as they stare at us. In reality, they're like a Behemoth in a tutu – goddamn obvious. Scary as hell considering that Sirtis caught on in basically no time." Sadly, his comment was only made partially in jest. He hadn't raised his voice, but that had used restraint.

"To be fair, Lauren figured it out…so, yeah, there's that." …And god help her, Rinoa was praising Lauren's abilities or at least pointing out that she was as smart as a serial killer…or something.

"Finest military minds in the world, right? At this point, I'd rather be commanding the Behemoth wearing a tutu, as apparently, teaching a monster to do ballet is easier than teaching these SeeDs to get a clue. Yes, I'm irritated and I'm venting about SeeD, but turns out they can gawk at their dead commander and his former girlfriend, yet still manage to overlook the wedding ring."

It wasn't funny. It wasn't.

…But it was.

She couldn't help that her reaction had been to giggle in return. Then again, maybe the comparison wasn't accurate – if he'd glued a small tutu his ring, only then it would be fair. Half of her response had been born from happiness; he was talking about work, even if he'd only been back twenty minutes. It was nice, it was normal...well, maybe again not the whole tutu thing, but she had a gut feeling that's was as close to 'normal' as they'd get. She'd gladly take it.

"Well, that is…interesting, I must say. However, Commander Leonhart, I'll admit that I'm slightly at a loss of how to respond to any of that. I'll need clarification on two points. First, you stated that you'd rather be 'commanding the Behemoth wearing a tutu.' Now, in your example, who is wearing the tutu? You or the Behemoth, because the way you said it, it could go either way. Second, I'm questioning the term 'former' girlfriend. Do mean former, as in an ex that you no longer see or do you mean former as in she's no longer that but rather something else now?"

"That's classified. I'm sorry."

"You're so not…" She let out an exaggerated sigh as she wondered how many times he'd try that excuse. It seemed to be his go-to response if he didn't want to answer. But, as soon as they were in Timber, she'd make damn sure that he resigned that excuse along with his command.

For some reason, while thinking about Squall and his resignation from SeeD, she felt this inexplicable need to see what he was leaving behind, who he wasleaving behind. Garden had had been his life and, no matter their feelings towards her, she'd always carry that degree of guilt – which could've been fuelling her morbid curiosity

As far as the SeeDs, Rinoa had briefly glanced at them when she walked in, but was careful to avoid eye contact. They'd never know the true irony; they accused her of being an all-powerful being that could not only take over their commander, but take over the world and yet their eyes held no fear as they'd stared her down. She, on the other hand, couldn't even meet their gaze without a physical reaction, sometimes it would be anxiety, sometimes she'd be nauseated, sometimes she'd even feel faint, and sometimes, it was all three.

Maybe that's why she had to do this, a 'last stand' moment that was hers to seize. Besides gossip fodder, it wouldn't mean anything to them, but it had meaning to her – call it therapeutic. Plus, there was a certain comfort having Squall standing by her side this time – both figuratively and literally.

It was easy to look past Squall, she didn't even know if he was able to tell. Lauren wasn't looking, which was a relief. She'd been visibly engaged with the group, looking as if she was mapping out something on the large paper. However, the group wasn't nearly as engaged with Commander Rachels. Some, if not all, looked as if they were feigning paying attention.

If Rinoa hadn't been the main attraction, she might've commended them on how impressively eight individuals created a single unit. As if on cue, each took turns looking up without ever being caught by Lauren. Maybe in the future, Rinoa would look back at this experience and laugh at how much time they'd put into the chorography. Although, the far more plausible answer was a combination of covert-ops training and a pinch of luck. However, it was far more entertaining picturing them wasting countless hours below deck to work on this "just in case" the occasion to use it would arise.

But, the biggest story wasn't the SeeD dance crew, rather it was that she hadn't turned away. She'd end up looking at each one when possible, as the absurdity certainly helped ease the situation, although she knew that hadn't been their intent. Seriously, after a while she felt as she kept looking because it was a puzzle and she was trying to solve the seemingly-intricate pattern. It wasn't an exact science, but it would be like - one would look down, two more would look up in unison, one of them looked down, then another looked up, two stopped simultaneously, and then repeat.

…Actually, there was visual comparison, a rather good one courtesy of Watts and his children's obsession with those kid-oriented pizza parlors with tons of games. Rinoa was witnessing a life-size version of SeeD whack-a-mole. It was perfect…and possibly marketable. If her other random ideas of television production or inn keeping went south, there was also the world of video game designs - there had to be demand for 'Whack-a-SeeD.' Maybe they could be emerging from Fire Caverns and hitting them enough would disqualify them from SeeD? She'd get Selphie on that to do marketing. Rinoa already envisioned that Galbadian army would likely buy several thousand copies…seriously, not the mercenaries' greatest fans.

And, speaking of 'greatest fans,' it wouldn't take much in the way of convincing to get her father to purchase a few dozen units – just place Squall's face on all the SeeDs and it would be a bona fide hit in the Caraway household. Again, maybe this was a thought that should be kept to herself although, after her father finds out she's married to the man, hitting his son-in-law with a pixilated mallet might prove quite therapeutic.

She turned back, stepping aside again so Squall blocked her from their sight. For some reason, she'd taken what would've been something horrible and made it comical. She couldn't help the huge smile, or the fact she had to keep covering her mouth to hide the laughter. It was likely that her reaction just infuriated the SeeDs, but it also piqued the curiosity of the man who'd remained beside her.

"Did I miss something?"

"A lot."

She paused briefly before her quite laughter grew deeper. "Actually, you missed a lot – a lot – as in a 'surrealer' tutu'ed Behemoth's worth."

He wasn't entirely sure how to respond to that answer or even if it qualified as an answer as opposed to random words arbitrarily strung together; ironically enough, to be technical, he doubted that some of those even qualified as words. That was a rather Rinoa-like quality in and of itself and double that when she was nervous or felt cornered, which both of those were currently applicable. Well, it was either an accumulation of those stressors or, returning to his previous theory, the Ragnarok's shower evolved since his turn this morning. Learning the art of magic, it had skillfully cast 'Confuse' on Rinoa unbeknownst to her. Honestly, making sense or not, it didn't matter – if inventing words kept her smile intact, she could create her own damn lexicon. And him? He'd just be thankful she found a way to hold onto her humor; in his line of work, it was a quality that was all too fleeting.

However, what wasn't fleeting, was the courage she was demonstrating, even if it had slowly began to cross into daring. All her actions had become deliberate. In fact, Squall hadn't realized everything that was happening; he'd even wrongly assumed that her prolonged silence was some sort of protest about his incessant use of "it's classified." Like her version of quid pro quo, sort of, "I won't explain my random comment to you, because you don't offer an explanation to me."

But no, it was nothing like that - it had been about standing her ground.

Silently, she took a small step forward before shifting the position of her body. He didn't know for sure, but the SeeDs were likely looking at her because she most certainly was looking at them. Even more inexplicable to him, she found humor in it. Granted, a second ago he'd been grateful that she kept a smile on her face, however, now he found it a little…concerning.

Honestly, he had no idea what was going through her mind; he feared that her soft laughter was a trigger response to the overwhelming stress. Then again, she was far from alone. In his own act of random idiocy, he wanted to give her more than his earlier evasiveness. She deserved an answer, not just a carbon-copied 'it's classified.' Since he was a teenager, it had always been a knee-jerk response if he found something difficult, emotional or otherwise. He'd call it is own version of standing his ground…or rather just the opposite. Yeah, after those garbled thoughts, maybe he should revisit the magic-wielding shower. Seriously, this gave credence to the highly-improvable, yet likely-impossible idea that the Ragnarok's shower was confusing not only Rinoa, but him as well.

"Earlier, about my answers… Now that I'm joining the ranks of civilian life, saying something's classified won't hold as much weight, not that ever did with you. As far as avoiding your question… Well, in my defense, maybe it coincides with spending too many years with Irvine and his rampant paranoia, but it sounded like a trick question. Somehow, as far as girlfriends went, there were too many exes and formers in your question – once that happens, there is no right answer. Also, the Behemoth wears the tutu. It's not a look I could pull off, another thing learned by spending too many years with Irvine. Before you ask – it's classified."

"Touché. Although, spending time with Irvine doesn't work as a defense – anywhere. Specifically, this means up to and including the following: quoting Irvine, using him as a material witness, as establishment of an alibi, basically anything that's encompassed under the greater form of jurisprudence – both civil and criminal offences. FYI that's not an opinion or hearsay, it's a global legal precedence that Selphie petitioned into all court systems. When I still was at Garden, Quistis and I helped pen the original document but, according to the legal documents that outlined our 'gross incompetence,' we were fired in lieu of a high-priced attorney who had retired – emphasis on had. In less than five minutes Selphie changed that – Quistis and I still recall the fear in his eyes – we're fairly certain the realized his own mortality in those moments and every breath after that was simply a gift from Selphie. We thought it was for fun…but her? Not so much, she'd really had it with Irvine."

"I have no idea if you're serious right now – scared a little bit either way."

"You should be scared, terrified even, take it from me. The girl knows how to apply herself - a Selphie-scorned is someone that even the most hardened governments cower from. In fact because of her unrelenting determination, there are four sayings in the Shumi culture that reference her greatness. One proverb can loosely be translated as, "fear the petite one, she devours all. Recoil in dread, pray for the soul of the cowboy; if the hyena and the scorpion walk as one, she is angry as Armageddon roars her name. Place down all arms, repent your sins, especially the cowboy wearing hat one - the end is neigh. The end is neigh."

"She made you memorize that, right?"

"Every damn word…Quistis and I ended up downing a shot every time we got her proverb wrong, we were drunk within five minutes. To this day, I can't even hear the word jurisprudence without becoming physically ill. Still, Selphie is scary, but she did have a point in there somewhere, using Irvine as a reason for anything is likely a bad idea, although maybe not scorpion-bonding soul-devouring bad, just plain old bad. Oh, and back to you and your comments – here's another FYI, there were not too many exes or formers in my question, rather just too many in the room."

"Ouch." His voice remained monotone, playing up the hurt angle. "And this is exactly why a highly-trained professional knows never to give info that can be used as ammunition. The only acceptable answers are - silence, name and rank, or 'it's classified.' Plus, we all know that half the fun in saying 'it's classified' is to annoy our significant other. I'm pretty sure it's in Garden's recruiting brochures…or something along those lines."

"Yeah, riiight. You're still a dork, or something along those lines." She bit her lip to keep from laughing again; oddly enough, she'd become more uneasy as their window-facing interlude continued.

She could feel someone passing by her, and turned just enough to see Lauren briskly walking by. The SeeD hadn't said anything, which was odd in itself, but Rinoa had the strange feeling that it was deliberate. Not to mention, with their leader gone, she was positive the moles were staring freely now, but this time she'd been smart enough not to look.

Still, she could feel her anxiety building to a crescendo and, by its own definition, the only way to go was down. Given the situation, Rinoa was leaning away from a 'an even, gradual decrease' and was more in the 'break suddenly and very badly' camp Until now, their exchange had been lighthearted and there had been a point to it - although said point had now become whittled down from something sharp, to something…well, far more rotund or maybe even flat. Still, something had been gnawing at her since their mutual discovery where he found her ring was 'missing' and she noticed his wasn't.

Rinoa had taken yesterday's oversight with Sirtis to heart, placing the entirety of the blame onto herself. It was a mistake that could've cost them; it was also that guilt which became her driving force. She'd gone out of way, so why hadn't he? There was an emotional downside to taking off the ring and she still wrestled with the residual effects, but concealment had been the right choice and, in her opinion, the only choice.

In fact, with his return to SeeD, she had to wonder if his decision had been part of some covert master plan choice that had momentarily eluded her. She doubted that he'd outright forgotten logic as that seemed equally preposterous…

Actually, that seemed about as preposterous as Lauren walking back by them without a snide comment about Squall's duties. Seriously, not even a glance their direction and she'd been close enough that Rinoa could've made out her reflection. It was all so strange. Lauren could've favored the other side of the crew room, closer to Laguna and Zell, but it felt as if she'd gone out of her way to walk uncomfortable close. Then again, maybe this was the SeeD's plan and this was all some sort of master tactic – make your enemy very paranoid and very uncomfortable; thinking of that way, uncomfortable silence was all very Squall-like.

"Commander Leonhart, before you return to your briefing, I need to ask you…" Asking anything with him was always easier said than done, but it wasn't something she could just blurt out especially now. Call it a rather sudden case of conspiracy-level paranoia but, the longer their conversation continued, the more suspicious she became of everything.

"…I was going to ask you about something from earlier. I'm pretty sure you can blame this on inheriting my mother's natural curiousness – well that or a natural curiosity for shiny silver clues, sorry – my bad – I meant jewelry."

Okay, maybe the paranoia hadn't completely taken hold; she was feisty enough to throw a jab at the SeeDs and their ability to see the obvious, or rather, or rather lack thereof…

Oh wait! She seemed to recall a stereotype that, while moles weren't exactly blind, they were visually impaired. So, maybe shiny silver clues were hard to spot? Especially, if said moles had been whacked over the head many, many times with rubberized-mallets! Hey, at least some of the puzzle pieces began to fit… True, she remained on this side of bitter, but what did they expect when eight strangers would rather have their commander dead than married to her? Not exactly the ringing endorsement she'd hoped for, although Squall's may find himself in a similar situation - as in Caraway rather have him 'dead' than 'not dead.' However, as far as she fit into the grand scheme of sorcerers-things, it wasn't so bad. Compared to Ultimecia's plan to compress 'all time and space as we know it' or Adel's seemingly prosaic plan for world domination (a little tried and true for any sorceress, super-villain, or egomaniac, in her opinion) but a little bit of bitterness and inferring that the SeeDs were not-so-attractive subterranean mammals seemed… rather inconsequential.

At least he hadn't responded (another small favor) as she tried to wave off her SeeD comment.

"…Anyways, as I was saying, that my mother always told me that you can learn a lot about a person by what the type of jewelry or accessories they choose to wear. And on that note, I do say that I'm shocked as anyone in this room that you're wearing a ring."

He inhaled deeply and she was waiting for some sort of 'let it go' comment, but she found her wait would last a bit longer.

"Don't you mean, you would be as shocked as anyone in this room – if they had noticed? To be fair, maybe a few of them did and either didn't ask or didn't think much about it. I've worn rings before and maybe they thought it was the same – an intricately-carved platinum lion made by an expert craftsman is similar to single silver band forged by a moron." There was distinct pause and another loud breath, "Fine, a silver band forged by journalist."

He shook his head. "A few things in my life are going to take a little time. Speaking of time, when I've been going over assignments, I've kept my hand concealed as much as possible… except when it wasn't."

"It seems that those highly-trained SeeDs really are the finest military minds in the world."

"…Except when they aren't."

She again found herself suppressing laughter as he'd parroted his response. She shouldn't be poking the lion, especially a lion who hadn't given her an answer, well, rather the one she was looking for. In his defense, he did answer her question.

"I bet these SeeDs take after their leader…except when they don't, right?"

"Actually, I hear he's a fine example of a man, or so I've been told."

"Really? I've heard he is a pompous ass, or so I've been told. Then again, I've also been told he has a fine ass."

"I'm not touching that one." He paused briefly before offering a friendly warning. "Whatever comment you're going to make, please don't."

She thought about it - as in, seriously thought about it - but decided it wasn't worth it. Plus, honestly, she couldn't think on her feet fast enough with the perfect comeback, although she was positive it existed. Her first thought had actually been, 'what would Zell do?' Ironically, the martial artist had confided in her that it would be the logo for his radio station, if he'd miraculously fallen into millions of Gil. Ha, maybe she should invest her newfound fortune on the fledging station WWZD and then maybe the universe would find out what Zell would do. Plus, when Squall asked what happened to the checking account, she could calmly inform him it was classified.

She had no idea why, maybe she'd rediscovered an aspect of herself that the SeeDs had taken years prior. It was a small part, yet it had been the push she'd needed to confront Squall. Because theory or not, if this was a conspiracy, it was her conspiracy according to them, so she'd run with that newfound strength. Then again, 'run' might've been too strong a verb – she'd start off with more of a brisk walk. Of course, all of this was verbal, not so much physical as briskly walking off the Ragnarok would've been a tad counterproductive.

"Squall." This was the first time she hadn't addressed him formally, which was the first indicator. If that wasn't surprising, her directness would be, although some words would be substituted to protect the innocent, or rather the not-so-innocent. In reality, it was more like direct-adjacent. Plus, she had to be mindful of her tone because. Although moles were known for their bad vision, she'd bet that living in darkness they'd compensated and now had hearing that rivaled a super-hero.

"You know, it terrified me, the oversight we made while talking to…um, the environmental enthusiast. I thought neither of us would ever let it happen again so I went out of my way to make sure it didn't…and then I went out of my way today, I was so worried… and I, it's like you didn't do any of that. And here you are, you know, um, not recycling maybe? I mean, no, you know what I mean. Squall, it's not classified, it's…well, I thought it was for building a better environment, you know?"

She honestly made no sense. Yet, he understood and he loved her for every random, misplaced word. By all accounts, it should annoy the hell out of him; in the past, he wouldn't have been able to run away fast enough. Now, he found it endearing though, admittedly, he hoped it would not become a daily occurrence.

What bothered him the most about her before, were actually the aspects that he was most drawn to – and he was scared as hell. That too was his answer.

He continued looking forward, although they weren't kidding anyone with the pretense. That was all right as he was no longer trying to fool anyone – a reason he'd explain later. For now, she was asking about his ring…unless she'd suddenly gotten this emotional about paper versus plastic.

"I think earlier I answered with classified because the answer was… it was a combination of things. I was going to recycle but, on the way, it wasn't the trash that broke down…"

He'd stopped.

Squall gritted his teeth, causing his jaw to square as he carried that tenseness throughout his entire body. This was difficult for him; not that he liked to admit his problems in the past, but at least he'd been able to honestly tell her they were in the past.

Now, the past had become today.

"I get it."

And she did. She didn't know whether to continue speaking in code but, honestly, it was probably more important now than any other time. She hated doing this, reducing something so serious into metaphors about garbage, but she took comfort in that old saying – the one that said one man's trash is another man's treasure. And she and Squall had never felt so rich.

"Look, I really do understand…and I'm sorry, you know you made the right choice not to…um recycle. It's like you found a can that you wanted to keep, because it brought enjoyment…playing kick the can and telephone. Plus, the only environment that needs to be built is the one we build together and… forget this. I knew what I meant earlier, now I just want to recycle…."

"Everything but me, right?" He didn't want her to blame herself, she'd done everything right.

"Exactly." Her voice went to a whisper, again throwing even more suspicion her way. Although, didn't they know anything? Obviously since she was controlling his mind, she'd be able to communicate telekinetically, at least those were the rumors she'd heard once at the corner coffee shop. So by teenage SeeD logic, it had to be true.

"This was possibly the stupidest conversation I've been a part of, which says a lot given that three days ago, Zell decided to eat breakfast as a seal and spoke to us the entire meal with straws in his nose…but I was upset and that's why I had to ask again."

He too spoke in lowered tone. "I…wasn't well before I walked in here. Those feelings…it was so familiar and it terrified me, I couldn't go back but those feelings, memories were trying to pull me back there. There's just this… something, like a doubt you can't shake. But I needed to breathe, to find myself… By the time I got here, I was better…but it's haunting. The only thing I knew for sure was our bond, but that's fucking stupid, I know it's greater than any physical talisman.

"There was a part of me that abandoned logic, not caring who saw it. I'd been hiding too long…not weeks, but years. I missed the big picture – a mistake that's now happened twice in thirty minutes. To be truthful, I'd said classified because there was no answer to put into words. And, in all seriousness, I can't say if anyone's seen it. Yes, it's probable, but it's not like they'd question a superior, even a recently-deceased one and, given the history of our dynamic, they won't ask Lauren. If anything, the most we'd ever hear are the whispers behind my back."

"…I wish I could hold you." She mouthed the words, it wasn't even a whisper.

"I know."

He folded his arms and became strangely quiet. It was as if the past had been overlaid in the present; his entire demeanor taking her back a decade, back to some of their first encounters. Something inside was telling her to look over toward the SeeDs, maybe they'd offer some clue, but they only offered unpleasant looks. It was obvious that something was up, but Squall obstinately offered no clues himself, verbal or otherwise.

Then it hit her like a ton of Chocobo feathers.

He had offered a clue in the form of whisper, a major one. Either he was trying to find a way to tell her or he was waiting for her to decipher all the clues she was obviously missing herself – damn it, she was starting to feel as oblivious as the octet of SeeDs missing the shiny-sparkly clues in front of their faces.

If she wasn't so preoccupied, she'd take a moment to ponder her use of octet, she thought it was the correct term…like triplets or quadruplets, wait…maybe that made them octuplets as that sounded right. Then again, maybe the use of the 'lets' suffix had to mean they were related. That's fine, a group of SeeDs was supposed to function as a single unit, although maybe since there were eight of them an octopus seemed more apropos or, better yet, a tentacle monster would fit better…

That's it – she was positive the squad would get some 'cool' code name for the mission. Personally, she'd throw her hat in for dubbing them team Tentacle Moles or Tentamoles because that would be even more surrealer.

…Yeah, she was creating her own lexicon again, never a good sign when she could publish her own dictionary. Seriously, she already felt so out of place that now she was feeling stupid, even though she hadn't technically gone through the process of asking him. …So, maybe it was her bad.

Still, Rinoa continued to feel like the lone clownfish in an ocean full of swordfish. Theoretically, she knew better than to compare herself to the others, but human nature won out. Besides what each could define as a 'relationship' with Squall, she and Lauren held very few similarities, but their differences were drastic - different backgrounds, different life experiences and, if continuing to swim with the fish metaphor, far different schooling behaviors.

In Rinoa's eyes, one of the main differences was the efficiency of their problem-solving abilities. What came simply for Lauren, took Rinoa a little more time – often with a detour here and there. That's why this was so upsetting, Lauren probably would've had this still 'unseen' problem solved by now - not only this problem, but she would've figured out the next one, and the one after that, and still had time to give the Ragnarok a proper oil change.

So, here she sat in the middle of an unscheduled detour as she sorted out the pieces. The bait was there, being dangled in front of her – she still couldn't put it together, which made her feel like a very bad fish. Seeing Lauren at the height of professionalism, coupled with her husband's uncanny silence, made her feel as if was demoted from clownfish to barnacle; she was the arthropod incapable of sustaining itself independently, existing only as long as the rusted anchor it clung to remained in the water.

Oh well, the world couldn't be comprised of all swordfishes - clownfish and barnacles had their places, plus taking a few extra minutes to figure things out made you appreciate the process more. Not to mention, being a swordfish was overrated because even if they did spear a fish, they had no way of eating it. Plus, from what she remembered they were antisocial fish, staying a good ten meters from one of their own kind, which is probably why her husband held up to the metaphor so well. They also tended to eat their young, a wonderful metaphor for SeeD if she'd ever heard one. It also made her realize that she spent way too much time reading the back of cereal boxes, she could quote fish-facts but that was about it.

Maybe time had jaded her. When she hired SeeD years ago, she was young and naïve, thinking ideals could still change the world. Now, seeing politics and politicians in action, she'd ironically grown to associate those who hired SeeD under-the-table as the true barnacles, permanently attaching to a stronger host and…And just like that, it suddenly clicked as all the pieces slammed into place.

Like her analogy – today she was going to be the barnacle or she was going to hire one. Screw it; she wanted to be a goddamn clownfish again.

It had been more than what Squall had just said while whispering; an earlier comment had all but spelled it out, if only she'd listened to the answers he'd given, not just the ones she'd been waiting to hear. The biggest clue had been in their exchange about 'formers' and 'exes' and the answers he'd given and the ones he hadn't. But, he was right - it had been a trap – although maybe she was the one caught in the snare.

The problem he'd mentioned, his silent contemplation…it was no surprise that it all pointed back to the same problem - her favorite group of curious moles in the corner. In their blind eyes, they believed that their beloved mole leader was dating their other beloved mole leader and not the evil mallet…or something like that. It was another thing she'd chalk up on the 'don't mention to Squall' list as she apparently called her husband a mole leader, although she did preface it with 'beloved.' Again, it was one of those things that made sense in her head at the time…sort of.

If she'd hit the mole on the head and he was trying to find a way to explain it, she'd put Squall out his misery. It was her duty as a foam-covered mallet after all.

"So, Lauren's still your girlfriend…as far as they're concerned. Am I correct?"

"Why did you say that?" He came across far more upset than he'd intended, mostly due to the degree of shock.

"Ding. High score," she said mumbled sarcastically; chances were good he'd hear her but, under the circumstances, chances were even better that he'd let it go. Still, he deserved an answer, actually no, she deserved an answer, but like so many other times when it came to their relationship, that was semantics – logic was useless here. She kept her skepticism to herself as she explained herself.

"Just a feeling. It all adds up – when you've spoken, you've dropped a lot of bread crumbs, but my best guess is that was intentional. Or it also could just be your subconscious continuing to work when your conscious took a break to look at pretty trees. The verbal clues could've been to soften the blow or just a way of feeling me out. Plus, swordfish aren't social, they're known for keeping their distance – and keeping your distance is something you two probably do naturally."

Squall had to admit he was impressed and equally as taken aback. Uncrossing his arms, they now remained in a far more natural position at his sides. Her hand quickly snapped up.

"That!" she said firmly as she moved her finger up and down, as if pointing to his entire body. "That was also a dead giveaway. Seconds ago, I felt as if I was looking at your past self – the obstinate, rigid, seemingly obnoxious guy that I'd first encountered when I was just a mere client. Figured the trip down memory lane was one of two possibilities. First, you were lost in your head, uncomfortable about what you needed to say – a throwback to the past. Or, Ultimecia had actually beensuccessful in Time-Compression and felt strongly that, with literally with all of history at her fingertips, switching your past self with the current self was the best use of bending space and time."

He raised an eyebrow. "I'm impressed."

"Don't be, actually the Ultimecia thing is true and she already gave me the heads-up on the future – turns out I hate your plan, but it also turns out that I'm nice, so I go along with it. Because hate it or not, I get it." A moment of silence passed between them, before she admitted the truth. "To be honest, I'm actually impressed too – I knew there was something, but didn't think I'd figure it out."

"You sell yourself short."

"Maybe. I just knew there was a bigger picture I couldn't see as this wasn't making sense. Now I get that's one of the reasons our conversation has gone on so long, although… I have a feeling I'm still missing that last piece of the puzzle. Lauren doesn't let give anybody this much free reign on a leash without pulling the slack. She should've been over here, pulling you back to the other Tentamoles."

He narrowed his eyes in confusion; did she just say Tentamoles? …Maybe she said tentacles? Neither made any sense in any context that he could imagine…was it a Malboro reference? Curiosity may make him ask her later, but for now the goal had been to placate her – as she wasn't going to be happy later. It also dawned on him she was still talking; this was likely a side effect of nervous energy. He nodded in agreement, although he wasn't sure to what - not listening was probably a bad move. Thankfully for him, it had been a relatively-harmless gesture.

"…You've been trying to have us keep our distance, though to paraphrase Selph, we've already blow that to smithereens. Squall, I get it, I mean I do…I'm not thrilled and it's a little weird or a lot of weird, but what about this isn't a little bit weird?"

"Stop. It will be fine." His statement had been firm, but that didn't mean he wasn't sympathetic. He didn't have to look in the glass to know what she was feeling; he was feeling it too. "I don't like it either."

"No, you don't," she sighed. The defeat that was inevitable. "Do you honestly think it will help?"

"Honestly?" He stopped again, although his wavering wasn't helping either of them. She'd already proven she was savvy enough to piece together the answer; it was just about hearing it from his mouth.

"Yes, honestly, I virtually insist upon it when I'm asking you a direct question that, even in theory, puts you back with your former girlfriend. You know 'former' as the one you were with about two weeks ago and, if memory serves, technically never broke up with."

The pressure was starting to get to her manifesting itself in different ways. Though, she did wonder if he'd pick on the subtle verbal clues she dropped.

He noticed. He was also intelligent enough not to engage her on certain topics; she was speaking out of emotion – just as he'd acted out of emotion wearing the ring.

"Then fine, yes, I think it's going to help. In fact, I think how we want to play this out is the only feasible option. This is the part I didn't think through as much as I should've… I was hell bent on doing this on my own terms and I absolutely, honestly would still do that if you don't want to follow along but…"

"Zone, the mission. I get it."

"They'll respond better if…"

This is where he needed to tread lightly, as saying, "wasn't back with the person they all despised. Oh, by the way, I may have a slight hand in fueling the fire," wasn't going to win him husband of the year. In fact, if he'd said that, he doubted he'd make it as husband for a year.

"I just think it'll be less drama. I'm not doubting their abilities as SeeDs, but I also know sometimes those personal biases can slip through."

"No, it's the opposite - you are doubting their abilities as SeeDs or we wouldn't be having this discussion."

"Fine." She had him - nothing like starting to believe your own lie. It was a habit that may take awhile to break - somehow SeeD's philosophy and the bottom line had held more of a hold on him than he realized.

"Commander Leonhart, I was being honest when I said 'I get it,' but nowhere is it written that I have to like it. Our relationship isn't the point and I didn't come here to show up the SeeDs or Lauren or anything like that, I came here to protect Zone. If I have to play along for a few hours, I'll consider that a small price to pay."

"Just so you know, I'm not going to go out of the way by saying Lauren and I are together, I'm just going to do my job…Speaking of which, there is something else I have to mention. Lauren and I talked and…"

"Shock and surprise," she replied sarcastically, "Figured that one out too, just tell me please."

"As of now, SeeD is your client."

"You work for Timber…so the government hired SeeDs as they don't have anyone trained to do this."

She saw where this was going. "No one qualified in this with the exception of Zone and Watts, right? And since we were aware there was a mole leaking information about the World Council – as we have proof there was an illegal download from the office, we called in someone who could help. Logically, even with our turbulent past, I'd want to work with the best – or the headmaster ordered the best to work with me, either way works…I'd prefer that latter, makes me seem a little less desperate to see you again because I still think you're an ass. And, this conversation we're having is me filling you in on what I know, or don't know. We aren't even looking at each other…so it appears awkward. Did I miss anything?"

"I'm even more impressed now. Lauren and I hadn't worked that much out, but we also didn't have time. But really, good job - smart, logical, and didn't involve accessorizing sorceresses or playing leapfrog on a moving train."

"God, I was right, I do think you're an ass. Seriously, you're an ass." She hadn't realized how loud she was until she took note that in a rare miscalculation of the game - all the moles were staring at once.

"Actually, you're right… we're forced to work together so there'd be some animosity between us."

"I wasn't acting."

"I know."

She smiled. "Good."

"Come on, let's go. Since you're the client, you'd be involved in the briefing, at least the overview."

"What? No?" Her head spun around to look at him. "You're fired, you're all fired then."

"I'm calling the bluff. You're not firing us - you care about Zone. Just remember, we'll… just play it by ear."

It was one of those things where her feet moved although her mind was willing them against it. Then again, as that had happened to her on more than one occasion, it was probably not the best example. She followed him, although very, very begrudgingly. Seeing the giant 'bloberous' Tentamole with eight heads, and a Lauren, looking at her was rather unnerving – unnerving enough that she'd invented a new adjective for her repertoire.

Thankfully, Squall was the one to do the speaking.

"I'm sure all of you are aware of who Ms. Heartilly is by now. Since I wasn't sure if she'd like to remain anonymous or not, I left it out of the earlier briefing. However, after a brief exchange, we decided it was best to let you know."

Rinoa didn't smile, instead relied on her years of working in Timber and being forced to attend social and political events with Caraway. She'd learned the façade and the rules of etiquette – although several of those were bent or flat-out broken during her slightly more rebellious adolescent phase.

With a small nod, she finally spoke to them. "On behalf of all parties involved, your assistance is appreciated."

"Ms. Heartilly is representing one of our clients. She's the liaison for Timber's government, who's called us in for this mission. Normally, a task force like this wouldn't be necessary, but they've discovered an internal breach – one that likely contains classified World Council data. It goes without saying, but each and every one of you knows what that can potentially mean for Garden."

Moving towards the front, Lauren purposely stood between Squall and Rinoa. It was a given that his assurance alone wouldn't be good enough; she'd reiterate the fact the trio had formed a temporary truce of sorts. "I expect everyone to demonstrate the utmost level of professionalism. The three of us understand that this mission is greater than the past. Personal relationships and feelings should be left at the door – we have and now SeeD demands the same from you."

Rinoa stood stone-faced as Squall continued – any emotion, any movement would be scrutinized and interpreted by them and honestly, she just couldn't…not today.

"I understand this situation isn't ideal. As I'm sure you're all aware, the situation is far from ideal for myself and Commander Rachels too. I could stand here and act as if there's no history with Rinoa Heartilly, but I respect everyone too much – we're far beyond games."

Squall Leonhart was still SeeD's commander – just as he was ten minutes ago, ten days ago, and, yes, even ten years ago – it was just as he was now.

At least for today, the title remained his and his alone; in the future, Lauren Rachels could either borrow it or keep it - that wasn't his battle. Today, this was his battle. So, while he wouldn't give up his designation, he would give up a small piece of himself. To his own surprise, his guard dropped just enough to let an ounce of humanity slip its way through. No, it wouldn't stop the whispers and errant looks, but maybe it would slow them down – and even the tiniest amount would be a victory. He'd said it best just moments before - they were far beyond games.

"I don't owe anyone here an answer, but I'll respect you enough to offer one. To briefly touch on a question that you were asking yourself since I walked on deck – yes, I was on a mission. Yes, it was necessary for the world to believe the assassination had been successful. And yes, the attempt and the bullet were both very real as was the life-saving surgery. Besides Zell Dincht, everybody in this room believed the same – that was by design. I had no intentions of disclosing this, but there's only one way to build trust – a foundation of truth. I was slated to work both missions concurrently but, as the first concluded, my entire focus was able to shift on the one in front of us. If my involvement today could've been avoided – that would've been preferable for all involved. However, this isn't about us – any of us - it's about a potential top-tier security breach. It goes without saying, but over the last decade Garden has woven an intricate relationship with the World Council. Because of this, the headmaster made the call to belay my order to return to Garden. It stands to reason that my presence here - or anywhere other than a grave – is going to turn an already volatile situation into an extreme powder keg."

He took a well-timed breath to gage their reactions. So far nobody was lighting a match - the keg and his momentary sanity remained intact, but time would be the final jury. He wanted to place an emphasis on his next words; the intent went beyond the surface. There was no way to protect Rinoa, but maybe he could at least shield her from some of their malice. If not, again maybe find a way to slow it down.

"Think. Every action you make or any word spoken needs to be thoroughly thought out. It's the smallest most seemingly innocent acts that often ignite the largest consequence. If you think you're already treading light – tread even lighter. Remember, Headmaster Kramer's deceit went beyond the World Council – governments, dignitaries, press…and millions more across the globe bought into Garden's loss. Some will understand, some won't and many of those won't forgive so easily; it takes time to build relationships, but it takes only one lie to have it all come crumbling down. That's why the headmaster, along with his advisors, are assessing and addressing each on an individual basis."

No explosion – still a win. "That's why we're giving you an order – my involvement doesn't leave this room - even if you think it's a harmless text, it's not. Don't hinge your entire career on gossip – no games is a two way street. Each of you, Mr. Dincht, Commander Rachels, and myself – our involvement was a direct order from the headmaster. He believes that, as cohesive team, we provide the best chance for success – everything we do, including how we interact with our liaison, needs to be upheld under the microscope of the World Council. The headmaster is currently with them in Esthar as they convened in an emergency session – he'll obviously let them in on other things too, but one mission at a time. You don't have to like it. I don't have to like it. We have to put our feelings aside and show the Council that their funding has created a capable team."

And that was, in its own way, the truth.

For SeeD, it was always about the bottom line; a high mission success rate equated to more funding. The headmaster and the governing board cared about facts; they cared about endgame statistics as they'd be printed on paper. The cared about what was tangible only if it fueled their needs. What they didn't care about were hurt feelings, love triangles, and bitterness. It was a military installation, not the setting for a soap opera - although experience taught Squall that one didn't necessarily preclude the other.

There were three physical entities that comprised the Garden system; it was always more than the buildings, but rather the power harnessed within. War often left shattered remnants of heroes and villains and, when the pieces fell, those left to govern themselves often became the true madmen. That's why the Garden committee didn't care who screwed someone over or who was screwing someone over in the Training Center - as long as the bottom-line wasn't in the red, many behaviors were conveniently overlooked. Besides being the poster boy for SeeD, Squall had also become the poster boy for having his issues swept under the rug. Squall's squad may have no longer respected him as a leader, they could also have thought a little less of Lauren, hell, they could even loath Rinoa with a seething passion, but all of those were non-factors.

He was still loyal to the SeeDs and wanted them to do well on a personal level; he'd hate for his relationship with Rinoa to be what cost them their career – although the fault would be theirs, he still hoped to avoid any long-term consequences. That's why if his first warning failed, and the World Council angle fell through, he had other cards to play. These SeeDs were in the dark about his resignation, a fact that he wasn't afraid to use to his advantage. Call it reverse psychology, but he could threaten exactly what he didn't want to happen as very real possibility. In other words, he'd pressure them by using 'career blackmail,' not a road he wanted to travel by any means, but a mark for insubordination would reflect negatively for years to come. On principle, they could shirk his or Lauren's authority but, when denied a promotion or a raise, he could bet for damn sure that they'd regret this moment.

Again, he understood why they disliked Rinoa; he'd even admit the part he played. To some, it was about what she was - to others, it was who she was. In the matter of fairness, to those few who may have valid reasons to be wary of any sorceress, he empathized. Several tragedies had been at their hand and over the last few decades several lives had been needlessly lost. It wasn't fair to hold one accountable for the actions of another but, again, although he didn't agree, he understood. However, to those people who were asinine enough to dislike her for 'stealing' him from Quistis, or simply because they'd been dating, or worse yet, those who never based it solely on rumors and gossip (before he'd put his own slant on it, that is) - that's where the line was drawn.

He thought it was ridiculous how many at Garden, students and faculty alike, felt as if they'd had some sort of claim to his personal life. Maybe that's why he realized this was a mistake. When Rinoa walked in, Squall studied them as they studied her. What he saw behind their eyes went far beyond malicious glares; their entire demeanor had transformed as if a stray Hexadragon found its way into the crew room. They'd taken a defensive posture and were preparing, at least subconsciously, for a fight…that intense hatred tore his heart to the core. Squall may not have started this one-sided war but, years ago, he'd been more than happy to help fan the flames. Not only had he'd found branches to use as kindling, he'd pulled up a lawn chair just to watch it burn. What started as a small campfire had grown into a full-blown inferno. In the end, he was the one who had lit the match.

Maybe his earlier theory also held true for the past – it was over – and all he could do was mitigate the damage.

"I need to have Ms. Heartilly sign some documents." Lauren touched Rinoa's arm briefly, urging her to follow.

Since Rinoa couldn't turn and look at Squall for encouragement without raising about fifty red flags or realistically eight – those belonging to the arms Tentamole, she glanced towards Zell and Laguna, who were…well, they were doing something useful. At least, she supposed they were, right? Of course, they couldn't give away anything either, but she saw a sympathetic look on both their faces – at least, she would've, had they been paying attention. She'd freely admit that she had let her imagination run a little wild in these trying times, but she was fairly certain she'd made a correct assumption.

It took all she could do not to stumble over her own feet, which would've been the cherry on the top of this perfect morning.

"What's wrong?" she asked in a hushed tone as she watched the SeeD pick up a large manila envelope.

"Nothing. I just felt it was best for the mission to remove you from the situation. You'd fulfilled your purpose; there was no reason to keep you around. Leonhart can handle it for the time being. It's also beneficial to have them see you and I interacting civilly as it lends credence to our cover."

"Oh, of course, credence, that makes sense…and it's not at all awkward – as in really aawwkkwarrdd - or anything," she replied sarcastically.

It had been the textbook definition of a delayed reaction as her actions had taken several seconds to register. The result? An almost comical reaction as her eyes widened and her mouth fell open in shock. She quickly regained her composure, or at least the now-tattered pieces that could be salvaged. Honestly, mocking Lauren had not been on the day's agenda, but leave it to Rinoa to pencil it in.

…Fine, minor correction: mocking Lauren out loud had not been on today's agenda. Because well, Rinoa was only human after all and Lauren was…Lauren – annoyingly perfect on the career front, all-around put together and on top of things, the polar opposite of her. Plus, saying sarcastic comments in the privacy of her own mind didn't usually land her in trouble.

Lauren, however, was not impressed.

"Okay then. Why don't we sit?" If the girl wanted an awkward encounter, she'd succeeded. Lauren did her best to remain on track as she handed her the large envelope. "Open it up, leaf through it, pretend that you're reading it or do read it - makes no difference."

Opening the folder, Rinoa pulled out the small stack of papers. Once she gleaned the first pages of the documents, she looked up curiously. "What is this? I mean these papers that I'm either reading or not reading…as, apparently, it's my choice."

"What are they or what are they supposed to be? They're supposed to be standard Garden contracts, information and intel that we'd share with you as a client. You're aware of the standard document packet, correct? I was under the impression that you'd actually hired SeeD before, albeit at a reduced rate - so you know the drill or does that not make sense either?"

Rinoa winced. It appeared that she'd managed to make it onto Lauren's bad side with one misstep…the misstep the size of The Great Salt Lake, but a misstep nonetheless. She wondered if an apology would help or hurt. Or, was it best just to smile and nod? In the end, she did neither and instead looked at the documents in her hands which, by all accounts, were not any sort of Garden forms.

"But, what are they really?" It seemed that Lauren was rather eager to answer that question.

"Some random eBook from the internet - Counting the Wind or Calling the Wind…it's something about wind. In reality, it just so happened to be the first available download after a quick online search. The truth is - you're not a client and we're not obligated to share information with you. I thought reading something might entertain you, although it was a free download – I wasn't wasting Garden's Gil."

This…sucked. She'd had nightmares go better than this; hell, being junctioned to Adel may have been a sliver above this. This was all becoming too much. She didn't even know she did it, habit she guessed, but she reached for her ring.

Then it was just like it all came flooding out. Maybe she should've had a filter. Maybe she'd appear weak…or maybe, just maybe, she really didn't care this time.

"I'm sorry all right? I don't even know why I said it, besides the fact I wasn't thinking. For the last ten minutes I've had people staring at me. Do you know what it's like to walk into a room where everyone hates you? You know how often I find myself doing it? And you know, one of the people who never made me feel like some freak of nature, who was there for me through everything… I'm going to lose him today. He's been my best friend since I was sixteen and now…that will just be gone. And yes, I can never forget what he did to Squall, but I'm going to have to forgive him for my own sanity. You know, even Squall will forgive him."

She hadn't realized how much emotion had built up or the how her eyes were watering. She wasn't crying, yet, but she'd fight her damndest to keep that from happening. But if her best wasn't good enough, fuck it. She'd been strong for SeeD long enough. She was glad Lauren hadn't commented, although she feared the response – maybe that was one of the main reasons she continued.

"So maybe…I don't know, maybe forgive me because I need you today? And do you know how goddamned hard that is for me to say? How hard it is for me to sit with you, talk with you? And no, we're not friends, we'll never be, but we don't have to be enemies either… and all of this has been so much, but I'm trying. I'm trying. Everything keeps piling on, but here I am finding a way to get through it – right now, by myself. But I'm used to that, I've been the outsider since I was a child. But I'm hanging on, even if it's by a wire. So, I'm sorry… it was a stupid mistake."

There was a long pause. It wasn't just her imagination or something exaggerated for dramatic effect, it was long – by all accounts, a half minute of silence. Rinoa had begun to think it was no longer a pause, but rather screeching halt. She'd live with that, at least a dead stop was better than many of the alternatives.

"I lied." Lauren leaned forward as she turned towards the window. "I didn't download it. I didn't randomly search for it. Hell, I didn't even get it for free, I paid for it. At least, awhile ago. It's my favorite story and I had it saved on my hard drive I keep hidden in a file. The rest is true though, well sort of. We do have standard contracts as you know, but given the situation, it's irrelevant. But, we have no further information – basically everything we have has been something you or Mr. Seagill had given us."

It was odd, and admittedly a bit creepy, that Lauren was apologizing in an extremely-similar way to how Squall would. It was never a direct sorry, at least back then at the beginning of his tenure – a sign of weakness in his eyes. Rinoa had noticed parallels many times before in their speech and mannerisms. She decided that one day she'd have to ask Laguna about this to make sure there was zero possibility of Squall having a twin sister switched at birth…

…Okay, she'd never do that. Plus it was far too many levels of weird and wrong to even begin to comprehend – so many, many levels of weird and wrong.

That being said, these similarities allowed Rinoa to catch onto something, however.

"Why keep it hidden?"


She was caught off-guard.

"The file, you said it was hidden in a file. I know Garden allows you to keep some personal items on there, as long as they don't distract from work."

"It's not a distraction." She actually let out a small laugh, much to both of their surprises. "I guess… I guess I just don't want anyone finding it. Actually, I've never told anybody that. It's just… I guess it kind of conflicts with certain aspects of my life. I feel as if I need to be working, not spending time reading some ridiculous romance."

"It's not ridiculous at all. Do you think that if others found out you like romance novels or something they'd think less of you?"

"Think less of me, no. Think less of me as a SeeD, yes. I've wanted to be a headmaster since I was a child. Some kids want to be race car drivers or princesses, I wanted to be a headmaster. I feel as if I wouldn't be taken seriously if people knew. It's better that they think I read books about wilderness survival or integration techniques rather than some silly love story."

"I get it. It's a different standard for you than others, even more than Squall. Just… you know, balance the books about shooting with books on romance. You'll lose yourself if you don't and one day you'll regret that you gave up something you enjoy."

Lauren sighed. "It's not that I read them all the time, or even every week… just sometimes when the mood hits. But, that's not who I'm supposed to be, or rather the persona I've established. I've worked hard at that and yes it's important to me. If it means giving up a few books, I will. That's why the relationship with Squall was so perfect, because I didn't have to compromise the soldier part of me. If anything, it kept me more focused on my goal." Leaning back into the chair, she took a deep breath. "That was way out of line. I promise there was no malicious intent behind it."

"I know it wasn't malicious. No worries. Plus, as you may recall, I'm sorta the queen of foot-in-mouth."

"You can say it was awkward, I won't hold it against you."

Rinoa knew it was a throwback to her earlier mistake, but again it was like one of those hard to understand olive branches that Squall was famous for. Now Rinoa let out a small laugh, before taking Lauren's advice to heart.

"I think I will, that was…awwkkwarrdd," she drawled.

Rinoa hadn't noticed that Squall had been released from the Kraken, or the Tentamole, or whatever she felt like currently referring to the eight-headed, sixteen-armed monster in the corner. He was walking toward them, keeping his commander expression firmly intact.

He saluted as neared. "Commander Rachels, Ms. Heartilly."

Lauren stood to return the gesture.

"Did I catch you at a bad time?"

Lauren articulated her words with precise, crisp staccato syllables. "Just comparing notes." Yet, to the trained ear there had been a mischievous undertone, "comparing notes and stories, sir."

The dumbfounded look on Squall's face was priceless. Rinoa didn't know if he was actually dumbfounded or it was intense, paralyzing, all-encompassing fear – it was surely one of the two. She'd hand it to Lauren as the setup had to be intentional.

"Awwkkwarrdd," Rinoa reiterated for a third time, although by far her favorite time. She also had to ask, "And seriously, did you plan on catching us at a good time? Really?"

"I-I don't know how to respond to any of this. I'm… slightly terrified."

Rinoa laughed and even Lauren had to crack a smile as his response was so clueless that it had actually been completely endearing. "It's fine, we're giving you a hard time. I'm just here, you know, perusing these awesome SeeD contracts or whatever that script says I'm supposed to say. Sadly, nobody slipped a copy under my door this morning – might've been helpful or at least a head's up to the script's revisions because we all know my adlibbing skills leave a lot to be desired."

Lauren had retaken her seat, playing her part quite well. She was shuffling through the paperwork, acting as if she was separating parts and handing them to the potential client. It was a perfect dance of give-and-take as if they had been real documents and she was negotiating in a real contract meeting; she was following the actual protocol to a 'T' sans documents and an actual client – small details, of course. Squall had moved next to Lauren, playing his part too as he leaned on the back of the chair, leaving Rinoa to sit alone.

Squall was about defend himself, although it would've been a fruitless endeavor, but stopped himself as he saw that Kiros had finally returned, with Ward in tow. He watched as both aides quickly made their way towards Laguna, skillfully avoiding eye contact – an act that was deliberate. It was obvious that they'd asked the President for a moment of privacy. Zell smiled sheepishly, edging himself closer to the other SeeDs. He reintegrated himself into the group and looked at something being pointed out on the map. Squall was grateful. Maybe Zell could keep them focused on work rather than the 'entertainment.' Then again, that might be asking the impossible, but Squall actually felt for the guy – again, the martial artist found himself caught in between an awkward situation and two even more awkward ones.

By the time Squall glanced back, Kiros had dismissed himself and was heading in their direction. There was something in the way he walked - the look, the demeanor…Squall didn't like it. Given his profession, he'd been around bad news more often than good and he already knew this wasn't a sign of the latter.

"Commander," Kiros began but corrected himself, "Commanders. Rinoa."

Squall acknowledged him, but remained on alert.

"I need a word."

And there it was.

Squall knew that whatever followed next wasn't going to be good. Kiros had taken a phone call, and that was on the other side of thirty minutes ago. No call of that length ever held good news. Whatever this was, if it truly was that bad, he wanted to be there for Rinoa and, given their current script, it wasn't going to be possible. In sports terms, he needed to run interference. In layman's terms, he wanted them to leave.

"Can we step outside? If it's a security issue, it needs to be kept contained."

Lauren wanted to roll her eyes. Seriously? She wouldn't as it would be the height of unprofessionalism, especially with the highest-ranking members of Esthar's regime present, two of whom she respected greatly – and Laguna. Honestly, since they were already out of earshot, she would've preferred Squall just to come out and say the truth, rather than playing it off as some newfound 'security concerns.'

Although, Lauren couldn't say exactly what the truth entailed, she figured it was some variation of, "Can we step outside? If it's bad news, I want to hold Rinoa so she doesn't have scary dreams."

Alright, maybe she was no better than Rinoa on the sarcastic front, but she just had enough sense to keep the comments to herself. And, for the most part, she didn't think Rinoa was a horrible person. In fact, she had some decent qualities and she seemed genuine – something that was a rarity in her line of work. It was just the circumstance she found herself in and she honestly had no idea who Squall was. After he was shot, he came back a different person. It was not unheard of, in fact, quite the opposite, it was just difficult for her. Someone she respected, admired and cared about – yes, she did care about him, was just gone. There were glimpses sometimes, moments of his former self, but it was…different. If truth be told, she wasn't sure if she was mourning a great commander, or something else.

She didn't feel as if the term jealousy fit as it was far too archaic, plus it had never been what their relationship was about…but maybe (and it was very big maybe) there was jealousy in what he'd found. And it was for that reason that she never tried to analyze her annoyance; it could've been that or it could've been just plain annoyance. For now, she'd accept it at face value and allow herself to be irritated every time someone said or did something stupid or went against SeeD regulations. Calculating a quick mathematical formula, early indications proved that she was going to be in for a very, very long and irritating day.

At least, she wasn't completely alone. It seemed that Kiros took a second to digest Squall's request too, but was willing to be accommodating. Something inside her had a feeling he was slightly irritated too – there was a joke about 'sensing her own kind' or being a 'kindred spirit' in there somewhere.

"That's fine. Follow me, there's a better space on the gangway outside the west entrance."

It was sort of humorous in an ironically-pathetic way; she and Squall both quickly began to follow Kiros whereas Rinoa leaned back in her chair and started to 'read' the paperwork. It suddenly dawned on Lauren that Mrs. Leonhart really didn't have a clue and was seriously buying into Squall's security concerns. Poor girl. Even more, Lauren couldn't believe that Squall had been the first one to leave the room – now she was forced to turn around, go back, and be the one to retrieve Rinoa. She knew it was probably because Squall was staying in character by not hanging on her or every word she said - something he obviously intended to remedy outside the crew room.

Lauren had absolutely zero idea what Kiros wanted, but they wouldn't allow something as inconsequential as truth get in the way. She pursed her lips before she forcing the words from her mouth. "Ms. Heartilly, please come with us. The information pertains to Timber and as their official liaison, it's best we keep you apprised of all developments."

And it was done, the best acting job she'd done since the play she'd been in as junior cadet. She played a carrot. Her co-stars were broccoli and asparagus. Today, she played a third wheel – without a doubt, she much preferred working with the vegetables.

Once they were in the corridor, Squall took his place to the right of his wife, although there was no physical contact. Kiros was about getting to the point. He wasn't going to sugarcoat this, even with Rinoa present.

"At 0400 hours, there was a disturbance at Esthar's long-term detainment facility. Duncan Sirtis reportedly attacked two armed guards while in transport. A struggle ensued as two nearby guards tried to regain control of the situation. In the end, it took six armed men before Sirtis could be neutralized."

"Neutralized?" The word fell out of Rinoa's mouth as a question, but there had been no doubt.


"No, executed." Lauren wasn't shy to correct Squall. She refused to hold back punches for anybody's sake.

Rinoa felt the already tight knot in her stomach grow. "But his health? He couldn't…six guards?"

"No, he wouldn't," Squall agreed. "He didn't."