The slam of the door reverberated like a gunshot in the hotel hallway. Squall leaned his shoulder heavily against the doorframe, squeezing his eyes shut and pressing gloved fingers against his forehead. It didn't help. A dull, throbbing pain had taken root between his eyes, threatening the onset of a raging headache.
The closed door muffled his teammates' voices into unintelligibility, but he could still hear them bickering - Irvine's slow, sly drawl, and the sharp, rapid syllables of Zell's angry reply. The two of them had been sniping at one another nonstop since the three of them had reached their room. Squall had kept them from each other's throats with glares and the occasional edged comment, but Zell's grip on his temper was rapidly slipping, and they were only inches from coming to blows. Squall could no longer bring himself to care. He just hoped that Zell would stop short of breaking bones. A pounding might do the Galbadian sharpshooter's attitude some good, but they only had so many potions to go around.
From inside the room came the crunch of splintering furniture, and Squall's sigh hissed out through gritted teeth. For a moment he seriously considered just going down the hall to the girls' room. He'd slept on floors before--
But taking cover in the girls' room meant dealing with Rinoa, and that was something he really didn't want to face. He'd knock Zell and Irvine's heads together if he had to.
How did I get into this, anyway? It was a question that Squall was asking himself more and more often lately. He wasn't quite sure how, in the space of twenty-four hours, he'd gone from being a freshly graduated SeeD to being responsible for a politically delicate assassination and a team of six.
Or rather, a team of five and a walking complication.
He pushed himself away from the door and, shoving his hands into his pockets, started down the hall, towards the girls' room and then past it to the stairs down to the lobby. There were things running circles in his mind, one thought chasing the other, a mental inventory of their gear and a private tally of the bits and pieces picked up along the way that they might be able to use, or sell for gil that could go toward buying some more supplies. They needed more supplies. The field kit they'd brought from Balamb Garden had only been meant for three, and though Quistis, always professional, had thought to bring her own gear, Rinoa had nothing but her weapon, and Irvine wasn't much better off.
Why all of this was suddenly his problem, Squall didn't know.
Except that someone had to make sure they had enough. Someone had to make sure that they kept enough gil on hand to afford rooms at a hotel, so they wouldn't end up spending the night camped outside the city and eating tasteless field rations. That when someone got injured - when Rinoa panicked in the face of a leering belhemel and caught someone by accident with a misfired thunder spell - when Selphie strained a knee trying to dodge a thrustaevis' dive, and he'd better be sure that was fully healed by the morning or he'd have to take Zell out to scout that tomb with him and Irvine instead, and then he'd probably kill them both - that there were potions and healing spells enough to repair the damage. Someone had to make sure that Zell's metal-knuckled combat gloves were repaired and remodeled before they simply fell apart on his hands.
Zell certainly wouldn't. Selphie wouldn't. They'd mean to - they knew as well as Squall did why it was important - but they'd get distracted, and put it off or simply forget until it was too late.
Quistis was more responsible, but for some reason she'd deferred to Squall since she joined them in Timber. And that was a whole other problem that he was dimly hoping would go away on its own, because he had no idea what to do about it.
Irvine? An unknown quantity. An outsider whose affectations and inexplicably erratic behavior were not endearing him to the rest of the team. He was Garden-trained, the same as the rest of them, but in the few hours since he'd joined their team, he'd done nothing to impress Squall with his reliability.
And Rinoa had no training. Rinoa was focused too determinedly in the present to think of planning more than a few minutes into the future.
The lobby was all but empty, a relief after more than an hour of constant arguing, but Squall could feel the receptionist's eyes on him. Her polite interest was an almost tangible pressure itching against his skin, and he found himself scowling, hunching his shoulders slightly under his jacket and ducking his head until his hair fell raggedly over his eyes. He toyed briefly with the idea of simply fleeing the hotel altogether and taking to the streets of Deling City on his own, but before he could make a break for the doors, the sound reaching his ears from some other room finally registered to conscious thought - a piano, the notes soft and halting, resolving themselves into a melody whose familiarity nagged at his brain.
He wasn't really aware of making the decision, but he found himself turning towards the sound. It led him across the empty lobby and down a curving staircase, and as he reached the bottom of the steps, the nagging familiarity of the tune coalesced into recognition - because the stairs led down to the hotel's nightclub.
Or what had been the hotel's nightclub. It was closed now, by the looks of things, the chairs cleared away from the empty tables and the shelves behind the bar empty of bottles and glasses. But still, there was a disquieting sense of deja vu - it was a little like seeing a ghost, being confronted with a place he'd seen before only in a dream on the train ride from Balamb to Timber. This was the hotel, and this was the nightclub, that Laguna and his friends had visited. And that piano was--
As Squall turned to face the stage that held the piano, the notes faltered off into silence, and the player ducked her head a little to offer him a sheepish smile. Rinoa. "Quistis and Selphie didn't send you looking for me, did they?"
"...No." He paused, considering her half-hopeful question from one angle and another, and then frowned. "Should they have?"
She shook her head hastily, hands lifting briefly in a gesture of negation. "No, no. It's just... they were curious, you know, about me being from here, and how I ended up in the Forest Owls in Timber. And I didn't really want to talk about it, so I went out for some air."
It hadn't really occurred to Squall that even Rinoa would have things she didn't want to talk about - that even Rinoa could find the well-meaning pressure of other people's efforts at conversation to be a little too much, sometimes. He mulled over that realization, trying to fit it into place with the other conclusions he'd reached about her, until he realized she was watching him for a response. "You shouldn't go off on your own," he said. The words came out stiffly.
"I did promise Quistis I wouldn't leave the hotel." Her eyes slid away from him, back to the keyboard of the piano. When he didn't say anything else, she reached again for the keys, picking out first one note, then another, and another, until the notes threaded themselves into that familiar melody - the same one Julia had played, albeit more amateurish, each note dropped out one at a time in a way that made them sound naked.
"Pretty, isn't it?" Rinoa murmured, her head bent over the keys. "I really like this song... I wish I could play it better. My mother tried to teach me the piano when I was little, but..."
"It was too hard, so you quit?"
At his blunt words, Rinoa seemed to lose track of the tune; she hit a wrong note and paused, a faint flush rising into her face as she glanced up to meet his eyes. "It's not like that--" She cut herself off, with a rueful little twist of her mouth as her eyes turned back downward. "Well, maybe." Her fingers skimmed over the keys, and she found her way carefully back into the tune. "Actually my mother died when I was five. A car accident. After that... you're right, it was too hard. So I quit."
Squall could find no response to that, nothing but an unexpected shame. He wasn't even really sure why he'd spoken, except that maybe he was trying to figure her out - that in some low and spiteful way he'd wanted to prove to himself that she was like that, someone who would give up when things got hard. "...Sorry."
Rinoa only shook her head. "No, it's all right. I shouldn't have quit." That rueful twist in her expression smoothed out into a trace of a wistful smile as she picked her way over the keys. "Mama used to say that if you want something, you have to do something about it... even if you think you can't do it, nothing good will happen if you just give up. Once Timber is free, I'll start learning the piano again. Then I'll be able to play this song right. I think she'd like that."
Abruptly she left off playing, scooting around on the piano bench to face him. "What about you?"
The question caught him off-guard, and he couldn't begin to imagine what she meant by it. He just looked at her, until her smile warmed in a way that left him feeling that much more off-balance.
"Your parents," she prompted. "What were they like?"
He looked away from her, across the empty nightclub towards nothing in particular. "I never knew my parents. I've lived at Garden for as long as I can remember."
"...oh." Rinoa's voice sounded suddenly quieter, uncertain and a little embarrassed. "I'm sorry. I shouldn't have asked."
Squall shrugged, a brief and dismissive hitch of his shoulders. "Don't worry about it. It's not like I know what I'm missing, anyway."
"I don't know..." When he looked, cautiously, back toward Rinoa, she was looking down at the piano again, fingertips tracing lightly over the tops of the keys. "Even though Mama's not with me any more, I still have my memories of her... and pictures, and recordings and things. So even if I miss her, I can remember how much she loved me." She lifted a hand from the piano to curl her fingers around the ring that hung from its chain around her neck. "When I think like that, even if I'm by myself, it's like I'm not alone."
Squall stood very still, and in the silence that followed her words, Rinoa looked hesitantly up to his face. Abruptly her eyes went wide, and the hand that was toying with her ring flew up over her mouth in sudden dismay.
"I'm so sorry." The words came out of her in a shamefaced rush. "That was really insensitive, wasn't it? I shouldn't have said anything."
You're stronger than I am, Squall thought.
But what he said was, "Whatever. I'm going back upstairs." A beat passed before his eyes found hers. "You shouldn't stay down here too long by yourself."
She got to her feet, pushing herself up from the piano bench and not quite meeting his eyes. "I'll walk up with you."
When he turned to start back up the stairs, she hurried to catch up with him.
Squall had expected that Rinoa would keep talking as the two of them made their way across the lobby and back upstairs toward their rooms. She didn't. They walked in silence, Squall with his hands stuffed into the pockets of his jacket, Rinoa with her head down and her fingers fidgeting absently with her ring again. He thought she glanced sidelong at him once or twice, but he didn't look her way to see what kind of expression might be carried in those brief looks.
He paused at the door to the girls' room, and found himself reluctant to speak.
"...Tell Selphie to make sure her knee is all right for tomorrow," he said eventually, and Rinoa dipped her head in a little nod.
"It was a lot better when I left the room, since we stopped walking around. I think the potion really helped."
There was nothing to be said to that; Squall nodded, and after another moment he turned away, starting down the hall towards the room that hopefully Zell and Irvine hadn't completely destroyed. Rinoa's voice calling after him made him pause again.
"Hey, Squall." When he looked back at her over his shoulder, she was smiling, her hand on the knob of the door. "Sleep well, okay?"
He looked at her for a long while before, at last, he turned away again. "...Yeah," he said. "You, too."
He'd reached the door of his room before it occurred to him that his headache was gone.