-Wow my final disclaimer of the story. I'm speechless. It's really sad to come to the end of all the disclaimers. I would like to thank all the other disclaimers that have given me this opportunity in the past, for example chapters 1-14. If it wasn't for them, I wouldn't have made it this far. Sniff. Also, thanks to all the small disclaimers in my life, you know who you are.

Now on with it: Neither I, nor any of my subsidiaries (which are my two kids), own the rights to Final Fantasy VIII or any of the characters. I do however, own Maude McCay anyone want her? Please, she eats a lot of food around here. I swear she was looking at my husband the other night. I offered her to Square, but was immediately arrested. Brother, get some humor multi-millionaire guys!

Chapter Fifteen: Forever

As Rinoa lay in bed, she felt warm sunlight drifting through the solitary window. Silently she thought, "eight o'clock." Over the last few months, she'd learned to tell time by the direction of the sun's heat upon her body. Something that would have never registered before, it was now second nature. She inhaled deeply and opened her eyes, although the gesture pointless. It was habit, if nothing else. Events of the previous nights swirled through her memories. Honestly, none of their actions had been planned.

"God, Lauren was just a misunderstanding. Did I lose my sight because of it, or gain knowledge of things around me that I would have never known? Would I have truly been thankful for all in my life, had this not happened, or just taken it all for granted?"

She had done that before, it was all too obvious now. Two years ago, Squall was supposed to fall for her, it was only natural, right? She had this undeniable charm and perky disposition. She was a damn 'princess' who always got what she wanted.

Now, more than ever, she understood how those around her perceived actions. Everything in her life had been according to her plan up until a year ago, when for once fate had stepped in with his plan. Coming back from Deling started a chain of events that would forever change their lives.

Looking back now, she could honestly say she truly did despise him. Somehow, she could never say the word hate, that was far from the truth. Oh, she did loathe him for his actions, for what she thought had transpired. However as a person, try as she might, unadulterated 'hate' wasn't possible toward Squall. And God, she wished she could have been. It surprised her back then, how the person she reviled the most in the world, was also the person she loved the most.

Rinoa still would have given her life for him without hesitation. In a way, she did. Fortunately, others viewed the life she gave as a selfish, spoiled brat. The life she was given in return, more wonderful than anything possibly imagined by humankind. Squall loved her, only her. Not for her looks or her position among the upper social class, but for the person she never knew. The one hidden behind just as many masks and layers as Squall once appeared long ago. He saw that person. By some ironic turn of events, she finally opened her eyes… only by losing them.

Last night, nothing serious was meant to happen. Just to be in his presence, just be together.

After the other three left, the two had in fact laid down to go to sleep. Okay, after a little, or she guessed, a lot of making out. The idea of her and Squall 'making out' almost made her laugh, even now. That was an adolescent term Zell would use.

Irvine, on the other hand, stood by the ever popular baseball references. First base, second base, etc... Rinoa never truly figured out the base definitions, or how far one would have to go to reach a certain base. She made a mental note to ask Irvine in the morning. Then again, Squall might not be happy about that… so she decided on asking Selphie. Curiosity was killing her of what 'base' she and Squall had made it to. Damn those teenage sayings.

It had been hours since she had settled down for sleep. Wearing just boxer shorts and a tee shirt, she simply didn't feel all that attractive. Although she felt comfortable, and that was what was important. For a while, she just lay against Squall's chest, experiencing every heartbeat and the echo each made throughout his body. Truly, it was a wonder, she could literally hear life around her, and never was it more precious. In all her life, she had never slept so close to anyone, the feeling completely foreign… yet far from unwelcome.

His fingers had gently played with her hair, each one sending a small sensation down her spine. Nevertheless, they lay there… silent. Gradually his breathing became deeper and more rhythmic, and she could feel his body slowly succumbing to the needed slumber. Every twitch, every move he made subconsciously she could feel. Finally, his fingers stopped twirling strands of her hair as he slipped into his dreams.

Silently Rinoa lay, unable to join him in the realm of much needed sleep. The room had a sound of its own, from the fans running, to the constant air conditioner that blew the cold air, which so contrasted with the heat of August. The alarm itself made a steady humming noise that only one who was truly hearing could heed its call. Occasionally she could hear the footsteps of a stray student, or guest, passing through the hallway. Some she was sure who were breaking curfew, on their way to the secret area no doubt.

The secret area… the thought brought back some of the greatest, and worst memories. It was there that she had told him her true feelings, how she honestly felt. But that was over a year ago and the words fell on deaf ears. She knew now, it's truly easier for her to say the words than to mean them. And that was because no matter whom she said them to in her youth, they never rang true until now.

It was also the secret area… where she felt her greatest regret, beside from the entire misunderstanding she had just faced. On one haunting evening, she laid her feelings on the line. He figuratively walked away, and then physically walked away. The retreat wasn't direct at first that wasn't his style. Maybe he would have a few years before her, but even he had grown since Ultimecia, if even by a little… He just looked at her. Scared. While her words were not exact… not an all out "I love you," they meant the same and he knew it. Not only was he not ready to reciprocate the words, he wasn't able to fathom the notion. So he walked up to her, placed a hand on her shoulder and said, "Rinoa, I can't…"

She didn't need any more than that simple statement. She turned her back to him, much as she had done this evening on the balcony. But when she turned around… he was gone. Neither of them talked about it again. That happened three weeks before Lauren, for so long in her mind she figured why he didn't return her feelings. Never once were her assumptions correct.

He did love her. He just didn't know how.

Maybe now the words rang true for both of them. They needed to live, to learn, before they could truly love. Both scared, both never knowing. It was in that moment, he shifted in his sleep, placing one arm around her while lying on his side. It was as if the position was as natural to him as breathing. But, he had never slept with another person, and that only deepened the meaning of the comfort they shared.

All of her thinking, although at the moment not so brilliant, made her thirsty. She wanted to get out of bed and get a glass of water. Simple, right? Rinoa never thought about such ordinary tasks before, while staying at Garden. She didn't want to disturb Squall from his slumber, and figuring this would be only slightly difficult, she moved his arm from her waist. Whoever said getting a glass of water was brain surgery? If she took a slow pace, and tried to remember where things were… plus she had the aid of Angelo. Water would be easy, right?

Arriving in the small bathroom was the simple part. Even finding the glass sitting on the edge of the sink proved not too difficult. Angelo stood faithfully by her side, as if protecting her from the greatest of enemies. But right now, the only enemy was only her ability to have faith in herself. As she turned the faucet on, Rinoa suddenly heard a bug fly by her face. On instinct alone, she turned to swat the infuriating creature, thus causing her free hand to knock down the tumbler. The sound of breaking glass, hitting the tiled floor, echoed throughout the almost barren dormitory

"Rinoa are you all right?" The concerned knight sprang out of bed, rushing toward the sound.

"Um, yeah… I justI just…"

A thought crossed her mind at the speed of lightening, "Squall Leonhart is the Commander, the leader of SeeD. He's now doing the same work my maid would do for me back in Deling. He can't spend his career taking care of the blind girl. Damn it, he can't concentrate fully on his duties while I am around."

The words pained her to say, but they rang true in her mind, "Squall, I can't do this to you."

"It's all right Rin. I never really liked that glass anyway."

"Stop!" She put her hand out to impede the advance Squall was making. "That's not at all what I meant. You, Squall Leonhart, have been given the responsibility of hundreds of lives. You are accountable for their safety, security, and their welfare. How safe are they going to be if you have to concentrate all your efforts on your stupid girlfriend who can't fix a damn glass of water?"

"They are trained to take care of themselves. I'll take care of you."

"You'll take care of me? I should be able to do that myself, and if I can't… I shouldn't be in a situation where I could cause harm to you, our friends, or other innocents here. Please Squall, look at the entire situation, not just what 'we' want. Be honest with me and yourself."

He ran his right hand through his matted locks, trying to find the best words for her. He wondered if anything he could say would make a difference, or if she were already gone. And he knew one thing, if she left, so would he. "Yes Rinoa, it scares me. You know how I feel having to depend on others or them depending on me. The first night after I found out that you had lost your vision, I spent most of that night just thinking. Continuing to go after you… I knew what the outcome could be, what the Hell I wanted it to be. Don't think I'd come this far… and not have gone over every possible scenario a thousand times. Remember, I plan battle strategies for a living."

Taking a few steps closer, he reached out his left hand. Gently, silently, he grabbed slender wrist, and then entwined their fingers together. At first, she seemed hesitant, but shortly gave in. "But Rin how much better off are the people of Garden, if I don't give a shit? Is that the headstrong leader you want in command? I know how goddamned hard this is going to be. You'll always be my first thought, but damn it… you always were. It doesn't matter if you have your sight or not. When it comes to you, I've always been irresponsible: jumping in space, walking to Esthar, or not coming after you the day you left me. Rinoa I love you, guess the question is… do you want me to?"

"Yes Squall," her voice barely a whisper. She played with his fingers, feeling the contrast between the textures of the two skins. "It's just... so much." She let his hand go gently, lowering her arms to her sides. Cautiously, Rinoa backed herself a few steps into the bathroom corner, tears escaping her brown eyes. She took a moment to collect her thoughts, gradually raising her head. Squall could almost swear, even though she couldn't physically see, she saw deep into his being at that very moment.

Tentatively, yet with a newfound confidence, she simply stated, "I... I need help getting a glass of water."

To anybody else, it was a straightforward declaration. Squall took it, not for face value, but for what it was really worth. Rinoa was not truthfully asking for a glass of water, but help. The assistance she denied for so long. Not just aid with this meaningless task, but help for the rest of their lives.

His heart genuinely smiled at her, "I will help with a glass of water today, tomorrow, forever."

"I know you will," she countered with lips forming the hint of a smile.

Walking toward her, he carefully took her in his muscular arms, carrying her back to the bed. "Squall, please don't leave me." She almost sounded like she was begging, and maybe she was in her own way.

"I'm not leaving you Rin, just going to clean up the broken glass."

"No, don't leave me… please."

Squall looked at her pleading expression, into her soul. Even though she could not see him, an emotional exchange took place without sight, without words. He, at that moment, realized it was not a request. It was an invitation to something more… simply stated, simple, just like him.

He carefully placed his body on top of her, beginning where they had left off earlier. Together they removed material barriers, as Rinoa explored his body with her hands feeling every scar and every wound. It was her way of 'seeing.' With every touch, she memorized his physical being. They never looked behind from that moment, and not once did Squall consider backing down. He let natural instinct take over, where once logic only ruled. With tender care, with awareness, he began taking off the final garments. The ones that bound them. This was right, they were right.

The sounds of seagulls flying over the peaceful ocean woke Rinoa from her daydream about the previous night. So many things had changed, yet her knight was right there, lying next to her. Her mind drifted to the book her mother purchased that ill-fated night. Her life really did reflect that story, if one would look for the parallels in 'Castles in the Sky.' Only she had stopped searching years before the heroine in the book. She was only twenty now, but had lived a lifetime. Silently she closed her eyes tight, thinking how happy her mother would be. Rinoa had, in fact, found true and eternal love. Something that Julia had never managed to do. "I love you mother," she whispered as a single tear rolled down her cheek.

Next to her, the sleeping form started to stir. Rinoa did feel a bit guilty from waking him from the much-needed rest, yet a larger part of her couldn't wait to hear his voice again. "Squall, it's about eight, do you need to go work soon?"

Squall stretched his arms, waking from the perfect night before. He turned on his side toward her, and gently put his arm under her bare back. Rolling over, she placed her head against his chest, once again feeling the reverberations of his heartbeat. This was going to be her new favorite pastime.

"Are you trying to get rid of me, already? I figured it would be at least twenty years or so before you felt that way."

Playfully she slapped him on the forearm, "Squall! I could never feel that way, and you know that's not what I meant."

"I know Rin, just good to wake up with you." He paused to kiss her forehead. "But no, I don't have to go in. Cid is taking care of business today. Sometimes I don't understand that man."

"That man, let's try all men," she giggled. "Still don't understand what you were ever doing at the ballet. Or umm... that comment from Maude McCay about you being a good kisser."

He hid his face in her hair, trying play up the bashfulness. "Damn, hoping that one slid by you."

"Normally, I would be jealous if anyone told me you were a 'good kisser.' Now I'm just scared."

He buried his face deeper into her dark hair, tightly pulling Rinoa closer to him. His answer came back in a frightened child-like voice. "Rinny, it was so horrifying, worse than Ultimecia. She wanted me, I even saw her...well most of her cleavage."

"Squall, for the first time, you made me glad I can't see."

"No, it was worse than that... She kissed me. I even felt a little... tongue." He now held Rinoa even tighter, and in return, she could do nothing but laugh out loud. "I needed to find out about you, so a little undercover work was needed. No pun intended. I went to her house and told her that Irvine was interested in you and-"

"Irvine? Why in the world would you tell her that Irvine liked me? First, you're kissing seventy-year-old women, and then you're setting me up with Irvine? Have you lost your mind Mr. Leonhart?"

"No, Rinoa… I lost you… and well, I couldn't tell her I was the one in love with you. She wanted me for herself, and you know what a stud I am. Couldn't hurt her feelings, didn't want to crush her dreams like that."

"I'm going to be sick." She managed to mumble between laughs.

"And Rinoa, how many times do I have to tell you… do not call me Mr. Leonhart?"

"I'm sorry, I forgot... Commander Leonhart."

"That's it young lady!" He rolled on top of her and pinning both of her hands above her head. "Now you're in for it..." He lowered his face to her neck and started kissing her lightly.

"Wow, I'm sooo frightened. Is this how all SeeD punishments go, Mr. Leonhart, Mr. Commander, Sir." Rinoa said still chuckling from the previous exchange.

"Only yours, only to cadets or civilians that I'm in love with. And the list starts and ends with you." He gently kissed her lips until all her laughter had subsided. Then it grew into a more passionate fervor, as he began kissing her deeper. For the second time, they shared their souls, along with their bodies.

Rinoa mused to herself, "Home-run! Least I don't have to ask Irvine about bases later..."

The group had congregated in Zell's dorm room. Although it was no bigger than anyone else's, save the commander's. It somehow had a unique, inviting feel only he could offer. Maybe it was the black lights and the small disco ball that hung in the corner… or the simple fact that he had furniture. Selphie and Lauren lay on their backs, counting the little plastic glow-in-the-dark stars placed on the ceiling. Quistis and Irvine were fighting over the rules of triple triad, and Zell sat on his bed with his pet ferret close to him.

"Zell, why in the hell do you keep that ugly thing?" Irvine piped up.

"Maybe for the same reason Selphie keeps you."

A huge smile then illuminated Irvine's face. Zell immediately realized where the cowboy's 'gutter brain' went, along with everyone else's. "Ah... wait a minute, that didn't come out right! You know what I mean." Everyone was laughing at the now infuriated martial artist's comment, laughing even more at the way he was trying to get out of it. "That's not what I meant guys! I mean because it was ugly like Irvine... not for any other reasons, you perverts."

Selphie sat up and looked eye to eye with the ferret. Little beady eyes stared back at her. "I think it's kind of cute. But what's the difference between a weasel and a ferret?"

Irvine couldn't help himself, "The weasel owns the ferret. The only difference physically I can think of…. is about five foot three."

Quistis could tell Zell was getting very livid; because that is, in fact, what Zell does. Irvine on the other hand, gets Zell mad… that is what Irvine does. According to instructor Trepe, they both still do it very well. Two years and a lifetime of this, Quistis still felt like she was officiating the Galbadian national wrestling team with these two.

"First Seifer and Squall, now these two? Will it ever end? Do I really want it to?" Therefore, in her best big-sister voice she announced, "Boys don't make me get out the record albums...anymore from either of you and it will be five hours of Copacabana."

"Yes Ma'am!" They both shouted out in unison.

Morning had come and gone, just as it does on any other day. It was nearly two in the afternoon now, and Garden was almost desolate. The cadets were taking a traditional survival camping trip lead by the SeeD candidates. Cid had agreed to accompany them this year, something he rarely did. In fact, the only other known time was the year that both Squall and Seifer were cadets… Therefore, this left just the instructors and actual SeeDs having a day off.

Lauren spoke up, "Has anyone heard from Squall or Rinoa today?"

"Only the people on either side of his room I bet," Irvine said as Quistis swiftly elbowed him in the stomach. "Gee... I'm saying that in a good way Instructor… a real good way."

Before another comment was made, there was a knock on the door. Selphie walked over and opened it to a serious looking Squall and a smiling Rinoa.

"Hey guys, just talking about you," said Irvine with a wave to the commander.

Squall shook his head and only said, "I'm sure you were." He effortlessly guided her across obstacles, no matter if they were furniture, people or weasel. Quistis thought it looked like they had been doing this for years. Angelo followed very close to Rinoa, acting as a guard dog on duty. The instructor guessed in a way, the canine was. The couple continued walking into the room, and both sat down on the couch.

Holding on to his rodent friend, Zell innocently asked, "Hey, Rinoa did you sleep all right last night?" Again, everyone in the room started laughing, apart from Squall. The commander now found great interest in the unruly 'fluff' around his collar, no doubt trying to hide his eyes from everyone else. Even Rinoa stared chuckling and turning a slight shade of crimson, hiding her face in Squall's chest.

Standing up, the blond man yelled, "You people are crazy. I just asked an innocent question and you turn it all around. When did everybody become Irvine?"

Squall looked at Zell and simply retorted, "I'd say when they hit puberty many years ago... Let us know when you get there."

He was now turning red with anger, "Et tu, Leonhart?"

"Well, if you can't beat them, join them," Squall stated. In a moment of sudden playfulness, he reached over to Rinoa and kissed her deeply, not caring who was watching. Everybody in the room knew Squall had changed; this was the man only a week ago was as depressing as ever… really depressing. Now he was different.

Quistis sat at her table, and thought of how much was taken from him at an early age. This was the person was the man Squall should have always been. She for one welcomed the change with open arms. "Although, darn it." She couldn't help thinking, "How could those two possibly breathe right now?"

Still surprised at his own uncharacteristic actions, Squall was taken aback. He didn't care who was watching or what they thinking. He only thought of Rinoa, of that moment. "She is really here, in my arms, and..."

"…Ahhggg," Squall was suddenly thrown out of the moment by a stabbing pain in his hand.

"What's wrong Squall?" Rinoa looked up at him in complete concern of his pain.

"George," he managed to spit out.


"George, the stupid killer ferret."

"Killer what?" Rinoa's concern gave way to amusement.

"Zell's – dumb ass- ferret. Who hates me."

"Hate's you? Is that why he is dumb?"

"Yes, right now the little fiend is hanging on my left hand drawing blood."

Rinoa now was in full-blown laughter, "Let me get this straight… Zell has a 'dumb-ass' ferret that hates you. So, right now 'George the killer ferret' is hanging on your hand… With his teeth deeply impaled into your flesh. My question is… why on earth is he still there?"

"I'm trying to get the little weasel off."

"Ferret," Zell corrected, as he removed the furry creature from Squall's hand. "George doesn't like Squall. Tried to get him to dislike Irvine, but only hates Squall. I guess he has issues with belts."

Squall held his sore, slightly bloody hand as Rinoa gently snuggled up next to him. The commander looked down to Angelo and pointed to George. "Go get it… dog food… kill, attack, whatever you do." The dog just stared blankly at him back at him.

Before Zell could say another word, there was a knock.

Selphie jumped over to the door, wondering who else it could be, as everyone they basically knew was crammed into the small room. She looked through the door and saw Cid standing there with someone.

"Oh no! ...Holy Hyne!" Selphie turned to her friends with a look of utter disgust, "Zell… door… you!" She ran to the back of the room, and jumped on the bed hiding behind her boyfriend, wishing that his cowboy hat were tall enough to block her from sight.

"What Selphie? What could possible be that scary...?" Zell opened the door wide. He answered his own question out loud, "Maude… Maude McCay."

There stood the elderly woman in an emerald-green pantsuit. "With, oh my," Squall thought, "spaghetti straps and a push up bra, here come the memories back… all bad." Her silver hair was slicked back against her head, leading into a tight bun. Showing off the three, no maybe four, face lifts performed over the last hundred years. The traditional fire engine red lipstick covered most of her lips and part of her face...

Diplomacy and duty took over apprehension; Squall stood up and walked over to the door.

"Cid, what do I owe the honor of the visit of the lovely Maude McCay?" said the trained professional, as he took her hand and kissed it lightly.

Rinoa turned her head, after everything Squall had told her this morning this must be killing him. Yet, at the same time, she knew he was doing this act for her benefit, well at least her amusement. "Damn he had changed."

Cid too was more than a little bewildered, but like the rest of the group was entirely entertained. He mentally thought of giving Squall a raise for his untapped potential and acting skills. Maude was one of Edea's friends, not his. Not his at all. In fact, on two separate occasions he remembered Maude making a pass at him. Poor Squall. Good thing he had Rinoa now to comfort him during his tragic time of need. Cid returned his mind to the scene around him, excused himself, and headed up to tell Edea of the amusing sight.

Maude took a step closer to Squall, invading what little personal space she still allowed him. "Heya handsome," Maude began. "I just wanted to thank you again for all the help back in Deling. I was passing through the neighborhood, wanted to drop by this lovely present for you. Also, have something for Irvine, Lauren, and sweet little Zell. I still can't wait till he 'paints' my bedroom."

"Uh... huh..." Were the only sounds that could escape the commander's lips. Maude grabbed on to Squall's arm and pulled him closer to her. In fact, if he looked down… there would be more therapy needed.

"Still wish you were the one painting my room, gunblade boy - sure you don't want to? I'll triple the pay." She pinched Squall's butt, the fear in his eyes was priceless. Selphie was quietly relaying the unfolding physical events to Rinoa. Who right now had her head turned, hiding her bouts with hysterics.

"Squall, I'm sure you have never had a woman help you paint… with my experience. It's a once-in-a-life-time offer, big boy."

"Sorry, Maude. But, I already have a girlfriend who... um needs me to paint... no, who I love very much."

"Squally don't lie to me. Last week you didn't have a girlfriend. People don't fall into love that quick." Maude replied eyeing Squall top to bottom, and unfortunately for him stopping in the middle. "Lust maybe, love no."

Feeling nauseated to his stomach, Irvine knew Maude's type. Well, hell he was her type – sixty-years into the future and of the female species. Thank God Selphie came along. There was only one way he could possibly see an escape for his poor friend, with the added bonus of having a little fun at Squall's expense.

Irvine walked up and put his arm around the commander. "Maude... Squall's with me."

The lady looked confused, "With you?"

"Yes," Irvine took a step closer to Squall, "With Me."

"With you, what do you mean, with you? You're a guy and he's... Oh, really! I'm sorry Squall why didn't you tell me?"

Not really sure how to react - or what was possibly worse Irvine or Maude – he quickly figured it in his head, and came to the distressing conclusion that Irvine was better, if only by a little. "Um… I don't know Maude. Sometimes these things surprise you, very quickly. I mean really surprise you. Hell, trust me on this one, it also surprised me."

The four girls where now sitting on the couch trying to find strength together, they were failing miserably. Selphie had a couch pillow over her face trying to regain her self-control, watching her boss and her boyfriend in such a unique situation. Irvine turned to the martial artist, "Zell here though, said he would love to go with you right now. Make sure you get back to the train station all right."

"What a sweet little boy," Maude reached over and felt Zell's biceps. "Wow, you must work out." He was so taken back with the moment; he didn't feel Irvine pushing him out the door, until it slammed behind him.

"Hey, Zell… I want to stop and get a bite to eat at the train station. Do you happen to like hot dogs?"

"Maude…hot dogs…Maude…hot dogs…damn it," the inner voice cried in his head. Until, alas, he could only say one thing to her. "You're buying, right?"

Quickly, Squall threw Irvine's arm off him. He stood for a moment, in complete horror and shock, before returning to the couch sitting quietly next to his hysterical girlfriend. Rinoa put her arms around him again, "Why didn't you tell me? Irvine, though, is he really your type?"

"Please," Irvine commented, "I just lowered my standards."

Lauren looked over at Irvine, "When did you have standards? Did I miss something here?"

"Oh my Squall," interjected Quistis. "I didn't know that there were that many shades of red." The commander, again, quickly started taking note of how fascinating his fluffy collar was, trying to completely block the sound of everyone's laughter.

Taking her right hand, Rinoa slowly slid it up Squall's cheek. He felt his body tremble just by the soft motion. He leaned down to her as she still touched his face with her fingertips. As he rested his head against her shoulder, she closed her arms around his neck, bringing him back into a tight embrace. And just like that, the troubles went away, if only for a minute in time. She whispered softly in his ear, "Hey you, love ya." Again he didn't answer her with words, just finished the kiss that was so rudely interrupted earlier.

An hour or so went by with the gang still hanging out in Zell's room. Quistis and Lauren were now at the table trying their hand at Triple Triad. Squall sat on the couch attempting to watch the local news on television, as Rinoa lay in his lap. Irvine had gained complete control of the remote. During station breaks of Squall's boring news program, he was flipping checking out commercials announcing either 'real' or 'fake' with every women's chest that appeared on the screen; only to be whacked by Selphie with a pillow at every comment.

The door flew open, and standing silhouetted in the middle, like a bad horror movie, was Zell. Squall almost thought of getting up and protecting Irvine from the anger that was Zell, but then again... He had put Squall in a really embarrassing situation a few days back. More importantly, it would be more entertaining than the nightly news. Everyone just stared at him not knowing what to say. Finally, Lauren looked over at him giving him a wink, "Well?"

Shutting the door behind him, the martial artist scratched his head with a confused look adorning his face. "Gee... you know. Once you get to know her, she is, somewhat nice. Maude really wasn't like that, at all, once we got in the car… and the six hot dogs she bought me. She did want to know how everyone liked their presents."

"Still there, didn't want to have all the fun without you, cabana boy."

Shooting the cowboy a malevolent glare, Zell walked over to the area where the gifts lay. Like a kid on his birthday, he ripped open the wrapping paper. A cry of delight sounded from the energetic martial artist, "Oh man, it's the 'Pross-O-Matic 9000,' what I have always wanted."

The others, save for Squall, opened theirs and found they were identical gifts to Zell's. Rinoa and Irvine couldn't help but laugh at the irony of the entire situation.

"Hey commander," Zell shouted across the small room. "Are you going to open yours? I know it's not the same thing, different box and all. Plus, Maude told me what it really is."

Squall was slightly curious of what Maude McCay would buy him. He sure wasn't the food processor type, even Maude could see that. He slowly opened the box, which was large and flat, he was guessing it was some kind of artwork. "If this is a picture of dogs playing poker - well Zell can have a complete set of tacky art. Oh this better not be a nude self-portrait of Maude." Dear God almighty, he felt sick at the mere thought. What he saw under the wrapping paper truly surprised him, on the corner was attached a simple note.

"To the boy who I hope finds what he's searching for. For the man who can appreciate the beauty in house cats and ballet."

"What is it?" asked Selphie with childlike curiosity.

Squall turned the picture around for everyone to see; it was a picture of Rinoa during a performance in Deling. Only it was turned into an oil painting, it was simply beautiful. Decorated with a gold frame, she wore the same white dress from the performance the night he first saw her, again.

Zell smiled at his friend "I knew you would like it."

Squall shook his head and almost smiled. "Was I that obvious to Maude? I really couldn't hide my feelings well. She knew, damn her, she knew." The thoughts circled his mind. It was all he could think at that moment. Looking towards Rinoa, he saw that she was wearing a confused look from not understanding everything going on. Walking over to her, Squall gently grabbed her hand and pulled her up toward him. "Let's go home."

Rinoa only smiled, "Home. Garden is my home." She was back.

The others stood silently, as the two exited the room.

"I love happy endings." Selphie leaned on Irvine's shoulder.

"Selph," Quistis replied, "Let's not think of this as an ending. It's going to be hard for them, very hard, but I know they'll make it."

Zell stood still staring at his new toy, "I would place money on that…. Guys, not to change the topic, but want to make a really fun salad?"

Looking at her eager friend, Selphie ran to his small refrigerator, "I so get to make the rose radishes."

He raced over, starting to fight Selphie for the ingredients. Lauren stood stunned watching the two, as Irvine walked over to Quistis and put his arm around her shoulder.

"Funny, Quistis, the more things change, the more they stay the same," pointing to the two offenders at the fridge. "But, I never want them to stop being themselves."

Quistis smiled and looked toward the open window. For the first time tonight, she noticed the beautiful sunset.

And all the colors within.

Together, Rinoa and Squall walked back to his room, without a word exchanged between them. In one hand, he held the ornate framed painting, and in the other, he held the beauty from the painting. He opened the door with his keycard and Rinoa walked in slightly before him. She made the motion of looking around; to her it was not looking, but feeling her surroundings. She took a deep breath and whispered, "Home." It sounded more the question, than a statement. It wasn't meant to sound that way.

Squall closed the door, setting the portrait down. He had noticed the faltering in her voice. It was a question, even if she hadn't known it. He knew it. One Squall knew would need to be clarified right away. He captured her fingertips with his, and guided her to the small balcony yet again. Ironic how most of his life altering events took place on a balcony. As he opened the sliding glass doors before them, she felt completely lost in the simple rapture of being in his company. Rinoa, as the night before, held firmly onto the smooth metal railing. Squall moved behind her, wrapping his arms around her waist. "Home forever…if you want it to be, our home."

She smiled across at the vast open fields that lay in front of her. "The sunsets were always more beautiful in Balamb." She stopped smiling, as he started tracing kisses between her shoulder blade and neck.

Rinoa turned toward her lover, quickly, almost colliding heads. Fortunately, his quick reflexes kicked in, thanks to the years of training. It dawned on her what he had asked, and she had missed the first time. She wasn't sure if she was reading the meaning right, "Am I hoping that is what he meant? Of course, I want that… nothing would make me happier. Or am I completely off base on this one?" At one point, she would have known, over the last year she wasn't so sure. He was a different person now. "Squall... 'our' home?"

He leaned down and kissed her forehead, "I'm never losing you again." He wrapped his arms tightly around her waist, as he let them lay upon her lower back. He pulled her as close as possible, their bodies now touching. Again, he leaned down to her beautiful face. Now they were standing nose-to-nose, "I promise never to call you Mrs. Leonhart, if we fight."

"Well then, what fun would that be, Mr. Leonhart?" He closed the centimeters between them and kissed her. Not the same tentative one from two years ago, now one that reflected his feelings. The ones he always had, but was too blind to see, or too proud to give into. He could never get tired of this feeling, this euphoria deep within his body. He broke the kiss slowly, "Well?"

"Yes, I will. Squall Leonhart, I'm home." The two lovers held each other, watching the sun lower into the distant horizon.

Not with their eyes, but with their hearts.

The room was dark, yet Squall could not sleep. The recent events had him on a high, which no drug or alcohol could ever compare to. In the moonlight, he watched the silhouette of Rinoa, his Rinny, lying soundly, safely next to him. Each breath she took he cherished like gold, each breath gave him another chance at life. He would just watch her; scrutinize the way her hair laid on the silken pillow, the way her fingers found their way around his arm. The fact that she could not see wasn't important, it never was. She saw through him way before he saw through himself. She didn't need her eyes, when she had her heart. No matter what challenges they faced, they would always be together.

And never would he take pity upon her.

After tossing and turning for a few hours, he decided to read something. It had been a habit he had since before he could remember, but usually it would be textbooks, important memos, or reports. But the act usually helped him to fall asleep. Not wanting to disturb Rinoa from her desperately needed slumber, he decided not to turn on the light. Although, even he comprehended, the point was moot. He remembered the books he had purchased less than a week ago back in Deling. The only one he had examined before dealt with the basics of Braille. He had never even looked at anything past that. Although he knew he had purchased several, the others on the clerk's recommendations.

Squall reached slowly into his nightstand, as not to wake her. The first book he managed to touch he grabbed, not knowing which it was. He closed his eyes and cleared his mind, trying to remember everything he had been taught over the last few days. He rubbed his rough fingers across the first pages of the book. Slowly he felt every indentation, every rise in the page.

For the first time he understood the symbols, just as he understood the beauty of life around him.

For a moment, Squall Leonhart felt paralyzed. He really understood. Curious how something so trivial was only comparable to his greatest professional accomplishment, that of becoming a SeeD. Not his personal achievements, that was Rinoa, and there were no comparisons. But could he have just read what he thought? A smile appeared on his lips and a small chuckle escaped in the moonlit covered dorm... He had. He sat back against the headboard in the silent room and started reading the formerly unknown book...

"Castles in the Sky...Chapter 1"




Additional Information: 3/31/13: Wow, here's something I never thought I'd be doing again - another note for this story - but there are two very important pieces of information I needed to share.

First, sometimes you do something unexpected...that's what happened after a fandom meet-up back in February '13 with Emerald Latias and Optical Goddess. We were talking about stories and I'd mentioned that I once wrote a short follow-up for this fic. However, it was never posted, lost with a hard-drive failure. Well, one thing led to another, and I decided to revisit the idea. Both versions were called "Sandcastles" However, the original one took place two years after this story. Now that twelve years has past in 'real-time' - I wanted it to be identical for the characters. Because of that, I added a chapter that's mainly history, bringing you up-to-date in the character's lives. The second is the slightly altered version of what the original was. The premise is exactly the same, just a few alterations about the timing of the events.

I hope that for those of you who want to know what happened, the good and bad, you read the story. The follow-up is located at my secondary-account for short stories in FFVIII and a few other fandoms; again, the story is called "Sandcastles" - s/9070366/1/Sandcastles If this link doesn't work, I will place it my bio. Also, there is no character death for those who wanted to know. I promise you I wasn't that mean. (Spoiler: however, I was mean enough to give Selphie three boys that were all born within three years of each other. Hehe. I'm teh ebil):D

Second, I want to thank Sheila Knight for the amazing pictures/cover art. She cos-plays Rinoa and is an accomplished ballerina, even better yet, she's on Pointe. So, she took photographs for me. I have a few that I'll try to rotate, but for the most part you'll see the dress from the Graduation Ball, her traditional blue duster, ballroom shoes, Pointe shoes, and her rings - I'll use the opposite one on Sandcastles.

Original Arthur's notes: 9/05/01 Hurray it's done! Thanks to everyone out there who actually took time to read this. I really do appreciate it. In the end, I wanted not to give Rinoa her sight back, although I know most of you would have liked it. I guess I thought the basis of the story was them growing, and having her regain her sight would go against everything they learned. I just wanted to thank you, for all have been e-mailing me and contacting me through the last few months. But I really did get it done!

New Author Notes: 9/07/02 Well, here I am one year later. It was in September of 2001 that I originally finished this story, and it is only fitting a year later I do the same with the rewritten version. In this year, so much has changed. Us as people, us as a nation, and us as the world. Nobody could have predicted the events of the year, nor could we have imagined what impact they would have. I have become friends with so many, not only in this country, but also in so many others. When all is said and done, we all have remained true to who we were, banding together, and showed the world together people shared the love of one video game. I know that sounds juvenile, I suppose. However, the ideals in that game remain the most basic: fate, triumph over adversity, and true love. Something that every one of us seeks, and together if only for a few hours, we can find that release. I also wanted to thank the movie "Ice Castles" for basic inspiration. It was out when I was a child in the 70s. I never saw it; I found out later it was about an ice skater who lost her sight. She wanted to continue without anyone but her partner knowing the truth. My husband (then boyfriend) bought me a musical teddy bear with the theme from Ice Castles, so I asked my mother later about the movie.

There are so many people to thank for this, and I'm sure I will miss many. First and foremost Nicole (Wayward Tempest and/or Kupo22) who sat with me through this entire rewrite and so much more. She knows this story better than I do, as I don't read anything I write… strange but true. She has been a great editor and friend, and someone to yell at me when I needed it, or to lend a shoulder to cry on when I wasn't doing well. Bob, I thank you too… nobody I know can sit through these chapters three times each, determined to find errors, and still say they enjoy the story… to you I thank you. Vick330, the last person forced to check this… I thank you also. You were one of the first people to ever write me, and I was shocked that anyone was reading… or cared. Finally, I want to thank Larathia for not only encouraging me to write, but to write better. It's one thing to write a story - it's another to strive to improve.

In closing, I want to thank each of you. You have all given me faith and encouragement. I hope that for a little while, I was able to entertain you for a few short moments between facing real life. We all are searching for something, and my only wish is that you find it along the way. No matter how big or how small, I wish that you carry a little bit of hope within your hearts.

For now, forever… I thank you.

Kristine (Ashbear)