"You could try to look a little less grouchy," Rinoa told Squall quietly as the two of them waited for the elevator. "They're only trying to show you how much they appreciate you."
Squall glowered at the elevator doors, willing them to open. He knew, at least in his head, that most of the SeeDs and SeeD cadets and Garden staff going about their business around them weren't paying him any attention - that most of the looks sent their way were admiring ones for Rinoa, beautiful in a white dress that reminded him a little of the dance floor during the SeeD graduation ball and the concert in Fisherman's Horizon half a lifetime ago. It didn't help. He still felt conspicuous.
"I know you don't like being the center of attention," Rinoa went on when he didn't say anything. "But it's just your team - Quistis and Zell and Selphie and Irvine, plus Xu and Nida. It's not going to be some big deal. It's your birthday. If your friends want to celebrate the fact that you exist, that's a good thing, right?"
When the elevator doors slid open, he strode quickly inside. Rinoa followed, and pushed the button for the third floor while Squall leaned against the back of the elevator and crossed his arms over his chest.
"I know that," he said in a low voice as the doors slid shut again and the elevator started upwards. "I just don't really feel up to it right now."
"Hey," she said, smiling at him across the elevator, "at least give us the chance to lighten your mood. Everyone just wants to do something nice for you. It's just us - Selphie wanted to plan a big bash, but she knew you'd hate it."
She'd probably meant it to be reassuring. It wasn't. Squall lifted a hand to his face, pressing his fingers to the scar between his eyes.
"Sourpuss," Rinoa accused affectionately, and was about to say something else when the elevator lurched to an unexpected stop and the lights went out.
In the pitch-dark, her tiny, "...oops?" sounded very loud.
The emergency lights flickered on a moment later. In their dim illumination, Rinoa turned to prod the controls. "It's not responding."
Breath hissing through his teeth, Squall pushed away from the side of the elevator to check the panel himself, with no better results. "Great." Scowling, he turned to eye the maintenance hatch in the floor. "I guess we can climb down to the last floor."
"Not in this dress, I can't."
He paused, looking back towards Rinoa, and took a moment to consider the short, narrow skirt of her dress, trying to imagine what problem it might pose on the ladder down the elevator shaft. ...Oh. Feeling his face getting warm, he hastily banished the mental image. "...you'll have to wait here while I climb down. You should be fine until we can get it moving again."
Rinoa didn't answer him. When he looked back up to her face, he found her trying - and failing - to hide a smile behind her hand.
He could feel his face getting hotter. "...what?"
She gave up trying to hide it and just grinned at him. "Listen to you. A minute ago you were probably hoping a war would break out and give you an escape. You should be happy for the break."
"In case you hadn't noticed," Squall said dryly, "we're stuck in a stopped elevator. This is not a break."
"Why not? I think it's kind of cozy." At Squall's dubious look, Rinoa's smile only got brighter. Clasping her hands behind her back, she took a step away from him, and then another, circling aimlessly around the confines of the elevator. "Just the two of us, all by ourselves... no paperwork, no monsters, no curious cadets or well-meaning friends... no interruptions..."
Squall backed up against the wall beside the control panel to keep Rinoa in his line of sight. He wasn't sure where this mood of hers was coming from, but he was sure it was making him nervous. "Uh, Rinoa..."
"I'm sure someone will notice soon that the elevator stopped." She was wearing perfume, Squall realized as she circled back towards him with the slow, deliberate steps of a cat stalking a butterfly - a clean, sweet fragrance like flowers in a sunlit field. "But you know... it could be a while before they get it working again." He couldn't look away from her face, from the secretive way her eyes lidded until she was watching him through her lashes. "We might as well enjoy the time out."
He didn't trust himself to speak, so he didn't say anything, just pressed himself back against the smooth side of the elevator and tried to make his heart quit pounding against his breastbone as though he were in the middle of a battle - there were no enemies here, just Rinoa, and she was close enough to touch now so he flattened his hands against the wall to either side of him.
When she slid her arms around his neck, pressing up close against him and smiling up at him like she knew something he didn't, for a moment he forgot how to breathe.
Laughter quivered distractingly through her. "You're so cute when you're blushing like this."
He'd meant to push her away - he was sure he'd only reached for her to push her away - but when his hands closed around her waist they rested there lightly and he thought he could almost feel the warmth of her skin through the fabric of her dress and the worn leather of his gloves.
Looking very pleased with herself, Rinoa stood up on her toes until her face was only a few inches from his. "I bet I can put you in a better mood..."
"I can't believe he ditched us," Quistis complained, giving the empty chair behind Squall's desk the stern look of a disappointed teacher.
From one of the seats in front of the desk, Xu watched her fret. "You don't know that he ditched us," she pointed out diplomatically.
"Oh, yes I do." Quistis' annoyed look turned towards her friend. "He was supposed to be here half an hour ago. If he were going to show up, he would have by now. Squall doesn't do fashionably late. He ditched us."
"Maybe something happened," Xu suggested.
Quistis blew out an exasperated breath. "He probably just decided he didn't feel like playing along and he's hiding in the training center or something." But the irritation in her expression was already shading into a frown of concern, and after only a moment she turned toward the door. "I'm going to go down and find him."
"I could call him on the intercom," Nida offered, as Xu got up from her seat.
"No thanks." Quistis shook her head. "We don't need the whole Garden knowing we've managed to misplace the commander."
With Xu behind her, Quistis stepped out of Squall's office and made her way to where Zell, Selphie and Irvine were clustered around the elevator, talking amongst themselves in conspiratorial murmurs and laughing behind their hands as though at some joke.
"Have you guys heard from Squall or Rinoa?" Quistis asked when they looked up, and was answered by a trio of headshakes, and a shrug from Zell.
"Not yet," he said, not seeming much bothered. "They're probably on their way up."
"Rinoa said she'd have him here by nineteen hundred." Quistis' tone was sharp enough to have Zell's eyebrows lifting. "I'm going down to find him."
"Aw," Irvine drawled, his back leaned casually against the elevator doors, "there's no need for that."
Selphie's head bobbed in cheerful agreement. "Yeah, they probably just got sidetracked."
"Squall doesn't get sidetracked," Quistis countered. "Would you please move so I can use the elevator?"
Nobody moved, and as Quistis looked from one bright, ingenuous smile to the next her eyes narrowed suspiciously. "Okay," she said, in her best instructor voice, "who wants to tell me what's going on?"
"Nothing!" Selphie protested, wide-eyed. "There's nothing going on."
"It's just maybe Squall and Rinoa shouldn't be disturbed right now, you know?" Irvine's voice carried a sly, knowing note that made Quistis glare at him.
"I don't know what you three think you're up to," she said crisply, "but I want you to move out of the way right now - before I have to make you."
It was either her authoritarian tone or the hand resting on the haft of her whip that convinced them to clear the way to the elevator. Irvine even had the grace to look a little cowed. But Quistis only got a few seconds to enjoy the feeling of satisfaction before she caught sight of the elevator call button's panel hanging by one screw, exposing a jumble of disordered wires. Her expression froze.
"Do I even want to know what you were doing?" Xu wondered dryly.
It was Zell who spoke up, and for all the sheepish way his head ducked under the incredulous looks from both Quistis and Xu, he couldn't keep from sounding a little proud. "We just figured they might want some time alone. I mean, we all knew he was probably gonna be kinda cranky about this party thing, so..." he spread his hands, with a crooked grin. "We're just giving Rinoa a chance to loosen him up a little."
"Yeah." Irvine's drawl was downright smug. "It's sort of a birthday present."
Quistis rolled her eyes disgustedly. "Squall isn't you, Irvine. He's probably going to kick your asses when he finally gets up here." There was a pause before she had to ask: "How long have you had them stuck in there, anyhow?"
"Um..." Selphie scrunched up her nose in thought. "Since about nineteen hundred, I guess. That's when they were supposed to be coming up, and all."
Xu and Quistis exchanged a brief look.
"You three geniuses realize that you've had the main route between every floor of Garden blocked for the past half hour, right?" said Xu.
Zell shrugged, still wearing that lopsided grin. "Hey, SeeDs are supposed to stay in shape. They can take the stairs."
"Fix it." Quistis' command came out through gritted teeth. "Now."
Zell's eyes widened, and he ducked hastily to attend to the panel. It took him less than a minute, and he'd just managed to get the cover back into place when the elevator dinged and the doors slid open to let the occupants out.
"Squall! Rinoa!" Selphie bounced enthusiastically on her toes. "Oh, wow, Rinoa, you look great."
"Thanks, Selphie." Rinoa's smile was the picture of innocence - only the demure way she lidded her eyes and the faintly self-satisfied curve of the corners of her mouth gave it away.
Squall, on the other hand, seemed altogether flustered, his face red with a flush that only brightened when Irvine drawled, "Geez, what kept you two? We were starting to think you weren't coming."
"Yeah, well--" Squall tripped a little over the words, raking his fingers distractedly back through his hair. "--the elevator got stuck between floors."
"Man, that's weird." The exuberance of Zell's voice had Quistis pressing a hand helplessly over her face. "We thought maybe Rinoa couldn't talk you into it."
"Uh," said Squall, and he looked vaguely alarmed for a moment before he tacked on a hasty, "Whatever." Behind his back, Irvine and Selphie traded a congratulatory low-five.
Xu cleared her throat, bringing Squall's eyes toward her before he had the chance to recover enough from his discomfiture to notice how subtle his friends weren't being. "Happy birthday, commander."
"Shut up," he said, but the absence of his usual brusque edge made him sound almost like he was in a good mood.