STORY SUMMARY (because it's been a while): Story is set a year after Ultimecia. Squall has since hired Rinoa as his personal secretary, but refuses to move any farther in their romantic relationship under the excuse of "things are still too hectic, government-wise". A research/camping trip to Odin's Tower ends badly when Rinoa accidentally shoots him while testing out her gun blade skills. After barely surviving thanks to a transfusion from Rinoa, he is confined to a wheel chair and treats all students and staff horribly until Quistis forces him onto sick leave. Rinoa, in the mean time, has discovered that Squall had been following the instructions of a World Council "Angelica Policy" which forbids him from engaging her romantically, but asks that he keep her "distracted" for at least a ten year period. It is based on a theory of Odine's that sorceresses depend on their Knights and can never leave them nor reach their full potential as long as there's an implied future together. For the past year, they had all been tricking her into being willingly confined to Garden, using Squall as the bait. She promptly quits as his assistant, wishing to serve her jail-time without bothering her actor friends.

Later, Squall reveals to her that the Policy was a mere joke to satiate the paranoid Council while he tried to figure out a way they can co-exist normally. A development he never told her about, was that recently he is able to hear her thoughts when they are close. Though annoyed at the invasion of her privacy, Squall had always been comforted and inspired by the fact that he knew for certain that she had no world domination plans. He informs her that he had discovered the existence of a past sorceress and knight, Odin and Elisha, who were somehow able to live out their lives together without any bloodshed. His goal for the past year has been to figure out how they managed to do it: be together, and not succumb to the inevitable urge for power. For now though, they have to keep away from one another. It's too dangerous. He's already been having nightmares disguised as fantasies of them taking over, cutting down anyone who dare to question their relationship. He's horrified by how appealing the visions are.

Meanwhile; Quistis, feeling bad for Rinoa, starts a petition to reformat the Policy. Though they wish that she remain under Garden care for both her safety and the wishes of the Council, she has recommended that Rinoa rotate within all four Gardens as a hostess, organizer and music writer to each of their distinctive, seasonal Festivals. Squall doesn't like the plan, even though he has been offered the position of "Garden Captain" which would involve him touring all four Gardens with her to coordinate their affairs. He doesn't trust anyone outside Balamb. But if he doesn't accept the job, Nida will: her new closest friends due to the fact that he inspires her to stop moping and make something of herself.

Squall's research, through smashing a locket found at Odin's tower, revealed a note that explains why Odin chose to become such a strange GF: it was a method of protecting his sorceress only when she needed it, without them being able to negatively influence one another. Though the magic has since been lost, it seems the only solution is for them to live apart, him supporting her as best as he can from afar through his government work. Odin's sorceress, Elisha, later became a painter, married and adopted children. Proving that she was able to move on but not regenerate the curse of knighthood onto someone else since Odin was still technically filling the role. Squall wishes that same future for Rinoa, even though it will end with him dying miserable and alone. After having a few drinks to drown his misery, Squall is unable to resist visiting Rinoa in the studio her built for her next door. He only wanted to say goodbye, but they end up deciding they need a proper, one night farewell. If only to expel any last regrets and release built up stress.

The next day, Rinoa wakes up alone with Selphie screaming at her that she's late for the World Council video conference. To her surprise, when she arrives it is announced that Squall has accepted the term of Garden Captain and will begin touring with her once the Balamb Summer Festival is over. In privacy, he admits that their night together inspired him to try a relationship in secret, confident that they can control their fate.

The following week, Nida becomes exasperated as Rinoa has skirted her music festival duties. He is also frustrated searching for a violinist talented enough to play his version of "Eyes on Me" as publicity stunt to support Rinoa as all 4 Garden's publicity consultant. After accidentally walking in on her and Squall in his office, he guilts the Commander into taking up violinist position, as he was very talented in music back in their school days and Rinoa could use the good press. Walking back to their dorms, Nida admits to Rinoa that he is jealous of Squall and she hugs him in sympathy - all of which Squall views on the security monitors, feeling oddly jealous and frustrated. Despite her warnings not to visit to keep the secrecy of their relationship, he cannot help but go see her.

The Festival is scheduled on the 27th of August, four days after Squall's 19th birthday.

"What a strange illusion it is to suppose that beauty is goodness."

- Leo Tolstoy

-. Possession .-

Chapter 19: …Beautiful

He awoke a start, someone having clapped their hands directly in front of his nose in order to garner his attention.

It wasn't the most pleasant of ways to be roused, but he was getting used to it. Apparently it was the only nominal-pain method that worked short of smacking him upside the head. At least that's what Qusitis, Zell, Selphie and Nida had all repeatedly pointed out over the past two weeks.

"Sorry," Squall muttered, rubbing at the skin in between his eyes in a relatively useless attempt to de-fuzz his brain. He couldn't believe it was only eleven am. "I didn't- did you ask something?"

"I asked," Kadowaki repeated with an annoyed frown "if you had been getting enough sleep lately? But never mind."

"Sorry," he repeated, finding the process of dredging up new words and rearranging them into sentences almost beyond his capabilities at the moment. "No...obviously. Not really. A lot, goings on. Summit papers. Replacement training. Coleslaw-"

"Coleslaw? Since when do your duties coincide with those involving coleslaw?"

Squall winced, tapping at his forehead as if hoping to jump start his brain. "No. Lunch tangent. Sorry."

"Well," Kadowaki snapped off her gloves with a sigh, shaking her head at the usually severe man now struggling to keep his eyes open while on her examination table. "I'd tell you to slow down, take a few days off, but knowing that would just be a waste of breath, let's instead push through the usual check up. I'll get my way after you inevitably faint and fall down the stairs or something. Until then, let gets your weight down."

After inhaling deeply to ensure that as much oxygen as possible circulated his limbs, Squall pushed himself off the counter and headed towards the scale. Each step was excruciating, as if he were dragging boulders from his ankles. It was such a bizarre feeling for him to be so tired that he no longer cared about outwardly showing it, having quite often experienced consecutive sleepless nights that, usually, in no way affected his performance as Commander.

But then again, that had been before he had a "girlfriend" - if such a casual word could be applied to what they had developed recently. And sleepless nights reading paper work were quite different from sleepless nights spent in her company. He would have smirked at the memories, reminding himself that they were worth every aching step, but he was too drained. He just wanted to get this check-up over with, slink back into his office and, perhaps, call in his part-time assistant to bring up some 'coleslaw'; a coded order that never failed to rejuvenate him.

Then he could sleep. After he had taken and given all that he could, only then could he rest easy.

Rinoa had teased once, about a week ago, that perhaps he was addicted to her. Maybe he was. However, one could argue that almost two years of suppressing such impulses excused a few weeks of insatiable behavior.

He stepped onto the scale, the metal cold beneath his bare feet, as Kadowaki consulted his file.

"Soo...your don't-let-secretaries-play-around-with-military-grade-weapons-cause-they'll-probably-shoot-you or, the short version, Idiot of the Year injury seems to have healed nicely according to scans. No signs of infection and minimal damage to the muscle."

"Good," Squall muttered, tapping at his grey-cotton covered thigh. He knew very well that the once ugly, ridged scars were now only a few pale, pink lines thanks the sorceress' healing.

"Blood pressure is little high. Sugar-level high as well. And your mass..." She positioned the two weights of the scale at their usual average expectancy for someone of Squall's height and state of fitness, one-hundred and fifty, and was shocked to discover that the levels remained completely tilted.

"Hmm," she muttered, checking his chart again before pushing to smaller weight further. And then further. And further still, until she was forced to add another ten pounds to the upper level and start again. Things only began to balance once she reached the high sixties and by then her entire face was pinched into a grimace.

"Leonhart?" she prompted, seeing as his shoulders had begun to droop again.

"Mmm-hmm," he muttered while rubbing a palm into his eye socket.

"You may want to pay attention to this. You have, somehow, gained over twenty pounds in a little less than fourteen days. That is what we refer to in the medical community as disgusting. I have to ask that you stop quenching your thirst with the fryer drippings or whatever other similar disgusting habit you've picked up recently. Okay?"

At this, Squall paused in his eye gunk removal, focusing instead on the unbelievable numbers displayed by the scale on which he stood. He quickly stepped off, taking a moment to confirm that all he was wearing were the thin grey scrubs he had been forced into for the scan, before returning to re-assess the numbers.

"It's broken," he decided at last, to which Kadowaki slowly shook her head.

"I've had six appointments before you and all were normal. Not to mention this is balance scale, not digital. Minimal room for mess ups and frequently calibrated by yours truly. So-" she began scribbling in her chart again, shaking her head in displeasure. "What's your poison, huh? Chocolate? Cheese? Full cans of salted lard imported from Timber?"

Squall's eyes narrowed, suddenly, fully alert and not very happy about it. "Aren't you supposed to be professional and sensitive, like, at least ten percent of the time?"

"Yessss...but when anyone, let alone a Commanding Officer, makes this extreme of a weight change in either direction, I've found humiliation to be the best motivator. Especially with soldiers who treat their bodies like trash bins during a long hiatus following an injury. Now take off your shirt."

At this, Squall stiffened, protectively crossing his arms over his chest. "We agreed that I wouldn't have to do that anymore after the fourth time you whistled. In fact, I remember a signed harassmentclause-"

"As amusing and ridiculously easy as it is to make you uncomfortable, I just need to measure your body-fat percentage. Then we can start you on a new regiment. Can't have you dropping dead of a heart attack in the middle of a field exercise. Stand over there, please."

Seeing he had no other choice, Squall left the scale with a sigh of annoyance while pulling the starched shirt up over his head. Newly stripped, he placed himself, feet spread, in the corner of the examination room she had gestured to, bracing himself for the inevitable poking, prodding and inappropriate jokes.

But when Kadowaki turned to face him, slapping her skin-fold measurement tool into her palm as if it were a club, amused was the last word that could be used to describe her expression.

Squall instinctively tensed. "What?"

Hesitantly, she returned the tool to the counter and brought his file back up to her face, adjusting her spectacles. "Back up," she instructed gruffly. "Against the wall."

As he followed the instructions, he turned his head to note that she was leading him to a large stencil of a measuring tape. Only after his back hit the plaster did she come forward to manually adjust the angle of his chin and confirm the numbers up close.

"You're...taller..." she whispered, as if unable to believe it. "Almost...three inches."

Squall couldn't help but scoff. "You're probably just looking at the wrong file."

"Shut it Leonhart. You think I don't know my own filing system after thirty years?"

"I'm just saying. Twenty pound, three inches. That's not even possible, is it?"

"Oh it's possible, but not common. A post-pubescent growth spurt. Just because you have the lackluster brain of a fifty-year-old veteran, doesn't mean your body had given up on its youth. You're still only eighteen. Until next week of course," she added with a wink. It was another constant threat she liked to lord over him; the fact that she was the only Garden staff member who knew his birthday. Selphie had been trying to con her out of the date for years, and only through Squall's continuing acceptance of her methods and jibes did she not accidentally let it slip.

"Okay then," Squall breathed, unsure whether to be more relieved or disturbed by the diagnosis. "The extra weight is from the extra height. It is, relatively, normal for my age. As always, I remind you that if anyone else gets word of that date, I'll have you court marshaled for breaking confidentiality. So we're done. I'll see you at the Festival."

"Hold it!" He was halfway to the door with one arm through the sleeve of his shirt when the doctor's stern voice forced him to freeze. "Back on the counter. We're most definitely not done."

Squall groaned and threw his head back. "Don't you have other patients to see?"

"Yes. But first I have to ask you a few questions and I need you to answer them honestly. Can you do that?"

Dropping the shirt onto the floor, he obediently hopped back onto the examination table. "If it'll get me out of here faster...sure."

Kadowaki flipped the file closed and replaced it on the desk behind her. She approached him then, her face oddly studious, eyeballs spinning as they searched the depths of his eyes while Squall, against all natural impulses to turn away, forced himself to hold her stare.

"Is there anything you want to tell me?" she asked in a simultaneously threatening and hopeful tone.

The Commander felt his stomach drop to the floor, but years of training allowed him to keep his composure. "No."

"So, you're saying you haven't been consuming non-council approved, strength enhancing supplements?"

At this, he could only narrow his eyes, which the good doctor apparently translated as a confession.

"Those things are dangerous Squall! What were you thinking?"

"Wait. Slow down. That silence was in no way an admission to anything. It was meant to point out how absurd the question was."

"I know you were feeling weak and pathetic for being in that chair and then the crutches for so long, so I don't blame you for wanting to-"

"You said yourself it was only a growth spurt."

"Squall...look at yourself," she gestured to his still exposed torso as if it was the most blatant of evidence. "You didn't look like that two weeks ago. All your life, the life I've witnessed firsthand, you've been the scrawniest of kids despite intense training."

"Whatever you're thinking, that's your prerogative. But before you sound any alarms, here." He held his arm up as an offering, fist clenched and inner elbow exposed. "Take a blood sample for reputation's sake. I'm not on anything. I was feeling weak and pathetic so I've been training more intensely. That's all it is, and all it's ever going to be."

Kadowaki stared into his eyes again, gradually slinking closer. With truth and justice on his side this time though, Squall found he could easily stare her down.

In the end, she faltered.

"Fine," the doctor conceded curtly, retrieving a swab, needle, elastic and an assortment of vials from a drawer beside them. "But Hyne help you if you're lying."

"Like I'd ever dare to cross you Aiko," he shot back with a slight smirk, to which the older woman couldn't help but mirror, albeit hesitantly.

As she began the process of filling the vials with dark red liquid, Dr. Kadowaki couldn't help but let her eyes wander. The extra weight had filled him exactly where he needed it in the biceps, pectorals and abdominals, and the height brought him up to an above average six feet. Considering that she had, personally, manhandled almost every cadet, SeeD and faculty member in this building, it was her unbiased opinion that Commander Leonhart's new form was one, if not THE, most perfectly developed male soldier specimens for miles. As part of a purely scientific ranking system of course.

"Kadowaki?" her patient inquired, forcing her gaze to snap back up into his face.

The Commander was looking at her knowingly, one eyebrow raised in mock offense. "Look all you want. As long as you don't touch."

The joke had its intended effect. As Dr. Aiko Kadowaki, for the first time in years, was rendered completely and utterly speechless.

She couldn't say that she hadn't been warned, just that a natural inclination toward optimism forced her to give all people the benefit of the doubt at first. That philosophy was perhaps a bit naive, she could admit that now. In her defense, Nida and Selphie were hardly the most reliable of sources. They had always been much too keen to absorb, enhance and regurgitate the minutest truths into epic scandals; a specialized alchemy of converting molehills into lush, mountainous landmasses.

So when they came to discuss the new SeeD transferred from Galbadia, she acknowledged their warnings as one would those of a child referring to the monster under the bed. Surely they were exaggerating. After all, the girl was so young, a fresh graduate, and so petite and relatively pretty. There was no way it could all be true.

Those doubts were now long gone, buried deep in a corner of her mind along with childhood fantasies of musical kittens and diamond shoes.

This girl was completely and totally crazy.

The explosion had erupted to the left of Rinoa's ear and its echo plus the committee members' gasps permeated the ballroom for long, still seconds. It was only after the bullet casing hit the floor that Rinoa turned to Selene - young, petite, and pretty Selene - nimbly returning her smoking pistol-blade to its sheath on her hip.

"I said no balloons," she grumbled in a voice years beyond her true age "they're tacky." The sorceress followed her glare to a terrified cadet across the dance floor with slightly singed eyebrows, now holding nothing but a handful of loose ribbons.

If it had been any other person, Rinoa would have possibly been impressed by their aim, or slightly amused by the over-the-top-ness of the reaction or, most likely, experienced a terror that would have led to tackling the perpetrator to the ground and screaming for security. But over the past weeks of working with the most unique decorating lead the Festival has ever had, the shooting of inanimate objects had become disturbingly common. As proven when, within a few seconds, the near-victim simply sighed and returned to arranging centerpieces. The rest of the volunteer crew brushed the incident off just as easily and returned to work. All except one.

"It's not worth ittttt…." Zell whispered in a sing-song voice before she had even taken a step.

Rinoa spun to face him, annoyed that he too had sided with indifference over integrity. He sat cross-legged by the edge of the stage, order sheets spread all around him with his eyes purposefully focused on the one in his hand and nothing else. The perfect portrait of a coward.

"This is getting ridiculous!" she hissed while gesturing with a quick jab to the scene behind them. "Someone has to do something."

"No. We passed ridiculous last Wednesday when she made Samsin volunteer to eat his own shoelace. He'll testify to that too, so don't bother with the disciplinary committee."

"She could have killed that girl!"

"No she couldn't have. Not if she didn't intend to. Relax."

"Relax! Seriously? I'm being forced to spend my every waking hour with an armed sadist fluffing tulle and you're telling me to relax?"

Zell only smirked his infamous lopsided smirk, one that begged and sometimes succeeded in convincing people that all was bright and shiny and right in the world. Regrettably, the last few weeks had also made her immune to it.

"No. No, I'm not letting it go this time. That girl should be in an asylum, not in a Garden and especially not in any position of power, however trivial!" At that Zell chuckled, only fueling the fire of her rage. "This isn't funny!"

"Sorry…haha…sorry Rin, it's just…well…" his eyes lifted to regard the short tempered redhead now ripping apart a rosette one of her assistants had brought over. His smile widened. "Let's just say that we've survived worse before and Balamb Garden is quite comfortable with crazy. Though I must admit it's an acquired taste. Figured you of all people would be used to it by now."

Rinoa couldn't help but roll her eyes before leaning her head back to scan the decorator with an attempted unbiased eye.

She still didn't see it.

'Twins separated at birth, competing to be named the "evil" one,' some of the more creative gossip artists had whispered. Perhaps physically, from far away, she could see how one might think that. What with both their bronze-hued hair, vivid eyes and small yet muscular frames. Also, perhaps because she was the first female SeeD to insist on wearing the male uniform with the excuse that a skirt ruined her dexterity. And both having chosen and mastered a difficult weapon like a bladed automatic certainly didn't help. And, perhaps, the tone of their voices as well. The way they both spoke in short, gruff commands. The way both she and he could stand so still and tireless for hours on end. Also that same startling need they had to have everything done not only right, but perfect.

Still, despite all that, she doubted Squall had ever even been as…difficult.

As if reading her thoughts, Zell chuckled again. "Did I ever tell you about the time, back in our cadet days, when Squall left his rowing partner out in the middle of a lake with nothing but a piece of driftwood? Said the swim back would teach the guy not to be so inept as to fall off the boat next time and Quistis got soooo mad. Said the lessons were hers to assign and dying of hypothermia wasn't one of them. The guy had a horrid cough for weeks which Squall could hear through the walls of his dorm. He said that having to listen to it was punishment enough." He laughed some more, smacking his knee in exaggerated mirth. "Oh, classic Leonhart."

Rinoa could only bite her lip as she continued to watch Selene watching her workers. The girl stood rigid, chin downward, hands crossed on her male-uniform belt buckle, seemingly made of stone except for the fingers of her right hand which flexed every once in a while towards her sheathed weapon. It was if she were surveying prisoners on labor duty instead of fellows SeeDs and cadets prepping for a party. Always ready for an unexpected fight. Exactly like someone else she knew intimately.

It came creeping up again then. The doubt. The belief that all people, no matter how stoic, all had the same, sometimes buried longing to be loved. All they needed was a little inspiration. Maybe a persistent kindly face. A welcoming friend.

It was the same conclusion she came to in the middle of each day, and yet every night so far resulted in nothing but anger and dejection. But maybe, just maybe, today would be different. After all, even the girl's male "twin" had succumbed eventually.

"Hi Selene!" she called while sauntering over, hoping against all hope that the hesitation didn't show in her steps. Zell was left to his giggling.

Selene slowly turned to face her. "Hello Ress," she greeted in a tone that was saturated in malice, inspiring Rinoa's fake smile to stretch to near painful limits. That was one of the primary differences between Selene and Squall. While his scorn was revealed through inaction and ignorance, this girl's was much more involved and immature; a more typical sort of bullying that included slight violence, sarcasm and hurtful nicknames.

'Ress' had come to be after one too many times of being referred to as the insolently formal 'Sorceress Rinoa'. "Please," Rinoa remembered asking with her charisma turned on high "It's unnecessary to use my whole title, if only because it takes too long to say! You can call me just Rinoa, or Rin or Rinny. Anything else is fine with me, I swear." Thus the abbreviation was generated; fulfilling Rinoa's request for shortness as well as Selene's desire that the sorceress never forget she was untrusted.

Today was the first day she didn't bother trying to correct the girl. Ress she would remain, especially if it meant she was that much closer to winning her favor or at least losing the contempt.

"The place is looking great!" she said as she came to stand by her side, and it was an easy enough statement to say with enthusiasm. She was certain that the ballroom had never looked better, and even Cid, who had attended every event for two decades, had to agree. Selene's talents in terror had convinced the fabric merchants to provide silk streamers for the price of polyester, the florists brought heaps of blue and cream roses as cheap as the common daisy and every volunteer was putting in quadruple the expected hours crafting elaborate, tiered centerpieces, strings of jeweled lights, new paint and mirrors on the walls as well as building an an entirely new, technologically impressive concert stage.

All was on budget as well as ahead of schedule. Selphie had been so impressed, though also intimidated, that she had been struggling to find her own special touch to add to this, the largest Festival ever, which was meant to be her pride and glory. And judging by the way the girl was now racing toward them, pulling a cart leaden with crates behind her as if they weighed nothing, Rinoa guessed she had found her gimmick.

"GUYS! EVERYBODY! COME QUICK!" Selene followed the instruction a little too eagerly, obviously relieved to be free of idle chit-chat with the enemy. Rinoa couldn't help but feel her throat tighten in disappointment but had little time to dwell as Selphie was personally flagging her over with wildly flailing hands. "GET A MOVE ON! WAIT TILL YOU SEE! IT'S GOING TO BE EPIC!"

One by one, the girls of the Festival committee dropped their tasks and sauntered over, almost all of them murmuring excitedly to one another. Selene and Rinoa, as the only other female administrators, ended up alone together in the center of the semi circle; quite awkwardly silent as they waited for the announcement.

Before the last of the ladies was within hearing range, Selphie could no longer contain herself. "This is officially going to be the best festival ever now! Because we have some extra time thanks to our amazing team's efficiency, I've come up with the most brilliant, bodacious and bombastical idea to crush the competition!" Her tone was nearly on the same frequency as a fanatical sales rep pushing what was known to be an superfluous product. Rinoa was tempted to ask what exactly 'bombastical' meant, but all urges to tease were instantly forgotten when the Festival coordinator finally presented her wares.

Her bombastical plan was suddenly, excruciatingly obvious. And it was far from pretty.

"You have got to be kidding me?"

Selphie lips, originally arranged into a wide an exuberant grin, fell as quickly as though the corners were pulled by weighted strings.

"What's wrong?" she whined with exaggerated innocence, eyes frantically scanning the other members of the group who seemed to be having similar though less verbal reactions. "Come on guys! It's just for ONE song. As a welcome! You know the White SeeDs will appreciate seeing some leg after so many months on the cold seas."

Rinoa winced, holding the garment up by the shoulders and turning it around, just to give it the benefit of the doubt. Alas, the decision was final. "Nope. No way. I'm not wearing this."

"I agree with Ress," piped in Selene in her first show of solidarity, a similar expression of disgust on her face. "We're military sanctioned organizers, not burlesque entertainers."

"Exactly! Thank you Selene."

The red-headed SeeD shrugged, roughly tossing her costume back into its box. "Whatever. If you wanted to do a dance number, you should have left room in the budget for actual dancers."

"I know, I know," grumbled Selphie, picking at the sequins of her own costume's headband. "I just thought it would be fun, that's all! Something special for our sea-faring brothers. And, not to mention, a little Festival committee girl bonding thing, ya know?"

"Binding, more like it," quipped another volunteer, tossing her long blonde hair over her shoulder. "These things look tight...really...form fitting." Something about her tone, holding just a hint of appeal, and Selphie took the opportunity to pounce.

"They're amazing, actually! I bought them from this magical little seamstress in Dollet. The material of the bodice is this stretch fabric that sucks you in pushes your chest up, giving anyone an instant, voluptuous hourglass shape!"

"Really?" Another girl, Linzey, was hooked. "And...these petals skirted coats. They are pretty cute."

"They flip up when you twirl," giggled Selphie. Soon enough, to both Rinoa and Selene's horror, the rest of the girls were digging into the boxes.

"Maybe if we just try them on..."

"Oh look! They come with the White SeeD bandanas! I was always so jealous of their uniform."

"Eek! The sleeves are detachable! That is so awesome. Hahaha. And the pants are lined with velcro!"

"Oh Hyne," muttered Rinoa while she and her only other sane co-worker slowly backed away from the ensuing mob. "She gonna make us do a semi-strip show at the Festival isn't she? The White SeeDs will arrive and we'll be all 'Welcome to Balamb! Watch as we desecrate your proud uniform into these skimpy little tutus!'. Oh geez, there's totally going to be a riot, isn't there?"

"Depends," Selene replied calmly. "Are the White SeeDs mostly male?"

Rinoa forced the one fragment of her mind that wasn't panicking to consider the question. "I've seen a few women, but they wear the same uniform as the men so it's hard to distinguish."

"What's the ratio?"

"I dunno..."


"Umm..." Another girl had just discovered the grey short-shorts that went beneath the leotard-coat contraptions, causing Rinoa to almost trip over her own feet. "I- I woman to every, like, eight guys?"

"Then we'll be fine." Apparently satisfied, Selene reversed her path to join the rest of the girls digging through the costume boxes, leaving Rinoa alone and gaping by the edge of the dance floor.

"Selene!" she called, nervously approaching the group as if they were a pack of wild behemoths. "You- you can't be serious?"

If even the woman who had, literally, cut down a flower arrangement that was deemed 'too garishly bright' was game to participate, what chance did she have in resisting?

Not a shot in the-island-closest-to-hell, according to her co-worker turned nightmare enforcer.

"Here," she called while tossing over her previously discarded garment, which Rinoa caught with shaking hands. "If I'm doing this, you're doing it. I've known Selphie for less than a month and I've already learned not to fight her Festival will. So suck it up Ress. This number is happening."

Luckily, there wasn't time for a full-on panic attack. For Nida slapped a hand onto her shoulder and spun her around to face him.

"Hey! Quick question."

"Me first," Rinoa interrupted, spreading the ludicrously revealing costume across her own torso. "What do you think of this?"

With a short sigh, Nida scanned her from head to toe in the span of half a second. "Cute. Moving on-"

"No. Not cute." Bunching up the garment before slamming it down at her feet, she fixed him with an annoyed glare. "Disturbing. Offensive. Grossly inappropriate. Those are the words that should have instantly sprung to mind!"

"Let it go Rinoa." Selene appeared at their side, reaching to retrieve and fold the suit. "This is out of your hands."

"Ha! Like Quistis will approve of us just traipsing out on stage-"

"And getting the White SeeDs riled up and impressed enough by our ease of attitude to maybe consider pressing their Captain to join the World Army and all the benefits its funding allows, leading to one less wild card mercenary organization on the prowl? I think she has already approved. Am I right Commander Aldran?"

Nida's eyes instinctively narrowed. "We are..." he cleared his throat, straining to morph into his new, severe leader personae. "Officially, we had promised to no longer approach the White SeeDs with World Council matters, as they prefer to remain independent."

" Coincidence then that you invited them to a party that happens to also be a summit meeting?"

Nida and Selene glared at each other for a while, Rinoa standing awkwardly in between. She should have known. This was Garden after all. Nothing they did was ever without a grander purpose.

Soon enough, Nida's lips began to twitch. Until, eventually, it was his usual amused grin. "You're good," he commented at last.

"I'm the best," Selene assured with a short nod.

"And I guess I've since become a stripper," Rinoa finished with a groan. "Great."

"You know, with all your other responsibilities, I'm sure Selphie wouldn't mind too much if-"

"No, no. I don't want any special treatment. I'll take the bullet with the rest of these girls, Hyne help us."

"Good. I'll make extra sure to bring my camera then." He had to jump to avoid the multiple kicks sent in his direction, and chuckled exuberantly when he succeeded. "Moving on from what is sure to be the most I will ever laugh in my life; Rinoa, look at the stage."

Through narrowed eyes, she did as she was told, seeing for the first time the full orchestra all properly positioned on cascading tiers curving around the back wall of the ballroom.

"Wow..." she couldn't help but breathe, awed by the mass of people either tweaking their instruments, chatting or, in majority, staring down at the three of them. "Good work on the, um, finding them all. I can't wait to hear them practice."

"Yes. Practice. Good idea. I would love that to. But, as you can see, we're kind of missing something."

Rinoa scanned the tiers again, noting that every seat was filled, each with an instrument and freshly printed music sheets balanced on their stands. All of them seemed to be more than ready to play, their fingers practically twitching in anticipation. "What's the problem?"

"The soloist isn't here," Selene voiced at last, annoyed with the run around games. "Nida wants to ask if you know where he is?"

"I..." Rinoa gulped, noting at last the central music stand alone on the stage.

Squall was late. And Squall was never late.

"I assume the Commander has...pressing appointments..."

"Where and when did you last see him?" Selene asked brusquely, causing Rinoa to instantly blush.

"Upstairs," she managed to blurt out after an intense few seconds of wondering when the cameras may have last picked them up together. "At around ten. About. Maybe. He...said he had an appointment. With Kadowaki. In the infirmary. He said that, and went straight there. I think."

"Has she always been this bad a liar?" Selene asked Nida, and Rinoa felt her heart jump into her throat.

"What do you-"

"Excuse me?" an echoing voice interrupted, causing all three committee members to whip their heads toward the stage. Standing in the center of the semi-circled orchestra, a bow slung over his shoulder and the violin tapping against his knee, stood Commander Leonhart.

"Squall!" exclaimed Nida before rushing to the edge of the stage. "I thought you weren't coming."

"Sorry," he mumbled, scratching the back of his head with the tip of the bow. "Kadowaki was particularly chatty today. Won't happen again."

"No. It's cool. Just glad. OKAY PEOPLE!" The musicians in the stands instantly perked up. "We have just a few minutes left to practice timing! Let's run through it once and then we'll review! On my mark!"

The room fell silent. Decorators stopped fiddling with their crepe paper, the caterers stopped setting up their tables, even the squealing of Selphie and her gang trying on the high-heeled combat boots their costumes came with, silenced themselves as the piano began its opening notes.

The background violins began their lengthy, shuddering tone, followed by the flutes fluttering and clarinets playing a soft reminder of the melody. The space seemed to gradually fill with the intense vibrations of sound, felt through the marble floor tiles and seen in the trembling chandeliers. Rinoa felt it surround her, enveloping her lungs, heart and stomach.

Finished with their introduction, everyone turned the page in their music book, and then Squall was positioning his instrument under his chin, loosening his bow arm, waiting for the cue. It was strange watching him hold an instrument, even though it shouldn't have been.

Then, all too soon yet not nearly soon enough, he began to play. He played the haunting melody in a way that reminding them all of the way he wielded his weapon. Every note was quickly yet cautiously planned. Every stroke, long and smooth, almost surgically precise. Though he lacked the usual physical expression that most musicians couldn't help but reveal, he made up for it through the music alone - made all the more passionate thanks to his stoic stance. As if the place where the bow and strings met were a temporary breach in his facade, finally allowing the passion, that only she knew existed, to escape for others to revel in.

Though she couldn't fathom how he had found the time to practice, Nida had been right in assuming that he would not only pull it off, but succeed in bringing the music to life better than anyone else could ever hope too. And Rinoa, despite the cliché, felt herself falling in love with him all over again.

"Holy Pandemona..." Selphie was whispering to her entourage back at the far edge of the dance floor, all eyes stuck to the stage. She had thought Nida had been exaggerating Squall's talents due to his envy issues, and was pleasantly surprised to learn otherwise. "Who knew that Garden's most jaded resident could have such style?"

"Yeah. And just when I thought he couldn't get any more beautiful," added Linzey, fanning herself. "Seriously, how did you survive months of traveling with that man and not become lost in his eyes?"

Selphie was barely able to suppress a wretch. "The same way you survive months of traveling with an angry T-Rex whom you also kinda consider your brother; by keeping my distance, ignoring him for the most part, and not engaging him unless he's satiated off the fear and revulsion of other group members."

"Oh he can't be that bad," piped in the blonde one who's name Selphie had yet to register. "I heard that yesterday he helped Crista, from level 10 class C, piece back together her History shadowbox project after she tripped in the hallway. She's refusing to wash the hand he touched!"

"Well that's just unhygienic," she cringed, astounded as always as to how obsessed some of these girls were with the notoriously insensitive Commander. Despite her previous belief that everyone had a soft side, over the years she had frequently scanned the guy and continued to find only infinite, solid rock. Squall, as always, was the exception that proved the rule. "I recommend not wasting your time of such pointless fantasies girls," the older SeeD cautioned, confidently flipping her hair over her shoulder. "Now Sir Laguna... HE is a much more-"

"I heard that last week," another cadet interrupted "he gave the entire cafeteria staff cash bonuses out of his own salary! Also, he supervised a deep forest expedition with the junior classmen just cause one kid asked. Isn't that soooo sweet!"

Selphie blinked. Squall hated children, proving that these rumors had gone one step past ridiculous. "No offense girls, but that simply can't be true. Commander Leonhart had actually petitioned a few months ago to move the junior grades to another building."

"No it is! My little sister was in the class that went. She said he killed and cooked a caterchipiller for them all and told them stories of the war. She actually made me regret not being seven anymore."

Selphie laughed, shaking her head, simply unable to believe it. "No. No way! He hung up on me when I suggested he make a silly little toast during the summit dinner. Practically slammed the door on my fingers when I asked to borrow the Ragnarok to pick up some flowers in Centra. There is no possible way he did all that other nice stuff willingly."

"Well...I don't exactly see a gun to his head now. Do you?" the blonde cadet asked with a haughty smile. Yet again, their focus returned to the stage where Squall was wrapping up the final notes of the piece with the full orchestra's whispering instruments complimenting his every movement. And when he was finished, after one drawn out and smooth key to complete the song, there was a full ten seconds of tense silence before the entire room burst out into applause.

Squall smiled in response. An actual real, grateful smile, before modestly bowing his head to the small crowd that had gathered at the edge of the stage.

Selphie couldn't help but feel her heart twinge a little at the sight. She realized then, in the years they had worked together, she had never actually seen him smile. Not really. Especially not in the past year in his role of mega-co-douche-mander.

In fact, she abruptly noted, it had been a few weeks since she had heard any tales of his classic rampages. He hadn't threatened, insulted or physically harmed anyone since his cast had been removed, since he had made the decision to become Captain and tour the Gardens alongside Rinoa.


With a rejuvenated curiosity, Selphie's eyes wandered over to her raven-haired friend. She was standing in the center of the applauding group, hands clasped together, eyes wide and shimmering with painfully obvious adoration. There was nothing shocking about that. Rinoa being in love with Squall was as old news as Zell being in love with hot dogs. Hardly worth noting.

The difference this time around could be deduced via three other key players.

There was Nida; standing in the corner with his arms across his chest, seemingly relieved that the piece performed so flawlessly, but simultaneously depressed.

Selene; who's demeanor practically screamed that she was sent here for reasons beyond simple studying, had positioned herself exactly to the sorceresses' right, as if to breathe in her every reaction.

And then there was Squall. Smiling.

Squall Leonhart was actually smiling.

It was all the evidence anyone needed.

"Kayle," she grabbed the closest Festival minion by the shoulder, coincidentally the medical SeeD who had helped them retrieve and stitch up the Commander's leg during the original shooting incident. He had been conscripted to her committee as punishment for giving a critically bleeding patient alcohol as pain relief. Obviously he wasn't the sharpest katana in the weapon's locker, but at least he worked hard. "Bring me the Festival agenda. I have some changes to make."

"Now! Again?" the cadet screeched with unabashed panic. "But the Festival is in only a few days-"

"I know, I know," she waved his concern away. "It's not gonna be as big a deal as the dance number. Just a little…something." Again, she focused on her two friends, obviously avoiding each other's gaze in a failed attempt at keeping it cool. It was pathetic, really. Especially in a building where a quarter of the residents were trained to weasel out secrets. Why bother?

Speaking of secrets…she remembered how Rinoa had begged her to forget about it when she accidentally discovered the date scribbled on her personal calendar, but that had been before this congenial attitude of his had surfaced. Surely, as a reformed bloodthirsty maniac, Squall wouldn't mind a little recognition. He might even enjoy it, as evidenced by today's performance.

And so, with a wicked grin, Selphie whipped the tablet out of Kayle's hands and added another, tiny insertion to the event schedule.

"Happy. Birthday. Captain. Leonhart." She finished with an overly vigorous pressing of the period button.

This really was going to be the most memorable Festival ever.

Authors Notes: Hello folks. Long time no see. News of the past year: I've finally completed my FFVII fic, w00t! I got married on June 30th, yay! I am participating in Ashbear's FFVIII "Where I Belong" fanfiction challenge and it will include a never before seen prologue to "Possession", woohoo!

I will be concentration on this fic from now on and am happy to be doing so. Keeping up two stories at a time was simply too much considering my lack of free time. Anyway, I had the first half of this written for months and tacked on the ending just today (luckily, Selphie's voice doesn't require much refinement.) I hope you enjoy and please stayed tuned for the prequel story entitled "A Stone's Throw", the first half which will be posted on my birthday (August 7th) and the second half on Squall's birthday (August 23rd).

Thank you, as always, for your support. As you know, reviews = faster updates .

- May (Nancy)