Author's Notes: Done. Done as dinner. Thanks to my readers (yes, all the both of you!) and please enjoy the finale!
To be honest with you, I think this is one of my better works and I'm a little sad it's so under-reviewed. But well, I wasn't really expecting anything else. It is a crack pairing, after all. To those people who did read and review, you have my sincere gratitude! :-)
Although Zell would never have admitted it to anyone, he had half-expected the morning after losing his virginity to be a lot more special than it turned out to be. He hadn't been sure what he had been expecting – had he seriously thought angels would descend to earth to congratulate him, playing a hero's song on their harps? Or, had he expected his dick to grow hands and give him a thumb's up? Whatever it was he had been secretly dreaming about, he surely hadn't ever envisioned the morning after such a special night to suck quite as much.
As soon as Zell opened his eyes, light raced into his eyes and a headache started to mercilessly hammer away at the insides of his skull. Groaning, he rolled onto his stomach and ran his fingers through his hair. Why does my head hurt so fucking much? Both his head and his stomach were disagreeing with him, and if he had been in the right state of mind, he would also have noticed that his head felt a lot muddier than usual, that memories were trying to penetrate the thick layer of apathy he had chosen to cover his mind up with.
Dim voices reached his ear, coming from downstairs, making Zell wonder whether his mom had any visitors over. Just as he decided to ignore the strange headache, the voices and the weird laming tiredness that seemed to have taken possession of his limbs, he suddenly, in one flash that would change everything, remembered.
He sat up so quickly that he entangled himself in his bedsheets and had to fight hard not to fall right back. His eyes searched the room until they caught the bottles of alcohol strewn all over the floor. His mouth fell open.
Alcohol. Rinoa. Her eyes. Knights on T-boards. Sex.
His eyes widened just as his hands raced down his body, confirming his nakedness. The blonde drew in his breath sharply as he was trying to get a hold of his thoughts which had broken loose and were roaming his mind, swiftly ditching his attempts at catching and ordering them. While a maelstrom of images and memories trespassed into his mind, he started to throw on his clothes hastily.
With a yelp, he tripped over his own feet as he was trying to yank his socks onto his feet and he fell back down onto the mattress on the floor with a soft 'oomph'. Smells reached his nose as he lay there, his face buried inside the sheets – the sheets on which he and Rinoa had... made love? No, that didn't sound right. It smelled of Rinoa, of sweat. Zell couldn't help but wrinkle his nose in disgust as the stench of his own ejaculate managed to sneak up his nose, once again hammering home just what had happened and just how unlike his storybook fantasies about sex it had been.
Groaning, he leaped to his feet, the alcohol sloshing around in his stomach, making him feel sick and faintly dizzy. Ignoring the spell of dizziness, he continued to dress himself as fast as he could manage while simultaneously trying not to lose balance yet again. It was with a kind of fervour that he put on his clothes – a fervour that suggested that despite his hurry, he never wanted the task of putting on clothes to ever end.
When he did finish dressing, he stood there in his room for several seconds, contemplating. "I... just had sex last night," he said testily. It sounded strange in the air, and the youthfulness and innocence of his voice didn't seem to want to match the words he had spoken. "I had sex last night!" He repeated, trying to muster the triumph, joy and eureka he had always imagined himself to feel that one fateful morning. He drew in a deep breath. "I had sex last night!" He announced again, louder. "Whoohooo! Yay... great."
He fell silent, trying to rack his brain for what else he had sworn himself he would do the one fateful morning after losing his virginity, but came up with a blank page. It wasn't before long that he realized it was in part his physical condition that prevented him from finding the thread. His eyes widened as his stomach finally revolted against all the alcohol he had forced upon it the night prior and while he was making the sprint for his bathroom, he was considering for the first time in his short teenage life that maybe, just maybe... sex was fucking overrated.
"What are you looking at me for, dear?" Mrs. Dincht asked good-naturedly. Her eyes were smiling at Rinoa, who winched in shame as she realized she had been staring at the other woman in silent contemplation.
I just fucked your son last night, Mrs. Dincht didn't really seem like something the older woman would want to hear, so Rinoa, blushing a slight shade of pink despite herself, quickly racked her brain for an excuse.
"I was just... admiring your cooking skills," Rinoa lied, plastering a fake smile all over her face. "Your... years of practice really show!" Rinoa didn't really know how many years it took to perfect the art of frying eggs, but her own excuse sounded pretty good to her ears.
"Oh, thanks, you're such a darling" Mrs. Dincht answered, laughing while trying to hide how flattered she felt. "You know, it's really kind of who to help make breakfast. I wish Zell would take some clues from you. In all the years since I've raised him, I only remember him making breakfast twice. And once he almost blew up the kitchen in the process."
Rinoa fake-laughed in response, wondering for the dozenth time that morning just why exactly she had gone to find Mrs. Dincht that morning, but knowing the answer right away. Right, it was because however hard it was to talk to her, it beat talking to either Zell or Squall. She knew she was just procrastinating, that confronting them was inevitable, that, indeed, it would transpire in perhaps as little as a couple of minutes – oh hell, they will get up soon, won't they? Fuck – she hadn't been able to come up with any better course of action, despite the fact that she had had one entire night of sitting up by herself, listening to Zell's regular breathing and wondering just why the hell she'd done the things she'd done. Alone with her surrounding thoughts closing in on her and deprived of being able to do anything worthwhile, the night had stretched endlessly. Bizarrely, the longer it had stretched on the more she had hoped it would go on longer still.
Rinoa heard noise from outside. Footsteps. Her heart somersaulting in her chest, she turned away from the door, focusing her eyes on the egg frying in the pan – hm, white and yellow, delicious smell, all that – but couldn't help drawing in her breath audibly when the door to the kitchen was opened and someone stepped in. Rinoa couldn't hear anything but her own heart for the next couple of seconds until Mrs. Dincht's voice broke the silence.
"Squall," she said. "Good morning! Breakfast isn't quite ready yet." Then she turned to Rinoa, giving her a wink. With dread, Rinoa realized that it was the kind of wink girls gave each other when one of them happened to run across their crush, the kind of wink that was done when people were convinced they were doing something semi-naughty and being absolutely delighted by it. "Rinoa," she said sweetly. "Thank you for helping me, but I think I can manage the rest by myself. Why don't you join Squall at the breakfast table while you wait? I'm sure you have a lot to... discuss."
Even while the urge to pick up the frying pan and throw its content right into that girlishly smiling face was fighting against better reason, Rinoa felt herself nodding. After all, what could she possibly say to that? Turning around, she avoided Squall's gaze as she pushed past him and plopped down unceremoniously onto a chair. She studied her nails while she saw Squall sitting down opposite her and for perhaps the first time in her life, she found herself feeling glad that Squall was the asocial bastard who'd rather eat cockroaches than talk to her that he was. Unfortunately, Squall chose right this morning to break his usual pattern of asocial stupor.
"You look tired. Are you all right?" she heard him ask.
She whipped her head up to look at him, surprised. Was he... worried about her? When he noticed her look, she saw a dismayed look slither across his face, saw him writhe uncomfortably under her gaze.
"I'm fine," she said. "Just didn't sleep well, is all."
"That's good," he said. The conversation seemed finished and he reached for a newspaper, but Rinoa's interest was piqued.
"Why?" she asked, cocking an eyebrow.
Receiving a blank look, she elaborated, "why did you ask if I was feeling all right? You never asked me this before."
Squall gave her a nonplussed look, but Rinoa could tell he was fighting with what he was going to say. Rinoa enjoyed every second it took for the stoic man to come up with an appropriate response, but when he finally did, it wasn't the one she'd been hoping for. "Today is important," he said matter-of-factly. "You have to fight well today."
Oh, sure. The whole fighting thing.
Disappointed, Rinoa let herself fall back into the chair, crossing her arms before her chest. "Fight, of course." Then, she mumbled to herself, "why did you bring me onto this mission anyway, I can't fight."
Squall looked up and Rinoa's eyes widened, realizing he must have heard her mumbling. Just as she was about to brush off what she had said, Squall said something she'd never forget because it was quite possibly the first hint of friendliness he'd ever shown her.
"You're not bad. At fighting," he said. Although his face remained stoic, his voice was devoid of malice or sarcasm and no matter how much she searched his pretty face, traits of mockery always managed to dodge her eyes. Rinoa looked at him, at a loss of what to say - thankfully, the silence was interrupted but less thankfully, it was interrupted by the one person Rinoa wanted to see the very least right then and there.
Zell came into the room and as soon as Rinoa's eyes fell onto him, she averted her gaze. Memories were tickling at the border of her consciousness, begging to be allowed entrance – but Rinoa pushed them away with one angry mental sweep, wishing for nothing more but the earth to open up and swallow her. Zell's presence felt almost physical and when he tentatively sat down next to Squall and muttered "good morning", Rinoa, her heart constricting, knew that she could no longer avoid him.
"Good morning," she answered bluntly, her eyes quickly trailing to the kitchen, wondering if it would look suspicious to Squall if she got up and went to offer her help to Mrs. Dincht once more, but it was right then and there that Mrs. Dincht emerged from the kitchen carrying their breakfast and even that possibility was snatched right out of the girl's grasping hands.
"Good to see you up, boy," Ma Dincht greeted. "You look kind of pale... are you okay?" Her voice was filled with motherly concern and genuine love. Rinoa felt contempt.
"I'm...fine," Zell answered. Rinoa's eyes only very fleetingly trailed across the martial artist's face, but even with one sweeping look she could assess that he was lying. Doubtlessly, Ma Dincht, who knew him even better than she did (and ever would) was aware of the lie as well, but she decided to let it go as she put the fried eggs and toast onto the breakfast table and a plate in front of each of the teenagers. She then proceeded to sit down next to Rinoa, who, letting her eyes slide from Squall to Zell and back to Squall again, couldn't decide who she wanted to talk to less.
So, she did the one thing she could do that didn't involve interacting with anyone: eating.
Munching away in complete silence, Rinoa pretended to enjoy the food, even as every taste the food may have had was sallied by the stench of memory.
Rinoa felt a faint smile creep up her face as she pushed open the doors to the Balamb Garden library. Out of all the places in Garden (except for maybe, perhaps, Squall's room), the library was her undeniable favourite, and as the familiar scent of paper and coffee filled her nostrils, she sighed, feeling the first blossoms of bliss rearing their heads inside her. Blossoms that had for so long been buried under the snow of worry.
She greeted the pig-tailed library girl with a sunny smile, then proceeded to step into the warmth of the library.
It had been two weeks since they had completed their mission in Balamb Town. Two weeks had passed since that night they had stayed at Zell's house. Exactly two weeks since that fateful – well, less fateful than it had very simply been drunken, she supposed – night in Zell's room, where the very events had unfolded that to this day would randomly creep up on her like a drunken stalker on his prey.
She shook her head, hard enough for her raven hair to whip her face as she proceeded into the library. No, not today, she told herself. Hadn't she come to the library exactly so she wouldn't have to chew those issues all over again? Hadn't she come here for a moment to herself, to cherish the lonesome, yet exquisitely intimate experience of being swallowed whole by an intriguing book?
Pushing all negative thoughts out of her head and ignoring the pounding with which they tried to pry her mind open, she started browsing the books. Reading the first page of one book and studying the cover of another, unable to decide on any one book to commit to, she continued to wander.
She loved the Balamb Garden library, she really did. It was large, yet, presumably due to the fact that the students at Garden were on a short vacation and no classes were being conducted, usually deserted. Rinoa loved it – the lack of other students left all the books and the knowledge, feelings and wisdom they contained for her alone to treasure.
Penetrating the bowels of the library deeper, Rinoa was just about to turn a corner to access the non-fiction books that were assorted in a cozy niche when she heard a yelp, followed by rustling and shuffling of paper. Rinoa raised her eyebrows, quickly poked her head around the corner – and froze.
"Zell?!" she asked.
Saying that Rinoa had dreaded the day she would eventually have to talk to Zell again would be a blatant understatement. Rather, it would be far more appropriate to say she was terrified of the day she would have to stop acting like Zell didn't exist and would have to try to resume building the fragile skeleton of a friendship-to-be they had been working on before that night had pulverized it. Because that she would eventually have to acknowledge the blonde martial artist again, she knew – while Squall wasn't the most social person in the world, even he had eyes, and Rinoa was quite sure that a certain female blonde would be quite happy to fill in the blanks for the observationally challenged brunette.
She could just picture it, how it would all end up if she didn't somehow make things right with Zell and return to the way they were before the whole mess happened. Squall standing there, arms crossed over his chest, his cold, emotionless eyes trained on her like twin guns.
"Rinoa, did you sleep with Zell?"
"Uh... oh... what? No.. why... uh... uhhhh...kinda?"
"'Cause he was... there?"
Oh my. Slut alarm. Slut alarm.
While she had always known that the confrontation was but a matter of time, she had been living in fear of it and if the sight in front of her right there at the library hadn't been so completely ridiculous, Rinoa's reaction would likely have been a lot more hostile. Every dread, every horror she had previously felt at the mere thought of talking to the athlete again evaporated as she took in the sight of Zell crouching on the floor, a book with the huge letters Principles of Gynecology and Female Anatomy sprawled across the thick cover a mere inch away from his wrinkled nose, so desperately trying to pretend he was reading that his face was a parody of concentration, complete with wrinkled forehead and drooping tongue. At the sound of her voice, his body jerked. When their eyes met, his jaw dropped.
"Zell?" she asked again, staring at the crouching boy to her feet. "What in the name of all that is holy are you doing on the floor pretending to read a book on gynecology of all things?"
"Gyne... what?" Zell repeated dumbly. "What? No, I'm not!" Panicked, he checked the book in his hands, and dropped it with a yelp as he confirmed its nature. "Oh, man."
Rinoa crossed her arms over her breasts, wrinkling her nose as she regarded the man out of contemplative eyes. An idea coming to her, her eyes slid over to the pig-tailed girl working at the library, catching the girl staring at her with the darkness of jealousy and hostility drawn all across her pretty features. Noticing Rinoa's gaze, she rapidly jerked her head into the other direction and started to busy her hands on the desk, her cheeks blushing a furious red.
Oh. So that's how it was.
"Zell," Rinoa started, her eyes returning to the blonde in front of her, "don't tell me you've been lurking around the library trying gather the courage to go over and talk to that girl?"
"What?" Zell sputtered, finally getting up from his position on the floor, erecting himself to his petite height. "Why would I do that? I mean, that's like.. that's like.. a stalker! And I'm definitely not one of those psychos, nah-uh! Really, I'm not! I mean, why would I ever be to shy to talk to Noeul?"
"Well, let me tell you that you don't have to do this to get her," Rinoa said, a small smile spreading over her face. "She likes you, you know."
"She does!?" Zell exclaimed, his eyes so round and excited that Rinoa couldn't help but laugh. Throughout all this time of regret and worry, she had almost forgotten what it had been that had attracted her to him in the first place. Zell in front of her was brimming with his unmatched youthful energy, so innocent in its very essence. Rinoa's face became more serious at the memory and she stepped into the niche were Zell was standing, vanishing from the sight of the jealous library girl – Noeul, Rinoa remembered Zell telling her - who would hopefully never find out that she had taken the virginity of the boy she liked.
While she had dreaded the moment of meeting Zell so much, actually standing in front of him and looking into his blue, blue eyes proved to be a lot less scary than she had imagined it would. It was true that a certain fear was starting to worm its way into her stomach, but she tried her best to ignore it, to let that voice of reason inside her that had so shamelessly abandoned her once before take the upper hand.
"She does," Rinoa said softly, looking into Zell's eyes. "And judging from.. all this... so do you."
The blonde boy said nothing. An emotion that Rinoa immediately identified as guilt slithered across his face, forced open his mouth and was about to spill out an apology just as Rinoa said, "don't. Don't say you're sorry." She paused, then added, softly, "I've been meaning to talk to you. I've been scared shitless of it, but I still knew it had to be done. Let's talk, Zell. Don't worry... she's out of earshot."
The martial artist started to study his sneakers like a child, and Rinoa sighed, sitting down at the little coffee table placed a few feet away from where they were standing, motioning for Zell to join her. He did, bringing a cloud of embarrassment with him that hung itself over the two people's heads like a heavy curtain, muffling the voices of reason inside Rinoa's head. To her surprise, it was Zell who spoke – well, rather whispered – first.
"I knew that you were scared of talking to me. You avoided me. You haven't talked to me once since we came back from Balamb Town. Nothing. Not even "hello." Absolutely zilch, nada."
And is that any surprise? she mentally spat. Outwardly, she remained silent.
"But I guess... so did I. Avoid you, that is." He paused. "I know you told me not to say sorry, but I just wanted to say, about... that... you know...it... that... about that -"
"I get it!" Rinoa said.
"Um, I just wanted to tell you I... understand. That you like Squall, that it didn't mean anything to you, that I was just... there. I get it, you know. I'm not going to expect anything, demand anything from you for it. I won't tell anyone. I know you don't want me to. And to be honest with you... although I thought I'd be so happy and excited I'd want to run an ad in the newspaper announcing that I, clumsy Zell Dincht, finally lost my virginity... I no longer really want you to tell anyone, either."
During Zell's speech, Rinoa's eyes had crept up from the spot on the floor she had been flexing her eyes upon, had slowly travelled up the length of his body until her eyes had involuntarily plunged themselves into the vibrant dizziness of his. What she had seen there, written in eloquent language, had been real concern. The sincerity with which he presented it found support in his upright posture and body language.
Ridiculous, Rinoa thought. Ridiculous how fast the atmosphere could change, how fast this guy could change – only a few minutes ago, he had been crouching on the floor trying to act like he hadn't been spying on his crush and now he was acting a whole lot more maturely than she was.
Rinoa cleared her throat. "I'm glad...glad you understand," she said. "To be honest, I was very scared of how things would turn out. I was scared of you... of Squall..."
Zell looked at her, still with that seriousness that Rinoa could not help but admire. "I think you are not completely serious about Squall."
"What?" Rinoa asked, irritated. "Please don't talk about things you don't know about. You know I like Squall."
"I know you like him," he answered. "I know you do. But the thing is, you aren't focused enough on him, you don't want him badly enough. You don't really think he's going to fall for you. I think that night was proof of that."
Rinoa said nothing, letting it sink in.
"You know," Zell continued, scratching the back of his head, lost in thought, "I don't know Squall that well or anything, but seriously. You have a special aura about you, a special... radiance, I suppose, strong enough to make a windowsill sag like caramel. I mean, what I mean is, you are charming, and I know that Squall is an ass and all -"
"A real ass," Rinoa added.
"- but he's still a guy, so I think he may not be completely different from me? What I mean is, maybe if you really commit yourself to getting him, then maybe you can. Maybe you really can get him. Focus... know what I mean? Gather your confidence and believe or something?"
"So what you're essentially telling me is to flush my pride down the toilet and to stalk him like you're stalking library girl?" She had intended it as nothing but a light joke, but to her dismay it came out a lot harsher than she had intended.
Zell started to look lost, so he shook his head like a wet puppy. "Never mind. What do I know? I was just thinking..."
"No," Rinoa said quickly. "No... thank you. I was kidding. I appreciate it. Really. Thank you."
Zell broke into his charming, boyish smile. "No prob!"
As soon as the friendly smile that had softened the harsh edges of memories between them had vanished, the comfortable atmosphere ran off right along with it. Plunged into deafening silence once again, they were left with nothing to do other than trail each other's bodies with their eyes and fighting the memories that were trying to sneak their way back into their consciousness. The memories of each other's tastes, each other's sweat and other juices hang inside the room like a phantom, just about ready to jump and obsess them, reaching out its ghostly fingers for them. Shifting in her seat, it was Rinoa who broke the silence first.
"It's so awkward," she started, quietly. "Looking at you, that is."
"That's what I've been wanting to talk to you about," Zell said, a look of shame and sadness on his face. "I know that you want to be friends with me. You need to be friends with me, to pretend like nothing ever happened. But I don't know about girls, but for me, and I think for men in general, it's not so easy...I mean..." he trailed off.
"Go on," Rinoa encouraged him, although she was dreading what he would say next.
He looked up to meet her gaze, his eyes an impossibly clear blue. "It's hard for me to think of you as a friend because of.. what happened. It's -"
"Just call it by its name," Rinoa interrupted him. "We had sex."
Zell flinched. "I suppose... we...had...that. Sex."
"So, what was I saying? Oh yeah. I don't know what you feel, but for me, it's hard to think of you as a friend after we... had sex." He paused. "I mean, it's not like I like you or anything... I mean.. Oh no...I'm sorry... no offense...!"
"I mean it's not like I want you to be my girlfriend, it's just that whenever I look at you... I remember. And the memories... they push me away. And that makes it hard for me to be comfortable around you."
Rinoa closed her eyes, breathing in deeply. "I know what you mean. I feel the same way. Isn't it strange how sex is like that? How it is the act of creation, yet it has the power of destruction? How it can drive people apart just as much as it can bind them together?" Rinoa, realizing how emotional she had started to sound, trailed off, embarrassedly flexing her eyes upon her hands buried in her lap, silently wishing that Zell hadn't noticed.
That wish wasn't granted to her.
"Was that what happened with you and Seifer?" Zell blurted out.
Rinoa, although deeply embarrassed, raised one eyebrow. "Look what happened. I sleep with you and you assume I'm a slut."
"What?" Zell breathed. "No! No, no, no, no, where did I say that?"
"You assume I slept with Seifer," Rinoa said, making a mock-insulted face. "You probably think I sleep with every male who isn't on the trees by the count of three. Tsk. That's what I get for having been attracted to your cute butt."
"What? Rinoa, no! I didn't mean -" Zell sputtered, looking on the verge of panic. Suddenly, his face lightened up. "Wait, did you just say I had a cute... what?"
She giggled, waving one hand dismissively at the excited blonde, who she could hear making half-skeptical, half-disappointed noises. When Rinoa had composed herself, she leaned forward in the chair, her features hardening once more as seriousness returned. "Thanks," she said with meaning. "Thanks for understanding. I also understand that we can't go back to the way things were within a few days. I know that it will take time, but as long as we try to be comfortable around each other... eventually, I think we can find it again. That zone of comfort we had." She smiled faintly. "And focus on our respective crushes, I suppose."
Zell reciprocated her smile, and Rinoa felt the weight of all her worries being lifted off of her. It felt like she landed on the hard concrete after floating a foot over the ground with what Zell said next.
"But hey, I've been thinking." He wrinkled his nose and pursed his lips in distaste. "If I fucked you but Seifer fucked you first... ew, am I in any way connected to Seifer?"
"What?!"Rinoa spat, eyes widening.
"I mean," Zell continued, lost in thought, "does that mean Seifer and I are like bros or something? Only I'm the inferior one because I was second? Hey, that can't happen! I can't let that bully get the best of me, leave the sloppy seconds for me! I – ouch!"
Rinoa had lightly punched his forehead. "Who bashed in your head, you idiot?" she demanded, but the first hints of amusement were already starting to sneak their way into her voice. "Sloppy whats?"
Zell looked at her defiantly, rubbing his forehead. "I was just thinking... me and Seifer... definitely cannot happen, you know? I mean, I've heard of those guys who trade girls, they call each other semen brothers, you know? And I mean... me and Seifer? Absolutely not! Gah! Ugh! Oh man..."
That's when the black-haired girl couldn't take it anymore. Letting herself flop back into the chair, she threw her head back and laughed, the clear sound of her laughter filling the empty library, surely also making its way down to the pig-tailed girl, even stimulating Zell to join in. Together, they laughed, and afterwards, neither could have told you for how long they had been sharing this moment for, for how long they had sat there, dissolving their fears and worries to re-shape them into the bliss of laughter. Cleansed of fear and anxiety for the moment, they looked at each other after they had composed themselves, searching each other's sweaty faces, each other's glowing eyes, reading the knowledge that they wouldn't let themselves be torn apart by memories on each other's faces.
Rinoa sighed contently, a smile softly playing around the edges of her lips. Yes, it would take time, and not just a little of it. And maybe, just maybe, the memory would always remain.
But maybe, they would be able to turn that memory into a pleasant one. Would joke about it in a year's time or two or three; would stop regretting and derive the images of all their destructive and divisive power. Rinoa, right then and there, was sure that they could.
"Hey, Zell," she said, smiling, "let's go to the caferia. I'm buying."