Author's Notes: Worknig on many things, including a revamp of By the Book. I'm not posting any more stories until they're completed, so you get this.

Rating: R for language.

It's masochism, plain and simple; she knew it from the beginning, knew in her heart that he would always be looking through her and she couldn't change a thing, yet she can't stop going to him again and again just for that tiny drop of pleasure buried under all the smothering pain.

She really and truly thought she was normal - not that leading a group of mercenaries on raids or drifting in and out of four or five dimensions hunting an ages-old sorceress are normal by any stretch - but she always assumed that she would grow up, meet a nice boy, get married and start a normal little family, at the very least. She always assumed she was a step or two above debasing herself daily (or nightly, as the case may be, but doesn't that just make her sound like a common whore?) for the priveledge of putting her hands on a paragon of masculine beauty who couldn't give two snaps if she's so in love with him that even his disregard takes her breath away.

She doesn't know if Squall keeps it up because he's her Knight or (and if she thinks this when they're in bed she breaks out in goosebumps, every time) because screwing Seifer's ex is the closest he can get to the man himself.

It's no secret that Squall's mad for the blond bastard: even if he didn't spend every spare moment scanning reports, ringing other Garden officers and - only Rinoa knows this one - scouring bars and back alleys and morgues for any sign of a tall and scarred blond who may or may not be completely mad at this point, even then anyone who has ever seen Squall and Seifer in the same room knows they live in their own little world full of violence, anger and - who knows if it's love or hate but they thrive on it and it's impressive as hell to watch.

It's always a game to find words to describe Squall, 'tactiturn' and 'pensive' being among the more politic, ranging down to 'creepy' and 'weird' with his gunblade students. Quistis likes 'aloof' and Zell, never one to split hairs, goes for 'that cold bastard' whenever said bastard is out of earshot. But when Seifer was there, when they faced each other embroiled in an emotional storm of their own making, then - then there really weren't words at all.

The world has shifted since Seifer disappeared: Squall's lost most of the fire that carried him through the fight against Ultimecia and, while Rinoa's content enough with what she's got - that vital passion was never meant for her anyhow - the rest of the former team treads on eggshells around their commander and, though it's easy to forget for how much he seems to care, childhood friend.

There are times, watching Squall glaring at the horizon like he believes Seifer's just over the next hill, hiding from him for the sole purpose of pissing him off and, Hyne, maybe he is because only Seifer could ever make Squall suffer like this, Rinoa can feel the tension wrapped about him, pulled so tight that it just has to snap any moment, and even she can't stop herself from glancing out the windows, waiting for Seifer to come strolling up and finally end this, shatter the hollow tableau that is Squall's ceaseless humming anticipation and let them all get back to their lives.

Rinoa's really not sure where that leaves her, if Squall's going to throw Seifer on the first flat surface he finds and fuck him boneless or if he'll keep Rinoa around and settle for pounding Seifer with his fists like they're still stubborn, overly-competitive children. Even if she's just a replacement, just a convenient warm body, it doesn't change the fact that she's the only one allowed that close to Squall, the only one to touch his bare flesh since last Seifer did. She doesn't want to give it up if she can help it, and the knowledge that it's not her choice has her nerves just as brittle as Squall's have been for weeks as she watches him watching the sunset, waiting for a silhouette on the horizon.

Her only explaination is they've all been expecting it for so long that they've begun hallucinating, because it surely couldn't be that perfect, the dark shape of a tall man trudging stolidly across the field toward Balamb Garden, toward the window where Squall still stands watching, not making any show of having noticed the most important person - hell, maybe the only person - in his world coming back at long fucking last, but Rinoa sees the rigid stance, the frozen stare like he's calculating the seconds it's going to take him to fly down the elevator, through the halls and to the gate so he can meet Seifer at the door and force him to fight for the right to enter.

He surprises her, though - her and everyone else - as he casually takes her hand and leads her on a leisurely stroll through Garden. She's not surprised when they come to a stop in front of a dirty and disheveled Seifer. He looks exhausted, looks like he's been walking nonstop back to Balamb from the other side of the planet, but when his eyes meet Squall's there's an almost visible current of electricity that brings him back to life and draws a wry smirk across his chapped lips.

They stand and stare, not moving a muscle, and Rinoa's just getting to wondering how long it can go on, the continually building of anticipartory energy between them, when Squall spins her around - eyes never leaving Seifer - and kisses her - with more force than finesse - and she realizes with a bone-melting weakness that it was pitiably presumptiuous to ever think of herself as a replacement for Seifer. She's a pawn at best, one more possession in their eternal game of one-upmanship, and, noting Seifer's suddenly sadistic smile, she plunges her tongue into Squall'S mouth and decides she can live with that, too.