Maybe I'm just an idiot.
He could hear the music inside the dance hall as the annual summer Garden Festival continued on into the early hours of the morning. The new SeeDs were celebrating as only joyous teenagers could, and his role in the ceremony had long since passed. Voices could be heard mingling and the Garden band was changing its melody, switching to a new song.
Squall Leonhart ran a hand over the stone balcony railing, his bare fingers brushing along the rough, pitted surface. He glanced to his left, where she had been standing this time last year, and instead found himself looking out over the dark blanket of the ocean, stretching on into the invisible horizon.
"You may have forgotten, but there's a party going on in there," came Irvine's familiar voice. The Galbadian cowboy stepped out onto the balcony, and leaned against the stone arch that framed the passage into the ballroom. "And the Commander's conspicuously absent, out here on the balcony all alone. Some of the new kids are wondering what's up with that."
"Kids?" Squall echoed, and glanced back. "Irvine, you're maybe a year older than most of them."
"Well," the sharpshooter replied, shrugging. "I do think we have the right to call them kids, saving the world and time itself and all." Squall's body shook with a single short laugh, and he resumed studying the waves and the beach.
"Well, hey, if you want to mope like this be my guest," the Galbadian added. He started to walk back out of the balcony, when he paused.
"Oh, one more thing," he said. "She's back."
Squall did not reply, but the sharpshooter saw the subtle stiffening of his posture, and knew his feelings all to well: fear. Fear that her return would break him out of the semi-stable mold he had worked into over the last few months, fear that he would once again throw everything aside for her, and fear that she would reject him, leaving him alone again.
"She's looking for you," Irvine added after a moment. "Maybe you should go find her?" When Squall didn't respond again, Irvine sighed and shook his head.
"I have no idea what she saw in you, man," he remarked. "Get over this thing and grow a spine." With that, Irvine turned and stepped back inside the ballroom.
"Irvy!" came a shout, and Squall glanced back over his shoulder to see tiny blur shoot across the room. Selphie, clad in her usual yellow sundress, rushed toward the sharpshooter and leapt at him, slamming into the taller figure and wrapping her arms around his neck. She planted her lips against his ferociously, and the Galbadian stumbled backward into the wall next to the doorway. For an instant he stood stunned, before reciprocating, hugging her as well even as she hung off his neck and shoulders.
After a moment, Selphie broke the kiss, leaning back and smiling, her emerald eyes gleaming.
"Hi," she said with a giggle, and Irvine laughed as well.
"Hi there," he replied.
"You finally woke up for the Festival," she said as he let her drop back to the floor. "I was worried I was going to have to go back and kick you until you got up."
"Well, you know," he answered as they walked away. "Being awesome is tiring . . . ."
Squall watched them leave, amazed by the unbridled affection the two showed these days. While Irvine was quite the flirt and an amorous man, he had wholeheartedly latched onto Selphie when they had met and had given her his full and undivided attention. The smaller SeeD had reciprocated, and within a few months they had gone from being friends to lovers.
But what about me and Rinoa? We were head over heels too, just like them, but how did I let her slip away? Was I just not ready for this?
Maybe that was it, he mused. He gazed down at the ocean and considered how things had so quietly fallen apart. His emotions had been a jumbled mess after the war, and she had sorted them out, but he had no idea where to go with their relationship or what to do. It had been all so new to him . . . .
"I am an idiot," he whispered, shaking his head and clenching the stone railing. Weak, ineffective, unable to give Rinoa what she had really wanted . . . Irvine was right. What had she seen in him that attracted her?
"So, he's here?" she asked, and Zell nodded. He swallowed quickly, almost choking on the hot dog and feeling a pang of regret for consuming something so perfect too quickly to really enjoy it.
"Moping around," the brawler replied, shaking his head. "Quiet, or at least quieter than usual, keeps to himself, doesn't socialize with anyone, spends all his time in the office or training . . . ."
"You mean he's the same as always," Rinoa replied with a slight grin, and Zell chuckled. He took another bite of his exquisitely designed hot dog - piled with horseradish and barbeque sauce - and chewed thoughtfully. Across from him, Rinoa picked as a sandwich she'd gotten from the refreshments table across the ballroom. She could hear the orchestra below and laughter from the casually dressed SeeDs and cadets enjoying this year's Garden Festival.
She wished she could join them.
"You know," Zell said after a few moments of contemplation, "He reminds me of when you were in that coma, right after Good Hope." Rinoa looked up, curious, because she had no idea how Squall had acted back in those days. He'd always kept quiet about it, and had only second-hand stories from her other friends.
"What do you mean?"
"Well, after you went under, he started moping around like this. He didn't care about the job, his duties, or even cleaning up after the battle. All he cared about was you. I think he's doing the same thing now, but he keeps himself buried in his work because he doesn't have you around to focus on. He's hurting, but he's trying to hide it, like he always has."
Rinoa listened to Zell's words, surprised to hear something so insightful coming from the brawler. Usually, the only things to come out of his mouth while eating were chunks of hot dog he'd only partly chewed.
She looked up at the archway at the sound of a giggle, and saw Irvine and Selphie walking toward their table, arm in arm. They sat down, the cowboy taking off his hat politely as they settled in.
"How is he?" Rinoa asked, and Selphie made a face.
"He's Squall," she replied. "Acting like a kid out of a bad prime-time soap opera."
"You eat those up with a fork and spoon, Selphie," Irvine replied, and she elbowed him in the stomach. He doubled over slightly, grunting.
"'Keep your friends close . . . .'" he muttered, and Selphie giggled again.
"Seriously, though, he's pretty down," Irvine continued after a second. "Guy's got some issues."
"Maybe I should just go out there and talk to him," Rinoa suggested, and was about to stand when Zell reached out and grabbed her arm. Rinoa was about to shrug him off when she caught the brawler gesturing with his head toward the archway. Rinoa looked up, and spotted a blonde woman slipping out onto the balcony, and nodded, before sitting back down.
Maybe Quistis could get through to him where Irvine couldn't.
She stepped out onto the balcony, and sighed as she saw him leaning over the railing. It reminded her far too much of how she'd found him last year, after Rinoa had slipped away from him at the graduation dance.
"You look like you're enjoying yourself," she remarked, deciding on a little bit of biting sarcasm. That would catch him off guard, and she was rewarded by seeing him look up, eyebrows raised.
"I like the ocean," he replied, his voice neutral, and audible shrug in his tone.
"There's a party going on inside, yet you seem to want to hang around out here," Quistis continued, and Squall grunted.
"You sound like Irvine," he remarked. "It doesn't sound better in stereo."
His deadpan delivery made Quistis snicker after a moment, and then she nodded, leaning against the railing beside him.
"Okay," she said, calling off the verbal fencing match. "You need to get over this."
"Surround sound," Squall muttered, looking away. "Need to be more original if you're going to give me one of your lectures on how much of an idiot I am." Quistis nodded again, and decided to change things up. She had expected to throw out another lecture like the one she'd beat him with on the Ragnarok, but he was far too wary for such a blunt tactic to work.
Conversations with him had always been like a game of chess, she mused, and then switched gears. Instead of browbeating him into understanding how dumb he was - he'd already come to that conclusion, she could see - Quistis chose to simply . . . talk.
"You never told me when you two started to split up," she remarked, and Squall shook his head.
"It wasn't right away," he replied as he leaned over the balcony railing. "I just . . . started to wonder why. I started to ask myself why we were together in the first place, and whether this was really where I wanted to go. Whether this was really somewhere she wanted to go."
He paused, staring out over the sea and the faintest lightening of the eastern sky.
"I was always out on patrols or missions," he continued. "I started to lead more squads and platoons out on jobs. I didn't want to be away from her, but I needed to think. I needed to get into the job, to get back to a place where I understood who and what I was."
"And while you were thinking for yourself," Quistis added, stepping up beside him. "You let her slip away."
He was silent for several moments, only watching the ocean and the sky. After a moment, Quistis put a hand on his shoulder, but he didn't react.
"Squall," she whispered. "Everyone looks for a place in this world, somewhere . . . where they can be happy, where they can be comfortable. A safe place where they know everything, understand everything. For you, that safe place is the mission, the job, with a gunblade and an enemy."
He remained motionless for several more moments, before slowly lowering his head.
"But is that something she wants?" he whispered, his voice almost lost under the call of the ocean waves. "A mercenary? Did she want someone whose career would keep him away all the time?" he shook his head. "Even when I tried to stay with her, we were apart so often. Rinoa never got to see me much after the Garden Festival."
Squall straightened, standing up.
"All I know is the job," he remarked. "All I know is killing. That's all I've ever learned, how to kill people. I spent my whole life learning to become a SeeD, and now here I am, doing what I always wanted, and finding out that I'm not even sure its what I need anymore." His fingers clenched the stone railing tightly in helpless anger.
Silence stretched across the balcony as Quistis considered his words, and thought back to the talk she'd had with him back in the Training Center's hidden area, and how different this Squall was. Some tiny part of her just wanted to blow him off in retaliation for what he did back then, when she was just as vulnerable, but she buried that base impulse just as quickly.
Instead, Quistis watched him as he berated himself for his failings, like he always had in the past. She knew how he'd torn himself up inside when he felt he had made mistakes, and she knew that he had to be feeling horrible right now, torn between conflicting duties to himself, his people, and to the person he cared about the most.
A long time ago, she thought she was in love with him, but now, he was just a friend, a dear friend who needed help . . . Help that she knew she couldn't give him. But she could steer him in the right direction.
"Squall," she said after a moment, and stepped behind him, putting both hands on his shoulders. "Squall, no matter what happens, no matter where you go or how much you tear yourself up . . . she still loves you."
He went rigid at that, and Quistis could hear his breathing slow, and she knew he had heard her and understood what she had said. With that, Quistis squeezed his shoulders in reassurance, and then turned and walked back inside, leaving Squall alone with that thought as the sun began to rise.
They watched as Quistis walked back inside, the sky lightening behind her. She stepped toward their table, and glanced back outside, before leaning close to Rinoa's ear.
"I just dropped the bomb. Better get to the LZ while he's still recovering."
Rinoa's heart started hammering as she looked around the table, meeting the eyes of each of her friends, and every one of them offered nothing but hope and encouragement. They'd stood behind her and Squall since the moment they realized what was happening between the pair, and they stood with her now.
Rinoa stood up, trying to slow down her heart as she stepped around the table and walked toward the balcony archway.
She still loves me.
He wasn't sure how long that thought had echoed in his head as the sun continued its slow ascent into the sky, enlightening the world. As each second passed, the words became stronger and stronger, echoing over and over in his mind, brightening his heart even as the sun brightened the sky.
She still loves me. She hasn't hated me for leaving her. She hadn't given up on me when I pushed her away.
Those simple facts renewed and redoubled the resolve in his mind, and he pushed himself up off the balcony. If she still loved him, if she still wanted him to be in her life like he wanted her, then he would be damned if he would let her slip away again. He was gong to go out there, right now, to find her and-
"Hey," came a sudden, unexpected, but intimately familiar voice.
Squall's heart skipped a beat, and he went rigid once more, looking out over the ocean, as she stepped out onto the balcony with him.
She watched him, uncertain. Rinoa knew that little tic of his, how he would look away when he was thinking or didn't want to show any emotions, just like when they had met so long ago. It had faded over the months they had spent together, but now it was back in full force, the sign of a man who either didn't want to let someone in, or was too afraid to expose himself.
"Irvine and Quistis said you were out here," she said, her voice splitting the tense air, and she edged forward, watching him carefully. "I came up to see how you were doing. Its been a few months, hasn't it?"
"Yeah," he replied, quietly, his voice barely audible over the ocean waves. "Too long."
"Listen, I know that things have been . . . ." she trailed off for an instant, reconsidering her words. "Do you think we went too fast?"
"What?" he asked, and slowly turned toward her, his features shifting to confusion.
"I don't think you were ready," she continued quietly, stepping a little bit closer to him. "It was all so sudden and so fast, and I'm not sure if you were ready for something that intense."
"Intense?" he echoed, and closed his eyes. "Rinoa, I was . . . I needed you, more than I realized, and when I started depending on you, I was afraid. I was afraid what this job would do to us. I let you slip away because I was afraid, and . . . ."
"You don't need to be afraid," she responded, stepping in close and putting a hand on his shoulder. "I . . . I want you to be comfortable first, before we start . . . ."
He turned his gaze toward her, and she stopped speaking as she saw the expression, the pain, in his eyes. There was silence for several long moments, and then his head shot forward, his moth closing over hers in a sudden rush of passion and need. Rinoa was caught off-guard, but only for a moment, and pressed back, pulling him in closer, her response answering his unstated question.
I want you back, too.
"Squall," she breathed as they broke, looking up into his face, and saw that same fiery determination that she knew, that she had loved.
"I let you go, Rinoa," he whispered quietly and fiercely. "Never, ever let me do that again."
She was about to speak, to say something, when he kissed her again, even more passionately than before, pulling her tight and close. She closed her arms around him, her chest shaking with laughter as she returned the kiss, even as the sun began to bless Garden with its light.
One of my favorite webcomics is The Order of the Stick, and one of my favorite subplots of OOTS was the Haley and Elan romance story. Naturally, when the 400th strip consummated the ongoing romantic subplot, I let out a fangirlish "Squeeeee!" at the strip, which filled me with all manner of happiness and warmth. That strip inspired me to write this one-shot.
Those who are aware of how OOTS operates would note that the 400th strip went up way back in the early months of 2007, and I wrote about half of this then. The other half came together over an hour of random boredom punctuated by me finally getting the inspiration to finish off this story. I was planning on putting it up as a Christmas thingy, but my muse said to wait a bit, so I did, until my inspiration and writer's edge were sharpened again. So, here's a New Year's present to all my readers and all fans of fluffy, happy fanfiction everywhere!