Midnight in Balamb

By Ronin-ai

Disclaimer: These characters are property of Squaresoft, and I'm only borrowing them. No infringement is intended, just some lighthearted entertainment.

March 17, Friday morning, 9:15 am. Squall eyed the clock on his desk for what seemed the hundredth time and sighed, realizing that it was shaping up to be a really long day if he was watching the clock only fifteen minutes into his workday. Swiping his long, reddish brown bangs away from his eyes, he sighed again and returned his attention to the stack of paper that he'd been dreading having to deal with.

The weekly reports. I hate this part of the job, he thought. He almost wished that some country or other would attack someone just to give him something more stimulating to do than review stacks of paperwork all day. Despite his exasperation with that part of the job however, he knew that it was important, because the stack of paperwork actually contained vital information: intelligence reports from certain countries assessing their current situations with an eye to future employment, progress reports from SeeD teams currently out on active duty, requests for SeeD assistance from some of those same countries that he'd received intelligence on…. The list went on.

As the SeeD Commander, he was the one who had to review those reports and make decisions on where and when and how many SeeD to send out on a particular hire, and even if they were going to approve a request for SeeD or not. He took his job very seriously. Fortunately, he wasn't in charge of the academic aspect of Balamb Garden. Headmaster Cid had wisely kept that job for himself, at least until he could find a suitable replacement.

It was no secret that he wanted to retire, recent events had put a great deal of strain upon him and he wanted nothing more than to retire to Centra with his wife Edea and rebuild his life with her now that the very reason for SeeD and Balamb Garden had been eradicated with Ultimecia's defeat. He knew, as did Squall, that while SeeD's purpose had been accomplished, it had been done in a time far into the future, so SeeD had to continue up until that time at least. But Cid didn't want the responsibility any more, so he left most of it up to Squall, and concentrated on simply heading the academic department instead.

While Squall was getting used to being The Commander, there were times that he resented having had that responsibility thrust upon him. Times when he longed to just go out and hunt monsters, hang out with friends, now that he actually had some, be with Rinoa… anything but be stuck behind a desk. I am just NOT cut out to be a desk jockey. He sighed again and glanced out the window, noting that the day was bright and sunny, though still a bit cool, as it was mid-March and spring was just barely making its appearance. It's gotta be spring fever; I just need to get out and get some fresh air. Maybe Rinoa would like to walk into Balamb for lunch or something…

As though summoned by his thoughts, the door to Squall's office opened and Rinoa came in, returning his somewhat dour expression with a cheery smile as she bounced exuberantly up to Squall's desk and plopped her shapely backside onto it. Squall glowered up at her in irritation as she reached out one of her fingers and toyed with his long forelock.

"Hi sweetie. You look like you could use a distraction." She said, brown eyes sparkling.

She's right there, he thought, trying hard to hold onto his irritation, but feeling it seep slowly away as she turned up the wattage on her smile.

"Rinoa, I'm trying to work." He said flatly. Rinoa only laughed brightly, recognizing the signs of Squall's inner battle and knowing that he was losing. She could already see his aqua eyes beginning to lighten, and the tight line of his lips was beginning to relax into the barest hint of a smile.

Leaning forward, she gave him a whisper of a kiss on the tip of his nose and replied, "I know, and it looks like you're working way too hard already. I just thought I'd pop in and say hi, and to let you know that it's Zell's birthday today and he's having a quote 'hellacious party' at his mom's house tonight. Everyone's invited, and I know Zell would be thrilled if you showed up."

Squall groaned and hid his face in one hand, and then peeked at Rinoa through his fingers shaking his head, "I don't have time for this…"

Rinoa folded her arms and gave him a stern look and said, "Yes you do. C'mon Squall, it'll be fun. You need to get out and lighten up, you're way too young to be this…this stuffy." Squall dropped his hand onto his desk with a thud and glared at her.

"I am not stuffy." He said stiffly.

Rinoa laughed at his affronted expression and said sweetly, "Yes, you are. But I love you anyway." Rinoa hopped off the desk and smiled gently at Squall's blush. He was still new at this relationship thing, so his reactions were unpredictable and oftentimes hard for him to hide. Rinoa thought that those few, brief moments when the real Squall peeked out from behind his mask to be his most charming ones, and they made his sometimes-difficult attitude easier to take.

She swung around, still smiling at his bemused expression and sauntered to the door, saying simply, "The party starts at seven. I'll meet you there." With a final flick of her fingers as she waved farewell to him, Rinoa left Squall alone with his paperwork. He blinked as the door closed and then frowned fiercely at it. Jeez, he thought. She always does this to me. Why do I always have to get all stupid around her? She waltzes in here and shoots my concentration all to hell…he shook his head and forcibly turned his attention to the nearly forgotten work on his desk, then groaned again and slapped the palm of his hand against his forehead as he realized that she had outmaneuvered him yet again, because there was no way in hell he would let her walk to Balamb alone. Might as well leave early so I can figure out what to get Zell for a present…

Squall turned back to his reports with a final glare at the offending door, and a muttered, "I am not stuffy."

He presented himself at Rinoa's dorm room at 6 o'clock sharp, hoping to catch her before she left, and he breathed a sigh of relief when he saw her exiting her dorm room just as he was about to knock.

She smiled slyly at him and said, "Well, well. Is my loyal knight here to escort me to the ball?" She batted her eyes at him in an exaggerated manner and Squall bit back a smile.

With a deadpan look on his face he asked, "Is there something in your eye?"

Rinoa's response was to pout, "Meanie."

Rinoa stole a glance out of the corner of her eye at Squall as they began walking and saw his lips twitching at the corners as he shot back, "Brat."

Rinoa couldn't hold back any longer and she burst into laughter and threaded her arm through his. A slight chuckle was all she managed to get out of Squall, but even that was more response than most people had managed to get out of him.

With his aquamarine eyes sparkling with humor and his expression lightened by a smile instead of the usual blank expression or the fierce scowl that he habitually wore; he looked just exactly like what he was, an exceptionally handsome teenager. The only thing that detracted from that image was the scar that marred his face. It didn't diminish his looks at all, but the scar, and the eyes on either side of it, told the story of a young man who had experienced far more than his years could account for.

Even with humor in his gaze, Rinoa could still see the shadows in his eyes, which made him look far older than his true age. She felt a brief surge of anger and sadness for the circumstances of his life that had stolen his childhood from him. He's only seventeen, she thought sadly, and he looks almost thirty. He needs this, far more than he'd like to admit. I hope he lets himself relax and have some fun for a change.

Squall for his part walked along in silence, wondering at the pensive expression on Rinoa's face, but more relaxed and at ease than he'd been all day. But that was always how it was, when he was with her. His tensions and worries seemed to melt away in the face of her joyful attitude, and her sunny disposition lightened the dark corners of his own personality. He wasn't much for small talk, and fortunately Rinoa had gotten used to his silences, and had even gotten pretty good at reading them. Half the time, I simply don't know what to say or I'm not in the mood to talk. He thought, either way, I'd much rather keep quiet than simply prattle on about nothing and look like a complete idiot.

He smiled slightly as Rinoa made to turn in the direction of the main entrance, and he halted her for a brief moment, saying softly, "You look good."

Rinoa smiled at him and did a little pirouette, saying, "You like this dress? I just got it the other day, and I thought I'd wear it tonight." The garment in question was a bright, shimmering blue, cut short enough to show off her long legs, and with a neckline cut just low enough to cause Squall's temperature to shoot up several degrees. It wasn't overtly daring, instead it hinted at the luscious contours contained within, rather than displaying them openly. Rinoa saw Squall's cheeks redden and smiled as the dress had achieved its desired effect. Belatedly, Squall realized that Rinoa was waiting for a response from him, and he shook himself out of his distraction and took her arm again, continuing their walk toward the main gate.

After a few minutes, he said, "I …uh, I like the color…and um, the rest of it too." Rinoa smiled again, thinking, he's making progress.

Tilting her head up at him as they walked, Rinoa replied, "Thank you. You look pretty good yourself, but then, you always do." Squall shrugged in reply. He didn't dress any differently than he normally did, with his leather jacket and pants, white t-shirt and his Lionheart belted at his side. The early spring weather was still refreshingly cool and he was comfortably warm in his leather outfit, though he wondered about Rinoa and the brief dress she was wearing. The wind that teased his unruly reddish-brown hair had a definite bite to it, and Rinoa shivered visibly.

Wordlessly, Squall removed his jacket and draped it around her shoulders, saying, "You should have worn a coat."

Rinoa laughed softly and snuggled into the warm jacket, saying, "And miss the chance to wear yours? Are you nuts?" Then she added with a sideways smile at him, "Besides, I like the way it smells."

He gave her a puzzled look, "Why?" he asked.

She gave him a flirtatious glance, "It smells like you."

He simply stared at her as he walked, completely thrown. Its just soap, I don't use any of that crap that Irvine's always dousing himself with. What's the big deal?

Finally he shook his head and gave up trying to figure it out, and instead replied, "Whatever."

Rinoa simply laughed and they continued on their way to Balamb in companionable silence. As they walked, Rinoa noticed Squall's brows knitted in the frown he always wore when he was thinking hard, and she wondered what he had on his mind.

She was about to take a chance on asking him when they finally entered Balamb and he told her, "I need to stop at the shop here for a minute. Can you wait here?" Rinoa tilted her head at him curiously and was going to ask him why she couldn't just go in with him, when she noticed his slightly uncomfortable expression. Ah, he's going to get something for Zell, and he feels a little awkward about it. And true to his nature, Squall tended to isolate himself when he felt awkward.

Instead, she smiled at him and said, "Sure, I'll be waiting. Don't take too long."

All right. So what am I going to get him anyway? Squall wandered around the shop aimlessly while trying to think of something that Zell might like. He felt oddly exposed with just his t-shirt on; he never realized how much like armor his jacket was until he'd taken it off and lent it to Rinoa. Rubbing his arms against the slight chill seeping in from the open door, he perused the shelves and frowned at the meager selection. They don't even have the current issue of Combat King. Sheesh. Not that I would get that for him anyway, that would be a totally LAME birthday present, even I can see THAT.

He almost wished that he'd had Rinoa come in with him, but he wanted to do this for himself for a change, especially after what had happened on her birthday, two weeks ago. He shuddered at the memory. He should have known better than to follow Irvine's advice, especially since it was more suited to his playboy image than to Squall's more low-key personality. Fortunately, Rinoa was a forgiving sort, particularly where he was concerned, but it had been an uncomfortable few days while she had been working up to it.

To this day, Irvine swore that he didn't know what had gotten Rinoa so upset, since he'd gotten the very same sort of gift for a number of his various girlfriends, and they had been perfectly thrilled. After thinking about it for a while, Squall decided that that itself had been the problem. Rinoa was unique, and special, and to be given something so…not, had rendered the gift and the gesture it represented completely meaningless. He doubted that Zell's reaction to an unsatisfactory gift would have quite the impact that Rinoa's had, but he really didn't want to take a chance on disappointing yet another friend.

Besides, he found that he actually wanted to get something for Zell, a realization that came as a shock to him. Well, I guess I do kind of like the guy, even though he can be a real pain sometimes. Funny thing is he's actually OLDER than I am; my birthday's not until August…and he acts like he's YOUNGER. Weird.

Squall had made his way to the back of the shop while lost in thought, and had examined and discarded several possibilities. He had two in mind that he thought might be appropriate, but he was undecided as to which would be the better gift. One, a pair of fighting gloves, might be useful, but Zell already had the best pair that gil could buy. A new hanging bag was a possibility, but he didn't think that Zell actually had a need for it, since the one he currently had was still in pretty good shape. Squall shook his head in frustration and was about to walk out and make his apologies to Zell when he arrived empty handed when he caught sight of the perfect gift, hidden in a corner behind the counter where the proprietor of the place waited on the few other customers that had come into the shop while Squall had been busy wandering around.

Approaching the man, Squall indicated the item and asked, "Is that for sale?"

The man looked over to where Squall had pointed and shrugged, "Sure. Some kid put it on hold a couple of weeks ago and never came back for it. I was just about to put it back on the shelf. You interested?" Squall nodded. This'll be perfect, Zell's going to love this, he thought, with a smile twitching at the corners of his lips.

Reaching for his wallet, he asked the man, "How much?"

Squall emerged from the shop just as Rinoa had decided to go in and get him, a long wrapped package under one arm and an apologetic look on his face as he realized how long he'd taken.

"Sorry it took so long. Let's go." He took her arm again and they continued walking the short distance remaining to Ma Dincht's home.

While they walked, Rinoa stewed inwardly until she finally blurted out, "So? What'd you get?" Squall raised an eyebrow at her question but otherwise remained silent, the small smile on his face giving him an almost impish look.

Rinoa glared at him. "Squall…."

He shook his head, saying, "You'll find out when we get there. It won't be long."

Rinoa pouted and slapped him playfully on the arm, saying, "Meanie!"

Squall gave a slight laugh and retorted, "Brat."

Then he turned to knock on the door to the Dincht home. They were a little bit early, but Squall figured that Zell's mother wouldn't mind.

Ma Dincht opened the door immediately, admitting them with a huge smile on her face as she said happily, "Commander Leonhart! Rinoa! Thank you both for coming, Zell's going to be so happy that you were able to come!" She ushered them to the dining room where a side table had been set up as a place for all of Zell's gifts. Squall was surprised to see that there were quite a lot of them. For some reason he felt a pang strike him in the vicinity of his heart, and he shook off the dim memories of past disappointments.

He handed the package to Zell's mother and said "Here. And please, its just Squall."

Ma Dincht took the package with a smile, wondering about the solemn expression on the young man's face. From what she had learned from Zell, this young man had been instrumental in saving the world from a horrible fate. The occupation of Balamb by the Galbadian army had been bad enough, but according to Zell, that would have been only the beginning if this sorceress Ultimecia had gotten her way. Zell had a great deal of respect for Squall, and his admiration showed in what he had told her about him. Some of the things that she had learned about Squall had saddened her, and she could see that the young man bore more scars than what showed on the surface. Still, he seemed happy enough in Rinoa's company, and Mrs. Dincht hoped that she would help him find some healing for his inner wounds.

Ushering them to the family room of her smallish home, Ma Dincht said, "Make yourself at home. I've set up a buffet of snacks, and I've got some punch over there if you're thirsty. Zell should be down in a minute, and once everyone else arrives, we'll get things started." Mrs. Dincht bustled off and Squall turned to Rinoa, tilting his head toward the buffet table and the punch at the end of it.

"Want anything?" He asked her. Rinoa walked up to him and took his hand, frowning at the black leather gloves that he always seemed to wear.

Running her fingers over the smooth leather, Rinoa asked, "Don't you ever take these off?" Squall shrugged and took them off immediately, stuffing the gloves into the pocket of his pants.

"Forgot to. Sorry." He said. The feel of her soft, smooth hands in his was very distracting. Even more distracting than the dress she wore or the intoxicating scent that always seemed to hang about her.

So distracting that he almost missed her next question.

"I said; why do you always wear them? Its not that cold here."

He looked at her blankly for a moment, then patted the handle of his gunblade, and said succinctly, "Blisters. Hate 'em. Next question?" he asked with a grin.

Rinoa grinned back, "When are you going to get me some punch and cookies?"

The party had gotten underway just a few minutes later with the arrival of Quistis, Selphie and Irvine. Zell's girlfriend, the shy, pretty girl that worked in the library, had already been there when Squall and Rinoa had arrived. Squall had never caught her name, and was debating with himself on whether or not he should ask Zell about her. Then he shook his head at the absurd idea, wondering why it even mattered to him. If Zell wanted anyone to know, he'd introduce her. In fact, he had, but Squall had been elsewhere at that moment.

Zell was excited by all the attention, and he happily chatted with his friends while his favorite music blared in the background. Squall wondered how Zell's mother could stand it, because the music was starting to give him a headache. The party was starting to heat up though as more and more people from Garden began to show up. Zell was dancing with his girlfriend, while Irvine cozied up in the corner with Selphie. Rinoa circulated throughout the party, chatting and laughing, and Squall envied her ease with people.

He took another drink of punch from the cup he held, wondering at the odd aftertaste, and pushed off from the spot on the wall he'd been leaning against to join Rinoa and at least make an attempt at being social. That's funny, he thought with a frown, the punch didn't taste like this when we first got here.. The other students and even some faculty that were there seemed to make way for him as he approached her and he wondered why they gave him so much respect when he felt he hadn't really earned it.

He'd just done what he had been told to do; and saved the world in the process. No big deal. It made him feel awkward again, something he really hated. He was torn between wanting to try to mingle like Rinoa was or simply trying to convince her it was time to call it a night and leaving. I hate these things, always did. I hate small talk and gossip and all the other stuff that goes on at parties like this. I just can't relate to anyone here, and I really can't think of anything that would even be interesting to talk about. I really seriously doubt anyone would want to get into a discussion about the current political situation in Galbadia, for example, and there's no way in Hell I'm going to even TOUCH on anything relating to Esthar.

He compromised instead by sticking close to Rinoa and letting her do the talking. After awhile, he began to feel a little bit more at ease, even finding some private amusement at the behavior of the people there. Girls flirted and giggled, boys strutted and preened, everybody danced, and it seemed that Ma Dincht's little house was full to overflowing with kids and even some adults. Well, it's not every day that a guy turns eighteen. I hadn't realized how popular Zell was, how many friends he had. He took another drink of the punch, and began to feel a little looser, more relaxed. He wondered briefly if someone had doctored the punch, because it had a definite bite to it. Then he shrugged it off, figuring that that was the way it was supposed to taste, not having had any experience in going to parties of this sort.

"Hey man! How's it goin'?" Zell bounced up cheerfully, girlfriend in tow.

Squall shrugged, "Ok. Have you opened any of your gifts yet?"

Zell shook his head, "Naw man, I was just coming to let you guys know that I'm going to be doing that in a few minutes, so I'll meet you all in the other room if you want to be there."

Rinoa laughed, "Of course we do! I'm dying to find out what Squall got you, he wouldn't tell me."

Zell looked over at Squall with a grin, "Really? You got me something?"

Squall frowned at Zell and replied shortly, "Of course I did! Why wouldn't I?"

Zell raised his eyebrows at that response, and said, "I just wasn't expecting it, that's all. I know how busy you've been, and it would have been okay with me if you'd simply showed up. I'm glad you came man! Havin' fun?"

Squall shrugged again, answering, "I don't know. Are these things always so loud?"

Zell laughed at that, "Yo man! You have spent way too much time either studying or in the training center as a cadet! Didn't you ever get to any of the raves that the upperclassmen used to throw?"

"The invitations kept missing me in the post." Squall answered dryly.

Zell belatedly remembered that as a cadet Squall had kept mostly to himself, and had been considered a mystery to most of the other students. He also hadn't made any effort to make himself popular, which had resulted in a resounding lack of any kind of a social life. It had suited him just fine, but had troubled those who had made an effort to befriend him only to be rebuffed by his cold, distant attitude. Zell had been one of those who had attempted to make friends, and it had frustrated him to no end that Squall had continued to ignore his efforts, at least until they had gone to Dollet together for their field exam.

It had taken a long, long time, but he had finally succeeded in establishing a friendship with him, or at least as close to one as it was possible to get with Squall. He was still aloof, still reserved, but Zell had noticed a thawing in his attitude, which he attributed to Rinoa's influence. He was at least approachable now, and slowly but surely, had grown closer to all of his friends. It was still rare to see him smile, and rarer still to hear him laugh, but he had done both of those things at least once that Zell knew of. He even possessed a rather dry sense of humor. It wasn't used much, but Squall's wit was razor sharp and it was always unexpected when he used it. Like now.

Zell laughed in appreciation of Squall's wry comment, and waved his arm at him, saying, "C'mon, lets go open my presents now. I gotta check out all that loot!"

Squall and Rinoa obligingly followed him, along with the rest of his guests, to the small dining room where all of his gifts had been stashed. Squall drained another cup of punch and asked Rinoa if she wanted another, and when she shook her head, he refilled his and waited, sipping it and frowning again at the odd bite it had to it. He made a mental note to ask Zell about it, because he had absolutely no experience with parties in general. The only one he had ever gone to was the Graduation Ball for the new SeeD inductees, and he'd only had champagne there, and only half a glass at that.

He hadn't gotten to finish it because of a certain young lady who had insisted upon dancing with him. That same young lady, Rinoa, was currently snuggled beneath his arm and leaning against him as they watched Zell open his gifts. Squall sipped at his punch and felt a sort of loose, boneless fuzziness gradually steal over him. He frowned at his drink again, suspecting that the punch had been spiked and resolving not to drink any more of it. Not being a drinker, he wouldn't have recognized the odd flavor to the punch to be alcohol, but now that he was feeling its effects, he filed that information in the back of his mind for future reference. He leaned casually against the wall and congratulated himself for not allowing the effects of the punch to show.

Zell meanwhile was having a blast opening his presents, calling out whom each one was from and then tearing into the package with enthusiasm. When he got to Irvine's gift, he hooted appreciatively at the latest CD from his favorite musical group, and handed it over to his girlfriend to put it into the player.

Grinning at Irvine, Zell said, "Thanks man! Awesome tunes!"

Irvine grinned back and replied, "Welcome. Open Selphie's next!" Zell nodded and reached for the package that she had brought, and tore into it, exclaiming at the molding kit that she had given him to add to his metalworking and jewelry making tools.

"Thanks Selph! This is too cool!" Putting the kit aside, he grinned at Selphie and asked, "So, ya want me to make you a pair of earrings or a necklace or something?"

Selphie nodded enthusiastically and said,"Sure!"

Zell replied, "Just let me know when and what you want and I'll do it."

He happily set the gift aside as Quistis smiled and commented, "You know Zell, if you ever decide to give up your military career, you could always go into business as a jeweler. I've seen some of your work and its pretty good."

Zell blushed at the compliment and said, "Thanks Quisty." Zell opened a few more gifts, thanking Quistis for the concert tickets to the next show scheduled in Deling City for his favorite band, giving his girlfriend a big hug for the new videogame, and a kiss for his mother for her gift, a new chronometer.

The next gift he opened was from Rinoa, and he simply stared at it for a moment, then looked up at Rinoa, eyes huge. "Whoa! You didn't have to do this!"

Squall quirked an eyebrow at Rinoa in inquiry, and she simply smiled and said, "Unless I'm mistaken, you still owe me a ring. I don't see how you can copy Squall's ring without platinum to make it out of. It's not like my dad's poor or anything, and Irvine knew of a jeweler in Deling City that was going out of business and was selling all of his raw materials, so I got a good deal on all of that stuff."

Zell carefully put the ingots of silver and platinum away, stunned at Rinoa's generosity. He worried briefly about what Squall would make of it, but a quick check showed him watching the proceedings while leaning casually against the wall, one arm around Rinoa, and nothing more threatening than a slight smile showing in his expression. Zell did a double take, amazed at seeing such a relaxed expression on his friend's face. It made him look much closer to his true age, and the change was startling.

Nodding his head at the long package that Zell had been saving for last, Squall suggested, "Why don't you go ahead and open that now? Rinoa's dying to know what it is."

Zell laughed at that comment, and answered, "Rinoa? What about me?" Then he reached for the package, hefting it and turning it over, and getting a pretty good idea by that of what it might be. Grinning in anticipation, he tore the package open and whooped with glee at what he saw.

"Oh YEAH! A Ruby Dragon Turbo hoverboard! Sweet! This is even better than the one that that Garden Faculty stooge confiscated from me! Thanks man!" Zell had the urge to run over and give Squall a big hug, but he didn't think Squall would care for that, so he simply grinned at him instead.

Squall shrugged and said, "Just don't get caught using it on Garden property. I'm only in command of the SeeDs, Cid is still the headmaster, and all the old rules still apply."

Zell nodded and replied, "Yeah, I know. But the Garden Faculty had it in for me. You know as well as I do that technically, I wasn't on Garden property when they took my other T-board away, I was actually outside the main gate."

Examining the T-board again, Zell tucked it under his arm and crowed, "I'm gonna go try this puppy out! This is too cool!"

Making his way through the crowd, he hit Squall's upper arm on his way out the door and asked him, "You wanna come? You gotta see this thing in action, it rocks!"

Squall shrugged noncommittally, and immediately got a shove from Rinoa that nearly unbalanced him, as she said, "Go ahead, I'll be okay here, I'll just hang with Selphie and Quistis for awhile."

Shrugging again, Squall began to follow Zell out, then he paused, and turned to whisper into Rinoa's ear, "Don't drink any more punch, I think it's been spiked."

Rinoa nodded and he continued on with Zell. The fuzzy, off-balance feeling had intensified, and Squall had to concentrate on walking straight, though he wobbled slightly despite his efforts. As he passed through the main room of the house, he noted the time was almost ten. He hadn't realized that the party had been going on so long, and by the looks of it, it would be going strong for a while yet. He hoped that Zell's neighbors were deaf. Otherwise, the local constabulary was going to be making a house call pretty soon.

Several of Zell's guests followed them out to watch Zell show off on his new T-board. The street in front of Zell's house was too narrow for more than zipping back and forth, so Zell told them all to follow him and he led them out to a more open area near the town square, and proceeded to put his T-board through some absolutely astounding moves.

Squall had found a nearby lamppost and was leaning against it, hating the slightly dizzy feeling that he was experiencing. The whole area seemed to be moving while the only thing solid and immovable was the damned lamppost. It was annoying. Note to self, he thought ruefully, drinking is definitely on my list of Things To Avoid At All Cost. Maybe I can convince Rinoa to head home after this, and I can get the hell out of here before I make a complete ass of myself.

Squall was rather proud of himself for being able to think so clearly, despite being well on the way to being drunk. He tried to reckon up how many glasses of that damned punch he'd had, but he gave up after a few minutes, figuring it to be somewhere in the neighborhood of three or more. While Zell zipped around on his hoverboard, Squall squinted his blurring eyes and watched; impressed by the sheer complexity of the patterns he was running through. Zell finally came to a stop, breathless and laughing, and everyone who'd followed them out there began to drift back to the party. Hopping off, Zell hit the end of the T-board with one foot and caught it with a showy flip.

Grinning, he said, "You wanna give this thing a try Squall? It kicks ass!" Oh, no. No way, Squall thought, I'm going to fall right on my ass.

He shook his head and said, "No, maybe some other time."

Zell shrugged, looking a little disappointed, but not surprised, "Alright. No problem." Watching the rest of his friends drift back to his house, Zell felt that he should return with them, but something in the way that Squall was leaning against the lamppost caught his attention. Ordinarily, Squall would never have leaned so heavily against something like that. It looked almost as if the lamppost were actually holding him upright. His momentary concern was diverted however when one of his friends hailed him.

"Yo Zell! You comin' back to the party?"

Zell raised his hand and waved the other person off, calling, "Yeah man! I'll be there in a little bit, I'm just gonna hang here for a minute!"

Squall frowned and pushed himself off the lamppost, swaying for a moment before reaching out and grabbing it again to steady him. He cursed under his breath at the spinning sensation in his head, and then looked up to see Zell staring at him.

"You okay?"

Squall glared in reply and said sourly, "Someone spiked your punch, and I drank enough of it to get about halfway drunk. Other than that, I'm fine, thanks for asking." At least I'm not slurring my words yet, he thought.

Zell's jaw dropped and he blurted, "No way! Oh man! My mom is gonna kill me! I've gotta go back and get rid of it!"

Squall shook his head with a snort, "Don't worry about it. It was about half gone when we left, and the way everyone else, including your mom, was drinking it, it's probably gone by now."

Zell stared at him. Then he stammered, "Are you saying that my mom is probably drunk by now too?"

Squall nodded and replied, "Probably. Along with everyone else."

Zell put his hand into his spiky blonde hair and groaned, "Oh man! Dude, we've gotta go back and check on things, I don't want anyone to get hurt."

Squall raised an eyebrow and observed, "Everybody walked over from Garden. I haven't heard of anyone getting killed while drunk walking."

Zell snorted at that, and Squall frowned and asked, "Why aren't you drunk?"

Zell shrugged and answered, "I haven't had any punch since the party started. I've been busy dancin' and hangin' out. C'mon man, let's go back."

Squall sighed and walked, a little more unsteadily than he had when he left the party, and gave Zell a sour look."Well, let's go."

Zell walked next to him, concerned and at the same time, a little bit impressed that Squall still seemed so self-possessed despite being somewhat affected by the alcohol he'd unwittingly consumed. Squall for his part, was more than a little annoyed at being so unsteady on his feet, but otherwise felt fine. This is weird, he thought. My mind is perfectly clear so far, but my body can't seem to find its balance.

They made it back to the party without mishap and Zell was relieved to note that nothing seemed amiss, though it looked to be winding down. Zell's mother, it turned out, hadn't consumed very much of the punch at all and was perfectly fine, and the punch, as Squall had predicted, was completely gone and Mrs. Dincht hadn't refilled it. Some of the guests had already left, leaving just a few people still dancing or in some cases, necking in shadowed corners. Squall looked around for Rinoa but didn't see her, and caught sight of Quistis.

Making his way over to her, he asked, "Where's Rinoa?"

Quistis, who was laughing at a joke someone had told her, turned to Squall and answered, "She was tired, so she told me to tell you that she'd gotten a room at the Balamb Hotel in town. She didn't want to walk all the way back to Garden without you. She told me to tell you that she'd be there if you came looking for her. "

Nodding, Squall thanked Quistis and went looking for Zell. He was talking animatedly with one of his friends, telling them about the day he'd gotten his face tattooed. Squall listened with interest, never having heard the story, and found himself laughing at the humorous anecdote. Zell, and everyone else with him, stared in shock for a moment at hearing Squall's laughter. It was, just like Squall, quiet and deep, and seeing his unrestrained amusement was… Cool.

Then they laughed along with him, and Zell said, "I need to go back in sometime and get it touched up, its startin' to look a little faded around the edges, ya know? Maybe get something like the SeeD emblem on my shoulder too, while I'm at it."

One of Zell's friends asked, "Where'd you get it done? I'm thinking of getting a tattoo myself."

Zell answered, "Oh, I got it at Captain Charlie's, down by the docks near the hotel. He does killer work! You ought to see how he inks dragons and GFs man, totally rad! He's open 'till midnight most nights."

Looking over at Squall, Zell noticed Rinoa's absence and asked, "Where's Rinoa?"

Squall shrugged and answered, "Quistis told me she got tired and went to get a room at the hotel. I was just about to head on over there." Zell was about to nod and say his farewells when a thought struck him.

"Hey! Captain Charlie's is right by there; you wanna come check it out? I think I'm gonna go get this touched up tonight since I'm thinking about it."

Squall shrugged and said, "Okay."

Zell blinked. Okay, maybe getting Squall a little bit drunk is all that's necessary to get him to loosen up a little. This ought to be fun!

It was just ten-thirty when they left, and Squall seemed to be holding up pretty well. But it was plenty weird for Zell to carry on an actual conversation with him, when normally Squall would either remain silent or talk in terse sentences. He was actually kind of chatty, which was very strange indeed, though Zell learned more about the way his friend's mind worked in those moments than in the entire time he'd known him previously. It opened Zell's eyes to a lot of things about Squall that he hadn't understood before.

Everything was fine, until they went past the pub, and some of Zell's friends who'd left the party earlier and decided to continue it there, caught sight of them. They more or less dragged he and Squall in there, and it degenerated from there.

"Hey Zell! Is this really Commander Leonhart with you?" asked one of his friends.

Zell nodded and answered with a grin, "In the flesh, right Squall?"

Zell laughed at Squall's dry retort as he said, "Last time I checked I was." Then he added, "Just call me Squall, please."

The friend in question clapped a hand on Squall's shoulder in a friendly manner and announced, "Well, in honor of our illustrious SeeD Commander, who saved everyone's butt, and our friend Zell here, who helped and whose birthday is today, I say we order up a round, right guys?"

The rest of group gave a general cheer of enthusiasm and drinks were passed around. Zell and only a few of his friends were of age, but Squall looked old enough, so nobody bothered to ask for any kind of I.D. Squall frowned at the glass he held and wondered vaguely if he should drink it or not, then decided, what the hell, in for a sheep…and he tossed it back, only just managing not to cough as the potent concoction hit him like a ton of bricks.

Shaking his head, he blinked his watering eyes owlishly at Zell and sputtered, "Whoa! What the hell was that?"

Zell frowned and turned to the friend who had ordered the drinks and asked, "Hey, what did you order him Marcus?"

Marcus laughed and answered, "Marlboro juice. Guaranteed to knock you dead!" Zell groaned, Oh God, not that! This could be bad…Zell managed to keep himself down to a single rum and cola, but Squall in the meantime had somehow gotten involved in a drinking contest, singing some ribald drinking song and putting down about three more shots of the Marlboro juice, one for each time he flubbed a verse. Zell, who by this time was beginning to feel really alarmed for his friend's dignity if not his health, put a stop to it and managed to get themselves out of there. Grabbing Squall's jacket, he literally dragged him out of the pub and back into the street.

Squall shrugged out of his grip, glaring at him and protesting, "Hey! What're you doin'? I was havin' fun in there!"

Zell shook his head in disbelief and sputtered, "You…I don't believe you! What happened to your common sense?"

Squall frowned comically, and gestured vaguely behind him, "I think I left it in there. We'd better go back and get it."

He turned unsteadily to head back to the pub, and staggered as Zell grabbed him again and said, "Forget it, let's just go."

Squall flung an arm around Zell's shoulders, mainly to help with his balance, and they continued, with Squall gesturing with his other arm toward the docks and the hotel, saying, "Onward then! To Captain Charlie's!"

Zell shook his head, and protested, "Squall, I think we ought to forget about Captain Charlie's and just go on to the hotel instead."

Squall shook his head and patting Zell's face, stated, "Nope, we're goin' to Captain Charlie's. You are going to get that thing on your face touched up, and I'm going to get a tattoo."

Zell's eyes bugged as the import of that statement hit him. The weird part was, Squall still didn't sound all that drunk, his words were still clearly enunciated, but it was obvious to anyone who saw him that he was most definitely drunk. Zell, himself feeling the effects of the rum and cola he'd consumed, shook his head in disbelief at the situation he now found himself in. Good God, Rinoa's going to kill me when he finally makes it to the hotel in this condition, and with a tattoo to boot! My ass is gonna be toast. Still, it was hard to keep a straight face at the ridiculousness of the situation. Especially when the usually introverted, dignified, and very quiet Squall was staggering down the street with his arm around Zell's shoulders, singing the song that he'd learned in the pub just a few minutes earlier. Singing, for God's sake! At the top of his lungs, and very badly off-key.

"There once was a barmaid named Rosie, a regular bartending gal! She had a tattoo on her left cheek! If you give her a gil she'll give you a peek…"

Cringing at yet another sour note, Zell, in desperation, asked Squall the first thing that popped into his head, "What kind of tattoo do you want to get?" When Squall fell silent for a moment to ponder the question, Zell gave a sigh of relief.

Finally Squall answered, "You know, I haven't really thought about it. I'll have to see what they have there and decide then. I do know that it's not goin' on my face."

Squall tapped his scar and said sourly, "Its marked up enough as it is."

You know, Zell thought, it never occurred to me that that scar bothered him; he seems so oblivious to it being there, and its so much a part of who he is now, I can't even remember what he looked like without it. Zell wasn't overly surprised by that however, he knew that Squall kept a lot of things to himself, including his personal hang-ups.

They continued on unsteadily toward the docks, andZell tried again to steer his friend in the direction of the hotel, saying, "You know Squall, it might be better if you waited until you were sober before you decided to get a tattoo. I mean, they're permanent; you don't want to wind up with something that you'll regret."

Squall shook his head and refused, continuing on toward the tattoo shop, and saying, "Nope. If I'm gonna do this, I'm doin' it now." Then he burst out laughing. Zell frowned in puzzlement and watched Squall warily, wondering if the booze had caused him to lose his marbles.

Squall, still grinning, finally said, "That is such a funny word!"

Zell, completely lost, asked, "What word?"

Squall answered with a mock-serious look on his face, "Sober." Then he burst out laughing again.

Zell rolled his eyes and asked, "What is so funny about that word?"

Squall's expression turned serious again and he answered, "Because that's what I've been all my life. It means serious, clear headed, abstemious, somber, restrained…. Blah, blah, blah. Boring. That's me. Besides, it just sounds funny."

Zell shook his head, protesting, "Squall, you had a good reason for being that way. I know why, and so does everyone else. Personally, I've gotten used to you the way you are. And you're NOT boring. Anyone who spends any time with you can figure that out in a heartbeat."

Squall snorted in derision and said, "Well, like it or not, I am most definitely NOT sober tonight."

Zell laughed and answered, "No, you're not. In fact, you're completely drunk."

Squall nodded, raising a finger and said, "You are correct sir, I am asbo-lutely, posti-tively drunk. Completely. Udderly."

Then he frowned, "Wait, that didn't sound right. Utterly. There."

He smiled in satisfaction and Zell shook his head and groaned, "Rinoa's gonna kill me."

Squall frowned at him and asked, "Rinoa? Why would Rinoa want to kill you? She wouldn't hurt a fly."

Zell sighed, "She's gonna kill me for letting you get like this."

Squall shook his head and smiled, waving a hand in dismissal. "Naw, she wouldn't. Not my Angelwing. She's too sweet. She might get mad at me though."

Then he laughed, a besotted grin on his face as he added, "But I can handle it."

Zell gave Squall a wry look, and said, "Right. Just like you handled her on her birthday. You were impossible for days afterward. If you hadn't been my commanding officer, I would have taken you outside and knocked some sense into you."

Squall blinked at Zell, surprised, and asked, "I was that bad?"

Zell nodded seriously and answered, "Yes, you were. You know man, I love you like a brother, that's the only reason I put up with all of your quirks. But sometimes you can try the patience of a saint."

Squall laughed slightly and said, "You know what Zell? I feel exactly the same way about you. I never even understood the concept of family before, not really. But then, you guys…Quistis, Selphie, and Irvine, and you, you all became my family. I tried so hard not to care so I wouldn't get hurt, but it happened anyway."

Then he frowned darkly and said, " I figure I'm better off with the family I know I have than the one I lost. I love my sis, Ellone though, I always will. But Laguna? Please."

Zell gave Squall a confused look and asked, "Laguna? What's he got to do with this?"

Squall fell silent for a moment, belatedly realizing that he'd let slip something that he hadn't intended to. The salty tang of the nearby ocean was carried to them on the freshening breeze, and Squall closed his eyes and inhaled deeply, hoping it would clear the fuzziness from his brain and help him get a handle on himself. He was appalled at his uncontrolled behavior, so unlike the way he was normally. One thing for sure, he was never going to drink like this again. The loss of control over what he said or did that resulted from it was enough for him to want to tread carefully in those waters. He already knew he was going to have a monster of a hangover in the morning, and he hoped that Rinoa wouldn't take his foolish behavior personally.

A poke in the ribs got his attention and he frowned over at Zell and said shortly, "What?"

Zell glared at him and asked, "Are you going to answer my question?"

Squall sighed, "Yes, since you obviously aren't going to forget that I mentioned Laguna. He's my father." Zell's eyes widened and his mouth dropped open in shock.

"You're kidding!" He burst out. Squall shook his head glumly.

Zell blew a silent whistle through his teeth and exclaimed, "Oh, wow! No wonder you were so…I don't know, hostile, when you guys got together on the Ragnarok. When did you find out?"

Squall shrugged, "It all fell into place just before we attacked the Lunatic Pandora. Everything that Ellone had shown me, everything that Laguna told us, and his friend, Kiros…it all came together and that's the picture that I got. I didn't really have a chance to ask Laguna about it, but he didn't really deny anything either. He just told me, 'lets talk when its all done' like I didn't already know what he wanted to talk about."

Squall shook his head with an angry jerk, adding, " I didn't want to hear it."

Zell looked around and realized that they had reached their destination. Captain Charlie's. It stood in a less than reputable dockside neighborhood, ironically just a couple of streets away from the more upscale area that the Balamb Hotel was in. The weathered boards, turned silver from age and sun bleaching, contrasted with the new neon sign that Charlie had put up just a few years ago. Zell checked his new chrono, and sighed in relief. It was 11:45, and Zell knew that Charlie would take care of him and Squall, even if it ran past midnight, but if they had come 15 minutes later, he would have closed up shop for the night and once closed, he wouldn't open up again until morning, not for anybody.

Zell finally turned to Squall who was staring pensively at the displays in the window, and said, "You know, you really ought to talk to him. It might clear a few things up for you."

Squall shook his head in dismissal and flung his hand out in emphasis, saying shortly, "Just forget I said anything about that. He wasn't there for me when I was a kid, why should he have the chance now? He obviously didn't want me. Are we gonna go inside now?"

Zell hesitated, hearing the undisguised pain contained in that terse statement and not sure of how to deal with it. What can I do to help him with this, besides just be there in case he wants to talk? Although knowing Squall, he'd have to be seriously drunk, like now, to let anything like THIS out.

Finally Zell nodded and asked, "Are you sure you want to do this?" Squall nodded.

Zell sighed, "All right. Lets go."

The weathered door creaked open and they entered the brightly lit, though currently empty, tattoo shop, and Zell looked around for Charlie. Not seeing him anywhere, he motioned with his head to Squall, who was gazing around the room with a slightly bemused expression, blinking; and they walked back from the main room toward a narrow hallway. Just before they reached it, however, a large, silver-bearded apparition wearing a seaman's cap emerged from a room and stood in the entrance of the hallway.

Squall blinked again, wondering if he was hallucinating now, or if the guy really did have a huge gold earring in his left ear and a green and yellow parrot perched on his shoulder. Then the parrot gave a raucous squawk and Squall concluded that it was really there. The guy was huge, easily standing close to Ward's seven feet, with hugely muscled arms and chest. Retired seaman and currently tattoo artist this man might be, but he had not allowed his body to go soft while working in his current trade.

"Evenin' Zell. What can I do for ya?" his gravelly voice rumbled, and Zell answered, "I …"

Before he could finish what he was going to say, Squall interrupted him, staggering over and placing his arm around Zell's shoulders once again, to keep himself upright, and declaring, "Zell here wants another…. squiggly thingy on his face, and I'm going to get a tattoo." Zell shook his head and rested his forehead in one hand, groaning.

Charlie, sounding amused, asked, "And who might you be young man?"

Squall stood at attention for a moment, looking every inch the SeeD Commander before a silly grin appeared on his face and he executed a sloppy bow, nearly falling down in the process as he answered, "Squall Leonhart. SeeD Commander."

Zell snorted softly at that and muttered, "Seriously inebriated SeeD Commander."

Squall raised an eyebrow and his grin got wider. "That too."

Captain Charlie had to laugh at the weary expression on Zell's face, and the silly grin on the other's. He gathered the young SeeDs had gone on a bit of a bender, judging by the Commander's condition.

Grinning at Zell, he asked, "Celebrating were you?"

Zell nodded in answer, saying ruefully, "Yeah, it's my birthday today, and things…got a little out of hand. At least with Squall." He cast an apologetic glance toward Squall who had wandered off and was studying the flash designs on the wall with intense interest, adding, " He's not normally like this, so I hope you don't go thinking that Balamb Garden has a lush for its Commander...."

Charlie shook his head, clapping Zell on the shoulder and commenting, "Don't worry about it Zell, happens to everyone at least once."

Then he asked the two of them, "So, which one of you guys wants to go first?" Squall had wandered back toward Zell and he exchanged a look with him.

Then, they simultaneously pointed at each other and said in unison, "He does."

Squall awoke the next morning feeling slightly disoriented and very hung over. He had a moment of confusion before he remembered, hazily, finding Rinoa's room at the Balamb Hotel. He groaned and rolled over, coming into contact with another body that happened to be sharing the bed with him. Rinoa. He felt vaguely glad that she was there, but he couldn't really think much beyond the pounding in his head and the queasy sensation in his stomach. Oh, God. Why do people do this to themselves? This is supposed to be FUN? I am never, ever going to do this again.

It didn't really matter much that he didn't actually do it to himself, but had inadvertently gotten drunk, at least partially, from the punch. He distinctly remembered however getting dragged into the pub and putting down about three shots of what had tasted like turpentine and burned like battery acid. What the hell was I thinking? Why did I let myself get involved in that damned contest? He rolled back onto his back and became aware of an itchy sort of pain in the left cheek of his gluteus maximus, and felt back there to find what seemed to be a gauze pad. What ELSE did I do to myself?

He thought about getting up to check, but his head seemed to be about twice its normal size and it felt like all of his Guardians were trying to claw their way out of it. If the alcohol affects them too, they probably are. Finally however, he had to get up to answer the call of nature, and groaned at the picture that stared back at him from the mirror over the sink. Haggard face, bloodshot eyes and stubble greeted him. All I need is green skin and I'd look like someone had cast Zombie on me. He was just about to shuck off his shorts and hop into the shower when a voice from behind him startled him.

Rinoa stood in the doorway of the bathroom, a look of amusement on her face as she said cheerily, "Well, well, you look like hell this morning." Squall groaned and, bracing his hands against the sink, leaned his head against the mirror, sorely tempted to start pounding against it and knowing that it would do nothing to improve either his headache or his disposition.

Finally he grumbled, "Thanks. I love you too."

Rinoa's answer was a laugh, then she replied, "I know. So what did you and Zell do last night? Did you have fun? I barely remember you coming in last night and you seemed pretty out of it."

Squall hesitated and frowned, then shrugged looking uncomfortable, " I barely remember anything either. My memory is pretty clear up until we got to the pub, then it gets a little… um, fuzzy …after that."

Rinoa looked at him warily, and said slowly, "You went to the pub with Zell?" Squall blinked and frowned, recognizing the beginnings of anger in Rinoa's voice and not sure of how to defuse it.

Waving his hand, he hastened to clarify that statement, "Not by choice," he went on, protesting, "A group of Zell's friends actually grabbed us and dragged us in there. It all gets kind of hazy after that…" his voice trailed off as he noticed amusement replacing anger in Rinoa's expression.

Then she grinned widely and stated, "And you got drunk."

Scratching at his hair and rubbing his pounding temples, Squall squinted at Rinoa and said ruefully, "Judging by the hangover, I got very drunk."

Then he sighed and gave her a hopeful look and asked, "I don't suppose you have a cure spell handy to get rid of the headache?"

When Rinoa shook her head, biting on her lip to keep from laughing at his woebegone expression, he sighed again and said, "Well, failing that, is there any aspirin around?"

"Try checking in the medicine cabinet behind the mirror." Squall did as she suggested, sighing in relief when he found it.

"I didn't know that they stocked this in hotel rooms."

Rinoa gave him a wicked look and said archly, "You'd be surprised what they stock in hotel rooms these days."

Squall blinked at her, feeling like he'd missed something important and frustrated at his mind's sluggishness. Then he suddenly realized that he was standing in the bathroom wearing nothing but his boxer shorts talking to Rinoa, who was fully dressed and grinning at him, like the cat that ate the canary. He felt his cheeks heat up and silently cursed himself for it. Its not like we haven't, er, DONE anything …we have, but…. I know we didn't do anything last night, I was too out of it, and the only thing that I remember doing is getting undressed and going to bed.

He finally shrugged and made a shooing motion with his hands, telling Rinoa, "Whatever. I'm going to take a shower if you don't mind."

Rinoa hesitated, then left, smiling and saying, "I don't mind at all. Go right ahead. I might even join you if you're nice." Squall blinked again. Normally he'd have been only too happy to have her join him, but for some reason, he was hesitant to allow it this time. Reaching back to scratch at an itch on his posterior, he inadvertently touched the sore spot he'd noticed earlier and hissed at the sudden jolt. Suddenly the memory of a dockside tattoo parlor surfaced and he groaned, closing his eyes and resting his forehead against the mirror again.

Rinoa popped back into the bathroom upon hearing it, and asked, "Is there something wrong? Isn't that aspirin working yet?"

Squall's eyes popped open and he hastily straightened up and answered, "No, not yet. Listen, I'm gonna get in the shower now okay? You want to order something from room service for breakfast?"

Rinoa nodded and left, and Squall quickly closed and locked the door. Then he removed his shorts and stared down at the gauze pad on his butt and suppressed another groan, wondering what was under there, why it was on his ass instead of his shoulder, and hoping to hell it wasn't something completely stupid. How much does it cost to have a tattoo removed? And where can I get it done, and quickly? Slowly, he peeled it away from his skin and peeked at what was underneath.

And he began to laugh, the lyrics to that reprehensible drinking song coming to mind. He quickly hopped into the shower and turned it on so Rinoa wouldn't hear, and laughed hysterically, each time he got control over himself he'd look down at his new tattoo and start up again. He braced himself against the wall under the spray of the shower, still convulsing with laughter, and wondering what Rinoa would make of it. Captain Charlie had done a wonderful job, and the tattoo itself was beautiful in its simplicity. It consisted of flowing, gracefully delineated lines in black ink forming a stylized design reminiscent of wings, and between them, in similarly flowing, graceful script, a name. Rinoa.

He remembered why he'd put it there, instead of someplace more obvious like an arm or shoulder. He didn't want anybody to actually see it. Nobody but Rinoa, at any rate. He hoped that she wouldn't find its placement an insult, and vowed to explain it to her at his earliest opportunity. The shower did a great deal to restore him, and he began to feel a bit more like his normal self by the time he was done, though the thought of eating anything still made his stomach churn. The headache, aided by the aspirin, had faded to a dull ache and after a quick shave of his still somewhat sparse stubble, he exited the bathroom to retrieve the rest of his clothing and get dressed.

Rinoa looked up from the table where two plates of eggs, toast and bacon, each with a glass of orange juice sat and smiled, "Feeling better?"

Squall nodded, eyeing the food dubiously and answered, "Yeah, more human anyway."

He got dressed and pushed his still-wet hair away from his eyes and carefully sat down, thinking he might at least manage the toast and orange juice. As he picked up the toast and began to eat, he thought, At least I managed to quit drinking before I got sick. Thank God for that. I just hope Zell keeps his mouth shut, although, come to think of it, I didn't tell him what kind of tattoo I got or where I put it, and he was in another room getting his face touched up and adding another squiggly thing to it, so he probably didn't even see me getting mine. Fortunately, despite his queasiness earlier, the food went down easily and Squall found that he was hungrier than he thought and he finished the whole plate.

Seeing that Rinoa had finished her plate, he asked her, "Ready to go?"

At her nod, they got up and went down to the front desk where Squall settled the bill and then quickly ducked into the gift shop to get a pair of sunglasses. Rinoa had a great deal of fun, helping him pick out a pair that according to her, made him look very cool. He got a pair for Rinoa, and taking a deep breath, put them on and walked out into the bright sunlight, glad he'd thought of getting them as the rays struck his still-sensitive eyes.

Rinoa smiled at him as they walked through the cobbled streets of the seaside village, enjoying the brightness of the early morning and the breeze that came off the ocean nearby, and asked, "So, did you have fun?"

Squall grimaced behind his sunglasses and commented, "If this is the result, then no, I didn't."

Rinoa shook her head in exasperation and replied, "Well Squall, not every party winds up with the punch being spiked. You have to admit that it was at least a little bit fun, at least until you got dragged into that pub."

Finally Squall sighed, "Yes, okay, it was fun. Zell had a great time, that's for sure." Then he grinned suddenly, saying, "He really liked that T-board I got him. He wanted me to give it a try, and I'll admit I was tempted, but by that time my balance was already shot and I knew I'd fall right on my butt if I tried."

Rinoa slipped her arm around his waist and hugged him tightly and said, "That was a stroke of genius, getting that for him. What made you think of it?"

Squall shrugged and answered, "Just before we were sent off to Timber to help you and your friends out, Zell got his T-board confiscated by the Garden Faculty for riding on Garden property. He wasn't actually, he was outside the gates at the time, but they took it from him anyway, and he hadn't replaced it yet, so when I saw one at the shop, I decided to get it for him."

Rinoa smiled at him, "Better be careful, or you're going to have people thinking that you're actually a nice person deep down."

Squall snorted and said dryly, "Can't have that, can we? It would ruin my reputation." Rinoa only laughed in reply. They continued walking through Balamb, and as they entered the town square, they saw Zell, sporting about on the aforementioned T-board.

Rinoa tugged on Squall's arm and stopped him, saying, "Wait, wait! I want to get a look at this, I didn't get to see Zell doing any of his tricks last night, and I heard they were awesome! "

Squall obligingly stopped without comment, and admitted privately that he was impressed as well, even though he'd seen most of it the night before. Zell caught sight of them and zipped over on his hoverboard, dragging one foot behind it to stop and hopping off, grinning at them.

"Hey man! 'Sup? What's with the shades?" Squall lowered them to the end of his nose and glared at Zell through bloodshot eyes over the top of them, then pushed them back into place.

Zell covered his mouth to stifle a laugh and grinned, "Ah. Well they look cool anyway. How's the head?"

Squall shrugged, "Bearable."

Rinoa chimed in, "He was a bit of a grouch this morning until he found the aspirin and ate breakfast. How about you Zell, did you get as wasted as Squall did?" Squall folded his arms and looked down at Rinoa. The sunglasses hiding his eyes made his expression even harder to read than usual, but his body language said clearly that he was irritated at Rinoa's lighthearted question. Zell sighed inwardly, almost wishing Squall were drunk again. He'd been kind of fun then, more open and spontaneous. Now he was back to his normal self and Zell was a little disappointed that the temporary change in his friend's behavior hadn't continued.

Shaking his head, he answered Rinoa's innocent question with a rueful grin, "I'm fine, I didn't drink as much as Squall did, intentionally or not. Someone had to keep him from making a total idiot out of himself."

Squall's response was to shake his head; looking down at his feet for a moment before giving Zell a rueful half smile, saying, "Thanks, I appreciate that."

Zell waved it off, replying, "Hey, what're friends for eh?" then he brightened and asked Squall, "You want to give this thing a try man? It's not as hard as it looks."

Squall began shaking his head when Rinoa poked him sharply in the ribs and said, "Oh no you don't! You don't have any excuse; I know your balance is perfectly fine now. Go on, live a little; I promise not to laugh if you fall on your ass." Squall gave her an exasperated look, rubbing the tender spot where she had poked him and sighing.

"Thanks for the vote of confidence." He grumbled, then looked over at Zell, who was grinning broadly at the exchange.

He frowned, then he walked up to the T-board, peering down at it doubtfully while Zell described how to maneuver on it. Okay, it doesn't SOUND all that hard…. He got up onto the thing, noting that it was a couple of feet shorter than the average surfboard, but otherwise built along the same lines, and balanced there for a moment, getting a feel for it. Then he got going. It really wasn't as hard as he'd thought it would be, and before long he was sailing along like he'd done it for ages. He was glad he hadn't tried it the night before however, because the slightest shift in weight would change it's direction rather drastically if one weren't careful. He stopped short of trying any of the tricks Zell had been doing however, though he did manage a pretty nifty maneuver by inadvertently leaping it over a curb. He almost lost it on that one, but he recovered his balance and zipped back to where Zell and Rinoa waited, both clapping and cheering enthusiastically. He stopped the T-board, hopped off, and, remembering Zell's showy flip that he used to pick it up, did the same thing perfectly, handing it over to a surprised Zell with a half-smile.

"Wow! That was cool! You sure picked that up in a hurry!" Zell laughed, and Squall shrugged, the same half-smile on his face.

"It wasn't that hard." Walking over to Rinoa, Squall put his arm over her shoulders and smiled down at her, "Happy now?"

She nodded, smiling and Squall turned back to Zell and said, "We're going to head back to Garden now. Talk to you later." With a sketchy wave, he began to walk off with Rinoa.

Zell waved them off, and called to Squall as he walked away, "Hey! I'm gonna hang here with my mom for a while, polish up some moves on my T-board, but I'll be back at Garden later. You up for some Triple Triad after dinner?"

Squall nodded and said, "Yeah, I need to work on using the plus rule. It always gives me fits."

Zell answered, "All right then, later!"

Zell watched them walk away with a big grin on his face. He never thought he'd actually get Squall to do anything like try out his T-board. For someone who'd probably never ridden one before, he was actually pretty good at it, though Zell knew that as busy as Squall was these days, it was doubtful he'd be able to take it up as a hobby. All in all, it had been a pretty awesome birthday, despite the punch being spiked. Zell had told his mother about it and she had reassured him that she'd noticed the taste and discarded it, making a new batch altogether, though not before Squall, unfortunately, had consumed several glasses and subsequently gotten intoxicated from it.

Putting his T-board down, he zipped off, back to his home, thinking about the Triple Triad game that he had planned with Squall later, and wondering if he was as good as Zell had heard he was. At least he's gotten social enough to become a halfway decent card player in the few months since he'd met Rinoa. She's really been good for him. I'm glad we all decided to help them along; otherwise Rinoa might have given up in disgust. I'm glad she didn't, he needs her. And I need a hot dog. Zell reached his home record time, to be greeted with his mother fixing his favorite lunch, as though she had read his mind. Grinning, he bit into the hot dog and sighed. Life was good.

Squall and Rinoa walked back to Garden enjoying the morning in silence.

As they turned into the main entrance of Balamb Garden, Rinoa looked up at Squall and commented with a smile, "You cut quite a studly figure with those shades on. You'll have all the girls swooning and Irvine will be jealous."

Squall snorted, "Whatever."

Rinoa laughed in reply and asked, "You up for some lunch yet?"

Squall shook his head with a grimace and answered, "No, I'm not all that hungry. Maybe later. Besides, I need to check to see if anything urgent came up while I was out."

Rinoa sighed at that and said reluctantly,"Okay. I had hoped to spend the rest of the day with you…" her voice trailed off as they continued on to the dorms.

Squall stopped at the turnoff to her hallway and turned her to face him. Then he slowly, softly stroked her cheek with one finger, and Rinoa noticed that he'd left his gloves off this time, or else had forgotten to put them back on. Whichever it was, the feel of his warm hand touching her face sent a thrill through her. Another barrier down.

He smiled slightly from behind his sunglasses, and said softly, "Love it or hate it, my job doesn't always end when the clock says it does. You know that. Besides, I may not have anything at all to worry about; I'm just going in to check on things. I'll see you later, okay?"

Rinoa nodded and smiled back at him, saying teasingly, "Okay, fine, be that way. Meanie" Squall laughed at that and pulled her close, kissing her and holding her tightly.

He pulled away, still smiling, "I love you too. Brat." Rinoa watched him walk away, smiling, then frowned as she heard something that sounded suspiciously like whistling. Tuneless whistling. She stifled a laugh. She recognized, barely, the song as one that her would-be revolutionary friends in Timber had sung once when they'd had a bit too much spirits of the liquid sort. She turned and continued back to her dorm room for a shower and a change of clothing, still smiling to herself. Squall had never whistled before. There was hope for him yet. Although, she thought ruefully, music lessons wouldn't hurt, if I could convince him to take them…