The Bells of Freedom

Please note: Nope, these still aren't my characters, they belong to Squeenix. Blame them, or thank them as you see fit.

Chapter 1: Aftermath

Morning came too early, Squall decided as he rolled over in his bed and pulled the blanket up to block the sunlight streaming through his window. He should have shut the damn thing before he'd gone to bed last night.

Correction: This morning.

Too damn early to even think of getting up after the party from the night before. Even though Squall didn't drink anything at the party, and wasn't hung over, he still had a headache. It was ridiculously unfair.

Sighing, he buried his head more firmly into his pillow, determined to return to the blissful state of unconsciousness that he'd been enjoying just moments ago. But his mind had awakened, and it had wandered onward, replaying scenes from the party.

Ultimecia had been defeated. The world was safe, everyone had survived, even Seifer, some had said. Most importantly, Rinoa was safe as well.


His mind lingered over one particular memory. The balcony. The moonlight and the fresh sea breeze; stars in her eyes, night in her hair… the taste of her lips, the feel of her body against his…

One kiss had led to many, once they'd managed to steal out of the casual view of others. The Garden had returned to Balamb by then, and Squall had snuck out of it with her, using an exit route that few knew about.

They'd ended up at the Balamb Hotel, the first time he'd done anything so impulsive in his life. That first was followed by other firsts, and the promise of their first kiss was fulfilled. It was quite the most amazing thing he'd ever experienced, though he had a suspicion he hadn't actually been very good at it. He did hope that Rinoa would give him the opportunity to practice; she hadn't complained, and that left him hopeful that she would.

He rolled over onto his back groaning. The trend his thoughts had taken had left him painfully aroused, and unfortunately, Rinoa was nowhere near. They'd returned to Balamb Garden in the wee hours of the morning, and he'd escorted her to her room, reluctantly leaving her there with another kiss before returning to his own room to spend the remainder of the night alone.

But that left him with another thought, one that quelled his arousal as effectively as a splash of cold water: What now?

He'd learned how to care for someone else, had fallen deeply in love with his raven-haired client. Had discovered that being close to her, kissing her, and loving her, were good things. Pleasurable things. But where did that leave them?

They had defeated Ultimecia, and the crisis was over. Did that mean he would return to simply being a SeeD? Was his commander title just an emergency interim thing to make it easier for him to do what had to be done? And if so, then did his original contract with Rinoa still hold?

The terms of the hire shall be until Timber achieves its independence.

Galbadia was in chaos. Timber was still occupied. Esthar was overrun with monsters. The world had been saved, but there was still plenty of work to be done to put everything right again.

Sighing, he opened his eyes and stretched, yawning. Then got out of bed to take a shower. It was no use trying to sleep anymore; his mind wouldn't let him. Might as well get up. He had work to do.

Rinoa slept well into the morning, dreaming of the night before. Rolling over, she sighed as her mind replayed those events.

In particular, it lingered over the glorious moment they'd shared on the balcony, when Squall had shown her the first real smile she'd ever seen on his face. That unexpectedly sweet expression preceded Squall gently pulling her into his arms and kissing her. Lightly at first, tender, almost tentative, but gradually gaining in confidence as she leaned into it and kissed him back.

Yawning, she stretched, finally deciding to wake up. An unaccustomed soreness accompanied that movement, and she smiled wistfully, recalling its cause. From that kiss, things had progressed, rather more quickly than she had thought they would.

Everything she had heard about one's first time had told her that it usually wasn't all that good and for girls at least, was actually painful. The painful part was accurate, weather or not it was considered to be good really depended upon one's perception. Since neither she nor Squall could be considered experts in that particular activity, she figured they did pretty well.

In fact, once she got past the pain, it was wonderful.

They learned a lot about each other as they worked their way toward that point. She learned that Squall's skin was very sensitive to touch, one reason why he always seemed to be covered, even to wearing gloves all the time. She learned that once his cool reserve fell away, he was actually very passionate…and sweet, and tender.

From her, she hoped he'd learned trust, and love. It appeared that he was beginning to. It was hard for her sometimes to remember that for him, all of this was new, and if he made mistakes, it was out of ignorance rather than a deliberate desire to hurt her.

Fortunately, since they were both so new at being physically intimate, if there were any mistakes made in that area, neither was aware of them.

Rinoa smiled to herself as she recalled Squall's complete fascination with her. He had appeared bent upon exploring every inch of her body, so much so that Rinoa had begun to worry that nothing else would happen. That perhaps he didn't know what to do. When she'd voiced her concerns however, he'd simply smiled sweetly at her and reassured her that he'd paid attention in health class and was perfectly aware of how everything was supposed to work. He had the theory down, but was taking his time with the practice of it.

It was just as well, as it had given Rinoa time to work through her butterflies, and to do a bit of exploring on her own. It had intrigued her to see how responsive Squall was to her lightest touch. She even fancied that she felt her sorceress-self awakening as she touched and caressed her young would-be lover. Certainly, the warm tingle in her fingertips as she stroked them lightly down Squall's lean back argued that some kind of power was being released, even if she wasn't entirely aware of what it was.

Squall was aware of it of course, whispering that she had magic in her fingertips. That had prompted her to kiss him deeply, awakening the as yet untapped passion between them.

Her apprehension at the pain she new was coming, his nervousness that she wouldn't enjoy what they did, that he'd somehow get something wrong after all, melted away as their lips, tongues and bodies fused.

He did stop though when he heard her gasp of pain and saw her shaking with it. In the throes of that, she found it odd to be comforting him, but he seemed so bothered by the fact that he was hurting her that he'd started to back off. So she'd taken a deep breath, calmed herself, and then gently pulled him into a kiss to calm and reassure him, encouraging him to continue.

In the end, the pain had been worth it.

She got out of bed and headed for the shower, wondering if Squall would stop by so they could go to breakfast together. He hadn't said he would, but Rinoa hoped so.

He'd been so sweet when he'd left her that morning, obviously unwilling to leave but feeling that he should because of whom he was. He'd kissed her softly, holding her close, and while he hadn't articulated how he'd felt, Rinoa had sensed it.

She worried that he'd come by while she was showering and she'd miss him, and when she finished her shower she had to take Angelo out. By the time that was done, the morning was well advanced and she concluded that Squall had either come by and missed her, or he hadn't come by at all and had gone on to work instead. Sighing in disappointment, she headed toward the cafeteria.

In fact, he had come by, but had hesitated outside her door, unsure if he should knock and attempt to wake her or simply let her sleep. She'd been so tired that morning…. He was tired as well, but he had work to do. She had the option of getting more rest, so Squall decided to leave her to it. So instead, he simply placed his hand against her door and sighed, then left.

After he'd eaten a quick breakfast (and watched in mingled amusement and fascination, as fully half of the SeeDs and cadets there appeared to be utilizing one form or another of hangover remedy) Squall headed toward the lift, intending to speak with Cid. He had numerous questions, which only the headmaster could answer.

Reaching the office that Cid had moved to following Garden's conversion (and the subsequent loss of his office as it became the bridge) to a mobile base, Squall knocked on the door, hoping he was there. Fortunately, he was, and he answered the door himself.

"Ah, Squall! You're up early. I'd have thought you'd sleep in, there's nothing really important going on right now." Cid said, opening the door wide and inviting Squall to enter.

Squall walked into the office, gazing around the room, and Cid closed the door behind him. Edea stood behind Cid's desk, next to his chair, and she smiled gently, then came around the desk and approached him.

"Squall." She said, reaching out to touch his face lightly, "You look tired. You should have rested longer."

He frowned at her slightly. His memories of her as Matron were dimmed by time and GF use, and unfortunately the only memories he had with any clarity at all were of her trying to kill him and his friends while under Ultimecia's control. While he knew she was now no longer a threat, and thus didn't fear her, the collision of old and new memories had left him confused as to how to relate to her.

She wasn't his mother, though she had taken on that role when he'd been brought to her orphanage as an infant. She wasn't his enemy, not any longer. In defeating her, he'd driven out the sorceress that had possessed her. Having now killed that sorceress, neither she nor Rinoa posed any threat. She had been his matron once, but was not any longer. He didn't know what to call her now, or how to speak to her.

Gazing intently into his eyes, she asked him softly, "is there something wrong?"

"No, ma'am. I'm just… confused. How do I address you?" He asked.

A brief flash of pain flared in Edea's eyes before her features regained their calm serenity, and she answered, "As I am no longer your matron, Edea is acceptable. If you wish to be formal, Mrs. Kramer is as well."

She gazed at him a moment longer, long enough that Squall began to feel uncomfortable. While no longer a sorceress, she was still alive, and thus retained a small measure of her power. It made Squall wonder: what did she see, when she gazed into his eyes like that?

Then she leaned close to him and whispered, "You will make her a wonderful knight. Do not fear the bond. Embrace it. It will enrich you in ways that you cannot imagine." Then she smiled and patted his shoulder gently, turning away to rejoin Cid and take his hand.

Bond? What is she talking about? And how did she know…

"So, Squall, what brings you to my office?" Cid asked him, shaking Squall out of his thoughts.

"I have some questions…" Squall began and hesitated.

"I'm sure you do. Ask them, and we'll see what answers we can come up with." Cid prompted.

Squall nodded, and asked his first question, "Am I still commander? Or was that just a temporary position created in order to deal with the emergency?"

Cid frowned, considering the question, and asked Squall in turn, "Do you wish to continue as commander or revert to your current SeeD rank?"

"If its all the same to you, I'd like to revert back to my current rank and just be a SeeD." Squall answered honestly.

Cid sighed then, and answered, "Unfortunately, it's not. You are now known as the SeeD commander, and like it or not, that's how you'll be seen. I'm sure you're aware that while the main threat, Ultimecia, has been defeated, there's still going to be plenty of work to do to put everything back together. You'll still be needed to command the SeeDs and dispatch them to wherever they'll do the most good."

Squall nodded, frowning. It wasn't the answer he wanted, but it was the one he was expecting.

Then he asked, "What exactly is the scope of my rank then? Do I command just the SeeDs of Balamb Garden, Balamb Garden as a whole including the cadets and noncombatants or do I command all of the SeeDs in general, including the ones in the other Gardens like Trabia and Galbadia?"

"Well, for right now, since Balamb Garden is the only one that is completely intact, you are in charge of Balamb Garden only. Galbadia itself is in chaos, and Galbadia Garden is in little better shape. Trabia is destroyed, and rebuilding hasn't even begun yet. They'll both be looking to you for leadership and assistance but you'll mostly be working with whoever ends up in charge of those two Gardens. If it becomes necessary to expand your responsibility, we'll hold a conclave with the headmasters to discuss it." Cid answered him.

"All right." Squall said, sighing inwardly in relief. If he was stuck in his position as commander, at least Cid had the sense not to pile too much onto him at once, limiting his responsibility just to Balamb Garden. The sense in dumping all of this on a seventeen-year-old boy in the first place however, was still beyond Squall's comprehension. Well, the only thing he could do was his best, and if he failed… well, he just wouldn't. Squall didn't think in those terms.

"By the way, you're going to need an office to work out of. It'll make things a little easier for you to keep it all together." Cid told him, and walked toward the door, opening it and gesturing for Squall and Edea to follow him.

Xu passed them in the hallway and smiled, "Good morning Squall. Going to see your new office?"

"I guess." He answered with a shrug.

"Good. Well, I hope you like it. If you need anything, just ask. I'll be right down the hall." Xu told him, and continued on to wherever she was headed.

Squall lengthened his strides to catch up with Cid and Edea, who were waiting for him outside a door with his name on it. SQUALL LEONHART, CMDR. It read boldly in shiny brass over a black background.

When he reached them, Cid opened the door and gestured for Squall to precede them into the office itself.

Squall walked in and stopped in the center of the office, gazing around with interest. He didn't know what to expect, really, having never had an office of his own. The carpeting was plush, the pattern matching the carpet in the hall, the main color scheme wine-red and forest green. It went well with the golden wood paneling on the walls, and the large desk that dominated the room. Several large file cabinets ranked along one wall, a bookcase stood along another. A computer sat upon the desk as well as a phone and intercom system, and behind the desk was a comfortable looking leather upholstered chair. Beyond the desk was a window that had been opened to the freshening breeze, letting light and air into an otherwise stuffy, oppressive space.

"What do you think?" Cid asked.

"It's too much Cid. I mean, I just barely graduate to SeeD, now suddenly this? I'm honestly surprised that anyone took me seriously when you gave me this command." Squall said, waving his hand toward the desk.

"Well, before you go thinking that nobody will listen to you, you should know that even the older SeeDs respect what you've done. Admittedly, there are those who think this an unfair privilege, but they can be dealt with. If nothing else, there's the A-level combine. Complete that, and it'll put to rest any concerns that your position was not earned fairly." Cid said, then he added, "Besides, this is neither the largest nor the nicest office here. And the furniture, for all that it's in good shape, is not new. Hopefully, that'll defuse any friction which this might cause."

Squall nodded, then walked over to investigate the file cabinets, curious as to their contents. They were personnel files…for everyone. All of the SeeDs, active, inactive and deceased were there, as were all the cadets currently enrolled in Balamb Garden, along with contracted employees and support staff. The bookcase held books of course, all of the reference variety. Squall recognized some of them as textbooks he'd used in the past.

Squall had just started investigating the desk and its numerous drawers when Cid asked him, "So, what is your first order of business today commander?"

Squall looked up and frowned thoughtfully, then said, "I seem to recall a certain contract which has gone unfulfilled."

"Contract? I don't recall any unfulfilled…" Cid began when Squall interrupted him.

"I'm talking about the contract you entered into with Miss Heartilly. My first assignment? One that has been put aside due to the larger threat of Sorceress Ultimecia. Unless I'm mistaken, the terms of the agreement are that my team and I are assigned to her until Timber's independence is achieved. This makes us unavailable for further assignments until we fulfill the terms of this one." Squall explained.

Cid blinked. Squall was right. He'd forgotten completely about it. It wasn't a huge assignment, or a well-heeled client. Indeed, he'd taken it on mainly to help the girl out, not for the money, which was barely enough to cover one SeeD, let alone three. He felt rather badly about putting such a difficult assignment on such new SeeDs, but honestly, that was the only way he could justify what he was charging. An experienced SeeD would have refused the hire.

"What do you plan to do then Squall?" Cid asked him, impressed at the young man's professionalism. It made him feel that he'd chosen rightly, even if Squall himself didn't realize how naturally he had taken to his role.

"I plan on finishing the job." Squall answered seriously.

"Very good," Cid said proudly. "I'll leave you to it then. Let me know when you plan to leave." Cid turned toward the door, capturing Edea's hand in his.

When they reached the door, they paused and Edea turned back, saying, "Squall, if you need anything, don't hesitate to ask us." Squall nodded and they left.

Then he frowned at the closed door. Somehow, he got the sense that Edea hadn't been talking about his job.

Do not fear the bond…

Suddenly, he wanted to run after Edea and ask her what that meant.

Rinoa spent a frustrating and lonely morning trying to figure out what to do with herself since Squall was nowhere in evidence. She'd taken Angelo for a walk several times, twice out on the Quad, hoping she'd run into Squall there. She'd eaten breakfast alone, Selphie and Quistis had either gotten up early (which seemed to be a habit with these SeeDs) and had already eaten, or were still asleep and Rinoa had simply missed them. Likewise with Zell and Irvine. Although truthfully, Rinoa wasn't much interested in hanging out with the lanky Galbadian sniper, and while Zell was sweet, he wasn't Squall.

Sighing, she headed toward the library. Maybe they had something good there to read.

As she walked, she worried. Had she mistaken everything about the previous night and what she'd shared with Squall? Everything had gotten so intense, she'd nearly been overwhelmed by what she was feeling both physically and mentally.

But, she was so sure she'd heard him whisper, "I love you" as he kissed her in farewell that morning. Yet now, thinking back, she realized that she hadn't seen his lips move or heard his voice speaking it…. she'd heard that whispered confession in her head.

She stopped, suddenly realizing that what she'd heard in the flower field wasn't her imagination…. Squall actually had silently pledged himself as her knight. Rinoa realized that was when she began to sense what he felt when she was close enough to him.

Now that they'd been as close as it was possible for two individuals to get, that "sense" seemed to be getting stronger. She'd felt his emotions plainly when he'd kissed her, and she realized that what she'd heard that morning was Squall's unvoiced thoughts on what he felt about her.

Her breath hitched. Was it possible? Was this a new aspect of her power as a sorceress? What would Squall think about this new ability?

He would hate it. I know he would, and he would hate me as well for invading his mind without warning, without permission.

Rinoa's eyes filled with tears and she bit her lip. Maybe it was all a mistake, just her overheated imagination playing tricks on her after what she'd experienced that night. Maybe.

Reaching the library, she fled to a dark corner and wrapped her arms around herself, taking deep breaths and trying to calm the fluttering anxiety in her gut. Experimentally, she tried to open her mind to see if she could "hear" anyone else, and sagged in relief when she found that she could not.

Maybe it was just her imagination after all.

She had just started taking an interest in the titles of the books she'd been staring blindly at for the last few minutes, when she heard Squall's voice over the intercom.

"Zell Dincht, Selphie Tilmitt, and Rinoa Heartilly. Please come up to the bridge."

Taking a shaky breath, she left the library and headed toward the lift, meeting up with Selphie and Zell as they made their way toward it as well.

"Did you guys have fun last night? You disappeared after we caught you smooching on the balcony." Selphie grinned at her.

"Uh, yeah. We did." Rinoa answered, declining to elaborate.

"Where'd you run off to? We couldn't find you anywhere." Selphie asked. After replacing the battery on her video camera, she had searched pretty much everyplace that she could think of in garden, hoping to catch up with Squall and Rinoa and finally get a good picture of them together, but to no avail. They'd disappeared like smoke in the wind.

"Ah…" Rinoa began, not willing to reveal everything that had gone on between her and Squall the previous night. That was personal, private, and very precious to her. Definitely NOT for public record.

"Give her a break Selphie. She obviously doesn't want to talk about it. As long as you had fun, that's all that matters." Zell said, smiling at her.

"Yeah, that's true. So what do you think Squall wants anyway?" Selphie asked.

"Beats me. I'm actually kind of surprised he's working already. I'd have thought he'd still be resting or something. You know, recovering after being trapped in time compression." Zell said.

"He's fine now Zell. He did need a few days to rest, but that was all." Rinoa reassured them. She didn't want to tell them how close he'd come to not making it through. When she'd found him, he'd looked dead. When she'd cradled him against her, she realized that he actually was dead. He wasn't breathing, his heart wasn't beating… he was gone.

Somehow, after she'd collapsed into tears, sobbing heartbrokenly into the furred collar of his jacket, somehow he'd come back. She didn't know if she had somehow cast a life spell or if she'd managed to call his spirit back to him. All that she knew was that her heart was breaking, calling out to his, and by some miracle receiving an answer.

He'd slowly opened his eyes, gazing earnestly into hers, and whispered her name through dry, cracked lips. Then he'd taken a deep breath and closed his eyes again, only this time, it was in sleep.

Dr. Kadowaki had diagnosed exhaustion and dehydration, given him intravenous fluids and recommended bed rest for a couple of days. Rinoa had been there with him the entire time, refusing to leave his side. Not that he'd wanted her to go, quite the opposite.

"I still think he could have taken another day off. He can't have gotten to bed too early." Zell said.

Rinoa shrugged as Selphie punched the button on the lift for the second floor and they all followed her in.

"So, do you have any idea what he wants Rinoa?" Selphie asked.

Rinoa shook her head, answering, "I haven't seen him all morning. I thought he might come by this morning to take me to breakfast…" her voice trailed off and she shrugged.

"Did he say he would?" Selphie asked. Rinoa shook her head.

"Maybe he thought it would be nicer to let you sleep? You aren't much of a morning person Rinoa, you must admit." Selphie said.

"Maybe." She said. The elevator dinged and the door opened, on the second floor. Directly opposite the elevator was another lift that provided access to the bridge.

They arrived there to find Squall alone in the Garden's command center.

Zell hopped off the platform and gave him a cheeky salute, saying, "So, commander, what's up? We goin somewhere?"

"Kind of." Squall answered, and headed toward the lift, adding, "Follow me."

They piled back onto the lift and descended to the second floor again, and then Squall took the lead, stepping off the platform and gesturing for them to follow him as he headed down the hallway toward the offices. He stopped at a door with a brass nameplate on it, and Rinoa, Zell and Selphie exclaimed at seeing his name on it. Then he opened it and invited them in.

"WOW! You got your own office? Whoo hoo! Way to go commander!" Selphie hooted, giving Squall an enthusiastic hug.

"Awesome! Congratulations man!" Zell added, thumping him on the back and ignoring Squall's glare.

Rinoa meanwhile, simply smiled, hands clasped behind her back as she watched Squall submit to his friends' affections. She glanced around the room, liking the space, but thinking that it was lacking something. The furniture was good quality and while not new, was gently used.

Then she looked around, noting the blank walls, the bare desk, and realized that Squall needed something to put there; maybe a potted plant to put in the corner, artwork or photos to lend interest to the empty walls. She'd have to do something about that.

Approaching him slowly, she slipped her hands around his waist, giving him a hug. She smiled as his arms came around her and he returned the hug. He was getting better at this, not shrinking back or flinching like he used to do, though he was still a little hesitant to display his affection where others could see. It really was a bit like taming a wild animal.

"We need to have an office-warming party!" Selphie declared, much to Squall's consternation.

"Selphie…" he began, trying to divert her from that idea.

Rinoa laughed, "Selphie, some of us are still hung over from the last party!"

"I know you're not. Neither are you, Squall. Zell?" Selphie turned to him, arms crossed over her chest.

"Little bit." He admitted with a grimace, holding his fingers a short distance apart.

Squall rolled his eyes and decided to redirect the conversation to the reason he'd called them into his new office in the first place.

"Selphie, no party. I called you guys in here for a reason." Squall said.

Selphie pouted, with Zell snorting at her reaction before asking Squall, "So what's the reason? We're done aren't we? Ultimecia's dead."

"We're done with that," Squall said, "but we still have unfinished business to wrap up."

"Unfinished business? What are you talking about?" Selphie asked, confused.

"We still have an open contract with Miss Heartilly here. We haven't achieved our objective, so the terms of the agreement still hold." Squall said.

Rinoa frowned. Why was he suddenly being so formal? His arms were still around her though, so apparently he didn't feel the need to distance himself from her physically, despite his formality.

Then she began to worry. She hadn't thought about her contractual agreement with the SeeDs, the drive to defeat Ultimecia and save not only Timber but also the entire world had superseded it. Why was Squall so worried about it now? Not that she wanted to forget about her commitment to the Forest Owls, far from it. But it made her worry about what it would do to their budding relationship if they should continue to try and fulfill that contract. If Squall achieved the results he'd been hired for, what then? Would they still have a reason to be together or would his work then drive them apart, as it had once brought them together?

It left her torn, undecided. She remembered how unimpressed he'd been with the Owls' planning. Her planning. She, Zone, Watts, and the rest weren't professionals, not by any means. That was why they had hit upon the idea of hiring SeeD in the first place. They'd had so many grandiose plans centered on that remote possibility of having true professionals to aid them.

Plans that had seemed childish and ill considered in the face of the scorn the cold-eyed mercenary they'd hired had shown them.

But now that same cold-eyed mercenary was no longer a rookie but a seasoned veteran, a bona-fide hero, and her lover. Would this make things easier to actually win Timber's independence, or worse? And what part would their still new relationship play in this endeavor?

She leaned into him, tightening her arms around his waist, and tried not to give in to the fear that had begun to create a ball of lead in her guts.

Zell and Selphie smiled at the two of them, how cozy they now appeared when just a short time before Squall would have gently pushed Rinoa away.

"So, what's the plan Squall?" Zell asked him, curiously.

"Well, I'm still working on that. I don't have all the information I need yet, and I'm not going into a situation like Timber's blind. The last time we did that, we barely escaped with our hides intact." Squall answered, half-sitting on his desk, still keeping his arm around Rinoa, keeping her pressed close to his side.

Her warmth seeped into him through his clothing, distracting him by reminding him of how that warmth had felt under and around him the previous night. Reminding him of how her lips had tasted. Reminding him of the magic that had happened between them and igniting a craving to experience that magic again…soon.

He took a deep breath and shook himself mentally. He didn't want to push her away, but he knew that working with her was going to be damned difficult because of that distraction. It wasn't her fault either; she wasn't doing anything but holding him. This was his problem.

Forcibly dragging his mind back from its distraction, Squall asked Rinoa, "Can you get a message to the Forest Owls? Get an update on the situation there?"

Rinoa swallowed, licking her lips, and answered, "I… think so." She frowned, wondering which of her contacts would still be accessible. After their abortive attempt to kidnap President Deling, Galbadia's troops had really cracked down on Timber's resistance factions, forcing the Owls to go underground. She ran through their usual messaging options, and got an idea.

"Good. I've been reading the intelligence reports from Galbadia, but we don't have any agents in Timber so I really don't know what the status is there. Right now, Galbadia's on the verge of a civil war; we don't know who's going to end up in charge when the dust settles, and things are too dangerous right now for us to even think of going there. We can't negotiate anything with Galbadia's leaders until they actually have some; right now, no one's in charge there. Galbadia Garden's still putting itself back together after the mess Seifer made of it so they aren't going to be much help; they've got their own concerns. Besides, with Galbadia in chaos, it'll actually work to our advantage. Most of the troops in Timber might already have been recalled. The rest shouldn't be too hard to encourage to leave." Squall said. Rinoa nodded.

"Do you have an idea of when we'll be leaving and how we're going to get there?" Selphie asked him.

"Well, the when I'm not sure of yet. I'm still gathering information. The how is likely to be the Ragnarok. We'll have to be dropped off outside of Dollet and hike in overland. Don't want to announce to everyone that the SeeDs have arrived. As small a group as we are, this has to be a covert operation. That's the only way that I can see any chance for success. If the Galbadians don't know that we're SeeD, we'll have the advantage." Squall said. Selphie and Zell both nodded.

"So, anyway, that's what we've got going on so far," Squall said, bringing the informal meeting to a close. "I'll let you know when we're going to leave. Until then, be ready."

Sensing his dismissal, Zell snapped off a proper salute this time, grinning at Squall's eye-roll, saying, "Yes sir!"

Selphie simply smiled and winked at Rinoa, then skipped out the door. Zell followed her out after a wave at them both.

They were left alone together in the office. Alone for the first time since that wonderful interlude they'd shared. Pressed against his side as she was, Rinoa couldn't help but feel the interest, the craving to repeat the previous night's activity. It had both impressed her and to an extent, disappointed her that he was still able to focus on work while his feelings were running rampant. Of course, Squall was all about control.

Then he looked down at her with a slight frown, and asked, "I probably should have asked you about this, shouldn't I have? I mean, you're the client, you're calling the shots here."

Rinoa frowned back, disliking the reference to the fact that technically, she was his boss. Then it dawned on her why he had decided to go ahead and finish the job. He didn't want that stupid contract to come between them. She'd suddenly seen that clearly in his mind when he'd mentioned her being his client. She did wish however that they'd had a chance to discuss it before he'd started making plans.

"Yes, you should have. I would have liked to talk about it with you first." Rinoa said calmly.

Squall hesitated, then asked, "Do you still want us to do this then? Or do you have any suggestions, information that might help us get this done?"

Rinoa bit her lip. Yes, of course she wanted Timber's independence, and it was Squall's job to see that done. Just like Squall didn't like leaving a job half-finished; Rinoa didn't either. Besides if she backed out now, abandoned her friends in Timber, not only would she lose their respect, but also that of the SeeDs she'd hired. She'd show them solid proof that she was just a princess dabbling in something she didn't understand and abandoned as soon as it got tough.

"Yes. Yes, I do. And I do have some ideas, but I need to get that message out." Rinoa answered, then, licking her lips, asked him, "Um, can I borrow your credit card?"

Squall frowned, "Why? You've got plenty of gil, we all do…"

"I know. Just trust me. I've got a way to send out a message but I'll need a credit card to do it." Rinoa said.

Squall raised his eyebrows, and commented, "Okay. Don't lose it." He reluctantly handed over his credit card, wondering if this was setting a bad precedent. What were the protocols, the rules regarding giving something like that to your girlfriend?

Then another thought struck him. Was she his girlfriend? He didn't know. They hadn't put any sort of name on the relationship they had. She was his client, his lover, and much more than that. They were together, he loved her, but he suddenly realized that they'd never actually gone out on a date before. Weren't people supposed to go out on dates before they became boyfriend and girlfriend? Before they became lovers?

Squall suddenly realized that he'd gone about things all wrong. He'd have to put it down to simple ignorance and inexperience, an admission that pained him but was nonetheless true. Sneaking a glance over at Rinoa as she used his phone to call someone, he thought that she didn't appear to be upset at all at the current state of their affair, or how things had started out. But still, he figured he should probably try to put their relationship back on the right track. Before it veered completely off the rails.

They should go out on a date.

"Here you go." Rinoa said, handing him back his credit card.

Squall frowned, confused, and asked her, "Did you send the message?"

"Yes. We need to be in Winhill on Monday. They'll meet us there." Rinoa answered.

"Monday huh? How do you know they'll be there?" Squall asked.

"Trust me. I know they'll be there." Rinoa declared confidently.

"Okay." Squall said. Then he tilted his head a little, studying her. Rinoa hid a smile. It was a habit he had, when he was trying to figure something out that had to do with her, she'd learned. He'd tilt his head to one side like Angelo did when Rinoa had given him a command he didn't understand, and study her. The quizzical expression he wore was absolutely adorable, and Rinoa suddenly wanted to kiss him silly.

"Um… Rinoa?" He asked hesitantly. He swallowed down a sudden attack of nerves.

"Yes Squall?" She smiled up at him, slipping her arms around his waist again, this time loosely.

The feel of her hands on him again made him forget his nervousness and he asked her, "Am I your… boyfriend?" Rinoa's smile grew brighter and she stepped between his splayed legs as he leaned against his desk. His hands gently settled at her hips and pulled her forward until their bodies were touching.

"I don't know Squall, am I your girlfriend?" She asked, gazing up into his face.

He paused for a moment, thinking, then said, "The terms are inaccurate. We're more than friends. Especially after last night… but…. yeah… I consider you my girlfriend." Then he swallowed, looking nervous again, and added, "If you want to be, that is..."

Rinoa's expression softened at the bright flush that had appeared on his cheeks. He really was completely adorable when he wanted to be.

"Yes," Rinoa whispered, leaning into his body, pressing herself against the hard planes of his muscle and bone, pulling him into a deep, breath-stealing kiss.

He wrapped his arms around her and crushed her close, close enough that she could feel his heart thudding against her chest, hear his harsh breaths as kissed her. Taste his essence as his mouth melded with hers and their tongues met and danced together. Feel his heat, his passion, his excitement…. and his love.

He wanted to do again what they'd done the previous night, wanted to know if he'd done it right and if she'd enjoyed it. Rinoa felt that from him as clearly as if he'd shouted it in her ear. She also sensed his excitement at the thought of doing that again with her right that moment in his office.

She couldn't help the warm shiver that went up her spine at that thought, and her hands slipped under his shirt, stroking over the warm skin.

His followed suit, stroking up her back, then around to the front, palming and caressing her breasts over her bra and making her moan quietly. Then she shivered again as his lips left hers and started lightly traveling down her neck, nipping lightly at the sensitive skin.

For someone who'd never done anything like this before, Squall was damned good at it. Of course, everyone she'd talked to about him said he was a quick study. It was obviously true.

Brushing his lips against her ear, Squall whispered huskily, "Please tell me to stop if you don't want to do this here."

"Don't stop." Rinoa whispered back, prompting Squall to pull back and stare at her, eyes dark with passion.

"Are you sure?" He asked softly. When she nodded, he looked around trying to find someplace that might work for what he intended. The desk? Well, maybe but there was the computer and stuff on it, and it was hard and uncomfortable and… no. The chair? No, he wasn't even sure how that would work. The couch? Couch? Oh, right, he did have a couch in his office. A very nice leather one against the far wall. Yes, that would work nicely.

He stood up and pulled Rinoa over to it and they lay down on it, continuing from where they'd left off. Squall had just gotten Rinoa's shirt and bra removed, and she'd pulled his shirt off as well and was undoing his pants when he checked his pockets and froze, groaning.

Dropping his head to the hollow at the side of her neck, Rinoa heard his muffled voice murmur, "Crap. Craaaaaap!"

"Squall? Did you…?" Rinoa asked, feeling disappointment starting to creep in.

He raised his head and frowned down at her and answered, "Did I what? Did I… Oh. No, I didn't. Not far from it though." He shifted, wincing, his movement prompting Rinoa to gasp.

"So? What's wrong?" She asked, still thrumming from the feel of his hard body against hers. She was still sensitive but that didn't matter to her, his kisses and touches had transmitted his craving for her and she had responded in kind.

Then he winced again as he answered sheepishly, "I don't… have anything… with me."

Rinoa groaned, "Crap."

"Yeah," He sighed, leaning his forehead against hers and stroked her cheek, apology in his eyes. "Sorry." He sat up and shifted away from Rinoa, leaning against the back of the couch, groaning. He took a deep breath and looked over at her; letting his eyes travel over her beautiful bared breasts, his arousal still aching.

"You might want to put your shirt back on," Squall said.

Rinoa sighed in disappointment. He looked so beautiful and sexy, slumped back on the couch with his shirt off and his pants undone. Her own body was aching for completion as well, despite the soreness from the previous night. She reached her hand out to him and he took it, pulling her up against him and kissing her again. But sweetly this time, regretfully. The fiery passion of earlier had dissipated.

"Okay," Rinoa said finally, locating it and her bra and putting them both back on, with Squall watching in fascination as she did.

So that's how they do that… He'd thought as she put her bra back on.

Rinoa had to bite her lip to keep from laughing at Squall's mental comment. Then she sobered. She couldn't let this go on for much longer; she had to do something about it. It wasn't fair to Squall. She had to go talk to Edea.

While she had been putting her shirt back on, Squall had finally stood, buttoned his pants again and retrieved his shirt. Rinoa stood as well, approaching him and slipping her arms around his waist again.

Leaning her head against his chest, she sighed, "Maybe we can finish this tonight."

"Do you want to?" He asked. She nodded. He stroked his hand lightly down her back and leaned his head against hers.

"You know," He said. "I was thinking earlier, and I suddenly realized that we've never been out on an actual date."

Rinoa looked up at him and smiled, "We've been a little busy, what with saving the world and all."

"I know. But…. I'd like to take you out on one tonight." Squall said.

"I'd like that." Rinoa said.

Squall smiled, that same sweet, innocent smile he'd given her on the balcony the previous night, and said, "Good. I'll come get you at six."

"I can't wait." Rinoa said, still smiling.

Gently caressing her cheek with the palm of his hand, Squall said, "Neither can I. Why don't you go on back to your rooms and relax until then, maybe take a nap or something?"

Rinoa nodded, and sighed, "Okay. I'll see you later then." She reluctantly pulled away and slowly made her way toward the door.

"Good." Squall said, but he didn't release the hand he still held. Rinoa still edged away, their linked hands stretching out as the distance between them increased. Then Squall pulled her back and kissed her again. Then he let her go.

She looked back before going through the door, and smiled at him once, loving the soft expression in his eyes and the small smile he still wore. Then she left.

It would be hard to turn off that "sense" that she had, hard to put a stop to the flood of thoughts and emotions that she was receiving from Squall, but she knew it was the right thing to do.

Sighing, Rinoa went in search of Edea.