Disclaimer: I love ffviii… this is for everyone like me. Though we all wish it, none of us own what we've spent hours writing about. Hope you like my story.

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The Kiss

en guarde

"Commander Leonhart:

Enclosed are the requested documents regarding the official change of leadership in Galbadia as well as contracts and all other relevant information pertaining to Galbadia Garden and its connection to the state of Galbadia. Please keep these copies for Balamb Garden's archives. If you have any more questions or need further documentation, do not hesitate to contact me again.

Regards,

President Caraway"

Reading over the short correspondence quickly, Squall shuffled through the thick stack of papers enclosed in the envelope Rinoa had brought him the previous Friday. He had forgotten all about it that day, even though he had promised her that he would get to it first thing. Another week flew by him; it was already Friday again, and he had finally found this envelope at the bottom of the stacks of paperwork he had slowly managed to tackle over the last five days. Thankfully (or not, as it was now even more to get through) it looked like simple paperwork for filing away and was not at all urgent; the files regarding change of power in Galbadia were meant only to be kept as back up records, and the rest of the items regarding Galbadia Garden were administrative and meant to become part of the official paperwork naming himself Garden Commander - the man ultimately in charge of all three Gardens. He knew from the beginning that he would never have to take on the Headmaster duties of Galbadia and Trabia Gardens and the title was more of an honorific than anything (as this was now a time of peace and Garden was not involved in any large scale military operations). He had already had his role written into Garden constitution and clarified - his duty as Commander was only in effect during declared war time. Still, it seemed everything had to be documented a thousand times, and just the motions of doing the tedious work made him not only Headmaster of Balamb Garden, but Commander.

All the procedure and paperwork and his daily 'performance' - acting out this role he was given - it was confusing for himself most of all, he was sure.

The sun was still high in the sky when Miss M buzzed in, letting Squall know there were no more appointments and he could leave the office for another short weekend reprieve. Squall glanced at his watch - 'only 5?' he murmured to himself questioningly. He buzzed back to M, thanking her for the day's work and stood up, papers still in hand. He flipped through the stack again quickly, almost like a deck of cards, then, deciding it was not urgent enough to warrant staying late for such a large stack of paperwork, tossed it to the side of his desk. The cover sheet with Caraway's letter and a few others from the top fluttered off the desk as the stack of papers settled, falling to rest on the floor not far away. He looked out the window, blinking back a bit of the sun's strong light - light he'd been hidden from day after day in his massive leather armchair. He gave the paperwork a last glance, then with a hop in his step turned his heel and walked out, hoping to enjoy some much needed sun for the first time that week. He had had plenty enough paperwork.

------------------------------

He didn't even stop to change his clothes. Here he was, shirt-and-slacks-Commander-Squall, up to his elbows in Caterchipillars and Bite Bugs (he rolled up his sleeves first, at least). Right now though, he hardly cared about getting dirty; he was just happy to stretch his limbs. Besides that, it was hard to find any other thoughts weighing on his mind. He let the energy inside him move freely – and though it had been the better part of many months since he'd last done any fighting, the art in his sword-arm was still as keen as his gunblade was sharp. No one could deny that Squall was a true natural.

And if nothing else, beating up monsters was definitely better than getting beat up in his office; by the phone constantly ringing, the never-ending stacks of paperwork, and even just trying to communicate effectively. Never before in his life was 'whatever' not enough. The learning curve for this Commander gig was huge.

The worst part for Squall was definitely the formal communication – unfortunately it was also the biggest part of the job. How do you say 'stop calling me all the Hyned time' while trying to stay as professional and polite as possible? It wasn't as if Squall had never given a speech before; he'd definitely given a few (of varying quality, reflected in his SeeD rank) over the last year leading Garden. But back then, he mostly just gave some directions over the intercom and that was that. He'd never realized however just how much talking you had to do as Commander, Headmaster,whatever – he wondered how Cid could stand the sound of his own voice after so many years at Balamb. Squall was officially Commander for the span of only a few months and he was undoubtedly tired of himself. Meetings all day, phone calls, memos, hell it was even bad to write out e-mails since he heard his voice rambling on in his head as he typed. And after all that he would go to see her, Rinoa, his Rinoa, and he knew that she'd like to listen to him more, but the long days were trying enough without him fumbling words and embarrassing himself in front of the person he most wanted to impress. He was sorry for that, sorry that he couldn't communicate better to her of all people. He had to do his job though, and Squall would always,always do his job. Like it or not, it was his duty. He hoped that it would get easier with practice.

For now though, Squall was glad to get some time away; the phone and the desk and papers and the headaches were far out of sight and out of mind. After drawing a full stock of Scan spells he decided to take a break from the Bite Bugs, feeling his muscles start to ache. "Yeesh," he mumbled, "I guess I'm out of shape. Has been a while, I guess..." He realized he was talking to himself and knew it was time to go back – he was tired, and it seemed that all his time spent 'practicing' at Commander was starting to hurt his Gunblade practice. 'Guess I should make more time for the Training Center,' he mused, as he started on his way back.

------------------------------

Zell stood by the main gates doing his usual punching routine, but looking quite a bit more antsy than usual. His gaze darted around, inspecting each passer-by, scanning their faces for one in particular. He'd been at the gates for well over an hour now, and things were starting to look dismal.

Stretching his arms, he turned to face the Garden, and then started mumbling to himself. A few girls walking past eyed him suspiciously, but he didn't notice, too wrapped up in his seemingly one-sided conversation.

"Zell, what do you mean you still haven't seen him?" an irritated voice sounded over the comlink in his ear.

"I'm tellin' ya he hasn't come by! I don't know where he is, you guys haven't seen him either so don't blame me!" Zell mumbled back indignantly.

Selphie only grumbled in response on the other line. "Well I don't know what to do then. We can't go this far just to play it stupid now. He's not in his office, he's not in his room, he's not with Rinoa –"

"Visual confirmation on Rinoa; she's alone, heading south out of the dormitories," Quistis assured, cutting Selphie off for a second.

"See, not with her!" Selphie sighed in frustration. "Where else would he be if not with her? Irvy, what about the Training Center?"

"For the 10th time in ten minutes darlin', he's not here. If anyone's interested in seeing a handsome cowboy do some target practice though –"

Quistis jumped in again, cutting Irvine off from his self-flattery, saying "look guys, we just have to wait. If we risk it now we'll get caught for sure. If you're all so impatient why don't we just meet up somewhere else?"

"Aw Quistis where's the fun in that?" Zell laughed.

"Zell are you alright?"

"AHHHH!"

------------------------------

"Zell are you alright?" Squall asked as he walked up towards his friend. He noticed a few girls sitting on benches by the entrance, presumably waiting for rides into town for the weekend, all giving Zell crazy looks. Then he glanced at Zell and saw him... talking to himself? Maybe he wasn't the only one who was over tired.

"AHHHH!" Zell jumped straight up, turning mid-air to recognize that he wasn't hearing things and it was indeed Squall bumping into him. Simultaneously three voices chimed into his ear –

"Zell is everything OK?"
"Zell what the heck man?"
"MY EAR!"

He wanted to apologize for Quistis's ear but Squall was right there, giving him the strangest look.

"Ahaha...!" Zell laughed nervously, playing off his surprise very poorly, "Hey Squall, sorry man, you startled me!"

"Are you alright? I thought I saw you talking to yourself. Those girls are all looking at you funny," Squall motioned at them with a nod of his head.

"Ahaha...! Well, um..." Zell rubbed the back of his neck sheepishly, digging deep for something to say.

"You haven't been sleeping well, tell him you're having zombie nightmares!"
"Just say yes, you like talking to yourself."
"You're on your period!"
"Irvy what does that have to do with getting startled?!"

Zell groaned inwardly and wished he could take the earbud out without Squall seeing. Squall spoke again though, saving Zell from having to come up with a lame excuse. "You must be tired, maybe you should go take a break."

Zell nodded thankfully at Squall's proffered explanation. "Uh, yeah man, yeah, I'm just tired. Ha ha, you know I would've picked up on you a mile away any other time, martial arts instincts and all that! Hah!" Squall raised an eyebrow at this but said nothing. Elaborating on the story, Zell used part of Selphie's excuse, saying "I just haven't been getting enough sleep I think, I'm gonna go lay down after this. What are you up to man? Go out for a walk?"

Squall nodded. "Yeah. You better get some rest Zell you're acting... uh, off," Squall said, trying not to sound harsh. He waved slightly then, and started walking away towards the main campus. "Get some rest, see you later."

Zell let out the breath he didn't realize he was holding the whole time.'Phew! At least he didn't notice the earbud...'

"Good save Zell, but you forgot the zombies!"
"And the part about your period!"
"Irvine what the Hyne is the matter with you?" Quistis groaned over the line.

At that moment Squall turned around and shouted to Zell, "Hey do you know where Rinoa is?"

Quistis chimed in moments later with Rinoa's location. "She just stepped into the Cafeteria."

"Uh, I think she said she was hungry!" Zell shouted back, this time covering the microphone under his collar with his hand.

"Thanks!" Squall yelled from the distance, then continued on his way.

Zell watched Squall's back as he retreated further into the Garden, and when he knew Squall was well out of sight-range, he murmured into the communicator – "Selph, he's headed your way."

"Got it. Let's start moving guys." Then, with an obvious grin in her voice, Selphie chirped, "Things are looking up!"

------------------------------

Rinoa sighed. Inwardly she cursed her forgetful self – she'd left her ID card at her room again – and she couldn't eat at the cafeteria without it, not without Squall around anyway. The dinner ladies adored him, and never made him swipe his ID to get in. She sighed dejectedly. 'Not everyone is responsible for paying your salary though, I suppose,' she justified to herself, then stepped out of the line and headed back towards the dorms.

On her way, she noticed a familiar blonde in pink about fifty feet ahead of herself in the lobby. Rinoa called out, "Hey Quisty!" waving a hand and quickening her step to catch up.

Quistis recognized Rinoa's voice immediately, and trying to hide her surprise, turned around to greet her. Thankfully, Rinoa couldn't notice Quistis jumping slightly from the shock at that distance. Composing herself, Quistis waved back and smiled, halting her steps so that Rinoa could catch up with her.

"Hey Quis," Rinoa smiled at her friend, "going to your room also?"

Quistis nodded, smiling back. "Yup," she replied, giving Rinoa a white lie, "you?"

"Yeah," Rinoa affirmed. "Forgot my ID again and the dinner ladies aren't attracted to me like they are to Squall so," she joked, while the two resumed walking towards their destination.

"Ah, I see," Quistis laughed, then suggested, "maybe you should put it around your neck with your rings, then you wouldn't forget." She grinned down at the shorter girl, teasing.

Rinoa chuckled at Quistis's joke. "Yeah, maybe. Are you hungry? We should have some hot dogs together or something," Rinoa grinned, poking a little fun at Zell while also inviting her friend to dinner.

"Ah, well..." Quistis paused for a moment, trying to think of a way to say no without sounding suspicious.

"Say yes! Save me a hot dog!"
"You can't, there are zombies, lots of zombies, and we're dying without you Quisty!"
"You just got your period!"

"I uh, just got my period actually," she managed, immediately regretting her words and stifling a groan. She had to run with it now though, so she followed up with "I'm feeling pretty ill, I think I'm going to lie down."

"Aw, I understand," Rinoa said comfortingly, then offered, "I'll walk you to your room, ok?"

"Thanks Rin, but you don't have to," Quistis replied, trying gently to shake her.

"A lady in distress should never walk alone!" Rinoa insisted, jokingly trying to sound gallant in hopes of making her friend feel a bit better. They linked arms at the elbow and strolled on, heading for Quistis's small apartment in the instructor's wing. Quistis, trapped by her excuse, could only go along with her friend, all the while desperately trying to block out the buzzing in her ear and not act suspicious.

"I must have ESPN, how else did I know you were on your period Quis?"
"Quisty the zombieeeeeeess!"
"The hot doggggssss!"

Quistis groaned inwardly for the 100th time today. 'How did I let myself get into this mess?'

------------------------------

On arriving at the cafeteria, Rinoa was nowhere to be found. Squall was slightly miffed at this, but nonetheless decided to sit down and eat - he was just too hungry after his first workout in a long while. All in all it had been quite the solitary day, even for him. Besides the appointments at the office and then the short run in with Zell, he hadn't seen anyone else that day – not even Miss M., since he had skipped lunch yet again. He always came in before her and left after, so if he didn't leave the office for lunch he'd never see her, only hear her voice over the intercom buzz. He sighed to himself over a plate of the usual cafeteria suspects; mixed steamed veggies, mystery meatloaf ('torama or dragon this week maybe, tougher than usual'), funguar gravy and a dinner roll. Unenthused by the dinner offerings of the evening, he could do nothing but dwell in his thoughts. 'Maybe I should've asked someone to go hunting with me today.'

He knew he wasn't very good at that though. In the past, it wasn't even something he'd think about. And he knew he had some bad habits from the past that he had to work on. Before, it worked for him - acting real tough and not getting close to anyone - he was the only one responsible for his heartache and he felt in control of his personal destiny. Then everything turned upside down; little did he know it then, but the night of the Garden party, the night he met Rinoa, things were already set in motion. And through the arduous adventure with the five friends he'd made he learned that he couldn't control everything, his fate or his future. Not even sorceress Ultimecia, bent on time compression and ultimate world destruction, was successful in that. He also learned about friends, people to count on. And he learned that maybe it felt better to have people in your heart than outside of it always.

He couldn't hate himself for the past, though. And he knew he wasn't all bad. He was soft-hearted deep down, he liked to work hard, he kept promises. The only thing he could be mad at himself for now, was if he didn't step forward from the past and try to be someone more, something good. 'Next time,' he told himself, 'I'll get Zell or someone to come along. Hyne even Irvine would be better company than just me by myself. Oh geez, I'm talking to myself again. I'm going to invite them, if only to prevent talking to myself anymore than I have today.' He was trying, and that mattered.

He grunted into a third marathon morsel of meatloaf, longing for Rinoa's voice to listen to. Usually he got at least an hour of her company every day, and he found that spending time with her after a long day really helped him look forward to the next and the next. They hadn't talked any more about their conversation last week – partially because of lack of time, poor timing, and admittedly because Squall didn't know quite what to say. He was still working it out, thinking about her answers.

'Strength... Chance... Guarantee.'

He pondered over it as he had each day this week, but by the time he had cleared his plate he still didn't have any ideas. Try as he might, he just couldn't figure out exactly what she'd meant with her words that night.

------------------------------

Maybe she just insisted on walking Quistis because she needed some company. It had been a long week for everyone, even herself – Rinoa was now officially getting paid to mediate between Balamb Garden and the Galbadian government, half of her pay coming from each group, respectively. It was a job she liked; she spoke to the General more often than ever now (and not always about business), and she got to visit Squall in his office, wearing his dress shirts and ties, looking frazzled but sounding composed. 'On the whole it's a great job,' she mused. It also cemented a place for her at the Garden, and even afforded her her own lodgings in the staff wing of the dormitory. No more crashing on Selphie's couch, although she'd miss having a roommate. She moved into her new place this past week which was hectic, on top of her regular work, and all the while doing some negotiating on the side for Watts and Zone and the rest of Timber.

She'd hardly even had time to see Squall this week, which was perhaps good and bad. She missed him of course, but she couldn't get that conversation from the week before out of her head. All she could do was think about it, but she couldn't find a way to bring it up again with Squall - and even if she did, to be honest she wasn't sure what she'd say. When she saw Quistis in the lobby something clicked in her mind – Rinoa was determined to get her company, even if it meant cornering Quistis in her room. Quistis ended up setting herself up perfectly.

They made it to Quistis's apartments and set about making some tea to calm Quistis's 'queasiness', at Rinoa's insistence. At this point, Quistis was close to giving up on meeting her co-conspirators at all this evening. She could hear them up to the usual antics over her earpiece, which she was still desperately trying to tune out. Mentally she chastised the three of them for starting without her, trying her best to focus her irritation at them, that they might hear her thoughts telepathically and tremble. She could hear Irvine, Selphie and Zell laughing away, presumably at the faint noise in the background. She could also distinguish the sounds of Zell preparing himself some hot dogs on the stove, cans of fizz popping open, and the crunch of potato chips in cello-aluminum wrapping. She sighed into her mug of tea, sending more mental daggers at 'Z.S.I.', cursing the pot of hot dogs on the stove...

"Quis, can I talk to you about something?"

Quistis was shaken out of her reverie, halting her hot dog hex. She looked over to Rinoa, who wore a serious expression on her face, and immediately her thoughts changed to worry for her friend. "Everything ok?" she asked gently.

Rinoa nodded. "Oh yeah of course, I'm just fine. I just wanted to ask your opinion about something." Rinoa looked bashful when she added, "Uh, it's about Squall. We had a talk last week and I can't stop thinking about it, its kinda driving me up the wall." Rinoa let out a little sigh and started playing with her tea mug absentmindedly.

On the line everything got quiet. "Oh my Hyne, I had to pause it, this is like a dream come true for me – I've never heard girl talk like this before, I don't know if I'm scared or excited –"
A crash and muffled 'oof' erupted. Quistis could just make out Zell calling Irvine a sicko over Selphie roaring the same but more animatedly.
"I can't believe they talked about S-E-"

More crashing could be heard over the line, the volume of it getting louder and causing Quistis to visibly flinch with the pain in her ear. 'Thank Hyne Rinoa can't hear this!' Trying harder than ever to tune out the riot in her ear, Quistis murmured as comfortingly as possible, "I'm here for you Rin. So what did you talk about?"

Rinoa looked like she was trying hard to organize her thoughts. Slowly, she started, "Well, last Friday we took a walk around the grounds and then stopped to talk at the balcony, you know, off the ball room. He seemed really... I don't know. Confused maybe. That already I'm not sure how to read. Then he asked me a bunch of questions... he showed me his hands, our hands together, he held my hands over his heart... then he asked me what all that meant."

"Get your cowboy hat out of the gutter, sicko!"
"What?! Maybe it's coming up, the big talk about S-E-"
More banging and crashing sounds came over the line. After a second, Selphie came on with a serious note in her voice. "Quisty, turn the mic off, I'll be right over there." Then aside to Zell she added in her sweetest voice, "can you please knock some sense into him Zell? Thanks!"

Quistis heard the automatic door slide as Selphie left to meet up for the girl talk, then turned her attention back to Rinoa. Placing a hand over Rinoa's reassuringly, Quistis said, "Rin, that sounds wonderful really. Romantic even, I didn't expect that out of Squall." She smiled at her friend and gave a little laugh at the joke.

Rinoa smiled back but didn't laugh. "Well to be honest, at the time it felt very romantic, but its been a week and I guess I'm just agonizing over it." At this, Rinoa laughed a bit at her own insecurity. Taking a few deep breaths, she tried to organize all the jumbled emotions from that night so that she could say something Quistis would understand. After a few quiet moments, she was about to continue when they heard a soft knocking at Quistis's door. A second after they heard Selphie's distinctly cheerful greeting, muffled by the barrier.

"I'll be right back," Quistis told Rinoa, standing up to open the door to their friend and taking the opportunity to remove her com-link mic and hide it while Rinoa couldn't see. 'The guys have heard too much already,' she thought to herself, shaking her head. Then, hitting a button to the right of the door frame, the door slid away, revealing a bouncing Selphie. "Come in Selph," Quistis smiled and waved, stepping aside to allow her friend access to the main room. "Good timing on your visit Selph, we could use another girl's opinion on something," she added, pretending that Selphie's arrival was a total surprise.

"Thanks!" Selphie smiled to Quistis, then looking over to the island in Quistis's small kitchenette, she chimed, "Hey, Rinny, I didn't know you were here!" Feigning a moment of closer inspection, Selphie continued a second later, "gosh, you guys look so serious, what's going on?"

Quistis had to admit, Selphie could put on a good act when she wanted to. "We were just talking about Squall," Quistis answered, pretending to fill her friend in on the story. "Rin, why don't you start over? We're all here now, and three heads are definitely better than one, right?"

Rinoa smiled at her friends and nodded. "Yeah." She took a few moments to collect her thoughts again, then started over - "well, Selph, I had a talk with Squall last week, he seemed more serious than usual and almost confused, then he asked me a bunch of questions." She animated her story slightly, her facial expressions a dead give away to her confusion and conflicting emotions from the other night. Pushing her mug around on the table, she went on, "sort of, anyway. He showed me his hands, then our hands together, then he held my hands over his heart... and asked me what all that meant, if that makes sense." The other girls nodded, showing Rinoa they were following along. Rinoa continued, "I can tell you what I told him. I told him that his two hands were his strength, our hands together was a chance, and his heart was a guarantee... thinking about it now I'm not sure why I said all that, or what I even meant." Rinoa frowned at this point, obviously frustrated. "Maybe I've been thinking about it too much, I don't know. We didn't talk anymore after that really. And we haven't talked about it since, so I'm just thinking all kinds of things without knowing what he thinks at all..." Rinoa threw her hands up into the air in her frustration, and shook her head at her own thoughts. "I don't know. Thinking about it now, I'm not sure why he would even ask questions like that."

"Have you told him you love him yet?" Selphie asked, rather bluntly.

"Ah, Selph," Rinoa blushed, "I, um..."

"Rin don't say that you don't, its pretty obvious," Quistis said, making both Selphie and herself laugh. Rinoa just blushed a bit brighter.

"So I'll take that as a no," Selphie continued, smiling at Rinoa. Looking thoughtful for a second, she addressed Rinoa seriously, "probably better right now that you don't tell him yet anyway, honestly I don't know if he'd know what to do with it, yanno?" Selphie gave Rinoa a reassuring look, adding, "I mean, when we first met he was as cold as a Glacial-Eye, and right now I'd say he's maybe just starting to thaw out a bit," she grinned at her friend. "I'm not saying he hasn't made a huge leap forward, and I think we really have you to thank for that Rinny, but maybe let him warm up a bit more."

Quistis nodded in agreement with Selphie's comments and continued, "he really seems to be trying for you Rin. I just think about him from when we were kids... what I can remember anyway. And I remember what I know about him from being here at the Garden together. He's never really had anybody close to him besides Elle, and we were all really young when we lost touch with her. I'm sure you had lots of friends. I did, Selph too for sure, no doubt about that," she laughed, smiling at Selphie. "I think, especially in terms of the rest of us, he's just trying to get that figured out. It must be a lot harder to figure out what your relationship is to him, if its taking him so long to figure out what we mean to him."

Rinoa nodded, thinking about what the girls said. Its true, they did know him a lot longer than she did. And all the reflections on his history were true also. She had even talked a little with Squall about the rest of the gang, and she could see it in his face and in his eyes that it was something he definitely thought deeply about, more so than he expressed to her in a few words.

Selphie and Quistis both smiled at Rinoa reassuringly. Quistis squeezed her hand, and told her, "just give him some more time Rin, I'm sure you guys will talk about that again." With a thoughtful look, she assured, "I don't think you gave him any kind of 'wrong' answers if you're worried about that. Sounds sensible if you ask me, and Squall is all about what makes sense, we all know that," she laughed at Squall's sometimes (ok often) over-seriousness. "Maybe he just wanted to know what you'd call those things. What they mean to you."

"Then he could figure out what they mean to him, maybe?" Selphie piped in.

Rinoa 'Mm'ed thoughtfully in reply. "I guess I can understand that."

Quistis nodded once more. She smiled at Rinoa, and hoping to lighten the mood, stated, "the gesture itself seems so sweet though, I mean –"

"Its like straight out of a movie Rinny!" Selphie squealed, jumping on this turn of the conversation. "Is that what your dates are always like?"

Rinoa blushed, replying, "ah, well I wouldn't really call them dates, we just usually meet up for dinner after work, and ah, maybe?"

"Maybe as in yes?" Selphie laughed. "I didn't know Squall was so sweet!"

"So tell us about the rest of your dates, Rin," Quistis grinned, conspiratorially.

"They're not really dates you guys," Rinoa blushed brighter, trying to wave off their questions.

"Rinny we can't girl talk if you don't give us all the details!" Selphie pleaded.

Quistis and Selphie proceeded to bombard Rinoa with questions of all sorts, making her blush spread straight down to her toes. She stuttered and stammered, unable to answer even the simplest question.

"What do you guys talk about?"

"Does he go for your hand first or do you have to initiate?"

"Do you dress up for him? Does he dress up for you?"

"Is he a good kisser?"

"How far have you guys gone?"

"OH MY HYNE I TOLD YOU IT WOULD GET HERE ZELL!"

Selphie and Quistis jumped straight out of their chairs, looking at each other and realizing it simultaneously; while Quistis put her mic away, Selphie, in her rush to get over, forgot to leave hers behind. They had the same thought – 'Oh my Hyne the guys heard EVERYTHING!'

The tone in the room instantly changed, Rinoa looked at them both like they had gone off the deep end. "Syncronized Chair Jumping a new event in the Olympics you guys?" she questioned, eying them both and laughing nervously.

Frantically they looked for an excuse for their erratic behavior. In their ear pieces all Selphie and Quistis could hear was hysteric laughter coming from Irvine and Zell's chant of 'sicko', disgust coloring his voice.

Selphie, remembering her original ruse for the surprise visit to Quistis's apartment, grabbed a small package and held it high, hoping it would be enough to at least distract Rinoa from her suspicions. In a high pitched, nervous voice, Selphie yelped, "Quistis I forgot! I came over to bring you these tampons for your period!"

The laughter over the com-link only increased, and it was all Quistis could do to accept the package and mumble 'thanks'.

------------------------------

Later that night, Squall found himself at the usual place. He might not have made any breakthroughs on the issue of last week, but by the end of the night he wasn't unhappy. It had been a good day, even if it was a bit lonely. He had enjoyed his break from work that afternoon and his trek out of the Garden. Even dinner wasn't too bad - tough but perhaps more edible than the usual. He was tired, but something in him was resisting the urge to sleep. So, though the hours of this day were quickly coming to an end, he took another long walk after leaving the cafeteria, and found himself here, breathing in the cool air and feeling peaceful.

-----------------------------

A while after the girls parted ways, Rinoa thanking Selphie and Quistis both, then declaring her intent to find Squall, she started her search. Talking with the two girls definitely made her feel better about the events of last Friday, and now all she wanted was to see Squall again. Somehow it had gotten very late, past 11PM – she had been at Quistis's apartment since dinnertime. She hoped that Squall hadn't already gone to bed – in a rush she checked his usual haunts; no luck at the training center or the office, and no answer at his apartment. Finally, she found him standing at their balcony, looking up. She smiled when she saw him stargazing, something he seemed to like very much. It seemed almost whimsical of him, and she found it entirely endearing. She walked up to him slowly, her footsteps rousing him from his reverie as he turned to greet her.

"Hello."

She smiled and almost laughed at his simple greeting. She walked straight into his embrace, feeling his arms wrap around her tightly while she slipped her own arms around his waist. Breathing him in, she grinned and murmured into his chest, "hey yourself."

He gave her a little smile and was quiet for a moment. Then, "I was beginning to think I'd miss you today."

"Mm, almost, yeah," she replied, tilting her head back to look up into his face. "I ate dinner at Quistis's, we were chatting and I lost track of time."

"Ah," he nodded, understanding.

"Where were you today?" she asked, wondering out loud. "I didn't see you at the office around the usual time."

"I left early and took a walk outside." She nodded up at him, expectantly. Recognizing that she wanted him to elaborate, he added, "it turned into a long walk. I brought my gunblade."

"Aha!" she laughed. "Well, did you have a good 'walk'?" she smirked at him, making bunny ears with her fingers on 'walk'.

He gave her a slight smirk back and answered simply, "yes," but gave no more information on how he'd spent his time thinking today, and ever since dinner thinking especially about her. Instead, he asked, "did you have a good time with Quistis?"

She smiled and nodded, replying with a happy note in her voice. "It was good, Selph came too. We just talked for a while." Likewise, she wasn't going to tell him about her thoughts today, especially her thoughts on him. He raised an eyebrow, knowing just by looking at her that there was more to this story, but he let it go, as she'd let him pass on her own question.

He gave her a soft smile and looked down into her eyes, finding a smile there for him in return. By the stars he figured it was just about midnight now, but he was still glad he got to see her, if only for a few minutes today. She looked beautiful. Maybe a little tired, too - he wondered if her day was as long as his. She was warm in his arms, and he could feel her fingertips knotting in the material of his shirt - something she did absentmindedly, he imagined. The smell of her soap was gentle, just like her, natural and fresh and better than any perfume. And somehow his day just got infinitely better. He wanted to tell her but could hardly speak - he opened his mouth but no sound would come out. Instead he inhaled slowly, taking her in again. Leaning down, he placed a feather-light kiss in her hair, bringing one arm up higher, around her shoulders, inching his hand to her slender neckline. The skin of his hand was rough and sent tingles through her - it was all she could do to sigh as he kissed her, touching his lips to her brow, then her cheek, and finally, after what seemed like forever waiting in blissful agony, he touched his lips to hers.

On his lips she easily read how he'd missed her today, he didn't have to say the words for her to know. She willed her lips not to tell him what she couldn't yet say.

Her lips put him in a trance, her words captivating his mind again as they kissed. Strength. Chance. Guarantee. In his mind's eye he saw his hands, their hands, and his heart.

And he decided right then to take the meanings at face value. Honestly, he didn't know how else he could understand them – for now this was the only way he had. So if that's what these things meant to her, three words full of significance, connotations, implications... then he would be those things. He would be strong, he would embrace this opportunity, their possibility. He'd already given her the promise. He would assure her everyday. He would be the epitome of these words she gave him, these words full of meaning to her. He would mean something to her.

He would mean something to her.

He kissed her deeply, letting himself fall further into her, happy with the answers he'd found here, on her lips. He kissed her deeply, knowing that with time, and with practice, there would be more to find.

It was enough for them both for now, to simply kiss and know by the feeling of it that maybe there was nothing worth worrying over after all. She couldn't deny it when their lips met - she loved him. And she had told him the truth that night when he asked those questions - the truth about what she saw in him, what she valued in him. She'd told him she loved him in the words he was ready for. Now she just had to wait until he knew how to say it back.

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The darkness swallowed the room nearly whole, the only reprieve being a bit of starlight falling in through the window behind the huge and scarred old desk. The pages he'd strewn hastily over the surface of it were just as they had been, haphazard and out of place. A few sheets had hit the floor and scattered around the dead monument of oak and polish, while one, just one, managed to sneak underneath the wooden beast, to lay in wait, plotting, patient... for the moment of discovery, and the sharp surprise of a fierce and frantic bite.

"Squall Leonhart:

As you well know the first annual inter-Garden competitions are approaching. Besides being a chance for increased networking possibilities for students and improved inter-Garden relations, the event at its core is based in healthy competition.

I propose that beyond competition between students representing their respective Gardens, the administrations themselves become a part of the competition. It can logically be inferred that the students that win in the series of challenges set forth during the event largely represent the quality of the Garden they attend. Thus, it is simple to draw a correlation between a particular Garden's ability to teach fine soldiers and that particular Garden's ability to lead the entire Garden program by example.

Somehow you sir have been appointed Commander of Garden. I propose that your job be on the line at each year's inter-Garden event. The Headmaster of the Garden whose students win the most events shall become Commander for the following year thereafter.

Below is a short contract already signed by myself and Trabia Garden's Headmaster. According to Garden bylaw this rule for the competition has already come into effect by two-thirds majority, and you cannot veto. The bylaws clearly state, 'for issues encompassing all three Gardens, a two-thirds majority rule must be held for all decisions to pass'. You need not sign, but I suggest you do.

See you at the competition Leonhart!

Matthieu Martine

Headmaster, Galbadia Garden"

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to come: Both Rinoa and Squall have come to some conclusions about their last big romantic encounter, but some challenges are looming just around the corner. The inter-Garden tournament is nearly at hand – and unbeknownst to Squall, Headmaster Martine has upped the ante. On top of that, preparing for the inter-Garden games causes Squall to suffer another prolonged distance from Rinoa. How will this drama unfold? And what on earth are Z.S.I. and Quistis actually up to?! The Kiss; lonely words is coming up next!

a/n: A bit long and serious but I guess that's just my style, hehe. I gave Martine a first name since his was never mentioned (to my recollection) in the game – I chose a French first name since Martine to me was very French. I have to say it is fun trying to fit in monsters from the FFVIII bestiary into the story, I kinda just used one reference and then it grew on its own to more and more! I made quite a few revisions, hopefully improving the pacing a bit. After getting away from the chapter for a while then doing a usual reread, I found it unsatisfactory, and so I added and amended even though I know this chapter is already quite long (and my apologies for that). Besides all that, I just want to say again that I have the story worked out to conclusion now and its just a matter of time. Sorry again for taking forever, but life is all about screwing up your most noble plans. Hope you liked it, and hope to see you at the next chapter as well! - elsie