Disclaimer: I do not own FFVIII or any of its characters...

FFVIII: Forging a Lionheart

Chapter One: This dance floor is a metaphor for something else entirely

By Traingham


One proven fact throughout history that has remained infallible in the face of marching progress is that beauty holds power over the hearts of men and women alike. It has pushed empires to the brink of ruin, brought proud kings and queens to fall to their knees, ignited conflicts the world over, turned life long friends into eternal foes, and has, on occasion, saved the world from ultimate evils, prevented sure destruction, and ensured man's triumph over the god of their respective universes. Truly beauty was a force that had the power to rival that of abstract concepts such as fate and destiny, and perhaps even overcome them in the name of a greater good, or fulfill the needs of a greater evil. This particular tale may allude to that point, maybe...

It was the night of the graduation ball when Squall Leonhart felt the strangest sensation in his chest; the quickening beat of a love struck heart as one would call it, but the newly graduated SeeD was unfamilar to the feeling. Even as he spied the graceful form of the lovely Rinoa Heartily dancing arm in arm with Seifer Almasy on the ballroom floor the black lion could not completely discern why he felt so nauseous at the sight of the two smiling at each other. Perhaps it had something to do with seeing his rival look so entirely unlike his usual self this particular night. Normally Seifer Almasy was an ill tempered fellow, easily susceptible to irritable moods that were almost always directed at him in some way or form, which meant that Squall rarely caught a genuine smile gracing the handsome blonde's face. With Rinoa Heartily in his arms he was a completely different person, and Squall couldn't help but entertain the thought–

Would I behave similarly if I had her in my arms tonight? He shook his head after letting the notion pass. This wasn't like him. He didn't fawn over girls at a mere glance, and he most certainly did not allow himself to be controlled by his emotions. What he felt now couldn't be anything else but post graduation jitters. Yes, that's what it was.

"Another drink, sir?" The scarred SeeD graduate was momentarily distracted from his spying when a waitress approached him with a clinking tray of drinks. Squall nodded, replacing his empty flute with a filled one.

"Thank you." He told her with a slight tip of his glass.

"My pleasure." She left with a courteous nod, her heels clicking away rhythmically until it died away in the sounds of chatter and music. Squall turned back just in time to see Seifer dipping his girlfriend as he shared a private laugh with her, and the nauseating feeling returned with a vengeance settling in the pit of his stomach.

"Fourth glass tonight?" Squall questioned the half drained flute in his hand with a sigh before looking to the tables where everyone else was noisily mingling. Spotting a lonely one near the end of the row closest to the balcony, he got his back off the wall and proceeded over to it for a seat. Upon taking a chair he took another sip from his glass, halting his hand as he came close to lowering away the glass and brought it back to his lips to down the rest of it quickly.

He heaved a hot sigh, savoring the faint burning sensation that traveled down his throat and set his empty glass down. Why am I here again? Squall wondered as he stared off into space. The rest of the world blurred away and the music became a distorted muffle in his ears while his mind drew a complete blank only for him to be returned a moment later by a sudden pressure pushing down on his left shoulder.

"Squall, what are you doing?" A voice questioned him irritatedly. He jerked back to awareness, turning his head to find Selphie Tilmitt at his side with a miffed expression taking the place of her normally habitual cheerful look. "Aren't you going to invite any girls out for a dance? I've been staring at you all night and all you've been doing is staring off into space."

Squall stared back at her dully. "No, I don't think I will." He answered her after giving her a brief stare. "I'm fine just sitting here."

"Come on, Squall, don't be such an old man." The Trabian transfer student groaned, taking her seat beside him. "I'm sure there's plenty of girls here tonight just waiting for you to approach them."

"I don't know how to dance." He lied, folding his hands on the table. "Besides, parties aren't really my thing."

Selphie seemed disappointed by his response, cocking her head to the side with a drawl of, "Reeeaally?"

"Yeah, really." The brunette replied back with a curt nod. She's not going to leave me alone, is she? He thought to himself, turning his attention away from her to show his disinterest in continuing their conversation, but the girl wouldn't take a hint.

"We're gonna change that." She declared to him with a look of determination. "You can't keep to yourself when you go to events like this. How else are you going to get a girlfriend?"

"Where did that come from?" Squall perked up at the mention of that.

Selphie shot him a confused look. "Well, do you have a girlfriend?" She fidgeted with her fingers nervously.

"What does it matter whether I do or not?" Squall asked, narrowing his eyes with vexation.

"It, um, just seemed like you could use the company." Selphie stumbled over her words awkwardly, feeling a bit put on the spot by the question. "Forgive me for saying this, but you just look a little lonely...that's all." She ended her sentence with a forced smile.

Her boldness was rewarded with a sigh. The lion examined her silently, unsettling her with how quiet he remained as he did before he asked, "And you? You look like you make friends pretty easily, but you're wasting your time trying to hold a conversation with me instead. Are you sure you're not the one who's lonely here?"

She giggled apparently mistaking his rudeness for an attempt at subtle humor, which managed to bemuse the young man. "Geez, Squall, who's wasting time? Besides, you're the only person I can really call a friend at the moment."

"Can't tell you how depressing that is." Squall quipped with a roll of his eyes. "Why would you consider me a friend at all?"

"You're a cool guy!" The perky student exclaimed, clasping her hands together as she did. "I mean, you look like the dark and brooding type at a glance, but I think that's just a front. " She inclined her head toward the dance floor and he follwed the direction of her gesture before looking back at her.

"What?" Squall blinked, not understanding what she was trying to draw his attention toward.

"You're the reason that hothead graduated, you know." She told him with a warm smile. "If you hadn't persuaded him to pull back before he could barge into that satellite tower I'm sure the consequence would've been severe."

"Don't remind me..." He muttered, glancing at his empty glass. Where is that waitress? He turned his head to try and get a bead on her, but it seemed she wasn't present on the floor at the moment.

"That was really noble, Squall." Selphie praised him, leaning over to give him a pat on the head. "I mean, considering your relationship with him and all."

"Change the subject, would you?" Squall swattted her hand off his head, eliciting another giggle from the girl.

"Fine." Selphie relented, drawing her hand back. "Then to expand on your question from earlier, I haven't had much time to make friends partly because of the SeeD exam."

"What's the other part?" He asked, quirking a brow.

"The Garden Festival, of course!" She answered him throwing her arms in the air with a pearly smile. The cheeriness that radiated from her was almost palpable; sunshine, flowers and all. It vanished immediately afterward as a wave of dejection crashed over her. "The problem is nobody seems interested in joining my garden festival committee. Everyone I ask either tries to avoid me, or just says they'll consider it."

"You don't say?" Squall humored her, his expression suspiciously deadpan. "That sounds like a problem."

"I know, right?" The transfer student groaned, her eyes narrowed to slits as she frowned giving her a comically cute appearance, or perhaps that was the influence of alcohol messing with Squall's perception. "But I can't give up!" She bounced right back, sitting upright with her hands clenched in the table. "I'm gonna make this festival happen!"

"Good luck." Squall told her, tracing the rim of his glass with a finger.

"And I'd like to ask my one and only friend for a big favor." She said with a gleam of mischief.

Squall quirked a brow questioningly. "Who's that again?"

Selphie placed a hand on his head and ruffled his hair, eliciting a gutteral growl from the scarred SeeD. "You, silly."

"Sure, whatever..." He submitted to her wishes if only because her stare was beginning to unnerve him. "What do you need?"

"I want you to be vice head of the festival committee! " Selphie propositioned him, glowing like an evening star. Certainly, there was something about how she appeared in her SeeD uniform that really made her stand out tonight, or perhaps that really was the alcohol messing with him.

"Fine." Squall accepted getting a pleased gasp from her. "You look pretty serious about it so I'll lend you a hand."

"Oh–" She reached over and threw her arms around his shoulders for a hug, "–Thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you!" She shook Squall back and forth as she squeezed him to death creating a wonderful scene for all to see as he maintained the same deadpan expression as it all went on. "This is going to be so awesome with you on board. Booyaka!"

Booya-what? Squall blinked a few times, attempting to make sense of that last one. He decided not to ask. After being released by his fellow SeeD officer he turned his attention back to the dance floor realizing that a different song was playing now. Seifer and Rinoa Heartily weren't on it, which meant they had either left the ballroom, or-

"Gotten themselves a table..." Squall finished the track of thought aloud when his eyes fell upon the couple sitting a few tables away. Seifer was glaring at his date playfully as she dabbed a finger into the white cream that was messily smothered against the corner of his mouth, likely her doing which would explain the look he was directing at her. Rinoa brought the cream dipped finger to her lips and took it into her mouth with a sensual suck that Squall could swear had somehow become audible in his ears. This was madness.

Squall could bear the torture no longer, so he stood up alerting Selphie with the unannounced move to vacate his sitting position. Even Seifer and Rinoa turned to glance at him before returning themselves to their flirting. "I need to get out of here..."

"Are you alright, Squall?" Selphie asked worriedly, placing a hand on his arm with concern etched in her features, but Squall didn't respond; he couldn't respond. His only focus was on the balcony and that's where he headed, oblivious to his friend's calls for him to return to her. Upon passing through the curtains that shrouded the passage he inhaled deeply when the evening air hit his face, relieving him of the nausea that had taken hold of him and he walked over to the balcony rail to lean against it with an unsteady lurch.

"What a night." He sighed out, his gaze falling to the garden of bushes below the balcony. "It just refuses to end."

"INDEED."

"Hm?" Squall froze for a moment after receiving the response. He turned his head to the left to find a familiar young woman dressed in a one shoulder, blue form fitting dress. She had the side of her head facing him so he couldn't see her face, but he recognized that swept, white hair anywhere. "Fuujin?"

"YES." She responded, not bothering to turn her head.

"What are you doing out here?"

"PROBLEM?"

"I didn't mean it that way." Squall explained. "Aren't you here because Seifer graduated?"

"OBVIOUSLY." She answered him in a slightly annoyed tone of voice, which he sort of expected. Him and Seifer weren't exactly friends so Fuujin had a natural aversion toward him, being Seifer's right hand woman and all.

Squall pressed on anyway, if only to get his mind off his own issues. "So why aren't you celebrating with him?"

Fuujin's body language shifted at the inquiry, her head sinking against her arms as she leaned upon the balcony rail. "That, too, should be obvious."

"That's new." Squall mused softly, never expecting her to actually utter a complete sentence. Getting past his initial shock he asked, "Does this concern his date somehow?"

"IDIOT." Fuujin replied somewhat sharply.

Squall closes his eyes, letting out a short chuckle. "I definitely deserved that."

"Will you remain out here?" Fuujin inquired, her voice indicating nothing. Squall wasn't sure whether to take it as a genuine question, or as his cue to leave her to her thoughts.

"Do you mind if I do?" He asked after giving it some thought. The silence that followed stumped him further. Maybe she really did want him to leave, which he supposed was fair. He had an understanding of how she might have been feeling, but at the same time he didn't want to head back into the ballroom. The thought alone was making him nauseous again. "Fuujin?"

"WHAT?" The eye patched beauty finally responded in a thoughtless tone.

"Can I stay here with you?"

His question made her turn her head to regard him. She directed a curious stare at him, asking again, "WHAT?" This time he detected some feeling.

Squall cleared his throat. "If that's fine with you." He felt himself shift uncomfortably under her stare. "If not I could just head somewhere else..."

"DON'T CARE." Fuujin answered him, turning away again. She settled back into her original position and Squall did the same, staring at her from the corner of his eye.

"Thanks, then." He told her.

"WHATEVER." She waved it off with one hand.

"Heard that one before..." He muttered to himself. "Isn't Rajiin normally with you?"

"REQUESTED HE NOT COME."

"I see." Squall responded. "Anyway, do you happen to play an instrument by any chance?" At this question Fuujin turned to look at him again, the eyebrow above her eye patch raised curiously.

"WHY?"

"I'm trying to gather people for the festival." Squall lied somewhat. Actually, for once, the silence is beginning to bother me.

"...PIANO."

Squall blinked, having not expected an actual answer. What really threw him off guard, however, was the answer in particular. "Strangely fitting." He mused softly.

"When did you become part of the festival committee?" Fuujin inquired, yet again talking normally.

"Just a moment ago." Squall answered her quickly, regarding her with interest. "Fuujin?"

"Yes?"

"The way you normally speak..." He trailed off.

"Yes?"

"Why do you speak that way?"

"It prevents others from engaging me in conversation." Fuujin replied, backing away from the balcony rail to face him completely, arms crossed casually. "It usually gets the point across."

"It makes you come off as awkward, actually." Squall told her, still leaning against the rail with his head turned to her.

"And you aren't?" Fuujin shot at him, tilting her head slightly. "Resident lone wolf?"

"I just don't like to talk very much." He explained. "So I normally just don't."

"You're talking now."

"So are you."

"Because you started a conversation." She countered with a frown.

"And you don't seem to have a problem with that." Squall responded nonchalantly. "Even though you were talking like THIS a few lines back."

"INEBRIATED?" Fuujin asked, taking notice of his unusually relaxed body language. That was neglecting to mention that he was talking an awful lot more than she had ever heard out of him in one meeting.

"I don't think so." Squall replied, turning around so he could lean back against the rail. "But I've never had the pleasure to begin with. Putting that aside, are you envious?"

Fuujin shot him a dark look. "OF WHAT?"

"Seifer's date?" Squall asked her, knowing well that she was trying to discourage him from speaking further on the subject with that look. "You obviously came here to celebrate with him." He reasoned fairly. "But I haven't seen you inside since I arrived here with Selphie."

"MESSANGER GIRL?" Either she was attempting to change the subject or the mention of the transfer student really caught her interest.

"Is that what everyone calls her?" The scarred SeeD remarked, no hint of actually caring for that bit of information.

"YOUR DATE?"

"No." Squall denied with a shake or his head, narrowing his eyes at the absurdity of it all. "She was in my room when I got back earlier tonight."

"YOUR ROOM?" Fuujin's tone was a hint suspicious.

"Let me finish." He held up a hand. "I met her there and she forced me to change into my uniform to attend the graduation ball, which is why we came here together."

"I SEE."

"I suppose you were hoping that tangent would serve as a diversion from the original question." Squall said shamelessly, his lips showing the tell tale signs of a smirk forming, but it never appeared. "So you are envious."

"Think what you will." Fuujin spat morosely.

Squall pushed away from the rail and walked up to her, making her tense. "I don't pity you." He told her, craning his head just slightly. "You just missed your chance because you refused to make a move."

"You're wrong." Fuujin growled, turning her head hotly. "I'm just not..." She flinched when she felt him cup her chin gently to have her face him again. His expression was strangely cold, conflicting with the gesture.

"That's a cop out." He told her in a low voice. "You don't lack anything, Fuujin." He moved his hand to caress the side of her face, making her cheeks burn from the unfamiliar stimulation he was providing her with. "You're not exactly ugly, you know. You're an exotic beauty, which makes you stand out more than average pretty girls." He removed his hand before delivering a final jab. "It should have been easy for you, honestly, but you didn't act and now you suffer for it."

"YOU KNOW NOTHING." The eye patched beauty hissed, smacking his hand back down to his side.

"I know this much." Squall volunteered, going on even as she turned to face the balcony rail again. "Seifer is a SeeD now and you're not."

Fuujin grunted, but did not deny the fact.

"If my memory serves right, you've been his friend since we were all about ten or eleven."

"TWELVE." Fuujin corrected him. "I punched you for knocking him down at the cafeteria the first time we met, do you recall?"

"Its fuzzy." Squall replied, not giving it any thought. "That aside, you two have been together for a good five years. You must have realized he was going to try for the SeeD exam as soon as he qualified for the oppurtunity. Why didn't you do the same?"

"THOUGHT ABOUT IT." Fuujin mumbled.

It suddenly became apparent to Squall that perhaps there was more to this than he originally thought. "What is the name of Seifer's date?"

"HEARTILY. RINOA HEARTILY." She answered grudgingly.

"How long have they been dating, exactly?"

"ONE YEAR. SEVEN MONTHS. NINETEEN DAYS." Fuujin replied, nearly blowing his mind in the process. "APPROXIMATELY." She tacked on at the end.

"...Oh, I see." Squall said softly, crossing his arms with a nod. "So you were planning to become a SeeD."

"YES." Fuujin nodded.

Squall stared at her tensing shoulder blades through the open back of her dress, alternating for a moment to the glowing moon in the evening sky and then returning to her back before working out a kink in his neck. "Be ready for the next exam." He simply came out with it.

"WHY SHOULD I?" Fuujin turned again. He was succeeding in getting her attention very effectively tonight.

"The way I see it, you're letting yourself get left behind over something trivial." He explained, joining her at the rail with his back to it. "If you become a SeeD then you can remain at his side. There's no guarantee that him and Rinoa will remain together forever."

"You make a point, but it isn't a guarantee." She argued.

"There's no guarantee either way." Squall reasoned. "But if you remain with him you always have a chance at taking her place if she leaves. Being with him for so long gives you a high probability of becoming his girlfriend."

The disciplinary member perked up. "Like in a romantic novel?"

You read romantic novels? Squall resisted the urge to roll his eyes, replying, "Exactly like that. Of course, that is only a bonus."

Fuujin quirked a brow. "What do you mean?"

"The real reward here is that you move on with your life instead of remaining at point A." Squall explained, making a little gesture with his hands of one hand jumping from the other to emphasize his point. "You don't want to remain a member of Seifer's forgotten disciplinary committee forever once he leaves, do you?"

"No." Fuujin shook her head.

"So you further your military career and get to explore the world."

She nodded to herself at his logic. "True."

"Do you have any particular aspirations for the future?"

"I intend to enter the medical field."

"Being a SeeD should help with that." The scarred SeeD assured her. "Maybe you could transfer to Trabia. I hear they have an excellent medical program there."

"SQUALL." She interrupted him just as he got done speaking, a curious lift at the left corner of her lips.

"What?" Squall asked.

"Perhaps you should drink more often." Fuujin teased in a rare display of playfulness that he never had the pleasure of witnessing for himself. Squall wasn't sure why, but everything about her had suddenly become quite charming in that brief instance. "You're...pleasant company."

"I'm not drunk." Squall denied confidently. "But I can appreciate your attempt at humor." He held out a hand to her, confusing her, or so it seemed with the way she stared at it. "Let's shake on it."

Fuujin held out one hand hesitatingly, but Squall took it all the same surprising her. "DEAL." She agreed after fixing a firm grip on his hand.

"Good." Squall gave her a nod.

"HOWEVER." Fuujin began, keeping hold of his hand just as he was about to release. Her grip was so firm that Squall glanced down just to make sure veins weren't popping out on the back of her hand. "I will have you see it through as part of the agreement."

Seeing as his he was the one who placed her on this journey for self betterment, Squall saw no reason to decline her sensibilities, or perhaps he really was toeing the line between sober and drunk much closer than he believed. "Fair enough."

Fuujin released his hand and it was settled. From this night forward he was to help her become a SeeD that Seifer Almasy could no longer keep in the friend zone.

"Aha..." Squall's brows knit in concern. Why am I doing this again? For reasons beyond logic Rinoa Heartily's adorable face popped into his mind. Squall burned the image away from his mind. No. That isn't the reason why. I'm not that devious.

"Forgive me." A voice from the entry passage of the balcony made Squall and Fuujin release hands to turn and regard their unexpected addition. Elite instructor Xu smiled at them mysteriously, standing just in front of the curtains with her arms crossed. She wasn't dressed for the occasion; not that she needed to since her uniform was always perfectly pressed and pristine. She made it look better than anyone ever could hope to, and she was probably aware of it herself. "You're ambitious, Mister Leonhart. Today you graduate into a SeeD and yet already you intend to mold another into one the Garden can be proud of."

"I wouldn't go that far, Xu." Squall denied the grandiose accusation, knowing well enough that the elite instructor was only trying to muscle in on the moment. Such was Xu's way, since he'd known her in their earlier youth, but it had been so long since they had actually spoken to one another. After her own graduation they had seen much less of each other, even less so when she had been promoted to an elite.

"Whatever the case may be," Xu began, coming closer to him, "You haven't danced yet."

Squall raised a brow, not realizing that he'd been on her watch all night. "Fair observation."

"I'd been under the impression that you came out here to request a dance from Kazeno here, but I see I was wrong." The elite instructor told him, raising an open palm to draw his eyes. "Do you intend to be shown up by your rival tonight? Almasy and Heartily have been quite the subject of interest since vacating the dance floor earlier. I imagine you will be long forgotten in his shadow if you do nothing to steal the public eye."

The lion shrugged. "Not into popularity contests, Xu. You know that."

"For popularity?" Xu laughed at the very idea, stopping short to deliver a crisp, "No." She took his right hand since he seemingly refused to accept her earlier invitation to take hers. "We dance for recognition!" And with that Squall Leonhart was dragged to the dance floor against his will, leaving Fuujin Kazeno to her schemes.

...Schemes?


To Be Continued...