Where I Belong entry. Prequel scene to Possession. Dedicated to my husband, Mathieu: master stone skipper.
"We can throw stones, complain about them, stumble on them, climb over them, or build with them."
- William Arthur Ward
-.A Stone's Throw.-
"For the love of…!"
Rinoa kicked the sand with fury, reasserting her regret at ever having picked up one of the darn things in the first place.
This was only meant to be a distraction after all; a method of whittling away the pre-dusk hour with something, anything, beyond actual whittling. The list of alternatives had been slim and all similarly dull, so why not?
She had considered it fun once upon a time.
Unfortunately, as had become typical with many things endeavored by the sorceress, this modest hobby had somehow mutated into a masochistic test. The outcome of which both her happiness and her pride relied upon tonight, for reasons she didn't care to explore.
Therefore…with Hyne as her witness…she vowedshe would get at least one of these damn rocks to skip on the water if it was the last thing she did.
Dark, determined eyes scanned the beach yet again, hawk-like in their hunt for projectiles. A handful were selected and explored thoroughly with her fingertips for chips or cavities before being deemed inadequate and tossed aside. At this point an imperfect stone was simply not worth the effort, as it certainly couldn't be her pitch that was the problem. She had practically mastered the activity during her father's countless, country-villa soirees where the options had been to either 1. escape to the lakeside or 2. end up punching one, if not several, snooty politicians and/or thrice-removed relatives in the face.
She used to find it soothing.
While wiping the algae off another promising candidate, Rinoa considered that maybe it was the type of rock found here on Centra that was the source of her failure. Maybe it was too heavy? Too impermeable? Too damn stubborn to simply let go and bend to her desires for once?
Maybe, probably, she was expecting way too much out of something that was so innately inflexible.
Off in the distance, a sudden burst of flames pulled her from her admittedly tangential thought process. Rinoa almost rolled her eyes at his unsubtle method of summoning her, but knew better than to complain. On this, the third night in their "vacation"/archival dig, they had long since discovered that it was simply more efficient and, not to mention, less deadly if he set up both camp and any hot meals while she occupied herself with other things. One snapped tent pole, a blanket sacrificed to the fire and an entire box of their food supply accidentally donated to the wildlife, and she had had no choice but to agree to the arrangement.
He was simply looking out for her as he always had, every day, for the past year. It was what he was best at, sitting there in the distance, barely visible in the now dwindling twilight, silently making preparations to ensure her comfort. As always, she considered it incredibly sweet and chivalrous. And as always, she found it to be on a new, escalated level of irritating.
Looking down at her feet with a sigh, Rinoa spotted an attractively oval, white stone resting just beyond her big-toe. She bent to pick it up, cheerfully noting how it was still warm from what remained of the sun, and tossed it between her hands to evaluate its weight and balance.
Definitely light enough. Undeniably, uniformly smooth. Without a doubt it was the most promising specimen she had encountered yet. And what fortuitous timing as the sun had just begun its crawl over the ocean's edge, threatening pitch-black darkness at any second.
Not wanting to over think it and risk a misstep, Rinoa sprung upright and prepared herself. A gentle rotation, a trademarked pinch of her fingers along the stone's smooth edge, a twist, a release and then it was off! She watched with baited breath as the pale disc spun toward the water, confident that it would achieve at least eight, possibly above her record thirty-two skips before surrendering to gravity.
Alas, as soon as it hit the surface, the stone disappeared with a disheartening little splash, instantly sinking and taking her good humor along with it for the ride. She watched, nonsensically depressed, for a full minute as the last rays of sunshine surrendered to grander temptations on the other side of the world.
The battle was officially lost.
Around her the Centrian beach had become a thick pool of blackness, her only guides being the delicate glimmer of waves in one direction and the now roaring flames of the fire opposite. Rinoa shivered, considering for a moment the dark water beginning to lap at her toes and how pleasant the coolness felt.
She debated for a few seconds simply stripping off her clothes and going for a swim. It was dark enough and they were the only people around for miles and miles…who would judge? He would panic of course, and probably with good reason as she didn't have the best sense of direction and who knew what was lurking beneath the surface on this still mostly unexplored continent. At least that would be his excuse for panicking.
Rinoa giggled and shook her head, easily abandoning the idea to common sense, duty, respect and all those other annoying concepts that had kept her more audacious side in check this past year. Maybe next time. Or, more honestly, a next lifetime.
Over her shoulder, the fire cracked loudly as one of the larger logs imploded and she took it as a sign. He never liked her being out of his sight for too long, especially with only her wits for protection. It made him testy.
After one last, longing look at the water, she headed to the camp.
He didn't acknowledge her as she slumped down across the fire and hugged her knees to her chest. Unnecessary chit-chat wasn't exactly his style. Instead he only poked at the roasting rabbit that was to be their improvised supper (thanks to her little mistake of not locking the food case last night) while reviewing a notebook that rested in his lap. Taking advantage of his distraction, Rinoa sniffed curiously at the night's catch. It wasn't exactly the dehydrated and pleasantly de-carcassed stew she had been expecting to consume tonight, but it sure did beat the alternative of returning to Garden early. Silently, she praised his survival skills. Since being promoted to Commander, with all the fine dining, lavish suites and other benefits the title included, it surprised her that he could still so easily rough it.
In fact, sitting here in the fire's glow, wearing his civilian dark jeans and hooded, grey sweatshirt streaked with dirt from the day's activities, he looked more in his element than he ever would in a perfectly pressed uniform behind an ornately carved, mahogany desk. It was undeniably nice to see him as such. It was especially, unquestionably amazing to be seeing him while completely alone together for the first time since their return from time compression.
It was a thought she couldn't help but voice.
"This is nice," she whispered, leaning her head back to look up at the stars, brighter than she had ever seen on the more populated continents. "Isn't this nice?"
Squall Leonhart, Commander of Balamb Garden, 18-year-old savior of the world, certifiable genius and military strategist, could muster only a grunt in response before licking his fingers to more effectively peruse the pages of his notebook.
"Really?" she enquired with unavoidable annoyance. "That's it?"
Ice-blue eyes flicked up to gauge her expression only to immediately return to the task at hand. "What am I supposed to say?"
"I dunno…How about 'yes Rinoa, this is nice. It's nice that we both worked ourselves to the brink of death these past few months in order to secure this vacation time and it is most definitely nice.' Something along those lines, hmmm? I mean, did you see the stars!? Huh? I mean…" she gestured emphatically to the sky. "Come on! It's freakin'…nice!"
Squall leaned his chin onto his palm, his fingers not quite able to hide the small smirk that sometimes, rarely, poked through whenever she unintentionally did something to amuse him. In this case, the cause was most likely her excruciating lack of synonyms for the word "nice".
Rinoa held her head up high, having long since become immune to embarrassment when it came to Commander Leonhart. There were things that happened in that office during her tenure as his assistant that could never be undone or unseen. For example, the time she spilled coffee all over the Deling ambassador's lap. Or when she sent what was meant to be a private note to Selphie as a memo to Garden's entire faculty. Or, more privately between them, the time she accidentally installed an adult-themed virus on his computer courtesy of a Kinneas email. Or the time she caught food poisoning and unexpectedly vomited half into a potted fern, half onto his boots. The list of examples was long and increasingly shameful for all those involved. In addition to such singular events, there was another, chronic source of awkwardness in the Commander's office. One that had become disturbingly typical despite genuine efforts to relent.
To put it simply, Rinoa had developed a habit of staring at him sometimes. To put it less simply, or as Selphie more accurately diagnosed, she had a frequent tendency to freeze whatever she was doing and blatantly ogle for minutes on end. Squall would take notice of course and usually, as both a gentleman and an obstinate teenager, he'd ignore it. On other, less tolerant days, he'd toss paperclips at her head to divert her attention or send a priority text message to her communicator bluntly ordering "Stop." or "Work." or "Coffee. Go.". Once, he had gone so far as to position every movable object within the vast office, including lamps, chairs, plants and even artwork, onto the floor space between them just as a reminder to cut it out.
In conclusion, no, she definitely had no reason to be embarrassed in front of Squall Leonhart anymore. From him and no one else in this world, she had absolutely nothing to hide.
Sadly it was a state that was far from mutual.
"It's just," she took a deep breath to calm herself before speaking, painfully aware of how often her blabbering had led to rifts between them. "I was looking forward to this, ya know? You and me. Away from it all. I thought -I was hoping- you'd finally…relax. Heh." It was impossible not to snigger at the concept once it was said out loud. This was what? The sixth or seventh time she had come to such a conclusion only to be inevitably disappointed? More so than at his aloofness, she was annoyed at herself for failing to learn.
"Never mind," she insisted with a wave of her hand, as if trying to swat the expectations away like a pesky insect. "I hear it now. How naïve of me to expect us to have some fun for once."
Beneath his hand, Squall hid a frown of confusion.
He officially had no idea what the word encompassed anymore. If he had ever.
Therefore, unable and unwilling to dredge up a response to her critique, an alternate route was decided. Clapping the notebook shut with one hand, Squall made a move to stand which immediately inspired Rinoa's throat to tighten, fearing that she had (yet again) gone a step too far.
"Where are you going?" she couldn't help but inquire as he brushed some errant sand from his thighs. The question may have bothered him once, irritated at having to announce his every move much like a child to its mother. But that was before.
It was habit, not callousness that encouraged him to barge straight ahead without any notice of the feelings of others. And though he was getting better, at least people had told him he was, supressing seventeen years of impregnable independence was a lot harder and slower than one would think.
"I'm almost done cataloguing all that we excavated," he explained, flipping through the pages filled with his sketches and notes. "If I finish tonight, we can move on in the morning."
"Move on? As in…go back?" It was impossible to hide the disappointment from her voice, and Squall almost smiled at how audaciously her heart was displayed on her sleeve. Almost.
"No. We still have over a week of vacation. I figured…if we've done all we can at Odin's Tower then we could, maybe, visit Edea's orphanage. Maybe."
Rinoa eyes widened, suddenly both elated and apprehensive. More on the apprehensive side actually, once she considered his alchemy-like talent of converting anything and everything into a work-related chore. Even an evening stroll to Balamb for dinner had had the primary purpose of testing out a new, more economical hot-dog supplier and its effects on digestion. "Why? What's there to excavate or hunt? Some prehistoric species of Chocobo, perhaps? Are you going to ask me to collect scat samples again? Cause it's not going to happen."
"Nothing like that," he admitted with a sigh, scratching at the back of his neck as he struggled to construct better wording for his explanation. Alas, there was no other way to say it. He met her eyes then, daring her to read more into what he was about to say than what he actually meant. "Because I thought it would be…nice."
Rinoa's stomach immediately shot up into her esophagus, nearly choking her.
There was that word again. Tonight, it seemed to be the most suitable, generic placeholder in exchange of the long list of other adjectives that neither of them were allowed to even think of let alone say out loud. Beautiful could have easily pried its way in when speaking of the scenery. Appreciated was a no brainer. And the most dangerous of all, the one neither one of them had risked bringing into any of their conversations for the past eleven months:
Romantic. Everything about this, from an outsider's perspective at least, was unquestionably, heartbreakingly romantic. A whole week alone with the beach and the flower fields and the memories…
Rinoa shook her head to ward away the dangerous notion. In addition to the warning in his expression, she felt the pressure of his consciousness adding another few layers to its defenses, forcing her new power back with the slight twinge of a headache. Not that she ever dared to read his mind. Not since that first disastrous attempt anyway. So she took the mental hint and simply nodded in response.
Such an outing would indeed be "nice". Nice and nothing more.
"Fine," Rinoa said with an overly casual air as she moved to gather plates and cutlery from the pack beside them. This time Squall really couldn't avoid the grin that tugged its way onto his lips at her atrociously weak nonchalance. Of course, all evidence of amusement had escaped his expression by the time she looked up again.
"So," with two knives and two forks held in opposite, raised fists, Rinoa nodded toward the nearly blacked meat hovering above the flames. "Do you want to do the honors, or should I?"
Squall blinked. In his haste to finish with the 'official' excuse for this outing, he had completely forgotten about the catch even though it was blatantly sizzling in front of his face. "Right. Yes. I better do it. We don't have any extra gear to spare nowadays."
Rinoa stuck out her tongue, chucking the cutlery into his lap with minimal gentleness as he settled back into the grass.
Nearly a year in his service and she was now quite accustomed to both his teasing and his worrisome habit of skipping meals when in the midst of a project. It was amazing what basic needs he was able to deny his body for nearly inhuman lengths of time just to make some completely ridiculous deadline set by the World Council. She had noted a record four days in a row once where he didn't leave his desk for anything other than to go to the bathroom. And even that number of trips, she would bet gil, had been uncomfortably reduced for the sake of efficiency.
Soon enough, the rabbit was served alongside some roots Squall had dug up and boiled. It was not the most elegant of meals, but it definitely hit the spot, and he seemed revitalized after what was surely a rough night's sleep in the half collapsed tent. Of course, Rinoa had offered to occupy the one she had ruined, but he wouldn't hear of it. She had also almost suggested that they share the small space in the more structurally sound shelter. Only for the sake of security and warmth of course. But that alternative was mentally laughed off way before the words could make it to her lips.
Commander Leonhart, quite famously, did not share beds with anyone. Ever.
At least they'd soon have the remnants of Edea's orphanage as a large, shared sanctuary, as well as access to running water thanks to the ancient well and pump system which could survive decades of disuse. It was a brilliant design built by Cid himself which used the natural flow of the channel water to move the pistons. Which reminded her...
"Damn," Rinoa cursed just after finishing her last bite. Squall eyed her expectantly while carefully chewing on one of the root's tougher pieces. "It's just...we'll need to cross the channel to get to Edea's from here. And I don't know about you, but I left my canoe in my other purse."
Unfazed, Squall simply shook his head and returned focus to his plate. "Don't worry about it."
Rinoa cocked a suspicious eyebrow. "I kinda can't help but worry about it. Though I don't consider myself that much of a diva, swimming over a mile with all of this gear strapped to our bodies just seems a stitch too suicidal for my tastes. And what about all the stuff we gathered from Odin's rooms?"
"It's taken care of."
"What's taken care of?"
"Transport. A boat. It'll be here first thing in the morning. So on that note," after scrapping the bony remnant of his dinner into the fire, Squall stood back up. "I have some cataloging to finish."
Stunned, Rinoa watched him walk away with her own plate still clenched tightly in her grasp. It occurred to her immediately that his hiring of a boat to come to this exact, desolate location must have been done far in advance. Which meant that going to Edea's wasn't a spur-of-the-moment, informal decision stemmed from her complaints. He had planned all along that they end up there.
Why? What was he thinking? Why didn't he tell her? Would it kill the guy to let her know which corner of the planet she was to be dragged to at least twenty-four hours in advance?
There were too many questions to count. None of which she expected to get an answer for. Even if she pressed, he'd probably lash out as an automatic defense mechanism and then they'd spend the rest of this vacation time in tense, uncomfortable silence. Though they often hung out in tense, uncomfortable silences due to both their clashing personalities and the little detail of their still unresolved relationship, at least at Garden there were always distractions, other people and, most notably, other rooms to be excused to.
Biting her tongue was deemed to be the only viable option in this case, though both her heart and her head were ablaze with curiosity.
A little further out from their makeshift home space, she watched him kneel down and ignite a lantern near one of their many treasure/trash boxes collected from the Centra Ruins. With a pen between his teeth and his notebook settled on his lap, Squall reached in and pulled out a long, bronze chain and locket; the one article of potential value they had found, hidden underneath a pile of rubble and therefore untouched by time and scavengers. The lamplight made its center ruby glow as Squall turned it in his hands, once again trying and failing at opening it, then proceeding to write.
Rinoa looked at her empty plate, then at Squall. Her gaze fell toward the ocean and then wandered back toward Squall. She considered the disfigured pair of tents and then Squall once again.
Before long, her feet were bringing her toward him without any excuse as to why. All she knew what that she had no desire for the night to end just yet.
...to be continued...
- Author' s Note-
Hi everyone. This prequel scene, part I, was written as an entry to the Ashbear and Emerald-Latias organized event "Where I Belong". I was quite honored to be invited and am greatly looking forward to seeing all the Squinoa related entries posted throughout the month.
I intended to post this chapter yesterday, my 26th birthday, but I was kidnapped by friends after work and only sent home much later in a...let's say, not-very-coherent state. Part II will be posted on August 23rd, Squall's birthday .
This story isn't anything special, but it was fun to step away from the drama that "Possession" has now become and explore our favorite couple's bickering roots.
Thank you again for you support.