"As in nature, as in art, so in grace; it is rough treatment that gives souls, as well as stones, their luster."

- Thomas Guthrie

-.A Stone's Throw.-

Part II

Rinoa wrapped her arms around herself to ward away the chill as she carefully tip-toed across the plain, eager to avoid the multiple rocks and roots that seemed determined to send her sprawling. There was no way she was going to give this untamed Centrian environment the satisfaction of yet another bruise. Especially since they were scheduled to venture toward the more civilized beaches of Edea's orphanage tomorrow, slightly upping the dismal chances that she'd find an excuse for them to go swimming.

The logical side of her brain automatically scoffed at the notion, and yet it was still overshadowed by that pesky optimism which Rinoa was famous for.

After all, Squall Leonhart had done stranger things.

Once upon a time.

At the cue of her footsteps, she saw him prepare for her arrival by adjusting the position of the lantern, silently implying that she sit beside him on the tiny patch of grass instead of on the dusty earth where the treasure/trash boxes rested. She smiled at the gesture. It was these small, seemingly insignificant actions which reminded her that he cared, always conveniently staged just when she had begun to doubt.

Those late night phone calls, apparently aimed to cure the drudgery of the union breaks Cid forced upon him during missions, jolted her alert just when her computer browser started to wander over alternate employment opportunities. Requests for a lunch companion were sent to her communicator just after she stared a little too longingly at a promo for reduced train fares to faraway places. And the most prized of all, an invitation to dance (always a standard, pre-choreographed dance mind you) never failed to be solicited at the inevitable point during every Garden function when she decided she just couldn't take it anymore.

Squall always did have the best sense of timing. Or perhaps, when factoring in her overall happiness, the worst.

She could only hope, only pray, that it would eventually be made worth her while. And soon. A girl only had so much patience.

Rinoa shook her head to loosen the inevitable frustration of those thoughts as she hopped the final few feet to his side. Over his shoulder, she noted that Squall still had that bronze locket resting on his knee as he finished his notes, pen moving swiftly across the page as adamantly as if he were writing a time limited exam. Not writing, she realized as she came just a few inches closer, but drawing.

"Wow," she couldn't help but whisper as she settled down beside him, genuine awe invading her tone. "You're really good at that. Geez."

Squall's brows furrowed as he continued detailing the intricate metal work of the jewelry, his plain, ballpoint pen capturing the subtle tones and highlight with effortless speed and accuracy. "Does that bother you?"

"No, no. Of course not!" Annoyed at herself for having spurred their usual awkwardness with the first sentence, Rinoa struggled to explain herself. "It's just…You're talented. In many ways. Which I'm constantly discovering. That's all. You never cease to surprise me. I mean, you're just so…"

Unbelievable? No. Too potentially offensive.

Thorough? No. Everyone and their dog knew he was thorough.

Great with your hands?...No! For obvious reasons.


With a grunt of annoyance, she added a few new items to the list of things they could not say to one another. So the sentence was abandoned in limbo as she fashioned a distraction through dragging the nearest box up to her feet. It was a somewhat impolite, very Squall-inspired method of avoidance that she had picked up in the last year. Though, of course, it only worked with Squall-like people.; a category which comprised of only one individual so far.

As expected, he didn't press. Proof that one of the most suitable adjectives to describe him would forever be 'predictable'.

Peering inside the box, Rinoa took note of a few scrappy pieces of metal, some cables and what appeared to be the mummified remnants of a picnic lunch. Definitely not the standard fare you'd find showcased at the local museum.

"Do you seriously have to describe and draw all of this stuff?"

Squall nodded. "It's standard procedure. The lab will verify whether there's any point in sending a proper team to collect rare materials or significant designs. Esthar Garden is intending to set up outposts across this continent soon and we want to make sure we've studied everything there is to study before any historical sites become...'upgraded'."

Rinoa giggled, thoroughly aware and amused by Squall's barely hidden disdain for the new SeeD forces and their attempts to redraft worldwide Garden standards. It was like having an ignorant, expensive and ridiculously fashion-focused child that fought him at every turn. As the Commander's assistant, she was at the height of her usefulness when playing mediator between them, seeing as the Estharian military had yet to learn how to play nice with people beyond their borders and Squall had yet to learn to play nice with anyone, anywhere.

"They do like the new and shiny stuff over there, huh?"

"To a virtually blinding degree, yes."

"Oh! Have you seen their new uniforms yet?" It was the one standard they had simply refused to adhere to, seeing as tastes varied so drastically, and Squall had begrudgingly relented after several days of the most inane debating of his life. However, he did manage to wrangle veto power over their proposed designs and Rinoa was itching to see what they had come up with. "Are they silver? Do they light up?"

"I don't know. Probably."

"Hmm..." she pondered with an exaggerated tapping of her finger against his lips, as if deep in thought. "I wonder if it's something in their diet that's makes them find such gaudiness attractive? Maybe they suffer from frequent outbreaks of…" she paused for dramatic effect "flash-ulence?"

With a ridiculously wide, self-satisfied smile, Rinoa waited for that rare smirk of his that sometimes shone through when she said something silly. But Squall only sighed and shook his head, returning to his drawing as if offended by the lameness of her joke.

Disheartened, she quickly holstered the expression. "Okay. That was terrible. I admit it. But I actually am curious!"

"You know you could be helping me finish instead of slighting an entire culture."

"Yeah right. You've seen me draw, Leonhart. Selphie once thought my stick man was meant to be a banana."

"It's fine. The lab could use a challenge to keep them sharp. Here." He handed over his notebook and dove into the box, removing what may have once been part of a wine decanter, the head of a tonberry figurine, or a plain crystal ball. It was that vague of an item.

They both stared at it for a solid minute, Squall dusting it off while turning it this way and that, hoping for some kind of distinguishing marker. "Sooo…." Rinoa eventually interrupted, having long since grown bored. "How do we do this? What do I write? Thingamabob number five hundred and eighty three?"

Again, Squall sighed.

It seemed to be his communication method of choice these past couple of months, in addition to pressing his forehead into his palm or ignoring her completely. Maybe next year, if incredibly lucky, she'd be upgraded to grumbling.

For the thousandth time in her short yet eventful Garden-life, Rinoa wondered what the heck she saw in a guy like him and why she bothered to stick around.

True, he was effortlessly, almost unnaturally attractive. Especially so because he seemed completely unaware of the fact. She remembered the one time they went to get a drink together in Dollet, if only because they had a presentation to make the next morning and his hotel room's wireless was unforgivably shoddy. After a keycard was slipped onto their table by an especially sultry looking patron, the oblivious Commander, without batting an eye or even looking up for his laptop, tossed it onto a passing waiter's tray with a curt 'someone lost this'.

She honestly didn't know whether she should slap him for being so indifferent or hug him for managing to remain so abnormally naive.

Yes, his looks were definitely a factor. But that couldn't be everything.

On the other hand, maybe it was his talents that drew her to him? No doubt about it, she had a disturbing weakness for decorated soldiers (which she didn't dare ever psychoanalyze), and Squall was the best of the best.

Perhaps it was his intelligence? She did love to watch him debate with seasoned politicians, bombarding them with a slew of the facts scrounged from the most obscure law texts to inevitably win every argument (barring the Estharian 'battle of the belts' fashion crisis). It made her feel proud to be working alongside such a wunderkind.

Undeniably, they were forever linked simply through having survived such an ordeal side by side. He would always be her hero, her knight. But the title didn't necessarily hold a romantic affiliation, taking Seifer and Edea as a recent example. It was a position that could be filled by anyone brave, strong and trustworthy. She had even heard of a past case where a female had accepted the role to support her childhood friend. The Sorceresses of old used to choose their protectors via impersonal tournaments.

No. None of those reasons alone could excuse the months she had spent torturing herself to remain both in his presence and available.

What had most likely sealed the deal of her fixation, to her never ending chagrin, would be the incident of course.

The party after Time Compression.

The memory unwittingly caused her to smile and start twirling a lock of hair around her finger. Suddenly back to the giddy schoolgirl persona she could have easily, permanently assumed had fate blessed her with a ordinary childhood.

Of all the good-looking, skilled, intelligent, brave men she had met in her life, not one of them had come close to making her feel like that. It was what set him apart. In that one night, that one instance of his damn propriety flickering out of commission, she had instantly become an addict. Something about the rarity of his passion that made it all the more...passionate. For lack of a better word.

Despite all this, it disturbed her to notice how vain all these answers were. All properties certain women would seek in a pedestal husband to keep them comfortable until old age or, on the other end of the spectrum, a one-night, danger-delight mainly to provoke their fathers' attention. Neither of which was even close to her goals. Not that she had any goals. Not that she even had any real purpose anymore…


"Hmm?" As if reading her thoughts, he interrupted before her mind delved a little too deep into that dangerous subject. Perfect timing, as always.

He was looking at her with what seemed to be a combination of exhaustion and pity, the unlabeled artifact still being rolled between the fingers of one hand while the other went through his hair and down to the back of his neck.

"Screw it," his finally whispered after an intense few seconds of staring. The possible decanter/tonberry head/ball was chucked back into its box and the lid replaced all before Rinoa was able to remember how her lips functioned to form words. "You're right. I'll deal with it when we get back."

At this, Rinoa could not help but adopt an incredulous expression. Of all the adjectives to describe Squall Leonhart, 'procrastinator' was definitely not one of them. "That's not very Commanderly of you, ya know?"

"I'm on vacation," he justified while falling back into the grass, his hands forming a pillow behind his head. "I don't have to be Commander-like."

"I said Commanderly."

"And I choose to ignore your continual abuse of language."

"Tch. You're no fun."

"I'm aware."

Contrary to the declaration, Rinoa could not help but chuckle as she leaned back to join him horizontally.

Trying not to be obvious, she watched from the corner of her eye as he gazed up at the stars. Seemingly peaceful but also, inexplicably, a little lost. Hyne, he was difficult to read sometimes. Well, he had always been difficult to read. But more so than usual as of late. Which was strange since Garden and the World Council affairs had finally started running smoothly thanks to thousands of hours of unyielding meetings, drafts, reviews, phone calls and fights. He should currently be showing signs of whatever his version of 'festive' was. Even if all that included was grimacing slightly less often.

"What are you thinking about?"

Damn. She regretted the stupid questions as soon as it left from her lips, knowing how he'd hate such a vague and pointless examination. As much as he had been trying to open up more over the past year, she had been attempting the opposite. Tonight, both were failing miserably. It was against both their natures.

Water and stone could not simply decide to trade characteristics.

As expected, the Commander didn't respond at all for long, increasingly awkward seconds, apparently having to think about what he was thinking about; an activity only Squall would practice.

"Honestly," he began at last, taking a deep breath as if debating some remarkable secret. "…Pudding."

At this revelation, Rinoa could not help but roll her head to the side and glare at him. "I was trying to be serious."

"I am serious. I'm not the best of cooks with or without the wilderness factor. The thought of another week with similar meals to tonight is depressing. So I'm thinking of pudding. The dark chocolate one they serve in the cafeteria on Tuesdays. Is that so strange?"

He turned his head to match her stare then, pale-blue eyes strangely bright as they reflected the night sky. She saw there not an ounce of teasing or mirth, just the usual confusion that appeared whenever they forayed into subjects beyond charts and legislature. He had told her what he was thinking about, a question he assumed had no regulations, and still she seemed disgruntled with the answer. Would he ever figure out how to satisfy her?

"Hmm," as if gauging whether his reasons were acceptable, she pressed her lips together and studied his face. Though it happened by coincidence, this was in fact the closest she had been to him since that night many months ago. He was still every bit the healthy, young soldier as before, but the tell-tale signs of stress had made their mark, gruesomely highlighted in the flickering lamplight. There were dark circles under his eyes, his cheekbones were more prominent, his lips appeared pale and chapped and yet, seeing as they were but mere centimeters away, as tempting as always.

"I guess you are human after all," she whispered, revealing a slow, sly smile. Her fingers, as if they had a will on their own, found themselves beginning to inch towards him. And it wasn't his penchant for the rare, sugary snack that she was hoping to infringe upon tonight.

All he had to do…was let it happen.

"You know I am," he abruptly responded with no hint of humor. In fact, he seemed perturbed by the statement. As if admitting a handicap. "Of all people, you know best."

Something in his tone instantly sobered her. Enough so that the eager hand fell flat, like a dying fish, in the valley between their bodies. Returning her gaze to the sky, she took a deep, shaky breath.

If ruining the moment had been a sport, Squall would be a record-breaking champion. He'd even get extra points for invoking complete and utter abandonment of the cause.

No wonder he excelled at politics.

"I'm tired," she confessed to the stars. They would know what she meant.

"You should go to bed then."

Rinoa breathed harshly and let her eyes flutter closed. "In a minute."

With all the power she possessed, she tried to forget that anyone named Squall Leonhart existed let alone messed with her emotions so. It was a nice, much less confusing place. Though not far away enough from reality that she was able to completely relax.

She didn't know how long they lay there, but she remembered the sounds of the crashing waves as the tide came in, the crickets beginning their midnight symphony and the sizzle of the lantern extinguish when it ran out of oil.

She dreamed that night.

She dreamed of them dancing. The warmth of his hand covering her own, so strangely life-life, as they spun across the floor.

She dreamed of them laughing like they used to. In that amazing few days before the true plight of the world's government was revealed and all of it, unsolicited, was thrust upon his still healing shoulders.

She dreamed of him holding her and how warm, safe and Hyne-damn happy she had felt in that moment as she fell asleep in his arms.

This wasn't right.

This wasn't fair!

This wasn't-

Rinoa's eyes popped open as a seagull let loose a wailing cry. Judging from the volume, she could only deduce that it was perched either on her left shoulder or had made a nest out of her tangled hair. Neither was a reassuring option.

"GAH!" Instantly, she shot upright with furiously waving hands to scare the animal away, only to discover that she was protected by the walls of her tent and the offending bird was but a lonely silhouette far off in the distance. Taking a moment to blink away the grogginess and catch her breath, Rinoa eventually surveyed her surroundings, her last memories of lying in the grass contradicting uneasily with the current situation. Especially since her boots, socks, jacket and even hair tie had all been removed and were neatly piled near the foot of her sleeping bag. And she never neatly piled anything. It was practically against her religion.

"Squall?" she called tersely while fumbling with tent's fabric doors, unsure if she was more angry that he had handled her without permission or that he had done so only after she lost consciousness. "Squall! What the he-"

Words failed her as their campsite was revealed. At least, it was what used to be their campsite.

Though the first glimmers of sunrise had barely begun their climb over the horizon, all signs of their presence had mysteriously vanished save for Rinoa's single dwelling. The other tent, the picnic set, the dig equipment…all gone. Even the fire pit had been so perfectly filled and packed down, its perimeter rocks scattered, that she couldn't have pinpointed the original location if someone had an Exeter aimed at her head.

It was disappointment, not panic as would be expected, that first invaded Rinoa's thoughts. After all, ever since he had first asked if she would like to join him on a far away excavation project alone, it was known that he'd eventually recognize the implications and have some sort of quiet freak out. Ideally this would have happened before they actually left the premises, but she still couldn't blame him for having a slow-moving mind on this one matter out of the thousands vying for dominance in his head. He was, as reiterated last night, only human.

And so Rinoa did the only thing she could do. She sat back on her heels and waited, knowing he'd eventually realize that leaving her stranded in a wasteland wasn't the most sympathetic of breakdowns and, at the very least, send someone to get her. He had the satellite communicator on him. Any SeeD with a license to drive Ragnarok could be here within three hours. Selphie, with her 'special' piloting skills, could do it in one.

She had just finished writing her name into the sand without the use of her hands (a magic exercise she frequently practiced when boredom struck) when something hit her. Not physically, but within the hazy pond of her mind's eye. It was as if a boulder had been thrown into the waters, rippling her entire conscious so that she could focus on nothing else. Her new power acted sort of like an emotional radar that, when pushed to limits she didn't dare exercise, allowed her to translate such pings into actual audible sentences.

With a quick breath, she hoisted her defences before any actual words could reach conversion. Ever since she had discovered this power, it had become her immediate habit to block it out. Especially after one too many times of accidentally catching one of Irvine's wandering opinions. Besides, since she had confessed to the SeeD admins, they had all been trained to tell when and if their thoughts were being invaded. For Rinoa, there was neither the desire nor point in delving into anyone's secrets. But still, sometimes, if she was listless and someone around her was sending out powerful enough signals, it couldn't be avoided.

In this instance, though her mind has succeeded in censoring the words, it thrilled her to note - to recognize - the emotional power of the blast. It was familiar cocktail of frustration, anxiety, anger and just a touch self-loathing. Simple but potent. Enough to make her wince as it always did the few times he forgot to shield himself.

He was still close. Thank goodness.

After jumping to her feet and taking a few steps closer toward the water, Rinoa was able to make out a hazy silhouette off on the eastern curve of the beach that had been invisible in the twilight. There stood what could only be Squall along with the heaping pile of their gear. She smirked while shaking her head, berating herself for having doubted. After all, abandoning her would have meant he had succumbed to feelings; a reaction which was as likely as him raising the white flag to a bite bug.

Within ten minutes, Rinoa was changed, had her tent and sleeping bag mashed into her pack and was on her way toward the beach just as the sun revealed the entire, serene setting. Despite the summer heat that had inspired her to wear only jean shorts and a simple white tank top, she observed that Squall was covered in heavy leather and utility belts including his now famous fur-lined jacket.

Most people would have categorized him as insane or overly modest for constantly covering himself, always choosing caution over comfort. But Rinoa was well versed in his every idiosyncrasy. She knew about the scars covering most of his body, faded but still notable, from their battle with Ultimecia which he preferred not to publicize. She knew that every day since they had returned, he felt an impermeable chill that made it hard to concentrate without nearing a heat source. She knew that leather made him feel safe, untouchable, as if any verbal and physical abuse tossed his way would merely bounce off harmlessly. She knew that he may very well fall to pieces without some fragment of armor, whether his blade or his SeeD uniform or his griever necklace, to metaphorically hold him together.

Rumor had it that his experiences in Time Compression had made him, literally, cold blooded. Perhaps that was true. It only made her more determined to, eventually, force some warmth into his veins.

"Good morning!" she called when within earshot, eagerly waving a hand above her head. Squall, in the midst of bending over to retrieve something from the beach, turned to acknowledge her.

Dutifully, she slowed her steps as he scanned her from head to toe. From most men, she would have considered such a look to be salacious, but Squall was most likely just making sure wasn't wearing anything that would make it easier to drown.

"Morning," he called back while completing his task of swiping something from the sand and standing up. He gave her another once over as she completed the final few steps and his eyes narrowed critically. "You're going get cold."

"No, I'm not." With a grunt, Rinoa threw her pack onto the mound of stuff awaiting pickup and then slapped her hands free of dirt. "It's like 20 degrees and getting warmer. It's you that is going to boil."

"Layers," he explained, gesturing to the v-neck, white t-shirt visible at his collar. Though both of them knew the likely hood of him relinquishing any garment was slim to none. "Key to wilderness travelling. I swear I've told you this a million times."

"So you have. Probably."

"Then get a jacket, just in case. How about the waterproof one I bought you?"

Rinao cringed, stealing a glance at her pack whilst recalling the barely restrained chaos contained within. "I'd rather just take my chances."

"We're going on a boat. You'll get wet."

"Maybe I like being wet?"

At that point, with one final, pointed glare, Squall conceded by turning his back to her. Rinoa smirked.

Too easy.

They stood in silence for a few moment as the sun finalized its climb over the horizon, bathing them both in a wave of golden heat which instantly caused Rinoa to break into sweat. To no one's surprise, Squall remained impervious.

"The boat is late," he muttered while rotating something between his fingers. "Remind me not to tip."

"It doesn't matter, does it? Not like we have any appointments at our next desolate location."

"True. It's just..." he made a sudden movement that was quick and fierce. Like any other of his perfectly calculated attacks. She was barely able to register the throw before it was complete and the object, a stone, went sailing over the beach. In a perfect, fluid arc it hit the water and immediately bounced. It bounced further and swifter than she had ever seen in a succession of at least six, beautiful skips before being swallowed by the sea.

"Annoying," he finished his original sentence, eyes down and already searching for new quarry. "Punctuality is a basic requirement of such businesses. I expect that at the very least."

Rinoa wished to respond, but she found that her jaw was fixed open and unable to do anything more than flap open and closed like a fish.

It was impossible.

Two days. A full two days she had been trying to get any and every type of rock from this beach to prance upon the water and she had failed. It had to be a fluke. Beginner's luck. No one was that-

As if to spite her thoughts, Squall bent down and picked up another, seemingly random victim from the beach. With no more than a second's consideration, he tossed it toward the ocean. Again, it worked. Even better this time with the previous practice. A full ten skips. Rinoa's arms crossed over her chest with barely concealed anger.

This was ridiculous.

"You're doing it wrong," she couldn't help but criticise with attempt nonchalance as he bent down for another stone. "Your stance is too short, your throws too weak and, quite frankly, your clothes are too constricting for a fluid enough toss."

Squall met her eyes and shot her with one of those confident smirks that set her teeth on edge as well as her heart a-flutter. "I didn't know I was being graded, Miss Heartilly."

"You're not. I just know you. And I know if you want to do something, you want to do it right. Right?"

Squall nodded. "Most of the time, yes. But I don't usually apply such principles to things most practiced by grade-schoolers. No one trains to create the most impressive spitball."

"Spitballs. Grenades. Consider them sisters. You're the one who taught me that nothing is worth doing if you don't do it well. Now spread your legs further."

The commander raised an incredulous eyebrow but, upon seeing not a hint of humor in her eyes, did as she commanded. His chosen ammunition remained clenched tightly within his grasp.

"Now," Rinoa dared to take a step closed, uncharacteristically all business as she grasped his hand and forced it to his chest. "This is the height you want to stay at. Approximately a 35 degree angle from the ground. This is because of air drag. If there wasn't any, if you were throwing on a placid lake, you'd want to be at 45. Either way, it should hit the water at approximately 10-20 degrees. Got it?"

Again, he nodded, this time while taking an exaggerated gulp of air. "Got it."

"Good. You should also be perpendicular to the lake." Without thinking, she reached for his hips in order to position them, but Squall foresaw and dodged the maneuver.

"I know what perpendicular means," he grumbled as if angry, but an unavoidable blush touched his cheeks as he moved into position. Rinoa smiled at the evidence that he, in fact, couldn't be cold-blooded.

"Fine. Good. Now you have to choose a proper stone of course. One that is smooth and flat, without any imperfections."

She glanced down at the one in his hands and immediately scowled. "That one definitely won't do."

Squall opened his palm and looked down at his chosen cohort with confusion. It was flat. It was smooth. Not perfect of course, with the odd rivet and scratches, but definitely good enough. "This one will be fine," he insisted while placing his fingers in what he felt were the most natural positions for a toss. But Rinoa was oddly strict about this one element.

"Not good enough," she insisted, her eyes scanning the beach for a suitable alternative. "The imperfections will catch the waves and make it sink. There's no point."

"There's no point anyway," he countered. "We're throwing rocks, not performing surgery."

"Don't you want to do this properly?"

"Considering the point of this is to waste time, we are doing it properly. Just show me how to toss the thing if you're such a master."

"Leonhart..." she grumbled.

"Heartilly..." he threw back.

They stared each other down for a solid minute, daring one another to break. Seeing no other choice if she wanted to leave this place before the next century, Rinoa soon choose to indulge him, fully expecting failure. She stepped beside him, closer than she had ever dared before, and reached around to cover his imperfect stone with her own hands.

This time he didn't push her away. He just stood there, as solid as a statue, and let her do her work.

"Your thumb and your index finger," she began, taking the specific digits in either hand. "Should be on the thin edge, pinching it from opposite sides. You feel that? Is it secure?"

After a deep breath, he nodded. "Yes."

"Good. Now...you have to be closer to the water, first." Together, they staggered a few feet down the beach until the tide was nearly at their toes. "As I said, legs wide and perpendicular. 25 degrees above the water. Throw hard and throw fast. Spin is more important than speed. Now just...go!"

With timing worthy of his reputation, Squall did as she commanded with perfect execution. The stone landed at the ideal 10 degree angle on the water and skipped not once, not twice, but an absolutely outstanding twenty-six times. JUST below her record after both years of practice and competitions with all the local boys of Deling city. She could do nothing more but watch with wide, dumfounded eyes as he took a relaxed step back onto the beach and shoved his hands into his pockets, eyes glued on the waves.

"Hmm," he mumbled after an oddly long silence. "Who would have thought...you were right."

Instant annoyance at his apparent shock was enough to snap her out of it. "And why do you sound so surprised?"

"Because of the rock thing." He bent down then to select yet another random stone from the beach, lifting it up between pinched fingers for them both to analyze. Much like his previous selection, this one was smooth and flat but riddled with scratches and divots marring it's candidacy. "You said you need a perfect stone or there's no point. I disagree."

Again, Rinoa crossed her arms over her chest to show defiance. "You haven't been doing this as long as I have. I prefer not to base output on luck."

"It's far from luck," he explained, throwing the stone into the air and snatching it back. "The marks are what make it perfect, I find. It's much easier to hold onto and get a good spin as opposed to a perfectly smooth stone. Here," he tossed it toward her and she had no choice but to clumsily catch it. With a smirk, he nodded toward the ocean. "You try. Throw it."

Though her initial reaction was to drop the thing, roll her eyes and call him crazy, Rinoa swallowed all such offensive compulsions and dared to believe. Without further ado, she sprung into position and prepared herself. A gentle rotation, a trademarked pinch of her fingers along the stone's rough edge, a twist, a release and then it was off! She watched with baited breath as the pale disc spun toward the water.

At long last, it bounced once. And then twice. Rinoa's smile neared painful limits as it went on three, eight, fifteen, twenty, twenty-six, thirty-THREE times! Above her record! She couldn't believe it! In fact, she didn't believe it.

"Squall!" she screeched at a near inhuman volume, both sides of his jacket wrenched in her grasped as she yanked him closer. "Tell me now. How many times did that skip?"

"Thirty-six," he confirmed with confusion-filled eyes, unsure of why it mattered.

"Thirty-six!" she yelled, followed by an unnaturally high-pitched giggle which she quickly tried to censor with her hand. "Sorry. I just- I can't believe it! Thirty-six! All my life..." with tremendous effort, she swallowed the rant about how breaking that record had been the complete focus of her childhood ever since her mother died. She didn't want him to know how many hours she had spent on so many lakeshores simply trying to crack the mystery of her lack of improvement. Quite frankly, it was compulsive and slightly insane behavior that no one should freely broadcast. Especially to someone you hoped would, eventually, accept you as a partner.

Therefore, with great effort, she released his jacket and smoothed out the wrinkles her grip had made. Pretending he had confirmed nothing more thrilling than her shoe size.

"You were right," you conceded, still avoiding his eyes as she dusted invisible sand from his sleeves. "A damaged one ended up being perfect. More than perfect. To think of all the time I wasted looking-"

Without warning, his hand sprung out the clasp hers just as she began brushing off his shoulder. Rinoa's widened eyes shot up to his, both scared and, inexplicably, energized. Another wave of emotion permeated her mind, stronger than ever at this close range. And though, as was habit, she blocked out a proper translation, the emotions present were a somewhat muddled mix than usual. The expected frustration and anxiety was there, but it seemed to stem from somewhere else this time. It was something long hidden, buried deep within him that was trying to claw its way out. Something fierce and primal that he was struggling to restrain but just beginning to give up.

The sheer force of it pushing again whatever barrier frightened her a little. But only a little. More so, she longed to see it released. Just to see what would happen. No matter what the cost.

With a deep breath, she watched as he leaned in a little closer.

But no. He wouldn't do that. It was the heat, she decided, that was messing with her mind. She could feel it begin to consume her, the sun on her skin creating instant droplets of sweat wherever it touched. His hand on hers shifted to thread their fingers together. He was cold as ice, even through the leather of his gloves. So very enjoyable. What she wouldn't give to have that coolness encase her shoulders, her calves...her everywhere.

"Rinoa," he whispered, his voice having adopted a low, guttural tone she hadn't heard in nearly a year.

A single, eardrum-shattering blast interrupted the moment.

If there was indeed a moment to interrupt. As casually as if he did such a thing every day, Squall slowly brought both their hands down between them before releasing his grip. With nothing more than an apologetic twitch of his lips, he then moved toward their pile of luggage, leaving Rinoa dumbstruck staring out into the ocean.

After a few blinks to clear her head, she noticed the small yacht emerging from the dawn's fog and heading straight toward them. Another blast of its horn and it was confirmed to be the evil disrupter. Late, but not nearly late enough.

Damn it.

"Rinoa," Squall called, all traces of closeness having vanished. With a sigh, she turned to face him, fully expecting a barked command to either repack her bag properly or, maybe, saunter out into the surf to wave to boat down. She wouldn't have put either past him.

Instead though, to her shock and delight, he handed over his most precious possession; his gunblade case. The weight of it caused her to stumble a bit, but as she regained her footing she stared at him with widened, incredulous eyes.

Again, as he only did for her when she did something amusing or silly, Squall smiled.

Hyne forgive her for her idiocy, but she would forgive anything if only for the chance of seeing that smile.

"An eye and eye," he stated before amiably patting the case. "You taught me how to skip stones. Maybe, if you're up for it, I could teach you some defensive manoeuvres once we get to Edea's. You in?"

Rinoa blinked. To Squall, messing with his gunblade was more imposing than touching any other part of him. It was enough to strike fear into the heart of any hot blooded creature. Not to mention the fact that Quisitis and Cid had been pretty adamant that, as a civilian without any proper training, she make genuine efforts to avoid messing with the weaponry available to Garden residents.

Despite this, she couldn't help but be curious. And it was Squall, the Commander, making the suggestion. Not some random, malicious student. And maybe, just maybe, this "training" was a pretense. Seeing how the stone throwing had almost ended up, maybe...just maybe...

"Yes or no Rinoa," he interrupted with impatience, seeing as the yacht was less than a minute away. "It's not that difficult of a question."

"Yes!" she exclaimed enthusiastically, hugging the case to her chest as if it were a cherished stuffed animal. "Of course, yes! Th-thank you."

"Don't thank me yet," he responded with a smirk. "Let's hope you don't shoot yourself."

And with that, he ran down back down the beach, gesturing to the mound of stuff they had waiting for pick up. With the ease of a man who spent more hours moving than sitting, Squall hefted two of the largest packs onto his shoulders and went to meet the small water craft in the surf.

Alone with her thoughts for a much needed minute, Rinoa leaned her head against the griever symbol adorning the case and sighed a sigh of genuine contentment.

A whole week of vacation left together, this time without the distraction of an excavation project, and the promise of a heart-racing battle simulation in the coming day.

Rinoa smiled.

She could hardly wait.

-. Author's Note .- YES! Made the deadline with a day to spare. Though I know I said I would post this part II on Squall's birthday, then sickness occurred and husband being away on business led to sleeplessness blah blah. It's done! Though a little more rushed than I would prefer, I hope you enjoyed. Thank you for sticking with it despite the lack of typical fluff. I do so enjoy writing them squabble. Go Squinoa forever.

Thank you organizers of the "Where I Belong" Challenge. It was an honor and a privilege.