Disclaimer: FFVIII is not mine, I just like to play with its characters for a while.
Author's note: yeah, well. This is not my first fanfiction, but it's the first I wrote in English. Not my first language, as I'm Italian, but I hope I did well. Many thanks to Ashbear who accepted to beta-read this, and to Ronin-ai that helped too!
This was written for the "Where I belong" challenge, and I hope you enjoy reading it like I enjoyed writing it. Thanks!
"Sir, would you like a glass of lemonade?"
Rinoa is ten when she drags the little table her father bought her for her studies out in the street, beyond the back gate of the mansion. She then enters the kitchen again to pick a napkin that she plans to use as tablecloth, and then she goes back again to retrieve the pitcher of lemonade she prepared and several glasses. She manages to balance everything, although dangerously, in her arms, and when her little table is ready she's satisfied.
Her father has told her yesterday that she can't have a dog, but she wants to prove that she is perfectly capable of taking care of a pet. After all she's already ten, and she can take care of herself, as she told that man – daddy always becomes that man when she's upset – and he just laughed, but she will prove him wrong. She'll make sure of that.
So now she's sitting at her little table, with her little chair and the biggest pitcher of lemonade she has ever made. The man she called out to watches her carefully, almost squinting his eyes – and she thinks he's doing that because the sun is so bright and the afternoon so hot and the man must be so thirsty.
"Only fifteen gil for a glass, sir," she says. She thought a lot about that – how much for a glass and how much she needs for her new friend.
"Aren't you Miss Caraway?"
"Y-yes," she answers.
"And what are doing here?" The man seems ready to call her father, and she wants at least to sell her lemonade – she wants to prove that her father – that man – is wrong. She will earn enough to have a dog and buy everything her pet will need.
"I'm selling lemonade so I can have a dog, sir. I need money to take care of it," she says, with such assertiveness that the man is almost impressed. "It's fresh and today is very hot, isn't it? I can get you ice, too. Have a glass. Please."
"It's dangerous out here. You'd better go back in," he replies, offering his hand to her. "Come with me."
"Don't you want my lemonade?" she insists.
"Maybe later," he says, entering the gate and motioning for her to follow him.
The man takes her in the kitchen. He's a friend of her father's, and he calls the maid to take care of her. Then he goes to the library to talk with Caraway about this crazy selling lemonade thing, and Rinoa is left with her nanny.
"Poor child," she says fondling her hair. "You really want that dog, do you?"
"But daddy says you can't."
Rinoa crosses her arms, and the nanny thinks she's too cute to get scolded, so she just decides to prepare milk and cookies.
"I'm ten," says Rinoa after sitting at the kitchen table. "I can take care of myself and I can take care of my dog."
"You won't have a dog, honey," says Caraway from the door. These are the only words he says to her; then he just turns and starts talking with the maid. "Please prepare some tea for our guest, and bring those cookies too. He loves them. After that, please, take care of my daughter's little booth, and make sure it doesn't happen again."
Rinoa is left alone, after a while, sipping her milk and playing with her cookies. She doesn't understand – she wants a dog so much, because she's always alone and her father is so cold and never wants to play with her, and she can't have friends over and she just really wants someone to play with and to talk to. The dog she saw watching TV was so cute and funny and intelligent, and she feels she'll be happier with a little pet as a friend. Her father told her no – he tells her no almost for everything – but she doesn't want to listen this time.
And her father's friend loves the cookies, so tomorrow she'll sell the cookies, too. She will go to the park – it's just across the street, and she's a big girl and she can cross the streets on her own now – with her lemonade, plastic glasses and cookies, and she'll sell her goods to those many joggers running around the park, and by the end of the month she'll have her dog. So she grabs the cookies, puts them in the pockets of her summer dress, and runs to her room to hide them in the box under her bed.
Her father's friend keeps taking her home for the next fifteen days. The girl is incredibly stubborn, and she always finds a new spot to sell her lemonade and cookies. He suspects the nanny is involved too – that girl can't cook all those cookies by herself.
Actually, the nanny has realized that everyday there are cookies missing, but she simply bakes some more, knowing her little girl steals them to get a dog. She knows Rinoa too well.
The sixteenth day, however, the man simply gives up and buys a lemonade. The girl is stubborn and cute and seems to know very well what she wants, and obviously taking her home when he finds her doesn't work. She'll keep trying until she gets what she wants, and he knows she simply feels lonely. Caraway is a little too obsessed with security; he has automatic locking doors in every room of the mansion, he never lets his daughter invite her friends for a sleepover, and he never lets her go to her friends' parties. That girl has almost no friends and she spends the summer alone playing or reading in the garden, carefully watched by her nanny. She needs someone, he thinks, and for the first time he wishes Caraway would realize this too.
He gives her fifty gil for her lemonade, and her eyes widen and sparkle. "Thank you so much sir!" she screams, getting off the bench to hug him. "Thank you thank you thank you!"
"I hope you can get your dog," he says, ruffling her hair.
"I will, sir. Thank you very much. Come again!"
She beams, and he thinks he should talk to Caraway about getting that damn dog.
"I need all these things, please."
Rinoa is sixteen when she hands the list to the clerk of the pet store in Timber. She waited all these years to get her dog. After a month and a half spent selling lemonade and cookies, she had enough money for her new pet, but then she couldn't find the perfect one. She knew it had to be special and unique, and she waited until she felt something watching the pet – and she knows it happened today.
She left her house three days ago. She doesn't want to be found, so she has changed her last name, using her mother's – she likes it better anyway – and she has arrived in Timber as soon as possible. The pet is there, in that store's window, near the train station, and she almost thinks it's a sign. She always has a list of the things a dog needs with her, along with the money she has kept collecting in all these years. She never counted the gil, but she hopes it's enough.
The dog is female, and that's why she's still at the store while all her male brothers have been adopted. The clerk says it's because everyone feared a female dog would have puppies, and so they preferred the male ones. Rinoa takes the dog in her arms, and she feels it – the incredible connection that will last a lifetime. This is the creature she will love with all herself, this is the creature that needs her, and Rinoa know she needs this creature too.
So she hands the list to the clerk and cuddles her new friend. "They left you here because they think you're weak. But we will be strong together, I promise," she whispers, and then pays and thanks the clerk and exits the store feeling somewhat a different person.
"She stays with me, end of discussion," she growls later, when Zone and Watts try to convince her that they can't keep a dog on a train. But that's her pet, that's her best friend, and she knows she'll never be alone anymore. So she defends her dog with all her might, and she wins, and that night Angelo sleeps soundly on her bed, in her little princess room on the Forest Owls' train, and Rinoa knows she has never felt happier than now.
"You know, I sold lemonade and cookies when I was ten for her, and I waited six years to get her. So yeah, she will sleep in our room."
Rinoa is nineteen when she moves in with Squall. She knows him better than anyone else, and he seems a little scared of her dog – not because Angelo attacked him or something like that, but because Rinoa loves that furry ball so much that sometimes he's jealous. And he feels something in Angelo – something primitive and loyal and loving, and he's scared of that unconditional love that will last a lifetime. Eternal things are not for him, and he's scared because he's never had something like that, he's never felt it, and he doesn't know what to do with all the affection this dog gives to him, simply because he loves her owner.
"You what?" asks Squall, sighing and helping her place Angelo's things in their new bedroom. He knows she would just keep insisting, so he decides he'd better give up and help her. He would do it later, anyway, so why wait?
"I wanted a dog," she says. She sits with her back against the bed, and Squall understands she just wants to talk, now, tell him something about her he doesn't know, and he silently goes to sit beside her. "I was ten. I saw a dog on TV, and it was so intelligent and funny and caring that I wanted one for myself. I asked my father, but he said no. I was so alone, then… I couldn't invite friends and I couldn't go to my friends' parties. My father was too afraid, there were many rebels and he thought they would kidnap me or something like that… anyway, his plan was to keep me in the house. Alone. So when I saw that dog, I just wanted to have a friend like that. I just wanted to have someone, even an animal. But he said no."
"And you didn't listen," says Squall. He can totally imagine that: Caraway saying no and Rinoa doing what she wanted anyway.
"He said I couldn't take care of a pet, because I didn't understand what it meant. A pet needed food and so many other things… he just tried to make me think it would cost too much. So I said I was ten and could take care of myself, and of my dog."
Squall laughs. A ten-year-old Rinoa standing up to her father like that is such a funny image - he has to laugh. She smacks his arm, but she is smiling too.
"Yeah, that didn't go too well. My father laughed too. But the next day I prepared lemonade and I decided to sell it. I read that in a book… ironically, it was a gift by my father."
"So, you sold it?"
"The first day I couldn't. The first man I offered my lemonade to was a friend of my father's, and he made me go back inside. He also told my father. But Caraway said to my nanny that his friend loved her cookies, so… I stole the cookies and decided I would sell my lemonade in the park. With all those joggers… I thought I would earn the money faster. If you run so much and it's so hot you have to get thirsty, don't you?"
"I guess," replies Squall, and he imagines her as a little child with her arms full of goodies to sell in the park. No wonder she managed to get her money, he thinks – it's such a cute image, and yes, he's not scared of using the word 'cute' anymore. He just doesn't say that out loud. He has a reputation and all.
"My father's friend kept taking me home. And I kept going to the park with my cookies and lemonade. I was right, joggers were thirsty, and there were old ladies that liked my cookies and loved me. I was afraid my father would take away my money, though, especially since that man kept looking for me and taking me home. So the second day I decided I would hide my money."
"Hide?" asks Squall. He doesn't understand.
"Yeah. I sewed a small sack and attached it to my panties with a pin I stole from my nanny."
Squall stifles a small laugh. "You were a very resourceful child, you know?"
"I really wanted that dog. So I did everything in my power to have it. I waited for the special one, you know, and I kept working to have the money I needed. When I ran away from home I went to Timber, and I saw Angelo. She was the one. I got her as soon as I saw her." She is silent for a moment, and they stay like that, until a sharp breath from Rinoa makes Squall realize she's crying. "You said I was very resourceful," she continues after a while, and he takes her hand and squeezes it. "I think I was just so lonely… those days in the park, selling lemonade and cookies, are the happiest days of my childhood after my mother's death. I had a goal, then. And I was working to achieve it."
Squall lets go of her hand and takes her in his arms, trying to console her, to erase with this hug the loneliness she must have felt as a little child with no friends, practically imprisoned in her mansion.
"Angelo is a great part of your life," he says. "You're lucky to have her."
"She has changed me," replies Rinoa. "It's the way she loves me that changed me. She taught me so many things – about loyalty, about caring, about friendship. Even about responsibility. She defends me and comforts me when I'm sad. She is always by my side, and the way she always looks at me after a battle, or when we're walking together… it's like she's thanking me, and I almost see her smile. She's the dog of my childhood, even if I only got her when I was sixteen, because it was at ten that I started to change for my future dog. She changed me even when she wasn't even born."
"She'll sleep in our room," says Squall, and he sounds so sincere, like he really understood what she meant, that Rinoa lifts her face to kiss him.
"I want to tell you something," he starts, when she puts her head again against his chest. He takes a deep breath, as if he's trying to master courage, and continues. "A few weeks after Ellone left, I found a small animal near the entrance of Edea's House. It was a cat. I didn't tell anyone… at lunch, I hid some food in my napkin and took it outside. The cat wouldn't come near me, so I simply left the food there. I figured it would eat sooner or later, so I went away and came back to check after a few hours."
Rinoa lifts her face so she can look at him as he speaks. His face is serene, but a little sad.
"The cat had eaten, so I did the same for dinner. I was the first to wake up, the next morning. I went straight to the kitchen and got some milk. The cat was still there, and this time it got nearer to drink. And then… it licked my hand."
"How sweet," she says, hugging him tighter.
"Yeah, sweet," he mutters. "I continued to bring it food for three days, and the cat seemed to trust me more and more. I was… I can't exactly say I was happy. I still missed Ellone a lot and waited for her to come back. But I knew I had to be strong, because that cat trusted me and I was the only one who knew it was there, and it needed me. As you said, I had a goal. On the fourth day, though…"
Squall falls silent, and Rinoa moves her hands on his back to encourage him.
"On the fourth day it wasn't there anymore."
She waits for him to continue, and when he says nothing, she asks, "what happened?"
"I think it ran away, but outside there were monsters. They probably attacked and killed it."
"I'm so sorry," she says, moving one hand to caress his cheek.
"It doesn't matter now. But then… I thought I had been left alone, again." Rinoa tries to say something, but Squall speaks again and she has no choice but listen. "I never touched another animal after that. I only met monsters, and treated them as such. Angelo was the first animal I ever interacted with after that cat."
Rinoa says nothing and just gives him the time he needs to continue. "I just want to say that Angelo… she changed me too. A little. I guess." He runs a hand through his hair. "When we were ready to leave for space, she ran inside the station, barking. I knew what she wanted. I don't know how, but I simply understood. She loved you and wanted you safe. I said nothing aloud, but I promised her I would save you , and then I felt so stupid for trying to talk telepathically with your dog. I mean, she couldn't understand, could she?"
Rinoa laughs a little. "Maybe she can. I mean, she's very good at understanding people's moods. If she senses something wrong, she keeps bugging you until she manages to make you smile, or laugh… and then you feel better. It's very hard to be sad around her, because… you simply can't."
"I'm trying to say your dog changed me too… and sometimes…" He falls silent again.
"She scares you?"
"Yeah. A little. Whatever."
"Because she loves us too much?" she asks.
She makes it sound so simple that he snorts. What does she expect him to say? 'Yeah, ok'?
Rinoa laughs at his confused expression, and then says, "we can only try to make her happy and feel loved as she does with us. It's just that simple. There are no demands or expectations. Just love. That's why she changed us. Because she just loves." She gets up. "Let's finish here, or Selphie will bring Angelo back and we'll still be moving things."
Later, when Angelo sleeps peacefully in her dog bed in their new bedroom, Squall is still thinking about Rinoa's last words, and he turns to her, embracing her as she's almost asleep. "I don't have demands either, Rinoa," he says slowly and under his breath, as not to wake her. "And I don't have expectations. I just love you." He kisses her shoulder, lightly, and Rinoa turns a little, her eyelids heavy but open.
"I just love you too," she answers.
"You will spoil him. He should already be sleeping, you know?"
Rinoa is twenty-seven now, and she's laying on the couch because the baby inside of her is kicking so much and so hard. Her husband is playing on the carpet with their son Kiran and Angelo. The dog is watching the humans carefully, and she tilts her head on the side when the building bricks they're using fall helplessly on the carpet. Rinoa smiles, because that's something Angelo has always done: watching you with her head tilted, as if she's thinking you're not smart enough to complete a task so simple.
"Just another try," says Squall, and Rinoa laughs because she knows it's always her husband asking for more time, and not her son. She moves her hand over her belly and waits. The building bricks fall again, and her boys give up.
"Go say goodnight to your mummy and sister," says Squall.
"Can we try again tomorrow?" asks the child.
"'Course," replies Squall, collecting all the toys.
Kiran runs to kiss her mother, and she accepts the affection laughing. "Don't try to kiss your sister," she warns him. "She may kick your nose!"
The boy simply runs his hand on his mother's belly, laughing, and then whispers goodnight, and Rinoa thinks he's just like his father. Squall wishes goodnight to their daughter too, exactly like their son just did. She watches Angelo immediately getting up and following the child in his bedroom; after his birth, she apparently decided to sleep in his room, and she still sleeps there. She is very protective of this boy – Rinoa feared she would be jealous of him, but she just loved him as she loved everything that came from Rinoa. It's touching, really, the tenderness her dog has shown: when Kiran was born, she kept watching him carefully, and she always came to her barking when the baby started crying, urging Rinoa to take care of him quickly. She has never abandoned him, and the child loves to spoil the dog with new toys and treats.
She will miss her furry ball of love. Angelo is eleven years old already, and sometimes Rinoa thinks she'll never find another caring, wonderful and sweet dog like her.
She sits up when she hears Squall closing their son's door. He smiles when he sees her little wince.
"Is she still kicking?" he asks, sitting beside her on the couch.
"I think she has turned four times already," she answers, and Squall starts caressing her belly with that kind of pressure that always calms the baby. She doesn't know how he does it, it never works when she does it herself. But he touches her and the baby slowly stops kicking, and sometimes she thinks there's some magical connection there. She knows it's just love, though.
"I wanted to ask you something," he starts, still touching her. "Angelo is getting old. She's already a little deaf and I think her sight is getting worse too."
"Yeah," she replies.
"We could adopt a puppy."
Rinoa just watches him.
"I'm afraid Kiran will get jealous. Maybe if he has a puppy to take care of, he will react better to his sister's birth," he continues.
"Did Kiran ask for a puppy?"
"So you want a puppy."
"Lenna will be born soon. We'll be busy with her and Kiran, and Angelo needs more attention now… do you really think it's a good idea adopting a puppy?"
"Yeah, because Lenna deserves a dog too," he answers. "You said it yourself. Angelo changed you, and she changed me too, and Kiran learned so much from her. I want our daughter to have a dog too. I want her to know what it feels like. I want her to know love without demands or expectations, just love."
Rinoa sighs. "I don't know, Squall…"
"Me and Kiran will sell lemonade in the Garden's Quad if you say no. Actually, Kiran likes the idea so much that I think he will sell it anyway. He said that if his mother did it, he can do it too."
Rinoa bursts out laughing, and she simply hugs her husband and kisses him.
"Well, ok, then. Kiran and Lenna can have their own puppy."
Squall holds her tighter, and they kiss again. Rinoa actually likes the idea of having another dog – she likes to think her children will be surrounded by love: hers, Squall's, their friends', and their dogs'. It's just the way life should be – love without demands or expectations. Just love.
"But only because I don't want to find a sack full of money attached to your underpants, Mr. Leonhart."
"Very funny – you know I can't sew."
She says nothing, then, and she watches as he looks for a movie. He's changed. He was a cold and hard boy protecting his scarred soul when she met him, and now he is a strong and loving man protecting the inner child still within him. She likes watching him play with their son, and even when she tenderly scolds him because sometimes they play too much, and Kiran goes to bed too late, she knows he just wants a second chance. She wants him to know, though, that even if he was still that cold and hard boy she would just love him anyway. Without demands or expectations. Just love.
"You know, I just love you," she says as he slips a DVD in the player.
He sits again beside her without replying, with an arm around her shoulders. Rinoa snuggles closer to him, at least as much as her pregnant belly allows her to, and sighs a little – she's serene, and that's not the same as happy, but sometimes it means so much more to her.
Angelo taught her that too, the simplicity of the small things, and the happiness that lies within them: the sun on the skin, the flowers on her nightstand on her birthday mornings, the kisses of her son, even the kicks of her daughter, and telling her husband she just loves him, knowing he understand what that 'just' means. And telling him without expecting a reply.
"I just love you too," he says later, in their bed, with his lips on her shoulder and his hand on her belly.
Author's note: Kiran means "beam of light", while Lenna means "lion's strength." Thanks to "Think Baby Names" for the meanings. I think they suit this couple well.
This story is dedicated to my wonderful dog, Diana, that left this world almost two years ago. Wherever you are, I still love you.
This has been a beautiful experience. I love to write, but writing in English is new, and it has been fun (I don't know if I can say the same for my poor betareader – I really don't know how many mistakes are in this story. Sorry Ash!). First I was like "oh my, 2,500 words, they are too many, how can I finish!" and now I am like "oh God, almost 4,500 words. How could I write so much?" But it has been fun and I want to thank everyone who has read this. I really do hope you enjoyed it.
An Italian version has been published too. See you soon!