By La Fata Aurora
Chapter Two: Playing House
Squall sipped on his coffee and decided to fashion his face in his best imitation of a brooding look. Aerith has been pacing across the table for what seems like an hour now, and he knew that if he didn't look as penitent as he should be, he'd be stuck there on the kitchen stool for another hour. He sighed inwardly, shooting his conspirators a mean look. The blonde and the auburn guy at his side looked as sullen as he is.
When Aerith finally decided to stop torturing them with her pacing, she loudly slammed a hand on the table, "EXPLAIN!"
The three grown men panicked like little boys who suddenly found themselves in the Principal's Office.
"Uhm, well you see, Aerith—"
"Shut up, Zell."
"WHY DO YOU KEEP TELLING ME TO SHUT UP?"
Aerith slammed the table again, "E-NOUGH!" Jutting her index finger to Squall, she narrowed her pretty eyes at him so meanly that the brunette felt the hairs on his back stand up, "YOU! Explain this to me right now or so help me Hyne, I would make your lives miserable!"
Zell and Irvine looked at Squall with their most pitiful look. Of course, they were thinking about those beastly kids in the town's kindergarten! Squall felt their expectant looks and felt a chill run up his spine. What the hell did they expect him to do? Hyne, he doesn't even know if he could save himself!
Behold the power of Winhill's 'Delicate Flower'.
"Well?" Aerith crossed her arms intimidatingly. Squall found himself sitting upright, nearly sloshing the contents of his mug on his pants.
"Well you see, Aerith Sis,—" Squall cleared his throat, desperate for something to alleviate her growing irritation.
"That might work on Ellone, but you're forgetting that she's thousands of miles away from here. Try again."
Zell couldn't take it anymore.
"Irvinedraggedustogoclubbinga ndwegotdrunkandweweredriving —"
"ZELL!" The cowboy cried in pain. Squall almost felt sorry for him.
Aerith looked dazed for a second, but that was before she managed to decipher Zell's mumbo-jumbo of an explanation, "YOU WHAT?!"
"We were drunk and we were driving?"
Irvine and Squall slapped their hands on their faces. Way to go, fool.
"You dumb jocks! You're not in highschool anymore! How careless can you guys be?!" Aerith erupted and charged towards the other side of the table, whacking each naughty boy on the head. She gave Zell another one for good measure. "And clubbing?! What are you, twelve? And do I WANT to know WHY your clubbing escapade brought you all the way here to Winhill?!"
"No." Squall mumbled. Aerith gave him a good whack. "Oww…"
"Serves you right! Scaring Miss Rinoa like that!"
"She called me a rapist, Aerith!" Squall, finally rediscovering that he had a Y-chromosome, defended himself. "And she kept hitting me too! What is it with you women and hitting men on the head?"
"Oh, I don't know! Maybe we're hoping to send you some common sense by diffusion?" Aerith turned away, then she went back to her initial position on the other side of the table. She started pacing for a bit, before turning back to the boys, "You guys should know better! You should have called me first to check if we had guests! Now Angel Wings' reputation is ruined! Where am I going to get the money for this year's donation?!"
Squall began to open his mouth, but was wise enough to shut it just as fast. His family knew that proceeds from Angel Wings' usually wealthy tenants go straight to Winhill's Orphanage Fund. If their current tenants decide to get a refund due to the disruption of their privacy, Squall himself could shoulder the costs, but he knew too well that Aerith wouldn't like that prospect one bit. He frowned instead.
Someone suddenly pounded at the door. Aerith lifted her eyes and sighed, thinking that it was one of the girls.
"If that's one of the girls, saying that they're leaving, you guys be better prepared for a million hours of community service!"
Aerith left the three men paling to the roots of their hairs.
"Hey Aerith." Rinoa stepped into the cottage dressed in a cream-colored cowl-neck dress that hugged her in all the right places. She was all Miss Congeniality until her chocolate brown eyes found Squall, which was when she turned mean and green like Aerith.
Irvine and Zell saw this with amusement and decided that staying might not be so bad afterall.
The snotty little princess ignored the 'Three Stoogies' by the kitchen, most especially the cutest one in her opinion, because he dared to imply that she liked the fact that he was coping a feel, which SHE DOESN'T, by the way. Okay, that's a semi-lie, but still, he was very disrespectful for pointing that out.
"Umm, my friends and I are about to go—"
The three guys felt dread rushing into their bloodstreams. This is it. One million hours of screaming kids and sticky pudding fingers and a lot of saliva...
"—out and we were wondering if there's a good place to have breakfast around here? Nobody wants to cook so we decided to just get something to eat outside."
"Seventh Heaven!" Squall almost screamed, Zell and Irvine jumping in action not a second later. The leader of the troop marched forward and grabbed Rinoa by the wrist, dragging her not too gently out of Aerith's door, "Let's go!"
"HEY!" Rinoa exclaimed, yanking her arm back in frustration. When Squall didn't let go, she looked at his friends who were smiling at her as if she just saved them from eternal damnation.
"We'll escort you personally! We know the owners! You might even get some discount!" the tall auburn haired man with a cowboy hat said, "Oh, as you might already know, I'm Irvine Kinneas."
"Zell Dincht!" the blonde one with a tattoo on his face pointed at himself. Rinoa frowned in confusion until she felt Squall let go of her hand.
"Rinoa? What's going on?" Selphie hopped out of the Mini Cooper's back upon seeing Rinoa and her entourage. Her eyes drifted from her friend to Squall and to the two newcomers, which was when her eyes went all wide, sparkly and hopeful, "They're coming to eat breakfast with us?!"
"Selphie, don't encourage them." Rinoa warned but the auburn haired guy hastily overtook her.
"Yes! We would be very honored to escort such beautiful ladies!" Irvine was already opening the Mini Cooper's back door, urging Selphie to step inside. Rinoa watched in abject horror as Selphie happily squealed during reentry, which reminded her of a lamb jumping eagerly into the lion's den. She desperately looked at Quistis for help.
"Rin," Her weary blue eyes peered from the driver's seat, "just let her be. I'm just too hungry to even care."
"But-but we're not gonna fit in the car!" Rinoa lamely argued, "Look! The guys are too tall! The car only seats three people in the back!"
She felt a hand settle on her shoulder and she didn't have to turn back to know who it was.
"Oh yes, we will." Squall said with a dangerous look in his eyes. Rinoa stared at him and for some reason she looked back to the cottage where, lo and behold, she found Aerith carefully assessing the situation from the doorway. Rinoa found herself smirking up at him in spite of herself.
"So that's how it is, huh? You are so whipped." Rinoa waltzed away in a more cheerful mood, rounding the hood to get to the passenger seat.
"What did you say?!" Squall can't believe this woman.
"Oh, you heard me." Rinoa nodded as she opened the door. If Squall thought that that was the end of it, he .mistaken.
She imitated the sound of a whip cracking.
Seventh Heaven is a warm-looking family diner a few shops away from Pub Desperado, owned by the young Strife couple. Townspeople were already buzzing in and out of the place when the loaded Mini Cooper came to a stop in the parking lot, and seeing this, the girls hesitated to come inside.
Seeing their uncertainty, and pretty much understanding the cause of it, Squall nonetheless unlocked his door and prepared to get out.
Rinoa stubbornly locked it back from the front. "No! It's too crowded. Somebody might recognize me!"
Aerith's explanation earlier together with Squall's own knowledge about the Heartilly-Caraway girl was more than enough to explain her actions. However, Squall didn't see any reason for her to be watching Seventh Heaven like it was some bloody crime scene.
"Look. Winhill is a small town. And if you really look closely, you'd see that people in here wouldn't actually care that you're some big shot celebrity in Deling."
When Rinoa stayed glued in the passenger seat in spite of that, Squall rolled his eyes.
"We're natives here, Rin!" Zell helpfully informed her, pertaining to Squall, Irvine and himself, "And they don't care!"
Rinoa didn't exactly understand what that meant.
"Mr. Leonhart, are you absolutely sure that Rinoa's not gonna be mobbed once she steps outside of the car?" Quistis looked like someone who actually pieced the puzzle together, or it can also be possible that she's just really hungry and was running out of patience.
"Yes. I always come here myself. Winhill is pretty much cut off from the big cities, so I doubt that they know who Rinoa is."
"Great!" Selphie manually unlocked her side of the car and jumped out, "Let's go troop! I'm starving."
And off they go, with a begrudging Rinoa, of course.
"Oh hey, Squall! You're in town, I see!"
The small group of six was only partially into the doors when a beautiful and, one must say, very pregnant brunette appeared out of nowhere carrying a coffee pot in her hands. Squall flashed her a warm smile before his friends almost tackled the pregnant woman with big hugs.
"TIFA!" Zell exclaimed.
"Oh look at you! As cute as a button!" Irvine looked at her up and down.
"Hey you fools! Get your grimy hands off my wife!" A spiky blonde head popped from the kitchen partition window, barking at the guys who suddenly had their hands on Tifa's rounded tummy. Rinoa saw that the blonde head came with a toned body of a soldier, which kind of threw her off the loop because he was also dressed haphazardly as a chef.
"You're still with this guy?" Irvine frowned as he continued to rub Tifa's belly under the disapproving glance of her husband.
"Of course." Tifa giggled conspiratorially.
The blonde chef threw a dirty towel at Irvine's direction.
Tifa laughed, giving her simmering husband a loving squeeze, "Cloud, baby. You know that he's baiting you, right?"
Cloud mumbled some obscene profanities that made Rinoa laugh.
"Oh." Cloud's irritation melted down a notch upon realizing Rinoa and the girls' presence. His blue eyes blinked at Rinoa for a minute too long that it made her nervous.
He turned to Squall, "New tenants?"
"Yeah. They wanted to have some good authentic Winhill breakfast so we brought them here."
Rinoa and her friends introduced themselves.
"Oh good. Welcome!" Cloud smiled proudly at them, jutting a thumb behind him for them to follow, "Tifa's gonna show you your seats. It's breakfast hour, so it's a little full, but we always have room for friends."
"Thank you, Mr. Strife." Rinoa bowed thankfully that Cloud started to blush.
"That's alright, Miss Rinoa. That's Cloud for you though." The blonde chef turned to shuffle his wife's head, "I'm gonna go back to the kitchen now. Don't work too hard."
Tifa nodded and seated them on the booth at the back, "So what are we having for today folks?"
Everyone politely gave their orders and soon, Tifa was happily walking back to her husband.
"So where are you guys going after breakfast?" Squall casually asked, just for the sake of keeping the conversational ball rolling. Selphie piped in almost immediately.
"Rinoa and I wanted to go to this waterfall that Aerith was talking about last night. She said that it's a highly recommended place and secluded too, but we're a little worried that the storm might have made it deeper than usual."
"Oh, Pinnacle Rocks? You'd be fine. When we were young, Squall, Irvine and I would always go there. We know every inch and every depth, we could go with you if you want." Zell suddenly stood up when Tifa come back bustling with the coffee pot. They began arguing about her working too hard. Tifa huffed and puffed until she was so red that she left them alone. Zell smirked at having won his first argument with a woman in a very long time. Rinoa noted this with an appreciative grin.
"What about turning it into a barbeque? We could bring a portable grill, some steaks and some beer and we'd be set!" Irvine looked at Selphie who was nodding at his every word, "Tell you what? In the spirit of a true Winhill welcome, all you ladies have to do is bring your suit and whatever girly stuff you need and leave the rest of the planning to us!"
"Oh wow, that's so sweet of you, Irvine!" Rinoa flashed him a grateful smile. The others were quick to agree.
"So it's decided then. We'll meet up in the round about at ten. We'll bring a black SUV and we'd convoy to Pinnacle Rocks from there. How's that, Quistis?"
"I've got no problem with that." Quistis sipped her coffee, hiding a smile, "Sounds like fun."
Ahhh, Pinnacle Rocks.
The gang arrived at the infamous waterfalls at a little pass eleven, because Irvine and Zell belatedly realized that they didn't own a working portable grill, and thus had to buy a new one in the local home goods store, which took a little more time than they would have liked. It was a good thing that they came a little late, however, because by now the sun was a bit higher, its tingly warmth perfectly melding with the slight cold that the storm left at its wake.
The group was clearly getting along well, that not even ten minutes after they arrived in the spot, there was a lot of milling around as they set things up: Selphie and Irvine were choosing the tunes bursting out of the SUV's loud speakers, Zell and Squall 'assembling' (arguing mostly) the grill while Quistis and Rinoa laughed at them in sheer fascination as they set their baskets under the shade of a tree. The meat was slowly cooking in the grill under Zell's supervision when Quistis decided to check things out for herself, leaving Rinoa sitting contently on the blanket, a smile gracing her lips as she looked at the clear blue waters of lake.
Ahh…this is a good way to spend one's time.
It is not often that her vacations turn out this way, and she was glad that this escape to Winhill proved to be worthwhile. She came here hoping for just a little bit of peace and quiet, just enough to clear her head, and she was beginning to think that somehow, this vacation was what she exactly needed.
"In coming!" A bottle of wine cooler appeared in the center of her vision and Rinoa gasped, grabbing it in time before it fell on her lap. Squall looked satisfied with himself as he plopped next to her, drinking a can of soda himself. Rinoa gave it a suspicious look, just enough for Squall to feel that he had to explain himself, "Designated driver."
"I see..." Rinoa twisted her bottle open and took a sip. The sharp strawberry felt so good on her throat, "Oh, this is great! Thanks!" She suddenly exclaimed.
Squall gave her an acknowledging nod.
They became silent for a bit.
"I'm sorry for this morning!" They blurted out at the same time.
There was some squabbling coming from the grill, the fire and charcoal cracking. Some pop music played gleefully in the background. Still somewhere, Irvine can be heard rapping to the beat of the stereo.
Blue-gray and chocolate brown eyes found themselves turned to each other…
They finally laughed.
"Oh Hyne, I'm really sorry for hitting you! And for calling you names...You really scared me, you know!" Rinoa glanced at him and when she found that she couldn't bear his gaze without making a fool out of herself, she pretended to be immersed by her bottle.
"It's fine. I am sorry too. I eventually found out that my friends dropped me off the night before. I was so wasted that I just fell asleep. Nothing else happened, I swear!"
Rinoa giggled at his panicked tone, now comfortable enough to look back. She met Squall's wonderfully cool blue once more and she blushed. Wow. He really has such delightfully clear eyes.
"Okay! Let's drink to that!"
Oh dammit, what am I saying? I'm definitely sending the wrong signals! Rinoa wanted to kick herself. Wait. WHAT signals? No. No. No. It's cool. It's not like I'd want to sleep him, right? NO! OF COURSE, I DO! Oh Hyne, just stop! Just click your bottle to his soda can and be done with it!
They did an awkward toast. Rinoa could have sworn that her face was redder than her strawberry wine cooler.
"So how is Deling City these days?" Squall mumbled.
Squall snorted behind his can.
"What I mean to say is that it's so-so." Rinoa quickly amended, "You know, Deling City being a usually dreary place and all..."
Hyne. I'm stuttering. Jeez. I sound like a goofball. This is so embarrassing.
"It wasn't raining when we left the city, so it was a surprise when we found Winhill so under the rain. I haven't even brought my umbrella, now that's a big problem right there." She continued, her heart ringing in her ears.
WUT? I'm such an idiot.
"I mean, we're going on a vacation and I don't have my umbrella? Hahahaha!" She finished with stiff laugh.
I'll just jump into the lake right now.
And there was this awkward silence again. Rinoa rubbed her finger on her moistened bottle, feeling so out of sorts. If only those media people can see her right now, maybe they'd realize how different she was from the rebellious girl that they'd continuously portrayed her to be. She often wondered what would happen if they knew…Would have they backed off, seeing how truly clumsy she was? Or truly sheltered? Naïve? She's twenty-five years old, and look at her, flushing like a kid! Or would they see it is as another opportunity to spin some tales from? Get a laugh at her expense?
Rinoa exhaled sharply at this. Hyne. There was no point. No point in thinking about what they think of her. Before she lost her guts, she suddenly stood up, her wine cooler falling and rolling across the gingham blanket. She was exhausted from all this thinking…it's been years of suffering this, this fear of disapproval. Or was it fear of rejection? Either way, it's too much!
I'm sick of it!
"Rinoa?" Squall looked at the fallen bottle then up to her determined stance.
I don't care anymore!
"I'm going for a swim!" Without turning back, she pulled off her dress and ran to the freezing water.
"RINOA!" With widened eyes, Squall shouted as she saw her jump in the air without a moment's hesitation and do the cannonball.
The water was cold! Dammit! Ahhhhhhh! Rinoa found her mind screaming as she sank deeper into the blue water. Remembering her lessons, she swung her arms out, swimming up to the surface. She opened her eyes, breaking out of the water, and the first thing that she saw was the blue skies. Then sun high up above. Next, she felt a cool, lazy breeze wafting passed her body…
She felt alive. She was still alive! And to this, without completely understanding the liberating emotion that embraced her, she smiled victoriously with outstretched arms.
"The water's awesome!" She shouted at five faces that looked back at her as if she just lost her mind.
"Come on guys!" She waved at her friends, who were still processing what they witnessed.
Selphie was the first to break into a smile. Nodding in comprehension, she stripped into her buttercup yellow bikini and bounded towards the direction of the lake. Naturally, Irvine followed suit—he was one who never missed a thing. Quistis was next, shooting from Squall's back wearing a one-piece pink suit. Nobody didn't think that she had it in her, but she jumped into the water without any hesitation as well. Zell came next, making whooping sounds and flipping in the air with his blue and red Hawaiian board shorts…
And then it was Squall's turn.
He actually didn't understand what happened, or what was happening, but something…something in Rinoa's determination before running into the water left an impression inside him. He knew that she was nervous around him, it was quite understandable given the misunderstanding that morning, but then, something just happened. Something happened the exact moment she emerged from the lake. Something…(how can he exactly explain this...) beautiful? She had this smile on…the most dazzling one, like a smile that someone carried when they've finally understood the mysteries of the universe. It was infectious, daring, and so uplifting, it was hard to fight the hope that suddenly sprung all over his body and gripped his heart.
"SQUALL! COME ON!"
There it is again, more powerful this time, because at this moment, it was directed at him.
"COME ON!" She yelled again.
Everybody started playing around, splashing at the first person that they first saw, sputtering, hollering. Squall found himself grinning as he stood up, stripping off his shirt and tossing it behind him. He still couldn't put a finger on what was exactly happening, all he knew was that there was something…
Something has definitely changed.
"COME ON! WHAT ARE YOU WAITING FOR?!"
Squall could almost hear her imitating the sound of a cracking whip once more.
He laughed all the way while running towards the lake.