Waltzing in the Rain


Chapter Four: Man to Man

Squall returned to the room he was sharing with Zell and Irvine and changed into some dry clothes. By the time he and Rinoa had come back inside, everyone had already gone to the dining hall; they thought they were being sneaky, but he knew better. Drying his hair with a towel, Squall took note of the room's condition. Zell had apparently already moved in, with his magazines and video tapes stacked neatly beside his cologne and his plethora of hair care products on the dresser. Pulling open a drawer just a bit, Squall wasn't surprised to see Zell's clothing folded neatly and put away. Squall spared a glance over at the closet. He was fairly certain that if he looked inside, he'd find the rest of Zell's wardrobe hanging up. If there was one thing you could never call Zell, it was disorganized.

Irvine, on the other hand, could live out of a travel bag. He'd done it during the war and he still did it today. The only reason Irvine's closet at Garden was even remotely presentable was because his poor cleaning and organization skills had driven Zell crazy—crazy enough that Zell had shown up to Irvine's room unannounced with a bag full of clothes hangers and cleaning supplies. As punishment for his sloppiness, Zell took every backpack, travel bag, and duffel bag he could find stashed away in Irvine's dorm. He then used them to help start a bonfire on the beach. Of course Irvine had just gone out and bought a replacement bag. It had, however, taken him over a month to save enough gil to do so.

Running a brush through his damp hair, Squall raised the flap of Irvine's leather travel bag with his foot. He remembered when Irvine had bought it. Selphie had been so upset he'd spent more on a bag than he had for her birthday. Sure, he might've over-paid by a few hundred gil to get the fancy leather inlay look, but even Squall had to admit that with all the compartments the bag had, it was extremely versatile and durable.

Leaving the bag where it lay, Squall walked back across the room and dropped his brush into his duffel bag. He kept his bag packed out of habit, enjoying the feeling of knowing he could leave in a moment's notice if he needed to. Running his fingers through his hair one last time, he stepped out into the hallway and started walking toward the sound of the gang's voices.

"Wait up!" Rinoa called after him.

He turned in time to see her catch up to him. She offered him a smile as she slid her arm through his. Her hair was pulled up and a few damp strands hung around her face. The neckline of her tank top sat a little low on her chest, making the rings she wore around her neck rest delicately against her pale skin. Squall offered her a small smile. Sure he was hungry, but she looked really pretty. She seemed to be sharing his line of thought because she gave him a knowing smile.

While they'd yet to become an overly intimate couple like he was certain Irvine imagined they were, Squall wouldn't deny that they did enjoy each other's company. He hesitated, sparing a glance back toward his room. He really needed to think about something besides how soft and unblemished her skin was. She'd gone through a war with him and she still looked like a perfect porcelain doll.

"We shouldn't go in there," Rinoa whispered, pulling him out of his thoughts. "Things might ….happen," she teased him by using Laguna's words against him.

Had she read his mind or was he just letting his feelings and emotions run unchecked? "Maybe I want things to happen," Squall spoke quietly.

Rinoa grinned, biting down on her bottom lip gently. Squall looked away, she was killing him. She watched him, amused. "They would notice our absence," she told him.

"They wouldn't if we didn't spend five minutes in the hall debating it," he whispered.

She tucked a few strands of hair back. "We need to go eat before our food gets cold."

He frowned faintly.

"You said yourself you were hungry earlier."

"I can wait a few more minutes."

She smiled. "I'm sure you can. But I don't like being hungry."

So it was okay for him to be hungry while they played in the rain but not her while they played back in one of the guest rooms? He sighed, making a show of looking put out but not really being surprised. "It's not fair," he said quietly as they resumed walking.

"Not fair?" she whispered. "Not fair is me getting to feel all of your …excited urges through our connection."

Squall avoided eye contact with her as they walked. His cheeks felt a little warm but he wasn't going to acknowledge it. "I'm sorry I haven't figured out how to block out my urges and emotions," he told her. "I promise to figure it out as soon as possible."

She pushed him playfully, her arm still tucked under his. "Don't you dare," she warned him. "I enjoy being able to understand a little of what is going on in your head."

Squall smiled just slightly as they stepped into the dining hall. At least she wasn't creeped out by him when she did get him aroused. He just had to make a mental note to never, ever, let Irvine convince him to look at any of his magazines. The last thing he wanted was to have to explain to Rinoa why he was excited and she wasn't there.

"Oh my gosh!" Rinoa gasped, covering her mouth before pulling away from him and rushing forward. Squall followed her, curious as to what she was so excited about. And then he saw it.

"We have cake!" Laguna practically sang as he gestured toward the middle of the table.

"Is this not the prettiest cake you've ever seen or what?!" Selphie asked as she bounced in her seat.

"Is this really for me?" Rinoa asked as she admired the purple and teal tiers adorned with delicate looking gum paste feathers.

"A little bird said it was your birthday," Laguna told her from his seat with a smile.

Rinoa smiled broadly, going over to Laguna and throwing her arms around his shoulders before going to Selphie and wrapping her in an exaggerated hug as well. Squall quietly sat down while the two girls bounced in their shared moment of joy. He wanted to be put out that he hadn't been the cause of Rinoa's joy, but he couldn't help but wonder what the effects of so much sugar was going to be on the girls if they were already so wound up.

After finishing supper, cutting into the cake, and following Laguna through the residential wing of the palace on a tour of things to do, the gang finally retired to their respective rooms.

"This cake is borderline sinful," Quistis commented as she closed her eyes and sat her fork on her plate.

"Quite possibly the best cake I've ever had in my life," Selphie agreed as she adjusted herself on the edge of her bed and took another bite of her piece.

"I can't believe Laguna did this for my birthday," Rinoa told them as she brushed Quistis's hair and started working on a braid.

"It was just a cake," Quistis smiled.

"A beautiful, amazing cake," Selphie smiled, bouncing a little as she ate.

Quistis watched her out of the corner of her eye. "Okay it was pretty amazing," she admitted, wondering just how much cake Selphie had actually consumed.

Rinoa was quiet as she worked on Quistis' braid. "If I didn't just know you told him, I would have expected Squall to tell him. You know, use me as a diversion so Laguna wouldn't be totally focused on him."

Quistis chuckled. "I could see that."

"Well either way, the cake turned out so much better than I ever would've imagined," Selphie smiled broadly. "Especially considering I told him yesterday."

"Oh wow," Rinoa smiled. "That was short notice for a cake that big."

"Well when you're the President of Esthar you can get things done," Quistis offered.

"This is seriously the best cake ever. I expect a cake like this for my next birthday. Seriously, don't let Irvy plan anything. Go straight to Laguna and tell him I want a big yellow cake with chocobos on it. No wait! Trains. Why not chocobos riding on trains?" Selphie grinned.

"Why not just have both?" Rinoa smiled.

"That works too. Just make sure Irvy doesn't plan it. He's kind of a tight-wad when it comes to spending gil."

Quistis grinned. "I can't believe you're still sore over that. He bought you a cute little pendant."

"Little being the operative word there," Selphie reminded her. "Hey Quisty, where did you disappear to after you finished eating?" she changed the subject.

"I sat with Ellone for a while," Quistis replied as Rinoa continued braiding her hair. "She didn't look like she was feeling well."

"Well she wasn't at the dinner table," Rinoa pointed out.

"Laguna said she'd been sick most of the week," Selphie said as she sat her empty plate aside and reached down to stroke Angelo's fur.

"She definitely looked it," Quistis assured her.

"So she's just been cooped up in her room all week?" Rinoa asked.

"She hasn't been alone," Quistis offered.

"Squall does complain he feels smothered by Laguna," Rinoa chuckled.

"It hasn't been him. It's been her white knight."

"Ellone has a white knight?" Selphie asked.

"…What's a white knight?" Rinoa asked, finishing Quistis's hair and giving her a mirror to look at it.

Quistis smiled at her reflection. "Apparently, he's the only White SeeD from the SeeD ship to survive the war," she informed them. "Ellone gave him the title when she realized he was alive. His survival was actually a fluke. The other SeeDs onboard thought that he and Ellone had grown too close so they ditched him at a harbor and told her that he'd been reassigned. He reported back to Garden, but wasn't reunited with her until after everything was over. He acts as her bodyguard here."

"Does he have a name?" Selphie asked.

"I believe its Jasper, but I'm not entirely sure how well Jasper and Laguna get along," Quistis admitted. "One man has been protecting Ellone for ten years, the other one wants to take over protecting her now to make up for lost time. Ellone admitted that she was relieved that Squall was here. She said he would distract Laguna and Jasper from questioning each other all the time."

"Well if all they do is question each other then I guess things aren't that bad," Rinoa stated, playing with the loose ends of Quistis's hair. "It isn't fair you have such pretty hair."

Quistis smiled. "Thanks."

"Do you think Ellone would like more company?" Selphie asked.

"Not tonight. When I left she was turning in for the evening."

"Oh," she pouted momentarily. "Oh well, maybe tomorrow."

"Tomorrow Zell and I are going to one of the science museums here," Quistis told her. "If Ellone is feeling well enough we're going to try to get her to come along. You guys should join us. I can't imagine what all will be in an Estharian science museum."

Selphie smiled. "I'd love to but can't. Irvy and I have plans tomorrow. We're meeting some friends and getting a tour of the city. Well…you know, a post-war tour. I'm going to grab a new camcorder while I'm out. I want to document everything."

Rinoa smiled. "I'm probably going to just hang out around the palace," she admitted. "Because you know Squall will go wherever I go and the whole purpose of this weekend is to get him to talk to his father more."

"You could always take Sir Laguna with you," Selphie grinned as she picked up the bedroom a bit.

Rinoa chuckled. "I'm sure that would go over well. He'd be this clumsy, intrusive chaperone, inadvertently making everything awkward and embarrassing Squall to the point of blushing."

"Sounds like a plan to me," Quistis laughed. "Just make sure to get lots of pictures of Squall's discomfort." Rinoa and Selphie laughed at the thought as they began tidying up their room and getting ready for bed.

Down the hall, Squall wasn't having nearly as much fun as Rinoa was. Despite Irvine and Zell's complaints, he laid awake on the little couch that sat closest to their open bedroom door and listened. Every now and then he might catch a muffled bit of laughter from the girls but that was it. The palace was very, very quiet. Regardless, he didn't trust a guard to try to pull something in the middle of the night so he lay awake, vigilant.

Across the room, Zell snored while Irvine stuffed a pillow over his head and rolled over to go back to sleep. Squall watched them quietly in the darkness. Clearly they didn't know how to have the same level of fun as the girls. They'd gone to their room, looked through weapon magazines, looked up what blacksmiths and gunsmiths they could find in the directory, and then debated whether or not Zell needed to lose the overbearing and annoying library girl. Irvine had been convinced that Zell could find a slightly less obsessive girl that would be alright with giving him the freedom to do his own thing. Squall, however, was sticking to his theory that the chances of finding another woman willing to put up with his annoyingness were slim to none, so he shouldn't be picky.

While his statement had gotten Zell worked up like he'd intended, Squall did start to wonder if he was overbearing towards Rinoa. Irvine definitely seemed to think so. He adjusted his pillow, crossing his arms over his chest as he let out a huff. His hair fell into his face and tickled his nose. He brushed it aside and closed his eyes. After everything they'd been through and the number of people that had tried to hurt all of them in the past year—had it been a year since they met? Almost. It had been eleven months, three weeks, and one—no, two—days.

He brushed his hair back again. It was getting long. Selphie was starting to joke that he was starting to look like Laguna. That was a scary thought. He furrowed his brow, staring at the dark ceiling. Where had the time gone? It was hard to believe that eight months had passed since he'd led the charge that took down the evil sorceress Ultimecia. Dreams of her still haunted his sleep sometimes. He understood why Seifer struggled to relax, he had a similar problem himself. The war had changed them both but Squall felt like he was the only one that couldn't get out of mercenary mode. He hoped Rinoa understood he wasn't trying to be controlling. Everything he did was out of fear. He wasn't afraid for himself. If he needed to, he could still survive on his own. He was afraid for her. He was afraid someone would try to hurt her, and in defending herself she might be burned at the stake or frozen for a century for using her powers.

Despite his attempts to stay awake, Squall eventually succumbed to sleep. He didn't wake until around dawn, but when he did, he woke with a start. Nearly tumbling off the couch, Squall found his feet and peered out of the bedroom door. Leaning against the doorframe, he closed his eyes and focused on Rinoa. From what he could feel through their connection, she was relaxed. She must've been sleeping. That put him at ease. Maybe everyone else was right, maybe he was still having a hard time adjusting to regular life.

While most of the residence wing seemed quiet, he could make out the sound of a Galbadian talk show playing down the hall. He stepped out into the hallway and followed the faint glow in the distance. His bare feet were soundless on the plush carpet as he came up behind Laguna on the couch. He couldn't tell if he was asleep or not. Squall stepped around the edge of the couch, startling Laguna.

"Holy Geezard!" Laguna exclaimed as he leapt up from the couch.

Squall watched him silently as he stumbled backwards and fell into the armchair next to the couch. "…Morning," he said, more amused than he was certain was socially appropriate.

"Good morning," Laguna said, moving a hand to his chest as he steadied his breathing. "H-have a seat," he smiled. "You scared me."

"I noticed," Squall replied, sparing a glance around before sitting on the couch.

A silence settled between them that was only interrupted by the laughter of the television show's audience. While Squall was enjoying the silence, it seemed to bother Laguna. He kept shifting around as if he were uncomfortable. "So the Estharian President watches Galbadian talk shows?"

Laguna turned it off and offered a sheepish shrug. "Estharian television isn't really that entertaining," he offered. He scooted forward a bit in his chair and shifted around. He was so fidgety that he was making Squall feel fidgety himself. Squall took interest in a dim little corner lamp that was currently the only light source in the room. For an Estharian residence, Laguna seemed to have gone out of his way to make it appear as Galbadian as possible.

"You look like your mother," Laguna said quietly. Squall continued staring at the lamp. What was he supposed to say to that? Expressing relief he wouldn't look like his father seemed inappropriate. Not that he cared, but he just didn't want to chance making the older man cry and then chancing things getting really awkward. "I don't blame you for not wanting anything to do with me," he offered. "I was never there, and compared to the people you're surrounded by, I probably come off as a blabbering fool."

Squall nodded. He wasn't too far off.

Laguna cleared his throat and looked down. "Anyway, um… Ellone's excited you're here," he said lamely. "Do you want a drink? I could use a drink."

"I don't drink," Squall stated.

Laguna paused before chuckling nervously. "I didn't mean that kind of drink. It's a little early...Not that I would blame you if you did," he mumbled.

Squall just stared at him. This conversation wasn't going very well.

"I have orange juice, tea, and some water. Breakfast should be ready in about an hour. Or I could have the kitchen send something up…"

Laguna was grasping at straws and Squall found it pathetic. "You abandoned her," he stated flatly.

"I… what?" Laguna asked, surprised by the accusation.

"Why bother marrying her if you were just going to leave her?" Squall pressed, still comfortably sitting on the couch.

"I didn't leave her. I went after Elle," Laguna told him.

"But you never went back."

"I sent Ellone back-"

"But not yourself," Squall continued pressing. "These people, this palace, were more important to you."

"That is not true!" Laguna defended himself.

"Then why weren't you there?" he challenged him, abruptly standing. Squall was certain he would've commanded more respect had he been wearing something other than cactuar pajama pants and a snarky Moomba t-shirt that Rinoa had packed for him that said, 'talk to the paw.'

"I was helping the people here…"

"You wonder why I don't like most people? It's because most people are just like you. They're never there when you need them. If you don't count on anyone you can't be let down when they put other people and other things before you."

Laguna looked down as he clenched his leg. He didn't really have an escape route from this conversation; Squall was between him and the only way out.

"I was raised in an orphanage," he stated. "Slept in a room full of other boys, and when it stormed I had to share my bed with Seifer because he was too afraid to sleep alone." Squall paused at that. It was almost as if he'd remembered that for the first time. Maybe refraining from using GFs was helping to restore his memory. "And Ellone?" he accused. "She grew up on a ship full of men."

"I get it! I get it! I was a lousy husband and father," Laguna conceded.

"I was adopted once," Squall told him, not moved by his confession.

"…You were?" Laguna asked. "You have an, adoptive mother and father?"

Squall wondered if the thought of that intimidated him. He hoped it did.

"For a while," he shrugged. "Pops was an accountant, Ma was a career hobbyist. She made stupid stuff with driftwood and shells to sell at Balamb's summer festival. They had another kid who was a brat and we didn't get along. They sent me back. Didn't like my bad attitude."

"Oh, I'm sorry," Laguna offered.

"It was the longest week and a half of my life. They were idiots anyway," he said, crossing his arms.

"But it wouldn't have happened had I went back to Winhill," Laguna said quietly.

Squall shrugged it off. He personally didn't want to imagine himself being raised to act like Laguna. He fought a shudder at the thought.

"You're right though. I could've taken her with me. I should've," he admitted. "But with her being pregnant we wouldn't have gotten far. Not with the war and all the monsters…." Laguna sighed, clearly frustrated. He didn't say anymore but Squall had already figured up all the conceivable outcomes to that scenario. "I know you don't think it, but I loved her," he told him. "I loved her and Ellone more than life itself. I don't need you assigning me blame for everything that's happened. I've been holding myself accountable for it for years.

"Kiros and Ward are both married," he told him. "Ward's been married for nearly seventeen years. Kiros did the live-in relationship thing for a few years first. They've both got families and everything. It sucks watching everything from the outside. …I tried to date once. But the first time I made the woman laugh, all I could think about was how much pain I'd caused Raine in the end. I couldn't allow myself to make anyone else happy after what I did to her."

Squall was quiet, oddly appeased by the thought of Laguna living miserable for the past eighteen years.

"I understand how you feel about Rinoa," Laguna's voice interrupted Squall's thoughts. "You're not exactly an emotional or social person. You're a little messed up upstairs," Laguna informed him.

Squall scowled.

"But in spite of that, you're serious about Rinoa. You're a lot more serious than most teenage boys are," he added. "Hell, you're more devoted than most adult men are. You went into space. Not just on a ship but like, jumped into space. And when you came back down you were willing to take on the Estharian Government to protect her. If I was half as good to Raine, she would've never died like she did."

"You're hardly a doctor," Squall offered, starting to feel a little bad.

"No but I could've held her hand 'til the end dammit," Laguna looked away. Squall could tell the older man was on the verge of tears. "And look at you," he gestured toward Squall.

Squall shifted a bit. With the waterworks going he wasn't entirely certain how to handle this situation.

"You're an adult now. We have absolutely no history, nothing in common...nothing. And yet here you are and I keep messing everything up every time we're in the same room. My problem is that I don't know how to treat you. The failed father in me wants to smother you like a super spoiled child and make up for the years I wasn't there, but the President in me just tells me to back off because we're both adults and are living separate lives."

Squall was quiet. To be completely honest, while he complained about Laguna's harassing phone calls and smothering habits, he did enjoy the attention a little bit. It was an attention he'd never had before. He blamed Rinoa's emotions for making him soft. "Just treat me as an adult," he stated.

"I can do that," Laguna responded.

Squall doubted he could but he nodded regardless. "Which means letting me and Rinoa live together without you making a fuss."

Laguna frowned.

"You let Kiros do it," he stated.

"I didn't say I didn't protest," Laguna said, grinning just slightly. Squall wasn't sure he could imagine it.

"We have a bond. A connection," Squall admitted, changing the subject a bit. He didn't need a repeat of yesterday. "She's a sorceress I'm her knight. I protect her and support her. I help her maintain her direction in life. We have a complex emotional bond. She can feel what I feel and I can feel what she feels. Sometimes it feels like I'm being bombarded by the flashes of emotion that course through her mind. We can't share thoughts or anything, but sometimes if we try hard enough it almost feels like we can share intentions."

Laguna nodded. "Odine mentioned a bond. I just thought that it was some sort of spell the sorceress would cast over her knight."

"You don't speak to Odine about Rinoa," Squall said sharply. "He cannot be trusted."

"He's a little crazy," Laguna conceded.

"He's a dirty, manipulative madman," Squall corrected him. "He cannot be trusted with anything."

Laguna nodded, not about to argue. "If you don't trust him, I'll make sure to keep him out of all of our affairs."

Squall nodded, smiling just faintly. The one good thing about Laguna was that he was sentimental.

"Do you really believe he'd still try to lock her up after all this time?" Laguna couldn't help but ask.

"That or run some kind of tests on her," he admitted.

Laguna frowned. "I won't allow him to do that."

"Neither will I," Squall stated. He'd already proven time and again he'd chance dying for her, and he doubted at this point that anyone would think he was bluffing. "I know you guys were watching us last night," Squall informed him.

"What?! Oh yeah I was just looking to see where you'd run off to. You can't just take off running and expect a fellow military man not to think something was wrong," Laguna said, playing it off.

"I saw Selphie's camcorder."

"You saw that?" he asked sheepishly.

"It didn't record our conversation did it?" Squall asked.

Laguna shook his head. "No. Why?"

"Because Rinoa proposed to me."

Author's Notes: First of all I'd like to thank everyone who's been reading my story. Even if you don't review, the traffic count still gets me excited. lol Something interesting I have noticed is that since I've started participating in both the Where I Belong and the Where I Belong Inspired challenges, the traffic to my old story Darkened Ice has jumped up. I'm getting just as many hits on it as I am this story. It's kind of crazy to think that I first started posting chapters to that story almost ten years ago.

I would like to credit Bebedora for helping me come up with a way to finish off the first section of this chapter. I was really hung up on what Laguna was going to have for Rinoa, so I just swiped an idea from her Phoenix story and I let him serve cake. :) I would also like to pay tribute to Ashbear for the inspiration of the Moomba shirt I included in this chapter. Had she not suggested it, I would've never developed the colorful little back story for why Squall had to wear it.

I would also like to thank my muse. While I felt like I had edited this chapter to the point in which it couldn't be edited any more, she was still tasked with proofreading it and making necessary corrections. But then after she'd edited, I made the mistake of teasing her about an error she'd missed... This chapter was supposed to be up by last Tuesday but after my playful criticism she snatched the chapter back up and told me not to post it until she could have another round at editing it. Four more days of editing later, we've both deemed chapter four as finished as it's ever going to be. I hope you enjoy.