Chapter XVI

"So, how was the trip to Deling City?" Ellone asked, pouring Squall a cup of coffee.

"Fine," He answered noncommittally. Ellone snorted at this and added sugar and cream to her coffee before sitting down at her dining room table. Squall joined her moments later and took a sip of his as he sat down.

"Are you going to elaborate?" Ellone asked, eyebrows raised. She smiled gently at Squall's frown of confusion, and clarified, "I just want to know how things went, that's all. It's not every day my little brother flies halfway across the world after a girl."

"Oh," Squall said, then sighed and looked away for a moment. Ellone had left the shades on the glassed doors leading to her balcony partially opened, and Esthar's blinding sunlight streamed into her dining room. But his mind was on the gray, rain washed skies of Deling City that he'd left behind a week ago. It had rained so hard that both he and Rinoa had thought that his flight would be cancelled. He was almost disappointed when the weather cleared sufficiently for the aircraft to continue with its flight. Not only that, it even managed to be on time.

"You miss her, don't you?" Ellone asked, smiling slightly at his distraction. It wasn't hard to guess at where his mind had gone; for once, his expression gave it away completely. She'd never thought she'd see such a mixture of sadness and longing on his face…ever.

Squall snapped his head around and focused on Ellone with a frown, his gaze boring into her eyes with its usual intensity. Then he sighed again and nodded slightly, taking another sip of his coffee.

"Yeah. I do." He finally answered.

"Then she must be someone very special. Will you tell me about her?" Ellone pressed.

Squall hesitated for a moment to gather his thoughts, then said, "Her name is Rinoa. Rinoa Heartilly. She….. Well she was a client but…there was a bit of a mix-up. Anyway, she ended up with me and…"

Ellone hid a smile at Squall's rather awkward answer, saying, "I know how you met her, I just want to know what she's like."

Squall frowned and fell silent, then dropped his gaze into his cup of coffee. Finally he said softly with a half-smile, "her smile would melt a polar icecap. It was the first thing I thought, when I saw it."

Ellone smiled happily at this, and urged him, "Go on."

The half-smile turned wistful, and Squall continued, "She's beautiful, of course. She has long, black hair that feels like liquid silk when I run my fingers through it. Her skin reminds me of the petals of a Blush Rose; soft as velvet, and white with just a faint hint of pink on her cheeks.. She's little, you know. Small, petite…." Squall glanced at Ellone and smiled gently at her, "about your size, actually."

Ellone laughed softly at this, and reached across the table to take his hand. His fingers automatically curled around hers and squeezed gently.

"She sounds wonderful." Ellone smiled at him. "And it sounds like she's captured your heart."

Squall looked away for a moment, uncomfortable. "I….wouldn't know about that. I mean…I've never…" He swallowed, unable to verbalize what he was feeling.

Ellone squeezed his hand, regaining his attention. When she had it, she said gently, "I know. Tell me more about her."


"I want to see her through your eyes. I want to know what kind of person she is." Ellone answered, adding mentally, I want to know more about this young woman whom you've obviously fallen in love with. I want to know if she's someone who will recognize how truly fragile your heart actually is.

Squall fell silent for a moment, then grinned suddenly and said, "She asked me out to a Bears playoff game. She works for them doing P.R. stuff and had two tickets and access to the owner's private box."

Ellone laughed, delighted, "You saw that playoff game? In the owner's own box? What was it like?"

"It was great! We had so much fun!" Squall answered, still grinning. "She has this…quirk I guess you'd call it. She'll mouth off like crazy while the game is going on, but she never actually uses any swear words. It's really funny and kind of cute."

Ellone's smile broadened and she prompted him, "What else?"

"Well, she has a dog. A Galbadian Shepherd mix named Angelo. And she likes cartoons, which I thought was kind of weird at first. I mean, she's an adult, but she still gets a kick out of watching Marky Moomba. She has a kind of silly sense of humor too, from what I've seen. She must get it from the cartoons." Squall said.

"She likes Marky Moomba?" Ellone asked, surprised. "Did you watch some with her?"

"Yeah. It was odd at first. I didn't get it and thought it kind of silly. But…that's kind of the point, isn't it? Just silly fun?" Squall asked, glancing at Ellone.

"Yes, it is. I'm glad you were able to spend time with her and get to know her." Ellone said, smiling gently, then asked him, "When are you going to see her again? I know you miss her."

Squall nodded, not bothering to deny it, then sighed, "I don't know. I've got a lot of stuff going on here that I need to keep on top of. At least for the time being. But I do need to go back to Galbadia, sometime in the next week or so."

"Oh?" Ellone asked, catching the word need rather than want.

Squall looked away again and answered quietly, "I want to go back Ellone. To stay. But there are some things that I need to arrange first. I need a place to live and something to do. I've got a few things pending but I'll have to go back to Deling City to finalize them. So it would be a business trip. And….I might not have time to see Rinoa while I'm there."

"Squall." Ellone said, squeezing his hand again. "Make the time. Go do what you need to do little brother, with my blessing. I'll be fine."

Squall smiled and squeezed her hand back, saying, "Thanks Sis."

"Just one thing," Ellone stopped him as he started to get up.

"What?" He asked.

"Bring her back here as soon as you can arrange it so I can meet her." Ellone answered.

"Okay." Squall said, nodding.

Ellone set her coffee cup down and crossed over to him, sliding her arms around his waist in a warm hug. Squall gently hugged her back and kissed the top of her head.

"Have a good day at work Squall." Ellone told him.

"You too. I'll talk to you later Sis."

"Is he still calling you every night?" Quistis asked Rinoa as she poked her fork into her salad.

"Well, not every night. Sometimes he gets held up and can't, so he emails. The time zone thing's a real pain." Rinoa answered, paying her own lunch scant attention, instead taking a sip from her iced tea.

"Hey, at least he's trying. I'm actually kind of surprised. I mean, granted I don't know the guy, but he didn't look like the sort that would do that. Especially not every night for what…two weeks now? I'm impressed. Obviously he's more than just a pretty face." Selphie commented, taking a long slurp from her chocolate-strawberry-peanut butter smoothie.

"So I've heard," Quistis quipped with a smirk. "Incessantly and in detail. I still can't believe that you ogled Rinoa's boyfriend long enough to commit every detail of his anatomy to memory."

Selphie giggled and Rinoa's cheeks reddened. The boyfriend part was still a little bit in question, and she hadn't had time to get that question answered…and didn't want to ask it over the phone with time and distance between her and Squall.

Calming herself with a great deal of effort, Selphie managed with only a slight giggle in her voice, "I was not ogling. I was appreciating. That body of his is a work of art!"

Quistis nodded, "Granted, though I didn't have quite as good a view of him as you did." Turning toward Rinoa with a smile, Quistis added, "That picture you took of him at the hockey game is beyond adorable. If you want we can print it out from my printer. I have some leftover photo paper."

"I'd like that," Rinoa smiled back.

"Great! You can put his adorableness in a frame on your desk!" Selphie chirped up happily, prompting Quistis and Rinoa both to laugh.

Selphie and Quistis had convinced Rinoa to come out with them for lunch, and while they ate, grilled her mercilessly about Squall and the State Of Their Relationship. They were fascinated by how things had developed so far and were ecstatic over Rinoa's apparent happiness... when she wasn't missing Squall more than she'd ever missed anyone, including Allyn, in her life.

And at least Rinoa knew it was a relationship. Squall had made that clear the morning that he'd left. Her mind drifted off, remembering that morning…

It had been cold and rainy, and she'd had a sudden, selfish hope that the flight would be cancelled and Squall would have to stay another night. They'd both been standing in the airport, waiting for his final boarding call, staring out the huge windows. When she'd snuck a look at Squall as he'd gazed out at the rain sheeting down onto the tarmac, she couldn't decipher his expression however, and it left her slightly worried. Maybe he was happy to go home?

She found herself sifting through a hundred, a thousand things to say to him…anything to break the silent constraint that had fallen between them…and discarding them all, unable to verbalize what she was feeling. Aside from bereft, that was.

Then his large hand closed gently over hers, and she wanted to weep at the warmth that seemed to radiate up her arm and right into her heart. The rain chose that moment to peter out and stop, and Rinoa's heart sank. It was better than an hour still before his flight was due to take off, and she knew how quickly weather could clear and runways could dry in the early spring. His flight might end up only slightly delayed, rather than cancelled.

"Rinoa?" He asked her softly. When she turned to face him, his expression softened. "You okay?"

She blinked and took a deep, shaky breath. Feeling a stray drop of moisture leak from the corner of her eye, she tried to duck away to hide it but Squall wasn't having it and stopped her by cupping her cheek and catching the tear on his thumb.

"I'm…not very good with farewells…" Rinoa finally mumbled in explanation.

Squall's response was a rueful snort, then a deep sigh before he replied, "Neither am I, actually."

"So…how do we do this? How do we say good-bye?" Rinoa asked him helplessly, gazing pleadingly into his eyes and getting lost in their azure depths once again. How do I let you go without begging you to stay? Without telling you I love you?

Squall's hand, still cupping Rinoa's cheek, caressed it gently. Then he brushed his thumb over her bottom lip, prompting her to open her mouth slightly.

Finally he murmured softly, "We don't."

"What? But…" Rinoa protested, but his fingers on her lips stilled her.

"This isn't good-bye for me. I don't care how much distance we have between us. I will come back for you, as often as I can, for as long as you want me to. It kills me to leave you, but right now at least, I don't have a choice. But I want to make this work, if you're…willing to work with me…" Squall said softly, watching her closely.

"You…. So you want to…what, have a long distance relationship with me? How? How do we even…?" Rinoa asked him, biting her lip anxiously.

"I don't now. But I'm willing to try and figure it out. Like I said, I'll try to fly out here as often as I can, and maybe if you have some time off, you can come see me in Esthar too. Just tell me when and I'll set up the flight." Squall said.

"You don't have to.." Rinoa began, but Squall's fingers silenced her again.

"Shh.. I want to. Just say the word and I'll have a plane ticket waiting for you." He said firmly.

Rinoa swallowed, then smiled, "Alright then, I will."

"Good," he said, then fell silent, mind and heart getting all tangled up again, leaving him struggling to sort out what he wanted to say and what he felt. He told his mind to shut up and let his heart lead. His heart told him to kiss her. He knew better than to argue, not that he'd have done so anyway, and tugged on Rinoa's hand, pulling her closer.

She saw his intent and raised her lips to meet his, eyes drifting closed. He started slowly, lips gently settling over hers as he pulled her flush against his body. He tasted, he teased, his lips sliding wetly across hers, tongue sneaking in to tantalize and inflame. And it was suddenly only that; just the kiss, the taste and texture and feel of it, the heat of her body against his. Her fingers clutching at his shoulders while his arms tightened around her and pressed her close.

Eventually they came up for air, completely oblivious to the fact that they'd attracted the attention of Squall's fellow passengers, who were waiting just as Squall was, for boarding to be announced.

Leaning his forehead against hers and closing his eyes, Squall whispered, "I'm going to miss you."

Tears pricked at Rinoa's eyes as she swallowed and managed in a thin, but mostly steady whisper, "Me too…"

Squall opened his eyes and pulled back a bit, lifting his hands from her waist to caress Rinoa's cheeks, gaze still locked with hers. An echoing announcement from the PA was mostly ignored while they remained focused on each other. Then Rinoa leaned forward and buried her face into his chest while he hugged her tightly and kissed her hair.

"I'll call you," he whispered into her hair, making Rinoa want to weep into his shirt. "When I land. And…every night I can. You know, the time zones…we might miss each other…"

"That's okay. I'll call you if we miss each other." Rinoa said, voice muffled by her face being pressed into his chest. The airport's PA sounded again with another announcement, which Squall heard with only half an ear…until he saw the other passengers queuing up to board.

Feeling his tension, Rinoa raised her head and saw the line, swallowing. Squall was gazing at the line of passengers with a pensive and slightly sad expression on his face.

"I have to go." Squall said, turning back to her.

"I know." She managed, stepping away so that he could take his place in the rapidly diminishing line. He slung the carry-bag that had been resting at his feet over his shoulder in preparation.

He hesitated a moment, at a loss of what to say next, then finally said, "I'll…I'll talk to you later."

"I hope so. Have a safe flight," Rinoa said, trying hard not to let the tears stinging her eyes fall. Squall frowned slightly, seeing them, but could do nothing but nod as the flight attendant began to urge him to make greater haste toward the jetway. He reluctantly turned away and left.

"Hello! Ground control to Rinoa? Where'd you go?" Selphie was saying, finally pulling Rinoa back from her memories.

"I…I was…" she began lamely, and then stopped, not wanting to share that memory with her friends.

"Never mind Selphie, I can guess even if you can't." Quistis said dryly. Then she smiled at Rinoa and asked, "Have you figured out when you'll see each other again?"

"Well, not yet.." Rinoa answered.

"And how long is this long distance thing going to last anyway? I mean, eventually you're gonna have to figure out if you're gonna move there or if he's gonna move here." Selphie chimed in.

Rinoa toyed distractedly with her fork, poking at her lunch aimlessly, brows knitted in worry as Selphie's comment brought that exact concern to the forefront of her mind. It had lurked in the shadows; something she knew was there and would eventually have to be addressed but…not yet. Not yet.

A sudden ringing in her purse grabbed her attention and her heart leaped for joy at the thought that it might be Squall calling, though the hour was a bit odd for him. Then she saw the number when she pulled out the phone and sighed.

"Hi Caraway," she answered.

The boat scraped bottom on the pristine white sand as the breakers pushed it further aground before retreating. Squall gazed around with interest while the guide and the agent both hopped out of the boat, prompting him to follow and lend his strength to pull the skiff further up onto the beach.

"So…here it is," the agent said, looking apprehensively into the thick jungle just a few meters away. "Eden Island."

"You sure you want this place boy? Last survey team was lucky to come back in one piece." The guide said, spitting a stream of tobacco into the sand before adding, "We're probably standing in the only spot where we ain't in danger."

The agent shot the man a stony glare before clearing his throat and saying, "the fauna of this island is very…unique…and does command a great deal of respect. But the survey was completed, and you have the results of that survey, don't you?"

"Had to hire SeeDs to escort the survey team," the guide mumbled. "Only reason we even came back alive."

"I remember." Squall said, striding up the beach toward the jungle. "I was the one that assigned the team that escorted you."

The real estate agent and the guide both exchanged a glance, the agent's expression one of shock, while the guide frowned, thinking hard.

"What was your name again boy?" he asked.

Squall paused and looked back at the two men, noting that neither had budged an inch toward the jungle. "Squall Leonhart," he answered.

"Commander Squall Leonhart?" The real estate agent stared at him shock as recognition dawned. "I thought you'd be older!"

"Its just Squall now. I'm retired." Squall said.

"Nice to be able to retire at…what are you, twenty-five? To buy an island," the guide said. "SeeDs must make good money."

"They do, but their lives tend to be short. I opted out before it caught up with me." Squall replied, then folded his arms and gazed steadily at the men, adding, "I've read the prospectus Mr. Armey, and I'm fully aware of the numbers and types of monsters that inhabit this island. I can tell you with perfect assurance that I'm fully equipped to deal with them." Hitching Lion Heart higher in its back carry, Squall checked the satchel he had slung over one shoulder and the canteen he had over the other.

Then he returned his attention to the men, who had reluctantly begun taking similar items out of the boat and putting them on, and said, "Now, Mr. Armey, I would like you to show me around the place."

The real estate agent nodded reluctantly and cocked the rifle he'd taken out of the boat. The guide did the same thing, and they both made their way up the beach to where Squall stood waiting.

He really only wanted a quick look around to see if what the prospectus had told him was completely accurate. It was undeveloped of course, largely due to the high population of very dangerous, non-native species that had taken up residence there since the last Lunar Cry. A complete catalogue of the various types of monsters that had been found there was unavailable, likely again due to the danger.

No matter. He already had more than a few ideas of how to deal with them. As far as development went…Well, there was solar and wind for electricity, wood for heat, septic for sanitation...Water was a concern until he confirmed that there were at least two springs, and once things were settled on the question of the fauna, perhaps wells could be found and dug.

Getting in and out presented a challenge as well, but Squall actually liked sailing and had always wanted a boat. There was an area on the northern side of the island that was a sheltered cove, which could easily be converted to a marina. And there was enough space on the island, it was better than ten kilometers end to end, to construct a private airport/helipad.

It represented a considerable investment. In terms of time, money and energy to make the place safe and habitable…and it occurred to him that Rinoa might not want to live on an island an hour's sail off the coast of Galbadia… The thought brought him up short. How had she even figured into his plans?

Because he was thinking long term, and he wanted her there, with him, that's how.

Then he decided it didn't matter. Even if she hated the idea of living on a remote island in the middle of nowhere, it was still a sound investment. Hell, he could probably turn it into a big-game hunter's paradise with little to no effort. He personally knew more than a few adventurers that would be hot for the trophies that he'd glimpsed.

He toyed with that idea a bit, liking it. It had possibilities, very good possibilities; not the least of which would be that people would be paying him for the privilege of taking care of the monster problem on the island.

The island was beautiful, more than enough of a lure in itself. White-sand beaches and turquoise waters; it had a mountain dead center, obviously an extinct volcano, from which springs flowed into a small river that became a waterfall splashing into a secluded pool. It gave him a sudden vision of himself and Rinoa enjoying the pool and the secluded beauty of the quiet green glade wherein it resided. He swallowed and tried to moisten his suddenly dry mouth as the image took an erotic turn. Gods, he missed her!

The tour had to be cut short though after a few too many close calls. Squall dealt with them of course, but he wasn't interested in testing himself this time around, so didn't argue when the guide and the agent both urged him to pack it in and leave.

"So? What do you think Mr. Leonhart?" The agent asked as the guide fired up the engine of their little skiff once they'd gotten clear of the breakers.

Glancing back at the island, Squall commented, "It has possibilities, but the asking price is too high. It'll take twice that to make it even close to habitable."

The agent frowned, "But the location is prime! An hour tops, to the mainland by boat! And you can't argue that the place is beautiful! And the climate is perfect!"

"True," Squall agreed, secretly enjoying the chance to dicker with the man. "But the constant danger to life and limb, until I've hired enough hunters to help me with the monsters, outweigh it."

The guide spoke up from his spot at the stern of the boat, asking, "Do you mean to live there? Alone?"

Squall glanced over at the man and nodded, "I do mean to live there, eventually, but not alone." Returning his attention to the agent, he added, "I'd have to be starting from scratch here as there is no development whatsoever. So I'll have to bring in my own infrastructure before I can even begin construction."

The real estate agent looked both crestfallen and disappointed, saying pointedly "You know Mr. Leonhart, I thought you were the rugged type that would thrive on such a challenge as this. Certainly you had a reputation for being a tough guy when you were a SeeD…"

"I still am. I'm also smart enough to make Commander at eighteen and quit before I get killed." He fixed the agent with a bland look, letting the man know that he wasn't impressed with this dig at his vanity. "Five hundred thousand."

"Bu…But that's less than half…" The real estate agent protested. Squall simply waited for his counter offer. He almost scoffed when it came. "Million and two."

"Five hundred fifty thousand." Squall replied.

"Million even. The land area alone is worth that, even undeveloped." The agent, Mr. Armey said.

"You weren't able to properly survey it. No mineral or ground water assays were completed. I'll have to do it myself and pay someone for the trouble. Six-hundred thousand." Squall stated.

"Nine-hundred thousand." Mr. Army countered.

Squall frowned and shook his head, "Six-fifty."

"Eight-seventy five."

The guide watched them both in fascination as they haggled over the price of the island. As they drew closer to the mainland, they appeared to reach an impasse, with Squall standing firm at seven hundred thousand and Mr. Armey unwilling to go lower than eight.

Finally Squall said firmly, "Seven hundred fifty thousand. It's already waiting in an escrow account. But I get all mineral rights along with the deed."

That brought the agent up short and he asked in confusion, "Why would you want mineral rights? You're not going to mine there!"

Squall shrugged, "No actual geological studies were ever done. I just want to be sure I can keep whatever I find. Not likely that there'll be anything interesting there though."

Mr. Armey considered that. The island had been listed for a long time, its beautiful scenery, location and climate offset by the unfortunate infestation of monsters that nobody had felt equipped to handle. More than one investor had passed on it, unwilling to lay out the money necessary to protect any workers that would have to be brought in to develop the land. It had the potential for a lovely resort, or even private residence, if the monsters could be dealt with.

Obviously, this former SeeD felt up to the task. Perhaps that was what was needed; a young, strong, vigorous man with an equal amount of guts and brains who had both the skill and the intelligence to pull off…whatever it was he intended to do with the island.

And even at just over half of the asking price of the island, the fact that it was sold and off the books….and out of his hair….was an immense relief to him.

They were just pulling up to the guide's slip at Deling City's waterfront when he finally said, "All right then. Done. Meet me in my office tomorrow morning and we'll finalize the paperwork." He stuck his hand out to shake on the deal. The young man hesitated briefly, then gripped his hand and shook it firmly.

"Thank you Mr. Armey. Call my cell phone if anything changes before we meet tomorrow. I'll call my bank directly and inform them of the pending sale and the price." Squall said, stepping out of the boat.

"Thank you Mr. Leonhart. I'll see you in the morning then." The real estate agent said.

Squall nodded and strode off, making for the parking area and the rental car that he'd obtained upon landing in Deling City that morning. He rotated his neck, feeling the fatigue of a long flight and a rather strenuous traipse through jungle beginning to settle into an aching knot there. The neck popped and cracked as he did, and the pressure eased a bit as he reached the car.

He shrugged off Lion Heart and the rest of his gear, laying it in the backseat along with his duffel. He'd come straight from the airport that morning to meet the agent and take a look at the island. He hadn't even had a chance to talk with Rinoa and let her know that he was in town. Well, he hoped she liked surprises….

Slamming the back door shut, he got into the front seat of the car and leaned back into the seat for a moment, sighing. Closing his eyes for a moment, he scrubbed his hands over his face and into his hair, doing his best to shake off his exhaustion for long enough to get to Rinoa's place. Then he started the car and drove out of the marina parking lot.

Rinoa was just sitting down with a glass of wine to relax and wondering if it was about time for Squall to call her when she heard a knock at the door. Setting her glass aside, she got up and answered, completely stunned into speechlessness at seeing Squall on the other side.

"I'm sorry I didn't call but honestly, I wasn't even sure I'd have the time to stop by…" He began, only to be physically yanked inside, then backed into the door as Rinoa threw herself on him and kissed him senseless.

Then he could think of nothing else but the woman in his arms, and getting her into bed as quickly as possible. Rinoa appeared to be in a like frame of mind, if her gasping whispers between kisses were any indication as she tugged him toward her bedroom.

"Oh my gods! You're here! You're really here! Oh, I've missed you SO MUCH!" she said happily, pausing for a moment to fling her arms around him in a rib-cracking hug. Then she continued her inexorable progress toward her bedroom, towing Squall behind her.

"Me too," He began, but was unable to add anything because upon reaching the bedroom, she turned and was kissing him again. He didn't even try to stop her when she worked her hands under his shirt and pulled it off, instead mirroring her actions with his own.

"I'm sorry I didn't call," he tried again breathlessly, while nibbling at her neck.

"Don't care. You're here." she sighed, head lolling back for a moment before she attacked his pants, undoing the buckle of his belt and then his fly, dragging a growling half-moan from him when she slipped her hand inside to fondle him.

"Gods woman!" he gasped, stumbling backward as she both pushed and pulled him, pressing him back until the bed hit the back of his thighs. By this point he was achingly, mind swimmingly aroused.

Unable to endure any more, he grabbed her around the waist with a growl, turned and tossed her onto the bed, quickly kicking off his shoes and removing his pants to join her. Then he proceeded to torture her mercilessly with his lips, tongue and fingers until she was all but screaming for mercy.

When he reached for a condom, he was shocked when Rinoa stopped him, saying breathlessly, "You don't need that. I've…taken care of that."

He simply blinked at her, and said stupidly, "What?"

"I'm on birth control. So unless you've got a reason to want to use a condom still…" Rinoa said, letting her voice trail off.

"No. Gods, no." he breathed, then kissed her deeply and sheathed himself within her in a single stroke.

Rinoa moaned and clutched him to her; that first thrust nearly enough to undo her. She didn't think there would be a discernable difference in making love with him without a condom on, but there was. Perhaps it was the fact that she hadn't seen or touched him in nearly a month that made it seem so different. But she didn't think so. This time around, feeling him skin to skin within her as well as on top of her, threatened to transport her to a different realm entirely.

Their mutual hunger for each other, sharpened by time and distance, overrode everything and their lovemaking was hard, fast and urgent as a result. Rinoa wrapped her legs around Squall, dug her nails into his back and held on while he relentlessly stoked the passion between them. Each gasping breath; each nip, scratch, kiss, and surging thrust brought them closer to the edge. Rinoa fell first with a cry, clutching at Squall for dear life as a hard thrust pushed her there, trembling and shattering into a million pieces in his arms.

Arms and legs locked around him, nails raking down his back while in the throes of her climax, Rinoa dragged Squall with her over the edge into…heaven. He shuddered, gasped and moaned just as Rinoa did as his orgasm rocked him and he poured himself into her, heart, soul and seed, leaving him feeling spent. He collapsed on top of her, breathing heavily, dimly registering her fingers gently threading through his hair as he attempted to catch his breath and gather his scattered wits.

"I can feel your heartbeat," Rinoa whispered, still caressing his hair. She felt it thudding heavily where he rested against her, and pulsing where he was still joined with her. He slowly raised his head and gazed down at her, the expression in his eyes soft and slightly puzzled. He opened his mouth as though intending to speak then closed it with a slight frown.

Finally he shifted, withdrawing and moving off of her, prompting Rinoa to shiver in response to that separation. But unlike their previous lovemaking sessions, this time, he didn't get up and go to the bathroom immediately. Instead he rolled onto his side facing her. Rinoa followed suit and smiled at him.

Reaching out, she stroked her fingers along his cheek and under his jaw, saying on a sigh, "I can't tell you how happy I am to see you…"

Squall caught her hand in his and pressed it against his lips, kissing it while laughing softly, "No need. You did a pretty good job showing me." He let her hand go and let his hand move to her hip, caressing it before moving upward and around to the small of her back, pulling her into him. Then he kissed her softly on the forehead, the tip of her nose, prompting her to smile, then finally her lips. A gentle, undemanding pressure that transmitted more emotion than Rinoa thought was possible.

When he pulled back, Rinoa asked him curiously, "is it always like this, if you're …uh, not wearing a condom?"

"I don't know," Squall answered honestly with a shrug.

"So, you've never gone…um… bareback… before?" Rinoa asked him, intrigued.


"Really? Why?"

"I'd think the answer to that would be obvious," Squall replied with one eyebrow quirked upward. "It's safer that way."

"So…This is a first for you then," Rinoa observed, giving Squall a sly look.

Squall smiled slowly, then started to laugh, Rinoa's clever observation striking just the right chord with him.

His laughter subsided, though his eyes still sparkled and his lips still twitched as he replied, "Yes it is. And you were wonderfully gentle with me."

Rinoa burst out laughing and hugged him, loving the feel of his arms tightening around her in response, pressing her into his warm body. Oh, how she'd missed him! More than she'd thought possible for as short a time as they'd known each other. The fizzy upwelling of joy she felt at seeing him again was nearly impossible to contain, and so the littlest of things would bring it to the surface…like his sparkling blue eyes and twitchy smile as he made that small joke.

She snuggled into his chest with a sigh, saying, "I'm so glad you're here. How long are you staying?"

Squall sighed as well, but in regret as he answered, "Not long, I'm afraid. I've got a couple of meetings tomorrow morning early for…some business and then I've got to leave tomorrow night."

"Oh," Rinoa replied sadly, then added with a bit more enthusiasm, "We've still got tonight though, and you got here early enough that we can do dinner and…"

Squall chuckled, "You've really got a lot of faith in my abilities don't you? I might be dead to the world in the next few minutes. It was a long flight getting here."

Rinoa peered up at his face then, only just noticing how tired he looked. She also noticed a slight pink cast across the bridge of his nose, forehead and cheeks, indicating that he'd been out in the sun. The tang of sea and sun added a fascinating dimension to the blend of cologne, deodorant and him that made up Squall's natural scent. Rinoa laid her cheek against his chest and took a deep breath, breathing him in, and hugged him again.

"If all you feel up to later is sleep, then we'll sleep." She said, kissing him in the middle of his chest. Squall reciprocated by kissing the top of her head gently and smoothing his hand over her hair.

"All right." He replied on a sigh, feeling the fatigue that passion had momentarily driven away starting to crash down on him, heavier than before.

He was nearly asleep when Rinoa asked him, "So, what brought you here anyway? What kind of business are you doing tomorrow?"

He blinked his eyes open and tried to focus on her, cudgeling his tired brain for a coherent answer, finally mumbling, "Real estate…. stuff." Oblivion beckoned and he sank into it gratefully, leaving Rinoa to frown slightly at his vague answer as he drifted off to sleep.

Real estate stuff? She wondered, trying not to get too excited about what that might imply. But…She watched him sleep for a moment, heart melting at the beautiful innocence he displayed with his features relaxed in slumber. Innocence with a healthy dose of sex, she amended mentally. That chiseled jaw line, the sensual lower lip and the coppery brown dusting of stubble on his cheeks and chin simply screamed it.

His arm was still around her, though its weight was now relaxed. His other hand rested upon his stomach, and Rinoa's gaze was drawn to it. Broad across the palm, with long, tapering fingers and a light dusting of hair on the back that she'd just noticed. Both hands were perfect examples of both elegance and strength, and wonderfully representative of the rest of Squall's body.

Her cheek still rested against his chest, and she listened to the steady beat of his heart, felt the rise and fall of his chest as he breathed, and simply studied his hand. The knuckles appeared to be reddened, as though irritated or abraded. What had he been doing today?

At length she had to get up; she hadn't yet had dinner, had in fact only been home from work a few minutes when Squall had shown up. And she found, much to her chagrin, that sex au naturel, while very pleasurable indeed, was also rather messy. So she dealt with the result of their interlude, then put on her terrycloth robe and left Squall sleeping in a sprawl on her bed, leaning against the doorjamb for a moment to simply drink in the sight. And feeling her heart squeeze and turn over once again.

Gods, she had it bad for the man.

Reluctantly, she turned away to do something about dinner, wondering if she should wake him when it was done. He had to be hungry; he looked as though he'd come to her apartment straight from wherever he'd gone to first.

She ended up waking him for dinner, though she felt a little hesitant about doing so until he thanked her for it when she did, telling her that he'd missed lunch. They shared a companionable meal that night, and Rinoa completely forgot to ask him about what he'd been doing, as happy as she was to simply be with him.

They talked a lot about her work and how crazy things had gotten now that the playoffs were over and the championship game, which the Bears had earned a ticket to, was just days away. And every so often, he'd smile at something she said and his eyes would sparkle just so, for her…and her heart would stop, just momentarily.

They made love again that night after dinner was concluded, the dishes washed, the dog (after they'd gotten dressed, of course) walked. And he enfolded her into his arms, giving her one last, sweet kiss, before drifting off to sleep again. Rinoa spent the rest of the night cuddled in his arms, listening to his heartbeat while waiting for sleep to claim her too, wishing that he didn't have leave the next day. Wishing that he'd just….stay.

Perhaps that was what that "real estate stuff" was all about. Rinoa gave herself a mental kick at that sneaky thought. Until she had actual information to go on, that was just wishful thinking. He might have been looking at some property as an investment. He did that, though from what Rinoa had seen and had been told, it was mostly stocks that he played around with.

The next morning there was no time for more lovemaking, something they both very much regretted. And Squall had to leave for his appointment after breakfast, coffee, a loving kiss and a promise to call later when he'd landed back in Esthar.

"Have a good day at work," he murmured into her hair.

"You too with whatever you're doing…what is this 'real estate stuff' you mumbled about last night anyway?" Rinoa asked him curiously.

He sighed and kissed the top of her head, then bent down and stole another kiss from her lips, before answering, "I'll tell you if it all comes off like I plan. I don't have time to get into it right now though."

Rinoa stole a glance at her watch and grimaced, "Neither do I. I'd better go."

"Yeah, me too." He replied. He stepped away and picked up his duffel bag, slinging it over his shoulder, and headed for the door. Rinoa too gathered her things, intending to leave for work as well, and followed him.

He walked with her to her car, and she smiled as she looked back at him, heart melting at the for once completely unguarded expression on his face as he watched her prepare to leave. It was obvious that he didn't want to say good-bye to her any more than she wanted to say good-bye to him. It was also apparent that he hadn't yet worked out how to articulate what he felt. So despite her heart's urging, Rinoa remained silent and simply smiled at him, while mentally telling him over and over, I love you.

Finally, Squall said, "Drive safely. I…" he paused, realizing he was about to repeat himself.

Rinoa laughed softly, "I know. You'll call."

"Right," He smiled, a trifle sadly, and added, "I'll miss you."

"Then come back soon." Rinoa said.

He nodded. "I will. I promise." He lifted his hand in a final farewell as she got in and started the engine, then started walking toward his rental car.

"So. You call me up out of the blue after what? Two years? And ask me if I'd be willing to kill a few monsters for you. And you just blithely assume I'd be all gung-ho about doin' it. For free." The rangy young man sitting across from Squall snorted and leaned back in the booth they shared and then picked up his beer and took a long drink.

"Hey, I bought you the beer, didn't I?" Squall said, taking a drink of his own.

"True. But that still don't excuse the fact that you pretty much left all of us with barely a wave good-bye." The young man set his beer down and speared Squall with a piercing blue-eyed glare. "You owe me at least an explanation."

"I'm sorry, Irvine. I did what I had to do and there wasn't any time for me to explain." Squall said.

"A phone call might have been nice. I thought we were friends. Hell, brothers even. Isn't that what you call someone you grew up with that's saved your ass more than once?" Irvine folded his arms over his chest and waited.

Squall rolled his eyes, "are you done with the guilt tripping? Because I swear you're beginning to sound like Zell's mom. Look, I couldn't tell anyone right away what was going on because, well…I…I just couldn't, okay?"

"Yeah, well I guess I shouldn't have been surprised. This is you we're talking about." Irvine said with a smirk. "Gonna tell me now? All I got was that you had to do something in Esthar that was so important that you needed to leave SeeD to do it. By the way, Cid hasn't retired your commission yet. It's still yours, rank, position and everything, if you still want it."

"I don't," Squall said firmly, prompting Irvine to raise his eyebrows in surprise. "To answer your question Irvine, I had to leave because I found Ellone. And she was dying. I had no time to come back here and give everyone chapter and verse on that story because I didn't know how much time with her I'd have. She needed medical treatment that she could not afford any longer and I could, so I gave her everything I had and was happy to."

Irvine went silent at this and swallowed, then asked tentatively, "Is…is she…?"

"She's fine, thank Hyne. The treatments worked and she's in remission." Squall answered him, then added, "But that's not why I called you."

"I know why you called me, just wondering about the reasoning behind it." Irvine said.

"I bought an island." Squall informed him.

Irvine simply stared. "Wait. Did I just hear you right? You bought an island?"

"Yes. Eden Island. It's in the Rhem Archipelago, near The Island Closest to Hell. It's beautiful, but completely overrun with monsters. I need help killing them off." Squall explained.

Irvine tilted his head to the side and studied Squall closely, then asked simply, "Why?"

"Why do you think?" Squall countered. "I want to be able to go there without having to worry about being eaten by something."

"Oh. Well, that makes sense I guess. What are you going to do with it? Make it a vacation retreat or something? Might not want to kill off all the monsters, if so. It'd be kind of fun to just go out and hunt for the Hell of it." Irvine said.

"I'd been considering that, or something similar. But we need to at least cut the numbers down enough that I can get things rolling on development. People tend not to want to go to places where monsters pop up frequently, and that includes contractors, surveyors, geologists and the like." Squall replied.

"Huh. You've really put a lot of thought into this, haven't you?" Irvine asked him, intrigued at the change that two years had wrought in his friend.

"Yes." Squall answered simply.

Making a decision, Irvine put his hand out, "All right. I'm in. 'course, if you ain't payin' me, I get to keep whatever stuff I find there, trophies and all."

"I never said I wasn't going to pay you," Squall protested, while reaching out and taking Irvine's hand, shaking it.

"You never mentioned money. That's usually the first thing you do when you're negotiating for a job." Irvine stated, drawing his hand back and folding his arms across his chest.

"This isn't a job. It's a partnership. You throw in, and you get a stake in it. Yeah, you can keep whatever you find of worth there, as long as you tell me where you've found it. Keep whatever trophies you want, I'm fine with that too. I don't plan on mining or tearing the place up at all, but if you find a beach full of raw diamonds, I'd appreciate knowing." Squall said, smirking slightly. Irvine snorted in response.

"You gonna help?" Irvine asked him.

"Of course. As much as I can. I have to finalize a few things in Esthar and get things rolling here but I'll be out there as often as possible. I gave you my cell number so call me if there are any problems. I'll pony up for supplies and ammo, and any backup you need." Squall answered him.

"One more question: You want to bring Zell in on this too?" Irvine asked.

Squall hesitated, "I don't know. He seems pretty happy with his life; I don't want to mess with that…"

Irvine snorted, "He'd be insulted if you didn't at least ask, even if he does decide to say 'no'. Personally, I think he'd like the chance to get out there and tear some shit up. After what he's into as a SeeD, even the MMA circuit is tame stuff."

"Is he doing it full time now? I thought he was still an active SeeD." Squall asked.

"No, he's still a SeeD. He just does the MMA thing to blow off steam, I think. He gets bored easily." Irvine said with a shrug, then added, "and nobody wants to spar with him. Too brutal, they say. I think they're just tired of getting their asses handed to them."

Squall snorted, "It always was hard to keep him occupied. I'm not surprised he's getting into professional fighting; he's good enough to go pro if he wants to leave SeeD."

"You can only do that for so long though," Irvine said with a slight frown.

Squall frowned as well, wondering at Irvine's comment. Had something happened to Zell? One of their other friends? His frown deepened. He'd tried to forget everything he'd left behind in Balamb when he'd left Garden… even those he'd considered friends.

There was no real reason for it; he knew they'd have respected his decision to leave if he'd explained it to them. But he'd never been good at explaining himself, especially not since he'd made commander. He gave orders, and they were obeyed. And unfortunately, as part of the burden of command, he'd had to distance himself from his friends. It had made it easy to simply walk away, when he found the need to do so. The only person he'd told was Cid.

He felt slightly ashamed of himself for not at least sending an email out to Irvine, Zell, and Cid, letting them know he was okay. Better than okay, he thought, remembering Rinoa's enthusiastic, ardent welcome the previous night.

"I'll give Zell a call tonight," Irvine said, drawing Squall's attention back to him. "When are you leaving?"

"I'm flying back to Esthar this evening." Squall answered.

"Remember me to Sis. Zell too. He'll be glad to know you finally found her." Irvine said, draining the last of his beer.

"I will." Squall said, checking his watch. It was nearly time for him to head to the airport.

"When do you want to start on this, anyway?" Irvine asked him.

"As soon as possible. Here," Squall said, handing Irvine a sheaf of papers. "Map and coordinates of the place. The name and phone number of the guide the real estate agent hired to get us there is on the info sheet, along with some other useful numbers. Mine included, though I have to tell you that there is NO phone service, cellular or otherwise on the island. Radio only. At least for now."

"Well, if you're gonna foot the bill for supply…" Irvine said.

Squall grimaced, "Give me some warning and I'll open an account with an outfitter. So call me when you want to go out there. Hopefully by then I'll be able to help."

"Okay, I know this is a rather personal question but…how the hell are you managing this? I mean, I know you didn't make chump change as Commander but you just said that you threw it all on Sis's treatments. How are you even doing this?" Irvine asked him, curiously.

"Well, as it turns out, I've got a knack for investing and the job I'm doing now pays pretty well. Plus I took on some side work to earn back what I spent. So yeah, I can afford to do this." Squall answered.

"Well, I'm impressed. Maybe you can give me some pointers." Irvine replied.

Squall snorted, "here's one: try saving your money instead of blowing it on expensive hookers and cheap beer."

"That beer was not cheap!" Irvine protested.

"Well that hooker sure cost you a mint," Squall retorted.

Irvine grinned rakishly at that and said, "Yeah, and she was worth every gil!"

Squall rolled his eyes at this, "well at least you feel like you got your money's worth."

"Damn strait! Too bad you wouldn't join us. She told me later she'd have given half the fee back if you had." Irvine said, still grinning at Squall, who simply sighed and shook his head. Irvine felt a small start of surprise at this. Two years ago, Squall would have turned beet red and stiffly said something Commander-like.

He knew Squall hadn't been a virgin then; while his Commander's liaisons had been brief and as discrete as possible, they had occurred on occasion. He was just so intensely private a person that getting him to discus anything of a personal nature outside of work was close to impossible. So Irvine had really had no idea how the invitation, offered by the young woman that he'd engaged for the evening, would have been received by Squall. It had come as no surprise to him that his commander was sufficiently uptight as to be unwilling to…broaden his horizons…in a manner of speaking.

Interestingly enough, that no longer appeared to be the case, a possibility that intrigued Irvine. Unfortunately, there was no more time to broach that subject, even if Squall had been in a sufficiently expansive frame of mind as to actually be willing to discus it. Irvine filed the exchange in the back of his mind until the next time he and Squall had some time and a pint or two under their belts. Squall held his liquor pretty well, but they both knew that Irvine could drink him under the table any day of the week. If he could get Squall lubricated enough as to be chatty…well he might learn a bit more about what his friend and former commander had been up to over the last two years.

Squall was a canny bird, but it was worth a try, anyway.

Glancing at his watch again, Squall said, "I'd better head to the airport. I need to return my rental car and check in."

"All right. Well, thanks for the beer, and if you don't mind, I'm gonna forward your contact information to Zell." Irvine said.

Squall nodded, "I don't mind. I'll let you know when I've got the outfitter's account set up and where it is."

As Squall got ready to leave, Irvine leaned forward and put his hand out, saying, "It was good seeing you again. Have a save flight, brother."

Squall paused and swallowed a sudden lump, touched. It really had been far too easy to walk away. From his friends, colleagues, SeeD…Far too easy lock down and set aside his feelings. It made him wonder sometimes if he was capable of feeling anything at all…. until he thought of Rinoa. And just like that…he felt….everything.

Reaching out, he took Irvine's hand and squeezed it firmly, shaking it and saying, "It was good seeing you too."

As he got up to leave, Irvine added, "Don't be a stranger."

Squall nodded, "I won't."

Then he walked out of the bar and drove to the airport. The long flight back gave him more than enough time to think. Time enough to decide upon the next step down the pathway he'd decided to walk. Of course, upon arrival back in Esthar, the only thing that he could do right at that moment (after calling Rinoa as promised to reassure her of his safe arrival) was sleep. But on his first full day back from work, he went to Marti and put in his notice. It was time for him to move on.

AUTHOR'S NOTE: Whew! another chapter done! and more to come! Been plugging steadily along with this along with my other stories (though Queen..ok, it's inadvertently been on hiatus...I'll try to pick up on it along with everything else as well..). Still working on my art projects as well..and having alot of fun with it. Aside from having alot to do and not enough time to do it, I'm doing pretty well...though my Twitter addiction DOES eat up a good portion of my time. BUT, I will persevere and once i finish my in progress works..will hopefully be able to get started on working with Ashbear to finish SIB. Here's hoping anyway!