__ = Panthera Leo = __

Boots clicked on loose rocks, sending almost inaudible echoes down past the bend in the trail. Quistis wrapped her arms around her torso, shivering slightly in the crisp air and wishing she had brought a jacket.

There he is, she thought. Predictably. Doesn't look like he minds the cold.

she called softly, careful not to disturb the quiet he seemed so intent on preserving. He didn't respond, watching the hills below from his spot on one of the rocks that bordered Fighter's Ledge.

He was little more than a dark shadow against the mountainscape; lit only faintly by the light of the stars and the Garden. He had borrowed Irvine's hunting rifle for some reason; it lay across his lap, unused. It gleamed with a muted menace in the night, a menace that was not echoed at all by the one who held it.

Quistis stole up, sitting lightly on the ground beside and slightly behind him. What are you doing out here? she murmured, looking at the panorama of Balamb Island below her.

Rinoa asked me, came the reply, the night making them seem like words from a dream. Quistis glanced away.

A few moments went by, the only sound the sounds of crickets and breathing. She's been hearing something, Squall responded. Outside, at night. She was worried.

Quistis glanced at the rifle. I see, she said.

Silence drew itself over them, like the final thread to complete the night's tapestry. Quistis drew her knees up to her chest, wrapping her arms around them and rocking back and forth, so very slightly.

Can I ask you something? she queried, not sure what she would do if the answer was no. Thankfully, he only gave a slight nod. she asked, timidly.

He seemed a bit baffled.

Why her? Quistis asked, the last word coming out a bit more plaintive than she had intended. She bit her tongue, unsure of what sort of answer this would elicit.

I'm not sure, he answered, and for once, it didn't seem like an evasion. Silence fell again.

It's just.... Quistis trailed off, thoughts lost between her lungs and her lips. Never mind. It's none of my--

Squall seemed to consider that for a moment.

Quistis prompted.

Squall mused for some time. Finally, he began to voice his thoughts. at Trabia, he said, and Quistis's heart began to mould out a niche for itself at the pit of her stomach. All those things you said. ...why did you say them?

Quistis sighed, and looked away. I'm sorry if I embarrassed you, she apologized.

No, that's not it, Squall responded, and Quistis instinctively knew that he had frowned.

Did I mean it, you mean? Quistis's voice sounded exceptionally hollow in the fragile night air. Every word. Every damn syllable. Bitterness infused her tone. But it wasn't all true.

I know, Squall affirmed.

Quistis was more than a little startled. What do you mean?

Squall made the slightest gesture with one hand. When you walked off, you said something to yourself. I heard you.

Quistis swallowed. she managed. I think... I might have wanted you to.

Quistis glanced over.

Why me?

Quistis was taken aback. I'm not sure, she lied, and could almost have laughed. They were beginning to exchange each other's words. Were things really that awkward?


You shouldn't, Squall said, but there wasn't any anger or even annoyance in the words.

Squall, it's not something I can control, Quistis sighed. It's not as if there's a switch in the back of my skull, so that I can toggle it on and off at will.

And if there was?

Quistis watched him for a moment. He... deserved to know the truth. I don't think I would use it, she said, then forced a small smile. I guess I'm just one for unrequited love.

I'm sorry, Squall said. Quistis shook her head.

It's not your fault. Some things were meant to be, some things weren't.

Squall asked. Quistis's heart burrowed a bit deeper down.

You know, she said. ...like you and Rinoa.

The silence descended again, this time with some sort of tangible vengeance. It had become so pressing so suddenly that Quistis wondered for a moment whether she had said something wrong.

Squall emoted almost inaudibly. ...I don't love her.

To say that she was shocked would have been the gravest understatement.

I care about her. I don't want to see her hurt. but it's not the same. He thought for a moment, struggling with words that had never come easily. ...I feel this way about almost everyone I've ever known. I... () In the D-District Prison, that's why I saved Zell. It's why I let Fujin and Raijin go in Balamb, and why I was worried about the Missile Base team. Rinoa... it was a challenge to protect her, and I... I don't think I've had that kind of challenge before. That's what I thought was love, but it's the same thing as the rest of those times. And it... it isn't love. It was just... something else. He was quiet, and his next words held an oddly curious tinge. I don't know... if I'm capable of love.

Quistis's voice had become gravelly at some point. Everyone's capable of love.

Squall stared out across the plains, emotions not evident. ...I don't know.

Quistis began to speak, but Squall held up a hand to silence her. Quistis followed his gaze to a figure on the plains below, restlessly moving across the grass near the Garden. Pale in the darkness of the nightlit plains, it moved closer and closer to the gleaming building--then, hesitating, began to make its way away.

Seifer, Quistis identified with a breath. He wants to come back. But he doesn't think he can... not after everything. Was that... pity, she felt? Her heart reached out toward him as he silently retraced his steps away from the Garden, out of sight.

Just some night ghost, Squall said, standing stiffly. There was no telling how long he'd been out here, she realized. She almost began to pity him as she stood, as well.

What are you going to tell Rinoa? Quistis asked. Squall blinked.

I'll just say that there was nothing out here.

Quistis shook her head. That's not what I meant, she said.

Squall gave a halfhearted shrug. I don't know.

She'll be hurt, Quistis warned.

Squall hesitated. ...I can't protect her from everything, he replied, starting back down the trail toward Garden. She loved Seifer, too. Maybe she's just one for unrequited love.

Don't say that, Quistis pleaded. Everyone's capable of love.

Squall turned, regarding her for a moment. he asked.

He hesitated for a moment. he said, and disappeared around the bend.