Story Notes: Cover art is by PuftPrin from DeviantART aka Stardust Ray here at ffnet. Also, a few items used with permission. The reference about tropical drinks and plastic sword fighting is a nod towards a fic by Wayward Tempest that I'd helped on, "Fulll Metal Life Jacket." Next, the television show about marrying a Chocobo is a random concept belonging to Bebedora that she used in her story, "Phoniex." The absurdity screamed something that I'd do. XD! Last note, I drew artwork for Seifer's "Disgruntled Chocobos." To my surprise, I'm actually happy with how it came out. The link to my DeviantART account is listed in my in my profile; I also go by Ashbear there. The particular piece is aptly named "Disgruntled Chocobos" and found n the gallery. I'm so ultra original here...wait for the chapter, I make up for it. :D


Chapter Fifteen:
This Too Shall Pass…


2:57am, October 11th

All her life Rinoa strived to remain the eternal optimist, but tonight…tonight she feared that part of herself died alongside her friends.

After Squall left, Rinoa didn't feel better, but that was on her. Earlier, she'd foolishly clung to the hope that once Seifer arrived at the hotel, things would change. Foolishly, she still needed to think that one person had the power to change everything – a path she'd been no stranger to walking. In this case, she'd emotionally placed this burden on Seifer. It wasn't on Squall - that had been his choice the moment he'd walked out of her life without so much as a goodbye.

To him, she was history; that's exactly how she'd remember him – past tense.

Sighing in bed, Rinoa knew that assessment wasn't fair. She was projecting her anger onto a man who couldn't even defend himself. Not that he'd care. Fine, maybe that was unfair, unwarranted, because deep inside, she knew it wasn't on him, it was on her. Rinoa just wasn't at a point where she could accept that any change began and ended with her. Emotionally, it remained easier to lash out – and Agent Leonhart was a prime target. Squall annoyed her, frustrated her, and yet at the same time, she made her feel safe. It made no sense. Hell, life made no sense and that's why she was angry - with him, with her, with the world. Because she didn't understand, it was easier to place her faith in someone else, because putting faith herself was utterly terrifying.

Maybe there was a sliver of optimism left after all. Rinoa had to believe that this was her low and, after hitting bottom, only one direction remained. Well, technically two – but the second wasn't an option.

There was hope, but the challenge was finding it for herself.

For now, there was Seifer. He actually made a great stepping stone between whatever this was and independence. He'd be forceful when it was warranted, but somehow avoided coming off as condescending. That thought made her lips press tightly together, curling into what some may consider an 'almost' smile. That point needed some major revision as it should've specified that he wasn't condescending to her. However, he'd patronize the hell out of nearly everybody else, especially those he deemed worthy of needing his sarcastic ire. Like his 'big file,' he'd be the first to boast that his abilities in the department of sarcasm were quite…impressive.

Maybe it was wrong…okay. Fine. It was wrong of her, but watching Seifer and Squall verbally spar had proven to be a rather unexpected form of entertainment. She felt guilty for even thinking that, but it wasn't like they were crazy enough to actually spar or anything. Okay, scratch that. They totally would've had the opportunity presented itself. She imagined those two would've sparred with whatever was handy…boxing gloves, fencing swords, toothpicks, plastic swords served with tropical drinks, motion-controlled fighting video games… Basically, anything and everything.

They were…competitive to say the least.

But it was the individual character flaws such as that that defined both men. It also seemed that they both liked to point out the other's shortcomings but, in truth, they were similar in many ways. The difference was however, Seifer was open about it. You knew exactly where he stood as he'd insult you to your face, whereas Squall would talk down to you, the look in his eyes making you feel like you paled in comparison. Admittedly, that had been her interpretation; she couldn't help the way she felt.

That aside, Seifer had been wonderful around her. He cleaned and changed her bandages, but said it would be stitched tomorrow. Apparently, even bad-asses had their weaknesses - pixilated birds with attitudes and needles appeared to be Seifer's. Rinoa assumed that women were also on that list but, for her own sanity, she refused to think about that. She wished Squall had followed through with her arm, but it really wasn't his fault. She was the one who spent the evening locked in a bathroom, making the choice for him.

Pushing that thought from her mind, she tried to drown her sorrows with orange soda and pizza. It wasn't until she'd scarfed down half of the pizza and nearly downed an entire two-liter. Yep, there it was…the sad realization that she'd transformed into the epitome of pathetic.

Crawling under the sheets, she needed to think about something to get her mind off…well, life. Sleeping would be impossible as every time she closed her eyes, her heart raced and she began to hyperventilate. It was similar to what happened in the car, but this time it was impossible to keep focus.

So, she grabbed the television remote, looking for anything but the news. Finally, she settled on a sports program. It seemed harmless, until they mentioned hockey. Her eyes were instantly drawn to the dresser; a thin, pitiable smile crossed her lips as she looked at the Timber Owls hat. Shaking her head, she placed sports on the 'things to avoid' list. She settled on a movie about a knight and a dragon. It was cheesy, loaded with bad overacting, and featured a paper-mâché dragon that looked like it had been painted by ten-year-olds but, if nothing else, Seifer could pick up a few pointers about the whole knight thing.

Unknowingly, she'd let out a sigh when her eyes landed on the hat, something that didn't go unnoticed by the man at the computer. Although he was kicking tail-feathers, an upset Rinoa was more important than upset Chocobos. Getting up, he grabbed a few candy bars from the table. Since Leonhart was kind enough to stimulate the local economy with his purchases, Seifer was kind enough to do his part, consuming his portion of the investments in Timber's future.

"Rinoa, you sure Agent Puberty Boy didn't say anything? You did lock yourself in a bathroom after all. Doesn't take being some uptight suit to figure out that an uptight suit was probably behind it."

She shrugged as he made his way to the bed, sitting down. "Maybe a little, but not like you think. It's just…complicated."

"Rocket science is complicated. Leonhart is simple. You know the type - privileged life, never worried about having a roof over his head." He chuckled at the irony. "Okay yeah, I get your history, but I don't hold it against you. Thankfully, you came to your senses before getting engaged to some assclown with a number after his name or, worse yet, a suit like Leonhart. Count your blessings." He saw her crestfallen expression and really wanted to punch that man. Instead, he used that energy to cheer her up. Standing and bowing slightly, he extended his hand to her. "Seifer Almasy the third of the Eastern Galbadia Almasys, new money. My grandmother found a way to bottle the carnal sexiness of the Almasy men and women, extracting the raw animal magnetism and turning it into designer colognes and perfumes, respectively."

"…Oh, so that's what I smell," she replied mockingly.

Retaking his seat, he kept a respectable distance. Rinoa really did remind him of a younger sister. He had no siblings, only a few cousins who he was close with, but he was a lot like Leonhart in one way – trust didn't come easy. He didn't have a lot of close friends but, the ones he had, he'd protect with his life. Still, he saw something in her - resilience. If their circumstances had been different, she could've easily been a friend, nothing more. Still, it was fun to keep up the ruse.

Looking down, she finally blurted it out. "What happens now?"

"You stop worrying. That's what. Tomorrow, once Fed-on-a-Stick's replacement arrives, we'll hash this out. But seriously, if Leonhart said or did anything, the guy is going to-"

"He didn't." She cut him off, wishing that she could squash the topic once and for all. "I think we both were reading too much into things. He's just so…infuriating. Who knows, maybe getting someone else to work the case will be good."

"You're so much nicer than I'd be."

Looking away, she thought of her friend. "You remind me of Zone." The moment it flew out of her mouth, she realized how bad that sounded, comparing a drug dealer to a narcotics officer. She hoped that didn't offend him. "Seifer, please don't-"

"Stop," he interrupted, but it wasn't rude like Squall's words often came across. "Rinoa, I know exactly what you meant. That's why I'm taking it as a compliment. We all make choices in life and it doesn't always change who we are inside. He was a good person who had an unfortunate accident."

"You know?" She looked at him questionably. Rinoa couldn't explain, but having someone understand, to confide in…it meant the world to her.

"My file is bigger, remember? Word on the street is Leonhart doesn't even have one… A file I mean."

Playfully, she nudged him in the ribs. "Be nice." Feeling better, she leaned onto her pillow. It was nice not having to walk on eggshells; then again, the only logical reason Seifer would be around shells would be because he egged something, most likely Leonhart's car. Damn, so much for squashing that topic. Maybe steering the conversation another direction would help.

"Speaking of 'being nice,' how'd it go with Quistis?"

"Idiot," she scolded herself. That's so much better. No, it wasn't him, but it was his girlfriend.

"Ah, Quistis, my darling, voluptuous Leggy-Fed… Man, I gotta tell you," he snickered.

"No, no, no…you don't 'gotta tell me.' Seriously, I'm not sure what possessed me to ask. For my sanity, whatever thought first popped into your mind – forget it. Take out the mental eraser and wipe any thoughts about her in that way right off your brain's chalkboard. I meant professionally. How'd it go professionally?"

"That's it, you're banned from all suit-related things - you've spent way too much time around one. His life's motto of 'all work and no play' is rubbing off on you and we gotta nip that nasty habit in the butt. Biology fact, you know that a stiff-as-a-board attitude can spread? It's a virus commonly-referred by its scientific name, Suit-Wearing-Cooties. Totally serious here."

Looking over, he knew that he was upholding his duty as knight…or maybe fulfilling his role as court jester - whichever kept her spirits higher. It was working as the poor girl was desperately trying not to fall into a fit of laughter.

Slyly he winked as he continued the science lesson. "See, Rinoa, you need to thank me, because once you're fully infected, damn suit-wearing-cooties are harder to get rid of than bed bugs. Leading Estharian scientist Piet… Yes, here's another absolutely-true-fact. Esthar apparently only has one scientist and he simply goes by 'Piet' like the rock star he is. Anyways, he proved the only way to eradicate suit-wearing-cooties aka SWC is by disrupting their cootie-sized Bluetooth headsets and then tell 'em their suits are cheap knockoffs made by Shumi con-artists. While they're freaking out, you finish pink-slipping their 'all work and no play' asses by blaring boy-band music. More useful info – neither large-size Fed-Boys or their cootie counterparts can handle the awesome power of five or more teenage boys singing at once. Harness the power for good, not evil."

It worked. Her laughter filled the air. He wanted her to forget, if only for a little while.

"You-you're…oh my…I have no idea… crazy doesn't even begin to scratch the surface."

"Crazy, huh?" just so you know, that's your first warning. After three strikes, you're on my list…and seriously, you don't want to on that list. It's a fate worse than an entire army of Fed-Boy's cooties sapping all the fun away until all you're left with his mottos and work ethics."

"List?" Her laughter hadn't subsided. "I think you've confused yourself with Santa Claus… and to clear up any confusion, between you and the guy in the red suit, he's the hotter one."

He reached over, throwing a pillow at her. "That's your second warning…seriously, you won't want to be on there."

"Wow…so ominous. But fine, I'll avoid the list." Rinoa emphasized 'list' by making air quotes with her fingers. Then it dawned on her, more of a feeling really but… he'd purposely avoided her question. Irony struck again as she'd done the same thing earlier. Squall called her on it; now she'd call Seifer on it. Maybe Leonhart's cooties were rubbing off because there was something to be said about his methods – now that was a thought she refused to analyze.

Sitting back up, she turned to face him as her laughter subsided. "Seifer, I...I can't help but think…well, it's like you're avoiding answering me. If I'm wrong, tell me…I'll believe you. The one thing you've always been is honest with me. I was wondering… um, how upset was she?" It hit her, she wasn't switching topics. It was the same one in disguise. Still, Rinoa had to know. No matter what, she didn't want to cause strain on anybody's relationship. "I need to know how upset Quistis is for her boyfriend risking his career over this case."

"His career…and his girlfriend?" Seifer was him-hawing around, badly at that. It was also the confirmation she needed; he had been avoiding her question.

And that he had. Rinoa had so much to think about, he didn't want to add more. But she trusted him and…damn it, that was his code. He'd never betray a friend who believed in him. No, she hadn't crossed into that category, but he liked her and, in their situation, trust was key. But if that's what Leonhart told her, she would feel betrayed.

Like a battle, once it began, there was no retreat. "About that…Quistis isn't in on our plan. I spent the night….omitting certain facts to her. In return, I spent countless hours hearing her complain about how untrustworthy you are, which is putting it very mildly. So, not a bonus for you, she really doesn't like you. But Rinoa, it's not personal. It's because she believes you ran instead helping save others' lives. Also, she thinks you screwed Squall."

Seifer chuckled. It wasn't exactly appropriate, but nobody ever called him appropriate. "You screwed his career, not him. I should clarify, although that'd give her another reason to start the anti-Rinoa fan club. To put it bluntly, Leonhart didn't want her involved. He can't trust her – yet. He wants to, but everyone in the DEA is suspect. So yeah, in summation, Leggy-Fed doesn't know, hates you, and won't date my awesome self, not for lack of trying. Also, now I have new reasons for kicking Fed-Boy's ass – again." Reaching over to the nightstand, he grabbed a candy bar. "Chocolate? Everything goes better with chocolate."

Talk about information overload. Responding to him was impossible, namely because all of her motor skills had simultaneously stopped functioning. It took her several seconds to kick-start her brain, finally accepting the one thing that made any sense out of that. Reaching out, she quickly snatched the chocolate from his hand.

"…You wanna help me kick his ass? You kinda look like you want to kick his ass."

She nodded in agreement as she unwrapped the candy bar. So much for being lady-like as she shoved half of the bar in her mouth.

"That's good. I knew you'd come over to the dark side."

After a resurgence of chocolate, she was finally able to piece together a response, "Quistis is his girlfriend… he's lying to his girlfriend. That's…bad. They're going to fight, because of him trying to help me. They can't fight…I mean she and Leonhart wouldn't…?"

Seifer glanced over, contemplating her comment. He didn't think she'd be hopeful about it but, after what he saw, he didn't know what to think. "First in our field, it's not about lying to a girlfriend; it's about doing a job. No matter the fallout, the guy's done something right, believing you… Quistis and Squall both understand what takes precedence on a case, both accept that with the job…and look what you did - you just made me defend him. I feel all icky inside. You owe me."

Breaking off a square of her chocolate, she handed it to him. He accepted the peace-offering with a genuine smile. "Better."

Inside though, he was really confused. It dawned on him that she honestly believed that the agents were dating…which may, or may not, have had to with his flippant comments at the crime scene, at the station, during questioning… Fine, Seifer had made many flippant comments. He'd admit that the misunderstanding could be his fault and, if it wasn't pertinent, Squall wouldn't correct it, especially in regards to his personal life. Although, Seifer wasn't stupid, whatever Leonhart and Trepe had - it wasn't as black and white as they tried to make it seem.

Quistis may have not been a 'girlfriend,' but she was something. Maybe she was just the poor sap who had to the misfortune of being around Leonhart when he reached puberty or maybe a friend with benefits. Damn it. Now he felt all icky again. He had to scrub that thought from his mind. The only thing he knew for sure was that Quistis wasn't in a serious relationship, she was fair game.

But Quistis really wasn't the problem; he sensed something else. He couldn't quite put his finger on it, given it had only spanned fourteen hours, but he had knack for things like these – he was infected with detective cooties-of-awesomeness if you will. It's what made him a great at his job but, in circumstances like these, it could make him a sucky person. Sometimes, misrepresented facts were better left alone. Squall hadn't corrected Rinoa and Seifer had a damn-good feeling that the subject had come up, no matter how indirectly.

The truth was, time made a difference. Twelve hours ago, Seifer thought it was cute the way Rinoa first looked at Squall… fine, more like nauseating, but now it was something different. If what he thought was true – was true – she'd be setting herself up for heartache.

So, yes, sometimes thinking the wrong thing was the right thing. Seifer had to remember that this wasn't about now, it was about the long-run. Plus, it wasn't his job to tell her that Squall and Quistis hadn't seen each other in five years.

"Rinoa, I don't know many details of their relationship…the idea anyone dating Leonhart makes me feel violently ill. Hell, I did my best to convince Quistis to move on to greener pastures…or put Leonhart out to pasture to end his misery. I just know it had something to do with pastures. But in all seriousness, it's what I said. It's his job and they both know the inherent risks… Still, if he's willing to pull the wool over her eyes like this, it's gonna get a little real. She's still human after all. Honestly, don't read too much into his actions – she could either be a risk or at risk. Either way, he has his reasons and, as much as it pains me to say, we've got to respect that."

Although her eyelids fluttered several times, Rinoa's eyes never opened as she drifted in and out of a weakened state of consciousness. Her mind hovered between two planes as it tried to rouse itself from sleep. But she relaxed, deciding that whatever seemed so urgent could wait. Still, something called to her – feelings, disjointed and broken, making no sense without context.

Sadness? Desperation?

…Loss? A pressing sense of loss. She didn't want to remember. Her mind protected her by allowing her to forget. The memories were there…too weak, too unclear to sort through the emotional clutter. Later, there was always later. Part of her conscious resigned itself to sleep, an act of self-preservation, while the other part battled for the opposite. It was that part that was currently proving victorious.

She tried to acclimate herself with her surroundings. Unfamiliar. Alien. Surroundings that were not her own. Her senses remained on overdrive while her mind focused on why. The tailored sheets, the soft feathery-mattress, the combination of pizza and coffee filling the air, two male voices that rarely spoke… (maybe?) the reasons were buried somewhere in her subconscious. Reasons that she was growing more leery of remembering.

The voices.

Those seemed the most important. She couldn't shake them; they had been the main reason she hadn't fallen back to sleep.

Good? Bad? Maybe the whispers were a source of misdirection – her subconscious manifesting a warning. In fact, she felt more than she understood. That's why her mind forced itself to draw parallels – a way for her to organize all these matted-down feelings. Alone. Lost. The sensation of drifting… it brought her back to being a child on her father's yacht. They went a few times after her mother died, but she was always alone. Searching…maybe the voices had been her mind's version of Siren's song?

On the boat, she would read, and dream, and imagine how awesome it would be to catch a glimpse of what she dubbed the 'sea angel.' Yet, she was equally terrified of the being. Siren represented mortality. Back then, it was beautifully-tragic and romantic tale, not to mention a six-year-old's chance to giggle at the scantly-clad drawings. As an adult, those views were still there, but there was also another story within a story. This was the real legend as old as time – group of men get lost, won't ask for directions, see a 'naked' woman lounging about, forget to steer ship, causing said ship to smash into a rock, it breaks into many pieces, and then everyone dies. She'd like to see them add that version into the folklore.

Wait, what was her mind doing? Drifting at sea, childhood fascination, and fears? Why experience those memories now? She wasn't on a boat, actually it felt more like she was cocooned in a blanket.

On that note, the voices she heard were nowhere as poetic as a Siren and were way too masculine…and too aggravated, but their irritation also kept her tethered here. Why did her mind pull these mostly-painful childhood memories, yet the present was… gone? That brought up the very distinct possibility that the voices she'd heard speaking, were simply that – voices in her head.

As she tried to open her eyes, her body shuddered. It hurt. She vaguely recalled tears – a lot of tears. Not as a child - now. She felt the tenderness, but she wouldn't give into the pain – determined to stave off these sensations of weakness.

She moved.

Correction, she attempted to move – the second thing she failed at in ten seconds. Her entire body ached. Shit. A sharp pain radiated from her arm, and traveled through her entire body. Maybe there really had been a Siren involved, because smashing into a rock felt like a rather viable possibility. But a rock seemed too…safe? No, it was more, something greater…akin to a warzone, but not quite. There had been death. She could smell it; she bathed in it.

The stench still surrounded her.

Her body suddenly lurched as everything became transparent. She remembered. Her physical injuries, the grittiness of the blood, her friends… or what had been left of one, that's why she couldn't sleep. She wanted to fight but all there was an invisible enemy and, as she sat up to turn over, she could feel the bile rise with her. She stopped, as the acidic fluid burned her throat, but she was able to keep it down. As she lay on the pillow, she wouldn't give up, but she'd also resigned to the fact that she shouldn't rush things either.

Then it dawned on her – the voices stopped. Did her movement jar their disappearance? There had been a hint of recognition in them, although not familiarity. Still, she wouldn't let it go that easily. She was stubborn as was proved last night when Sq-

"…Squallwaitisthatyou?" her voice had started hoarsely, but somehow managed to move into an upper register. She gasped simultaneously, which resulted in a weird near-inhuman sound – more in line with a startled cat. It didn't register that of all the things that came out of her mouth, the word Squall was among them.

The way she addressed him might have escaped her, but it didn't escape either man.

Squall felt his body tensed as the word felt awkward on his ears, but he didn't offer a reply - to do so would reinforce the notion that it had meant something. Instead, he'd set the case report down and got up to check on her.

Seifer's response was a little less rigid, unless mentally flipping 'Squall' the bird for not correcting her counted – and Seifer counted anything where he got to express his true feelings for Agent Ass. To put it bluntly, Seifer wasn't a happy camper - he was actually at the opposite end of the spectrum. For a man who seemed to imply his education was above all mere mortals, Squall continued to prove that he was the smartest dumb person he knew. Either that or he was blind when it came to the opposite sex of the species…although it seemed cruel to classify poor Rinoa as the same species. Rinoa's mind may have been clouded and that's why she'd call Squall - Squall rather than Agent Leonhart. If that seed wasn't removed, it would be planted in her subconscious – correction – the damn thing was already there, but maybe it could be stopped from sprouting roots. Seifer knew the truth – what Rinoa called Squall while still in a fog showed exactly the level familiarity Fed-Boy occupied in her head.

And yes, Seifer was well-aware that he was being a big ass and an even bigger hypocrite, although all signs pointed to him being a 'strikingly handsome one.' Yes, he and Rinoa were on a first name basis, but she didn't have a thing for , she might not yet realize that she had a thing for what's-his-face either and hopefully she never would. Knights weren't about romance, they were about loyalty. It's just that fairytales and the movie industry just liked to romanticize the shit out of everything. That's why he made the promise to help her, even if it meant stopping her before she'd become heartbroken.

Seifer would call it his 'hypocritic oath' but this situation was above puns…or maybe not so much. He was himself after all and experience proved that no situation was above one of his clever puns.

By now, Squall had made his way over to see check on her wounds. Besides a few superficial facial abrasions, her other injuries weren't visible. He specifically came over to check on her arm, but found that she was still cocooned in the blankets. That hadn't been too surprising as he'd already pegged her as a cover hog. Knowing what he did about her personality, the blankets represented a form of security. He'd seen that enough before.

He'd purposely avoided answering her, hoping that she'd shifted enough to see. Earlier, he tried to look at her arm – an attempt that failed. He'd honestly hoped to do it now without too much ado, but that hope was quickly dashed as well.

"Yes, it's me."

"…Yeah, it's really you," she replied facetiously, biting back her laughter. Yes, he was most definitely part of her imagination. It was to her credit that she'd managed to make the voices in her head sound convincing. Now that she had some of her wits about, she knew that when she slept, all she heard was Zone and Watts. Now that she was awake, it appeared to be Agent Leonhart.

"Nice try. You're gone, aren't you?" Everything had been indirect until she chided herself. "You're pathetic."

He didn't understand that last part of her comment. Granted, his exit was a tad abrupt and maybe some would consider it pathetic, especially given that his return hadn't been his choice. Those facts didn't matter. It was another comment that was best left alone. Actually, thinking about it, he didn't know how to interpret any part of her comment. He sat on the very edge of the bed, trying to look at her arm.

"I'm not gone, not that I'm aware of." He glanced over to the detective who apparently shared the same perplexed expression.

Truthfully, as far as Seifer was concerned, like many things out of Rinoa's mouth, it didn't make much sense either, but that's precisely why he liked her. Being around her, he was often reminded of what his Grandma Maude said about things that didn't make sense, "Instead of splittin' tail feathers, better to shake your tail feathers. Don't waste time worrying about things you can't get. Let 'em roll off you like water from a Chocobo's back…and then spend that time dancing naked in the rain."

True, his grandmother wasn't exactly a fountain of logic either, but she was infinitely passionate about life and, yes, even quite literal about dancing naked in the rain. Those were childhood memories that Seifer couldn't exactly scrub from his mind. Squall, on the other hand, would probably have a small coronary just hearing every pearl-of-wisdom that came out of her mouth.

Still, sense or not, his grandmother's zest for life ran circles around the agent's. In fact, Seifer considered her the world's natural cure for the perma-boringness Leonhart seemed to be afflicted with – the suit-cooties had already waved their flag of victory. The guy's emotionally-flat-lined response to Rinoa highlighted this ailment perfectly. "Yes, I was gone, but we can discuss that when you're more alert. I came over to check on your arm."

His tone wasn't harsh, but it wasn't dripping with concern either. That's how she knew he wasn't entirely a figment of her imagination. Her eyes flew opened. No, the pain suddenly didn't hurt any less; she just found the drive to push through.

That was another point that was about to make Seifer as disgruntled as his birds. A minute ago, she had trouble opening her eyes. Now, not only had she opened them, but she'd also managed to roll over, sit up, and throw her arms around him. He only wished that he had Chocobo egg to throw at the guy's head.

"You're back! Tell me I didn't get you fired."

Squall should've expected her reaction but that didn't stop his body from stiffening as she wrapped her arms around his neck. He'd never understand her innate need to fondle strangers. Maybe it was just something in the moment but, why it had to involve him, he had no idea. How had Seifer lucked out in all of this?

"Wait, Seifer, where's Seifer?"

And there it was. Maybe she'd go hang on the guy who'd helped her drown her sorrows in pizza and orange soda. Also, judging by the candy bar wrappers on the nightstand, both of them had indulged in their share of Squall's peace offerings.

"Yo, Rin, maybe detach from the fed, you might notice the only hot guy in the room. You know, the one working over here all by himself."

That had been the wake-up call she needed, causing her to pull away sheepishly, looking towards Seifer's voice. Folding her arms, she turned toward the detective skeptically. "Working, really?"

"Yes, thankyouvermuch." He purposely ran his words quickly together, mocking her earlier use of Squall's name. She hadn't caught on, but he knew the agent had and therein lay all the fun. "And if you must know, I'm currently working on possible angles and, you know, honing my skills. I'm going to get the perfect results we're all looking for."

"Liar. You're playing that Chocobo game."

"Yeah, that's exactly what I think I said. Right?"

He flashed her a grin, turning the monitor so she could see the screen. She'd give him credit - the man was creatively-committed to his cause.

"Voila! Angles, strategies, skills – the whole package. And you know, perfect results are the only way to get to the bonus levels. Now don't you feel fool-" She watched as his humor was replaced by shock. He jumped up, almost knocking down the table in the process as he hurried over, "Shit, are you okay!?"

Rinoa didn't understand. Did he mean beyond the obvious? Because no she wasn't okay - her friends had been murdered in front of her eyes. Her lips pressed tightly together as she tried to process this.

"Look at me." Squall's order confused her even more, especially when she had no choice but to comply. She felt his hands on either side of her face, making her turn towards him. His expression gave nothing away, at least compared to Seifer who had obviously been concerned or fearful…or something. Whatever it was, Rinoa had no doubt it was genuine, while Squall's façade was that of a robot. "Don't look down. Have your eyes look towards window if you must."

"Must… why?" She had no idea if Squall's lack of information was freaking her out or distracting her enough to stay somewhat calm.

"Miss Heartilly, it's your arm. The bandage from last night wasn't sufficient. I'm going to let go now – you will not look down. Keep your eyes straight ahead, towards the window."

Squall's words had been sharp, clear, concise; he made her want to listen no matter how much her natural instinct was to look down. The problem was, she didn't have to look – she suddenly knew. That earlier gritty feeling that lingered hadn't been from memories, it had been the present. He knew how she'd react to seeing the blood. In part, it didn't matter as the connection was already made. She could smell it, taste the acidic copper, and feel the heaviness as it infiltrated her senses.

Seifer came back in with a load of towels, some wet, some dry. "Leonhart, think you're going to end up paying for more than just the snacks. Place like this, I'm sure this designer shit adds up quick. But, hey let your frugalness flag fly with pride. At the next office costume party, take the sheet and cut two eye holes and do the ghost thing. Either with or without the sheet, you have that whole 'Dead-Fed' looks and personality going for you. Win-win."

"…I'm so, so sorry. Looks like I'm forcing you to buy the bathroom too." Rinoa closed her eyes, her body involuntarily shivering as someone ran a cool wet cloth along her arm. She tried to convince herself this had been beyond her control. She couldn't. It would be a damn lie. She was back at the truth. Because of her, her seemingly-selfish reasons, he couldn't stitch her arm. She wouldn't have bleed; he wouldn't be literally paying for her mistakes. To add to the sting, she'd seen the purchase price on the bathrobe. It was about the financial equivalent to forking over one of her kidneys.

"I'll find a way to pay you back for everything." Her breathing had become shallow, but she had to make this right. "I-I don't have much…but I don't like owing people. Do you accept kidneys as payment?"

"Not anymore. Making change for kidneys proved to be quite the challenge." Running the cloth near her neckline, Squall glanced up. It produced a moment of brief, albeit really uncomfortable, eye contact. "Miss Heartilly, don't think about the Gil. It's only money. If you want to pay me back – you can do that by keeping your mind focused on the case. We can use your help."

"Gagging on that silver spoon in your mouth there, Leonhard?" Seifer shot back contemplating his choices.

He could focus on the agent's pitiable attempt at humor or maybe he'd just focus on being annoyed with every-last-word that the jackass spewed. The choice was easy. Seifer focused on the latter, reiterating his point, "Screw that 'it's only money' shit. Be real, you're not footing bill, the FBI is – and none of this is her fault. So you know what, enough of your backhanded attempts at victim blaming. Real heroic of you there, Special Agent Leonhart, you're making your country proud."

Squall never held her responsible for anything, not even in the slightest. Obviously, his attempt at humor went over as well as expected. It was another lesson that perfectly demonstrated why trying wasn't worth the end result. As for the other asinine comments, Agent Leonhart refused to take the bait that Seifer was dangling in front of him. Instead, he coolly responded, "I'd ask what your problem is all of a sudden, but we can deal with whatever issues are between us once we get her to the apartment."

"Finally, a statement I can agree with."

"Wait, what apartment? What did I miss?" She'd started to turn, but Squall reached up, stopping her. She was glad for his quick reflexes, but something told her if he was going through this much trouble to keep her from looking, there was good reason for it.

"Everything, sleeping beauty."

If Squall had said that it wouldn't have been a compliment. From Seifer however, Rinoa took it as a term of endearment. He reminded her of Zone again. For some inexplicable reason, they both had some natural instinct that made them want to protect her. Now, she saw how it carried over into their speech, into their sense of humor, and even their compulsive drive when it came to video games - Zone had been no stranger to hurling Disgruntled Chocobos in the air. Unfortunately, something else the two men would've been completely united on was their attitude towards Agent Leonhart. Zone would've been leery based on his personality – or lack thereof in her friend's opinion – rather than the job he held.

Then again, she highly suspected that Squall wouldn't have liked Zone either.

"Fed-Boy here found a place for us. You know, it'll be like one those sitcoms from two decades ago where two guys move in a woman and all the neighbors wonder what the hell is going on. Then hijinks ensue on weekly basis until someone thinks they're above the show and leaves, only to be replaced by a no-name actor. Translation: Fed-Boy goes through puberty and it morphs him into Fed-Man, causing his superiority complex to reach critical mass. The 'powers that be' then send an agent straight out of training to stay with you until we hopefully bring someone to justice. Barring those turn of events, the show tanks and then is sent into reruns right after that show where the woman married a Chocobo."

Seifer knew that Rinoa had no idea what he'd just said, but Squall could read between the lines. He smirked, deciding to up the ante, make the ass squirm by covertly calling him out on his lie. "That was a crazy-ass decade now, wasn't it? That Chocobo show… you know, it never sold me on the premise for one minute, although that lead actress was hot – leggy as hell – just the way I like 'em. But who'd believe a woman like that would marry a Chocobo, one she hadn't seen in a long time…say maybe a half decade or so? Some television execs want you to buy whatever shit they put out there. Then again, that's probably why it epically failed."

"I'm sorry…I-I have no idea…" Rinoa shook her head slowly in confusion. There was too much extraneous information swirling around to make sense out of this – apartments, television shows, and people married to Chocobos? She vaguely recalled a sitcom out of Esthar that might've had that premise, but that was before she was born. It was kind of a cult-classic just like the show with the talking Hexadragon with the catchy theme song.

Still, what did any of that have to do with them one continent over and thirty years later?

There was a part of her that desperately tried to reason that she should know what Seifer was talking about. She could see Squall did – he didn't look confused at all. Rinoa already believed that she was a nuisance, keeping them from their lives. Now were they going to have to explain things to her like she was some child? Why not? They were already taking care of her and the bed sheets. Seifer and Squall were force to clean up her mess because the sight of blood made her stomach wretch.

"You're fine." Squall finally spoke, his eyes fixed on Seifer as he was behind Rinoa smirking in victory. "He's just being a jackass and having a laugh at my expense."

He didn't want to offer any further explanation, but that choice wasn't really his. He needed to explain the apartment part of the comment, beyond that she was on her own. Rinoa wasn't stupid. Confused in the moment - yes, stupid – no. If she continued to sort through Seifer's asshatery, she'd end up putting two and two together as in the show was a metaphor for his and Quistis' non-existent relationship. The Chocobo was Squall and the 'leggy' woman and the whole idea of them in a relationship was laughable. Okay, maybe Squall was projecting into it, but it was fairly obvious that Seifer's point was about people – aka Rinoa - believing whatever 'shit Squall put out there.'

He refused to give Seifer the satisfaction of being rattled. Doing his best, he rolled up the bathrobe's sleeve, but it kept falling down. "Before we go into anything else, I need to look at your arm. Can you take the top part of your robe off? It will be easier to see what I'm dealing with if you're just in your t-shirt."

With that comment she became very aware of her choice in wardrobe. She'd left her bra, jeans, and t-shirt in the bathroom.

"Um, yeah… I'm sort of not wearing anything..." Swallowing, she turned her head as much as possible. Wow, talk about ten degrees of embarrassment. The worst part was she was used to this and so much worse. Crud sex jokes were pretty much the norm because they considered her just one of the guys. True, Zone and Watts always toned it down for when she was around, but she didn't care and rarely was embarrassed. But today? Today she couldn't even seem to say the words bra or underwear without turning five shades of red, even more so because all she could think about was the way his fingers were wrapped around her arm.

To her own surprise, she blurted out a quick amendment. "Wait, underwear… I mean I'm wearing it." She suddenly wished for distraction, you know like a meteor falling from the sky…or Siren suddenly appearing long enough to make them look as she ran away. Sadly, no so such luck. It was up to her to save herself from this verbal nightmare. "I um, it's just that after I got out of the tub, I was clean and honestly, it was a tad bit more comfortable, you know?"

"Of course he knows - Squall usually takes his bra off to sleep too. Happy coincidence, no?

"The only happy coincidence here is that you actually seem to be knowledgeable about this information, Seifer. Do spill." Rinoa had no idea why she'd said it, but she was glad she did. Granted, she'd sort of implied something, but it seemed that Squall wasn't upset. In fact, she'd e dare say there'd been a fleeting instance of amusement on the agent's face… maybe? Sure, it could've been written off as wishful thinking, if she hadn't witnessed it firsthand – the faintest hint of a smile as the corners of his mouth twitched upwards.

"Good one Heartilly." Seifer patted her back as if he was congratulating her. "I have feeling you're quite the little minx when you want to be…or maybe a fox, even. I hear they consider hunting birds a game like say chickens or even the rare Chocobo."

He then turned his attention back to Squall, who was doing his best to examine her wound. This part of the morning was turning out to be more entertaining than playing his game. Speaking of which, nothing spelled the letters F-U-N like rubbing a little more salt into Leonhart's wound. He smirked knowingly. "Well Agent Puberty, still want her to take off her robe? Oh wait, guessing that's a negative? Want me to translate that too? Wark, wark, kweh?"

By now, Squall had removed the bandage and in the process, he hit a part of her arm that felt as if it was bruised to the bone. Her response had been a sharp intake of breath as his fingers gently continued to feel around area. It absolutely hadn't been the agent's intent, but the pain served as a distraction, keeping her from taking any meaning from Seifer's random need to speak in Chocobo tongue.

"Sorry. Just breathe."

"You were saying about the stitches?" she winced. "Any chance you've changed your mind."

"You know I haven't. I'm going to have to wrap this, it just needs to make it to we get to the apartment."

"Wait so the apartment was real? I thought you guys were joking about some sitcom."

His head didn't move, but Squall glanced over to Seifer, making eye contact. The agent's usual expression gave away no emotion, but this look spoke loud and clear. It was as if he was daring – or more like threatening - the detective to make a smart ass comment. But Seifer had his bit of fun already so he didn't indulge. This was always about Rinoa and getting her to a secured location and despite how entertaining it was to see Leonhart squirm like a bug under a magnifying glass, Seifer knew when to pull back.

Still, he planned on continuing said entertainment after she was safe at the apartment – not to mention that would allow Seifer time to get a new magnifying glass. Because much like his file - bigger was always better. And if he had to keep these two apart by preying on their awkwardness, he wasn't above attacking Squall at the jugular.

"The apartment is real but I don't know much about it since Fed-Roach is in charge of that. He and Meaty-Fed are setting it up so you'll have to ask him."

"His name is Special Agent Zell Dincht – so get it straight. Also, stop with the goddamned nicknames." Squall shot back, "Or hell, or even just pick one for me and then stick with it - this is getting ridiculous."

"Sorry, not happening. It's sorta my thing, plus as I gain insight into a person nicknames change. Come on, you've taken a psych 101 class with that fancy-schmancy degree of yours. See, my names represent the masks people wear and all that shit. Looking into my mirror, I see your true reflection – an annoying little bug that everyone tries to squash. You even scurried off without saying goodbye to Rinoa to go hide in the dirt or whatever. Then, after we fumigated the shit out of our lives, you managed to slip back in through a crack. So, yeah if you forced me to pick a nickname for you right now, I believe that Fed-Roach is most fitting. Let's put it this way - you're like a cockroach, but minus the 'cock.' And yes, I just went there."

Squall clenched his jaw as he continued cleaning her wound. He would not take the bait. He would not take the bait. He had an inkling that Seifer had stepped up this caustic game for a reason, although he couldn't care less what it was. Hell, maybe he was over-crediting the man and it all boiled down to some inexplicable desire to emulate the mentality of a twelve-year-old.

The agent finally replied, "I didn't ask. I told you to stop."

A quick glance told him that Seifer had begun to pull the top blankets from the bed, tossing them into a heap that also included the wet and bloodied towels. If all went to plan, they'd get out of here shortly. He'd already called in a favor to take care of hotel situation. No, the room wouldn't be physically occupied, but nonetheless Squall booked it for second consecutive evening in order to collect on those favors. The more pressing concern was getting their eclectic trio to the other end of town.

At least getting her out of the hotel should be fairly straight-forward. It turned out to be a blessing that the hotel was actually renowned for its nightlife rather than it's 'day life'. He had every intention of getting her out of here a lot earlier, but that idea was nixed by letting 'Sleeping Beauty' sleep - as per her knight's demand. Thankfully, she woke up at a decent hour on her own and without the aid of being kissed by Seifer because he was her knight or a frog, whichever this ill-conceived-fairytale called for.

Great, more thoughts he'd need to repress for the remainder of his existence.

Rinoa's sullen voice silenced those thoughts. It was obvious she was growing tired of being in the dark. "Fine. It's only my life, why should I know? ….Maybe I would have had a better time communicating with a Chocobo."

She was clueless to the irony which was exactly why Seifer's laughter ended up being nothing less than obnoxious. He watched as Agent Puberty did his best not to outwardly react to the comment. This was too easy. He almost had sympathy for the guy.

"Hold on, almost done," Squall said, ripping the bandage from the roll, before tucking the self-sticking bandage into place. He decided to explain himself – namely because if he didn't, he'd wagered that Seifer would be more than willing to fill in the blanks. "Go to the bathroom and get changed. Place the bathrobe into one of plastic bags used for dirty laundry - we'll take it with us. You're going to basics once we get there and, until we can pull things together, let's hope the robe isn't a total loss. Once you're set to go, the both of us will escort you downstairs. From there, we'll get in Seifer's car and-"

"Correction, she's not a car. She's my Big Baby," Seifer interrupted, purposely using a sing-song voice to irritate the agent.

"Whatever." Squall stood from the bed, intentionally distancing himself. "We'll then head over to a new building… Actually, it's an old building in the art district, I meant new for us. Do you recall anything I said about my old partner?"

"Uh… don't trust him with food?" she hesitantly answered. Pop quizzes were never her thing and clearly, that hadn't changed.

The agent blinked a few times. It wasn't wrong but… it certainly wasn't the answer he'd expected. "I was referring to the fact he worked in cyber crimes and is already aware of the situation. Currently, he's in route from Deling City and is now on assignment. The Unit Director and I spoke last night and, when it comes down to it, Zell has my trust."

Squall had no idea what possessed him to do so but, he decided to follow-up on that statement. So much for that earlier lesson that he didn't learn. "Except, as you pointed out, with my food. I trust the man with my life - and yours by extension - but don't turn your back if you have any sort of meat."

"Oh, no he didn't. Oh, yes he did! Damn. Squall just said that!" Once again, Seifer interjected in the same mocking voice but with an added chortled cat-call. "This man wants his meat."

"I did not say-"


Squall was still not taking the bait but he would take the blame. It was history repeating itself, sadly 'history' in this case was about five minutes old. "Fine. Whatever. His name is Special Agent Zell Dincht and along with Detective Almasy and myself, we'll be alternating watch for your safety. The three of us will work with you throughout the entirety of the case. He's bringing photographs for you look at along with better supplies so I can take care of your arm. It should be done within twenty-four hours. We're obviously pushing it, but it's really the only option we have. I'm sure you have questions, but we're under a time limit. Do you think you can walk to the bathroom or do you need help?"

"No, I'm fine…I think. Just need to let this all sink in."

"You can do that in the car. Right now, you need to get dressed." He realized that came out a bit harsher than he'd meant.

"Ah, there's that personality of a cardboard cut-out that we love so much." This time Seifer had forgone the sing-song voice for one laced with frustration. "Seriously, I ordered one of those life-sized stand-ups of you from the one-hour printing shop around the corner. Thought I'd play a new game, see how long it takes before people realize that you've been replaced by Special Agent Card Bored. …Damn, I'm on a roll today."

That was it. Once Rinoa got out of bed and was in the bathroom, Squall was going to find out what the hell Seifer's problem was. He'd suddenly become a fountain spewing toxic snarkiness. And though it was difficult to admit, the Timber detective bested him in the areas of street-smarts and apparently in understanding women…or at least in Miss Heartilly. And as equally-difficult as it was to also admit, their skill-sets balanced out each other's. Once Zell arrived, the three of them needed to work as a cohesive unit - with boundaries and respect – since it wasn't just about them. The most important person here was Rinoa and they needed to-


He stopped suddenly. The most important person here was Rinoa… Rinoa.

That was an accident. Seifer had rattled him, that's all. At least he wasn't stupid enough to say that out loud. Running a hand angrily through his hair, he let out a solitary growl.

Damn it, he should've corrected her. Now who was going to correct him?