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Chapter Seventeen
Then there were four…

-o-o-O-o-o

Thirty minutes later, the trio found themselves walking towards another elevator – one that was worlds away from the grandeur of the Regent Hotel. Actually, everything about their surroundings screamed that it was worlds away from last night, which wasn't exactly a bad thing.

Going into the apartment's lobby, Rinoa noticed the lift appeared to be some odd mechanical hybrid fused from the centuries. Three walls were formed with metal grating and diagonal beams, definitely giving the traditional warehouse-ish vibe, while the door was several decades newer…something that she hoped that also held true for the elevator's cables. Thankfully, it wasn't like in the movies, where the doors opened directly into the living space. Besides being the opposite of secure and looking cool on-screen, the idea of people having walk-in access to her life personally freaked her out.

Then again, her current situation listed high on the 'freak-out' meter. Standing, waiting, all she could do was fidget with her t-shirt's hem, trying to think about anything besides this shambled mess of a so-called life. Well, almost anything; she'd love to erase her foray into 'undercover' work with Seifer before it left a permanent scar on her psyche.

On a serious note, she'd been all right until now as driving through Timber always had a calming effect. Similar to last night, her mind was on the streets, imagining a back story for whatever she happened to see. In her youth, Rinoa's father kept a tight rein on her. She often found herself alone, creating complex histories to pass the time - it was second-nature to invent a story for a man buying coffee, come up with the origin of a street name, or construct a building's colorful past…such as the one they were in.

There was so much history contained within these walls; so much beauty, even in a building whose original lot in life was manufacturing. Without research, she figured it dated back at least a century, to when Timber first shifted into its industrial period. The fact that it remained standing was a monument to the city's tenacity. After it had been abandoned, it could've been demolished, but it was renovated, finding a second life and preserving Timber's history.

Rinoa believed that was the real progress, taking a step back in order to move forward. Using that perspective, the art district was Timber's most progressive - a unique marriage between new and old that made Adel Garden an eclectic blend of life.

Then again, even the best marriages often had conflict. After becoming incorporated seventeen years ago, the residents found themselves in a friendly disagreement, dividing into two factions.

…Of all things, it was over a nickname.

The greater part of Timber simply referred to Adel Garden as the 'art district,' but its residents weren't as amenable. One faction preferred Adel - a legendary folk singer who sang tales of the Chocobos and Moogles that lived in the forest. Before her death, she supposedly vowed to watch over Timber's musicians from somewhere in the sky. Not surprisingly, the Adel group tended to be musically-inclined. However, the artisans preferred the imagery Garden conjured. Some reasoned Adel focused too much on the past whereas Garden symbolized the future. Neither group was right or wrong, just two different standpoints on history.

Personally, Rinoa always edged towards calling it Garden, even though her mother was a musician. She wagered that it was because flowers had a very special meaning to her.

Either way, it was Adel Garden's quirks, along with its diversity, that made this Rinoa's favorite district in Timber's entire region. To her, it exuded perfection; it wasn't the richest, it wasn't the poorest, but it was easily the most accepting. Unlike Dogwood Heights, most living here didn't care where you'd come from, who you wanted to be, or even who you loved. Residents were passionate in everything they did, whether it was sculpting, painting, theater, playing guitar on a street corner…or even campaigning for their nickname of choice; the last of which was something they'd turned into a yearly fundraiser. They showed unity within diversity, giving back to their community.

Rinoa felt comfortable, spending her weekends here in the summer listening to musicians in the park and visiting art fairs. Once, she'd mistakenly dragged Zone to a free-form poetry reading...a flawed idea from the get-go. After moving beyond hysterical laughter, he'd ventured into inappropriate mocking. Worse yet, his comments shouldn't have been funny, but his deadpan-delivery had her laughing so damn hard that it caused people to stare. After that, she restricted his snarking to low-budget movies or the occasional chick-flick.

However, being a glutton for punishment, she eventually tried again, this time dragging both Zone and Watts to view a rare meteor shower. For several hours, they turned their lights off as businesses and homes displayed a deep sense of community. Carrying those memories of her friends made Adel Garden even more special.

Stepping onto the elevator, Rinoa thought about this area from a security perspective. In that respect, Garden was the single best option as people tended not to ask questions. This was good…considering. Although driving over, Seifer off-handedly mentioned the apartment was a one-bedroom. Since Zell, Seifer, and Squall were going to be rotating duty, they'd be the only ones seen coming in or out…they'd better be damned appreciative that people minded their own business. Biting her lip, she had to surpass an unexpected laugh and as the doors closed, she realized how much a random, albeit inappropriate, thought could make her smile.

Side-eyeing her, the detective asked suspiciously, "What's running through that mind of yours?"

Seifer had been looking forward, shooting daggers into the back of Squall's head, although he'd admit that Fed-Boy's hair cut actually looked good…on a Lhasa Apso dog. It did make him rethink the question he asked Rinoa. "Then again, maybe for my sanity… Screw that, for the sanity of the planet as a whole, maybe we're all better off not knowing what's on your mind."

Rinoa hadn't really heard his second comment, hanging herself up on his question. Denial would've been the worst; Seifer was already on to her. She did her best, trying to diffuse the situation with laugh. "Oh, you know, everything, anything…nothing. Just typical me stuff."

She shrugged, knowing that attempt was extremely pathetic - even by her standards – and since she'd set the bar insanely low since meeting these two, that was saying something. So, she caved, answering with something that bordered on the truth, "My mind was randomly jumping around ...freight elevators, nicknames, poetry readings, meteor showers…and, um, apartments and such."

"All right." There was definitely a ring of truth this time, even if she was holding something back. Still, Rinoa deserved her own space because, as not-so-brilliantly demonstrated by Fed-Boy, this wasn't about interrogating the witness.

"So, um…Agent Leonhart, you didn't say if your friend was here yet," she asked, glancing down to the plastic bag in her hand. Squall seemed preoccupied and if humanly possible, he'd been even more distant than normal. Instead of his typical three or four words, he'd streamlined a bit, grunting only one or two word sentences on the drive over.

"No. I didn't," he stated firmly.

"Oh."

Clasping her hands behind her back, she shuffled her foot back and forth. She didn't particularly like elevators nor did she particularly like Squall being so short with her. Pausing, her mind made the connection - Squall and short. There was a joke in there, but even that didn't make her smile.

The worst part? Something inside made her feel as if she was the one who needed to apologize. Why? She couldn't say, yet there was always this incessant need to appease everyone. Most likely, this went back to living with her father, where maybe a premature 'sorry' could curb his ire. Now, apologizing had become an ingrained habit. Most of the time, Rinoa didn't even know why or when she'd said it.

That's why the next word rolled off her tongue with such ease. "Sorry."

There was a pregnant pause before anybody spoke. "…Within the hour."

Now Seifer was side-eyeing him. Squall's response had been so seemingly out-of-place that it could only be deciphered as a feeble version of an apology. Folding his arms, Seifer used his earlier sing-song voice to mock the situation, "Awk-ward."

Thankfully, the elevator reached its eighth floor destination before Seifer continued his insightful brand of commentary; he considered his narrative much like a bonus, not to mention awesome, DVD feature. As the doors opened, Squall cautiously took the lead. Rinoa started to follow, but was halted by Seifer's arm.

Moving forward to hold the door open, Seifer glanced back to her, nodding in Squall's general direction. "Such a peach, isn't he?"

"He's not that bad." She felt the need to defend him. To be fair, she'd also felt the need to defend Seifer yesterday.

In truth, Agent Leonhart hadn't done anything wrong. Yes, he was serious to a fault, but she appreciated that focus, even if the detective interpreted this as a form of callousness. Even still, Seifer seemed to have some major grudge against Squall, although that appeared to be mutual. Plus, from what she'd pieced together from yesterday's fight, she doubted it could all be chalked up to 'good acting.'

Oh well, their issues were their issues and she had absolutely zero to do with it. She was grateful for that, because she already had enough on her plate, like the fact she had no idea where Squall had disappeared to. She'd lost him the moment he'd stepped off the elevator and turned left. The only thing visible was part of a wall and the wrought iron table against it. Actually, it was a nice decoration, but not as nice as seeing Squall.

…Well, that thought sounded completely wrong – she meant that it mentally felt better knowing where he was at. Seifer must've received some sort of signal as he motioned her forward. Before she'd taken her first step out of the elevator, Squall was by her side, ushering her forward. She silently followed, until she made a rather noticeable observation. To paraphrase Zone, only one of trio had been carrying a clue-stick.

Suddenly, Agent Leonhart stopped at a random, albeit immensely cool-looking, potted spiral-cut tree and started to dig. Either Agent Dincht clued him in, or Squall had momentarily transposed his current location, thinking he was at the beach, digging in the sand. Of course, Seifer had a different thought…a much less-flattering one. He believed Squall's uber-secret desire to be a cat finally broke through the surface and the inevitable just happened. Fed-Boy snapped, mistakenly believing that he'd stumbled onto a rival cat's litter box.

She watched as Squall finally produced something from the dirt. From a brief glance, it looked like a key. He then stood up, brushing his hands together trying to get rid of the excess dirt. With this group, Rinoa wasn't used to the prolonged silence, but it was about not attracting attention. Until now, there'd been no shortage of Seifer's opinions; he probably had quite a few that were trying to claw their way out now, especially after Squall's brief foray into the world of dirt. Squall would emphatically deny it, but Rinoa wholeheartedly believed there was a bit of smug-satisfaction knowing Seifer was being tortured by silence – having to swallow his Squall-directed-barbs was likely eating away at him. She had to deflect a smile, although thankful for these random thoughts - like the fact she thought Seifer may spontaneously combust with all that snark burning inside. Frankly, Rinoa would've appreciated a Seifer-ism about now as long bouts of silence tended to amplify her nerves.

As they started moving again, she believed there was something almost militaristic about the way they walked. She was literally marching between both men in a single-file line. Seriously, who did this? It certainly wasn't natural, seeming far more suspicious than say having a casual conversation like, you know, normal human beings. By the time they'd reached the end of the hall, her emotions somehow drifted into to misplaced excitement.

It made no sense…considering.

Rinoa figured that the most logical explanation for this – and even this was maybe a stretch - was that the anticipation of seeing the apartment paralleled staying at hotel. As a child, exploring hotel rooms were some of her best memories - in fairness, she hadn't exactly outgrown it. It was even there last night, although the experience was significantly dulled by exhaustion. It was one of those embarrassing secrets that she'd guarded closely; there wasn't a way to say it that didn't come across as silly. After her mother passed away, she traveled with her father. She and her caregiver Elise always had their own room. Because they traveled so much, Rinoa made a game of it, pretending that whatever was on the other side was her new home. She'd pretend like she was going to live there the rest of her life and then make all these mental changes.

Squall stopped at apartment #809 and she wished she could beg him to be the first to see it, just like she'd beg Elise. Again it was silly, but these were the childhood memories that belonged to her on an extremely-personal level. But this time, everything was different…nothing was pretend. She had no place to go back to. For days, weeks, or however long it would be, she had nothing to return to…this would truly be her home.

Leaving nothing to debate, Squall retook point. Rinoa knew that entering first was strictly protocol-based, but her imagination unexpectedly kicked-in, running away with common sense. She decided that Squall was hiding his ulterior motives – pulling rank because he wanted to be the first to see the apartment. Rinoa was aware she couldn't be further off base as Squall's personality certainly didn't scream that he was 'a kid at heart,' unlike the detective. Now that was easily believable. Yet, maybe if she allowed herself to believe this about Agent Leonhart, he wouldn't think that she was completely silly fool.

An unexpected touch to the shoulder brought her back into the moment. Turning towards the source, she was greeted with Seifer's patented smirk plus, upping his (non-existent) game, he threw in wink for good measure. Even in the midst of another bout of epic-fail, Rinoa was glad his attempts of suaveness always managed to entertain and, in all fairness, her response was equally as fail-y. Narrowing her eyes, she attempted 'annoyed' but she was simply going through the motions. Thankfully, both were saved when the all-clear was given.

When she'd stared into Seifer's eyes, something clicked, best described as a moment of non-existent sibling rivalry, and she became possessed by the ghost of her younger self. Maybe she couldn't be the first in the room, but she wasn't going to be the last. She moved briskly past him, leaving him clueless that he'd just lost a race he'd never know about.

She probably had a triumphant look on her face as she crossed the threshold into victory, but instead of exploring like she'd planned, her eyes landed on Squall's expressionless stare. If he'd been watching, she probably looked a giant idiot, going from being lost in thought to rushing over the threshold for no apparent reason. She suddenly felt like a fool, nervously gnawing on her lower lip and her fingers tightened around the bag she carried.

Their impromptu staring contest came to a rather interesting conclusion. Rinoa realized she'd tried to please everyone her entire life and Squall's opinion of her was probably rather strong. Honestly, he'd judged her from his first words – even before she'd given him any reason to.

She refused to be ashamed. In world of blood and death, there was no crime in recapturing a memory of her past.

From the hallway to here, Squall watched her mood change in a snap. But it was the smile and laughter that caught him unprepared. People were…strange. In fact, in his confusion his thought slipped out.

"What?"

Now he was confused again - what possessed him to ask? That was actually the biggest 'what' of this entire scenario. If he'd been smart, he would forfeited the earlier staring contest, shifting his attention to anything else. Then the scene would've played out on its own without the possibility of starting a needless conversation. This was Rinoa Heartilly he was dealing with - if he'd just shut the hell up, she would've shaken her head, and then turn her interest toward the throw pillows or something. But no.

"Nothing," she answered.

"Who?" Seifer asked sarcastically. Walking over, he inserted himself in the middle of the non-existent conversation. Laughing to himself, he continued, "Me? Perfect. Really? Absolutely. See kids, I can join in your one-word sentence game too. Seriously though, I'll be in the kitchen checking out the food situation. Besides, if I stand too close to a suit, I can literally feel my life-force being drained. Leonhart, you're really some human-shaped fun-sucking leech, aren't you? It's seriously kinda freaky."

Similar to back in the hallway, Seifer placed a hand on her shoulder as he reached for the bag she'd been carrying. To her surprise, he offered a sincere smile. Of course, Seifer could've left this on a positive note, but well…Squall really annoyed the shit out of him when it came to how he'd treated Rinoa. On his way to the kitchen, he turned around, walking backwards as he spoke.

"Here's Seifer's Pro-Tip of the Day: Rinoa if you're seriously in need to speak to someone with conversational skills, may I suggest that awesome-looking tree that Fed-Boy violated a few minutes ago? Also, Spiral-Tree has it all over suit in both looks and personality department."

"Be nice!" She felt bad laughing, especially because it was technically at Squall's expense, but he couldn't stop herself.

"I'm shaking…really." This time his words were accompanied by a full-fledged smirk as he goaded her on.

In fact, he used his hand to signal her over, daring her into some sort of retaliation – well either her or Squall. When that plan didn't work, the detective upped the ante. Some may say it was the equivalent of cheating, knowing her weakness and preying on it, but all's fair in love and war... Or to be accurate in this particular situation, 'Squall's fair in love and war.' Yes, bad pun was bad, but she'd told him Zone and Watts would spend entire evenings making everything into a pun just to get to her. It was just too good to pass up.

"Did I tell you that Cool-Tree became my confidential drug informant? Turns out he has a lot of dirt on local pot dealers. Before that, he'd been spiraling out of control. His girlfriend split, saying she didn't want to be with a lumbering fool who didn't know jack. Spent time pining for her, milling around local bars until he cracked and threatened to cut his life short. Guess, his bark was worse than his bite. He's shaped up – real clean-cut now. He'll make a great CI. Still a little green around the edges, said he had knots in his stomach, so I trimmed his work load by logging his reports, hopefully it won't pile up. But once he has roots in the community, I think he'll branch out. If I was him, I wood. Guy grows on you, even though he's a native to Timber I don't want him to leaf."

She growled in irritation. "That's it…seriously, how long have you been thinking that up? I hope you know you're playing dirty." She heard him chuckling, muttering 'dirt.' That was it.

Taking a few steps forward, she stood beside Squall. Her next move was deliberate, although her brain had opted for a coffee break during Seifer's story. Honestly, it had to be MIA as no thinking person would've grabbed his arm under these or any circumstances. The only reason she'd done it was as precaution; she didn't want to somersault over the back in her rather hasty state. Crazy situations like these always got worse right before they all worked out perfectly, right? Hopefully.

So, in an ungraceful move that was reminiscent of her "attempt" at backseat seat-vaulting, she bent over the back of the couch. Thankfully, her not-so-thought-out thought out plan worked - she was held from flipping over. From there it became easy; she reached for the closest throw pillow, stood up and then helped it live up to its name by throwing it across the room. It might've made some sort of statement – that is if she hadn't missed him by a good five feet and stood about two feet off the ground. The detective's laugh filled the air as he continued to gesture with his hand. She knew that he was invited her to come over or try again. Since she hadn't really moved, it was much easier to grab her ammo the second time, although it did require her to grab Squall's arm again. In theory, he hadn't outwardly protested the first time so…yeah. Fine, her theory was the opposite of logical, but logic didn't apply in war.

…Well, her version of war.

Rinoa was laughing. She didn't even know when it started, but after brushing the hair from her face, she nearly felt lightheaded as she placed most of her weight against the back of the couch. In desperation, she clung to the pillows in her arms as she gasped to even her breathing. This hadn't been from some small chuckle or an isolated moment of laughter - she'd had a few of those since meeting the guys. The tears falling from weren't from sadness, but the product of the most pathetically-lopsided, badly-aimed pillow fight in the history of the universe. She was determined to finish what she'd stared, placing one of the pillows in her right hand.

This time, she even offered colorful commentary with the impending attack. "Seifer Almasy, no more bad puns, being mean to Squall, or talking about yourself in third person! Honestly, that's the worst."

"You're in a feisty mood," he laughed, dodging the pillow sailed towards him. He moved, so he couldn't say how far off her aim really was, but she had corrected the height. He was secretly impressed that she'd picked up on the learning curve. Although, not impressed enough to play well with others.

The detective continued being amused. "Seifer would throw like a girl, but that's an insult to girls everywhere. You throw like Squall."

He then lifted up folders that had been sitting on the kitchen counter. Because it was higher, Rinoa hadn't noticed what he was looking at until now.

"Look familiar?" Seifer asked with a cockiness to his voice. "How bout I make it easy? As everyone may recall, this is my rather impressive, highly sought-after file. I'll sit here admiring it and let you take your best shot. You only have one pillow left, better master that learning curve real quick. Oh yeah, one rule - you gotta do it from there or it doesn't count. And since I'm feeling generous, a known side-effect of being around my large file, we'll do a small wager if you're game. Since I'm not sure what either of us are going want, we'll just leave it as a general favor across the board. Of course, being nice to Fed-Boy is off the table. Up for it?"

"Absolutely, except I want to add, since you being nice to Squall is off the table, then it works in reverse – if I win, don't expect me to be mean to him."

"Well played. There went most of my ideas…but we still have this Zell guy coming, maybe Meat-Suit will be worth a few laughs. Deal."

"He's so infuriating." she softly whispered to herself as Seifer continued laughing in an attempt to rattle her. Every so often he used that sing-song voice of his to hurl out a comment. Blocking it out, she tried to recall watching her dad shoot, although she wasn't around when he was shooting shotguns or rifles, but she did get to watch him do target practice with a bow and arrow. Maybe some of those skills could be used on a pillow. "Okay, I can do this."

She thought about gym class in school and how they were taught to throw a softball – step into it and follow through. She went though the steps in her mind and, with a deep breath, she lifted her pillow into place. Her hand went back and right when she was about to step forward with as much force as she could muster, she had no idea what happened.

The pillow was quickly yanked from her hand and before her mind could comprehend what the hell happened. She actually heard the sound of the pillow whooshing by her ear before she momentarily saw the blur of dark blue sail across the room. The next part occurred so fast it took several seconds before her mind registered the result. It was like bowling – air bowling for Detective Almasy – and this was nothing short of strike. The pillow had been perfectly aimed, on course to hit Seifer squarely in the chest, but before it was able to reach its second destination, physics stated that it had to pass through the first. The file flew up in the air as pages rained down. Seifer had almost fallen off the stool he was resting on.

"That was liberating," Squall deadpanned as Seifer managed a string of curse words. "By the way, Miss Heartilly still wins. The only stipulation was that she couldn't move."

Rinoa had no idea how Seifer would respond, honestly, she was still trying to figure out what happened since they walked in, nothing had gone as planned. She hadn't even gotten to take her tour, although there was a bit of satisfaction in how it all played out, not that she'd ever admit that.

"Well played, Leonhart, well played." Seifer gave the man his due. Moving to the ground to retrieve his papers, it dawned on him that that it was only a lucky hit, it's not like he saved the world. He shot back so only his eyes peered from behind the counter. "I'd tip my hat to you, but you still throw like a girl – a girl you probably pissed off with your Behemoth-killing attitude. But congrats."

Fine…even that wasn't his best comeback. He blamed it on the fact that it physically hurt to admit that Leonhart had somewhat bested him Seriously…physical pain. In fact, Seifer believed that even a nanosecond of niceness to Fed-Boy had the ability to create a full-blown ulcer.

Then again, Seifer wasn't the only suffering from momentary lapses of 'niceness' around here. No matter how much Agent Dingle-Butt…seriously? His thoughts became hung-up at this startling revelation - his nicknames weren't even up to par. The ulcer must have moved its way to his brain. He didn't care what doctors would argue, because it just happened – in less than a span of thirty seconds.

Taking a deep breath, Seifer cleared his 'brain ulcer,' returning to his previous thought – he wasn't the only one playing nice. Fed-Boy played it off as revenge for constantly being reminded about his informational inadequacy, although the real reason for tossing his pillow might've had something to do with another inadequacy - just not of the folder kind.

Tossing his pillow. Okay, Seifer had to suppress a snicker right then - there had to be a euphemism in there somewhere.

Actually, thinking back, that wasn't a pillow-toss. It was a pillow-attemptingto-hurl-an-object-the-equal-speed -to-a-meteor-entering-the-planet's-atmoshere. Seriously, there had been some seriously-repressed issues behind that 'throw.' Unlike Squall, Seifer was able to step back and see the larger picture – suddenly a random act of kindness wasn't so random. Seifer believed that Squall swooped in and played the hero so she'd win the bet. Fed-Boy already witnessed their little 'show' in the hallway firsthand. What little imagination the guy had was probably trying to fill in the blanks deciding what Seifer would ask as payment for victory and it was the guy's nature to assume the worst.

It was also telling that Seifer's thoughts often had the words "repressed and Squall" in the same sentence, although it was no coincidence. From their first non-handshake at the crime scene, Seifer pegged this one. From his experience, it played out two ways - some positive, some well, much less positive. In either scenario, one constant remained - it may not be today, tomorrow, or even a year from Thursday, but it always happened. Leonhart had repressed a lot of things, most likely beyond the scope of work. If something didn't happen soon then the repression would build until Mt. Saint Squall finally blew – and mark Seifer's words, if the agent stayed on this path, he would blow.

…And now he wished he could erase that thought forever. Much like so many other thoughts that could never be un-thought, the words 'Squall' and 'blow' shouldn't have been anywhere in the sentence, hell, the same paragraph.

.

Rinoa had been quiet.

Her earlier laughter subsided until she'd withdrawn into herself. Her mood swings and silence had been the norm her mind trying to find a way to process everything. She wasn't allowed to morn, or even begin the process, which probably had a lot to do with it – it also had a lot to do with why she was drawn to the men and even they way they interacted. It wasn't just how they treated her, but how they acted as if they were bitter rivals. Well, maybe 'acting' wasn't the right word and the best way to put it was to paraphrase Seifer – it was a rocky beginning to a interesting bromance.

Rinoa was quiet because being around them made her happy…and happy was bad.

She'd latched onto the familiarity, clinging onto comparisons that should've never been drawn. More than once, Rinoa had to remind herself that they weren't her friends, no matter how much wanted them to fill that role. She convinced herself that they wanted to be there and spend time around her like they were friends. But they weren't – she was an assignment. At least if she'd hired them maybe she could set the terms, but she had no control.

It all came down to one thing, trust needed to be earned and she deserved at least one thing – answers. Okay, she deserved two things - answers…and then something for her younger self. The one that, no matter the age, three or twenty-three, had always been brushed to the side by someone else in power.

Standing up straight, she looked over to Squall. He must have sensed it because shortly after, he turned, eying her apprehensively.

"What?" As soon as the one-word question left his mouth, the irony slammed into him with the force of a tempest. The guy who was still berating himself for letting the word slip the first time, yeah that guy, did it again.

"Well. Agent Leonhart, you're consistent if nothing else." She smiled. The moment she did, she swore that she'd seen him physically become uncomfortable, but she refused to let that deter her. "I never even answered your question the first time… That was my fault, I'm sorry and I'm really sorry about him. He means well…I think."

Even as she was saying that, she had no intention of answering him. Moreover, she'd strategically deflected by apologizing for Seifer's behavior. Maybe she'd later toss an errant thank you in her knight's direction; this wasn't the first time that his antics backfired into her favor. Rinoa started to think Seifer's moves were sometimes calculated. True, maybe his only reason was to bait Squall, but that felt obvious… If Seifer Almasy was one thing, he was sneaky and conniving. Fine, technically that was two things, but she wasn't being literal.

Whatever, Squall thought crossly, dismissing her with a wave. He'd already told himself that he didn't actually care about any of her answers. His bigger issue was with himself; what was this incessant need to ask in the first place – not once, but twice? Honestly, when he was forced to return to protective duty and, yes, he was forced, he was determined to remain focused. A few hours in, and he'd proven himself the fool once more, falling for it; she smiled, looked at him, batted those brown eyes, and there it was – asking two questions he really didn't mean or even care about the answer to and, worse yet, she'd deflected them both times. Maybe she thought he was both a fool and an idiot and that he simply wouldn't notice.

Right now, he couldn't be distracted. His focus was on making an escape before she inadvertently changed her mind and this turned this into another game. If that was her plan – then game over.

He'd finally tell her just that but, after the prolonged silence, they both spoke in unison.

"Look I-"

"Can you give-"

She laughed, looking at the floor as she pulled on her ponytail to tighten it up where it was starting to loosen. "I'm sorry Agent Leonhart…please, you can go first."

"No, go on."

Maybe Rinoa had been a tad bit of sneaky and conniving in her own way too, because if she'd let him go first, he'd be laying the groundwork for his getaway. This was probably her one shot to corner and/or guilt him into a favor.

"Thanks." She continued to smile, hoping that would curry some favor. "I sort of won the bet with Seifer…so I thought that maybe you'd like to help me celebrate by giving me a tour of the apartment. Thought maybe you'd like to show me around…you know, get acquainted with my new place. Since you went in to clear all the rooms, it sorta makes you an expert, right?"

"Wasn't Seifer the one who lost? Shouldn't the punishment be his?"

"… You're right," she choked out, realizing how badly she'd misjudged the situation. She should've been thankful that Squall had been direct. She'd always wanted to find people who didn't play games, obviously something that not even Zone or Watts could do, but Agent Leonhart could. She could continue being the eternal optimist and convince herself that he didn't mean what he said that way, but there were only so many lies she could tell herself today.

"…I don't...don't what I was thinking. You're right. Seifer won. It's one bedroom…even I'm probably smart enough to figure that out."

Getting mad at herself, she tried to refocus her thoughts. Not thinking about him gave her more time to explore the loft and see more than the sofa and kitchen area. Taking a step back, she was amazed at how easily she'd allowed herself to wear blinders and become a victim of tunnel vision.

None of this was like her, but maybe in the last two days she'd lost sight of who she was. That was problem she needed to mend on her own without becoming dependent on Squall or Seifer. She needed to find who she was and that person in the hall who felt the excitement that had been a moment of her. So she was going to recapture the fun of exploring, discovering all the nooks and crannies of this converted warehouse.

At that moment, Squall must've had his phone on vibrate, because he withdrew, stepping away from her as he reached for the phone in his jacket pocket. He'd given Zell the information of the burnable cell, but still wanted to keep it limited. He'd turn it off once he and the agent touched base. It only took a few seconds before he stepped back to the group. Rinoa had gravitated towards Seifer, who had now made himself at home on counter stool.

"Agent Dincht has arrived. He's going to have his hands full."

There was a long pause as Seifer assumed the agent was going to continue.

"…Ummm, go help him?" Seifer replied, again shocked by Squall's lack of empathy. Leaning against the center island, he did his bout of public service by pointing out the obvious. "It's not brain surgery, open door, go downstairs, and help him. You're the only one here who knows what he looks like. I'm not your lapdog; don't expect me to go down there asking strangers if they need help carrying stuff up to the apartment. That might be your version of trolling for a date on a Saturday night, but I'm not down with it."

He glanced to Rinoa, who jumped onto a stool across from him. "Or were you planning on pimping out our witness? Gotta say, you feds takes some creative approaches when it comes to witness protecting. Here in Timber, we generally prefer not placing our wards into the line of fire and actually, you know, protect them."

"Your natural ability to be an ass is actually quite commendable. People strive for perfection in their chosen field; you've obtained it."

"Aw, coming from you Fed-Boy, that means absolutely nothing."

He wasn't going to be baited, Squall newest mantra. To be fair, he understood how his earlier statement could have come off like that, unfortunately that was the equivalent of handing Seifer a blank check.

"To be clear, Agent Dincht has arrived in Timber, calling to say he believed he's a few minutes out, but thank you for your assumptions. You've once again demonstrated your superior ability to fail."

"I call it failing with style." Again, he relied on his arm gestures to sell his point.

"I have no words."

"Shocking. It would've been more shocking if you actually had the words." Seifer was done with him. Instead he leaned over, taking a moment to look at Rinoa's bandage. "You know, this is holding up fairly well, especially considering it survived your attempt at starting up a slow-pitch decorative pillow league."

She smiled. "Give it time to catch on, it'll take the interior design schools by storm before it branches out to the mainstream." Rinoa nervously toyed with an empty wire fruit bowl glancing to Squall. "Your friend's bringing the stuff, right?"

"Excuse me?" Squall admitted that he was only paying partial attention, tuning Seifer out was something that he'd been doing more than he'd care admit. Rinoa was about to clarify, but he'd pieced things together by context. "Yes, Agent Dincht will bring the supplies. With the channels I used, it was easier to set up a furnished, secured living space without raising flags. However, once medical supplies get involved, it became trickier. It wasn't life-or-death, so I didn't chance it to outsiders."

"Oh, no, no…I get the secrecy and wasn't pointing fingers. Believe me, I'm grateful for everything. I guess, I was just checking about my arm…then again, maybe it was a thinly-veiled attempt at my hope to start a conversation. Maybe both." Rinoa shrugged that off, but Squall appreciated that she'd been that straight forward. It was…unexpected and a little refreshing. As she continued talking, it seemed less…forced, maybe? Sitting there, as she and Seifer had started a game of table hockey with the fruit bowl, she seemed comfortable.

Laughing as Seifer pushed the bowl into her lap thereby scoring a goal, she continued. "Although there is a third possibility, like I'm secretly hoping you two forgot, no matter how unlikely. I've never been thrilled with needles…guess I better face the music."

"Sure." His reply was odd, but both she and Seifer had grown used to his responses feeling one beat off of normal conversation.

"Miss Heartilly, that tour you'd mentioned." The second he started speaking, she'd already been waiting for that Squall-moment when the other shoe dropped.

"I've reconsidered the request, once Agent Dincht arrives. I'm sure Seifer will be willing to set up an area where I can work on your arm. Call it a gut feeling, but I believe you'll be better off not seeing everything beforehand. I'll concede, you were probably onto something about the apartment briefing, it's best go over the outline sooner rather than later."

"Holy Ifrit on a stick, I was right! You are a human-shaped fun-sucking leech," Seifer announced loudly, hitting the counter in celebration, "Fed-Boy, she asked for a tour - not something that requires an outline or is in any way, shape, or form called an 'apartment briefing.' Seriously, Rinoa, you'd better hope the final exam is open-book, because listening to him prattle on is more potent than any sleeping pill on the market."

…Maybe he needed to exaggerate a little, artistic license was a fine-line. Seeing as Seifer prided himself as a visual person, he made sure that this particular line was bolded, underlined, italicized, highlighted…it was easier to see that way. There was something about Squall that bugged the hell out of him, like how he'd been so dismissive when asked about the tour. Hell, he wasn't just dismissive, he was downright offensive. He was trying to restrain himself from getting into Squall's face, telling him pointblank that spending time with Rinoa wasn't a punishment – spending time with him was. Of course, now that super-agent changed his mind, Rinoa was supposed to fall over herself grateful and take notes?

Unfortunately, Seifer would have to table his ire for now. Squall was thankful that Agent Dincht's timing had been impeccable - words he'd never believed could occupy the same sentence unless it was done ironically.

"I'll be back in five minutes, lock up after me." Squall was thankful to take a step away.

"Do we have to let you back in? I'm serious, do we?" Seifer teased, but in hindsight, he should've had an inkling into Squall's volatile mood.

"Sure, lock me out, I don't want to be here anymore than you want me here."

"Really?"

"Yes, really Detective Almasy, I promise being here certainly wasn't my choice. I'm trapped in this living hell like you are." He was tired, it had been over twenty-four hours since he'd slept, and he hadn't thought about how hurtful that was to Rinoa.

He would, eventually. Unfortunately, that wouldn't happen until he was in the elevator on the way back up, but for once he was living in the moment – that wasn't always a good thing.

"You're an asshole." Seifer saw Rinoa turn away, placing her head on the countertop. "No, I take it back, asshole is way too nice for you…you're like the asshole on a one-cell piece of plankton. Can you actually say something that isn't rude or obnoxious?"

"Well, I could correct all the scientific inaccuracies of that statement, but I don't have enough time or patience in the world. So, I'll be polite and say that you're wrong."

Squall did his best not to slam the door behind him, again 'goodbye' was lacking from his vocabulary. Placing his sunglasses on, he wished he could remain hidden from the world. No, he was better than this. By the time he got downstairs, he saw Zell had parked across the street. As he walked over, something unexpected occurred, something that hadn't happened in the history of, well, ever.

"I'm so glad to see you," Squall said harshly.

Behind his sunglasses, Agent Dincht shook his head as he slowly glanced around the parking structure. There was only one logical explanation - hidden cameras, microphones, and an entire television crew jammed into a production van alongside Director Kramer and his girlfriend Alexandra who'd obviously set this up. They had to be watching everything unfold from closed-circuit monitors and any minute now, they'd jump out, yelling that he'd been pranked for some television show. Then they'd all share a good laugh.

Unfortunately, that theory wasn't panning out. A good ways up, he caught sight of a white van with a rose decal, but that didn't seem to be a production vehicle, just an actual florist delivery van.

"…Ah, you too?" Zell hesitantly responded as he continued to stare.

Since the practical joke theory seemed to be a bust, his mind started formulating other logical reasons. Was it a parallel universe or maybe his former partner had been injected with experimental 'nice' drugs? Maybe the train had somehow gone through portal and time had been distorted by some power hungry madman…or madwoman as Alex always was on him about equality. He knew he'd been reading too many articles in Occult Fan when the theory of pod people or some sort of outer space abduction scenario actually seemed plausible.

However, the last thought was probably the most horrifying. What if Squall Leonhart had said he was glad to see him because he was actually glad to see him? Zell suddenly became horrified, if Squall was like this…what was he going to find lurking inside that apartment?

-o-o-O-o-o-

Author's Notes: Sorry it's taken me so long to get this up – and for getting back with people. I have messages and reviews I will catch up on, it's just been...well, this year has been…trying. Also, in three days (May 6th) it will mark my twelve year anniversary in fandom and here at ffnet. When I started my son was six, in first grade, I believe? Wow, that seems unreal. He's now graduating high school in less than a month…Oh wow that's the first time I figured that out. I kept thinking 'beginning of June' but until I just typed it…it hadn't sunk in. Wow, just wow. I also think it's a mental thing to have a son graduating (I feel oooold). Okay, now that I have figured this out, I want to go hide under the covers but I probably shouldn't my dog and cats won't want to give up their space… Also, on May 6th I'll post the second part of Sandcastles (the follow-up to Castles in the Sky, my first fic) and that's on the Eternal Tiet account.

Until then, hope all is well with everyone It's been an amazing twelve years – like any relationship it's had its ups and downs, but through it all I've loved every minute of it. Thank you to everyone - your support, messages, and reviews have helped me through very difficult times. *hugs*