Author's Notes: Almost twelve years ago, I wrote my first fanfiction, Castles in the sky. The short version to Castles is - Rinoa left Garden in a misunderstanding, was in a car accident, lost her sight, and danced to fulfill a promise to her mother. In the end, she and Squall were reunited. The question I'm asked most is, "Did Rinoa ever get her sight back?" The answer in my mind has never changed, but this four-part story touches on that subject, without giving too much away. Sandcastles takes place twelve years after Castles - Rinoa is 32 and Squall 33. I've moved all the thank-yous until the end!

-o-o-

Sandcastles

-o-O-o-

She listened.

The world didn't have a sound; it had many.

She knew that very few would ever truly hear, just as very few would ever truly see. People were conditioned to accept only what their minds perceived, but if they went beyond what was possible, boundaries could be shattered and impossible redefined.

It just takes that single want, or to be driven by just one need, but once you open yourself to the world beyond your eyes, your heart can not only see everything, but hear it too.

.

Sight, sound, touch, taste, smell… Five distinct senses that Rinoa Heartilly had taken for granted the first twenty years of life. That was, until an accident twelve years ago when it all changed. It was the sirens of the first-responders and the pungent taste of blood. It was the smell of burnt rubber and gas and the hands in the dark that poked and prodded. It was everything that she experienced in those moments leading up to where she almost died, but it's also those moments when she began to live.

To most, the lesson would've cost too high of price, but for Rinoa it wasn't about the lasting scars or the string of bruises, it wasn't even about permanently losing her sight. By herself and then with the help of others, it had been a time of re-discovering the fight she had inside. She also came face-to-face with another reality that day - all five senses were intertwined and, with the absence of one, the others became stronger - the loss became only what she made of it.

It was also that drive, her need to overcome that allowed her to never assign blame. It would've been easy - a wayward driver, a manufactured holiday, a meaningless kiss, a love song filled with memories, or even foolish misunderstandings. That night had simply been a crescendo in a chain of events.

Those events didn't destroy her - in time, they came to define her.

Yes, maybe she should've handled things differently -not move away from Garden, given Squall a chance to explain, and not tried to date a man she didn't have feelings for. But life often was filled with bad decisions, and sometimes those decisions were under the guise of moving on.

Hindsight was 20/20, even for the blind. As a teenager, with her lofty ideals and dreams, she often felt that life was black and white. Situations were either good or bad and misunderstandings simply didn't happen – they were fact. Most of all communication didn't need to be worked at; it was natural when you became a couple – this alone was the biggest fallacy of them all.

Again, she could be upset, but that would be like blaming the stars for only shining at night - that's what Squall was back then. Intense, bright, focused, and beautiful in his own right, but alone and isolated. And while he ruled the nighttime of his life, his emotions were the daytime and Rinoa had been a child of the sun. But the darkness couldn't exist without the light, and just like the senses, time was intertwined as were fates of both Rinoa and Squall.

And similar to the senses, they found a way to defy logic; instead of weakening, their bond grew stronger in one another's absence. Day and night met at sunrise and sunset, and that's where they'd eventually discover their common ground. It took two years of being apart, but the finally found a way to live their lives on the in between.

And that's the time when she and Squall exchanged their vows ten years ago, on the beach at sunrise. In all her years, Rinoa was never a morning person, but there was an exception to every rule – and that day had been hers. It was also a day that none of their mistakes had mattered. Nor did they matter when their daughter was born six years ago, or when he was promoted to Headmaster three years ago, or when he finds himself on his nightly search-and-rescue mission for his half of the covers. None of those mistakes mattered because she'd learn to let go. Then again, the difference between holding on and letting – let's just say she had great role models when it came to both.

Holding on to the past was easy. She could've spent her entire lifetime focused on her regrets. Hatred was simply the seed; bitterness grew from everything she'd lost back then - sight, career, Squall, and the people she was convinced betrayed her. It wouldn't have been her blindness that made her life dark – it would've been becoming a prisoner to her mind and hatred.

Ultimecia had shown her this; the sorceress had held onto her hatred until it consumed her.

But letting go…

That was difficult to move beyond self-doubt and even resentment. She had to let go of who she was before the accident and accept that even getting a drink of water would be a challenge at first. Letting go of herself was about knowing the difference between pride and helplessness. It wasn't a weakness to ask for help if she needed. It was stepping out of her comfort zone and embracing the darkness, rather than fearing it. Once she learned that sight was more than seeing, hearing was more than listening, it was entirely freeing.

To even her surprise, Squall Leonhart had been the one to teach her this.

To most who crossed paths with her husband, that statement couldn't have been more off-the-mark. Balamb's current Headmaster, strict and ridged, was far from the textbook picture of free-spirited. But once he'd learned to relinquish control of his emotions and let himself feel; he told her it was like seeing the world for the very first time.

Their story had taken a lot of twists and turns to get here, but looking back now, she wouldn't change one thing about the journey.

Fifteen years ago, Squall tried to separate his personal and professional life. It didn't go well. Rinoa left Garden and most of the progress that he made was taken with her. Twelve years ago they reconnected by an accident, a ballet, and rather eccentric Deling socialite. Even then, it would take more than that - those were tangible. It was fighting and believing and even forgiving. And with help from Ellone's ability, they were granted a second chance.

What they would make of it was left up to them.

In the end, they both learned they need to let go, seeing more than just the physical. A lesson that even their daughter would learn. While Skyler could ask him to lay on the grass and find shapes in the clouds, that request would likely get one kicked off the SeeD Field-Exam. It would probably also require a head examination by Garden's councilor.

In the chain-of-events that was their lives, if just one link had been broken, everything would've been different.

-o-O-o-

For a brief moment, Rinoa's fingers lingered above the sand in front of her.

"No, that's not right," her inner voice insisted.

She allowed her palm to gently skim across the surface, moving carefully until she felt her shadow. This particular sand was just out of the sunlight's reach, so its temperature remained cooler to the touch. The difference was so little that it would've gone unnoticed to most - not to her. Rinoa knew what sand had been in direct sunlight and which had recently absorbed the rays, retaining the heat. Even if the grains had only been covered by shadows for a minute, the difference she felt was like deciphering night from day.

More than any of that, she'd been guided by over a decade's worth of intuition. Just because the sand may have been cooler, didn't mean it was better. Like many facets of life, it wasn't outward appearances that mattered, but what you found when you began digging beneath the surface.

Of course, this time, that analogy was also to be taken literal, because she needed to dig deeper to reach the needed layers of moisture. Like mining for gold, Rinoa knew she'd reached a good vein. She'd stopped trying to explain this ability to others years ago as she could barely explain it to herself.

Sadly, this particular skill set didn't qualify as something career-worthy, because even Squall would agree that she'd bypassed amateur status long ago. Like so many other highly professional (yet not-so-sought-after) specialties, it hadn't come easy. This ability to hunt, unearthing the perfect materials had been a quest that rivaled the defeat of Ultimecia.

The only other 'quest' that came somewhat close to either event was a rather ill-timed craving. It seemed somewhere in her third trimester, she'd awoke at four in the morning, desperate for a strawberry smoothie. She'd caught Squall walking out the door, although he'd be late for work - she couldn't even fathom what time he considered 'normal' if that was late. So after she explained her plight, he was a true gentleman, either that or the fear of angering a pregnant, coffee-less, hormone-raging, sorceress, and offered his services as her knight.

Of course, the word 'simple' wasn't in Rinoa's vocabulary.

It had been in the dead of winter and the cafeteria didn't stock fresh strawberries –an absolute must. Compounding the 'not-simple-ness' of it, nearly the entire continent had been hit by a blizzard. So her loving husband (and/or her fearful I-don't-want-to-be-Silenced- knight) commandeered a Garden vehicle and trudged into town with her in toe. That went about as well as expected at such an ungodly hour, under a mountain of snow. In a happy accident, they happened on Ma Dincht at the grocery store who was stocking up before the next storm front came in from the west. One thing led to another and by 7:00 am, aka - her husband's lunchtime, Rinoa was drinking her berry-fueled breakfast. Without question, Ma had made them the best smoothie known to mankind, but there was a price – Ma asked them a favor. She'd recently found out she was ill and, even with treatment, it would be a few years at best. She asked Rinoa to personally look after Zell; she was worried about him.

Even with the blizzard outside, sitting in the Dincht's kitchen - laughing about nothing and everything - was single-handedly the best memory she had of Ma Dincht. It had been difficult when she finally lost her battle and passed away four years ago, but she'd made a promise to her friend's mother. Rinoa had been there, even when the martial artist didn't want her to be. They spent countless hours on the phone, he'd become one of her best friends, still she wanted him to get out. So, she dragged him - to lunches and dinners and even a shopping trip in Deling City

He said he didn't enjoy it, but he had, especially the night she dragged him to a performance by her old ballet company. She argued that it was only one night just to keep his mind off everything, yet it turned out so much more than that. They were going to have the best seats in the house; actually, the most eloquent box-seating in Galbadia and most likely the world. However, Rinoa neglected to mention one microscopically-tiny, infinitesimally-small detail – like the seats were so posh because the owner's middle could have easily been 'posh.'

…Not really, but Rinoa did think that Maude "Posh" McCay did have certain ring to it.

Given their history, or more like Maude's history with all the males of the species below the age of twenty-five, Rinoa thought it was best to leave the Maude-factor out. It was often a rule of thumb to live by. Yet, oddly the eighty-something cougar was just what the doctor prescribed - a doctor that Squall later stated he'd be damned to go to. As eccentric as Maude was – somehow, that's what Zell needed. To laugh, to joke, to even return her one-liners and innuendos without missing a beat, but most of all, she somehow understood. It was eerie, for all her outward flamboyance, she truly understood people inside. Maybe that's because she didn't take herself too seriously and that was lesson they all could learn no matter their age. Rinoa didn't know it was humanly possible, but she could hear his smile…yeah, maybe that was just wishful thinking.

After the curtain closed, Maude invited them backstage…or dragged Zell by the hand, whichever. Her grand-niece had just been named Deling's Prima ballerina and Maude was proud as a peacock…not surprisingly, Rinoa later discovered that's what the older woman's dress was – a peacock, decked in green and blue feathers, complete with plunging necklines and headpiece. That mental image aside, far aside, Rinoa remembered the girl from workshops. The niece was about three years younger than most of her friends. Alexandra McCay began her career a little later in life but had a natural talent that couldn't be denied – a fact that Maude (continually) pointed out was a family trait and wasn't limited to ballet, dancing in general, or even the need to 'remain vertical.'

Again, putting that bevy of mental images aside, Rinoa found out that night she and Alex had even shared a stage; she'd even performed with the corps when another dancer had been injured. The night to turned out to be a healing moment for both of them. She got to reconnect with dancers who had been her family. She hadn't thought about the irony – no matter how hard she tried, she seemed to leave someone behind. Since that night four years, she'd remained in contact with her dancer-family. Of course, it had become a tad easier, given that she was going to get an unlikely connection.

Zell, the guy who complained to no end that he looked like six-foot penguin in his tuxedo, found his penguin-ess that night. It seemed that Alex had more to celebrate than her promotion. Six-months later, Zell transferred to Galbadia Garden and officially became Mr. Prima-Ballerina-Dancer and Mr. Grand-Nephew of Maude "Posh" McCay.

Most people said that six months of dating was too quick for marriage, but Zell never backed down. It wasn't a surprise that Rinoa supported him; however, the fact that Squall was his biggest advocate - that was a surprise to many. Even Irvine, who was facing his own marital troubles by then, remained firmly in his corner. Three years later, and there hadn't been a single doubt in regards to his choice. He believed that if you know what you want, go for it; you never know what tomorrow may bring. Now 'tomorrow' may bring either a girl or boy, well, more like three months and one week to be exact, but soon Rinoa would be an aunt again. Ma would be thrilled.

And to think, it all started with a smoothie quest and a husband who'd do anything for her – or again was fearful of being turned into a Toad.

Joking aside, she loved that man. No, their relationship wasn't perfect. They had their share of disagreements – and often their disagreements had disagreements, but that's what kept it interesting. She appreciated him even more once he joined the rest of society and started waking up at 6:30. It wasn't because he wanted to stay up later with her or sleep in; it was because he wanted to be there when Skyler got up in the mornings. Just when she thought she couldn't love the guy anymore, he goes and does that – plus he invented the Rinoa-mocha-coffee-double-shot smoothie. The man was nothing, if not a genius.

Of course, as she continued digging on the beach, the sun beating down on her on what was heralded as the 'hottest day of the year' thus far, all she wanted was another smoothie. It seemed that she believed in smoothie extremes. Maybe it was time to send Squall and Skyler on their first father-daughter quest.

She chuckled to herself; it was only fitting to be remembering all these little things today. This was a rather monumental day of celebration in the Leonhart household. It was also fitting to be on the beach, this is how they spent a lot of their free time. Then again, if she thought too much about being alone with her own thoughts, she'd quickly break. The memories, the way she visualized moments unfolding in her mind - those were what kept her sane.

Using her palm, she flattened the sand, making sure to fill in every last millimeter of the bucket. As she pressed down, she felt quite accomplished today. The weather was perfect for both the beach and smoothies, but this day was perfect for sandcastles. And to have the perfect castle, you had to have the perfect foundation. It couldn't have too many rocks or broken shells; it had to hold the perfect consistency. She even kept a water bottle nearby to spray it, keeping it from getting dry and crumbling. Again, she'd spent years in-training, perfecting the technique, to find the finest sand on Balamb's coastlines. Besides her pre-destined ability and of course the daughter-inspired-desire, the most important factors were the tools of the trade.

Just like Squall was an exceptional swordsman and knight but, take away Lionheart and give him a gunblade fashioned from a piece of driftwood, and fighting an Iron Giant may have a slightly less-than-desirable outcome. Yes, he'd still be an excellent warrior but, without the right weapon, it was the equivalent of fighting an epic battle with a toothpick.

…Although, that happened.

It was after Irvine's quest to make the perfect mixed drink and he'd left a box of toothpicks out. None of them were really drinkers, especially her husband, but it was all in the name of helping a friend get a part-time job at a bar. On a positive note, Irvine did succeed in getting his bartending license. On a less positive note, it's why the "Great New Year's Eve Toothpick Conflict" from seven years ago would live on in infamy - for more than one reason.

First, the party had been historically inaccurate - the "Great New Year's Eve Toothpick Conflict" had actually taken place in July. Back then, Selphie claimed that she'd spent, more-or-less, three solid years pregnant. Okay, not really, but when the story passed into legend, she talked about how surviving three years of continuous of mood swings and insanely-swollen breasts... Oddly, Irvine recalled it the exact same way.

After Conner was born, she wanted to take a night off and "PAAH-TAY," making up for everything she'd been forced to sit on the sidelines for. To make up for the last few New Year's Eves, she planned a themed party. Quistis and Rinoa had suggested calling it the "Summer Solstice Smash Spectacular," but Selphie could be...adamant. Truthfully, the hormonal issue had still very much been in play and everyone slightly feared for their safety. So, they all went along with her plan, but it turned out to be quite fun. They wore those ridiculous glasses with numbers forming the frames and Zell had even had the pre-recorded tape of the countdown to midnight.

However, unlike every other country in, well, the world, Balamb did things slightly backwards... Instead of having a lighted object descend down a pole, they rang in the new year by the famed Balamb Fish ascending 'up the fishing line.' It was meant as a nod to the communities livelihood and, not too surprisingly, Zell and Grease Monkey had been part of the town's brain-trust that implemented the concept years , even if the idea was simulate reeling the fish up from the water, people still counted down to get to the new year. Rinoa loved this town, even with its little fish-related quirks.

Again, the date was only one reason the party was remembered. The other was far more traumatic on a personal level for Squall. It was Zell's crushing victory over her husband and, from what Rinoa heard, the battle sounded…epic. Really.

Either way, it proved her point - whether a gunblade or sand for castles walls, finding the right tools was important as was keeping sharp, pointy objects away from Zell. She openly smiled at the memory. That night, after everyone left, she and Squall both got carried away that night as her poor husband did need consulting after his traumatic toothpick defeat.

…Two months and one week later Rinoa found out she was pregnant. To this day, she knew she still owed Irvine a bigger 'thank you' after all.

Six years (not to mention thirty-six hours of labor) later, that's how she ended up with this particular expertise – and again – expert not amateur. Okay, maybe she hadn't let go of everything from fifteen years ago. Then again, if her family was to be believed, she could even go toe-to-toe with the world's finest construction workers. If Esthar or Fisherman's Horizon thought they had good architects, they had no idea what they'd be up against.

She continued digging as she looked out into the ocean and 'looking' meant nothing of sight. Maybe that was one of the reasons their little family of three had bonded over both the sand and castles – there was a history after all.

Again, she found herself becoming sentimental. She always teared-up on birthdays and anniversaries; this year was no exception. Wait, no it was an exception – Squall Leonhart, the man who believed 'social' was a dirty word, wanted to get everyone together. He wanted to have a birthday party; it was surreal, but Rinoa wasn't about to question the impossible, she'd embrace it.

It only showed how far they'd come.

That's why she'd never be upset because the castles no longer floated in the sky, but a lifetime later, they were still very much a part of who she was. Still, beautiful and filled with wonder, from the pointed turrets to the battlement, the castles were very much there, but they'd evolved, becoming grounded in reality. Evolution was natural, as were fairytales and castles were talismans of childhood, but being loved, having a family, finding your place – these were the dreams of born of reality.

As far as the beach, well that was a little different than her metaphorical castles. The beach held a special meaning for both her and Squall.

In a way, a beach was where it began. That's why when it came to the wedding, the beach was their one and only choice. Both agreed to have a small, intimate ceremony with those closest to them. In total, there were nineteen people…and a very-well groomed, Selphie-forced-to-be-dolled up, bow-and-dress wearing dog. It would've felt right getting married without her four-legged best friend. After she left Garden, Angelo remained her only constant.

Rinoa stifled a sniff, today was about celebration and remembering the good times - Angelo had been there through each of them, always willing to lend a helping paw. When the canine passed away fourteen months ago, they'd all lost a part of themselves. She was more than a pet, more than a seeing-eye dog, she was family. To outsiders, Angelo was often the forgotten one, but not them; there weren't six heroes that defeated Ultimecia – there were seven. As a family with Squall and Skyler, they spread her ashes into the ocean at sunset - the water followed the ebb and flow of life, and somehow it just seemed fitting.

The minute Rinoa saw the tri-colored Galbadian Shepherd, she'd fallen in love. That was something…something she thought about far too much. In the dark hours alone, she hated that no matter how much she'd let go, it was human nature to think about the 'what ifs.' It was those times that she'd let her guard down that the moments of regret slipped in. Up until when Skyler was born – and far before -what she held closest to her had been born from serendipity. She didn't exactly believe in "Love at first sight" but it was something similar; two souls reaching out to one another on level beyond sight or even reason. That broke with her daughter because she didn't have to see her to know that she was already loved. Yet that didn't mean that every once and a while, she didn't start to feel herself slip into old patterns, but they kept her grounded. Their voices were her smiles.

Even more fitting was after they watched the sunset behind the ocean, they banded together as a family. Sometimes in life when you lose something, you're reminded of just how much you've gained. That's what she re-discovered that night as they sat on the beach, talking about the stars, the moon, the new colored pencils that Skyler's class was using this year and were, to quote her daughter, 'awesome-sauce, 'and every little thing in between… it was just life. Rinoa hadn't expected Skyler to sit so peacefully, yet the young girl surprised her temperate and patient behavior– characteristics she'd definitely received from her father. Then again, they had been brought there by a somber occasion.

As she leaned against her father sometimes holding back the tears and sometimes not, Skyler heard something amazing - a story. It wasn't a story from a book or even how they first met – Squall told her that before. This time he told her about was they 'second met' and, most importantly, about the moment everything changed for him. He told her about why they loved bringing her to the beach – why it meant more than sand and water. Squall opened up to her; Rinoa had no idea if Skyler would remember this later on, it wasn't likely, there was no way for her to comprehend the meaning in her then five-old mind. But Rinoa knew; she knew that every word Squall spoke had history behind it and how difficult it was for him to close his eyes before eventually letting go.

Still, it sounded so natural the way he told their story. That's why it didn't matter if Rinoa had heard it a thousand times or relived it her mind every-waking hour; hearing the words from his mouth, in his voice made it new. It didn't matter if she lived it - she was experiencing it for the very first time. In truth, for all the good things in their relationship, they didn't talk of it much, her blindness was something that simply 'was' and no amount of speaking would change that. It was accepted by both Skyler and Squall and that had always been that. Rinoa had thought long and hard about what to tell her daughter when she asked, but she never had. She thought it was best to the girl was ready on her own, so she never pushed, but she waited.

So she listened as Squall told Skyler about the first time he saw the sunset in Deling. He explained how Rinoa had been living with Caraway and Uncle Robert. True, he was Rinoa's cousin, but for the sake of keeping things streamlined in the family 'uncle' worked better.

By the time Squall talked about his walking alone to the beach, any pretense she tried keeping up for her daughter was gone. The tears fell freely, gently carving a path through her façade. She was glad that he'd omitted certain aspects of that day, like bringing his gunblade with him or the fight before the lead him to find solace in the beach. She had no idea of Skyler understood completely, but she also knew that his words weren't only for his daughter – they were equally for her. Again, it wasn't something they talked about; in a way, it had been his way of reassuring her of everything he still felt.

By the time Squall explained about hearing the music; he told her about how anyone can hear music, but it's your heart that allows you to find the symphony hidden in nature – now she was rather a blubbering fool. Thankfully, it seemed that Skyler's attention had been drawn elsewhere; it's hard to see your parent cry and, she doubted at that age, she'd be able to discern between tears of happiness from those of sadness. Rinoa had a feeling at the time that she was reading too much into things and her daughter knew more than she let on.

Great. Now she was crying again. Twelve years might as well have been yesterday, she was just as emotional. Squall still wasn't big on admitting his feelings. Time hadn't changed, but even if he didn't say them, he showed them through actions.

And that night led to something, the first time she truly felt blind since those first days losing her sight.

It was about nine months after the beach and they were getting ready for Skyler's sixth birthday. Rinoa had been feeling ill, but needed to finish the cake. Squall had been home and told her that, prior to contrary believe, he was more than capable of pulling a cake out of oven. Albeit begrudgingly, she went to go lay down. Sky had gone to play with the 'trio of terror' aka Selphie and Irvine's three children. It had been Irvine's weekend for visitation and it was easier to plan the party when the birthday girl wasn't asking a million questions - forget biology, it was a habit that she'd inherited from Uncle Zell.

She wanted to get something to drink, but walking down the hall, she heard her daughter's voice. It sounded like she was in her mega-question mode, poor Squall was probably being overwhelmed with randomness. Smiling, she couldn't help herself as she leaned against the wall. It wasn't right to eavesdrop, but a flustered-Squall was so damn adorable.

"…And said crayons and candles were both made of wax. Then Colton wanted to try to draw with candles. So he went to the dining room table and touched the thing in that center that Uncle Irvine always tells them not to touch. Then he said since the candles he had were gold we should draw gold Chocobos so he gave us all one."

"Don't tell me you-" There had been a definite hint of accusation, but Squall caught himself. Thankfully, Skyler wouldn't be aware the intonation was just too slight. For all the Headmaster's accomplishments, there remained limits. Today, those boundaries were being tested by an extremely anxious five-year-old.

As a form of self-prescribed meditation, he inhaled deeply until his lungs were filled with air. To her what came next remained the single-best indicator of how upset or horrified he was. It had a near-flawless success rate, far better than any 'mood ring' she'd owned growing up. The air that went in must come out. So, when he exhaled she heard a faint, but shrill, whistling sound emanated from his mouth; however, if he was really holding back, the air came out of his nostrils. Not too surprisingly, today only, proved to be merely a low-level of irritation.

For years, Rinoa debated whether to ask if this technique had been something SeeD-originated. She thought maybe he'd conditioned himself into calming down this way, or maybe it was habitual and he was simply unaware? In the end, she decided against asking – there was comfort in familiarity. That meant knowing his behavior, even if he didn't. And, if his exhaling wasn't by design, he could easily stop doing it once it was pointed out. These were the little things she could never explain to others; the verbal and non-verbal cues that helped her read people's expressions without seeing them. One of the things she'd come to treasure most about their relationship were the 'words' spoken within the words.

Rinoa had a term for these pregnant pauses, she'd coined them Squall's version of, "time-out." The term originated when Skyler hit her so-called 'terrible-twos' ….at nineteen months. Unfortunately, this also- coincided with Zell and Irvine hitting their, aptly-dubbed, 'terrible-teens.' Alas, this carried on through their 'terrible-twenties' and 'terrible-thirties.' One night after a three o'clock in the morning phone call, Squall confided that he hoped that his friends' developmental stage was about to level out - just like Skyler leveled out at 4-years-old, they'd do likewise, maturing at 40-years-old. To be fair, he did an amazing job with Skyler. It was just every so often he'd become overwhelmed by her enthusiasm.

Also being fair, Irvine and Zell were both amazing, mature men - separately. However, the few times they got together a year, she'd just say that if a middle-of-the-night phone call was the worst of it, they'd all be lucky.

She remembered not feeling well, but still finding a way to remain upbeat as she leaned against the wall listening in. It all seemed so innocent at the time; she loved these candid moments between them, even if her husband was a tad over his head. At least he'd composed himself enough to ask his directly.

"Skyler, please tell me you didn't try coloring with candles."

"Not me! But Cooper tried to but then broke them in two. So then when that didn't work, Colton and Conner wanted to see if it worked the other way and crayons could work as candles. They started look for matches so I went to get Uncle Irvine. "

"God help them," Squall mumbled incoherently. "…God help me."

Rinoa smiled. She couldn't read Squall's mind, but she knew the exact expletives on it. First, it was the thought of Selphie and Irvine raising the trio and then his thoughts shifted to the fact that said trio was going to be at Skyler's birthday party tonight along with ten more kids and the possibility of a sick wife looming over his head.

After that thought, when Squall took a breath that time, it was definitely exiting through his nose.

Trio never used to be this bad but, since their parents had separated two years ago, they'd been acting out. Even though Irvine and Selphie had managed to separate still being best friends (a reality not many understood) the boys always held out hope. Nobody cheated, or betrayed anyone – the two were mature enough to realize they simply were better off as friends. However, when Selphie became engaged again, the boys really had a hard time. Squall had truly respected Irvine through this, coming from the Headmaster that was high-praise. In time, they became unlikely best friends and the cowboy had handled thing so well, Squall offered him the position of commander.

It also didn't help that instead of spacing out the kids, they decided to basically have them one after another. Selphie thought it would be easier in the long run with their Garden careers, although she said later that maybe she shouldn't have been quite so impulsive. Then again, impulse was the couple's middle name. They whole discussion about children came up when Selphie and Irvine were on assignment on Dollet, Squall was then commander. It was one of those missions after Rinoa had left Garden, back when Squall was as fun as a barrel of Geezards .The 'legend' goes that she and Irvine snuck out for a late-night swim – that's when density struck. When they were leaving, she looked in the sand finding a single page from a baby name book – it contained the names from "Cl – Co." She kept it for future reference, believing.

Last week the Kinneasi (dubbed the official plural by Zell) ages 8, 9, and almost 10, snuck out to go swimming in Garden's south fountains. Squall called it karma; Irvine called it an average Friday night.

It had been followed by several loud 'thuds' in the kitchen, which was often was bad. Thankfully, no screams or curse words followed, so Rinoa figured that all was well with her make-shift chefs. Once Sky started speaking again, she knew not to send in the cavalry.

"Uncle Irvine then hugged me and I was fresh air or something? Maybe that's because the boy's room smells like feet."

"Skyler. Be nice." Sadly, it was true, but that wasn't the point. Irvine was an amazing dad, it was just difficult after the divorce.

"Sorry... Then Uncle Irvine asked if I wanted new brothers." Skyler giggled. "I told him that I really, really do…but not his boys."

"Maybe one of these days."

…God help her.

But besides her errant thought, she realized she couldn't decipher the meaning behind his comments, but that – that she didn't know if he was serious or something said in passing to appease his daughter.

"Dad… Can I ask you something?" Skyler's voice had grown softer as it often did when there was something on her mind.

If only Rinoa had gone back upstairs and let them have these moments – they weren't hers to intrude upon.

-o-O-o-

Notes: Special thanks to Emerald Latias and Wayward Tempest; there were nods to both "Future Says Run" and "Chasing the Sunset."