Hide and Seek
By Black Rose
Another day. Another finance report. Another fifteen page list of seven column math detailing funds for commuter maintenance and air traffic subsidiaries and military funding and this department and that department, oh, and this one over there and somewhere this was supposed to add up and make sense but what it really boiled down to was "Please sign here, Mr. President, and we'll do the rest."
I tried one pen, discovered the ink had long since died and moved on to its next life as a star performer on someone's bicep, and went looking in my desk drawer for another. The right drawer yielded two pencils, a felt pen in red, a yellow highlighter, a plethora of paper clips that were building a small cityscape and probably in the midst of voting in their first senate, and a palm sized plastic tube that rattled pathetically with the last few painkillers from... when had I twisted out my back? Or rather, when had Kiros, in an ill advised challenge that I must have been drunk to accept, tossed me heels over head onto a gym mat and left me seeing white hot stars while my spine realigned with an audible pop? Hm. Sometime in early fall. Well, it's not as though pills go bad, right? Never know when hefting an Odine-special report, in triplicate, into an outbox might sprain something.
I was rummaging through the left hand drawer - gum, more pencils, pens in every bright color under the sun except black or utilitarian blue and would they really care if I signed the finance report in teal? - when my cellphone rang. I grabbed it one handed and flipped it up, peeling open a lower drawer full of file folders in the vain hope of maybe having filed a pack of pens with the other. "Laguna."
There were thousands of miles and tiny cellphone wiring between us but it didn't matter - the sound of Squall's voice, low and lazy and just that faint hint of amusement, dropped the search for a pen straight out of my head. I leaned back in my chair, phone cradled to my ear. When I closed my eyes I could picture him - early morning in Balamb and the lights in his office still dim, pale late winter sun from the window picking out the auburn colors in his hair. "Hi," I managed. A few dozen things battled it out on the tip of my tongue but phone lines were never completely secure - he'd repeatedly told me that - and what finally came out was an almost nonchalant "What do I owe this to?"
"Meeting deadlines," he replied cryptically. Either he knew the line was definitely bugged or he just enjoyed driving me insane; I was never sure which. "Second drawer in the filing cabinet, Laguna. Third file." He paused, then added, "and you've got a pack of pens in the back of your center drawer."
I blinked. "When did you take up mind reading?"
"When you answer the phone the with that 'I'm busy looking for something' tone," he said. I could hear the laughter in his voice, but at best it would be only the barest ghost of a smile touching his lips. "New pens are in the center drawer of your desk, your secretary keeps them stocked. Second drawer, third file, filing cabinet. Talk to you later."
The line went dead with a click, dial tone ringing hollow. I pulled it away from my ear to stare at it in disbelief.
There are people who will tell you that Squall Leonhart doesn't have a sense of humor. They've never been on the receiving end of one of these stunts.
'Deadlines'. Hyne, what had I filed and forgotten?
The better question, as I shortly discovered, was where had I put the key to the filing cabinet? The answer was not in any of my desk drawers, though the center drawer did, in fact, produce the promised pack of fresh pens. I put one on the finance report and dug around through the back reaches of the drawer to no avail. No key.
My secretary, bless her organized mind, didn't even look up from what she was typing when I leaned through the door into the outer office. "The pens are in your center desk drawer, Mr. President."
I bit my tongue. "...er. Yes, thank you, Michi." Was everyone except me telepathic, or had I been making that much noise rummaging through the drawers? "Actually, I'm looking for the key to the filing cabinet."
Michi gave me a firm look over the rim of her glasses. There were times I was quite certain that she considered herself my baby sitter instead of my secretary. Good secretaries, however, were hard to find - for a really superb one I would pay for the abuse happily as long as it also got my schedule and office organized. I gave her my best harmless look and she sighed and pulled a silver ring with two small keys on it from her desk drawer. "Please return them when you're done," she reminded me as she handed them over. "These are the last copies."
"I'll remember," I promised.
The second of the keys - it will never be the first key you try, that's a universal law - unlocked the filing cabinet. Third drawer, second file? No... surely even Squall wouldn't willingly go through the expense reports for the labs. Especially not ones nearly a year old. Third drawer... ah, no, second drawer, third file. Some other outdated something that I hadn't had to look at in a year or more, but the file was curiously thick and when I pulled it out a thin rectangular package the size of my hand slipped from between the pages.
Thin. Rectangular. And wrapped, very neatly, in plain shiny red paper. I knew what it was before I opened it - the smell of the chocolate, rich and sweet, came faintly through the wrapping.
There was a Deling chocolatier wrapper underneath the red paper - an honest to god Deling made dark chocolate fudge bar, sitting on top of my reports. There weren't many things I could say I missed about Deling and more than a few things that I was just as happy to never see again, but Deling fudge... that I regretted. It was a minor vice, one that had gotten me through the occasional rough day back in my youth. Esthar chocolates, made from northern grown beans, never tasted the same. The smell of it, free of the wrapping paper, was a memory all by itself.
There was a phone number - Garden code - written in black ink on the underside of the wrapper. I retrieved my cellphone and punched the number in, listening to the ring of the other end impatiently.
On the third ring Squall picked up. "How did you put that in there?" I demanded. "When?"
He chuckled, the sound low and warm in my ear. "Is it the right type?"
"It's perfect." I breathed it in again, sweet smell and chocolate and the pleased smug purr of his tone through the phone. "You're not going to tell me how it got into a locked drawer, are you?"
"Of course not." The laughter shading his words never quite made it all the way out; from one moment to the next he shifted, amusement fading. "All my love," he whispered, the words curling around me like the absent press of his arms, "from me to you."
I closed my eyes. There was a date pad on my desk but I didn't need to look at it; 'deadlines' indeed. It was the day for lovers on the Balamb calendar.
There are lots of people who would tell you that the Commander of the Gardens doesn't know the meaning of the word "romance" either. He may be the only person to ever tackle it like espionage, but if Deling fudge in my filing cabinet isn't romance then I don't know what is.
"I love you too," I whispered. Through the silence of the phone I could hear his smile.
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