By Tenshi no Korin
Who can say
where the road goes
where the day flows
- only time
And who can say
if your love grows
as your heart chose
- only time
"Strange, isn't it," she said, to the empty champagne glass, the sea, or the stars, not to the figure hesitating in the archway behind her, "How things you expect aren't how things are. Life's full of surprises, I guess." The glass slipped from her fingers over the rail, flashing over and over like a falling star as moonlight caught its sleek surfaces, disappearing somewhere far below into the ocean and the Garden's wake.
Zell frowned, his brows coming together in a manner he'd come to associate with Rinoa, vague confusion and a desire to like her for Squall's sake, a bit of worry that she maybe wasn't following all of the rest of them, as if they didn't speak a common language.
"I'm an outsider, aren't I?" She rested her chin in her hands, and Zell shifted uncomfortably in the balcony doorway.
Rinoa lifted her head, and smiled a little at Zell over her shoulder. "I threw him overboard."
Zell blinked, trying to catch up with that, and started to stammer something when she held up one slim hand, shaking her head.
"Really, Zell. I was kidding. He went to use the little mercenary's room, I expect."
"Oh." Zell relaxed a little, but still bounced on his heels, eager to finish his errand and get back to the safety of people he could talk to. "Did he?"
"Maybe you should go find him," Rinoa suggested, resting her elbows on the rail and looking up at the sky, her hair swirling about her shoulders.
"Won't... won't he be coming back?" There was something of a sorceress still in Rinoa, and Zell had been trained too long and too hard to battle them not to want to edge away, to slide out of spell's reach from her. He knew it wasn't fair, had never been fair, but instinct was instinct.
"I'm not sure." Rinoa said, and once again Zell thought that might have been directed more to the lost champagne glass than to him, and it was with guilty relief that he turned his back on the balcony and went to find his commander.
"Squall?" It was the last bathroom to look in, way round he other side of the ballroom near the second floor classrooms, and Zell had the feeling he was on a wild goose chase. "Squall? You in here?" He'd disturbed a couple making out in the junior classmen's WC, rather a tasteless place to neck if you asked Zell, but hell, sometimes you didn't want to share your private space with the entire rest of the Garden in the Training Center. Nevertheless, the incident made Zell a little leery of barging in and opening stall doors.
"Whatever it is, I'm not here."
Zell jumped, so used to silence meeting his investigations that he hadn't actually expected Squall to be there, propped up on the wall with his boots resting on the edge of the stainless steel sink, cigarette in one hand, ass on the radiator and cushioned by his balled-up jacket. He took a drink from his nearly-empty champagne glass, and nudged it back on the metal shelf below the mirror.
"Smoking in the boy's room, Commander?" Zell let the heavy door slide shut with a groan of contracting springs, and perched on the sink opposite Squall's boots. "What are you doin' in here?"
"Smoking," Squall answered, with surprising patience, and belatedly offered the cigarette in boy's room courtesy to Zell, who shook his head.
"Thanks but no. Make my lungs lock up like you wouldn't believe. Childhood asthma." Zell leaned his head against the cool concrete wall. "Kinda like the way they smell, though. Burning."
"I quit." Squall said, and frowned at his reflection in the mirror. "Last year. Kept getting caught. But I think I deserve one, don't you?"
"Go for it." Zell grinned, and watched as Squall took a slow drag from between gloved fingers, and let the smoke seep out of him like an escaping soul.
"So what is it?" Squall asked, and Zell remembered that he'd come for a reason, not to watch Squall break about a dozen Garden rules in the sexiest way possible.
"Nida. He wanted to know where we should be going, not just drifting around. God forbid he leave his precious steering stick."
Squall might have laughed, behind his hand, and the cigarette smoke stuttered. "Tell him to head for Timber, if he wants someplace to go."
"I'll do that." But Zell made no motion to leave, his sneakers squeaking on the wet sink as he shifted his weight. "Why Timber?"
"We're dropping Rinoa off."
Zell felt his eyebrows come together again. "She's not coming with us?"
Squall lifted one shoulder. "Her father and Martine took control of Galbadia during the crisis; they requested she come in and help them settle things in Timber. She's the best person for it, Watts and ...what's the other one?"
"Yeah. They're already there. She's really excited about it." He waved a hand, and for a moment Zell was reminded forcibly of Seifer. "Timber independence at last."
Zell frowned. "We're free of our contract then, I guess."
Squall snorted. "Hell of an original way to dump a guy."
"She... dumped you?" Zell felt the clammy underside of the sink on the palms of his hands, and wished they weren't so far from the ballroom, the thick walls of the bathroom blocking any sounds of the celebration going on, the music and the sounds of laughter. It made the silence deafeningly familiar, wet and cold like the interior of a castle lost in time. He shivered, wondering why they were always in such a hurry to put the AC on after spring graduation. "Just like that?"
"More or less." Squall contemplated his cigarette, tilting his hand to make the smoke waft up in a zigzag. "It was her idea, not mine."
"She can't do that!" Zell said, suddenly loud, his sneakers hitting the floor with an indignant thump. "You're a knight! You're her knight! She brought you back from the fucking dead and now just cos her daddy says so it's 'so long it was fun catch you later'? Who the hell does she think she is?"
Squall looked up at him calmly, and Zell could hear the echo of his voice bouncing dimly in the back corners of the small space; his reflected cheek in the mirror was flushed red under his tattoo.
"It's her prerogative, Zell. I'd probably do the same thing in her place." Squall took a last, final drag off his cigarette, and dropped it in the sink with a hiss of ember on wet metal. "It's where she's needed, what she needs to do. Her friends are there, her life is there."
"That's what she said, isn't it." Zell's eyes narrowed, and the room wasn't quite so cold as it had been. "If it had been me," he said, and the walls amplified his quiet words. "If it had been me you opened your eyes for, I wouldn't be so quick to let you go."
"Well it wasn't you, was it?" Squall snapped, and Zell recoiled as surely as if he'd been struck. "I don't like it, Zell, but it's what needs to be done, and it was her last order. I maybe a lousy knight but by Hyne I'm a Very. Good. Soldier." He punctuated the last three words by getting to his feet with more noise than necessary, and whipping his jacket off the radiator, the zipper clanging loudly on the metal as he shoved his arms through the sleeves. "So do me a favor, why don't you, and go and pass my orders on to Nida. Timber. ASAP." He elbowed past Zell to the door, and to his credit did not jump as his abandoned champagne glass shattered on the wall beside his ear.
"Tell him yourself," Zell said, breathing heavily to hold down his fury. The door banged loudly open as he stalked past his commander and into the dark Garden corridor, away from the sounds of celebration.
"We've got to stop meeting like this."
"Fuck off, Irvine," Zell snarled, stomping down the corridor like a five foot five blond thunderstorm.
"Well, I would hope so, but after that bit with the camcorder my odds are off on that for tonight." Irvine brushed at the front of his vest where Zell had collided with him head-on, and strolled along beside him, one long stride worth two of Zell's impatient footsteps. "Got a funguar in your shorts or is it just the usual bad temper that comes of saving the world?"
Zell squealed to a halt, the sound of sneakers on polished tile echoing down the dark after-hours corridor. "If you must know, Kinneas," Zell said, jabbing the sharpshooter in the stomach with one finger, "Rinoa just dumped Squall."
Irvine gave a low whistle. "No kiddin'? Funny, I just thought she wanted to go straighten out things in Timber, now that the war's over."
"Well I didn't--" Zell blinked, working on that, and figured it didn't do anything to improve his temper. It actually only made it worse. "Squall sure made it sound like getting dumped. How'd you know about it, anyway?"
"She came out and told us, few minutes after you left, why?"
"Doesn't it strike you," Zell said, with the tone of one explaining things to a very slow child, "as just a little bit heartless to dump him right now? After what he went through?"
Irvine's eyebrows lowered, and the facade of the easygoing gunman faded just a bit, his voice darkening. "Even if it was, I don't think you'd be complaining about it. Not after what you told me in Esthar."
"I made my choice!" Zell shot back, and ruffled his hair. "You were there, you know! He went into space for her, Irvine, and the least I could do as make sure he didn't have to worry about what was going on down here. And that worked out just fucking fine and dandy, didn't it? Or did you forget that the entire Hyne-cursed Lunar Cry fell on our heads!" Zell spun in a little frustrated circle. "I made my choice all right, I had my choice made for me and--"
"Well that's nice to know," Irvine said, patience fraying. "At least I was a consolation prize."
"No, no," Irvine held up both his hands, "please don't let me interrupt this little vicious cycle you've got set up here. You love Squall but Squall loves Rinoa, fine, you come to me, I knew what I was getting into then. But she dumps him and you throw a bloody fit, I would think you'd be happy!" Irvine gestured down the hall, indicating Squall somewhere in the Garden. "He's all yours! Or maybe you like being a martyr, is that it?"
"I just want him to be happy!" It rang in the hall like steel on steel, and Irvine faltered, choking on his tirade. "I just want him to be happy, Irvine, that's it." Zell's voice was softer, his hands out, entreating. "I'm sorry you got in the middle, but you didn't listen to me then. And Esthar-- I thought we were all gonna die anyway. The station blew up, and I thought Squall was already dead. And you offered me the company. I sure as hell wasn't going to turn you down." Zell watched his fists curl as if he wasn't the one doing it. "but she's throwing him away. He loves her, and she's just walking away. Maybe I just wish I had that kind of luxury."
Irvine lowered his eyes. "You know, Zell," he said, and his smile was rueful, "D'you have any idea how humiliating it is to be talked right into the floor by someone a foot and a half shorter than you are?"
"No, he doesn't."
Zell jumped, and Irvine peered down the corridor to see the dim night lighting flash on a silver pendant, on crossed belts and one pale cheekbone.
"Squall?" Irvine squinted out of habit more than need; his sharpshooter's eyes were the best of any of them. "Izzat you?"
It was easy enough for Irvine, but Zell had been struck mute as surely as if he'd had Siren called on him, frozen in the corridor with Squall's grey eyes on his.
"I should have the two of you hauled in, yelling in the halls at this hour." Squall's bootheels rang on the tile, counterpoint to the rattle of belt and chain that was as familiar to Zell as breathing, a rhythm he'd followed all over the planet.
"Haul us in to whom?" Irvine demanded easily, hands on his hips. "The entire Garden's in the ballroom."
"Then maybe you should go join them, Kinneas," Squall said, unsubtly. "I know how you love a crowd."
Irvine grinned. "I was under the impression that three was a crowd."
Squall rolled his eyes, breaking the stare he'd locked Zell into. "Sweet Hyne, Irvine, will you just take a walk?"
"Hey, I know when I'm not wanted." Irvine shrugged nonchalantly, winked at Zell and strode off back towards the ballroom, hands in his duster pockets.
And Zell was left alone with Squall staring at him expectantly, his expression blank.
Zell tried to make a noise, but his throat would only accommodate him with a bit of a wheeze, soundless air escaping his lungs and refusing to form any words, not even Squall's name. Zell, on instinct, put his back against the nearest solid object: a section of hallway arching.
"You know," Squall said, as if they were finishing a conversation already established, "I'm getting really tired of all of you people poking in my life."
Zell, up till then, didn't know that a good case of fury could cure silence. "Well that's fine, then, cos I'm tired of getting snarled at. Now if you'll excuse me, sir, I've got a victory party to get to." He pushed himself up to leave, only to find that Squall's hand had landed in the middle of his chest, pinning him to the wall. Zell could easily have broken the hold, and Squall's arm to boot, but Squall's stare was a harder thing to shrug off.
"Two can play the rank game, Zell. I haven't dismissed you yet, Soldier."
Zell seethed, Squall's gloved hand warm against his breastbone. "Sir."
"Recite for me SeeD regulation 27, clause C."
Zell had always been good at regulations, he'd run the entire list over and over in his head as they fought their way through Ultimecia's castle, like a mantra for his nerves. "No SeeD is to engage in personal business while on a mission unless given the direct permission of his superior."
"Entering a non-professional relationship with other team members is strongly discouraged. Should the mission fail on account of such activity, all parties involved will face possible demotion, rearrangement of the team and, if deemed necessary, discharge from ranks."
Zell felt his heart sink. "Directly disobeying or ignoring orders from your commanding officer or team captain is grounds for immediate dismissal. A hearing is permitted for the SeeD with a jury of staff members and his peers. The headmaster will have final--"
Zell took a nervous breath. He could count at least five recent instances of breaking every single one of those rules, most of them having to do with Squall. "Squall I--"
"I can't even remember how many times I've broken those," Squall said. "Some commander I make. I don't know what Cid was thinking, putting the Garden's worst student in charge of the whole mess."
"Because you're good at it," Zell said, forgetting for a moment precisely how mad he was. "We all broke the rules, Squall. We broke them a hundred times over. We're people, not machines." Zell swallowed hard, past the tightness in his chest. "And--and you're in love. That should excuse a lot, don't you think? I'm sure Cid thinks so."
Squall looked at his hand, flat against Zell's chest, as if wondering how it got there. "What do you see, Zell?" His hand slid away, and his grey eyes were lost in the uneven fringe of his bangs. "What do you see, in me?"
It was a simple enough question, but a hundred words fluttered through Zell's mind like a flock of startled butterflies, and he couldn't catch even one. He remembered some homeroom class, years ago, a boy not yet used to his own sudden height sullenly holding an ice pack against his cut lip, seething against Seifer's triumphant stare. He remembered the shower room on some honey-colored summer morning, those same long legs wrapped around Seifer's hips, Squall's face open with the first honest expression Zell could remember seeing on it. There were memories more recent; Squall stepping back, shock flickering across his face as he looked down at the Galbadian soldier on the cobblestoned Dollet street, and realized he'd just killed him. Squall's body arched backward against a sagging chain-link fence in the training center, that same openness of a summer's morning moving across his face as he accepted Zell's unexpected gift. Squall's hands, stripped free of his gloves, carefully setting Selphie's broken ankle as he murmured a cure over it, the way he smiled up at her and made her giggle, blushing at him when he was done. Squall's voice, quiet over a loudspeaker, reassuring without telling lies, unaware how they all stilled, listening to him, that they knew he was one of them, he understood them, not knowing any one of them would lay down his life for him from that moment on. The look on his face, open and aching, as he spoke with Rinoa beside a field of wildflowers-- there was something so private there that it had made Zell blush and turn around, knowing he'd interrupted even though they were standing three feet apart. Squall's face serene and cold as the shadowy marble angels of a forgotten castle, some wordless sound of fury escaping him as he ran forward and up, the gunblade a part of him as it swung up, down, across, in perfect cadence to the sound of the trigger.
But buried under all of them, one clear image in a blurred childhood, was a little boy in a small orphanage, rainwater dripping from his hair, his face flushed from crying as he clung to an ivied column, squinting down the muddy gravel road with a faith that was as much stubbornness as it was trust.
Zell said, "I see you." And if the 'see' tried to turn itself into another verb before it left his tongue, he caught it and swallowed the syllable back. Squall blinked in puzzlement, and Zell fumbled over the words, saying all of them but the one he meant. "I mean, I see you, as you are. You're a SeeD and the hero of the world and all that, yeah, but you're my friend, too. I've seen you when you-- I don't know, screw up over some stupid Ragnarok control and make a face at yourself, or when you stop over some poor bastard you had to kill to do your job, when you're worried, when you're scared, when you're trying not to let anything show." He paused, thinking of those wildflowers. "And... when you're happy." He met Squall's eyes, and did not look away. "You're my commander, and you can order me to die for you. But you're my friend, and I'd do it anyway. I'd follow you to hell and back." Zell almost smiled, realizing that was what he had just done. "I'd do it all over again."
The expression on Squall's face reminded Zell forcibly of a sticky afternoon in the training center. "She's afraid of me," he said thickly, after a long moment. "She loves me, but she's afraid of me. She's afraid of herself. And if she tastes like a sorceress to me, then I taste like a killer to her." He curled his fingers, punched the wall lightly. "I understand why she's going." He frowned, puckering the scar between his eyes. "I don't understand why you stay."
Not stopping to think, Zell reached up, caught Squall's face in both of his hands, and told him. Squall tasted like cigarettes and champagne, but if there was a killer in his kiss Zell did not notice it, knowing it was in his own. He told Squall over and over again, until Squall listened, and told him back.
"You're going to like me." Rinoa said, twirling her finger on the smooth pink marble of the balcony railing. "You're going to like me." She smiled softly to herself and, with slow deliberation, drew the circle around in the other direction. "I think it's enough." He mind filled briefly with the flutter of white wings beating free, and she tilted her face to the sky, waiting for another falling star.
Who can say
when the roads meet
that love might be
in your heart
And who can say
when the day sleeps
if the night keeps
all your heart
Night keeps all your heart
Who knows - only time
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