Setting 11: 2018 DAY 15, Trabia Coast-bordering Cliffs

"It little profitsÖ an idle king,

by this still hearth, among these barren crags."

-Tennyson, Alfred, Lord

Ulysses 1

 

"I don't want to see Rinoa ever again."

Ifrit nearly choked when he heard that comment come out of Squall's mouth, even though he saw it coming. Still, it was his Master's final decision, and he would not dare meddle with that.

"Thatís the spirit," Diablos cheered with some enthusiastic clapping.

"Not ever?" Cereberus B questioned, still hopeful that they could turn the grievous mistake in Squallís reasoning.

Diablos quickly ducked into one of Doomtrainís random dining cars and pulled one of the speakers off from the dilapidated and rotting walls, and then he slipped into the car where the CD player for the entire intercom system was hooked. Instantly Cereberus Bís argument was drowned out by the speaker that was blasting out the heavy orchestra music of "Liberi Fatali." Briefly he wondered if anyone had the English translation of the lyrics.

Doomtrain fumbled around before finally turning off all the peripheral lines of power in his system, putting the speaker system out of commission and throwing Diablos out of the train.

"Well, at least not for awhile. I have to think," Squall continued after awhile.

"Act on instinct, boss," Diablos chimed in, "because then you will be doing what your heart tells you, and that canít be wrong."

Ifrit saw past the good-natured guise of the demonic GFís ill-advised suggestion; in their present situation, Squall was not in the right mind for anything except to fool himself, and Diablos knew it. Cereberus A and C did not see the harm in taking Diablosí proposal at face value and did not think enough to search for the evil intention behind it. They began murmuring in approval and to Ifritís horror, added the

If you didnít like hell so much, Iíd send you there, Ifrit meditated.

Cereberus B could guess where Ifrit was headed, and subtlety motioned for him to stand down. After all, Cereberus B reasoned, Diablos is doing his job of guarding the Master, even if he does prefer killing Rinoa then bringing them together so the Master has one less thing to worry about in his off time. Iím sure while Diablos may be flawed, but he is still a decent creature on the inside.

"Do you want me to kill her for you?" Diablos asked Squall eagerly, refreshing his earlier offer. Squall, had, by then, Diablos noted, rested his head in his palm and was rubbing one of his eyes wearily in the face of the setting sun.

Never mind, Cereberus B corrected himself.

Squall had the "I heard you the first time" look but didnít comment.

Does it really matter? Squall thought in response to Diablosí question. He surprised himself, but he was could not tolerate another second of mulling over the same prosaic topic. His first reaction would of course be to take the first and easiest solution.

"Sure," Squall finally replied, realizing how indulging in this outrageous idea would take his mind off the subject and offer him a temporary sanctuary from the confusion he felt.

The fact that none of the GFs had entertained in the idea, save Diablos, that their Master would go along with a joke of such ineffable nature and that all of them had grown accustomed to Squallís barely speaking at all was blatantly obvious to him when he looked back and saw them all staring in stunned disbelief.

For some reason though, the idea that they were shocked tickled him, and he shrugged internally. At least Iíll get a few seconds of silence with that answer.

He caught himself sporting a rare smile and slipped back into his usual grim, uninterested expression, his eyes darting around instinctively to make sure no one saw him slip.

Doomtrain decided that he would ignore Squallís acceptance of Diablosí offer and continued, "So is that it, then? You are just going to walk away from her?"

"How does that make you feel, turning your back on a girl who saved you from Time Compression?" Ifrit asked, giving Squall a hostile, verbal poke.

"How could she save me if she was a normal girl?" Squall countered without flinching.

"Thatís even more reason to go after her, because sheís so special," Cereberus B concluded, hoping this last argument would settle the case.

Squall shook his head and crushed the cigarette butt in his hand.

"Precisely because she isnít normal. Probably only a sorceress could have tracked me down in the post-Ultimecia time-compressed netherworld," he rejoined with renewed conviction.

"How did she manage to save you by the way?" Ifrit asked, crossing his arms.

"Yeah, Master," Cereberus C agreed, "you never bothered to tell us."

There was this golden feather that appeared out of nowhere and I touched it.

"Sorcery," Squall quickly responded, dismissing his previous thought.

"Thatís it? Plain and simple?" Cereberus B questioned skeptically.

"Thatís what sorceresses do, isnít it?" Squall replied smartly.

"So what if sheís a sorceress? She still saved your life!" Ifrit snapped.

"I thought we explained this to you already. Rinoa does not qualify to be anything except a girl. And one that loves you too," Doomtrain supplemented.

"What do you know about love?" Squall shot back. "When was the last time you went on a date, Doomtrain?"

"Doesnít it mean anything to you that she found you?" Cereberus B asked quickly, deciding that they had digressed. "Did you ever think about that?"

"Yeah, well maybe I didnít want to find her!" Squall shouted, slamming his fist into the ground.

When none of the GFs responded, he felt confident enough to add another quip just to let his answer sink in even heavier. "Did you ever think about that?"

He thought about saying something else, but decided against voicing it. Maybe I didnít want to be found.

The GFs were speechless, and coming up short with any new points.

"That canít be how you truly feel," Cereberus B said with a concerned look spreading across his jaws.

Squall narrowed his eyes and focused on the orange horizon, determined not to answer. What right do you have to ask me how I feel? I donít have to justify my actions to you! Iíve never asked you how you felt, so why should you give an Ifrit about what I think?

"What about all those things you said to her along the railroad at sunset, and in the Balamb infirmary while she was out cold?" Ifrit pointed out.

Squall froze, his mind still registering what was just said.

"You forget that some of us were junctioned to you while you carried Rinoa to Esthar on foot," Ifrit reminded him.

Squall colored. No one was supposed to hear that!

"I know that conversation you had out of Fishermanís Horizon was private, but you canít really turn off a GFís hearing," Cereberus B added.

"If you are so concerned with her mysterious ability to find men, why donít you all help her find herself a man," Squall retorted bitterly. Before this day ends I am going to shove Amnesia Greens down each one of your throats!

"She already found one," Cereberus B said plainly, "but heís been rather distant."

Squall was silent.

"You saw what happened on the balcony," he began to justify himself. "She left me-"

"He wasnít talking about you," Ifrit clarified.

Squall initiated a motion to spin around, but faltered in the middle of it, finally settling with keeping his head facing straight forward.

"Just testing you," Ifrit admitted a second later, "and if shows that you still care."

"I donít need you to test me," Squall growled angrily. Testing you is my job, not the other way around. Get with the program.

"My job as your Guardian Force is to prevent you from making the biggest mistake of your life by throwing away-"

"Your job is to do what I tell you to do," Squall reminded, cutting into Ifritís lecture. "Besides," he added, "If you like her so much, why donít you chase after her?"

"I would if it was in my job description," Ifrit returned.

"Watch it. I donít like your tone of insubordination, Ifrit," Squall cautioned.

"Well, I do a little more than block pot shots meant for you from the enemy," Ifrit remarked.

"If you have so many other vocational skills, why donít you make yourself useful and go braid Rinoaís hair or something," his Master rebuked condescendingly.

"You know just as well as I do that Rinoa doesnít braid her hair," Ifrit replied.

Squall blinked. She doesnít? Guess that shows how well I know her.

"Hell, the last person that touched her head ended up in the infirmary for three weeks, but

she would instantly drop her aversion towards braiding if you asked her to," Ifrit commented. Guess that shows how well you know her.

Ignoring Ifritís last comment, Squall said, "I didnít know Rinoa was disinclined to doing that."

"Of course you wouldnít," Ifrit continued smoothly, as if he had been expecting Squall to say that. "You were spending too much time trying to learn as little as possible about how the world really works."

"What makes you think you can preach to me? What do you know about life? Youíre just an entity that steals our memories that offer you a vicarious tap to the real world," Squall accused the GF, trying to undermine his credibility in order to dodge the personal attack.

"Actually, Master," Ifrit corrected, "we GFs earn experience and level up by ourselves. We donít really need you to teach us how the world works with your second-hand scraps of knowledge."

"You have to admit that since you memoryĖripping GFs are in the business of robbing parts of my past from me," Squall parried defensively, "you canít blame me for not recalling if Rinoa has ever worn her hair differently."

Ifrit feigned an absent-minded look. "I wasnít aware that those memories of the past were of any value to you since you obviously donít care about nurturing the present. And taking a few antiquated moments from your life isnít our business, and it isnít how we learn things. We have AP points each battle to teach us new tricks."

"But in all your confident wisdom, Iím sure you realized that," Ifrit abrasively added in afterthought. "Or did you forget that too?"

"If you hadnít leeched it from my mind-" Squall began.

"You canít always hide under that excuse, Master," Ifrit cut in. "At least try to open up and give Rinoa a chance. Besides, we both know that I canít steal every image in your head with Rinoaís hair done the exact same way every time."

"What would you rather me do?" Squall yelled, a mile past exasperation. "Go around

wearing a white napkin tucked under my chin with a gay, blue ribbon bow-tied around my neck, and cufflinks for the hell of it? Why not just add a leash and collar with a tag that says, ĎI am Rinoaís slaveí? Hey, and while Iím at it, I might as well go dye my hair blonde and buy blue pants with fake tails nailed on their backs."

His audience was so silent that they could almost hear the Snow Lions braying in the distance. Diablos finally raised his hand, beckoning for permission to speak. Stepping forwards slightly, he coughed artificially and put in, "I think I speak for everyone here when I say I donít have the slightest clue what you are talking about."

Cereberus C was laughing uncontrollably before Cereberus B gave him a look that suggested that it wasnít meant to be a joke.

Cereberus A wagged his tail nervously before saying aloud, "I think you are overreacting."

"But hey," Diablos cut in, "if you still want to go with the hair-dying idea, you should get it done gray, like Sephiroth."

"Who?" Cereberus B asked, knowing he was opening a door to yet another ludicrous topic.

"Sephiroth," Diablos repeated, "from this video game I found hidden in the Garden online tutorial."

"I wasnít aware that the Garden facilities were open to GFs," Squall mentioned, visibly unhappy with Diablosí mooching.

Diablos tried to pull off the most innocent smile he could, excusing himself with, "I just saw Zell playing it a few times. Heís a ĎFinal Fantasy VIIí fanatic."

Diablos wiggled his fingers agitatedly.

"On a side note," he added, "this is precisely why we should have GF-protection laws to circumvent this kind of discrimination."

"Youíre never going to sell that idea off to Cid," Squall said.

"What kind of a name is ĎFinal Fantasyí?" Cereberus A asked with a frown.

"I think the most important question is how in the world it garnered enough interest to engender six sequels," Doomtrain spoke up.

"Come on, guys," Diablos pleaded, "donít dis my favorite game. And you have to admit that ĎFinal Fantasy VIIí is a better title than the foreign RPG called ĎSpace Warriors VII.í"

"Hey!" Cereberus C exclaimed. "Iíve heard of that game before! Itís the one with a girl named Tifa in it, right?"

Diablos shrugged, replying, "I only play games in English."

"This is getting us nowhere," Ifrit muttered, rubbing his temples.

"So remind me again, Ifrit," Squall stated, plainly frustrated himself, "why you are so concerned about her?"

"Iím not concerned about Rinoa," Ifrit replied. "You are my priority, and itís my duty to tell you that you arenít helping yourself by rejecting new components that might prove to more beneficial if integrated into that tiny, insecure world of yours."

"You are making too big a deal out of a girl. And a client at that!" Squall pointed out.

"She has got to be more than a client," Ifrit stated flatly.

"Yes," Squall agreed, taking no time to think, "sheís way more nosey."

"She isnít nosey," Ifrit explained slowly, "she just cares about you and wants to understand you."

"I never asked her to care about me, so why should she expect me to care about her?" Squall countered stubbornly.

"A more selfless person would not cower under moral obligation," Ifrit reprimanded.

"What obligation?" Squall exploded, throwing his hands up and tossing his finished cigarette away. "Itís an option, and the world isnít going to end if I refuse."

"At least go find yourself some other girl then, if you wonít have Rinoa," Ifrit insisted.

"Bad move, Ifrit," Cereberus B chided, pulling his fellow GF aside.

"To Diablos with propriety, and Iím sorry if Rinoa is expendable, but Iím not about to lose another Master," Ifrit explained quietly in Cereberus Bís ear but with an unusual evenness in his voice.

All three Cereberuses decided it better not to inquire about Ifritís previous Master. Doomtrain and Diablos both frowned, but similarly kept their mouths shut.

"Iíve watched him squander his potential for too long. Rinoa isnít the only girl whoís ever going to have a shot; there are tons of girls in Balamb Garden that want him, so why push him when he clearly doesnít want any part of it?" Ifrit hissed at the other GFs, but mindful of keeping his voice below Squallís auditory range.

"Youíre starting to talk like him, now," Doomtrain noted calmly. "Besides, he doesnít know what he wants right now."

"Oh, and you know what he wants? Some mystical inner voice speaks to you and tells you what others are thinking," Ifrit mocked.

"Why are you defending him when you know heís wrong?" Cereberus B asked critically.

"Because I have a job to do, and so long as my Master ends up with a healthy lifestyle that might include some girl that he is actually happy with, for a change, then Iíve done my job well and I can pat myself on the back," Ifrit answered quickly as if on cue.

Cereberus B looked at Doomtrain for support, but the latter was actually seriously considering the point Ifrit just made. Diablos was always ready to support the dissenting underdog, and seeing how the other two, weaker-minded Cereberuses were vacillating, Ifrit convincingly pointed at the depressed Squall, slumped in his mental swamp of turmoil.

"Does it look like weíre doing a good job?" Ifrit ridiculed, raising his voice slightly. "Logically, I would say that we are doing something wrong."

"Donít get sarcastic with me," Cereberus mouthed. "Weíre in the middle of the problem. Something is happening. You canít just let him throw that away."

"Throw what away?" Ifrit returned. "In case you havenít noticed, that shroud of depression that is always clinging on him like itís part of his skin is no accident. And we could help him take it off or try to get him to see why itís good for him to be depressed all day long and try to make him come to terms with why he should appreciate Rinoa the shroud. Iím looking for the most expedient way to get the Master out of this emotional stagnation and onto the next phase in his life. We are wasting valuable time here, and I donít know what youíre priority is, but Iím actually trying to accelerate his psychological development instead of pissing him off and inhibiting his coming to terms with himself by keeping him locked in an unpleasant past that he just might not give a Shiva about!"

Diablos whistled. "That was one hell of a monologue, buddy! You got my vote."

He chuckled and unleashed a wicked grin. "Letís smoke her!"

Cereberus B glanced agitatedly at Squall, who still hadnít looked up, and then slapped Diablos with one of his paws.

"Just look how long it has taken him to reach this point. He was entirely closed off before

Rinoa began to crack that obstinate shell of his," Cereberus B pressed on, hoping to win over the last few unsure spectators.

"He wasnít entirely depressed before Rinoa began to crack his shell, as you call it," Ifrit rebuffed. "And what glorious point of improvement has he reached? I donít believe heís ever been in a deeper trance of consternation!"

Cereberus A nodded, sensing that Ifrit had the upper hand in this argument. The movement annoyed Cereberus B, who fell silent.

"Havenít you noticed that our Master hasnít said a word through this entire discussion? He is so centered on himself now, more withdrawn than ever because Rinoa has driven him so much farther into his shell, because she threatens him when she tries to get close and invade his personal space," Ifrit brought to all the GFsí attentions.

Seeing that Cereberus C, his last hope, was more interested in biting and inspecting his nails, Cereberus B sighed, shook his head, and set himself down in capitulation.

Diablos took this chance to nudge Ifrit in the stomach and whisper conspiratorially, "You mentioned Shiva in that heated speech a moment ago. Was that a conscious choice because you are still irked from her shooting you down on your last date?"

Ifrit was used to Diablos meddling, but todayís frenzied sequence of events had peeved him so much that he pushed Diablos back a few steps and warned him, "I donít know what you are talking about. As if you didnít already know, I canít even touch her without melting her."

"Hey, if you donít want her, Iíll take her any time," Diablos offered amicably.

He didnít fool Ifrit for a second.

"Do you have any idea how old Shiva is?" Ifrit asked. "I think sheís out of your league."

"GFs are like wine; they get better with age," Diablos chuckled.

Doomtrainís wheels suddenly creaked back to life, and Diablos paused at the sound of the labored by steadily accelerating engine. He slowly rolled over to the edge of the cliff next to Squall.

"Need help, Master?" the locomotive GF huffed with fumes pouring from his mouth whenever it opened.

Yes, I do. I, Squall Leonhart, need help.

"No, I donít," Squall answered.

"I meant with the Malboro cigarettes," Doomtrain rephrased.

Squall looked down on the ground next to him and saw what Doomtrain was talking about. Over ten cigarette butts were lying around, which surprised him.

Has it really been this long? I thought I was on my second!

"My regular attack is the equivalent of a few packs of those things, so if you want to get a real high in record time, just call," Doomtrain puffed.

"Hey! I donít tell you when not to smoke," Squall argued.

"Calm down, chief," Doomtrain said, easing off a bit, "I just want to help."

"Go help someone who needs it then," Squall scolded caustically.

"Iím trying," was the cool reply.

"Letís play a game. Weíll call it ĎQuiet Time,í okay?" Squall spelled out for him patronizingly. "This is when I take time to gather my thoughts."

"Care to share your thoughts?" Doomtrain continued, undaunted.

"I think alone," was the SeeD commanderís unequivocal answer.

"Then you're alone," Doomtrain concluded sadly.

Lowering his head slightly, he put his engine in reverse, and faded out of view.

I didnít formally dismiss you yet, but whatever, Squall noted and mentally shrugging.

He took in another deep breath and exhaled the smoke slowly. He did not notice Cereberus B pull Cereberuses A and C away as well, nor Ifritís exit, following the example.

It was like an unplanned but mutually-understood funeral procession that delighted Diablos, the only onlooker. Suddenly his grin receded as a gust of wind blew by, and his head jerked in attention. After a moment, he flashed a nefarious smile and licked his lips, the frequency of his wing flapping boosted.

"Oh, I smell Quistis," he whispered sneakily. "A dash of rose, some vanilla, and something I canít quite place my finger on."

Squall heard him and ordered, "You canít place my finger on any part of her, got it?"

"Do you want me to go into stealth mode so she can't see me?" Diablos asked, ignoring the command.

"I'd prefer it if you just left," Squall snapped, not wasting any time by mincing words.

Not chagrinned, Diablos chortled quietly and prepared to obscure his own visibility, entertaining in the thought of getting close to Quistis without her knowing.

"Iím not kidding, Diablos," Squall continued gravely, "donít try to frisk her while youíre in stealth mode. "You remember how that G-Returner nearly couldnít revive you after what she did to you the last time you tried to pull a stunt like that?" I donít care what you got a glimpse of.

"Thank you for the warning, chief," Diablos hissed back, licking his lips. "Iíll wait until she junctions me then." But you should have seen what I got a glimpse of.

After Squall heard the revolting sounds of Diablosí self-liquefaction what categorically accompanied every one of his transformations out of the human visibility spectrum, he laid down on his back and put his hands under his head as a cushion.

Maybe if I get down low enough she wonít see me.

"Ha! I finally caught you," a cheery voice called out, no more than ten meters away.

Dammit! Diablos take you! It didnít work.

"Good for you," Squall replied with a purposely over-exaggerated giddiness in his voice.

Isnít there some place I can hide?

Quistis squatted down and tried to initiate a friendly conversation, hoping that Squall would respond. I wonder if heíll notice my new outfit.

"Wow, I had no idea the snowfield was so pleasant in the summer."

Squall rolled his eyes, still facing the sky. Shoot! No place to hide. Guess I have to listen then.

Quistis looked around, rubbing her arms apprehensively as she asked, "Is Diablos lurking around here again?" Come on, Shiva, hunt that bastard Diablos down.

Squall shrugged. Do I have to listen? Oh, wait! Those clouds over there look mighty interesting.

Diablos shook his head. He would have whistled had he not known that she would have caught on instantly. Knowing Quistis, she probably has Shiva filtering through the entire spectrum just to catch me.

That meant that he would have to work extra hard and continue switching through frequencies himself. It was not easy to do, and Quistis had probably counted on making Diablos exert himself so much that he would have little time to enjoy the view.

After some careful consideration though, the demonic GF was almost entirely convinced that whistling would be worth it. If Squall would just turn and look at her, my Shiva!

Even though Squall had not paid a pennyís worth of attention to her yet, Quistis straightened out her matching white shirt and shorts.

"I guess I am sort of pale. Maybe I should spend some time away from Shiva," she commented aloud. There was a musical ring to her voice, like always.

Squall had no intention of replying, but the ensuing silence became so heavy that he at last acknowledged her rambling with a grunt.

I donít think heís a man. Diablos pondered bemusedly. There must be something wrong with him if he doesnít fall dead at first sight. Sheís gorgeous!

Squatting had become tiresome for her so Quistis ventured forth and took a seat right beside Squall, virtually on his arm just to make sure he noticed.

Squall shifted uncomfortably in response, but didnít push her off. What now?

Quistis eyed him for a few seconds, inadvertently disclosing her delight at his choice of street clothes. That orange and black shirt is pretty cute.

"I see Iím not the only one whoís trying out a new wardrobe," she said cheerfully, determined not to let the conversation drag. She was encouraged by the fact that Squall hadnít pulled away, and so, taking the initiative, she bent down dangerously close to Squallís face and stared straight into his eyes. Squall in baggy jean shorts, I never would have guessed.

Diablos wiped the purple drool coming down his chin. Look at those legs!

"You clocked out rather early today," she whispered conspiratorially.

"Yeah, so?" he replied belligerently.

"Oh, nothing," Quistis responded evenly, "just getting the ceremonial small talk out of the way."

"Well, if thatís all you wanted, then you can go now and feel satisfied that youíve managed it well," Squall told her, patronizing as ever.

"I didnít search all throughout Garden and finally come out here for you just to make small talk," Quistis spelled out for him.

"Okay, you got me," Squall grumbled crossly, "so now what do you want?" Say you want me to leave. Say you want me to leaveÖ

"I want you to take me seriously," Quistis implored. Weíre not on the script anymore! Shiva, what do I do? Donít panic. Donít panicÖ

"Is that it?" he asked with indifference, never once blinking during the entire time she had her eyes locked on his.

"Yes, please donít refuse me this," Quistis begged.

"Okay, Iím glad we had this talk. Bye now," Squall snapped after pretending to consider it.

He thought it was about time that he actually put some effort into moving her so he unlocked his fingers from behind his head and started getting up. Apparently Quistis wasnít convinced that the conversation was over because she leaned over, putting her weight on her arms to pin his head down with his hands still beneath it. His expression suggested genuine surprise mixed with mild annoyance, but she had stopped caring.

"Serious, seriously," Quistis repeated. Good one, Quistis. Iím sure that sounded really smooth to everyone else too.

Diablos shook his head. Great Eden! Just look at her, you fool!

Squall repeated, "I told you already. This conversation is over," and tried to sit up again.

Realizing how precarious it was for her to put all her weight on one side of Squall when he could just easily take advantage of her awkward balance and shift her aside, Quistis decided the only thing for her to do was to straddle him and grab his wrists.

"Weíre not through yet," she declared, her voice faltering slightly.

For a moment no one said anything. Diablos was too stunned to continue swapping frequencies, but he was sure that Shiva would be so dumbfounded by this turn of events that she would undoubtedly stop hunting for him.

"You know this isnít infringing at least seventeen SeeD regulations in the manual," Squall cautioned, even though he had a feeling it wasnít going to make much difference. Even though she was now flat on top of him and it would prove difficult to throw her off, she was pretty light and benching her would not be impossible.

"Yeah, so?" Quistis retorted, using Squallís own words against him.

He saw that too, and the frown he had been wearing for a while wearing darkened. If you didnít smell so good Iíd tell you to drop dead and get out of my face.

"The Disciplinary Committee is going to have your rear for this," he daunted.

It was an idle threat, and both of them knew it.

"That doesnít scare me," she rebuffed. "Does it scare you?"

"What do you mean?" Squall questioned.

"That Seifer might have me at his mercy," replied Quistis.

"Seiferís not on the committee anymore," Squall said.

"Then you have nothing to worry about," she stated simply.

"Who said I was worried?" Squall asked.

She felt like choking him, and she would have if she didnít adore him.

"You cared enough about her when you fought past Seifer to save her," she pointed out indignantly.

Quistis nearly choked on something as she finished that sentence. There was an awkward feeling tugging on her inside, both liberating and restraining at the same time.

"Maybe I shouldnít have been so hotheaded," Squall conceded, to the amazement of Quistis. It was clear diminution of Rinoaís importance to him.

"You donít mean that!" she pressed. She was the only one who ever got a real reaction from you.

She could feel her heart beating slightly faster.

"Youíve been staring into my eyes for the past five minutes. Do they look as if they are kidding?" Squall pointed out firmly.

"What about jumping into outer space to save her?" Quistis asked. Why am I trying so hard to defend Rinoa? Because sheís a friend, I have to remember that.

Squall paused before finally uttering, "Now that was just stupid."

Quistis was about to argue with him, but she could not fight all the parts of her body screaming, "This is your chance! You finally have him alone and available, donít talk about someone else!"

But I canít just back-stab her like this, she censured herself.

"Can we talk about something else?" Squall said at last, giving in.

Quistis smiled and nodded. So I got him! Heís finally willing to talk.

At the same time, she let out a sigh of relief, realizing that she couldnít force herself to talk about Rinoa for much longer. Now to think up a new topicÖ

"You know, I canít even smell Diablosí stench," Quistis noted lightly and glanced around.

Sorry, honey, Diablos smirked, I wonít make that mistake again. I prepared ahead of time with the grass-scented cologne.

Squall shrugged and took that chance to lean up a bit and get a second whiff of her scent. Diablos was right, he reflected, she has a on a dash of rose, some vanilla, and something I canít quite place my finger on.

He wasnít quick enough though, and Quistis caught him as he unwittingly laid his head back down. She pretended not to notice what he had done, but she couldnít suppress a sudden blush.

"What was that?" she asked shyly.

"What was what?" Squall shot back in denial.

"Okay," she said amiably, letting him off the hook, "just checking." My ass that was nothing.

"So why are you here?" he asked hastily, deciding that this was a good time to change the subject.

"Well, I came out to find you," she answered.

"That was a given. Was there something in particular that you wanted?"

Quistis eyed him for a while before catching herself. She blushed, becoming self-conscious, and looked away quickly.

"I meant to talk about," Squall added, hoping that she didnít get the wrong idea, even though it was painfully obvious to both of them that he was a step late.

"How about why you treat me like dirt," Quistis suggested bluntly, remembering her original intention. This hadnít been how she and Shiva had talked it over, but she had gone so far in the confrontation that it seemed a waste to squander it being polite now.

"I always thought dirt liked it on the bottom," Squall retorted wittily.

"As you can probably tell, you thought wrong," she shot back icily.

"So, Quistis, I guess the question is why you are treating me like dirt," Squall said.

"I just wanted to let you know how it feels," Quistis snapped, trying as hard as possible to be mean.

"Well as far as I can tell, it feels great," Squall answered playfully.

"No, seriously," she pleaded, giving his upper chest a few quick but serious raps. He coughed and threatened to pull his gun-blade out of its case if she didnít stop, which of course they both knew he had left back in his room.

"Why donít you just say it?" she asked, tilting her head to the side.

"Say what?" he rejoined, honestly confused. Is she honey-scented too?

"Why you never say how you feel," Quistis pressed him.

"I told you just now, didnít I?" he argued. Come on, I know this. What is she wearing?

"But you donít usually," Quistis reflected bitterly. "Usually you just ignore me."

"Must be the shirt," Squall invented.

Quistis looked down at her white outfit, visibly pleased with herself.

I meant my shirt, but whatever, Squall thought.

"But it seemed like you resented me, or loathed me," Quistis continued.

"Thatís because you wasted five full minutes of my time that I could have very well spent somewhere else. Thatís five minutes of my life that I will never get back, Quistis."

"Iíve been sitting on top of you for the past five minutes," she pointed out. "Donít you have something better to do?"

"In my humble opinion," Squall replied smoothly, "these past five minutes were well spent."

Quistis blushed and tried to find the next thing to say.

"So because of those five minutes you havenít felt like talking to me at all?"

"That and because you always pulled me away from Seifer, never telling him to stop first," Squall griped.

"It shows for whom I cared more," she explained.

"I donít need your concern," Squall told her. And I donít need you.

"I canít exactly switch it off on command, Squall," she emphasized.

He shrugged, saying, "Whatever. I donít need it."

Quistis made a face, but eventually guessed what Squall really meant. At least he didnít say, "I donít need you."

"You just donít want to feel obligated to care for others in return," she charged.

Squall didnít reply, which meant either she was right, or he wasnít listening.

"Well, donít worry," she assured him, "youíre off the hook. I donít need you to care for me."

Squall hadnít replied, even though he was still looking at her. This meant either she was really right or he was falling asleep.

Heís faking, she decided.

"I know you hear me, Squall," she said, giving him a push, "and you canít fool me with your ĎI donít need anybodyí façade, because thatís crap!"

Squall didnít say it, but she knew he was thinking the same thing about her speech.

"Do you honestly think that youíve totally grown into the ĎSis, I can take care of myselfí mentality over the years like some old trousers?"

Thatís none of your business, now is it? Squall thought angrily, but still careful not to flex a single muscle in his face.

"I have news for you, Squall," Quistis went on, "those trousers are falling apart, and every patch is just another mark of insecurity and self-consciousness."

I am not self-conscious, and I can take care of myself.

"Is that why you canít stand having the sole responsibility for anything, Squall, like making choices for all the SeeDs?" she poked.

Iím responsible for myself, isnít that enough?

"Is it because you donít want to let anyone down, like Ellone let you down?" she ventured.

Why donít you mind your own business?

"Is that why you didnít try to stop Esthar from taking Rinoa when she voluntarily capitulated, because you didnít want to interfere with her choice, and because you were afraid to make a choice for her?"

Iím never afraid! You donít know what youíre talking about!

"Well you flunked that one, Squall," Quistis chided. "It wasnít just any choice, it was the right choice that you failed to make for her."

I had nothing to do with that, so donít push that crap on me!

"Do you know what being chicken-wuss means, Squall?" Quistis asked.

Donít even go there.

"Running from the consequences isnít chicken-wuss," Quistis explicated, "itís cowardice. Refusing to make a decision because you donít want to accept the consequences, expecting someone to step in eventually and make the call, and avoiding confrontation, especially about yourself, now that is just plain chicken-wuss."

Squall exploded, sitting up and both her arms just below the shoulders. She cringed as his face turned red and he began to shout at her.

"You presume to know everything about my past just because you saw me standing in the rain?" he hissed.

"Ah! Squall-"

"You think that just because you were my instructor once you can chastise me now at your leisure?" Squall snapped fiercely.

"No, Squall, I-"

"Since when did you suddenly become the undisputed authority of virtue?" he demanded. "I just wanted, ow-"

"What qualifies you to carp at my indecision when youíve had your shot as an evaluator and you flunked it?" he pressed on caustically.

"Squall, youíre, ow-"

"I bet thatís how you lost your job," Squall chewed out menacingly, "because you spent all your time judging how others handled themselves when you couldnít even handle your own mess!"

"Squall, youíre hurting me," Quistis murmured meekly between sobs.

Time stopped for him as he realized what he was doing. He had gripped her skin so hard and had been squeezing without realizing it. He slowly softened his grip and moved his hands away. Tears were dripping down and darkening his orange shirt from her chin, and she clasped herself in a defensive reaction, still shivering. Oh Eden, I screwed this one up.

"I might have flaws," Quistis sniffled, "but you didnít have to say all those awful things about my career."

Youíve done it now, Squall. What were you thinking?

"Look, Quistis," he said apologetically, "Iím sorry. I didnít mean what I-"

"I wasnít fired, you self-righteous prick," she replied icily, wiping her eyes, "I resigned."

Squall looked blank.

"Why would you do that?" he asked.

"Youíd never find me attractive if I was your superior," she explained, rubbing her arms. "I figured you might be more easy around me like that night I asked you out to that secret meeting place. Cui bono, you just hated me more."

"I didnít hate you," Squall comforted her, "but I just thought it was okay to be distant since you admitted at the beach by the orphanage that it was just sisterly feelings you had for me."

He wasnít sure exactly how to proceed, but it just made more sense to try to put his arms around her. She fought him off half-seriously to be sure, but eventually she just belted him a few times in the stomach, and then succumbed sulkily.

"One has to save face somehow, especially when others are around," she confessed with true bitterness in her voice.

"Iím sorry," he apologized again when he couldnít find anything else to say, "I didnít know."

"That night, on our little Ďdateí," she continued, "you really made me feel insignificant, like I wasnít even there."

Thatís ironic, Squall humored himself, even though he knew his timing was inappropriate, since Iím the one who always wants to disappear.

"Why do you like me then?" he commented instead, giving her a reassuring squeeze.

She frowned in thought, but snuggled a little closer, still looking off to the side.

"Because youíre so-" she hesitated, unsure how to describe him.

"Complicated," he finished for her.

"And nonchalant, I suppose," she added for him. "Youíre no different from a wall when I try to talk to you, Squall, and you never take me seriously."

"Iím a wall that likes to growl at people," he suggested.

"Oh, stop it," she fussed, punching him again.

"What?" he cried in defense while craning his neck slightly to examine the aroma from her hair. Iíll just take a quick sniff here, and no one will be the wiser.

She felt his movement and guessed what he was up to, but didnít do anything about it.

"I hate myself," she pouted as she marveled, "I canít stay mad at you for two minutes!"

"Thanks," Squall replied and then added with a scowl, "Rinoa can hold a grudge for two weeks."

Oh shoot! Quistis thought. I knew I couldnít put this off forever. Why canít I just enjoy the moment?

"Are you ready to talk about Rinoa yet?" she brought up grudgingly, nestling deeper.

"No," he replied, clasping her a little tighter. I donít even want to think about Rinoa.

"You promised though," she insisted unenthusiastically. Why are you doing this, Quistis?

"Was I drunk when I did that?" he joked.

"No," Quistis snapped, exasperated, "but it was probably the line you used to blow me off a few minutes ago." Because Iím a decent person.

"You got one thing right at least," Squall admitted with a grave tone.

"Squall, youíre incorrigible!" she exclaimed.

"If you say so," he agreed.

"Youíre really hard to talk to, Squall," she sighed. Donít give me any of that ĎIf you say soí bull.

"I am," he concurred.

"Yes, you are," she repeated after him even though it wasnít a question.

"Well you always choose hard topics. Canít we talk about something else?" he begged.

"Whatís so hard to talk about? Isnít that all guys think about?" Quistis challenged.

"Actually," Squall informed her, "I only think about her whenever I come across you." Because you always beat it out of me.

"Gee, thanks," Quistis replied at length, unsure what his remark meant. Would that be a good thing or bad thing?

"Maybe itís because youíre around whenever sheís not," Squall suggested.

Quistis sighed, realizing that Squall had a point.

"Iím only here to second you," she said, "and Rinoa would have been here for the past two weeks had you not scared her off."

"What are you talking about?" Squall demanded.

"Do you know why she really decided to stay at Balamb for two weeks?" Quistis asked.

"Just as she said, to give me time to settle matters here," Squall replied, waving in the direction of Nova Trabia.

Quistis shook her head and pointed at Squallís heart.

"She was giving you time to settle matters here," she said softly.

"Whatís there to settle?" Squall asked.

"You could stop trying to hide your feelings for her," Quistis hinted. I have a similar problem with you.

You have a similar problem with me, Squall thought to himself.

"She should be headed over here anytime now," Quistis remarked, "and Iím sure these two weeks have been harder on her than they have been on you."

"Iím not as trouble-free as you think," he responded.

"So have you been longing for her to the point of insanity?"

"Not really," Squall answered smoothly, and holding up his newly lighted cigarette, added, "since these babies can be really friendly too."

"It's not healthy for you, smoking that is," Quistis commented.

"There's no physical proof of that," he offered immediately, and in Quistisí opinion, rather defensively.

"The Malboro chop shop executives have been hiding behind that excuse for years, Squall," Quistis cautioned. "You donít really think theyíre telling the truth, do you?"

"Farmers shall rule the world!" he exclaimed, dismissing her rhetorical question.

"You mean the Malboro growers?" she questioned.

"I guarantee it," he continued zealously, "they will!"

"I think you had better give that last bit up to me, Squall," Quistis suggested.

He pulled back faster than she thought was possible.

"I meant I wanted to give it a try," she said weakly. I hope he buys it.

He stared down hard at her, so she did her best to project an innocent smile. He handed it over hesitantly.

"Donít waste it," he told her, "and remember to inhale."

Quistis reached out and took the cigarette.

"I take it this doesnít make me look too attractive," she commented.

"You should practice it while your annoying fan-group is parading after you then," Squall suggested.

"With them at least I know I matter," she pointed out.

"If you think smoking is ugly, maybe if I do it around Rinoa more, sheíll get over it," Squall theorized.

"I think sheís too far gone to do that," Quistis grumpily informed him.

Squall shrugged as though it was none of his business.

"If anything," she added while deciding whether or not to take a puff, "sheíll start thinking that sheís even more unattractive than the M-BTRs and wonder if sheís having a bad hair day."

This conversation was getting too heavy for her, and she decided to give the M-BTR a try. She ended up in a coughing fit.

"Youíve never had a joint before, have you?" he asked as she gasped for air.

"Youíre turning green, Quistis," he informed her, still coughing.

"Pale, even," he added after another look.

Squall chuckled for the first time in her presence.

"Rinoa has been looking rather pale, don't you think?" Quistis asked suddenly.

"She has?" Squall returned absent-mindedly.

"She's too skinny, too," Quistis answered with a nod. "The last Tornado spell we used to lift the weather balloon for that report nearly blew off the ground. I think she's losing too much weight."

"So now you are doing some thinking," Squall applauded. "Good job."

"Donít patronize me," Quistis warned, slapping his thumbs up away. "So tell me what you really think."

"I think from time to time, but not about Rinoa," he replied at last.

"Why not?" she demanded.

"I told you," Squall explained exasperatedly, "I donít think about her until you bring her up, which means she hasnít crossed my mind until just a moment ago."

"I thought that girls were all guys thought about," Quistis told him with a puzzled look on her face.

"No," Squall clarified, "we have better things to fathom."

"Like what?" Quistis asked, looking up at his face.

"Like A09 motorbikes and the newest editions of ĎWeapon Kingsí," he answered.

"I think you should reset your priorities," Quistis muttered crossly.

"You mean put ĎWeapon Kingsí in front of motorbikes?" he considered.

She slugged him.

"So you would rather think about some dumb magazine than a girl? Me even?" Quistis pressed, raising her voice slightly.

"Pretty much, but if it makes you feel any better, I know the photographer of ĎWeapons Kingí, and the guy owes me a favor," Squall replied.

"How is this supposed to make me feel better?" Quistis retorted quizzically.

"I could probably get you on the cover page if you donít mind wearing nothing but next monthís showcase gauntlet," he offered chivalrously.

Squall could only dodge three of the next twenty blows. Had to try. Oh, well.

"Look," he said, trying to calm her down, "Iím just telling you how I would go about getting my attention."

"Do you know thatís sheís been trying to get your attention ever since she met you?" Quistis brought up.

"I didnít know that," Squall admitted honestly.

"She thinks that you care about all the little things that everyone else might miss."

"I hardly notice them sometimes," Squall remarked.

"You do notice everything, but you don't care about anything," Quistis corrected.

"Whatís your point?" he asked.

"You have to at least tell her that you donít care, otherwise start caring," she instructed.

"If you know so much, why canít you just tell her?" he pointed out.

"She won't listen to me, so itís up to you," she said, placing the responsibility in his hands.

"If she has convinced herself of that, what does it have to do with me?" he asked.

"She doesn't want to do that, Squall, she just wants you to like her," Quistis explained.

"Well I donít want her to become a slob," Squall noted.

Quistis could have slapped him, but again he seemed too adorable to mangle.

"Squall," she said in a disapproving tone.

"What makes you so sure sheíll go easy on herself once I tell her to stop?" he argued.

"IĎm not so sure myself, actually," Quistis conceded.

"At any rate, sheíll probably think that I took notice because she missed a spot or something, and was just trying to be nice. Then sheíll double her efforts," he went on.

"Squall," Quistis corrected, "youíre never nice to anyone."

"You know what I meant," he said annoyedly.

"Yes, I do," she admitted, "and as much as I hate it, youíre probably right."

"So," Squall reasoned, "it would probably be best if I did nothing."

Quistis frowned.

"Thatís what you were aiming for all along, wasnít it?" she questioned. "You just donít want to lift a finger."

"Whatever works best, you said it yourself," Squall parried.

"It would work best for me if you would go and tell her how you feel, Squall," Quistis informed him.

"Well I think Iíll just bend over and comply with whatever pleases you then," Squall replied sarcastically.

"Would you really?" Quistis gasped, putting her fingers over her mouth. Iím holding you to your word.

"Actually-"

She interrupted Squallís denial by flopping down hard onto him with a huge kiss.

Damn, he thought, I think she took me seriously. Now Iím obligated.

Hehe, she laughed to herself still pinning his mouth in place, now youíre obligated.

"What are you doing?" Squall asked, fighting to remove his mouth.

Quistis froze and neither exchanged any words. A look of embarrassment spread across her face as her mind registered what she had done.

"Iím sorry, so sorry-" she stammered, and broke away from him. He tried to stay her and ask her what was wrong but she just ran.

Squall sat up and watched as Quistisí silhouette disappeared back towards the Garden.

"I had nothing to do with that," he said aloud.

Being more confused than irritated, he swung his legs around back over the cliff and slouched forward, resting his chin on an upturned palm. I just donít get any of them.

"Diablos?" he called out, wondering if the GF was still loitering. I doubt it, otherwise he would have made a wise crack by now.

He was right. Diablos did not answer his Master, a technical impossibility for a junctioned GF. So Iím alone at last.

He breathed deeply and noted bitterly that all the fuss had cost him most of the sunset. The last lingering traces of light were fading into oblivion, and had the kiss lasted a minute longer, he would not even have been able to see the pink shades smolder into lavender as it was changing now.

The wind had picked up slightly since he last made note of it, perhaps three hours ago. Sheets of waves were now racing across the ocean surface like peels of apple skin sheered by an invisible knife. Wisps of wind tugged perseveringly at his hair, and he wondered briefly how exhilarating it would feel to accept their invitation and jump.

Thank Eden Iím not as dumb as my father, he reflected. Short of thirty Tiamats, thereís nothing that could possibly make me want to throw myself off of this cliff.

Something was wrong.

Squall paused, unsure exactly what excited a premonition that caused his stomach to tighten. He looked about the horizon, anticipatingÖwell, he didnít know what to anticipate, so he just kept on looking. The waves were still crashing below, the ocean surface gleaming as it churned under the sunís fading corona.

Maybe Iím just hearing things, he told himself, shrugging off the willies.

This time he heard it for sure. It was a delicate but clear scream for help towards his right. He searched in that direction and saw, eight degrees above the protruding shoreline, a person floundering in hysteria. Closer inspection revealed a shrieking girl trying frantically to stay afloat. Interestingly enough, he almost mistook her as being bald until he realized that her long hair shared the same color as the sea.

No, wait, Squall corrected himself, sheís trying to swim away from something.

He squinted, trying to focus a little better on the waters around her. His eyes widened after he spotted the hard-to-miss flaming red fin.

What I wouldnít give for not taking a closer look, he regretted bitterly. Personally I give her less than twenty seconds before it reaches her.

She screamed again, the shrill echoing inside his hollow self, tugging at his deepest conscience that not even the viciously demanding SeeD training could totally bury.

Why do I even bother? he moaned, rolling his eyes and throwing his hands up. I must be a goddamned nice person.

She screamed bloody hell.

That was disconcerting, he noted mentally, now twirling his fingers. Letís see, Iím sure I can find some excuse. Havenít I already done a good deed for the day? Come on, Squall, think, think!

She screamed bloody hell again, realizing that the Fastilochon-F was closing in.

Shake it off, you wuss. Come on, youíre supposed to be a hard-ass.

He couldnít believe that he was losing the internal struggle with himself.

Oh, what the hell, he conceded.

"Leviathan," he commanded, "pull her out of that mess."

"As you wish, Master," the water dragon GF hissed, phasing back into reality. It lurched its head back and blared its menacing war cry.

Squall shut his eyes involuntarily and winced at the pain left ringing in his ears from the thunderous tone. When he pulled his arms away from his ears, which he didnít realize he had covered, and opened his eyes, he scowled. What good was THAT? Trying to scare her out of the water?

There was a moment of silence.

What are you doing now? he reproached the serpent-like GF caustically.

Leviathan looked up from his sun-basking position naively and blinked.

"My warm-up exercises," he replied in a matter-of-factly way.

Ditto, Squall registered grimly, eyes falling. His animation sequence usually takes about a minute, and thatís time we donít have.

"Ifrit," he tried next, motioning towards the girl, "you take a go at it. Leviathan will probably drown her anyway."

"Iím not hungry, but thanks for asking, Master," Ifrit declined politely as he reappeared from nothingness.

A less tempered SeeD commander would have been foaming at the mouth. Ifrit balked and apologetically offered up, "Do you honestly want me to pluck her out of the ocean? You know what happens when come in contact with human flesh, donít you?"

A barbecue, Squall capitulated, but jeered anyway, "Come on you hydrophobic goat! I thought a bath once a century would lighten up your sulfurous BO."

This is definitely not good; gotta think up something quick. Holy Shiva, do I need a smoke!

"Thereís always time for one of these," he murmured as he drew out another Malboro. As an added bonus, Ifrit lit it before he brought it to his mouth.

The girl was now beyond hysterical with the monster nearly on top of her.

"Ifrit," he commanded, "I need some of your Mad Rage."

Ifrit clapped his paws together in preparation for working his magic.

Thirty Tiamats? Squall scolded himself bitterly. Ha! Iím a smart guy, all right!

Disdainfully he took one exorbitant puff on his cigarette and then tossed it over the edge. It was fascinating in a scary way, watching it fall and realizing that he would have to follow it. Taking a deep breath and clearing his head until he could feel his blood heating up unnaturally and his fears diminishing, he surged forward and took a running leap off the lonely precipice.

I bet Laguna shouted something really dumb when he did this.

.

To Chapter Twelve

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