Monday, October 22, 2012

While You Were Gone

The rain falls off his jacket and pools beside his boots on the linoleum floor. As the doors close behind him, he is greeted by the wash of warm air and the smell of onion and spices rising from the cafeteria. His boots squeak uncomfortably as he walks towards the rows and rows of tables and chair, his eyes searching. It’s been a long day. He could really do with some cheering up right now.

“What’ll you be having, hon?” The greasy cook asks from the other side of the glass.

“A hotdog, please.” He says, still scanning the faces, many he knows, but still not the two he’s looking for.

He takes his hotdog on his small grey tray and begins to walks along the rows of tables and chairs, the same plastic red over and over again. And then he seems them. The shock of blond hair and the curving wave of brunette. They’re not sitting in the normal spot today. He walks over to the table around the corner, surrounded by the potted plants.

They are both quiet. They look at each other. His best friend and his girlfriend. It’s that awkward pause when you walk into a conversation that suddenly stops. Usually because it was about you. But he doesn’t think too much about it.

“Hey guys, what’s going on? Why aren’t we at the usual spot today?” Squall asks as he looks from one to the other.

“Oh, er, well, there was someone sitting there.” Rinoa says glancing towards the blond boy again.

“And they left but we didn’t wanna move since we already had our food and stuff.” Zell says looking down at his plate. “How was the mission?”

“Oh, you know, same old same old.” Squall takes a large bite out of his hotdog, “I’m glad I’m back though. I can’t believe they’re sending us out with this hurricane basically on top of us!”

“Yeah, you were gone for awhile.” Zell glances quickly at Rinoa, before Squall can notice.

“I missed you, baby.” She says, throwing her arms around his shoulders and kissing his neck, his jawline.

“Babe, I’m eating,” Squall smiles around his mouth full of hotdog as she kisses him anyway. “I missed you too.”

Zell’s hotdog is left untouched. He’s looking down in his lap. Chewing on the corner of his lip. Tapping his finger on the table. Something is bothering him, and Squall makes a mental note to ask him about it later during practice.

“Alright, enough, babe.” Squall has to forcefully remove Rinoa from his lap, “What’s gotten into you? You’re awefully frisky tonight.”

“I just missed you.” She hugs herself as she says it, “Didn’t you miss me?”

“Course I did.” Squall says, pulling her closer until their noses are touching. “But I think we’re making Zell uncomfortable.”

“No, not at all.” Zell says, standing up and picking his plastic tray with his uneaten hotdog up, “But I just remembered that I have training with Quistis tonight so I really ought to get going. Catch you two later.”

“What’s up with him?” Squall barely has time to ask the question before Rinoa captures his mouth again with a fervor bordering on desperation. “Hmmm, wow, if this is the welcome home I get” Squall says through his teeth, “I can’t wait to see what I get after my next mission.”

Rinoa pulls back, “You’re leaving again? When?”

“Next Monday.” Squall says, reaching up and running his hand through her hair and letting it rest on the base of her neck, “It’ll be a bit longer. Can you forgive me?”

“Of course I can.” She pulls her head to the side and kisses the back of his hand as he let’s it trace to her cheek. “You have to do what you have to do. Pull your points up. I get it.”

“And you’re not mad that I have to leave so soon again after just coming back?” He looks up in her eyes and he hopes to see some sadness or hidden struggle, but no, she just takes it all in stride it seems.

“Of course I’m not mad. Zell and I will be fine without you here. Hurry back though.” And she leans forward to capture his mouth again before breaking the kiss with a nibble on his lips, “Because when you get back I’m gonna––”
* * *

Squall watches the clock on the wall as it ticks by the seconds. He can’t wait until the last class of the day is over. He waits for the moment when Quistis looks away and makes a face at Zell two chairs away. Over the last few years they’ve developed a whole code of faces behind Quistis’ back. But Zell isn’t watching. He’s doodling. In his notebook. Which is odd because Zell hasn’t opened his notebook once since they’ve started classes together. Ever.

The bell rings and it’s a scattering of bodies and textbooks and papers and backpacks as Quistis tries to throw in a few last words on assignments due next week. But no one is listening because it’s the start of the weekend. Squalls last few days before he leaves on his next mission. He catches Zell in the hallway as the blond haired boy is making a beeline between the students.

“Hey, man, hold up!” He grabs his arm to stop him, “Carefully, you almost ran over like five people back there. What’s the hurry?”

“Oh, nothing.” Zell shifts his bag to his other shoulder. “Just a lot to do. Wanna get to the Training Center before anyone else can reserve the afternoon slot.”

“Cool, I was gonna hit it up today too.” Squall stretched his arms behind his back, “Gotta stay limber and on point if I’m gonna get decent points this time. Last mission sucked. Mind if I join you?”

“No, not at all.” Zell looks miserable as they walk down the hallway.

They’re in the Training Center, standing on either end of the sparring mat. Overhead the bright white lights make every bead of sweat visible. They’d been going at it for hours and they’re both soaked. But neither of them has managed to land a blow yet. So they’re not going anywhere yet.

“So, you gonna tell me why you’ve been acting so weird and avoiding me since I got back?” Squall throws another kick and Zell quickly sidesteps it.

“I haven’t been avoiding you. I’ve been busy.” Zell leaps forward and Squall dives out of the way.

“Busy with what?” Squall goes for Zell’s chest, an Zell blocks him, tries to throw him, but Squall lands on his feet.

“Just stuff, okay. You’re not the only one in the program with missions to do.” Zell is panting hard, quickly wipes the sweat from his eye.

“Wait, you got a mission?” And Zell uses the moment of astonishment to kick at Squall’s legs, almost throwing him off his feet.

Squall flips backward and manages to catch himself on a hand, landing crouched and ready to spring out of the way of the kick Zell launches at him next, “No. But I’m close. I’ve been training one on one with Quistis.”

“Oh,” Squall winks devilishly, “So that’s what’s been going on! Zell, you perv!”

“It’s nothing like that!” Zell blushes and sends another kick at Squall, who catches his foot and throws him across the room.

“Well, do I have to ask Rinoa what have you been getting up to while I’ve been gone?” And he takes the moment of shock registering on Zell’s face to land a pretty decent kick that ends the fight.

“Good match.” Squall says helping Zell up, “Let’s hit the showers.”

“I’ll just shower back at the dorm. I gotta run. I forgot to hand in my keycard to Quistis from the last test!” Zell grabs his bag and his lucky sweatshirt and runs out of the training area.
* * *

The beams of blue and white light from the patrols outside move the shadows of the blinds across the messy and rumpled bed in horizontal lines that rise and fall with their bodies. He kisses her and brushes a brunette strand out of her face. She leans up and kisses him again, hungerly, devouring his mouth.

“Hold on.” He smiles white teeth against her pecking lips. “We gotta slow down. I’m gonna need a break or something first.”

“Sure.” She kisses him again. And then another peck.

His hands run through her hair as she snuggles against his chest. Her breathing is still coming fast, her fingers play across his chest. She seems uneasy. He sits up agains the pillows and reaches past her to flick the light on. Her room is messy and covered in their discarded clothing. He smiles as she looks at his shirt lying in the corner. He’ll have to sew new buttons on. But he’s not complaining.

“What?” She looks up into his face. “What are you thinking?”

“That maybe I should go away more often.” He kisses her again, “I mean, since I’ve been back. Every night. I can barely keep my eyes open during my morning classes now.”

“That shouldn’t be too bad. You never did anyway.” She smiles as she leans back against him.

“I guess you’re right. But I better watch out otherwise my grades will start to look like Zell’s.”

His comment is met with cold, uncomfortable silence. Normally she’d laugh at something like that. Or at the very least have some kind of witty remark to make. But she just stays quiet and keeps playing with his chest. He doesn’t know why but suddenly he feels warm. Too warm.

“We were sparring yesterday.” He says to fill the space as he shifts his weight, realizing that the heat isn’t coming from him but from Rinoa next to him. “He seemed distracted.”

“Oh, really?” She still doesn’t say more. She still just keeps playing her fingers over his chest.

“Yeah, I think he’s seeing someone.” And her fingers stop playing and she’s holding her breath.

“Really? Who?” She is trembling as she says it.

“Quistis.” But he’s turning on his side and placing a hand on her forehead, “Are you feeling alright? You’re warm and you’re shaking.”

“It’s nothing, I’m fine.” She says leaning forward for a kiss.

“Hey, now.” He stops her with a finger on her lips, “If you’re getting sick we can wait until tomorrow before I leave. We don’t have to do it again tonight. Besides, you want me to be able to do my best when I’m on my mission right? Can’t risk my health.”

“Right.” She says, biting her lip as he stands up and finds his clothes again, rummaging around her floor.

She catches her breath as he picks up the sweatshirt. Zell’s lucky sweat shirt. He looks at it and frowns for a second, already knowing exactly what it is but not understanding why it would be in Rinoa’s bedroom.

“Is this Zell’s sweatshirt?” Squall puts in on the bed as he pulls on his pants and boots.

“Yeah.” She says softly, “He, uh, dropped by the morning to cheat on my answer keycard. He must have forgotten it.”

“Man, that guy.” Squall smiles at her that smile that’s all dimples and white teeth, “Sometimes I think he’d forget his own head if it weren’t attached to his body.”

“Yeah.” She whispers.

“Hey, get some sleep tonight.” He leans over and kisses her forehead. “I’ll get this back to Zell. You just focus on getting better before I leave, okay?”
* * *

The mission took much longer than he had thought. Three weeks of tracking and infiltration across the mountains. Three weeks of extreme focus and concentration. Three weeks to put the puzzle pieces together. The gravel crunched under his boots as he walked back up the path. Back towards those same doors he had stepped through three weeks ago.

He wasn’t stupid. He could read into things just like anyone if he wanted to. But these were the two people he trusted the most in the world. He wasn’t even going to let himself go there. Not until the morning before he left for his mission. When he stopped by Zell’s to drop off the sweatshirt.

The doors opened and Zell was lying on his bed, talking on the phone. He stopped when he saw Squall. Then hung up. Which wasn’t too weird but then he sat upright. Like he had a pole in his back or something.

“Hey, what are you doing here?” Zell looked down as he said it, not making eye contact with Squall.

“Everything okay? If now’s a bad time I can come back later.” Squall was concerned for his friend. Something had obviously been bothering Zell.

“Nah, it’s fine. Just talking to Quistis about the exam. What’s up?” Zell had tried to be his usual perky self but he failed miserably.

“I just wanted to drop this off.” Squall had tossed him his sweatshirt.

“Oh, yeah, thanks.” Zell flushed but kept talking. “I must have left it in the training center.”

“Actually it was at Rinoa’s.” Squall sat down next to him. “Are you sure everything’s okay? You’re my best friend and if something’s going on then you need to tell me. I’m here for you, man.”

“I’m fine. Really. Thanks man.” Zell had put the phone away, but not before Squall saw the name of the last call made. “Good luck on your mission.”

“Yeah. Thanks.” Then Squall had gotten up and left.

The last call hadn’t been to Quistis. It had been to Rinoa. It starts raining as he stands before the doors and waits for the security clearance to let him in. He grinds his teeth together, feels the beating in his neck. They are keeping something from him. He doesn’t know what and he doesn’t want to let his imagination run away with itself. But he knows they are hiding something.

The rain falls off his jacket and pools beside his boots on the linoleum floor. As the doors close behind him, he is greeted by the wash of warm air and the smell of herbs and spices rising from the cafeteria. His boots squeak uncomfortably as he walks towards the rows and rows of tables and chair, his eyes searching. It’s been a long three weeks.

“Squall!” He hears them before he sees them. They’re at the usual spot this time. They’re waving at him, both beaming. It’s not as bad as last time but he still feels it. It’s too artificial. They’re both trying just a bit too hard.

“Hey, buddy! How was it!” Half of Zell’s face is just teeth as he smiles.

“Pretty sucky actually.” Squall pulls out the chair and sits down.

“Well, you’re back now and that’s all that matters.” Rinoa wraps her arms around his neck and leans in for a kiss, but he turns his face.

“I’m sorry. I just, I can’t. I’m sorry.” And she backs back into her chair.

“Well, umm, guess what!” Zell still hasn’t lost his stupid smile. “I got into A Class!”

Squall doesn’t say anything. He is just staring at the floor. Rinoa squirms in her seat.

“And this is the part where you say,” And Zell mimics his voice, “Congrats, pal! You did swell Zell!”

“Good job.” Squall still doesn’t meet their gaze.

“But there is one bad side to it.” Rinoa glances to Zell as she says it and he nods, “Zell will have to be transfered to Galbadia.”

“What?!” And Squall looks up and suddenly he doesn’t care anymore that they’re hiding something from him or about being mad at them, “No, Zell. You can’t. You’ve heard the rumors about what happens at Galbadia!”

“There he is!” Zell winks at Rinoa. “Finally he’s back!”

“I’m serious, Zell!” Squall feels his pulse jumping.

“Calm down, I’ll be fine. It’s for the better this way.” And he looks at Rinoa when he says the last part.

Squall feels like there is so much more to that statement. He feels like he’s intruding on some private moment. He feels like he wants to run away. He feels like he would rather say anything than what he says next.

“When do you leave?”

“Couple of weeks.” And the air is suddenly somber with the realization that their group is soon going to be breaking apart.

“For how long?” Squall tries not to let his voice beak and he sees Rinoa clutching the table till her knuckles turn white.

“No sayin. Could be a couple of months. But if the rumours of war are true then I might be deployed from Galbadia. Could be a couple of years even.” And the pressure in the room seems to find its way directly into Squalls eyes and try to push past in the form of tears.

“Zell.” Squall doesn’t know what to say. Rinoa’s eyes are dissolving into tears too.

“Hey, come on you two. If you start then I’m gonna start and you know how ugly I look when I cry.” Zell tries to make light of the situation and Squall can’t help but wonder what they’ll do without him there to lighten the two of them up.

“Come on you two.” Rinoa finally speaks and somehow manages to sound stronger than either of them, “We are not going to waste Zell’s last few weeks here sitting and moping in the cafeteria.”

“Right.” Squall draws from her strength.

And as the three walk out of the cafeteria their thoughts are all the same and also far removed from each other. The secrets they carry and the worries that threaten to overwhelm and drown them at any moment are a hair’s breadth away. And individually they each struggle with it and fight to stay above the crushing rush of emotion. They each steel themselves and force a smile and say that they will enjoy the last moments together. They practice their smiles because they know all too soon they’ll need them more than ever.

The door closes behind them. Behind them the secrets and the uneaten hotdogs. They walk out into the rain of the night. The gravel crunches underfoot. The rain hides the tears that run down their cheeks. They still have each other, for now.

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