“You're taller,” said Rinoa, too loudly.
Squall's scowl darkened. “What?”
“Taller,” she repeated slowly. “As in I have to look up to see your face.”
“I know what it means.” He waited for a student to pass them in the hallway. “Taller than what?”
Her hands perched on her hips. “Than you used to be. When we met.”
Squall stared at her, quiet for several seconds. Then he stepped around and past her, determined not to allow this conversation the benefit of a beginning.
But Rinoa's eyes were keen and she saw him glance down at himself as he faced away from her. She caught his arm and pulled him back, holding a wry smile even when he twisted irritably out of her grasp. “This is new,” she declared, plucking at his shirt collar. “So are these.” The toe of her boot tapped the edge of his.
“Stop that.” He deflected her hand when she tried to tug the seam of his pant leg. “Who cares?”
“I care! I bet your uniform doesn't fit, anymore. That's why I never see you wear it.”
So that's what this is about. “I don't have time for that kind of thing.” Again he turned away, pointedly watching out for her hands.
She kept them to herself, but kept stride with him. “You've had a lot on your plate the last couple of months. Maybe there's something the rest of us can do for you.”
“I can do my own laundry.” He quickened his pace as the Garden's central ring-and the refuge of the elevators-came into view.
Rinoa rolled her eyes. “Something else then. Something really useful. No more parties,” she added quickly.
“I want everyone else to do their job,” he groused. “I'll do mine.”
“That's just like you. So concerned with doing what's expected, you never take any time for yourself.”
Not this again. He stopped in front of the elevator doors, all but punching the 'up' button. Arms folded, he stared impatiently at the skylight.
“There must be something you want.”
Finally, the doors opened. Squall stepped between them, turning to glower at Rinoa. “Quiet,” was his sharp answer. Though she quickly steeled her expression, he knew the jab had connected. He leaned into it, using every inch he'd gained to put weight behind his point. “Just for once...all I want is quiet.”
He pressed another button as he stepped back, and the doors whistled to a close between them.
But the quiet that ensued as the car rocketed to the third level brought little relief. He made what he could of the time, leaning back against the wall, hand to his face. He had only moments to collect himself before the chime brought him to attention.
For a moment, he hesitated, only the smallest of foyers separating him and another day of command he hadn't asked for. How many mistakes will I make, today?
It didn't matter. There was nowhere for him to go but forward, and so he did, into the overwhelming sunlight and Balamb Garden's bridge.
It had been a long week.
Trabia’s winter temperatures being what they were, it was no surprise Garden's nighttime halls were quiet. What surprised Squall was that he walked them alone.
Following their most recent exchange, he had not spoken with, or even seen Rinoa. Probably pissed her off, he caught himself musing before consciously redirecting his thoughts to a more immediate concern: the complicated business of running a Garden full of trainees and children.
So far, they’d avoided disaster. But any hopes for assistance from their famously stalwart comrades in Trabia Garden laid in as much ruin.
A tip from one SeeD who had been stationed at their sister campus had led them to an isolated mining community in the far north. A peculiar people, the Shumi inhabitants had been helpful beyond all requirement, providing “souvenirs” in the form of supplies and building materials. The return trip to deliver much-needed relief would begin tomorrow.
It seemed right. It made sense to do, but Squall's mind wouldn't stop roiling, trying to plan for every possible inconvenience. The students of Trabia Garden were proud and determined to make their own way, stubbornly refusing offers of manpower or even the donations of their comrades from Balamb. If they won't take the supplies, what am I supposed to do? Tell them I'm SeeD's commander now, and order them to? I may have to, or this is all just a waste of time. Maybe Selphie could convince them...I wonder if she'll stay behind?
He stopped in front of his dorm, too preoccupied to open the door. Not for the first time that day, he straightened his shirt and fussed with his jacket, uncomfortable in his own skin. I don't look like a SeeD. Just some mercenary... He winced and rubbed at his forearm as a sharp twinge shot along it. Another unwanted reminder: with his bones, grew his problems. The pain subsided to a dull ache, but the accompanying flare of apprehension remained acute. Even if I told them, would they take me seriously?
Not wanting to be caught navel-gazing, Squall escaped to the sanctuary of his room before he could further embarrass himself.
He paused just inside the door, hand hovering over the panel. After some consideration, he left it alone. Locking the door would not prevent interruptions, and at the moment, the idea of unannounced visitors disturbed him less than knocking and yelling and noise.
He'd discarded his weapon and was halfway out of his jacket when he discovered his SeeD uniform had been moved. He looked around with tepid concern. He was alone. Nothing else was out of place. The uniform rested on the corner of his bed, clean, pressed, and folded.
He sighed as he picked it up, half-knowing what he would find. A quick examination verified his suspicions: the outfit had been tailored.
As he inspected the handiwork, a piece of cardstock fell from the collar and bounced off his boot. He bent to pick it up, raising an eyebrow at the neatly embossed print: TAILOR IS PLEASED TO HAVE ALTERED THIS GARMENT, it declared in simple, serif type. Puzzled, he turned the card around. A note was written on the opposite side. The script was inelegant, cramped to fit in limited space, but legible enough:
Hey Squall! This was why I had to cut in front of you at lunch. I swear I wasn't trying to swipe your share of hot dogs!!! We needed a comparison and I drew the short straw. I'm just glad Irvine's a better shot with a camera than he is with an actual gun. Selphie did some crazy math to figure out your measurements. (We wanted Quistis to trick you into training with her and get them that way, but she started acting all weird when we asked. I thought using her whip as measuring tape was a good idea. I don't know what her problem was!)
Anyway, you won't believe the scavenger hunt this guy Tailor sent us on just so we could have this fixed up for you. The Shumi sure are strange. We were going to give this to you together, but Rinoa said it would stress you out. She wouldn't even write a note. I figured you should know! The whole thing was her idea, so you should probably thank her when you get a chance.
“Rinoa...” Squall coughed, the sound too close to a defeated laugh for his comfort. He shook his head, tossed the card away. Should've known she was up to something. Despite his silent kvetching, practicality brought him to the mirror.
Well...it looks like it'll fit.
Angelo whined and Rinoa looked up from her book to find all the students in the back of the library had suddenly cleared out.
“You're a pain. You know that.”
Slowly, she turned in her seat. Any trepidation she may have felt about facing SeeD's cantankerous commander disintegrated the moment she focused on him. “Oh my gosh.” Her eyes lit up, her brow lifted, and she stood, Angelo taking up station at her side. “...You look great, Squall.”
He stood between the last rows of shelving, dressed in full uniform, the added touch of his leonine emblem crossing chains with that of his outfit's. His gunblade was holstered at his hip, a more formal set of belts securing it. Maybe it was the square nature of the attire, but she could swear Squall was holding his head higher than usual. His scowl was certainly darker. “You should've said something,” he said.
She swayed coyly. “If I'd asked, you'd have said no.”
“That's the point.”
Hands behind her back, she contemplated the ceiling, a feigned inattention bordering on petulance.
“No more surprises,” he pressed. “All right?”
Finally, her eyes fixed on him again. “You're not even going to say thank you!”
“If this goes well, the credit's all yours.”
“Not the credit.” She held fists at her sides. “Can't you see we're trying to support you? Everyone's giving you space, just like you said.”
He nodded, having expected her complaint, took a breath before answering. “I appreciate that. But while they're going out of their way to do nice things for me, they might not be where I need them to be. It happened to work out this time, but when the next crisis comes, I don't want to be guessing where everyone is.”
Calmer, Rinoa dared a step toward him, head tilted thoughtfully. “You care about the people under your command, huh? I knew it...”
He cast his gaze to the floor, concealing a flicker of uncertainty. “They're my responsibility. They have jobs to do, too.”
“And you worry about them.”
Why does she want me to say it? Is it that strange? “It doesn't matter what I feel,” he said, eyes on her again.
“It matters to me. I think it matters to a lot of people.”
The chime of the intercom and Nida's now-familiar hail interrupted them. “Squall, we're about to arrive at Trabia Garden. Selphie and Quistis will meet you at the gate.”
Squall tilted his head indicatively. “I have to go.”
Rinoa said nothing, but her smile remained, directed and proud.
He turned to go, slowly at first, then with purpose as his thoughts shifted-reluctantly-to the task before him. Halfway down the corridor, he heard running and a hailing bark behind him.
He half-turned to see Angelo standing in the archway of the library entrance, joined a moment later by Rinoa. What now?
She only waved, shyly if it was possible. “Break a leg,” she said.
Unsure how else to respond, he nodded once, then kept moving.
And he couldn't say why, but the hallway didn't seem as long, or his shoulders as heavy. When he looked ahead he swore his vision was keener, his view broader. Something had changed. Things were different.
He was different: surer, taller, and at least for the moment, no longer struggling to fit.