Title: Exact Curriculum
Fandom: Final Fantasy VIII/Final Fantasy VII
Disclaimer: No implied ownership, no financial gain, only fanwork.
Characters/Pairings: Squall, Vincent, Vincent/Squall, Full Cast
Summary: Once upon a time, except maybe not that long ago, Squall settled into his role as leader of Garden. And all was well for a little tiny while though sometimes Laguna phoned at odd hours. With strange stories about having made incredibly poor decisions. Which meant Squall was going to have to...
...hire a very strange fellow named Vincent Valentine to work for him?
Squall walked slowly down to breakfast, hopeful that if he went slowly enough, breakfast would be over and he could excuse himself for the day.
He had no such luck.
"No Bekele?" Laguna asked as Squall seated himself. Vincent barely glanced his way from where he sat beside Kiros.
"Probably had to get back," Squall explained softly. "I ran into him and he dragged me out for a drink."
"I'd gotten a chair..."
Squall nodded. He'd noticed.
"She can stay in my room," Squall said. "Or as close as possible..."
Finally there was a flicker of interest from Vincent's direction. It wasn't that he couldn't stand Rinoa - he was fairly sure he loved her - he just didn't have any sort of sexual interest in her.
That would probably just pervert their relationship anyway.
"I'd prefer that," he admitted.
"Rinoa is a sorceress, isn't she?" Vincent asked. He was poking at his waffles.
One of the attendants arrived with Squall's meal.
"Squall is her knight. He'd know first if she became a problem, though whether or not he'd be able to communicate it..."
"Quistis and Xu monitor his behavior," Laguna interrupted. "Making sure there are no sorceress-related incidents is an international matter and since Rinoa and Squall are..."
Squall stopped paying attention. He didn't want to tell Laguna that Rinoa was afraid that there were more women receiving power. Not until he knew more. Not until Rinoa was sure that something was happening.
He looked up to a vision in white and smiled.
"Ellone!" Laguna exclaimed as he stood. He got the first hug, but she clung to Squall longer.
"Rinoa's coming," Squall whispered to her before letting her go.
"Good," she whispered back. And then she turned to Vincent. She smiled.
"There was another disturbance," Ellone said as she sat down in the empty seat that had been added for Bekele. "Near where the White SeeD ship was."
"Oh?" Vincent asked.
"We didn't find anything, be we did get readings. I can't reproduce anything on my own. Rinoa might, though... So you could go home."
There was a bit of silence.
"It isn't necessary," Vincent finally said. "I don't deserve special attention or indulgence."
"Don't you want to go home?" Ellone asked.
"I have no reasons to return," Vincent concluded. He poked a waffle.
"Is everyone's Darkest Night shopping finished?" Laguna asked after a minute. He smiled.
"Squall?" she asked. "Would you like to carry my bags?"
Despite Esthar's usual mode of shopping being done entirely by computer and courier, Darkest Night seemed to bring out... well, everyone. Storefronts were brightly lit and crowds were bustling around touching everything and comparing colors in ways that they obviously couldn't do at home.
With the crowds as dense as they were in the first mall, Squall wasn't even sure that any computer orders would get delivered on time. Everything might be sold out before shipping. He didn't really like being out with an entire herd of people, not when he was also trying to get his head clear and think about Rinoa and Ellone and... Vincent.
Stalls were even set up to gift-wrap things, Squall noticed. Well, he'd have to take advantage of that, if nothing else. His shopping list was fairly short - Ellone, Kiros, Ward, Bekele... and Vincent.
Mostly, Ellone was the one shopping...
And talking, too.
Between stores, Ellone filled him in on everything she'd been doing. And Squall filled her in on Vincent.
Her questions weren't quite the ones that Squall was expecting, however. Not entirely, at least. But it kept Vincent thoroughly in his thoughts.
"A shared body? How does that work?" Ellone questioned.
"I don't know," Squall admitted. "I only saw it happen the one time and I haven't asked. To be honest, it might just be a GF and he just doesn't understand how they work."
"Do you want me to find out?" Ellone asked as she leaned close to rest a hand on his arm. He couldn't escape the look that she was giving him and honestly, Squall wasn't sure he wanted to. His time was Ellone was always so rare and fleeting that he almost felt like he was dreaming, getting her for an entire day. "I'm sure I could."
"I'll ask first," Ellone said quickly. "Maybe I can send you back into his memories?"
"Maybe." Squall really wasn't sure he wanted to go, based on what Vincent had hinted at.
"What's his favorite color?" Ellone quickly looked over to a rack of soft scarves in a rainbow of colors. Squall tried not to frown. He didn't have Ellone to himself - he was sharing her with the entire mall and an entire holiday.
"Black is always safe." Squall wasn't sure how he was supposed to know. That wasn't something he ever asked people, though sometimes he did know if they'd either told him or he'd figured it out because they wore a lot of things in that color. At least he thought that was how it worked.
"I mean, I know I just met him, but I don't want him to feel left out," Ellone said as she reached to run her fingers over the scarves. "It should be okay to get him something small, even if he's not getting me anything."
"Something," Squall agreed. He'd gotten Vincent a couple of old books, but those were back in Balamb, and he hadn't intended them as official presents. And so far in this expedition, he'd managed only to find things for Rinoa and Kiros. Sad, really. But nothing had jumped out as the right gift for either Ward or Ellone.
"I know the students all really like him... They're not put off by his appearance?" Ellone asked as she moved on to peer into another storefront. She had bags already, which Squall was carrying, but he didn't know what was in them.
"Not at all. They think he's a handsome guy. His fan club could rival Quistis's." Squall wondered if he hadn't told her all of this over the phone, but their calls were never long and tended to be broken up by long bursts of static. Definitely, he spoke with Rinoa more.
"There is something about him," Ellone agreed. "You're fond of him?"
"Yeah, I... Wait..." He'd almost reached for a shop door, but he froze and turned. "Ellone?"
"Mmm?" She was trying to look perfectly innocent, and maybe she was, but it felt like a double-edged question.
"Nothing," Squall replied. "You know... Rinoa needs to get here. We all need to talk."
Ellone nodded. And was wise enough not to verbally note how very quickly Squall had changed the subject. But there was a hint of a smile on her face that was Squall knew was aimed directly at him.
Bekele appeared halfway through the afternoon, after Squall and Ellone had stuffed themselves from carts that had set up to form a make-shift food court.
"Sorry I had to run," he said, wincing and looking from Squall to Ellone and back. "Had to cover a patrol for a buddy who did even more drinking than we did."
"You could have left a note," Squall replied flatly. "That made breakfast awkward."
"I did leave a note," Bekele replied. He blinked and frowned. "Apparently in the wrong spot? I'm sorry about breakfast."
Squall sighed. "It's okay. It doesn't matter." It didn't. Not really. Ellone kept giving him even stranger looks, though, as the three of them headed down to the next corridor of shops.
But there really wasn't a good time to explain that Bekele was just a friend, often with benefits.
A maid had straightened his room while he was out. Bekele's note was resting beside the phone.
Bekele, however, had yet again been summoned off to work.
Not knowing when Rinoa would arrive, Squall let Laguna spirit Ellone away for dinner. He knew they'd be up talking until dawn and couldn't blame either of them. Though that left him at a bit of a loss -- Vincent hadn't put in an appearance at all, nor did Squall expect him to.
After slipping down to the kitchens to grab a sandwich for himself, Squall wandered up to one of the higher parts of the palace where he knew there was a sort of parlor with an amazing view of the city.
He wasn't expecting to find Vincent there as well.
"Nice view," Vincent commented as he watched Squall hesitate and then settle near the window.
"Yeah. I'm not entirely surprised you found it." Squall did his best not to sigh. He just didn't really know what to say to Vincent - they were normally casual around each other, but this trip had some sort of tension attached that Squall couldn't put his finger on. Well, aside from Ellone insisting there had to be mutual crushes at work. Though honestly, Squall was sure he didn't get crushes. Honestly... But...
He was probably thinking too hard about everything.
"Actually, Mr. Kiros directed me up here," Vincent replied. A silence settled over them as Squall awkwardly ate. Every other bite, he'd flick his gaze over to Vincent, but Vincent was mostly looking out the window. It had started to snow light, fluffy flakes that Squall didn't think would really stick.
Squall finished his sandwich and gave his plate an absent little push on the table he'd set it on.
Vincent finally looked over at him. "So what is it that you're not saying?"
Squall frowned. He had a thousand thoughts stacked up. He was definitely far more worried about Rinoa than he was going to let on. Well, he was worried about sorceresses. But about her, too.
His mustard had tasted a little funny, but that was probably more a local thing than something actually being wrong with it. No one would actually try to off Laguna via mustard. Laguna was a cockroach, if nothing else. It would take far more than a tainted sandwich or two to do him in.
Shiva would like to see it snowing.
And yes, Vincent was attractive but now was not the time to get into any of that. Not with the tension hanging between them.
"A lot of things," Squall finally admitted. "I wouldn't know where to begin."
"Is that why you aren't out?" Vincent questioned. There was no nuance of tone or expression that gave Squall any indication of exactly why he was asking.
It made Squall hesitate. He didn't think it was accusing, just curiosity... Well, it wasn't like he'd explained a lot either. But Squall didn't think he needed to explain.
"I think I did enough walking earlier. What did you spent the day doing?" Squall was fairly sure he needed to turn the conversation around. Hopefully this would do it.
"Laguna explained about Esthar's cyborg soldier program and took me on a tour to prove how humane it truly is," Vincent replied with an odd little smile. "I saw your friend--"
"Bekele?" Squall tried not to wince. "Yeah... sorry about this morning."
"I think I could have found a way to spare you the view..."
"I'm not terribly concerned..."
"Ellone insisted it was the faux pas of the century."
"As compared to anything Laguna has done in the last twenty-four hours?" Vincent questioned.
Squall blinked. They both chuckled. All of the tension started to melt away.
But before Squall could say anything else, a maid knocked once and then slipped into the room.
"Mr. Leonhart, Miss Heartilly has arrived."
"Thank you," Squall said with a little nod. He looked back to Vincent and gestured. "Shall we go?"
"Of course." Vincent quickly glanced down at his attire - Squall didn't miss that little fact. But Vincent was in a white button-down shirt and black dress pants. He looked good and honestly... Well, he looked good. Squall wasn't going to keep thinking about it.
Rinoa was settling into the suite across from Squall's, though her luggage was forgotten the moment she saw Squall. She pulled him into a tight hug and didn't let go right away.
"I'm sorry I turned you down the first time," she whispered. "This feels like the right place to be."
"Only if your shopping is done," Squall replied. Rinoa's hair smelled good. And the purple sweater she was wearing was soft against his skin.
"Is yours?" Rinoa questioned with a little smile as she pulled back.
"Yes, because Ellone needed someone to carry her bags," Squall replied, echoing her smile.
"Ah... Oh!" Rinoa peeked past Squall to where Vincent was lingering in the doorway. "Is that...?"
Squall nodded. "Rinoa, this is my friend and colleague, Vincent Valentine. And Vincent, this is my friend and sorceress, Rinoa Heartilly."
"A pleasure," Rinoa said with a soft smile as slipped over to him. "Squall has told me so much about you."
Vincent looked surprised for a moment before he, too, smiled. "The pleasure is all mine," he said as he offered her his good hand. "And likewise, I've heard quite a bit about you."
Rinoa took his hand and gave a little curtsey. "So the ice queen has been chatty?"
"I can hear you," Squall noted flatly.
"Apparently?" Vincent replied to Rinoa. Rinoa giggled softly before stepping back.
"So, are we dancing tonight or another night? I keep losing track of the days," she said.
"Tomorrow night, everything will close early for the holiday," Squall said. "You're probably tired from--"
"Sitting all day? No, I'm fine." Rinoa looked quickly to Vincent. "You'll come too, right? And Ellone?"
Squall counted the beats til Vincent's inevitable refusal.
"I suppose I could."
For a moment, Squall thought he'd heard wrong. But no, Vincent had indeed just agreed to go dancing with Rinoa. Of course, he and Vincent had just been discussing Estharian culture, to a degree, but there was a difference between volunteer cyborgs and dance clubs. A big one.
"Meet back here in an hour, then," Rinoa said. "I'll fine Ellone and then we can go. I'll worry about shopping tomorrow."
She smiled and Squall nodded. He understood - it'd be good to have a bit of fun before getting to all the deep, worrisome stuff. He understood.
"I can just go like this, can't I?" Vincent questioned once he and Squall were back in the hallway. "I don't need to wear a hood?"
Squall shook his head. "You're fine. I'm fine. And you'll see plenty of people dressed down at the place we're going." He paused. "I'm just surprised you agreed."
And then it hit him-- Vincent was a nice, single guy and Rinoa was a nice, flirty single girl. Maybe...
"I would like to see more of the city-- There's nothing wrong with that, is there?" Again, Vincent's tone was so neutral that Squall couldn't really infer anything from it.
Squall shook his head. "It's fine. And you don't have to dance. I don't know if Ellone will. Maybe you two can hold the bar down." Unless, he thought, Vincent did want to dance with Rinoa. He didn't quite seem like the dancing type, but...
Squall just didn't know. He really didn't know.
"Remind me that taking Rinoa dancing is not an exercise for the faint of heart," Vincent commented as he and Squall dragged themselves into Squall's room.
"Tomorrow it'll be all business," Squall replied as he flopped into an easy chair. "Don't worry." He paused. "Well, business and shopping. I'll assume yours is done?"
"I may have to pick up something for Rinoa," Vincent said. "Her wings... remind me..."
Squall didn't ask what Vincent was going to say. He just exhaled and looked over to where Vincent had flopped in a matching chair.
"I'm glad she's here."
Vincent nodded. "You two have such interesting chemistry," he said, obviously thinking. Squall knew what he was looking for the words to voice--
"It's still a little frustrating to us that it couldn't carry over into a romantic-- well, physical relationship," Squall admitted. No point in beating around that bush. "Even if the connection wasn't exactly our choice... it's okay. There were times when it wasn't necessarily okay, but now it's okay."
"One doesn't always get a choice in some of the most important matters," Vincent said. There was something far-away in his voice and he flexed his metal fingers. "If I've learned anything, especially from being here, it's that the decisions made going forward become even more important..."
He sighed and gazed a long moment at Squall. Squall didn't look away from that strange ruby-red.
Squall tried not to do anything other than listen as slowly, Vincent started telling a story.
It was a long story, Squall knew. It was a painful story. But Vincent was finally telling it, which made Squall feel a little strange in the back of his throat. After all of the ups and downs of the day - Bekele, Ellone and shopping, Rinoa and dancing... Vincent and strange conversations that barely seemed to be about anything while still being about everything...
Squall listened, shrugging off his jacket carefully and letting it crumple onto the floor beside his chair. He was tired but did his best not to yawn, listening even when Vincent's voice started to waver into the realm of dreamy. Perhaps it was just the story that Vincent was telling...
His eyes were heavy and his body exhausted. But finally, as dawn threatened Esthar, Squall understood. When Vincent said he had no real desire to return, Squall knew why.
So now what was he supposed to do?
Drink Lemonade! Tip Your Waitress!