Title: The Collapsible Hairbrush Author: Tarsier Fandom: Final Fantasy (VIII, VII, VI) Characters: Squall, Cloud, Terra, Rinoa, Locke Notes: While trying very hard to focus on completely unrelated stories, this little bit of fluff came to me quite fully formed. Although somewhat AU to anything else I have written, the settings and character combinations will likely seem familiar to those who have read my other Final Fantasy stories. The Collapsible Hairbrush Rinoa was smoothing her hair. The first few days, Squall had noticed her running her hands through her hair periodically. But lately, she only seemed to run her hands over the top—smoothing it out (or trying to), not actually working through the tangles. He surmised that they had gotten too bad, that her fingers alone were not enough to break up the knots. Squall sighed and reached into his jacket pocket, the one on the inside, farthest back, the most difficult to get to. The one he almost never used, except for particularly useless items. Items like the collapsible hairbrush his father had given him. You never know when you might need it in an emergency! his father had said. Squall had known exactly when he’d need it—never. Squall didn’t brush his own hair, except to run a simple comb through it before formal events. With his father watching, Squall had managed to mumble a thanks as he shoved the collapsible brush in his most inaccessible pocket and hurried out of the room. He probably would have deposited it in the nearest trash bin if he hadn’t had more important things pressing on his mind, things he should have been dealing with instead of having a heart-to-heart with that man. “Here.” Squall offered the brush to Rinoa. Intrigued, Rinoa took the item from him. “What is it?” “It’s a brush. For your hair.” It seemed like that should be obvious, but as he looked at, he realized he had no idea what to do with the small contraption. He had only his father’s word that it even was a brush, and that man had a rather fanciful imagination, to put it mildly. Squall felt his cheeks begin to warm, fearing this was some cosmic joke, or that his father’s idiocy was once again rubbing off on him. Rinoa fiddled with the thing, fortunately too distracted to notice Squall’s embarrassment. Her eyes were beginning to narrow in frustration, when the third member of their party stirred. Cloud was his name, that’s about all the information Rinoa had been able to get out of him. The first few days—it seemed like days, it was impossible to tell for certain in this place—Rinoa had done nothing but pepper Cloud with questions. Occasionally he would give a one-word answer, but mostly he was silent. He would often walk away from them, into the vast formless landscape, but he would always reappear. Rinoa thought it was because he was coming to check on them, to be near them, because deep in his heart Cloud did not want to be alone. Squall was convinced it was the landscape itself that always led Cloud back. Whatever the reason, after a while Cloud stopped wandering off, though he remained taciturn. Presently he reached toward Rinoa, or rather to the collapsible brush in her hands. She handed it over, beaming with excitement over his interest. Cloud looked it over for only a moment, then flipped it over in his hands, and suddenly it sprang open, neat rows of bristles appearing out of nowhere. Rinoa squealed in delight and he handed it back. Immediately she set to work brushing her hair. Squall watched and before long the steady repetition of each stroke eased him into sleep. Squall awoke to Rinoa kneeling over him, tears in her eyes. “I can’t get it out.” Rinoa turned, facing away from Squall. The back of her hair was one big tangle, the brush ensnared in the middle. “It’s too tangled. I can’t see what I’m doing.” Squall sat up and carefully disentangled the brush from Rinoa’s hair. Then he started brushing. He tried to be gentle, but each stroke of the brush only seemed to make the tangle worse. “You’re doing it wrong.” Squall glanced over his shoulder to see Cloud had appeared. He gestured for the brush and Squall handed it over. “From the bottom. Start with tiny sections and work your way up.” Cloud demonstrated and it seemed to be working. Or at least not making it any worse. Cloud handed the brush back to Squall and Rinoa whipped around to face them. “You know a girl! With long hair! Now you have to tell us all about her.” Cloud eased back but didn’t go far. Rinoa turned around again, still smiling as Squall found a small section of her hair and set to work. “Start with her name,” Rinoa instructed. Squall doubted Cloud would say anything more, but he had to admit he was glad that he had said something, because the technique actually seemed to be working. Starting at the bottom, one strand, two strands, three strands of hair were freed from the tangle. It would take a while, but at least it felt like progress was being made. Absorbed in his work, Squall barely noticed when Cloud did speak. “Tifa…her name is…Tifa…” * * * Somehow, despite having been walking all day, Terra and Locke still had energy to burn. They were chasing each other around the outskirts of the camp until one of them stumbled in the brush and pulled the other down with them. They returned, a little sheepishly, and covered in burs. Locke was able to shake most of his burs off, but the burs clung tightly to Terra’s hair and clothes. Squall had much bigger concerns on his mind and little patience for the others’ antics, so he barely took note of them until Terra released a tiny, high-pitched yelp. Squall looked over to see Terra’s wide eyes on the brink of tears. Locke had a comb and seemed to be trying to wrestle the burs out of Terra’s hair, each pull only making the burs more deeply entangled. With a sigh, Squall dug into his pocket for the collapsible hairbrush. “Start at the bottom,” he instructed as he handed the brush to Locke, “Just a little bit at a time.” * * * Terra was asleep with her head in Squall’s lap. Squall noticed Terra had bits of twigs and dirt stuck in her hair and he began to pluck them out. As per usual, it had been silent since Terra fell asleep. Unlike usual, on this day Squall found no comfort in the quiet. “Do you really think this will work?” he asked Cloud. “Of course. The best of the best were chosen. And the three of us were the strongest of the best. We have to win. Why else would we be here?” Squall didn’t respond, as he was overcome with the sudden need to remove something he hadn’t even realized until that moment was in his jacket, from a peculiarly inaccessible pocket on the side. Item retrieved, Squall glanced down to make sure the movement had not awakened Terra, then glanced up at Cloud. “That’s not really what I meant…” Squall focused on the item in his hands, wondering what in the worlds it was and why he had it. He fiddled with it, turning it over in his hands, and suddenly it transformed into a brush, a hairbrush. He still had no idea why he would have such a thing, but he was glad that it was there. It was such a small thing, a tiny thing, but he thought Terra would like it. She would be not just amused but fascinated with it, if only for a moment. And that moment of excitement, of sheer joy in discovery, in such a tiny, frivolous thing was exactly what Squall craved, what he needed to continue on. He was tempted to wake her, to see her face light up right that moment, but he didn’t dare. She needed rest. And he needed something to look forward to. Terra’s long hair was spilled across his legs and into the dirt around him. It was unkempt, but not yet knotted. It occurred to Squall that it must be an extra challenge, to have such long hair. Without even noticing that he was doing it, Squall began to brush Terra’s hair. Gently, starting at the bottom, careful not to wake her. Squall wondered why Terra didn’t keep her hair short—like he did, like Cloud did—so it would be low maintenance and out of the way. Squall never even brushed his own hair. Why, then, do I have a hairbrush? The answer was simple, yet staggering. He carried the brush for someone else. And that meant… He had someone else. Squall looked down at Terra, becoming aware that he was brushing her hair, that he’d brushed out all the twigs, that he straightened out the strands before they could form knots. I have a hairbrush in my pocket and I know how to brush out long hair. I’ve brushed out someone’s hair before. I have someone. I care about someone. “What I meant was…do you think we’ll survive?” Do you think we’ll make it home? Because, it turns out, I really want to make it home.