~ Chapter Five: A Time to Mourn ~
We go on, to the joy and through the tears. We go on, to discover new frontiers. Moving on, with the current of the years. We go on, moving forward now as one. Moving on, with the spirit born to run. With each rising sun, to a new day… We go on. --Kellie Coffey (Disney’s Millennium Soundtrack)
The dim lights of the village finally peered over the otherwise empty horizon. He rolled his knuckles onto the steering wheel, listening to the sounds of the small bones crack. It had been a very long night, and the illumination was a relief welcoming him like a comforting friend. Traveling the last few kilometers seemed like the longest leg of the journey, and he couldn’t help letting out a sigh of relief as he parked the car outside of the inn.
The town still didn’t have numerous electric lights like Deling; in fact, it actually looked like a few of these were old-fashioned enough to still be powered by gas. The soft rays glowed gently into the car, and he finally had a chance to get a good look at his passenger. Her breathing was the only thing that seemed to get him through the last few hours, a steady rhythmic sound that he had grown to depend on like caffeine.
Her head was propped against the side of the window, gently resting on a small pillow she had brought from Garden. Her long hair looked as dark as midnight in the car, yet her face seemed pale enough to rival any angel’s wings. He cursed himself for starting to feel so dependent on her, more so on her presence than anything. Even when they were back at Garden, just knowing she was under the same roof gave him unexpected serenity.
Right now the darkness served as camouflage for the smile he couldn’t help but wear upon his face. He almost laughed as he could see her mouth slightly open, and only wished he had a camera at that exact moment - although there was no doubt that she would hurt him later on if he had actually dared. Her soothing breathing had evolved almost into a snore over the last few minutes, and he figured maybe the steady rhythm of the car had kept her more at ease during her slumber.
Squall knew he had to get her inside as the cold chill finally started to reach the interior. He moved his hand to her, placing the back of it softly on her cheek, allowing himself a moment that almost felt forbidden. She opened her eyes momentarily before letting the heaviness take over again.
“I’m not asleep…promise. Have we made it out of the Timber region yet?”
“Yes, a few hours ago.”
“Okay let me know when we get to Winhill, kay?”
“Rinoa we’re at Winhill.” He answered taking the key from the ignition. “Tell you what, you ‘guard’ the car, I’ll go get the rooms.”
“Okay, let me know when we get to Winh…” Her voice trailed off as she buried her face in the pillow.
He outwardly laughed this time. If there was one thing that Zone and Watts had been right about, it was attempting to wake her up from a dead sleep. Reaching over, he covered her shoulder with the knitted blanket she had brought with them. The colder air had entirely replaced the warmth of the heater. He sighed before placing the key back into the car ignition, starting the engine again, as he just couldn’t bear to leave at the mercy of the elements.
“Hello sir, can I help you?”
“Yes, I called yesterday to confirm reservations for two rooms.”
“Oh! You’re Squall Leonhart, I’m sorry…I should have known. You look so much like her.”
He inwardly flinched, unsure of how to react to the comment. All of this was so new, and part of him wanted to get in that car and drive straight back to Balamb. A very large part. If it wasn’t for the person sleeping peacefully in the car, he was sure that would have been his next foreseeable action. But he was doing this for her…and somehow he knew that was the ‘wrong’ reason. Right now, it kept him there, and that was better than running from the truth - something even scarier to him than all the evil he had seen in the world – the fears that lay dormant within him.
The woman behind the counter handed him some papers, and he signed each before handing over his credit card. She smiled politely, placing two sets of keys on the counter. “Your rooms are up the stairs on the left, adjacent to each other. There are only six rooms up there…so don’t think it will be the biggest challenge you have ever faced. I’m sure you are used to places much larger than this.”
“Yeah,” he half-heartedly replied, thinking back to how many hotels they had stayed at on their journey. “Trust me, it doesn’t make them better.”
When he stepped from the lodge, the temperature felt as if it had dropped several degrees since they arrived. For a moment, a bitter chill traveled through the entire length of his body, and he unconsciously folded his arms in front of him. Surprisingly enough to him, it was cold enough to watch traces of his breath rise like white smoke. He walked around to the passenger door, knocking softly on the window. Still she did not stir.
Unlocking the door carefully, he opened it slowly, catching her weight before she fell onto the ground. Rinoa opened one eye, and mumbled something incoherently before closing it again. He had to chuckle at her reaction, as there was something so innocent, so peaceful watching her sleep… He gathered her into his arms, whether voluntary or not, she placed her arms around his neck with very little coaxing on his part. Using the muscles in his leg, Squall closed the car door. Rinoa slightly jumped at the loud echo of the door slamming, as he had used a little more force than was intended. She seemed to settle down on her own, as she nestled her head into his chest, much in the same fashion as she had done with the pillow.
The gentle rays of the sun showed through the lace draperies, and Rinoa stretched for a moment, reaching her hands above her like a content cat. Tentatively, she opened one eye, moaning at the unwelcome brightness. It took her a few moments to gather her bearings, as bits and pieces of the night before seemed more like recalling fragments of a dream. The last thing she remembered was stopping at a gas station outside of Timber, and Squall going inside to get some fresh coffee.
Forcing herself to roll on her side, she finally had enough courage to open both eyes. The room had its own charm, decorated with oak-stained wood, and the fragrance of newly cut flowers filled the air. There definitely was a rustic, simplistic feel to the place, one quite foreign to the one she had grown-up in. Rinoa fought against better judgment, placing one foot on the hardwood floorboards. She silently cursed the person who decided against putting carpet, or even a rug, on the cold floor. With all the resolve that she could muster, she stood wiping the remaining traces of sleep from her eyes. She mumbled something under her breath, not quite a word, but more than a syllable…at that moment, she wasn’t even sure what she had uttered.
Reaching back to the bed, she grabbed the outer quilt, placing it around her shoulders, and crossing her arms tightly around her chest. It was the first time it dawned on her that she was still wearing the clothes from the day before, and she had absolutely no recollection of arriving in Winhill.
She rolled her neck, stretching muscles that were strained from her awkward sleeping position in the car. Finally, she looked over at a small wind-up clock that sat on the nightstand, and was surprised to see it was already past seven in the morning – it felt like it was five-thirty at the latest. Mornings were just not her thing.
Slowly making her way to the window, she pulled back the curtains and couldn’t help but feel an immediate attachment to this place. Cobblestone streets met the smaller dirt-covered roads, children played even at this hour in the crisp spring air, and she could see small growing blossoms on the tree just outside her window. Her eyes momentarily focused on the buds, and she could just make out the most beautiful shade of pink peeking out from their green cocoon. Even in Balamb she didn’t feel the peace she did here, it was like something out of an old movie, a place that stood still in time.
Rinoa turned inward to the room, noticing her small overnight bag sitting on the center table. For the first time today, she smiled with slight apprehension, feeling a sudden guilt for whatever she must have put Squall through the last evening.
Walking toward the bag, she looked down to see a small piece of stationary lying on the table, on it was scribbled a room number along with the words, “Hope you slept well last night.” It was definitely Squall’s writing, as very little was legible at first glance. Normally only a doctor or pharmacist could make out his handwriting. It was a similarity Rinoa had discovered between the commander and headmaster, as she found it a daily challenge to interpret the equivalent of prehistoric hieroglyphics.
She held the piece of paper for a minute, moving it close enough where she could just catch the slightest hint of his cologne lingering on the edges. She smiled again, this time without reservation, tossing the quilt back onto the bed. She carefully folded the paper, putting it in the small outer zipper portion of her bag. Finally, Rinoa headed toward the bathroom and started to get ready for whatever she would face today.
Somehow, Rinoa wasn’t too surprised when he didn’t answer the door. He needed to face this demon alone, one that he was just learning to understand. She remembered in Balamb how surprised she was when he mentioned, only in passing, that he was going to visit Winhill. She didn’t question him, or praise him on his decision…instead she was just there to offer him silent support. It wasn’t more than twenty-four hours later when he came over to her desk, and asked if she had a preference in hotel rooms. Not that there was a choice here in Winhill, as there was only one place in town, it was just his way of asking her - without asking her. It was Squall.
So she never mentioned it in the entire week she had known before they left, only packed when the day had come upon them. Somehow Rinoa felt if she told even her closest friends it would jinx the trip, or make him feel some kind of undo pressure that he wasn’t willing to face right now. It was always his choice, and when Squall finally did mention it at lunch, it was never dwelled on. Only as an afterthought did he say that Rinoa would be accompanying him. But his friends understood, they never commented on the fact that he would not be alone. All right, except for Irvine who heard later that evening on a conference call. He quipped, “One room or two?” He never got an answer, just a swift elbow in the chest from Selphie. If anyone was to count how many times a week that poor man was to get jabbed, it would be considered a minor miracle that he hadn’t suffered any broken ribs…yet.
In all honesty, she was surprised he was going…so soon. It had only been a few months since he had discovered the truth, and spoke of it even less. It was only from Laguna, by accident, his friends had found out. She was sure Squall had been upset when it had become public knowledge amongst their group. He had a hard enough time dealing with change, adding the emotional burden of an estranged family and past seemed about the last thing he needed. Again, he had never addressed the matter with her, and she had allowed him both time and space to process the information. Maybe this trip was the beginning of something for him, or the end of another journey that he had outgrown by fate.
Now Rinoa found herself walking the roads alone. It was so serene, and she found herself aware of every sound, ones that over time, she had taken for granted in everyday life - children’s laughter, birds singing, and the trickle of the stream as water ran gently between the rocks. Standing on a stone bridge, she watched the flowing water below, noticing small tadpoles trying to defy the current. To her surprise, someone placed the palm of their hand on her lower back, and she could feel the presence of another mimicking her actions over the cement barricade.
“You know, if you lean too far over you will fall in…the last thing I feel like doing today is jumping into the freezing water to save you.”
“Gee Squall…that may be up to my knees. I feel so secure with you around, always willing to get your calves submerged for me.”
“I try,” he replied, gently pulling her back from the ‘immediate danger’ of the stream. Rinoa turned to face him, trying not to look too questioning about his disappearance, already knowing the answer. Yet, she was silently hoping he would open up to her. Never speaking a single word, he pulled her into an uncharacteristic hug. He wasn’t one for public displays of affection; she could tell that the situation was weighing more heavily on him than he was letting on. Resting her head on his shoulder, she closed her eyes feeling the warmth from his body contrasting with the morning breeze. He slowly moved one gloved hand through her hair, while the other stayed firmly on her back
“Do you want to go up there?” his voice whispered, making her heart reach out to him.
“You already went, didn’t you?” She wasn’t sure how the words slipped through in spite of her better judgment, as the answer was obvious.
“Yes, I did…it was…” he wasn’t sure how to finish it, he just hoped she would understand. She did.
“I know. If you want me to go, I would be honored.”
He nodded his head; she didn’t need for him to vocalize his answer. She could feel his silent gesture as their bodies remained close and their hearts closer. This was important to him, and he was trying to share himself in a way he wasn’t accustomed. Letting her go, he reached down, grabbing her hand. For a second their eyes locked, and she could see the emotion overflowing from his eyes. There was sadness, doubt, hope, and almost a hint of resentment. She understood - it was a natural, unwanted human reaction…one she herself had faced thirteen years before.
They walked the streets until pavement gave way to gravel, and finally to dirt. Their last steps were on nothing more than grass, and together they walked up a hill until a small gravestone was visible emerging from the earth. Rinoa let go of his hand, kneeling solemnly onto the ground. Squall’s focus shifted between her and the marker, feeling the sensation of being torn between an emotional tug of war.
He felt a weakness in his legs, finally kneeling behind her. Rinoa glanced over her shoulder, and Squall was surprised to see the salty tears forming in her eyes. Dark hair covered her shoulders and blew gently, while the sun highlighted softer, normally hidden, reddish hues. She smiled faintly, extending her hand to him. He gave into the last ounce of gravity and sat on the ground; he wanted to reach out his hand to met hers, but found himself trembling and quickly looked away before she could see his expression.
She looked back to the marker, trying not to make him feel any more uncomfortable. “Did you talk to her?”
He turned his with such urgency, as if someone had triggered a gun directly in front. “What?”
Rinoa paused for a moment, wondering if she was overstepping her grounds. She shakily repeated her question, “…Did you say anything to her?”
His answer was so curt that she wasn’t sure if he was angry or upset by the comment. In some way she hoped to alleviate the unspoken tension by sharing her own experiences with him.
“You know…I believe people who love us…can hear when we speak to them - even after they leave this plane.” She stopped again, searching for words that wouldn’t come. God, did she want to turn around to face him…if only she could read his eyes right now, but she continued hoping that somehow he would understand. Through her own tears, that Rinoa desperately tried to mask, she managed to choke out, “I remember going to the cemetery back home many times…just talking to my mom. I would tell her about my life, everything from crushes to results of my final exams. But yet, I think she already knew. I truly believe she was…is…watching over me…and that Raine is watching over you. I think they protect us when we don’t know we need it, because that’s when we need it most.”
She sat quietly, transfixed on the gravestone, memorizing the curvature of each letter. Rinoa realized that she had been subconsciously holding her breath after her last words, wishing that she could take back every one of them. It wasn’t something she had ever told anyone, in a way, it was a dream she kept hidden from those around. She wasn’t sure if she felt more foolish for saying something that she was sure he thought to be hackneyed, or her own weakness for carrying on like five-year-old-child.
He sat for a moment, and each second of silence that passed seemed like an eon. At last she heard him clear his throat, and somehow she found herself dreading the next words that he would say.
Somehow he felt this more difficult than he first imagined. He understood what Rinoa had said, although he wasn’t able to vocalize an answer in return. Here he was next to his mother’s grave, and yet his greatest fear was that he couldn’t comfort Rinoa in dealing with her past. He closed his eyes, pushing that feeling away, trying to deal only with what was in front of him…instead of finding something else to dwell on. Maybe in a way that is what he always did, that way he never had to deal with today, as there was always a tomorrow.
“Um…Raine…it’s me…Squ…” He couldn’t continue; giving into a more basic human need, he pulled Rinoa close to him. In that moment he had never felt so dependent on another, as he buried his head in her shoulder. It was both a curse and blessing, because right now he wasn’t sure if he could have made it through this weekend alone. He had never imagined it was going to be this hard.
“It’s all right.” She whispered reassuringly, never turning around, just guiding her hand behind his neck. “Maybe it’s too soon.”
“No,” he rasped out, warm breath hitting the side of her neck, before he looked back to the marker. “I’ve got to do this. It’s been eighteen years for her, she has waited long enough.”
He tried to think of the right words, the right thing to say. It was hard. To Squall, she was nothing more than a vision in a dream, he looked at her through the same eyes as he had Julia. How was he supposed to think of that person as his mother? For so long he had never known anything…maybe in a way it was easier thinking he wasn’t wanted, than the truth he faced. Now the guilt of a hundred lifetimes lay squarely on his shoulders, the death that he now felt responsible for… Even he knew that it wasn’t something that could have been changed, fate decided on Raine’s story long ago.
What do you say to a person you have never known? But one you have thought of all your life… Then it hit him, the one subject he felt comfortable with in this moment, the one he was taking comfort in. He let go of her, sitting up completely straight. “Raine…I want you to meet Rinoa. I met her almost a year ago now…”
Rinoa jerked slightly in surprise, wiping a few stray tears from her eyes. She smiled in spite of the sadness, pointing over her shoulder toward Squall. “You should have seen him back then, you would have been proud. First time I saw him, he was standing by himself against a wall saying he couldn’t dance.”
“I couldn’t dance, really. You know that.” He actually made a motion to the grave with the last statement. “But she was very insistent, and annoying, so I gave up for my own sanity.”
“You know how us woman can be, nothing if not persistent. He got better during the next few months, not only at dancing, but also at not being such a pain. It took awhile, but now he isn’t ‘always’ a stick in the mud.”
“See Raine…see what I have to put up with? But you already know…I…I wouldn’t change it for the world.” The last words were barely audible over the wind.
Rinoa turned around facing him, for the first time since they had begun speaking. She tilted her head, looked him directly in the eyes, and placed her hand on his chest - almost over his heart. “You know Squall, I don’t even think we have to introduce ourselves, I think she already knows us…both of us. My guess is that she is sitting somewhere talking with my mother. They’re up there going on about us.”
“And all our little idiosyncrasies.”
“Exactly, I think they already know everything, even more than we want to know about ourselves.”
“You know…I think you’re right. I can hear them up there now, talking about how I should eat more vegetables, or that you shouldn’t be scared of spiders.”
“I think they fully agree with me on that one.” She said standing up, as she brushed the grass off her clothes. “Plus I believe they agree that eating three orders of French Fries does not count as full-days serving of vegetables.”
“You would bring that one up,” he mocked following her lead and standing from the soft earth. He turned away from the gravesite, looking at her for just a moment, until that familiar sensation overtook him, and he forced himself to turn away – hiding his eyes from her. “Do you ever wonder what would have happened if things were different, I mean…if they were still here?”
“All the time,” she said, almost under her breath. “But if I spent so much time on wondering what could have been, I guess, I couldn’t think about what is. If everything that happens is for a reason, then it could have never turned out differently. I could spend my life wondering why my mother was in the car that night…or I could just be glad for the memories I have of her.”
“I suppose.” He took a step away looking toward a nearby cliff as if for answers. “I wonder how much I would have viewed Laguna’s past if I had known what I was witnessing. If instead of thinking this guy was a moron, well…focusing more on Raine in the memories. I wonder how much harder it would have been to watch it knowing the truth, and not like watching two strangers playing some kind game of cat-and-mouse.”
Rinoa folded her hands to her chest as a quick breeze sent a sudden chill across the plains. “You know,” she couldn’t believe she was going to admit this to him, now of all times…it seemed so juvenile all of sudden. But somehow, she wanted to be as honest as she could to him, even if it left her feeling like an envious child. “When you returned from the ‘dream world’ on the way to Galbadia, I heard Selphie talking about what she had seen…and part of me almost froze when she mentioned Julia.”
She stopped catching her breath. He hadn’t even realized how long he had been staring at natural rock formations of the mountains; until he turned to see the silent tears she was crying tracing paths down her face. He initiatively pulled her near, just as he had done back on the bridge, only this time, it was his turn to comfort her with the simple act of just being there.
Her voice was muffled in his chest, but she felt a strange need to continue, “You know I was actually jealous of you? I know it sounds childish and stupid, but you got to see my mother first hand…and your mother. Part of me wanted to tell you guys, but…well…how was I going to explain the woman you were mentioning was my mother? I was still trying to deal with that fact, and honestly I wasn’t close enough to any of you at the time. You, of everybody there, would have been the last person I would have confided in.”
“I know…I’m sorry.” He said asking forgiveness not for just his behavior that day, but so many more.
“No, don’t be. Don’t ever apologize for being you. It’s why I…” She cut herself off realizing that she almost said, “Fell in love with in the first place.” And as much as the thought of him hearing it from the lunch lady bothered her, the thought of saying it at his mother’s grave seemed even more inconsiderate. She quickly covered her momentary break, “It’s why I am here today.” It wasn’t a lie; in fact, it was just as much a truth as the other was.
He almost laughed. Not out of humor, but out of the pure irony of the situation. If that day in the forest she had done such a thing, he would have quickly thrown her to the side, never realizing the pain that she too was facing. She was right, if she had tried to confide in him, he would have quickly pawned her off on the nearest person to try to comfort her. Now he could never think of anyone else holding her, listening to whatever thoughts she was willing to share openly with him now.
“Rin,” he paused realizing for the first time he had called her anything but her proper name. She looked up at him, chuckling softly as she wiped a tear from her eye. “Rinoa,” he corrected himself, not sure if his mind was ready to call address her anything but by her formal name, and she too had obviously caught how foreign it had sounded.
She placed her finger over her own lips, hiding the amused smile up, “Squall, it’s okay, it just sounded so…different coming from you. But, I liked it.”
“You feel like grabbing some lunch?” He tried to get out of this now awkward situation as soon as possible, and taking a lesson from Zell…food always seemed like a good way to change the subject.
He didn’t seem to react as they started to leave the grave site. On a final thought he looked back one last time, noticing the gentle breeze that blew last autumn’s fallen leaves along the hillside. He closed his eyes for just a second, before his companion had even noticed…
“Thank you Raine,” he spoke silently to his mother. “And thank Julia too… Thank you both for watching out for your children.”