~ Chapter 11: Pieces of the Night ~
Final Fantasy and all its characters belong to Squaresoft.
Love took up the glass of Time,
Squall was vaguely aware of the door sliding open behind him. He didn’t acknowledge the presence, hoping that maybe they would show the same courtesy in return. He felt their eyes upon him and he heard the footsteps as they approached. He supposed he hoped for too much. The figure sat on the bench near where he was standing. An eternity of silence followed as the stars above them looked on with apathy.
“I’ve not been very supportive or encouraging tonight have I?” It was more of a statement than a question.
“I never asked you to be. It isn’t your fault I’m like this.” He turned and looked at her. The alcohol was beginning to blur his vision, but he was able to make out the saddened expression on her face.
“I don’t think I’ve went about this the right way…I feel like I’ve done nothing but stand by and watch you suffer through this. When I do say something, it’s the wrong thing and just seems to make it worse. I’ve failed you.”
“You’re not the one who failed.” He kept the thought to himself and only shook his head in response. Squall slowly lifted himself off the railing and turned around.
For a moment, Elise thought he was going to walk away from her. To her surprise, he instead walked over to the opposite side of the bench and sat down beside her. The act caught her so off guard that she didn’t know what to say anymore. They were both silent as they watched the dancing couples in the warmly lit room. Listening to their laughter, seeing their smiling faces, feeling the warmth in the closeness they shared. In the light, they seemed like the perfect fairy tale couples. It’s amazing to see the truth when the music ends and the lights go out.
“Well, he’s certainly not one to miss a party.”
“Cid. Him and Edea are standing right over there.” Squall nodded his head in their direction.
“Yeah. That’s partly why I came to find you. He is asking for you. Said he wanted to talk to you sometime this evening.”
“Oh great. Maybe he has come to tell me that Edea has foreseen yet another catastrophe I must help the world to avoid and say ‘no one else can do it but you, it’s your destiny’ and all of that shit.”
“I think he just wanted to congratulate you.”
“If life has taught me anything Elise…there is no such thing as destiny and meant to be. That’s just something they tell in stories to get children to go to sleep. It’s all just chance…one big long ride on a roulette wheel.” He rambled on, his words becoming a bit slurred.
“Let’s forget about him for now alright? My main concern is you. Squall, it’s not that I don’t want you to enjoy yourself here at the party, having a few drinks. But there are people here from the board…and they’re watching every move you make. Every bit of evidence they gather will be used against you in the trial...”
“I know you are looking out for my command.” He interrupted as he leaned his head back against the bench. “Don’t worry, everything will be fine.”
After that the issue was dropped. Left unresolved like so many before that had slipped through the cracks. He saw Laguna walking from across the room to greet Cid. The only two father figures, if they could be called that, were now in the same room together. His father by blood, who didn’t claim it until he was legally an adult. And the man he had come to see as a father, who kept things from him and decided to put the fate of countless lives into his hands…and more importantly, one.
He supposed he would have to go back in there and act like everything was just fine. He wondered if there was some way he could scale down the balcony and disappear from here before anyone noticed. Though he seriously doubted he could get away from the woman sitting next to him. As if she knew what he was thinking, she wrapped her hand around his own.
Squall looked down at her hand and then up to meet her eyes. “Even after so long, I know it has to be difficult for you to be here again.” Elise squeezed his hand reassuringly. “How long has it been now?”
He turned and looked to the floor. “It will be eight years…this April.” His words fell softly, almost unbelievable from his lips. Had that much time passed? The recurrent nightmares made it feel like yesterday.
“Have you…thought about going to see her again?” She asked slowly, uncertain what his reaction would be.
He was quiet for a long time before he spoke. “I’ve wanted to. For so long…I feel like I have abandoned her…again. But it’s just so hard…God it’s hard.”
“I know…I know. It might help you though, to visit there again. I mean maybe while we’re here. I could…go with you if you wanted me to. If you wanted some company.”
He looked over his shoulder once more at the stretching black desert. Maybe he could do this. He had never had anyone with him before. Someone to push him forward when his heels stuck into the sand and he could go no further. It surprised him even more that she had offered to go. To go to the place that had kept him distant from her all these years.
“You…you sure…you would want to do that?”
Elise smiled and nodded. “I’d be right there with you.”
After so long…he could see her again. He could walk past the barriers that had been holding him back for so long. Suddenly it was if a great burden had been lifted from him, like someone had released the dam of guilt that was building up within him.
“Why…Squall Leonhart…is that a smile I see on your face?” Elise looked at him with a shocked expression.
He looked back at her and felt his cheeks flush as he let out a short laugh. “Maybe.”
She chuckled. “Well that’s a media event. Here let me go in there and alert the press!”
He grabbed her as she stood, pulling and wrestling her back onto the bench as she laughed.
After her laughter subsided, he took a hand and turned her face toward his own. “Thank you.” He said with a deep sincerity that she had never heard in his voice before. He reached over and kissed her gently on the lips before enveloping her in a hug. Overwhelmed by the sudden burst of emotion from him, she said nothing and contented herself in hugging him back.
Rinoa slowly approached the large door leading to the balcony. This was good. He was alone. Maybe she could summon the courage to go talk to him. God, what on earth would she say? She didn’t know, but supposed the words would come once she got there. Perhaps she wouldn’t have to say anything at all.
Out of the corner of her eye, she saw a woman walking towards the balcony from the other side of the room. The woman was a bit taller than she was. About three or four inches if one were to estimate. Her wavy, shoulder-length hair was pulled back neatly with a shimmering clasp. One that matched the shimmer of the black dress she wore. Her hair was a very dark reddish brown color. So much that the red tint was only visible when the lights hit it just right. She was very beautiful with an air of professionalism about her demeanor. One that Rinoa herself knew she definitely lacked. And for some reason the moment she caught site of the woman walking towards the door, she knew who she was looking at.
In her observance, she had allowed her to reach the balcony before she did. Now, there was a problem. She couldn’t just go out there and throw herself between them. It would be too much confusion and Rinoa had always had a strong belief in the ‘perfect moments.’ She wasn’t going to ruin this one. Knowing Squall, he would most likely dismiss her quickly. People only leave the party when they want to be alone, right? She would wait.
Rinoa moved quickly in and out of the crowd to get a better look. She was nearly to the door when two very familiar faces emerged from the rest. Fear momentarily paralyzed her as she looked into the eyes of the people who had involuntarily put her into this situation. The Sorceress Edea and Cid Kramer. Panicked, she ducked behind a pillar and prayed that neither saw her as they approached.
When she peeked around the polished marble, they were now blocking her view of the door. Damn it. This wasn’t going like she had planned. Then again, things in life never do. She saw Laguna come over and greet them. Assessing the far greater difficulty of this than she had previously thought, the young woman really wished she had a little help in this. She stood fast to her resolve however; this was something she had to do herself.
Time seemed to stretch on forever as she waited for them to move from her view. In truth, forever was condensed down to only a few minutes. When they finally did move away, she sighed inwardly with relief and moved to get a better view of the two people beyond the door. He was still standing in the same position he was prior, while she was sitting on the bench talking to him. Rinoa could tell he wasn’t listening very attentively to what she was saying. Then all at once he turned around and she saw his face for the first time. His hair was a little shorter. His face seemed to look a little thinner as well, though that could have been attributed to the castings of the outdoor and indoor lights. For a moment, she thought his eyes had locked with her own. Her heart skipped a beat and then watched as he walked over to the bench and sat beside of her.
At first it seemed to be an awkward conversation. They exchanged few words and their postures were rigid. She thought that maybe they might be having an argument. If that was so however, it was calmer and more collected than any quarrel she had ever witnessed. Hope was losing the battle in her mind as realization began flooding the trenches of the opposing camp like a tide. She watched as the young woman said something that made him smile.
Hyne she remembered trying so hard back then…just to get even the slightest grin out of him. Suddenly Elise stood up and she watched as he grabbed her and pulled her back to him. They were laughing.
“He’s not the same. Situations aren’t the same. You can’t just walk in and expect to magically turn back the time and make things like they were before.”
For some reason the room felt as if it had dropped thirty degrees in that moment. She pulled the shawl tighter around herself reflexively. Squall drew the woman close to him…and kissed her.
“But is he happy now?”
“I…yes, I guess he is. Rin let’s not talk about this anymore, I don’t think it will do any good right now.”
“Well…if he’s happy…I guess that’s all that matters.”
Six months. She had known him six months. And now she was trying to just waltz back in between him and someone he had known for four years. She thought she would come here to save him. But from what? That beautiful woman who was out there with him now? Who had also seen something beyond the blockade he had built around himself, and brought it out into the light more than she could have ever done.
She made him smile…
“God, Rinoa…” She said softly. “What the hell are you doing?”
A surge of emotions ran through her body all at once. She couldn’t breathe. She couldn’t see straight. Rinoa turned around and did the only thing she knew how to do at that moment.
Edea Kramer searched the crowd for her missing husband. He had that uncanny ability to wander off for as long as she had known him. It was one of his qualms that he had to stop and speak to everyone in the room that he knew. She looked at the mass of people and sighed. It was going to be a very long night.
However large the crowd was, she was able to spot her children scattered around the ballroom. She smiled as her mind drifted back over the years. True, they were never really hers by blood. She loved them just as if they were. They had become accomplished and successful adults. She was so very proud of them. She was even proud of Seifer, who she had not seen in nearly eight years. Somehow she knew wherever life had taken him, he was doing well for himself.
The older woman could not spot Squall or his fiancée anywhere. Laguna had said they were both here. She was hoping that perhaps she would get a chance to talk to him. She worried about him. She always had. The old habits died hard. But she was concerned about the trial that would be coming up soon for him.
Someone ran into her abruptly from behind. She turned to look when a strange yet familiar feeling came over her. It was as if she had just come into contact with a forgotten essence from her past. It felt like…her old sorceress powers. Edea looked around quickly for any sign of the rushing figure. She pushed through the crowd in a desperate attempt for a glimpse. Could it have been? Perhaps it was just her imagination. She might have bought that idea if she didn’t feel the trembling sensation surging through every muscle of her body. She made her way through the crowd in the opposite direction towards the large pane glass windows. She waited a few moments until she caught a glimpse of someone running down below. The lamps outside did little to light the retreating figure. The sorceress put her hand against the window. When she did, the same feeling came over her again. She closed her eyes as she shuddered uncontrollably.
Laguna was sipping idly at some punch as he saw Edea through the bottom of his glass walking hurriedly towards him. He sat his glass down as she approached and smiled warmly. “Last time I saw him, he was standing over there by the shrimp cocktails talking to Xu,” he said as he pointed in that direction.
She took a breath and gave him a small smile. “I honestly cannot take him anywhere Laguna, I swear I’m going to have to go buy one of those child harnesses and slip it onto him.”
He laughed and shook his head. “Perhaps that as well as one of those radar tracking device collars that they sometimes put on the migrating chocobos.”
“Yes perhaps that might work better.” Edea chuckled before her face became serious. “Laguna, tell me, how has Squall been doing?”
His face saddened reflexively at the mention of his son’s name. “Your guess would be as good as mine Edea. I think I know little more about him now than I did back when I was in Esthar’s military prison. Every time I try to talk to him, I always end up saying something stupid and ruin any and all progress I make trying to connect with him.”
“Don’t give up trying Laguna, he has a hard exterior to break through. But…it is breakable.”
“Yeah…guess you’re right.”
She moved to stand beside him as she continued. “He seems like he is finally looking towards the future, after living for so long in the past.” Her eyes suddenly turned and gazed purposely into his. “It is still the past isn’t it?”
“Wha…What?” Laguna gave her a confused expression.
She turned away from him and looked back over the crowd. “Everyone seems to be having such a wonderful time tonight. Just look at all these happy couples dancing.”
“Sadly at least one of these young men will be leaving here alone though.”
“Oh…it’s nothing…I just happened to see a young woman running out of here a short time ago. The way she dashed out of here, she must have been pretty upset. Looked like she was heading back to the city.”
Edea watched as the fear suddenly rose up in his eyes as stammered. “Please excuse me Matron…I just remembered something I need to take care of immediately.”
She kept her eyes on his quickly retreating figure as he searched through the crowd. Someone else knew about this. She was certain. Her suspicion was confirmed as she saw him make a b-line over to Quistis Trepe. She sighed as a great sorrow came over her for everyone that was and was yet to be involved in this.
Squall and Elise stepped off the balcony and back into the crowded ballroom. They walked arm-in-arm together until he suddenly came to a complete stop at a nearby pillar.
“What’s the matter?”
He shook his head as if to clear it before he continued. “Nothing…I felt the coldest draft just now.” The young man shivered again as if to emphasize his point.
Elise laughed. “What? You’ve got to be kidding me, it has to be 90 degrees in here!”
“I know…it was weird.”
“Maybe we walked under an air conditioning vent or something.”
“Yeah…guess that was it.”
She grabbed his hand playfully and began leading him across the floor. “Now come on, it’s high time we got the lead out of those two left feet of yours.”
“No…that’s okay.” He replied. “I’m pretty tired. I think I’m going to go sit down.”
“Oh no, you’re not pulling any excuses this time. I am going to teach you how to dance. Besides you don’t want to be tripping all over our feet when we get to dance solo in front of all those people at the wedding.” She pulled him a bit more forcefully.
“I don’t dance.” He said, his voice rising.
“I’m not taking no for an answer. Now stop with the ‘I can’ts’ and get out here with me and have some fun.”
He stopped abruptly in his tracks and she was yanked back into him with force. Elise turned and looked up at him, the smile gone from her face. “Damn it Squall! What the hell is your problem?”
He was fed up with this. It was apparent by the anger in his voice. “I said don’t Elise, not can’t! I don’t dance all right? I do not want to dance…is that clear enough for you?”
She was about to respond when suddenly someone grabbed her by the arm and began pulling her in the opposite direction. She turned quickly in surprise.
“C’mon I’ll dance with you Elise.” Zell said as she met his eyes as he was leading her away. She turned once more and looked over her shoulder at Squall who turned his gaze away and to the floor. She slowly turned away as she was led through the crowd of people and out of his sight.
Squall sighed in frustration. He hadn’t meant to snap like that. But it was like she didn’t hear him sometimes. He felt eyes watching him and he turned to see a couple of students looking fearfully in his direction.
“Is there a problem?” He growled.
“No sir!” They both said simultaneously before making a hasty retreat to the other side of the room.
He had to get out of here before he lost it completely. He looked around for the nearest exit and began moving in that direction. He would leave a message with someone to tell Elise he had gone back to the hotel room. Hopefully she would understand. Right now, he really didn’t give a damn whether she did or not. Squall spotted an exit and started towards it when a hand suddenly grabbed his shoulder from behind.
“Hey Squall, where are you going?” Quistis asked as she stopped him in his tracks. She had heard him yelling from across the room. Somehow she could understand his frustration, even though Elise did not. It was pretty obvious she didn’t know the whole story. She had hurried to catch up with him when Zell had taken Elise away in the hopes to calm him down before things got out of hand.
He turned around and looked at her. It had been a while since she had seen that kind of coldness in his eyes. The kind he used to mask over his hurt. And suddenly that part of her that had wanted to encourage Rinoa to come to the dance before, now wished to Hyne she would get here soon.
“Quistis, can you do me a favor?”
“When you see Elise, tell her I’ve gone back to the room.”
“W—wait…why are you leaving so soon? Come over here, let’s sit down and tal—.”
“Quistis please!” He snapped. “Not…not now alright? I need some time to myself right now. Just tell me you’ll do this for me.”
“Yeah…okay, no problem.” She stammered. “I’ll tell her. You sure you’re all right?”
“Thank you. Yes, I’m fine.” He said and walked off without another word. She could only look on in grief at his retreating figure. She began looking around the room for any sign of Laguna.
The door was now just a few feet away and he could already feel the cool air that would hit him when he walked out of the Garden altogether. It was almost in reach when he felt another hand laid itself on his shoulder. He sighed.
“Quistis…I told you…”
“Squall my boy! I’ve been looking all over for you.”
“Oh great…” Fortunately, Cid did not see the rolling eyes of his former SeeD commander as he put on his ‘best attitude’ and acknowledged the man.
“Hello sir.” He said as he slowly turned around.
Laguna pushed through the people quickly forgoing the polite formalities as soon as he caught sight of Quistis. She was probably the only one that Rinoa should talk to. Quistis would know what to say. He didn’t. He had to be honest with himself, he had never been good at saying the right thing, and comforting was never one of his good points. And right now he was sure that the young girl was in serious pain. It was also clear that Edea knew their secret now. But that could be dealt with later. Right now, they had to see to Rinoa. The president started to wave his hand to get the headmaster’s attention when he saw Squall standing next to her. They were involved in some sort of intense conversation it seemed and Squall was definitely upset, no surprise there.
“Damn it!” He cursed under his breath. This couldn’t wait. He had to do something now, no matter how much worse he might make things…she needed someone.
Rinoa ran until her lungs felt as if they were going to explode. She sank to her knees as she gulped at the air like a fish on dry land. The only sound she could hear was the surging boom of the blood rushing through her ears. She pressed her hands against the cold walkway to steady herself. So many things were spinning through her mind. The weight of the seven empty years had finally fallen on top of her.
And it was so very heavy.
She opened her eyes and looked around. Somehow her feet had carried her all the way back to Esthar. The young woman did not recognize any of the surroundings. As unclear as her thinking was at the moment she was sure she had not been to this part of the city before. Laguna had left this out of his tour. The small area lacked the luster of the bright lights and large structures of the rest of the city. Yet for what it lacked of those things, it made up for in its natural beauty.
It seemed to be a small park of some sort, surrounded by a cast-iron fencing that was entangled by a vine that produced large white blooms. An oddity to see this time of year. In the corners of the lot were four young trees sprouting the first few leaves of the season. A large fountain was placed in the center of the square as a focal point. Water spilled down the concrete sections into the base with a soft and soothing sound. It had been so long since she had seen trees and heard the sound of running water. So long since she had smelled the scent of living flowers that were not held captive in a vase. She crawled on her hands and knees over to the rim of the fountain and looked into water at her own reflection.
The epiphany came to her then of time and how it had left her. It had left her so far behind that she had forgotten things that no living human being should have to. And the world had moved on…just like it did, like it does, like it will do when people are gone. When they die. The realization hit her so hard she had to cover her mouth to keep from retching into the shallow pool. She reached and cupped some of the liquid in her hand and splashed it onto her face. Rinoa coughed and spat for it felt as if someone had threw a snowball made of the coldest snow and hit her directly in the head. She shivered from the cold and from the fear. A figure behind the fountain caught her eye and she nearly gasped as the familiarity of his outline filled her vision.
She stood awkwardly and stumbled from her kneeling position and made her way around the fountain. He made no movement or gave any response as she drew nearer. This was because fate had decided to turn the knife in her heart one more time and make him nothing but stone. They were all stone. Her friends had been likened into smooth granite statues on a large pedestal against the far fence. Rinoa approached the sculpture slowly as if walking in a dream. The lights placed at the base illuminated them all fully now to her eyes. She looked and saw the figures standing before her as the friends she remembered. The friends she knew. They were all standing there together with weapons in hand poised for attack. Even her dog was there, standing bold and proud like she had always done in battle by their side. She ran a hand across her stone muzzle and tried to choke back the tears that could not remain inside any longer. She understood now why she was never brought here.
The young woman could no longer control her gaze as she found herself looking directly into his eyes. Her fingers reached up and traced the contours of his face, along the length of his scar. It was cold…like everything else she touched. She cried out as she fell against the statue and wrapped her arms around it as she began begging and pleading silently for him to just hold her again. He merely looked on into the distance…somewhere off into the future. Her quivering legs could no longer support her weight and Rinoa collapsed hard to the ground. On the way down her hand slid against something that cut deep into her skin. She yelped between sobs and looked at the large cut through tear soaked vision. She clenched her fist and watched the blood seep from the grooves of her fingers and drip steadily to the ground. Rinoa placed her other hand against the stone base in an attempt to bring herself to her feet when she felt the grooves of the engraving that had cut her hand. She stopped and looked at the inscription that was carefully chiseled into the granite.
Dedicated the young souls who risked their lives to ensure the future of this generation and all of the generations to come.
Below that…she saw her name.
In Memory of Rinoa Heartilly.
With a trembling hand, she traced the letters. The blood smeared black in the low light against the night sky. They didn’t do things in memory of people who were gone away for a while. They didn’t do things in memory of people they would see again some day. They did things in memory of people who were dead.
“Oh…God…” She slid the rest of the way to the ground. She brought her knees up to her chest as she curled into a fetal position. The words on the stone still wounding her like ten thousand knives thrust into her heart.
Rinoa Heartilly was dead.
She didn’t know whether to scream, to cry, or to laugh at the cruel irony of it all. What emerged from her lips was a bit of a mixture of all three. The tears fell like rain from her eyes mixing with the blood on her dress and on the ground.
“I’m dead….” She whispered in between sobs. “I’m dead…” Over and over like some sort of mantra. Vaguely Rinoa became aware of the strong arms that surrounded her in an embrace. She lifted her head up slightly to the man kneeling over her. His eyes shimmered with his own tears as he looked at her with sorrow and compassion. This was what they had tried to explain to her for so long. The words that had passed over her ears now bombarded them with the simple truth. She was dead to them, she was dead to this world, and she was dead to Squall Leonhart.
With what little strength she had, she wrapped her arms around the man and sobbed bitterly against his chest. “Oh God…Laguna…I’m dead!”