~ Chapter 12: Sheets of Empty Canvas ~
Final Fantasy and all its characters belong to Squaresoft.
I want to tell if I am or am not myself
“Dead…to them.” she choked. He didn’t know how to respond to that. He wished like hell that Quistis were here right now. Rinoa was shivering violently and he released her long enough to remove his jacket and wrapped it around her. When he did his fingers brushed against a sticky substance on her arm. He held his hand up to the light.
“Oh Hyne Rinoa, you’re bleeding!” The older man lifted her up into a sitting position. She held her hand out to him slowly. He took it carefully and looked at the deep cut in her palm.
“I…fell.” She said softly. Laguna looked up at her and his heart broke. She looked so much like a child sitting there with that look in her eyes. It was the look of a child whose world had just been shattered by the most devastating news imaginable. He cleared his head of the thought and helped her to her feet.
“You’re going to need to get that seen about.” He said. “Here let’s get the dirt rinsed off.” Laguna led her over to the fountain where he dipped her hand quickly into the water without thinking. She screamed as if he had just forced her hand down into a pit of fire. He nearly jumped back in alarm before he realized what he had just done.
“Oh…damn….damn it, I’m so sorry! I forgot about the temperature. So sorry…I wasn’t thinking.”
“S’okay.” She sniffed and slid back down to the ground with her back against the stone structure, wrapping his jacket more closely around her shivering body. Laguna reached into his pocket and pulled out a handkerchief. Kneeling in front of her, he wrapped the white cloth gently around her wounded hand. He moved and sat beside of her, putting his arm around her shoulders. She complied by resting her head against him. Neither of them spoke.
Even while being on the outskirts of the city, the world seemed completely still. The water in the fountain no longer gurgled and churned. Rinoa had never felt so alone in her entire life, now living in a world where she no longer existed. It was as if the slate of her life had been wiped clean and fate had just handed her a piece of chalk and told her to start over. And she didn’t know how to begin. But she knew in her heart now that it couldn’t be here.
“I’ve got to get out of here Laguna.”
“That’s a good idea,” he replied. “Let’s head back to the palace.” He rose to help her up off the ground.
The young woman accepted his hand but shook her head as she stood up. “That’s not what I meant.” She looked sadly into his confused eyes. “I have to get out of here.”
“I need to get away from the city. I need to feel the grass between my toes, see the stars from the ground. Some place where no one would know me. It’s not that I don’t like it here and you have been nothing but kind to me…I just…”
Laguna swallowed hard at her words. An empty feeling began rising in his own body. He had grown so used to her being here…he just took it for granted that she would stay. The truth of the matter that she could not stay here and live contentedly was placed in the farthest reaches of his mind. That part would not hold her back however. Regardless of his paternal instincts to her, Rinoa was an adult by all accounts and it was she alone who made the choices and decisions about her life. He just hated that she would be leaving like this.
“I understand.” He said softly. “I’m not going to make you stay. Living in all of this closed space, I can see how you must feel like a prisoner. I guess I just got used to you being here. Well…I’ll just miss you that’s all.” He rubbed the back of his head as he looked to the ground. Rinoa wrapped her arms around him in an embrace, the tears still falling from her eyes. He stroked her hair gently as he returned the hug.
“I…I don’t want to hurt him Laguna.”
“I know…I know.” He could no longer hold back the tears that had been threatening to fall.
“How have you been doing these days? Must be pretty cold in Trabia this time of year.”
“God what a moron.”
“Yes sir, it is usually cold all year round.”
Cid laughed. “Yes, I suppose it is. Anyway I just wanted to congratulate you on your efforts with the establishment of this wonderful Garden.”
“Thank you. There were a lot of other people involved in making this facility possible.”
“Why don’t you go and thank them.”
“Yes but it wouldn’t have been possible without your efforts. Your father must be so proud.” He said and took another sip from the glass in his hand.
Squall inwardly groaned. It was a habit of Cid to assume things without knowing whole stories. Oh, Squall found his long lost father; things must be just peachy now between them. He was feeling sicker now than he was prior. He hoped he could get away from here before he lost his lunch all over the man in front of him. The young man stared at the goofy expression on his former headmaster’s face. On second thought…
Cid turned and looked out into the crowd. “They seem to be a fine group of students don’t they? I’m sure they will make excellent SeeDs. As long as they remember to be prepared for every situation and take every precaution before heading into battle.”
Perhaps it was the alcohol, or maybe the bitter resentment he was already feeling. But the words that came from the old man’s mouth twisted into something pointed at him. A hint towards his own mistake in the training center. He was sure he knew about it. Hell, everyone within shouting distance probably knew about it. Why couldn’t people just stay out of his business? He fought himself inwardly for restraint, knowing another outburst would not hold up well at the trial.
“The instructors have done all they can do to teach them that. It’s entirely up to them now. Their choices reflect their future successes and failures. All we have to do now is give them orders, sit back on our asses, and watch right?” Restraint was obviously fading fast.
A look of shock and disbelief was the response he received. He quickly recovered his ground and forced a smile. “It was a joke sir.”
“Oh right!” Cid said with an overly exaggerated laugh. “A good one.” There was a blissful moment of silence and Squall hoped desperately that the conversation was over.
“I spoke to Elise earlier this evening. Such a sweet girl…she told me of her plans to get you out there on the dance floor tonight. Did she have any luck?”
He wished he were off on the Island Closest to Hell facing a hundred charging hexadragons. Somehow, that situation seemed less threatening than where this conversation was going. “No, I’m afraid not.”
“Well I’m sure she will persuade you eventually dear boy. Women have that way about them. Have you set a date for the wedding yet?” He adjusted his glasses and grinned up at him.
“Why? You want dibs?”
“Not yet.” He replied as coolly as possible, even while inside he was raging at the man. “If you’ll excuse me sir, I’m not feeling very well. I think I will retire to my room for the night.”
“Oh?” Cid looked at him with concern. “Would you like a lift back to the hotel? I’m parked just outside the door I’d be happy to—”
“No.” He interrupted with more sharpness than he intended. “No…sir,” he corrected with stability. “Thank you, but I can manage.”
“Alright my boy, alright. Well it sure was wonderful to see you again. Glad to know you are doing so well.” He gave the young man a jostled pat on the shoulder. “Come and see us when you get some spare time alright?”
“I will. Tell Edea I said hello and sorry I could not tell her in person this time.” He turned on his heels quickly, disallowing any reply from the older man that might delay his departure further. Squall had to get out of there before he exploded.
“Zell I’m alright now, let me go. I need to talk to him.” Elise pleaded.
“Song’s not over yet.” He replied holding on to her while looking around the room. “Give him some time to cool off.”
“All I seem to give him is time. Frankly my patience is running out of it.”
“You don’t understand Elise…he’s never told you has he?”
“What? Told me what?” She said bitterly, knowing she was about to unearth yet another skeleton from his closet. Why did he have to hide everything from her?
Zell looked at her as they moved in time to the music. “His graduation. That’s where he met Rinoa.”
She gave him a confused look.
“She asked him to dance that night, refused his excuses and dragged him out on the dance floor.”
“Damn it,” she said angrily. “He never tells me anything. I’m forced to stupidly stumble over his feelings by accident! Why won’t he open up to me? How can we have any sort of relationship living like this?” Her voice was loud, but with hurting undertones.
“He doesn’t tell you these things because he doesn’t care Elise. The last thing he wants is to burden anyone with his problems. You have to understand its not just some hell he puts you through. It’s just the way he is. The way he always has been. I wouldn’t know anything about the dance if I weren’t there to see it with my own eyes.” He looked at her with sympathy, hoping that she heard at least part of what he had said, and understood it.
She didn’t reply, instead her gaze just fell to the floor.
She looked over towards the voice and saw Quistis standing beside them.
“Squall wanted me to tell you that he was going back to the room.”
She sighed. “I see.” She released her hands from Zell who did not fight to keep her there any longer and turned away. “Please excuse me both of you.” She said as she passed from their sight quickly amidst the crowd. The two of them looked at each other with a knowing glance.
“I’m going to go check on Alex.” He said finally. There were no words to describe the current situation. “Care to join us?”
“Yeah, alright,” Quistis replied. “I just need to do something real quick and I’ll catch up with you.”
“Okay, see ya in a bit.” He waved and then made his way to the other side of the room.
She had looked everywhere for any sign of Laguna or Rinoa. A sinking feeling was beginning to rise from the pit of her stomach.
“Certainly been an interesting night.” A voice stated from beside her.
The startled headmaster nearly yelped in surprise as she turned. “Oh hello matron! Yes, it has been quite a party. Good to see you again.” She smiled despite her anxiety.
The sorceress smiled in return and clasped one of her hands within her own. “It is good to see you too my dear. How are you?”
“Oh fine thank you. I was just looking around for Laguna. I had a question for him. You haven’t seen him by chance have you?”
Edea pretended to ponder for a moment. “Yes…I believe I did. I saw him leaving actually. He looked to be in a bit of a hurry.” She looked concerned. “I hope everything is alright at the palace.”
She watched the panic flash across Quistis’ eyes and turned her gaze down as she wiped at an imaginary spot on her dress. “It is probably nothing to be alarmed about.” She continued. “You know how these political figures have to rush here and there on a whim…isn’t it funny that—” Edea stopped when she looked up to see that the young woman had vanished.
She sighed as she stepped away from the dancing couples around her. She understood why they had kept this secret. Perhaps in the same situation she would have done the same thing. But in her heart she knew that they would not be able to keep her hidden forever. Somehow, somewhere, they would find each other. Those two shared a bond that defied all of the conventions. She had seen it, she had felt it long ago when she had watched him trudge along the train tracks carrying the unconscious girl the entire way to Esthar. It was a bond that could never be brushed aside completely…it transcended everything. The sorceress made a decision not to interfere in the matter as she walked through the gathering. Fate would place its hand in at the right time. And if the opportunity rose to help it along…she would.
“My dear I’ve been looking all over for you!”
She looked up to see Cid standing before her with a plate full of cake in his hand, grinning from ear to ear.
Edea rolled her eyes and shook her head with a smile.
The doctor wrapped the bandage around her hand one more time before securing it with a small clasp. “There you are Miss Heartilly, all finished. I’d keep the bandage on it for a couple of days to ward off any infection. There might be a little scarring but probably nothing too noticeable.”
“Thank you.” She said quietly as she slid off the table. “Thank you for everything.”
He looked at her with a sad smile. “We’re going to miss you around here. You sure you want to leave us so soon?”
She looked back at him with tears in her eyes. “It’s not a choice as much as it is a need. I just…need to get away for a while.”
“I understand. You will come and visit again won’t you?”
Rinoa gave him a small smile. “I’ll try my best.”
Laguna stood as she walked through the doors into the waiting room, still holding his jacket tightly. He met her half way, put his arm around her shoulders, and led her out of the emergency room.
The walk back to her room was spent mostly in silence. Laguna’s mind was racing with every step, wracking his brain for someplace on this planet where she would be safe. A place where no one would know who she was, a place she could start over…
And suddenly it came to him.
Quistis drove slowly along the road in her rental car, looking for any sign of either of them. She prayed to the gods that Rinoa wasn’t hurt, but her mind tried to convince her otherwise. Most likely she had come, and she had seen Squall and Elise together. She closed her eyes against the painful image and cursed herself. She should have done more to protect her. Maybe she could have arranged something else for the two of them if she had more time. Yet she could not help but wonder if the outcome would have been any different.
She slowed to a stop beside of the park. The headmaster could not see any one from her view outside of the wall gate. She reached for the switch and turned off the ignition. If she had run from the party, this would be the first place of civilization she would have come to outside of the Garden walls. Quistis got out of the car and ran across the empty street to investigate. The place was empty and quiet save for the splashing of the water in the fountain. Her feet took her forward along the path as her eyes looked to every park bench. A small shimmer of light caught her attention as she neared the statue. On closer inspection, it looked to be Rinoa’s chain. She ran up to the object and knelt to pick it up. The light reflected off the rings that hung on the necklace. The young woman nearly gasped as she saw griever grinning back at her. The chain was broken and her heart leapt into her throat as she saw the traces of blood on the ground and around the engraving of her name. Squall’s words to her a few years ago echoed in her mind…when he had told her how much he hated the idea of the statue altogether.
“I just don’t get it Quistis, why do they need a memorial? Memorials are for dead people…and Rinoa isn’t dead.”
God…what if she had done something to herself? Quistis ran out of the park as fast as her feet would carry her. The knowledge that her friend was not all right at this point was painfully clear.
Squall hung up the phone on the nightstand and fell back on to the bed. He closed his eyes and allowed the blissful silence of the room to engulf him. There was no rest to be had behind his closed eyelids however. His mind raced with tormenting thoughts. He knew now he could not go to her. Not like this…this mess of a human being that he was.
His solitude was short-lived as he heard footsteps and a keycard being inserted into the door. She failed to hear the sigh that escaped his lips due to the hiss of the door closing behind her. Elise had been through every emotion feasible on the way back to their hotel room. Now she just felt numb and indifferent. Her eyes glanced at him for a moment before she turned and walked into the bathroom without a word.
He was expecting a lecture, a comment, some form of communication from her. She was never short on words. And yet somehow, her silence didn’t surprise him. Perhaps she had grown as tired of him as he was. The sound of running water filled his ears as she turned on the shower faucet. Squall drifted off into his thoughts again. He knew he should say something. Apologize like he had done countless times before. That seemed to be the only answer he could give her.
As the minutes passed he nearly fell into a fitful sleep until he heard the bathroom door open. Elise walked over to the bed and sat down beside him. He looked over to her expecting to see anger and resentment, but finding only compassion. This caught the young man off guard and suddenly his apology he had written in his mind was suddenly replaced with blank canvas.
The moon cast a glow on the white bathrobe she wore and her damp hair sparkled around her shoulders in the dim light. She brushed the hair from his eyes with a gentle hand. Her soft voice caressed his ears, “Do you want to talk?”
“Are you asking me as a doctor or my fiancée?”
“Whichever one you would feel more comfortable speaking to.”
“Great, she's gone into doctor mode.”
He sighed inwardly as her delicate fingers still combed through his hair. Maybe it would be better to think of her as a doctor right now, maybe that would make it seem less personal. Instead of looking like a miserable wreck to his fiancée, it would be easier to be made a fool in front of an unbiased medical observer.
How many more times could he keep pushing her away? How many times before it was the final straw? And how many times could he keep asking himself the same question before he could admit the answer?
“Elise, really this—”
“—has nothing to do with you. Yes Squall, I know, I know. I just wanted you to know I do understand the pressure of being in Esthar, not only seeing your father…” The uncomfortable look on his face made her quickly change her words before he had a chance to correct them. “Laguna, of seeing Laguna…plus dealing with opening of the Garden and watching the couples dancing…”
He could feel a stab of pain at the simple words. Like always, one of his friends was there to bail him out of another tough situation. He shook his head and still another time he had let her down. Maybe if he had just mentioned this sooner this entire night could have gone a little smoother, at least for Elise.
He knew one thing right now, there was nothing he could to help himself, and nothing he could do for her. The only person he could comfort was the one who had been beside him the last few years, even when he had tried desperately to push her away. He reached his hand to her face, not saying a word. Nothing needed to be said.
Reaching up he pulled her into an embrace, neither of them moved. The soft quiet was cut when the telephone on the nightstand began to ring. He wasn’t sure if he was irritated or grateful. Truthfully he didn’t expect them to call back so quickly. Squall felt her sigh in his arms as he carefully released her and moved over to the corner of the bed to answer the phone. He went through the lines as he had practiced. Again he could not help but feel the guilt of lying to her one more time. Somehow he knew that she wouldn’t accept the truth. She wouldn’t understand why. Why he could not go to the memorial and face her now.
The headmaster hung up the phone and looked into her expectant eyes. “There’s an emergency at Trabia. I have to leave tonight.” He stood and tossed his suitcase onto the bed beside her and began throwing in his belongings.