~Chapter 13: Winds of Change~
Final Fantasy VIII and all the characters belong to Square.
Ever since I met you
It was time for all of them to leave their pasts behind. The young woman felt the train began to slow as an announcement came over the speakers that the train would be arriving at the station shortly. Reflexively she grabbed at her necklace in anxiety. The familiar clank the two rings made as she clasped them did not follow though. Instead she was greeted with the smooth platinum of her mother’s ring. She tried to fight the tears that threatened to fall as she recalled the events of her last night in Esthar.
“I...I thought of a place where you could stay Rinoa. Somewhere I know you would be safe.” Laguna rubbed the back of his head
Rinoa looked up at him from her seated position on the bed. She wondered if the sadness she saw in his eyes were mirrored off of her own.
“I don't know why I hadn't thought of it before...I haven't seen it in such a long time. But somehow...it just came to me all of the sudden.”
He stopped and abruptly became lost in old thoughts. When he finally came back to reality, he saw her looking at him expectantly.
The older man cleared his throat nervously. “I own a place in Winhill…That’s where I lived with Raine. Times were kind of hard then and she had a tough time managing the payments. I made some money as the town’s caterchipiller and bite bug exterminator, so I began helping her with finances. Then after we were engaged…we talked about it, and well, I was put as a joint name on the house.” He closed his eyes at a passing memory. “Hell when you’re young like that, you don’t really think about the future and how it can all go wrong from the way you had planned it.”
The significance of the words dawned on him after they had already escaped from his lips. He looked up to see that she was crying again and he cursed himself for not thinking.
“Oh sweetheart I’m sorry. Please don’t cry. I didn’t mean it like that.”
Rinoa shook her head. “Don’t apologize, it’s just the truth.” She stifled a sob and continued. “Laguna, that place holds a lot of memories for you…both good and bad. I wouldn’t want to just go walking all over your past like that. I couldn’t do that to you.”
“Listen to me,” he said as he sat down next to her. “It’s taken me years to understand it. But I’ve learned what’s done can not be undone. There’s no point in living life in the past. You can’t look back, no matter how much it hurts to look forward. That place, I don’t know, I feel like I’ve been holding it for something, and maybe this is it. A new start for you, and some closure for me. Definitely a new beginning for the old place. Hyne knows it could use a little warmth after all these years.” He smiled gently and put his arm around her. “I couldn’t think of a more suitable person to fill that job than you.”
A smile formed on her lips despite the tears falling around them. Part of her finding some sort of solace in his words. Whether it was a gesture of gratefulness or seeking comfort, she wrapped her arms around his abdomen and hugged him tightly. The action caught him off guard, but he returned the embrace with fervor. God did she really have to leave? He wasn’t sure if he could take it. And yet in the back of his mind he knew that fate was a creature that enjoyed leaving people in intolerable situations.
The tears were welling up in his eyes as he heard her sobbing against his chest. He stroked her hair with his hand as he tried helplessly to be the strong one in the situation. “Things…well…things have a way of working out for the best. Even though it doesn’t seem like it at the time. It’s going to be alright Rin, I promise you.”
Her ears registered his words, but her mind could comprehend nothing but pain and confusion. A part of her longed to return to the silence and blissful emptiness of the sealing chamber, while another wished to run to the top of the highest hill and scream to the world that she was still here until there was no breath left in her body. Her life had been torn asunder on that day seven years ago. Now she stood between two planes separated by a bottomless ravine that stretched on for miles. She had heard of people picking up the pieces of their lives and starting over. But never like this. Now, like the rest of the world had already done, she would have to leave behind her existence…and bury Rinoa Heartilly.
The young sorceress was startled from her thoughts as the loud overhead speaker announced the arrival to the station was a brief five minutes away. She tried to hide her anxiety, though she could feel that her hands were visibly shaking. Rinoa tugged at a lock of hair that had strayed from the clasp that held the rest neatly on the back of her head.
She had taken precautions, in case she did stumble upon someone who would recognize her, doubtful as she figured that would be. But it was a slim chance she was not willing to risk. So she had dyed the highlighted streaks out of her hair and wore it up. Something she rarely did before. A pair of non-prescription glasses that now rested on the bridge of her nose and she wore a bit more make-up than she was used to. It was no great elaborate disguise, but it would prove sufficient when she ran into the unexpected chance to test it at the train station.
On the first day of the rest of her life, Rinoa had overslept. She barely had time to say goodbye before she found herself running down the station terminal at breakneck speed with a suitcase in one hand and a large tote bag thrown over her other shoulder. Luckily the station itself wasn’t crowded, but fate would have her slam into one of the last people she would have anticipated. The force of the collision knocked her back a few paces and the suitcase flew from her hand. She turned to see a woman picking herself up off the marbled floor in front of her.
“Oh God!” she said as she kneeled and helped the woman to her feet. “Are you okay? I am so sorry!”
“No problem,” she replied while dusting herself. “I should have been looking both ways before I stepped on to the train tracks eh?” She chuckled and gave her a kind smile.
Rinoa wondered later if the gasp that escaped her lips had echoed throughout the entire station. Her heart froze in her chest as she looked into a pair of familiar blue eyes. She couldn’t move, and she couldn’t stop staring.
Like a deer caught in the headlights of a truck.
“Hey miss,” Elise said with growing concern in her voice. “Are you sure you’re okay? Did you hit your head?”
It was her, of all the people in Esthar. She ran into her. If she could have made any sound at all in that moment, she might have laughed outright at the irony, or perhaps cried at its betrayal. But in that instance, she was afraid to even blink. Blink. Wait…something was missing…her glasses.
“Are you looking for these?” The voice came from behind her. Rinoa turned around slowly like a scolded child. Elise offered them to her with an extended hand. She took a breath and composed herself. Why was she afraid anyway? This woman didn’t know her. She knew that the rest of her life could not be spent running from everything. It was no way to live. “Accept it, confront it, and move on.” Words from a past therapy session entered her mind and she found the courage to reach out and accept the glasses.
“Thank–,” As she gripped them she unwittingly brushed her fingertips against Elise’s. They were the same fingers belonging to the hands that held him that night…and so many nights before.
Rinoa realized with certainty, she wasn’t ready to confront it. She took the glasses, muttered another apology, and quickly ran before the other woman could see the tears in her eyes. Leaving Elise puzzled and confused, and wondering if she really looked that hideous without her makeup on.
Squall walked down the long hallway with a distant gaze in his eyes. Actually there was more of a long-suffering trudge than a normal walk in his tired steps as they led him to his office. He had only been back a few hours, taking the redeye flight back to Trabia, and already he had fallen right back into the same dull routine. He had left Elise back in Esthar to say the goodbyes that he would not be able to. It was the least he could do not to drag her back here for any real reason. He could tell by the look in her eyes she wasn’t ready to leave, hell, if anyone deserved a vacation it was her. She could have a day to recuperate without worrying about this place. Work for him however was different. A part of him needed it to keep his mind occupied. Work was stable, work was consistent, and work had no surprises.
Well, most of the time.
He turned to see a junior cadet running down the corridor in a panic. The boy stopped just short of plowing into him and put his hands on his knees to catch his breath. “Headmaster…sir…there’s…a fight…outside,” He wheezed.
Out of all the instructors and faculty here, why was he expected to deal with all the minor disturbances? “Where is your supervisor?”
He gritted his teeth. Both of them would find their asses out in the snow so fast it’d make their heads spin. Honestly, there seemed to be no sense of duty and responsibility in Garden anymore.
“Please sir…hurry,” the boy’s voice quaked, interrupting the headmaster’s thoughts. “He has a gunblade.”
Squall looked down into his terrified eyes. “Okay, okay,” he said more softly. “Just calm down, I’ll take care of it. Show me where they are.”
He followed the boy quickly down the hallway, had his mind realized where he was leading him, Squall might have hesitated.
Billy Stevens wiped the blood from the corner of his mouth as he came to his feet. He quickly moved into a defensive stance as his opponent’s fist came flying at him again. He dodged and took advantage of the opening and punched the young man in the stomach.
Richard Bennett fell to his knees gasping and choking in pain. The anger seared in his eyes as he gazed up at his adversary. The blood was surging through his ears so it became difficult to hear anything else around him.
“Give it up.” Billy said between ragged breaths. “Stop this.” He turned and made his way across the ring formed by the onlookers.
Richard stood up slowly as a demented smile spread across his features. “It’s not over till its finished Stevens.” He looked to one of his companions standing in the crowd. “Bring it over here Rob.” The addressed boy gave him a frightened look.
“Hey…wait…you said you were just going to scare him.”
Richard walked over and grabbed him by the collar. “Now Rob!” He said venomously. Rob handed him the gunblade they had stolen from one of the SeeD dorms. His hand gripped the handle and swung the blade out in front of him. “C’mon Stevens, I said we’re not done yet.”
Billy turned around and sighed. “What the hell are you doing Bennett? You’ve never used one of those things.”
“First time for everything.” He said while pointing the tip of the blade towards him. “I’ve never killed anyone either.”
Rob spoke up. “Cut it out man, you’re going to get us into some serious shit!”
“Shutup!” He yelled before charging at the young man in front of him, who was caught off guard by his sudden action. The adrenaline blurred his vision and he didn’t see the figure that stepped between them. Squall dodged the blade with ease and grabbed the hilt while kicking the boy to the ground.
Bennett opened his eyes to see the headmaster towering over him. His gaze was so penetrating that he ended up averting his gaze to the snowy ground. The world had fallen bitterly silent and no one moved. Moments passed before it was finally broken by someone bursting through the doors.
“What the hell is going on out here? I told you guys –.” The voice stopped immediately when the eyes fell upon the taller figure in the middle of her group of frightened cadets. The girl came to attention vainly and tried her best to cover up her mistake. “Sir, I had to leave my unit momentarily to use the restroom facilities, the cadets were instructed to remain in the classroom until I returned!”
“So I heard.” He said smoothly. “I also heard you had a partner to assist you there. Is that some new rule I’m unaware of? Did we incorporate the buddy system for the restrooms now? You know I’ve really got to brush up on my knowledge of bathroom regulations, hell I wasn’t even aware they were co-ed!” He found himself yelling by the end of his statement staring at the trembling woman before him who was trying desperately to keep the tears from flooding out of her eyes.
“I want you to take your unit back to their dorms and report to my office with your bathroom buddy at 1400 hours.” She made no response, still gripped with fear. He walked over to her and got directly in her face.
“Have I made myself clear cadet?”
“Sir! Yes Sir!” Her voice choked. She looked to her squad and tried to bring authority to her voice. “Cadets! Single file to the dorm facility! Move!”
The cadets acknowledged quickly, grateful for anything that would get them away from the wrath of the headmaster. They immediately fell in line and began their march indoors. Bennett picked himself up and began to follow when he was suddenly halted roughly by a hand. He turned and looked back at Squall with the expression of a sheep killing mongrel.
“When you get to your dorm I want you to begin packing your bags. You’ve just earned yourself a ticket home cadet.”
The words resonated through the hollow, cold air and he watched as all the color drain from the boy’s face. He could have just sentenced him to death and there wouldn’t have been a more terrified look of sheer panic in his eyes. For the residents of Garden home meant living in and out of institutions and foster homes. Home meant being thrown back into a world void of the understanding and kinship of the friends they found here. There was a reason SeeD recruitment posters were posted all over orphanages. Garden offered refuge for the outcasts of society.
“Sir…” he whimpered.
The headmaster’s eyes told him that it was best not to question his authority or try to plea bargain his case.
“Yes sir.” Bennett turned and walked into the entranceway, vanishing from his sight after the doors closed behind him.
Squall sighed in frustration and rubbed his forehead with his free hand. He looked at the gunblade in his other hand for a moment and then tossed to the ground with a resonating clank. He was so very tired of holding the fate of other people in his hands. He didn’t understand why he was always being pushed into positions of authority. Couldn’t they see from his track record that he wasn’t good at it?
A sudden chill on his arm broke him from his thoughts. He looked down to see that he had left his jacket in the office. His eyes fell upon another snowflake that landed on his hand and quickly thawed into liquid. A familiar voice filled his ears without reason at that moment.
"Look! Look! A gift from the faeries!"
He turned and looked at his surroundings for the first time. His breath caught in his throat as he suddenly became paralyzed with fear. After all the years of avoiding this place, fate would throw him through the turmoil of the past yet again.
The basketball court.
The place where he had one chance to change the course of events that had shattered more lives than just his own.
And he didn’t.
He had not set foot on the ground since he had been appointed headmaster at Trabia. It was all he could do to look at this place from inside a window. Even then, he didn’t feel safe. The thoughts, the pain, it still consumed him. If he had one chance to change the past...he would have started here.
"Yo, you wanna go check out Edea's orphanage?"
“No Zell,” he whispered in a hoarse voice as the memories of that day played in front of him like an old movie reel. “Let’s go back to Balamb…she’ll be safe there.”
"We might find a clue."
“Fine Irvine, fine. But we have to take Rinoa back to Garden. She has no part in this, she shouldn’t have to fight…she doesn’t want to fight.”
"Clue? You mean as to why Matron turned out like this?" Quistis continued, oblivious to his comment.
Squall shook his head. He knew this wasn’t real. Their transparent figures stood before him like ghosts of mistakes long past. Even so, when he saw Rinoa standing there, he desperately wanted to believe the illusion.
“Despite what truth we find, it's not going to change the present. But...I wanna see, too. I don't know what we'll find, but...Let's head for Edea's house." His own voice echoed in his mind.
“Always thinking of yourself weren’t you? Didn’t you see her? Didn’t you see the look on her face?”
"I guess that's it...We're fighting."
She was standing in front of him now, terrified and frightened. He wanted to put his arms around her and comfort her like he had never done when he had the chance. “No we don’t Rinoa. You don’t. We can take you back to Timber where you’ll be safe. I was wrong to let you. Don’t come with me…please.”
"...You guys are fearless."
“No…I’m not…I’m nothing but a damn coward. I let everyone down when they need me the most. You should run…run as far away as you can get from me.” The tears stung at his eyes. His first reaction was to blink them away, but he was afraid if he did she would vanish.
Before he could stop himself, his feet began carrying him forward. The rest of the group faded away as he continued until he was just inches away from his hallucination. God she seemed so real.
"I guess...I'm getting scared. Sometimes...when I'm with all of you I...feel like we're on the same wavelength......you know?"
Squall closed his eyes finally, listening to the sound of her voice
"But when the battles start happening, it's different. Everyone's tempo seems to pick up and..."
“You get left behind.” His voice trembled.
"...I get left behind. I try to catch up, but it's no use...How far is everyone going? I can't hear anyone...Once I catch up, I wonder...Is everyone safe? Will they welcome me with open arms?"
"......Is everyone ok?"
He put a hand over his mouth as he stifled a sob. There was so much twisted irony in her words. Did it cross her mind at the time that she would be the one that was missing when the smoke cleared?
Surging emotion consumed him until he couldn’t take it anymore. Slowly he reached for the image, wanting desperately to feel the contact of her skin against his hand. Instead he was greeted with nothing but empty air. The image distorted and faded into the air like a smoky vapor.
His knees buckled and he fell hard against the pavement with little notice. The experience left him numb and even more empty. The young man looked up to the sky and felt the soft touch of the snowflakes against his face. They had gathered upon him until his hair was frosted white. He closed his eyes again, unaware of the cold. His only pain came from the knowledge that she was truly gone, and that time was mocking him. It didn’t help ease the suffering as his friends and doctors had promised. All that it seemed to do was deepen the scar in his heart as the rift that separated them grew wider with each passing moment.
“I miss you.” He said softly.
He stared out the large bay window of his office. The empire of Esthar was alive with the hurried rush of its inhabitants. Even the lights and noise however could not distract him from his thoughts.
Laguna wondered if she was there by now…if she had any problems getting there. Was she alright? Hell he should have gone with her. Yet he knew that it would have only put her in greater danger. While she may be able to blend into the crowds, he would have a harder time concealing his identity.
He hoped she would remember to call him when she got settled. He would be able to do little until he knew she had arrived safely. His thumb rubbed the metallic object in his hand methodically.
“I want you to take this Laguna.”
Squall’s ring grinned up at him in the dim light. He reached and took it from her hand to examine it more closely and shook his head. “Rinoa…”
Her eyes were glazed with sadness and he could see lines of worry well beyond her years trailing the features of her face.
“It doesn’t belong to me. I don’t have a right to keep it and…well…it should stay in his family.”
“Are…are you sure?”
She wiped at her eyes. “I have to let go right? If I’m going to start over I have to let the past go. So this is me letting go.” Rinoa took his fingers and closed the ring up in his hand. Keep it please. Maybe someday you can give it back to him.”
He looked at her uncertainly before nodding slowly. “I…understand. Don’t worry I’ll keep it safe.”
“Miss this is our last stop before we head back to the station in Deling. Are you getting off here?”
Rinoa came back to reality at the sound of the voice. She looked up at the impatient attendant in surprise. “Yes. I’m sorry I think I dozed off there for a moment. She tried to contain her fear. Truth be told she was scared to death to step off of that train. Fumbling in the overhead compartment for her duffle bag, she found it and slung the strap over her shoulder. Her footsteps were slow and hesitant as she made her way up the aisle. All the while she could feel the attendant’s eyes burning holes in the back of her head.
When she reached the platform she found her suitcase waiting to greet her. Save for it the station seemed to be empty. Her anxiety increased as she hurried along to the exit, wanting desperately to be free of the silence. The sun glared into her eyes when she stepped out of the double doors, she squinted until her vision could adjust. A small and narrow dirt road stretched out before her. It was a little less than a mile walk to Winhill. The wind whispered gently through the surrounding pines as she took a deep breath and stepped onto the road.
The first step to a new beginning.