~ Chapter 10: Dancing on the Stage of Memory ~
Final Fantasy and all its characters belong to Squaresoft.
In memory everything seems to happen to music.
The light of memory,
or rather the light that memory lends to things,
is the palest light of all....
I am not quite sure whether I am dreaming or remembering,
whether I have lived my life or dreamed it.
The music swelled to a climatic chord as the waltzing couples glided beneath the soft glow of the chandeliers. The ballroom was alive with conversation and laughter. The new Esthar Garden graduates walked with their heads held high wearing their newly acquired uniforms. The stars sparkled down from the glass roof. There was a certain magical feeling of excitement in the air. It felt just as he remembered it.
He wished he could get the hell out of there.
Squall turned up his glass and took another hard swallow of gin and tonic. He wasn’t prepared for the uncomfortable feeling that overwhelmed him. The familiarity of the ballroom…the place where it resided. It felt like ages since he set foot on Estharian soil. He had felt his heart constrict painfully in his chest the moment he stepped off the plane and looked out across the red sand of the desert.
He wanted to run back up the exit ramp right then. But he held back. He had convinced himself that things would be better once he got into the city. One could easily forget their troubles beneath the huge structures and streaming lights of Esthar. It managed to work for a time. He began to relax and enjoy himself at lunch with Elise, Zell, and Alex. He even managed to joke around and laugh a bit. After the meal he had taken Zell aside and used the opportunity to return a favor to his old friend, and maybe get some advice on how to get through this mess.
“I want to ask you something.”
“I was wondering if…you’d be my best man. I had to find someone and in all honesty I can’t think of anyone else I would rather ask and…Stop looking at me like that! Having kids has really made you soft, you know that?”
“Aww c’mere you!” Zell had taken him by surprise and wrapped his arms around him in a tight hug.
“Zell…let go damn it…don’t hug me in public.”
“Ah now c’mon…you can’t hide behind the attitude now bro! And yes, I’d be honored to be best man at your wedding Squall.”
“I’m having second thoughts…”
The blonde haired man laughed. “Sorry, too late! No take backs. And I’m not gonna let go of you till I get a hug in return.”
Squall patted him on the back with a reluctant hand. “Okay, now let go!” He said as he tried to pry him off.
“Fine, fine.” Zell let go of him. He wiped one of his hands on his pant leg before extending it in a friendly gesture. “Put ‘er there then Mr. Formal.
Squall shook his head and smiled. Some things always remained constant. Even though Zell had given up his life at Garden, he was still the same old Zell. Though he had matured, he never lost his sense of youth. It was one reason he made such a good father. The martial artist remained a constant in his life and he found comfort in the constants, for they were few and far between. He reached and took his hand in acceptance. Something he denied in his younger days. “Thank you, Zell…I really appreciate—”
He didn’t get to complete his sentence as suddenly Zell jerked his arm and flipped him into the air. In an instant he was lying flat on his back with the breath knocked from his lungs and a look of shock on his face.
“Ha!” Zell barked. “That’s for calling me soft!”
“You…are so dead Dincht.”
“Sure, sure. But I know they didn’t let you take your weapon on the plane. So you’re gonna have a tough time overtaking me without your butter knife.” He followed his statement with a little shuffle of his feet.
“Oh…I won’t need a gunblade…I’ll just lock you in a room with a highly caffeinated Selphie Tilmitt and a very drunk Irvine Kinneas. Both…at the same time.”
“Now that would be cruel!” He laughed as he helped the headmaster to his feet. “Almost as worse a fate as the one we will suffer if we keep the women waiting any longer.”
“You’re probably right.”
“Besides, won’t Alex be shocked when I tell her I am officially the ‘best man.’ Something I’ve been trying to tell her for years.” He winked.
“Uh Zell…don’t mention anything in front of Elise okay? I…don’t want her to know yet.”
“Just…don’t. All right? I’ll tell her later.”
“Squall…what’s wrong man?”
“No, nothing. Let’s just get out of here.”
Zell didn’t say anything, and he was grateful. He would have to explain later, somehow. He just didn’t know anymore if he was ready to go ahead with this. The feelings he was having here were a clear indication that perhaps he wasn’t. He didn’t want to give her an indication that he was ready to move ahead on this yet. Squall knew if he did, t would be a whirlwind rush after that. He would be married before he had a chance to turn around. That he knew he wasn’t prepared for. He was also aware of what dragging the time out was doing to Elise. He had seen doubt pass through her eyes. He knew she wouldn’t wait forever.
He took a second gin and tonic from a passing tray, switching his empty glass for a full one. He drank it slowly, allowing the alcohol to burn on the way down. It was the only thing he had to hold on to at the moment. He had been left alone while Elise went to the restroom. He felt lost amidst the crowd. Sure, he could most likely find a familiar face…but he had no idea what to say to them.
A force running into him from behind threw him forward a few steps and spilled the liquid contents of the glass onto his uniform. “Damn clumsy kids,” he thought to himself as he turned around angrily with intent to yell at them. But he was quickly cut short of words as he saw the figure in front of him slowly getting up off the floor.
“Oh Hyne, I am so sorry! This place is so darn crowded.” He reached into his pocket. “Here let me get that.” He removed a handkerchief from his pocket and held it out to him. When he looked up, he was immediately paralyzed as he realized whom he had just run into.
The older man swallowed hard. “Squ…Squall.”
“I’m…really sorry. Here, take this.”
“No, its fine.” Squall said as he brushed the liquid from his jacket. “It’s nothing.”
Several agonizing moments of uncomfortable silence passed between the two men as they looked at each other, both searching for the right thing to say.
“So…things been going well for you?”
“Did Elise come with you?”
“She’s in the restroom.”
Laguna’s mind was spinning with words. None of which seemed appropriate to him. The phrase ‘I’m sorry’ did nothing to ease the wrong he had done his son in the past, and he had no idea what would happen tonight. But they were the only words he could think of.
“Squall…I just want to say that I’m sor—”
“President Loire! Can we get a photo or two of you with some of the graduates?” He looked over to the news reporter holding a camera and smiling cheerfully. He nodded and then turned back to Squall.
“I…” Laguna faltered. He reached up and put a hand on the young man’s shoulder. “Excuse me, son.” And he walked off without another word. Kicking himself in the head mentally the entire way.
Squall watched him disappear through the crowd feeling a combination of anger and relief. Anger, that he never finished what he was going to say. Relieved that he didn’t get to, as he probably wouldn’t have stood hearing his pleas of forgiveness yet one more time. The man hadn’t been trying very hard lately however. This was the first time they had spoken since he had hung up the phone on him a few months ago. Maybe he was giving up on this father/son relationship too. He wasn’t sure how to feel about that. The headmaster stared at the glass in his hand for a moment and raised a hand to get the attention of the drink waiter a few feet away.
Quistis looked around the room nervously. Why did she agree to let her go through with this? There were so many outcomes to this situation…the majority of them bad. She wrung her hands in anticipation. Maybe she should do something…but what? Go back to the palace and talk Rinoa out of this? Tell Squall the truth? Hell, maybe she should just go tell—”
“Elise!” She said a little over excitedly. “Hi!” She watched the doctor as she approached. Oh God it was going to be a long night.
“Hi yourself! How the heck have you been?” Elise reached around to give the taller woman a hug.
“Great. How about yourself?”
“Insanely busy.” She groaned. “I think I can count the hours of sleep I’ve had this week on one hand.”
“Job keeping you on your toes is it?”
“Ugh, you have no idea.”
“Well I’m sure this is a nice little break for the two of you. Esthar could be a very relaxing place if the lights went off once in a while.”
Elise laughed. “Yes I agree completely. Have you been here long? Squall and I spent most of the day here with Zell and Alexandra. They took us out to lunch.”
“I arrived this afternoon,” Quistis lied. “Haven’t had much time for anything except throwing my bags in the hotel room and running over here.”
“Maybe we can all go out and do something tomorrow morning before everyone has to leave.”
“Yeah, that’d be great.”
“If we are still on speaking terms,” she thought to herself.
“So…” the young doctor looked at her slyly. “You going to spill the beans to me about this so called ‘friend’ of yours hmm? Someone perhaps more than a friend?” She elbowed the blonde and winked.
“Huh?” She replied confused. “What are you talking about?”
“Oh come on Quisty! We all know something is up! You’ve even piqued Squall’s interest…which is not an easy task. So fess up! You got a guy stashed away somewhere?”
“What? No! I told Squall what was going on. It was the truth. My friend…was really bad off. The doctors were not even sure they’d make it through the night. So I went and stayed until they were out of the woods. And well, I’ve just been around for them since…just being there. Helping them get back on their feet you know?”
“Oh fine, don’t tell me,” she grinned. “But I have my ways of finding things out deary.”
“Honestly, there’s nothing to hide.” Quistis hoped Elise couldn’t see the sweat she could feel running slowly down from her left temple. “So where’s Squall?”
“Oh I left him over there while I went to the bathroom,” Elise said pointing in his direction. “He would be that lone wallflower over there leaning against the wall.” The smile faded from her lips. “The one drinking like a fish.”
“Yeah…he’s been having problems with that again lately.” She shook her head. “I’d better go over there and stop him before he ends up in the training center again chasing ghosts.”
“What do you mean?”
“Oh…just. Well when he had the accident…he…was distracted because…because he thought he saw her in the training center.”
Quistis’ eyes opened wide in surprise.
“Yeah…I know. Crazy huh? Well, I’m going to go over there and get the glass out of his hand before I end up carrying him home. I’ll see you in a bit Quistis.”
“Okay,” She replied, not really hearing her entire statement. She was still stuck on what she had told her just before. She looked across the room at Squall who had a blank stare in his eyes as he turned up the glass and swallowed the rest of the contents. Perhaps she had been wrong. Maybe things were not as they seemed with him before. Maybe she wasn’t the only liar in the room tonight.
She stared at herself in the full-length mirror. The dress she was wearing was trimmed down to her feet. Indeed it was longer than the one she had worn that night, but she had to give herself credit for being able to find one of the same color. It was sleeveless and she was freezing. Or maybe it was just her nerves…most likely a little of both. Rinoa turned to the side and smoothed down the waist of the dress. It was a bit of a loose fit. She seemed to be a size smaller than she remembered. Too late to exchange it now though, it would have to do.
She grabbed a brush from the nightstand and began brushing her hair for the ninth time that night. “Why am I so nervous about this?” She thought to herself. “It’s just a dance right?” Her attempt to reassure herself did little to quell the pounding of her heart and the trembling of her hands. She had no idea what she could say, but maybe words wouldn’t be necessary. Things would just…fall into place.
“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.”
Quistis’ voice echoed in the back of her mind. Some part of her knew she was right. There was a voice and a reasoning inside of her that was older than her seventeen years. A voice that told her this wouldn’t be right. Just strolling back into his life wouldn’t be right. It was complicated and it couldn’t be done without hurting someone, or everyone, including herself.
So why then was she still getting ready to walk out the door?
“I just…want to know if he’s okay.” She told the reflection in the mirror. “I would never do anything to hurt him. Seeing him again, there was no harm in that. Everything would be fine.
With the doubt now silent in defeat, she wrapped a shawl around her shoulders, holding it tightly in one hand. She looked around the room one last time as a smile slowly formed on her face. She couldn’t back down now. Rinoa Heartilly had waited too long for this.
Alex Dincht looked around the room and sighed. “Remind me again Zell why I let you talk me into coming here?”
“Oh come on Alex! It’s a weekend away from the kids, just the two of us. Seventy-two precious hours of relaxation, how could you not enjoy this?” He smiled at his wife as he took another bite of his hotdog.
“Well maybe you are relaxing. You’re forgetting I have to carry one around with me for those seventy-two hours of relaxation. The baby is an aspiring cancan dancer, my feet are killing me, and look at all these beautiful women in here with their size five dresses. God I feel so fat.”
“You kidding? You’re the most gorgeous woman in this room. And I’ll kick the ass of any guy who tells me different.”
She leaned onto the table and rested her head in one hand. “That’s really sweet Zell, but don’t try to appease my raging hormones right now…I may be forced to bite your head off.”
“Yes ma’am.” He mock saluted and laughed. Zell stood and walked over to her side of the table and offered her a hand. “Would you care to dance then big mama?” She took his hands in response as he helped her to her feet.
“Alright…but I swear if you call me that one more time you will be hitchhiking back to Balamb, is that clear?” She threatened as they made their way out to the dance floor.
He put a hand around her waist and took her hand in his other as they began moving slowly to the music.
“Been a long day hasn’t it?”
“Yeah.” She leaned into him tiredly.
“I’m sorry. I wouldn’t have done this if Squall hadn’t asked. I mean I could care less about Garden anymore. But…he’s my friend. I wanna be there for him.”
Alex looked at him with a sly smile. “You sure the free hotdog buffet didn’t have something to do with it as well?”
“No…absolutely not. They could be serving something nasty like fastitocalon caviar for all I care.”
She reached up and wiped a bit of mustard from the corner of his mouth. “Whatever you say dear. The evident nine hotdogs in your stomach tell me different though.”
“Hey I brought all those to the table for you! You're eating for two you know. Gotta get my boy eating right from the start!”
She laughed. “You are so sure aren’t you?”
“Absolutely. I’ve got a feeling.”
“Yeah…you had that feeling last time and the time before that too.”
“But this one is special. Third time’s the charm.”
“Well, just don’t be surprised if the charm comes out like the other two.”
“Oh well,” he said as he smiled widely. “There’s always next time.”
“Sweetie I hate to break it to you,” she chuckled. “But this is your last chance.”
“Aww…you mean you’re not gonna stay barefoot and pregnant?” He stuck his lip out in a pout.
“Dream on buddy.”
Zell looked out across the room as they danced. He spotted Squall leaning against the far wall near the balcony door. His face looked empty and stoic. It wasn’t the same face that was having lunch with them earlier. Something wasn’t right. Squall was keeping something.
“Squall asked me to be his best man.”
“Today at the restaurant. He told me not to say anything in front of Elise.”
Alex looked up at him with a confused expression. “That seems kind of odd.”
“Yeah I know. I think he might be stalling. Maybe he isn’t as certain about this as he would have us believe.”
“Why would he go through with this if he had doubts?”
“Maybe to run from the past,” he thought to himself. He looked back to her. “I don’t know. But I’m going to talk to him.”
Elise made her way through the crowd to where he was standing. Squall turned up his drink and saw her standing in front of him.
He swallowed. “That was a long trip. What did you do? Walk all the way back to Esthar?”
“No, just ran into people on the way back in. I talked to Quistis.”
“Oh? So she was able to take time out of her busy schedule. How nice.”
“Squall…I think you’ve had enough to drink.”
“I’m fine. And anyway, I think Laguna is picking up the tab for this gala. So bottoms up.” He followed up his statement by emptying the remains of the glass.
“Did you see him?”
“We ran into each other.”
“Well…what did you say?”
“Not much of anything.”
“Hey you two! How’s it going?” Zell said as he and Alex approached them.
Elise put on a smile. “Hey! Wow Zell you clean up nice.”
“You might want to take a picture.” Alex said. “It’s extremely rare.”
“Hey…that’s not fair…I’ll have you know I shower!”
“Is Zell’s personal hygiene the topic of conversation this evening? I have a few notable accounts that I can share.” Quistis smiled as she joined the group.
“Squall…help me out here. The women are ganging up on me.”
Squall looked up from the floor. “Huh? I’m sorry…what?”
He didn’t have time to answer before a loud screech interrupted his train of thought.
“Oh my gosh there they are! Hi you guys!” Selphie came bounding across the room dragging Irvine by the hand behind her.
“Really knows how to make a subtle entrance doesn’t she?” Zell said. He was answered with a poke in the ribs from his wife. “Ow!”
“Oh wow it’s so great to see you all!” Selphie said as she made her way around, giving each of them a hug. Irvine was still trying to catch his breath.
“Look at this! The gang’s all here again under the same roof!”
No one caught the flash of sadness that passed briefly through Squall’s eyes.
“Oh look at you Alex! You look fantastic! How many months are you now?”
“Seven months, 29 days, and counting.” She replied with a groan. “I’ve got it down to milliseconds, but I don’t want to bore you.”
“You poor thing! Shame on you Zell for making her walk around in a hot room like this! C’mon, I’ll help you over to a table. I wanna know all about the kids.” With that she practically dragged the woman across the floor out of site of the rest of them.
“Well, I actually do feel sorry for her now.” Zell commented. “How much coffee did she have on the airplane?”
“Had…to run…up…three huge…flights…of stairs…she said there was…no time to take…the elevator.” Irvine wheezed from underneath his black cowboy hat, he was still leaning over with one hand resting on his knee.
“Awww, what’s the matter Irvy? Out of shape?”
The blonde haired man immediately received the finger in response. Which got a laugh from everyone in the group, save for one who was still lost in his own thoughts. After another couple of moments, Irvine stood up and removed his hat to the two remaining women.
“My but you two ladies look lovely this evening. Can’t say much for the company you keep…but I won’t hold that against you.”
“Oh relax Zell I’m only joking. You’re quite a lovely girl yourself.”
“Well thank—hey! I’m not a girl!”
“Yes, thank Hyne for that.” Irvine laughed. It was immediate to fall into routine when they all were together. It was like a second nature. As if they had never been apart.
“And how are you this evening headmaster-groom-to-be?”
“Fine.” Squall replied softly, his eyes never leaving the floor.
“He’s…had quite a bit to drink this evening.” Elise said.
The rest of them looked at him with concern. He looked up for a moment at their expressions and then turned to his fiancée. “Elise I’d appreciate you not telling everyone what is none of their business.”
Elise shook her head. “Everyone, please excuse me for minute.” Then she stormed off without another word, leaving the rest of them in an uncomfortable silence.
“Uh…say Quisty, would you like to dance?”
Quistis took another look at Squall before answering. “Yeah sure Irvine, that’d be great.” She took his hand as they too disappeared through the crowd. Zell walked over and leaned against the wall alongside his friend.
“What the hell is going on Squall? Where’s all of this attitude coming from? You seemed fine today.”
“Take a look around Zell. What do you think is wrong with me? Look at where we are.”
The young man closed his eyes and nodded. “I know…I know. You’re preaching to the choir man. I miss her too. We all do. But is that all that’s bothering you?”
Squall turned and looked at him. “What do you mean?”
“I mean…why haven’t you set a date for your wedding Squall? Why all this secrecy from Elise? And why in Bahamut’s name are you drinking again?”
“Things are complicated now Zell. I’ve got a lot on my mind. I don’t have time to worry about rushing around for a wedding.”
“Yeah, well I might buy that if this hadn’t been going on for a year now. Not counting the six months you waited to give her the ring. At first, I thought it might be just your jobs being in the way. I even thought as far as it’s just you being afraid of commitment. But it’s been going on too long even for that. I don’t know what to think anymore. So why don’t you tell me?”
“Why don’t you just go away?”
“I know it’s none of my business. But I just think you should reevaluate why you’re marrying her that’s all. If you’re doing this just to prove something then you’ll end up miserable, and you’ll make her miserable too.” He patted him on the shoulder and began to walk off. He turned and looked at him once more. “You know…not all of us have given up on Rinoa.”
Squall watched him walk away. The anger was rising in the back of his throat and he felt like he wanted to yell. When did Zell ever consider himself an expert on his life and his reasoning? Did marriage automatically turn you into a relationship therapist? He got enough of the therapist shit from Elise. It was the last thing he needed from the only other people in his life he could turn to.
Hyne, he had to get out of here. He had to get some air.
He turned and pushed through the balcony doors. His heavy footsteps echoed on the concrete as he made his way to the ledge. Squall leaned against the railing and looked out across the darkness. The stars seemed brighter than ever tonight. He tried not to look at them…but it was as if his eyes were magnetically drawn to their soft glow. Silently he wondered what the chances were of him seeing a shooting star tonight.
As if on cue, one blazed through the sky right before his eyes. He nearly choked with sadness as he covered his face with one of his hands. His thoughts were still spinning with the reality that maybe Zell had been more right than he would like to admit.
As she made her way into the entrance, she wondered how she would ever be able to find him in this crowd. After a few minutes of looking, she was beginning to wonder if he was even here. Her mind silently weighed the good and the bad of that thought. She spotted Quistis to her left dancing with Irvine. He seemed to be holding her a little more tightly than Quistis deemed comfortable. Seven years had done little to change that man. She remained careful to not be spotted by someone who might recognize her. Though as many strangers as there were here, it was doubtful.
As she neared the other side of the ballroom, she began to lose hope. She pushed her way through until she could see the large windows on the opposite end. She caught a full glimpse of the stars for the first time in seven years. The young woman was held captivated at the beauty of the vast sea of them in the sky. She never remembered them being this beautiful. Suddenly a flash of light fell through the sky. Her eyes followed it down on its burning voyage through the atmosphere. Her breath caught in her throat as her eyes took her to the balcony outside. There she saw a familiar silhouette resting against the railing.
And Rinoa couldn’t help but smile.