~ Chapter 15: Reason to Believe ~
True hope dwells on the possible,
even when life seems to be a plot written by someone
who wants to see how much adversity we can overcome.
Rinoa was up at dawn. It had been a strange habit she had acquired since moving into the house. Before that time she would have considered getting up anytime before 9 a.m. to be complete madness. She took another bite of the piece of toast in her hand as she stared absently out of the living room window. Signs of the small village coming to life were everywhere. Shopkeepers were sweeping off their entranceways, people running down to the coffee shop for a quick breakfast before hurrying off to work. This was as chaotic as life seemed to get around here. She wasn’t sure if it was peaceful or just plain boring.
Taking the last gulp of orange juice she set the glass down and grabbed her jacket off one of the dining room chairs. Today was the day, she made up her mind. Rinoa Heartilly was going to go outside. She took a deep breath and turned the door knob. The brisk winds of early March were the first to greet her as she stepped out the door. The cold sank into her bones and she nearly backpedaled inside the house. “No, I’m going to do this,” she encouraged herself. “I have too.”
With renewed confidence, she managed to close the door behind her and step out into the street. People smiled and nodded greetings to her as they walked passed. Some even made time for verbal salutations to which she responded in kind. Why hadn’t she done this sooner? What exactly had she been afraid of? The young sorceress walked down the cobblestone street feeling a certain freedom from the prison bars she had built around her during the past couple of weeks.
Her memories were hazy about the place they had visited so many years ago. The town seemed foreign and new, she didn’t recognize anything. A shop that was a small distance away from the rest of them caught her eye. The small sign that hung above the doorway read ‘Village Florist’. This must have been where Laguna’s flowers had come from. They were so pretty. Perhaps she could get a couple more arrangements for the house.
The bell above the door gave a small jingle as she opened it and stepped inside. The smell of flowers immediately filled her senses. Rinoa nearly gasped as she looked around the beautiful room. Flowers of all shapes and sizes surrounded her. Some were cut and in vases while others were potted in planters. The flowers were enhanced by the light shining through the stained glass windows. It was breathtaking, and somehow there was a sense of familiarity to it.
She snapped out of her trance and walked over to sniff the white chrysanthemums on the small shelf in front of her. A voice from the back room nearly caused her to knock the vase of flowers over.
“I’ll be with you in just a minute!”
Rinoa turned to see an older woman coming down the stairs from the second floor. She was dressed in standard gardener attire with the sunhat, the polo shirt, and clam digger pants. Though she had to admit, the makeup was rather overdone…
“Sorry about that dear, had to catch the last part of my soap opera. I swear that Kyle McCarthy is the sexiest hunk of meat this side of Deling!”
The girl smiled uneasily and nodded. At this point she felt it wise to agree.
Approaching the counter the old woman smiled. “So what can I help you with today?”
“Um, I was just look–I mean I would like to buy some flowers...for the house.” Rinoa stammered and pointed in the direction of her home. She felt like such an idiot.
“Say, I don’t believe I’ve seen you around here before. You just move in?”
“Yeah…a couple of weeks ago, I’m staying a short distance up the street. The house used to be next to a bar I think.”
The old woman’s eyes lit up. “Oh! Raine’s old place! Then you must be the niece Laguna spoke of on the phone.” She came out from behind the counter and looked her up and down. “Why yes, I do see the similarity. It’s a pleasure to meet you Miss Loire, I’m Maude McCay. Such a sweet man your uncle…handsome too.”
Niece…that was a good cover…she would have to thank Laguna later. “Yes he is. That’s kind of you to say, as he told me he was never very popular around here.”
Maude scoffed and shook her head. “This town is full of narrow-minded hypocrites honey. You’ll just have to overlook them. But I believe he was and still is a good man.”
“Well then, there are two sane people living in Winhill.” She gave the younger girl a wink.
Her next few actions would leave her to question that statement.
“So what kind of flowers would you like to–”
Her statement was cut short by a shrill cry from outside. Maude glanced towards the back door and sighed. “Excuse me just one moment dear.” Rinoa watched as she reached under the counter, pulled out a sawed-off shotgun, and ran storming out the back door.
“Stop stealin’ from my garden you damned sons-of-bitches!” She screamed as she fired the shotgun in the air. The young sorceress cringed at the blasts as she looked on with her mouth agape.
A loud wark echoed into the building and she saw a chocobo run by the doorway.
“Get him Lucky! Kick him in his thieving ass!” She heard the woman shout.
A few moments later she returned inside slightly out of breath and anything but calm. “How in the world do honest people make a living while ingrates like that just come over and help themselves to your profits!?”
Rinoa was too afraid to say anything. The woman was still holding the shotgun under one arm. Maude could see the fear in the young woman’s eyes and she softened her tone.
“I’m sorry you had to witness that. It’s just falling on desperate times around here and well, people waltzing in here and stealing my livelihood tend to really rub me the wrong way. This was my sister’s business. She passed away six years ago, left this place to me. It’s honestly all I can do to keep it running. Sometimes it hardly seems worth it. But I don’t know…if anything, it’s just a way for me to honor her memory.” She smiled and thought for a moment. “That old stubborn cow.”
Rinoa smiled nervously. “Hey, I understand.” At least she thought she might. The whole gun thing was still scary.
“Would you like to see my garden?”
“Sure, as long as you put the gun away.”
The old woman laughed as she placed the shotgun back under the counter. “Don’t worry dear, they’re just blanks.”
She led her to the back door and opened the latch. Rinoa’s eyes were immediately filled with rows upon rows of flowers of all kinds. The unparalleled splendor of the site made her realize why Maude was so protective of it.
The old woman grinned as she watched her eyes widen. “Pretty, isn’t it?”
“Amazing…” she breathed. “How…how did you do all of this?”
“Well my sister had it well started when I took over the business. I just sort of helped it along.”
Rinoa became mesmerized by the endless rows of bright colors shifting gently in the breeze. “It’s so beautiful.”
A shrill chirp startled her from her daydream. She darted her eyes towards the orientation of the sound to see a medium sized chocobo approaching the both of them.
“Ah!” Maude exclaimed. “And this fine upstanding gentleman is my partner in crime, Lucky.”
At the sound of his name, Lucky warbled and flapped his wings excitedly. He reached into the doorway with his long neck to nuzzle the older woman. “That’s a good boy Lucky,” she said as she reached into her pocket and handed him a few bits of greens.
“I bought him when one of those traveling livestock auctions came into town about five years ago. He was headed to the meat factory and I wasn’t going to stand for it. Little guy like that, no one would give him a chance. So what if he’s a tad small, he gets his work done! Don’t ya boy?”
Lucky chirped softly and then turned to inspect the new stranger. The young woman slowly held out her hand to him, which he inspected immediately for food. Upon finding none, he tilted his head slightly to allow her to scratch it.
Rinoa smiled and complied to his request, rubbing his feathers gently with her fingers. “So he is your watch dog, huh?”
“Yeah, and he helps me make some local deliveries, mostly though he just keeps an old woman company.”
She gave him one last pat on the head. “Well I’m sure he gets a lot of happiness from you as well.”
“Yes, I suppose he does. I spoil him rotten.”
Rinoa chuckled. It had been so long since she felt this kind of serenity. Just being amidst the flowers, all of her inner turmoil seemed to weaken and retreat to the recesses of her mind. These tender plants battled storms and the cold all the time. And they managed to bounce back and remain grounded. Somehow that seemed to give her some hope as well.
“So, you decided on the type of flowers you want?” Maude finally spoke breaking her from her thoughts.
“Oh, I’m sorry. I dazed out there for a second. Um…wow…I don’t know. They’re all so beautiful. What do you suggest?”
“Well, we could do you a mixed vase with some wild flowers, those are always nice. And how about a bouquet of irises? They are gorgeous this time of year.”
“Iris?” Where had she heard of that? Someone had mentioned irises before.
“Oh they are one of my absolute favorites!” The older woman said as she walked out into the garden. She cut one of the flowers near the door and brought it over to her. It was a marvelous flower. The bottom petals spread wide around the rest of the flower that curved upwardly in an elaborate display of grace. The familiarity of seeing them before still nagged at her.
“Isn’t it though?” Maude said excitedly. “They come in all sorts of colors, sometimes more than one color. You know the name iris means…”
“Rainbow.” Rinoa muttered aloud.
“Why…yes that’s right! How did you know that?”
“I can’t…remember. Someone must have mentioned that before…I don’t know. Maybe I read it somewhere.” She shook her head. “Oh well. But yes, I will take a dozen of those. They are really wonderful.
Maude nodded with a smile and went out into the garden again to retrieve the flowers. She returned a few minutes later with an armful of flowers. She sat them upon a large table in the back of the store and began arranging them in vases.
“Do…you need any help around here? I mean…would you consider hiring someone?”
“I wish I could, but the way things are right now, I can’t afford to pay anyone.” She replied.
“Oh no, I don’t want any pay…I mean…if you didn’t have to pay them and all.” God she felt so embarrassed.
The old woman stopped arranging for a moment and looked at her with a kind smile. “You’re a real sweetheart you know that? Honestly I would hire you in a second sweetie. The truth of the matter is, I don’t know how much longer I’ll be able to keep this place open. Business is really slow, not to mention those hoodlums who think they can just waltz in my backyard and help themselves. The bill collectors are breathing down my neck and the rent on this place is way passed due. I’m waiting for that little man from the bank to come running with a foreclosure notice any day now.”
“It’s not your fault dear. I’m sorry I have nothing to offer you. I would just hate for you to start working here only to have you booted out with the rest of us the next day. But hey, you never know when things might turn around. And if they do, you will be the first person I’ll call on.”
The young woman nodded. “Thank you. I’ll be glad to help.”
They continued their conversation until she was finished arranging the flowers. Rinoa paid for the flowers and thanked her. Maude placed the vases in a tote bag for easy carrying.
“Now you come back again and visit me okay? I’ll take you around town and show you all the swinging hot spots!”
Rinoa laughed. “I’d like that.”
“I’m sorry dear, I didn’t catch your first name.”
“I’m Ri…” She caught herself, using her given name might draw unneeded attention. The woman herself assumed her last name was Loire, so Rinoa could build her new life around that. She could think of no greater honor than being considered a relative of Laguna’s.
“I’m Renee Loire.”
Saying goodbye, Rinoa made it outside of the door before a voice came from the recesses of her mind and a memory suddenly flashed before her eyes.
She had been here before…with Squall. She remembered now. They were looking for a piece of a broken vase in the large mansion up the road. She had been looking at the flowers when he had walked up behind her.
“These are beautiful. I wonder what they’re called?”
She had turned around in surprise at the sound of his voice and the fact that he knew anything about flowers.
“They used to grow out behind the orphanage.” He said in answer to her visible astonishment.
“That’s a pretty name, iris, I wonder what it means?” She felt like a complete idiot.
“It means rainbow. In one of the mythologies, Iris was a messenger to the gods, cloaked in a robe of dewdrops that reflected the stars. She communicated to them through a rainbow, which was thought to be a bridge between heaven and earth.”
“That’s beautiful Squall, where did you learn that?”
He shrugged it off as if he hadn’t said anything. “Just standard text book stuff.”
They had started to leave before he spoke to her again. A statement which told her there was more to him than the stone exterior he portrayed all the time.
“It’s good I think that there are places like this that grow the flowers. The ones that grow wild will probably be gone soon.”
She returned to the present, still standing in front of the doorway of the flower shop. The last words he had said repeated again in her mind. Perhaps it would be here that she could make a difference, do something worthwhile for someone and help preserve a fading part of nature.
Carefully she placed the tote bag to one side and opened the door wide with a new resolve. The bell above the door clanged frantically at the force.
“Maude! I think I can help you!”
Quistis put the car into park in front of Rinoa’s house. She sighed tiredly and turned the ignition off. It had been a long trip. She glanced in the back seat and found her passenger sound asleep.
“Hey there sleepy head,” she said as she reached over and gently stroked her head so as not to alarm her. The dog stirred a bit and raised her head.
“Are you as ready to get out of this car as I am?”
“I’ll take that as a yes.”
The headmaster stepped out and walked around to the back door. She opened it and took the dog’s leash. Esperanza quickly stepped out of the car, thankful to be out of the cramped space. She stretched and began smelling the new scents of the strange area.
Quistis knelt down and motioned to her to come. She obeyed dutifully and sat patiently while this new human tied a loose bow of ribbon around her neck. “I know you’ll be happy here,” she said as she looped one side of the bow. “This girl you’re about to meet is one of the kindest most gentle people I know. Think Selphie, only a lot less…caffeine.” Esperanza cocked her head curiously, watching the woman’s mouth move.
She laughed. “I know you can’t hear me, but for some reason I just feel the need to talk to you. I’ve definitely been driving too long. Let’s see…” She thought for a moment and then raised a hand in front of the dog, bringing down her middle and forefingers and motioning with the remaining fingers and thumb.
“Good girl,” she said slowly.
The dog licked her hand and wagged her stubby tail furiously.
“Looks like I might be getting the hang of this,” she smiled. “Okay let’s go.” Quistis led Esperanza up the cobblestone street passing the old bar. She knocked on the door and waited. A few moments passed and she looked down at the dog. “Look respectable now.” She responded by lying down. The young woman rolled her eyes.
She knocked on the door once more and still received no reply. Taking the doorknob in her hand she turned it and found the door to be unlocked. She opened the door and led the dog inside.
“Rinoa are you home?”
Quistis looked around the house. “She must have gone to look around Winhill today. Good for her.” She walked over to the couch and sat down, kicking her shoes off in the process. “Well I see no wrong in us making ourselves comfortable until she gets back do you?” Esperanza looked at the new surroundings with a nervous excitement.
It wasn’t too long before the doorknob turned and one could hear the audible cursing of someone who realized they hadn’t locked the door. That is of course except Quistis Trepe, who had fallen fast asleep.
At the sound of her name, Quistis opened one eye and smiled. “Hey Rin,” she said sleepily. “I made myself at home.”
“Oh my god, how long have you been waiting here? I’m so sorry!”
The headmaster glanced at her watch. “Not long at all. Didn’t mean to barge in but I saw the door was unlocked and just thought I would come in and wait. It was a long trip”
“You know I don’t mind,” Rinoa replied shutting the door behind her. “Really Quistis, you didn’t have to come all the way down here.”
She smiled. “Yes I did.”
“No, you didn’t.”
“Yes, I did.”
Suddenly something cold touched the back of Rinoa’s hand. She yelped and spun around in surprise. Esperanza backed away quickly in her own shock. The two stared at each other for a few moments.
Quistis’ smile widened. “I had to bring you your birthday present.”
Too many times he found himself staring at the vastness of the mountainous horizon. It was as if the snow-covered peaks held a silent fascination - a hypnotic trance that seemed to be slowing overtaking all aspects of his life. For a second, he wondered just how much weight the mountain could withstand before the inevitable avalanche came crashing downward.
He had watched for months…the subtle buildup that would eventually lead to the peak’s own demise. Each snowflake alone was seemingly weightless, but combined each became a dangerous, and sometimes lethal, combination.
He took a sip of his coffee. If he had cared, he would have cringed as the burnt grounds floated in the sea of caffeine. It was amazing how one secretary could mess up something so simple, but he was not one who had earned the right to pass judgment on messing up the obvious.
Turning back toward his desk, he looked at the mound of paperwork that loomed in the shadows. It seemed over the past few days he felt more comfort in the darkness, and the lighting in his office reflected his recent disposition. It was as if in the last few months, the foundation that he had built in sanity was slowly ebbing away.
The buzzing of the intercom sliced through the stillness like the ever clichéd knife. He inwardly cringed. It was never a good sign this early in the morning - some reporter, some student, or some old friend trying to give him some moral encouragement.
“Headmaster Leonhart?” His assistant’s voice softly questioned.
Closing his eyes, he wished to be far away from this place, maybe standing on the crest of the mountain range that had been his companion for the last five years. It was majestic, unwavering, and most importantly, it never faded away like a dream when the morning came.
But honor and duty were all he had left… With a sigh, he reached down pressing the button. “Go ahead.”
“You have a call on line one, sir.”
“Can you take a message?” It really wasn’t what he wanted to say, but it was more polite than his initial thought.
“Sir, it is the president of Balamb Banking and Trust. He’s rather adamant on either speaking with you or Headmaster Trepe.”
“Well then…have him call Headmaster Trepe.”
This time he didn’t try to hide the anger or sarcasm contained in his voice. “If it is a Balamb matter he is calling on, I’m sure she is more than capable of handling any situation.”
There was a long pause on the other end, before the voice tentatively continued, “Sir, I am afraid that Ms. Trepe is reportedly on personal leave and unavailable at this time. The gentleman is insisting that you are the only other person that he is authorized to speak with.”
He grinded his teeth together, unsure of what he was more upset about. The fact he was going to handle a situation out of his jurisdiction, or the fact that Quistis had taken another one of her recent flights-of-fancy giving little, if any, notification.
He slammed his coffee mug down on his desk, accidentally spilling some of the hot contents over the brim. The headmaster tried calming himself, wondering why every little thing - all of a sudden - was getting to him so much more than before.
As the towel soaked up the final liquid puddles, he hit the red flashing light.
“This is Headmaster Leonhart.”
“…ll of Balamb Banking and Trust. We have had a request for an emergency requisition and need an authorized signature to proceed.”
The speakerphone cut short the official introduction, but Squall understood enough to know that the bank was calling the wrong person.
“Sir, I’m not sure what information you have, but I left Balamb Garden several years ago. All trust fund and benefit distributions to former and/or disabled SeeDs must be handled by the Balamb administrative staff… I believe that would fall under either Headmaster Trepe or her immediate assistant.”
“I am aware of that sir. As far the bank is concerned, you have no other ties with our institution. All of the existing accounts are correctly distributed, but somehow this one was missed… I sincerely apologize for the inconvenience…”
Squall spoke through gritted teeth, fully irritated by the bank’s lack of organizational skills. He distanced himself from Balamb as much as possible. Everything there just reminded him of… No, he couldn’t do that now.
He just couldn’t.
He ran his fingers through his hair, before resting his palm on the base of his neck. The Headmaster finally responded in a somewhat annoyed manner. “Fine, have whatever you need signed faxed over to my assistant.” He tried to control his growing irritation, wondering how an account could have been missed after so long. “How exactly is it that only one account was found after a five-year period?”
“Our belief is that withdraws from this particular trust had been nonexistent, also the account was classified as non-military. Due to the categorization, it was never switched with the change in personnel. This shouldn’t happen again. A request was made a few weeks ago to have your name removed… Unfortunately, the paper work hasn’t cleared. We’re just awaiting the return of the signature card.”
“Whatever,” the word came out as a little more than a grumble. It wasn’t intentional, but he glanced behind his shoulder looking at the sky. The storm clouds had been rolling in over the last few minutes. A sprinkling of snowflakes coated the air. From the corner of his eye, he saw a basketball rolling past the court into a nearby field. A young cadet quickly ran after the rogue item.
“Look! Look! A gift from the fairies!”
Selphie’s voice resonated through his mind like crashing waves. It hadn’t been more than a fortnight since he’d collapsed onto the pavement outside. In the background, he could hear the instructions through the speaker, followed by useless pleasantries that Squall despised most about etiquette.
“…in today’s society you know how everyone’s tempo seems to be picking up, and in the world of banking we can never be too safe. I thank you for your time, Headmaster Leonhart.”
"But when the battles start happening, it's different. Everyone's tempo seems to pick up and..."
Rinoa’s almost final words played like a bittersweet melody, something snapped in him, a strange blend between miraculous recovery and extreme insanity.
He yelled, grabbing the receiver off the cradle. His actions were a little more overzealous than even he could explain. “I’m sorry,” his tone softened with the apology, “I…I didn’t catch your name earlier.”
“Jefferson Mitchell, President of the Balamb…”
Squall knew ‘who’ he worked for, and for all intents and purposes, decided to forego the usual protocol. “Listen, you said that this was a non-military account. How many civilian accounts does your bank serve as executor for…in partnership with Garden?”
“Well, there are several retired employees who receive benefits, but those have regular withdraws. We’ve been taking care of those internally when they appear. However, most were found within a few months of your departure. As I mentioned, Headmaster Trepe takes care of removing your name. We just hadn’t had a disbursement request on this account until recently.”
“What is the account number?”
“Sir, I sincerely apologize, but I cannot give that information over the phone.”
If reaching his hand through the receiver hadn’t been an impossible feat, he would have done it in a heartbeat. “Listen, if you want me to sign this goddamned paper…just tell me the number.”
“The information you have requested, should be there by now. I’ve faxed the document to the number we had on file. All the relevant information should be contain--”
He slammed down the handset with the force of a typhoon, leaving his office with equal velocity. Without speaking a word to his assistant, he grabbed the lone sheet of paper lying facedown on the machine.
In one moment, two words would etch like light on a negative. Two words that he had long since refused to see in print. Two words that changed his life eight years ago…Rinoa Heartilly. The letters seemed to burn into his retinas, and for a brief second, he allowed himself to believe. Then it quickly faded when reality set in…his reality.
It wasn’t possible. It would never be possible.
He reached to the phone, hands shaking as he prayed for some sort of salvation that would never come. He dialed a once familiar number, one that he had called almost daily for the first two years.
“City of Esthar, Military Planning and Development…how shall I direct your call?”
“Squall Leonhart for Kiros Seagill.”
The moments ticked into an endless eternity and the orchestrated versions of love songs decades old didn’t help lighten his mood. As he waited on hold, he sat at his computer pulling up classified files from Balamb Garden’s central computer.
“Squall, I’m surprised to hear from you.”
A sudden apprehension overtook him, like a young child feeling the guilt of breaking their parent’s favorite vase. He forced himself to remain calm. However, the irresistible urge to slam the receiver down reigned foremost on his mind. He gathered courage to ask a question that he hadn’t uttered in over five years.
“Kiros…has…has there been any change on…” He closed his eyes, swallowing, as he couldn’t get himself to say the name. “On…her condition?”
It felt almost impossible to speak, just asking the question felt as if he was being unfaithful to Elise. But he had to know…it wasn’t an option.
“Has there been any change on…Rinoa’s status?”
A long pause followed at the other end, followed by a voiced that mimicked that of a father comforting his young son. “No Squall, I am sorry. A few months back the researchers thought they had a breakthrough in Dr. Odine’s notes. It was only estimated a ten percent chance of survival…and almost a hundredth of that to regain full motor skills.”
“They are still trying.” It wasn’t a question, closer to a demand.
“Yes, but the reality is unsealing is no longer a priority. I can’t convey my deepest apologies…but the chances of success are infinitesimal. Studies are now primarily focusing on Odine’s notes as a whole.”
“So, nothing has changed.”
He wasn’t sure why he asked again, it wasn’t as if the answer was going to change on will alone. Hell, if that were the case, it would have changed eight years ago.
He placed the receiver back onto the cradle. If she was still sealed in Esthar, the money was being withdrawn by an outside source. If he wanted to catch whoever was embezzling the funds, he would have to approve the withdrawal. From there, he could follow the routing number and trace it to their location.
In any other case, he would have turned the matter over to the proper authorities, but this was different. This was personal. Taking her money was the equivalent of placing her coffin in the ground. Whoever was stealing would pay…no matter whom it turned out to be.
This was it. The final snowflake that would eventually collapse the weight of the mountain…the avalanche from which he would never escape.
Author’s Notes: First and foremost, we wanted to let you know that we’ve decided to change the rating from PG-13 to R. It was only to be on the side of caution. In general, there will not be a noticeable difference in language or presentation.
Next, we apologize there were no Maude McCay warnings before the chapter, as she alone could be enough to change the rating. For those confused, she was a character first used in Ashbear’s ‘Castles in the Sky. Also, Lucky the chocobo was originally in Wayward’s ‘Ice that Abandons Me.’ (Most of our larger stories have characters that all tie in together…it’s like a gigantic puzzle of extras!)
Ashbear’s side note: Please don’t hold Wayward responsible for any undo torture of the characters…that is my department. She is innocent – but my guess is most of you figured that out from our history. :)