~ Chapter 16: Two Steps Behind ~
Chase after the truth like all hell
and you’ll free yourself,
even though you may never touch its coattails.
The window blinds allowed slivers of the morning light to creep across the carpet. This wing of the Palace seemed almost barren, save for a few aides arriving in their offices. Then again, who in their right mind would intentionally be up at the crack of dawn? Right now, he couldn’t focus himself on preparing for this meeting. His mind was flooded with thoughts of both regret and self-doubt. The President of Esthar respectfully nodded as a few advisers rounded the corner. This was going to be a long day.
His mind had been working overtime, trying to process the vast amounts of data. Laguna cataloged his mistakes into one simplistic report, naming all the causalities in his wake. Mulling about Rinoa’s departure seemed to be taking a toll on his political duties. Part of him couldn’t help thinking he had lost a daughter, and once again was reminded of how much he had missed in his son’s life. Losing her was reliving every costly mistake over again.
The other part of him was screaming to stop his brooding and think about what was best for the country. But maybe that is what he always did…thought of the country. In his life, he had taken little time to think about anything else. It was safer that way…Esthar could never fade or leave with a single dying breath. He was hiding behind the translucent walls of the city, the same way Squall hid behind the walls of himself.
Entering a small conference room, he looked around and was glad to find that he was the first one there. On the table lay several brown envelopes, coffee cups, and two small baskets of fruit placed on either end. Reaching down he selected a green apple, before sitting and looking through a folder.
He heard footsteps behind him, and turned over his shoulder to see who had entered.
“Hey Kiros, it looks like the budget is well under estimates for the fiscal year. Least we got something positive to show the Cabinet this quarter.”
“Yes,” his lifelong friend answered, grabbing a pear from the bowl. The military advisor set his briefcase on the table, flipping open both locks with a flip of the wrist. “You know…I was looking over the figures last night and I noticed the strangest irregularities.”
“What, the white robes are suddenly costing more?”
“No.” Kiros pulled out a piece of paper from his attaché, placing it directly in front of Laguna. “Looks like for the last two quarters energy costs were greatly reduced at the Memorial…almost non-existent.”
“What?” Laguna tried to act surprised, but his acting skills were never award caliber in the first place. “Well, I’m guessing that is some kind of typographical error.”
“I might have thought so too, if I hadn’t also noticed these.” He placed a second computer printout directly over the first. “Looks like we also have had a sudden reduction in water usage, security costs, and overall manpower…but I’m sure these other monetary figures are also mistakes.”
“Yeah, guess we will have to look into those…it sure is strange. Thanks for bringing it to my attention.”
“Oh, it wasn’t me…actually it was Squall.”
Laguna forgot to thoroughly chew his bite of apple, gagging as it caught in his throat. “What!? Squall…what in the hell is he doing with copies of our figures?” He pounded his fist on his chest trying to regain his composure.
“Nothing. Actually, I received a call from him yesterday… It had been the first time in years he had called asking about Rinoa’s condition. I would’ve probably dismissed the whole thing, had I not discovered these budget irregularities last night.”
“What…what did you say to him?” He tried not to appear worried, but his leg involuntarily started shaking. It was a nervous habit that never seemed to weaken with time.
“I told him the truth. There had been no change that I was aware of, also mentioned that research funding had shifted several months ago… At the time, I figured you realized the money could be more beneficial spent elsewhere. Now I’m wondering…there seems to be an amazing correlation in your change of heart and lack of daily expenses. I plan on taking a trip over there after the meeting…if that is all right with you.”
“Don’t.” Laguna said in defeat. It was obvious that Kiros knew the secret, and lying outright was something that the President was incapable of doing. Omitting certain facts on the truth was a completely different situation…
“So, how long ago?”
The President scratched the nape of neck, knowing it was only a matter of time before others found out. “About eight months.”
“And you didn’t think it was necessary to tell me?”
“It was a need to know basis…and I didn’t know what the chance of her surviving the process would be. It honestly was nothing short of a miracle, but Damnit I had to try… After rehab, the decision to go public was left up to Rinoa…she chose to live in anonymity.”
“Plausible deniability,” added Kiros, understanding why he’d been left out of the informational loop. Yesterday if he had known the truth, he didn’t believe that he would be able to keep it from Squall. All those phone calls, all those glimpses of hope, all the time Kiros said ‘no’…it would have been a godsend to say ‘yes.’
“So Mr. President…I’m gathering there are several dozen workers who are aware, you don’t think they are going to remain quiet forever?”
“No, I don’t suppose. I just wanted to give her a fighting chance at a normal life.”
“And what about Squall? Whose decision was it not to tell him?”
“Hers,” he couldn’t hide a cynical laugh. “Ironic how Squall’s greatest wish would be to see her happy – and what she says will make her happy…is not to tell him that she’s alive. It’s like being between the preverbal rock and a hard place. I can’t make either happy, without betraying the others trust.” He paused knowing that something had to have triggered his son in calling. “Did Squall happen to say what made him to call?”
“Nothing was elaborated on…are you going to try to find out?”
“No,” the President answered remorsefully. “If I call back and ask, it will only draw suspicion.” He looked at the papers sitting on the table, handing them both back to his friend.
A thousand thoughts ran through his head, what could he do to warn Rinoa about the possibility of exposure? He could call her directly, or have Quistis start to investigate. Somebody in Trabia had to know something. Then he even contemplated contacting Elise, but that idea quickly faded. Or he could do the most drastic thing of all…nothing.
Laguna’s tone softened, and for a split second, Kiros could have sworn a smile passed by the President’s lips. “Some thing made him call…and it’s not my place to find out. I promised Rinoa that I wouldn’t tell him, and I will never betray that trust. But if it is meant to happen, there is nothing I, or anyone else, can do. I’ll not try to stop anything decided by the will of fate.”
Squall reached into his closet and pulled out a medium sized leather tote bag. He halfway turned and tossed it on the bed, along with a couple of shirts.
“So it’s true then?”
The voice cut through the air of the room, breaking him from his frantic thoughts. The young man turned towards the doorway and acknowledged the speaker.
“Yes.” He walked over to the chest of drawers and began rummaging through his socks.
“Why are you doing this?”
He looked at her like she had lost her mind. “Someone is committing a crime Elise! I’m going to find out what the hell is going on and put a stop to it.”
She raised an eyebrow at his sudden hostility. “If someone is committing a crime, you should let the police handle it. You’re not a one man judge and jury Squall.”
The headmaster put a hand to his head in frustration. “Look…this…is something I have to do okay? I don’t want this to turn into a long and drawn out legal battle. I won’t be gone long, a couple of days. The Garden can manage fine without me.”
“Do you know what is happening in five days?”
“Damn it, yes! The trial, I am very well aware of my upcoming song and dance in front of the counsel.”
He hadn’t meant to snap at her. It was just that he couldn’t take a lecture about this right now. All the times he had failed before, he had this one chance to do something right by Rinoa. And he would be damned if he failed again.
The hurt was showing plainly in Elise’s eyes.
Squall walked over and put his arms around her. “I’m sorry…I didn’t mean to…”
“I know…I know why you are going. I’m just scared. I won’t stop you; I just wish…there was another way.” She wrapped her arms around him tightly. Something in the back of her mind kept nagging at her. It had been ever since she heard from his secretary he was leaving on some wild goose chase. Now it was telling her that this would be the last time she would ever hold him. That somehow this trip would change everything. She wished to God she knew how.
Because not knowing was terrifying.
“I’ll be worried sick,” she said against his shoulder.
“Everything will be fine. I will call you when I get there.”
“Do you know where you are going?”
“The bank traced the last withdrawal to an address in Winhill. So I guess I’ll start there.”
“Just…be safe alright?”
Squall pulled back from her a little and took her face with his hands. He brought her gaze upward until it met his own. “I’ll be okay, and back here in plenty of time to prepare for the trial. Trust me, alright?”
“I do.” Elise said softly, fighting the tears that were threatening to fall. And she did mean it. However trusting the hands of fate was an entirely different matter.
Quistis smiled as she watched Rinoa playing on the floor with the dog. An almost childlike aura of innocence seemed to radiate from the sorceress in those few moments. A part of her that had been lost a long time ago. Esperanza had formed a bond with the girl immediately. In less than 24 hours the dog was behaving just like she had been here all along.
The blonde took another sip of coffee. “So Rin, you never did tell me about your trip around town yesterday, did you get to meet anyone new?”
“Oh! I nearly forgot! I have a job!” She said excitedly.
“Rinoa that’s wonderful! Well don’t leave me in the dark, I need details!”
“I went to the flower shop down the street yesterday, just to get some more flowers for the house. And I don’t know, it was just so peaceful, so familiar. I finally remembered that we had been there before. I guess that was it. Anyway, I started talking to the owner. She’s quite a character; you’ll have to meet her. Before I knew it, I got myself hired.”
“That’s fantastic Rin, I’m so happy for you.”
“Yeah, and it only cost me 50,000 Gil.”
Quistis nearly spilled her coffee. “What?”
“She was going to lose the place. So I bought it. Honestly I didn’t know what I was going to do with all of that money in the account. This seemed like a good investment for some of it.”
She smiled. “I agree. Don’t worry; I’ll take care of the paperwork when I get back to Balamb.”
“Well…” Rinoa started slowly. “I sort of already signed for it. The bank was going to foreclose any day, so I just went ahead.”
She watched as the older woman’s face blanched.
“Was…was that okay?”
“…Yeah,” Quistis managed. “Yeah that was fine.” While worried thoughts of the transfer information leaking out ran through her mind. The young sorceress could see it as plain as day.
“Oh Hyne, I’ve screwed up haven’t I?” She replied uneasily.
The instructor didn’t want to alarm her. She was already put through enough stress as it was. Besides, she was probably just getting worked up over nothing. The bank would most likely wait for her return to Balamb anyway. The transaction of the account control to her was only a breath near completion.
“No, it’s okay. I’ll sign any paperwork they send when I get back to Garden.” She decided she would have to hurry back…just in case.
“I’m sorry. I wasn’t thinking, I’m such an idiot.”
“Oh stop it. You are not. I think you’ve done a wonderful thing Rinoa. It’s perfectly understandable why you would go ahead with the investment. I will take care of it okay? I’m just proud of you. This will be good for her business and for you. I could see the excitement in your eyes when you told me. Something I haven’t seen in a long time. You need this.”
“Yes…I think I do. But I’m sorry regardless; I won’t do anymore hasty transactions, I promise.”
Quistis reached over and put a hand on the other girl’s shoulder. “Don’t be sorry, and don’t worry okay? Life is much too short.” She gave her a wink.
Rinoa smiled. “What fortune cookie did you get that line from?”
“Fortune cookie, a fortune cookie?” She looked at her friend incredulously. “I’ll have you know that came from a desktop calendar in my office thank you very much!”
They both shared a laugh.
“Speaking of my office, I should probably be heading back to it.”
“Aw no, don’t leave. Tell them you’re stranded somewhere with a yet to be identified illness.”
“I wish I could. Frankly I’ve lost count of the excuses I’ve told them. I honestly wouldn’t be surprised if I haven’t used that one already.”
Rinoa looked to the floor. “I’m sorry.”
“No Rin, don’t be.” Quistis kneeled down to her position on the floor. “Listen, I want to be here for you. Not just to make sure you’re okay, but also because you’re my friend and I enjoy spending time with you.”
The dark haired woman reached up and wrapped her arms around her friend. “Thank you Quistis.”
She hugged her back tightly, trying to push the thoughts of the money transfer out of her mind. Though truth be told, she wasn’t due back to Balamb until tomorrow night. But the persistent worry that crept around inside her mind reminded her that there might be a big risk of this getting out. Particularly to a certain someone. And a part of her wondered if that wasn’t the best thing, despite the complications.
“Call me as soon as you get there okay? Let me know you got home safe.” Rinoa said as she released her friend.
“I will.” She replied standing up. “You take care. Good luck with your new business venture. I will expect a discount on flowers the next time I am here.”
The sorceress laughed. “Sure thing! And thank you again for bringing Esperanza here. Tell Selphie, when you see her, that she is getting the best of care and a whole lot of love.”
“I will definitely tell her. I’m just glad I was in the right place at the right time. Just seems like one of those meant to be situations. I did give you Selphie’s manual didn’t I?”
“Yes, I’ll get started on that right away. I’m sure she has a lot to teach me.”
Quistis smiled and then glanced down to the dog sitting next to Rinoa. “You look out for Rinoa okay?” She scratched the fur between her ears. The dog sighed contentedly.
The blonde stepped out of the door and waved to her friend. “Talk to you soon.”
“Okay.” Rinoa waved slowly. “Bye.”
Elise walked into her office. She tried to take her mind off his leaving, but that nagging feeling refused to subside. She checked her watch, and figured he was well on his way to Winhill by now. She wished he would call, just let her know he was all right. But it would be hours before he arrived, and she wasn’t even sure if he would remember then.
Once he got his mind set on something, it took heaven and hell to stop him. Minutes would turn to hours, and hours to days…and that is what she was most afraid of. Before he even knew it, a week would pass and he’d be two days too late for the trial. Part of her believed that is what he was subconsciously doing, maybe part of him wanted an excuse not to show up.
What better excuse than chasing ghosts?
She got up and walked back to her cabinet, grabbing his medical file. Maybe ‘Elise’ fiancée couldn’t help him right now, but maybe ‘Elise’ physiologist could. Looking back over her records, she saw a note she had scribbled in the margin. She was going to call Dr. Stevens about the missing tape several months ago, but everything was put on hold when she was told Squall was hanging on to life in the infirmary…again, from chasing the same ghost.
Walking back to her desk, she pulled out her small tape recorder. Placing the last dated cassette in, she pressed the play button. It was the last session between Squall and Dr. Stevens over four years ago.
“Do you not wish to explore this dream? Do you not wish to explore these new reflections further?”
“What did you say?”
“I said no. I don’t want to talk about it again.”
“Very well, what’s on your mind?”
She hit the stop button, placing the tape recorder back into the top drawer. Throwing her face in her hands she pleaded, “What Squall, what did you say to him? What dream could hurt you so much?” The doctor sighed, as she picked up the phone. Hitting a button, her call was immediately connected to her counterpart at Esthar Garden.
“Yes, this is Dr. Vandermere.”
Why was she doing this? Somehow she thought the missing tape might have some connection to her fears.
“What do I owe the pleasure, everything all right over there?”
“Yes just fine, I’m guessing you don’t miss the weather too much.”
“Not really, I grew fond of the climate here rather quickly. You?”
“Well, still working on adapting. I did get a chance to go snowboarding again, haven’t done that since I was pre-med.” Taking a deep breath, she closed her eyes. “Dr. Stevens, I don’t mean to keep you. I was just cataloging some of my older files…spring-cleaning. I noticed that a few of Headmaster Leonhart’s therapy tapes were missing. Do you know if somehow they ended up there by accident?”
There was a long pause at the other end. “Elise, they’re not here. I don’t think I can help you.” His tone turning strangely professional.
“What? Do you know where they might be? Or why they weren’t kept with the rest of the sessions?”
“Listen, as much as I would like to, I can’t help. Some thing’s are out of my hands.”
“Then who’s hands are they in!?” She hadn’t meant to raise her voice; this man had been a colleague during medical school. Elise knew he wouldn’t intentionally keep things from her, unless it fell under the line of duty.
He finally answered reluctantly. “Cid Kramer. The tapes that are missing were given to Balamb. Off the record, some ghosts are better left alone.”
“Ghosts?” Strange how he brought that word up.
“Elise, I’m talking figuratively. I’m just saying if Headmaster Leonhart is doing well, I would leave it be.”
She paused before answering, “Jason, again off the record…what if he’s not doing well? I…I think I’m losing him again.”
“I’m not sure if he was ever there to lose.” She felt a tear roll down her cheek, and brushed it away with her free hand. “I’m sorry Elise, I shouldn’t have said that. The tapes are considered classified. I shouldn’t even be discussing them with you.”
“Classified? Are they trying to protect him?”
“Honestly, in my opinion…it’s not him they are trying to protect.”
“Rinoa,” her voice was barely above a whisper.
“Elise, are you sure you’re doing this for the right reasons?”
“It’s like med school all over, you can’t save everyone. I’d heard the rumors that you two are engaged, but that article in the paper… Listen we go back a long time, and I would hate to see either of you get hurt.”
“Jason, it’s not the same. I love him.”
“I’m sorry if I’ve overstepped by bounds--”
“No,” her answer cut him off, “It’s fine. You mentioned that Cid Kramer has the tapes?”
“I’m not sure where they are now, but I know they were immediately sealed and taken back to Balamb. I…I can’t give you any information off the tapes, but I’d check with Dr. Kadowaki or Cid Kramer.”
“Thanks.” She hung up the phone, filled with more resolve than ever. It was one thing when she believed they were misfiled, but quite another when she felt they were covering something up. She knew Squall sure as hell wouldn’t talk about it. Maybe her only chance of saving him would be to hear what he wouldn’t dare say.
Holding hear breath, she picked up the receiver…and dialed Balamb.
The door unlocked as Squall swiped the keycard through the slot. He stumbled into the hotel room, suffering somewhat from fatigue and jet lag, but mostly from worry. On the plane his mind ran through a list of names over and over again. He didn’t want to believe that any of them could do it. Yet it had to be someone. Someone connected to him…or to Quistis. He gritted his teeth. Surely she wouldn’t be the one behind this, though it might have explained her sudden disappearances over the last several months. Dropping his tote bag he fell onto the bed with a hard thud. He didn’t want to think about it now; he could deal with it when he got there.
He rolled over onto his back and stared at the ceiling. Not surprisingly, it was white, blank, and empty. He couldn’t go anywhere without being reminded of that damn godforsaken snow. It seemed to ensnare him, suffocate him at every turn. He was cursed to drag it with him for eternity. It wasn’t just Trabia, he could move to the Island Closest to Hell and it would still be there. It was a blanket of frozen emptiness that would forever cover his heart.
Squall absently reached over to the nightstand and picked up the telephone and placed it on the bed. He had promised to call her. Not that he cared for saying anything at the moment. But he knew how she worried. It was all she seemed to do anymore. So he would go ahead and get this over with so she would sleep. At least, that’s what he told himself.
This was the first night in a long time that he had been physically alone. It was harder than he imagined it to be, though he would die before admitting it to anyone. Without another presence he was left to the vices of his own mind. The torturous demons that haunted him daily had free run tonight. There was no one there, no reason to stop them from their barrage of accusations and blame.
The truth was he needed this more than she did at the moment…before he lost it. He needed to hear a familiar voice amidst the engulfing silence that pressed against his chest, holding him there in the dimly lit room. While it devoured what was left of his sanity.
He picked up the phone and dialed the apartment number. After a couple of rings a tired voice thick with sleep haphazardly grappled the phone and answered.
“Sorry for calling so late.”
“Squall?” Elise said, trying to shake the sleep from her voice. “No don’t be sorry, I was just sitting in the recliner waiting for you to call…and I must’ve dozed off. I’m sorry.”
“It’s all right.”
An eternity of silence seemed to pass between them. The only thing she could hear was the sound of his faint breathing. Elise didn’t know what to say at this point. The last thing she wanted was to upset him in any way by saying the wrong thing. She seemed to have a knack for that.
“So…how is Winhill.”
“I’m still in Timber.”
“Yes,” he stated sharply as if he had been interrupted. “The train to Winhill doesn’t leave until tomorrow morning.”
“Oh I see. I’m sorry, I wasn’t aware you had a layover in Timber.”
“That’s because I never told you,” Squall thought bitterly and quickly stopped himself. He shook the thought from his head quickly. There was no reason to become agitated with her. She was only making conversation.
“Squall, are you okay?”
“…Yeah. I’m just tired.”
“Are…are you sure? You seem really distant tonight.”
“Did I have any messages?” He changed the subject quickly.
“Um…no, were you expecting a call?”
“Just thought maybe Quistis would have returned one of the many calls I’ve left her,” he said with a deep sigh. It wasn’t like the answer came as a surprise. No doubt she was off screwing the brains out of that secret boyfriend of hers while showering him in Rinoa’s money. He clenched his fist tightly, trying to drive the thought from his head. He had to keep himself together. There had to be an explanation. Quistis was his friend…she had been her friend. It wasn’t in her to do something so disgusting.
So then why was he already feeling betrayed?
“Hey, you still there?”
“Yeah…yeah I’m here. I just wanted to call you and let you know where I was. I’m really tired right now, I’m sure you are too. I’ll call you tomorrow when I can.”
“Okay. Thanks for calling. You take care alright?”
“Yeah.” He hung up the phone and returned it to the night stand. Squall rubbed his face in frustration. So much was going through his mind. So much that he wanted stop that he couldn’t control. He sat up long enough to remove his shirt and cast it to the floor. Before he could lie back down something caught his eye.
“No…no, no, no.” He whispered almost pleadingly.
“C’mon…what would one drink hurt? You’ll probably need a lot more than that after tomorrow.”
“I can’t…I won’t do that to myself anymore, to the people that care about me.”
Then again, would they truly care? How could they possibly care for such a failure of a man? His better judgment became clouded amidst a dark depression that rose up from a past where only one thing could comfort him.
Slowly Squall stood up and walked over to the mini bar. With hesitation, he opened it, almost as if he had no control over his actions. One by one he grabbed several of the bottles, and he began drinking.
It tasted horrible and satisfied nothing. Yet he continued ceaselessly. The voices, the hatred only became louder against the ceiling which became a white and rolling avalanche above him. He waited for it, begged for it to fall and end his tortured existence. Eventually it became blurry and twisted. He couldn’t focus on anything anymore. An empty bottle fell from his hand as he passed out.
That night he dreamed again of his failure. Of his sin that could never be atoned. He thrashed violently against sweat soaked sheets. And when he watched her take her final breath once more, his screams of anguish were heard by no one.