~ Chapter 17: Caught in the Sun ~
Time is too slow for those who wait,
too swift for those who fear,
too long for those who grieve,
too short for those who rejoice,
but for those who love,
time is eternity.
--Henry Van Dyke
Squall stood in the street with a look of utter shock as he stared at the building in front of him. The duffel bag dropped from his hand and hit the ground. He reached up to his face, slowly removing his sunglasses. His head throbbed painfully against the assault of sunlight that invaded his eyes. The pain however never registered. The young man couldn’t believe where this address had led him.
He was at the bar.
Raine…his mother…this was her house.
My god…he was born here!
He looked down at the scrap of paper and then looked back at the numbers beside the door.
“What the hell is going on?” The statement got a couple of looks from bystanders walking within earshot. This situation just kept getting more bizarre with every second. What could he do now? Who would he be facing on the other side of that door? And was he prepared to find out the truth?
He left his bag lying in the middle of the road and warily stepped towards the door. Bringing a hand up, he rapped his knuckles against the door…and waited. After a minute he pounded on the door more forcefully, using the side of his fist.
“You actually expected them to be home? That would be too damn convenient.”
After a few minutes of no response he turned away from the door. His head ached miserably. Squall put his sunglasses back on and looked around the street. A man approached from the right and he held his hand up to hail him.
“Excuse me; do you know who lives in this house?”
The man shook his head and continued walking past him.
The headmaster walked across the street to a woman who had just come out of a small store. “Miss.?”
She turned and looked at him. “Yes?”
“Do you know who lives in that house over there?” He pointed.
“No, afraid I don’t.”
“Have…have you seen anyone go in or come out?”
She thought for a moment. “Can’t say that I have…no one has lived there in a long time.”
He sighed. “Alright thanks.”
He moved from one side of the street to the other, continually asking and receiving the same answer. No one seemed to know who lived there. It was if he was chasing a money drawing entity that didn’t exist. He was beginning to think the address was bogus to throw the authorities off the trail.
There was a sudden tap on his shoulder. He turned around instinctively with arms raised to defend himself, though the hangover had made his reflexes very lethargic.
“Whoa there son.” The old man took a step back. “I didn’t mean to alarm ya.”
Squall lowered his hands. “Sorry.”
“I overheard you talking; think maybe I can help you out.”
“You…know who lives there?”
The old man stroked his beard a moment. “Nope…”
He stared at him dubiously, waiting for him to finish and trying to quell the urge to knock out his remaining teeth if he didn’t.
“But I’ve seen a blonde woman over there a couple of times. She just visits though…”
Now they were getting somewhere. “This woman, was she tall?”
“Yes...maybe a bit shorter than you. Always wore her hair up…think she had glasses.”
Damn it…Quistis was involved somehow whether voluntary or involuntary. He hoped for the latter, because honestly he wasn’t sure he could restrain himself if it was anything else.
“I’d say you need to go talk to Maude.”
The man’s rough voice broke him from his thoughts. “What? Who?”
“She owns the florist up there,” he pointed up the hill. “She knows everyone in this town on a first name basis. If anyone knows who lives in that old bar up there, it’d be her.”
Squall threw his bag over his shoulder and hurried down the street towards the flower shop. “Thanks.” He said quickly over his shoulder.
The shop stood apart from the rest of the small town. He was nearly out of breath when he made it to the door. Looking up at the sign, he vaguely remembered coming here during their odyssey so long ago, for what reason, he had no idea.
The bell made a noisy jingle as he opened the door and entered the establishment. The smell of flowers invaded his senses immediately, to the point it was almost overpowering. He nearly stumbled backwards. It did little to sooth his headache. Looking around, the place appeared to be empty.
“Hello?” He called hoarsely, listening for any signs of life and hearing nothing but the persistent pounding in his head. “Is anyone here?”
Squall looked in the direction of the voice. There was a set of stairs near the back of the room. A few moments passed before he heard the sound of footsteps as they descended the wooden planks. A woman that looked to be in her late sixties appeared from around the corner, huffing and puffing as she tried to catch her breath.
“S-sorry about that...I had to mix up some plant food.” Her eyes caught sight of him, and a smile spread across Maude’s face.
“What can I help you with today handsome?”
“Are you Maude?”
She approached the counter. “Depends on who is asking…”
The young man gritted his teeth. He wasn’t in the mood for games. “My name is Squall. I was told she would be able to help me with some information.”
She propped herself up on a stool. “In that case, yes I’m Maude McCay. But my information is not free.”
He sighed and shrugged his shoulders. “How much?”
The old woman looked him up and down. “Who said anything about money?”
The rest of the color drained from his already pale face. “W-what?”
Maude could no longer keep a straight face and erupted in laughter. “I’m just pulling your chain boy! You should have seen your face…you looked more frightened than a rabbit in the headlights of a bus!”
Squall wanted to scream. It was bad enough that he felt as if he would pass out from the headache. But to add to it was the sound of this old woman’s ear splitting cackle reverberating like a jackhammer in his head. He had to stay in control though. If he lashed out she would never tell him anything.
“Please, can you help me? This is really important.”
“Of course. I can’t resist a good looking man in distress. What do you want to know?”
“I need to know who is living in the bar up the street.” He pointed in the direction for emphasis.
Her smile faded. “Why?”
“Damn it.” Why was she making this so difficult? “Because apparently we have a mutual friend, and it is of great importance that I contact this person regarding the issue.
Her eyes looked at him skeptically. “Take off your glasses.”
He removed them without question. Questions only delayed progress with this woman.
She walked out from behind the counter and approached him. The strong scent of her perfume fell over him like a wave and he became nauseous. Maude came within a few inches of where he was standing and stared into his eyes intently. Squall wasn’t sure if she was trying to buffalo him or what, but he felt a great urge to run. He had never seen makeup pasted so thick on a woman in his life. However if this was what he was to endure to find out the truth, then so be it.
“You seem honest,” she said finally.
“Yes…yes ma’am. I just want to speak with them.”
She crossed her arms over her chest. “Renae lives up there. She just moved in a month or so ago.”
“Renae…do you know her last name?”
“Of course. It’s Loire.” She looked around as if she was keeping a secret, her tone quieted. “Don’t spread it around…but she is actually the President of Esthar’s niece!”
Niece? God…Ellone…why hadn’t he thought of it before?
Because she was the last person he ever expected to hurt him. Yet it appeared that she had…again.
He closed his eyes, trying desperately to quiet his anger. “Um…Maude…”
“Ms. McCay please,” she said raising an eyebrow. “I don’t know you that well yet.”
“I’m sorry…Ms McCay. Can you tell me where I can find her?”
Maude looked at his pale complexion and the dark circles around his eyes. “You look like you had a rough night.”
For Hyne’s sake, this woman was incorrigible. “I have a headache,” he responded simply. Prying information out of a caterchipiller would have probably gotten more headway than this conversation.
“Too many snorts of the ol’ firewater last night huh?”
“Not that it’s any of your damn business!”
Stay in control.
“It’s nothing for you to be concerned with Ms. McCay. Really, I just want to know where I can find this Renae.”
“I can make you some herbal tea if you want. I’ve got a good recipe to cure a hangover…,” she mused for a moment before continuing. “It used to come in quite handy back in my livelier days.”
Control just went out the window. “I don’t have time for fucking tea!”
Maude’s pleasant face dropped into a scowl. “That tone is uncalled for, and I would appreciate it if you would not use such vulgar language in my establishment.”
Squall threw his hands up in frustration. “Are you going to help me or not?”
The old woman never flinched. “Well, I tried, but you don’t seem to want it. Look, I don’t know where she is. I may know everyone in town, but it doesn’t mean I baby-sit them. Now if you don’t intend on buying anything, I will politely bid you good day and ask you to leave.”
The headmaster put his sunglasses back on, picked up his duffel bag, and sneered at her. “Thank you…for your time.” He then turned and walked towards the door.
“Come back and see us sometime hmm?” She said and waved, trying to contain her laughter. He would probably be back. She couldn’t help but watch his retreating figure and admire his physique.
“You know,” she said to herself. “For such a jerk he sure does have a nice ass.”
She stared out the window, looking at what she didn’t know. Why did twenty-four hours of not seeing him feel more like infinity? Elise caught her mind wandering, as she looked back to her patient. She patted the young girl on her back, giving her a motherly smile.
“Now, we’re not going to be climbing the chain link fence anymore, are we?”
“No, Dr. Vandermere.” The child looked down ashamed as she watched her feet kick back and forth. “But Roger said that girls couldn’t do it. I had to prove him wrong…”
Elise leaned over to her young patient, acting as if she was relaying a secret. “First, don’t ever listen to boys. Second, I bet Roger couldn’t have made it half as far as you did. And lastly, I’m guessing he would have fainted at the mere thought of a tetanus shot. Still, you could’ve been seriously hurt. I’m talking about a lot worse than a small tear in your palm and a few stitches. Just promise me that you won’t do it again.”
“Okay…promise.” The child’s voice replied timidly.
Elise chuckled softly as the girl scampered out of the office. Not because it was in the least bit humorous, only because it sounded like something she would have done at the same age. The thought was interrupted when the phone sounded from the other room. Sighing, she turned and started walking to her desk.
“Infirmary, Dr. Vandermere.”
“Hello Elise, this is Dr. Kadowaki. I just listened to the voicemail that you left. Sorry, I didn’t get back to you yesterday. I was in seminars throughout the entire day.”
“Oh, really it’s no problem.”
“This is the first chance I’ve had to handle anything not classified as a major emergency. Which trust me…around here, every little thing seems to be classified as a ‘major emergency.’ You didn’t say what why you called, is everything all right up there?”
“As good as it can be, I guess.” Elise paused, wondering why she felt nervous all of a sudden. She was his doctor for Hyne’s sake. If there was something on the tape that could help him, and it was at all within her power, she felt it was her medical duty… She had pledged under the Hippocratic Oath to follow her own ability and judgment…and this is what her best judgment was telling her to do, no matter what truths she may uncover. If some sessions were really labeled ‘confidential,’ would they allow her to have any rights to them? Maybe the choice wasn’t hers to make, and she would abide by any decision made by her superiors.
“Well, that doesn’t sound too convincing.”
“Ah…no, I suppose that doesn’t. I’m not sure if I’m overstepping my bounds here, but I was going over Headmaster Leonhart’s files. I was re-evaluating the required therapy sessions. The tape dated the week before I arrived, seems to be misplaced. I called--”
“Elise,” interrupted the doctor on the other end, speaking more as the senior. “You wouldn’t have called here if you weren’t worried, now would you?”
Her tone was soft and ashamed. “No.”
“Are you sure you want to bring these demons back to light?”
“I don’t see what other choice I have left,” she softly replied, uncertain of her own answer.
“I’ll have to talk to my superiors and see what their official position is. If you called me, you already have some idea they were considered classified.”
“Yeah,” she silently admitted. “I just…he’s not well.”
“No, I don’t suppose he could be…giving the circumstance surrounding your call, and the pending trial.”
“Do I want to know what is on the tapes?”
“I guess the better question is…can you live without knowing?”
Elise paused, gathering courage. “Dr. Kadowaki, you knew Rinoa…do you think…”
“It’s not important what I think about Rinoa.” She answered almost defensively cutting off the younger woman. “What matters is the truth. No matter how painful it may be.”
“To who?” The Elise asked. It was honestly meant as a rhetorical question.
“Elise, my best advice to you: know what you’re really dealing with.”
“What do you mean?”
From the other end only came a hurried goodbye. Yet the phrasing of the words had her thinking. Dr. Kadowaki said ‘what’ not ‘who.’ What implied something impersonal, at least in the doctor’s line of thinking…a sorceress…not Rinoa as an individual. Maybe the key was to go past the textbook notions, to go beyond the norms of society, and look at the person behind the labels.
For too long Elise had felt almost in competition with Rinoa, without ever learning who she really was. The doctor tried to pinpoint exactly when her opinion changed. When she first consoled Squall, the other girl was no threat. Somewhere along the line, she stopped being a ghost, and became the third dynamic into their relationship. To Elise, she was just an ‘ideal,’ a person placed upon a pedestal which no mere mortal could ever compare. Rinoa Heartilly was a sorceress, but above all…a mortal. Maybe her humanity was the key.
Squall kicked at the dirt angrily as he walked out of the florist and into the street. He ran his hands roughly through his hair in frustration. Why was this happening now? Why would Ellone do this to him? Was he really so blind sided by his adopted sister to see how she manipulated him. He had thought she was through with that years ago, and he didn’t dream she would ever stoop to this level of deceit. And what the hell was Quistis doing?
Silently he wished he had brought some aspirin on this trip. He felt like swallowing an entire bottle of them. Suddenly he felt something tap against his foot. Looking down he saw a bright orange ball at the tip of his boot. The young man looked around, and seeing no one coming to retrieve it, bent down and picked it up. It felt damp against his palm. A short bark from behind him made him understand why.
He turned around and was taken by surprise. Sitting a few feet away was Angelo, looking at him accusingly for taking her ball.
The dog made no sign of recognition to the name and continued to stare. Squall took a step towards her. Upon closer inspection he realized that it couldn’t be Angelo. This was a much younger dog with slightly different markings. Still, it looked a lot like her, and he wondered how one of the dogs could have gotten outside of Galbadia Garden. The military dogs were not allowed to go to civilian homes. He didn’t see a trainer around anywhere.
He kneeled down to the ground and waved the ball at the dog. “Hey dog,” he said. “Want your ball?”
Its eyes watched the ball move back and forth in his hands. It whined and let out a bark.
“Okay, you’re going to have to come over here and get it.”
He motioned for the animal to come to him. The dog lowered itself to the ground in a nervous manner.
“It’s okay,” he said. “I’m not going to hurt you.”
Esperanza saw the human’s lips moving, but saw no signals to respond to. She wished it would just throw the ball. Her master was waiting, and this was putting a damper on the fun game they were playing. She decided to muster up her courage and retrieve the ball from this biped.
Squall watched as the dog slowly began crawling towards him. He closed the distance from his end until he was within reach. Gently he held out his empty hand to her, allowing her to sniff it.
Esperanza grunted. She didn’t want a hand, she wanted a ball. She barked at him for emphasis.
“Okay, okay.” He reached up and gently scratched her on the head working his way over to her right ear. Carefully he lifted the ear and found what he expected. It was a unique number tattoo that was used to identify all of the dogs in the program. How in the world did one of them get all the way down to Winhill? Selphie seemed a bit too light headed some times, but she wasn’t stupid enough to allow one of these dogs to be put in the hands of a civilian.
Quicker than his eyes could follow, the dog lunged and snatched the ball out of his right hand. Before he had time to react, it had already squeezed under the fence and was turning a corner back behind the flower shop.
His first compulsion was to follow, however he stopped himself. He didn’t come all the way down here to chase a damn dog. He came to find answers and he didn’t have a lot of time. Let Galbadia handle this.
And yet, he also realized that he had no other lead at this point. If Ellone was behind this she certainly had a connection to the dogs. It made sense. Selphie was soft hearted enough that she wouldn’t deny a request from Sis. Hell, maybe it wasn’t a request; she could be giving them away as birthday presents these days for all he knew. All of these thoughts crossed his mind, but it was something else, something deeper beckoning him forward.
He was compelled, by what seemed to be an almost supernatural force. Something that whispered softly in his mind, that this was the answer he was seeking. Not only about the stolen money, no it was a far, far greater question than that.
This was the truth.
And it scared him. His heart quickened its pace inside his chest causing the searing pain in his head to increase tenfold. The air around him became thick and hard to breathe. Yes, he had made the accusations in his mind. Yes, this was what he had come for. But even as his feet were leading him back across the road, following the path that the dog had taken, the young man wasn’t sure if he even wanted the truth. Squall didn’t know if he could take any more of it
He passed a sign he didn’t notice before on the way in. This was a chocobo crossing. Of course, this was why it was so familiar. They ran around this area for some old geezer in the mansion up the hill, looking for pieces of a broken vase. It was Zell’s idea. He swore up and down that they could get something for fixing the man’s vase. Money or a useful item, because as he put it, “Eccentric old men like that usually have vast amounts of both.” At that point, the prospect was hard to refuse. But for all of that running around and nearly getting trampled to death by a mother chocobo, they ended up with a damn holy stone. It was something that could be picked up off the ground if you looked long enough, and about as useful as an ordinary rock. He remembered not speaking to Zell for a day or two.
Instead of being irritated like the rest of the group, she had just laughed. Not meant to be spiteful, it was just that good natured laugh she had always possessed. That laugh, it seemed to current itself through those around her causing them to smile in turn.
Hyne what was he doing? He couldn’t do this, not now. Why must everything remind him of Rinoa?
Because, it was his curse…his punishment to carry throughout all eternity. And in his mind, he deserved no less. She haunted him in his sleep; she haunted him when he was awake.
And he didn’t blame her at all.
Squall walked along the fence looking for a way through without catching the eye of that crazy old woman in the shop. The last thing he wanted was for her to come out of there yelling and screaming because he stepped on her flowers. His head would surely explode. He found an opening halfway down the line where one of the middle fence posts had broken. Lowering himself, he managed to squeeze through the two remaining posts. The garden itself extended a good 100 feet. There were rows and rows of specific plants. Behind it was an enormous meadow filled with wild flowers. Looking around he saw no sign of the dog anywhere, no trail, no footprints, not so much as a bent blade of grass.
It seemed to just stretch on forever. Once again he was overcome by the scent of the flowers that he now stood knee deep in. Surrounded by things he had grown to hate. As he continued walking, he wished he could take a blow torch to the entire thing. Put them out of their misery. So deceptive are flowers, luring one in with its sweet fragrance and stunning beauty. A beauty that was so fragile it could break at the slightest touch. And no matter how much you gave of yourself, it would die almost as quickly as it revealed itself to you. There was nothing you could do to save it.
His boot struck at one of them angrily. The petals flew haphazardly before being snatched up by the March wind which spun them around before carrying them across the plain. His hallucinations began to take over and the dream he longed to forget flashed in his mind. He could see her looking down at him amidst a whirlwind of flower petals calling his name. Squall reached for her as she began to fade. He knew she would. She always faded.
The air around him grew unnaturally cold. Out of instinct he pulled his bomber jacket tighter around him, clasping it with one hand. His mind was a million miles away when his ears were suddenly filled with the sound of rushing water. A stream lay ahead of him, secluded in a small grove of pear trees.
A black blur leapt out from the orchard and began running towards him. Squall stepped backward in surprise, shaking himself slightly from his daze. Esperanza stopped short in her own distress when involuntarily she almost ran into him. The dog leapt back, going into a defensive stance, the hair on the back of her neck bristling as she began barking.
He raised his hands slowly to show that he meant her no harm. “Hey, it’s me remember? I just gave you the ball back.”
She recognized the stranger’s scent after a few moments and sat down in front of him, cocking her head to the side. She didn’t understand why, but there was something different about this human. It wasn’t exactly threatening; she felt no danger for her master or herself. But it was different. It was almost like a pulling sensation, like he was meant to be here…for whatever reason. The dog sighed and panted happily. Perhaps another person in the game would add some excitement.
“Found it!” A voice shouted from within the thicket of trees.
Esperanza sensed her presence of her friend nearby and ran off to meet her. Squall stood there bewildered. That wasn’t Ellone’s voice to be certain. But it sounded so familiar…almost like…
A silhouette faded out of the shadowed branches. It was difficult to make out the form clearly from the distance he was standing. Tentatively he began to move forward, the breath in his lungs becoming tighter with every step. He saw the figure moving in and out of shadows, walking to the left of him, towards the dog.
“Where did you go Esperanza? Last time I checked with the rule book, the actual fetching was done by the hairy four-legged team.” The voice continued, out of breath.
Even after eight years, he still remembered the sound of her voice. It was unmistakable this time. Squall closed his eyes, trying to fight his inner delusions and the tears that were beginning to burn his eyes. Now it wasn’t just the images of her face that haunted him during the waking hours. Now he could actually hear her voice outside of his own mind.
He tried to focus. This was ridiculous. He was just going to walk up to this woman, whoever she was, and find out what he wanted to know. This was something he had to do for her. Maybe this was her way of getting his attention, leading him forward so that he could give her the justice she deserved. The justice he was never able to give her.
“Or maybe you’re just fucking crazy.”
Regardless he was going to confront this person…this…Renae. He could see her dark hair now as she walked out of the grove. The dog jumped and bounced happily to her. She knelt down and began scratching its head. The girl was dressed in a thick sweater and blue jeans. He was trying to take in all of the details, in case she decided to run. It was training that had become instinct. The young man wanted to make sure he would be able to find her in a crowd. Stopping a safe distance so not to startle her, he licked his dry lips and started to speak.
And then he froze.
His heart seemed to stop in mid-beat as he caught a glimpse of her face. He tried to blink it away to no avail. It was impossible. He had finally gone off the deep end. Living, breathing people now looked exactly like her…and yet, something about her was different now.
Slowly he removed his sunglasses, trying to eliminate whatever feverish illusion that had overtaken them. It didn’t go away. It had to be a dream; Squall convinced himself he had to be dreaming. This would end, just as the others. He had to stop this now, he couldn’t take anymore.
Suddenly she turned toward him, her eyes met his, and he forgot how to breathe.
Rinoa had been busy petting her overly excited dog. Esperanza seemed bent on communicating with her. The sorceress figured she wanted to chase the ball again. She stood and held the ball out towards her. The dog turned her head and looked off into the field behind them, and then back at her.
“What? What is it?” Rinoa smiled lightly, turning her head in the direction she had been looking.
The sun blinded her momentarily. She was able to make out the form of a man standing there. A sudden apprehension overtook her, one that had instinctively built itself in from all the months of running. Quickly however, she quelled her anxiety when she reminded herself that no one knew her here. She started to raise her hand and greet them. When her eyes focused and she saw who it was, the smile fell away to a look of utter shock.
His name came out barely above a whisper. Memories flashed in her mind to when she last saw him in Esthar. The same feeling of exhilaration and fear overtook her when she saw him across the crowded ballroom. Only this time, the crowd had parted, the music had stopped, and he was staring right back at her.
Part of her wanted to run to him, throw her arms around him and hold him as tightly as she could. The other part wanted to run away, away from the past she was trying desperately to leave behind her. In the end, she found she couldn’t move at all.
How…how could it be? It…it was her. No ghosts, no hallucinations, a person just as real and alive as he was. Squall saw the recognition in her eyes; he heard his name spoken from the lips he had wanted so much to hear. It all made sense now. The way that everyone had been acting. She was alive…and they had lied to him. They kept him from her…why? Disbelief, shock, sorrow, and the euphoria of seeing her again, the emotions were overwhelming. So much that he could no longer support his own weight and fell to his knees, his eyes never leaving hers. With the last ounce of energy he had, he managed two broken words.
Rinoa covered her mouth with a hand, caught up in the very same emotions. The tears now ran freely down her face. Her soul crushed beneath the agonizing pain in his eyes. However, she was still torn between going to him, or running as far away as she could get. In the end, the choice would be one of impulse.
He came swiftly through the grass like a stealthy predator, his feet never making a sound as they made contact with the earth. When she finally noticed him approaching the man in front of her, it was already too late.
“Squall! Watch out!”
He sat there, still unmoving. He couldn’t hear her. He couldn’t see what was coming. Rinoa began to run.
Squall watched her every movement, still afraid that if he blinked she would disappear. She seemed to be saying something, something he couldn’t hear over the intense pounding of his heart. She began to run towards him. He wanted to get up, to run and meet her halfway…he just couldn’t move. And unfortunately, he wouldn’t have the chance to try.
Suddenly, he felt the hot breath of something on the back of his neck. He looked up in time to see a blur of yellow and orange descend upon his head. The last thing he heard before the world went black was the shrill sound of her voice.