*Amazingly nothing has happened since the last chapter; I still do not own Final Fantasy or the characters.*
~* Chapter 3: Daybreak *~
Squall stood with his eyes transfixed on the elaborate front door; gradually he gathered strength to turn around. Not self-confident of his own abilities to rationalize.
"Rinoa is blind? Does that give explanation to her leaving?"
No, his friends mentioned the collision was six months ago, she left him over a year ago. He had to get back to them; right now, he needed their help to figure it out. No, he confessed to himself, "I have to get back to them because I can’t do this on my own right now. I need them."
He quickly headed back toward the small café, again not sure of how he returned. Only knowing he was there. The journey itself seemed as elusive as the truth he sought. Opening the door, he noticed the four SeeD’s were finishing the home-style breakfast. A simple luxury compared to the cafeteria food.
Zell was the first to notice his return. Unfortunately, he was stuffing his face full of pancakes, and only mumbled syllables came out.
"What?" Irvine asked.
"Ewwwww that's disgusting, close your mouth!" Selphie was more than willing to point out that small fact.
Sighing angrily, Zell motioned over to the door with the tip of his fork. Carelessly flipping a piece of sausage across the room. The group ignored the subsequent scream from the booth behind them; all eyes were focused on Squall.
"Oh, I get it… Squall's here!" Selphie happily interpreted for the rest of the group, who were now obvious to that fact.
Nobody wanted to be the first to talk; Squall finally broke the awkward silence. "I want to stay in the city tonight. Does anybody else need a room?" It wasn't a command; they understood the unspoken request. All four nodded, he needed them right now, and they knew it. Squall was the commander; they would follow him into battle. But, most importantly, he was their friend.
As their leader turned and walked out of the restaurant, they could see the uncertainty in his steps. He was a warrior; he never got upset. Did he? The four were more determined then ever to see this through… and to the ending that their friend deserved.
"Great," groaned Zell. "Now I have to pay for my own breakfast. Next time let’s tell him after he pays the check." With that, the others turned around and in unison threw napkins at the martial artist’s face. "What? What did I say?"
They walked toward the hotel; only the sound of heels clicking the pavement was heard amongst the group. Irvine noticed the footsteps of the beloved, hyperactive fighter scampering from behind.
"Hey cowboy, you said she was a dancer right? How did she handle that being blind?"
Irvine thought for a moment, trying to recall back to the performance. Rinoa was either sitting in the carriage or dancing with her partner, never out of arms reach. The same man, who'd been at the reception, was never more than a stone's throw away.
"When I was at Galbadia Garden, we did the same maneuvers every morning. It was repetition. An exercise all cadets knew by heart. For almost five years… I did it, every morning, every afternoon, and every night. I could do that routine with my eyes closed, and still not fall out of step. If Rinoa had been in ballet for years, she would know by repetition. If she would happen to be a movement off, her partner would be there to correct her. She really didn’t have to see, just feel."
Zell understood exactly what Irvine was saying. He had known his Karate kata by mere repetition. Until the actions became part of him.
Looking over at the large structure to his right he had an inspiration; it was the performing art center. "Rinoa would have to rehearse at one point. Could Squall get in and talk to her?" his mind questioned. "Of course, he was a SeeD and something as effortless as getting into a building unnoticed wouldn’t be that taxing."
Zell knew that for the present, Squall was a man rather than a SeeD. A man who was determined on finding out the truth; the truth of the person who shattered his heart. Getting in was going to be less challenging than killing a level 2 bug bite… with no wings attached… almost dead. With that theory in mind, he hurried to the building, checking with the security guard.
After a short-lived conversation, Zell returned. Catching up with Irvine and the gang, he eagerly told them, "She’ll be done with practice at 5:30 this evening. The guard was more then willing to help. Dude remembered us from the Ulti thing, assumes were still friends with Rinoa. Well, we are. Er… don't want to make sound like we're not. But he doesn't know that's been over a year. Told us to come back about a quarter after; he'll let us in."
Shaking his head, Irvine greatly admired the vigorous boy. "Zell Dincht, I've never known anybody to come up with the simplest, most straight-forward plans…continuously having them work out! Really, it’s creepy. Next time we face someone like Ultimecia, we're letting you do the preparations. You have a keen knack for the obvious." Zell knew that this was a flattering remark coming from Irvine; he acknowledged it as such.
The next few hours passed, with little new developments. After checking into the hotel, each spent a few hours alone. A time to think, a time to reflect on what they knew… more notably what they didn't know. Truthfully, the fact she was blind wasn't the issue, it was what could have possibly happened to their friend. Not only for her to hide this secret from others, but from those she was closest too. Not one of them took pity upon her; they knew her well. But no matter how hard each tried, they felt compassion from the loneliness she created. A world that was foreign to her; the very same world she rescued Squall from its lethal grip.
The five had decided on different courses of action for the remainder of the day. Quistis and Selphie agreed to start at the most logical place, the beginning. Back to the place where the nightmare began, the hospital. There the two could search for medical reports, see if they could find something just 'lying' around. Or rather, could find 'stored away in a computer with a-not-so-high-tech security system'.
Zell was going to the library and see what he could discover. He knew libraries well; dating a librarian had its privileges… like the ability to master the microfiche machine. Following the visit, he planned to do some investigation at the region's papers. Both the ones that reported the news and ones with slightly less scruples. As Quistis would say, "There's a grain of truth in every lie, and in every truth there's a grain of regret."
Fitting in with the natives was easiest for Irvine. He had been raised here, and knew the city well… even those places not listed with the better business bureau. His job, simply to hit the streets, getting the latest scoop from locals. It was always shocking how many townsfolk would be willing to gossip, most thrived in it. Especially on someone as renowned as the cherished general’s daughter.
The commanders first thought was returning immediately to the centre, he needed to see her. Yet, he knew Rinoa needed to absorb the previous encounter. Then he had an idea. Okay, the idea was unpleasant… really, really unpleasant. Somewhere a cross between having a route canal and watching Irvine attempt to do the tango.
Squall Leonhart would do the unthinkable. He would stop by the townhouse of Maude McCay, the woman who gave hot pants a bad name. But, she was in upper society, hopefully familiar with all the latest gossip.
"Rinny I hope you know how much I'd go through for you. First space, now Mrs. 'McCleavage' but, you’re worth it." When he spoke, it wasn't to anyone particular, more the shadows in the air. Maybe it was a promise; a promise to himself. In his own way, he reaffirmed what he would do for her… and to learn the truth. With that inspiration, he gathered what courage he could, and took one last look into the mirror, watching the reflection stare back. "You're a fool," he whispered. Mockingly, the same words echoed by Quistis so many years ago. This time he wasn't talking to the air, but to his heart. After one last look around, he left his room, heading into the merciless city.
Arriving at the townhouse, Squall was welcomed with open arms, literally.
Mrs. McCay was more than delighted to see the muscle-bound man. This was now the hardest undertaking he had ever done, the ballet now appeared like a cakewalk. Taking the deepest breath known to man, he put his arms delicately around her. "I was just in the neighborhood and had so much merriment the other night. I had to stop by." He cursed himself inwardly, he was now saying words like 'merriment', when would it stop?
"Well my favorite young lad. I’m glad you did, please call me Maude." He found that she had still not released him from the hug. This was not going well. Finally, she broke the death grip asking, "Do you enjoy cats?"
"Cats!?" his mind screamed. Squall stood there with the largest smile he could drum up. With a joyful voice he mused, "Maude, who doesn’t adore cats!" He was moderately certain he was going to be ill at any minute.
"Great, here hold Leechy and Cocoa-Nut. They just worship men, but then again, don’t we all?"
Suddenly she thrust the still-forcefully-smiling Squall two fluffy Persian cats. "Do you want a drink? Never mind, I’m just going to get one for you, sugar-cakes." She winked at Squall, and then gave the two cats a slight tickle under the belly. "Sweetie, keep an eye on Cocoa-Nut for me, she's been spitting up the nastiest hair balls all morning. Poor little thing" The older lady left the living room droning the melody of 'Mrs. Robinson'.
"Drink," Squall mused, "it better be alcoholic, strong, and a double."
He could feel the large cat start to choke. "EEW!!!" Just then, the feline stood, discharging a monstrous hairball. Cat hackings ran down the commanders black denims. Hair along with a few other articles he couldn’t identify, and for that, he was thankful. Squall glared at the cat and used the most malevolent voice possible, "I hope Angelo enjoys the flavor of Persian food." With that threat voiced, the two cats jolted off his lap; quickly Squall endeavored to clean up the mess with a lace doily. Not one his more his most commander-ish moments, one he was sure hours of therapy would be needed for.
“Here sweetie, take your drink. Now what leads you to my humble abode again?”
Smiling just as much as physically possible, Squall stood up walking closer to her.
"Well Maude, I just wanted the pleasure of your company." Squall looked down at the couch to Mrs. McCay, observing she had unfastened her top button. Now he was convinced he was going to be ill and therapy now mandatory. He hurriedly sat down next to her, trying to avoid eye contact with any part or parts of her body. "Also my friend Irvine, from the other night, was really engrossed with that performance. He was interested in Caraway's daughter, thinks she was… really special."
He caught the falter in his own voice, and paused trying to regain his act. "Since I was in town, thought I find out some information for him. He's just been lonely, someone like her would…" Again, he realized he wasn't speaking of 'hypothetical Irvine', but of himself. Maude looked slightly concerned as his thoughts started wandering. Noticing her disquiet he added, "I, myself, prefer a mature woman." Maude's smile promptly returned, as she put her arm around his shoulder. "Yep," he thought, "I’m going to hell for this. Damn you Rinoa, look what I'm doing!"
"Well sure thing, stud. Her name is Rinoa; something of an army brat, spoiled. Ran off when the Galbadian government started heating up a couple years back. Worked in opposition to her dear father. Wanted him to free that insignificant village; Timber, yeah that blue-collar place. Not that anyone of our importance would reside there, but somebody has to be poor I guess. Anyway, she returned some kind of hero. She'd been living abroad with her friends, and then about a year ago she moved back here, had her own apartment in the upper village."
"Now," he thought, "we're getting somewhere… except for that spoiled, army brat statement." But, he couldn’t let that upset him, not when he had a mission this important. She was that important.
Moving her arm away from him, Maude set her drink glass down. Both were silent as she stirred the cocktail with the tiny straw. He wasn't sure what the problem was, but wanted her to continue. Finally, she leaned back onto the sofa again.
"I heard a rumor she ran off with some guy and was in a car accident." The words stung as he heard about the other man. Something inside him wanted to snap, but he used all his training to return his focus.
Leaning closer to Maude, Squall slowly, very slowly, put his arm around her. "Avoid the shirt! Don’t accidentally look Squall; you will never be the same!" He kept lecturing himself.
"Oh that's horrible," managed Squall. He could feel bony fingers reaching down to his knee. "Oh that's horrible!" he screamed internally.
"Yes, yes, it was horrible." Maude's hand slowly crept up his leg. "The car accident was... gee it has to be half a year ago. Administration tried to conceal it, as much as possible. Well, at least General Caraway did. I guess with his wife passing in a crash, and then almost losing his daughter. It just didn’t look good before the free elections. Rinoa’s name was kept out of the paper, but some of us still knew about it. Everybody's assuming alcohol was involved, you know those spoiled types, but nobody knows for sure. Only know she was speeding, and a semi ran a road sign. Nobody even believed she would make it throughout the night."
Squall couldn’t even articulate at the moment. He could only picture Rinoa lying in a hospital bed somewhere, sometime, grasping onto life. "Did she ever wonder about me? Did she want somebody ever try to call me? If she had died, would Caraway even gone through the trouble to call, or would I read it in the newspaper like everyone else?"
Instinct took over logic; without being aware, he brushed Maude's fingers forcefully away from his body. Lost within a flood of emotion and doubt. He looked down at his own hand, remembering when she was there, when she held them for him.
When he needed her.
Recovery after time compression was long, she was there everyday holding his hand. Even if he didn't want her to be. Squall pulled himself together enough to speak. "Was her boyfriend with her during this? Was Robert there holding her hand?"
"Boyfriend?" Maude looked over to Squall who now seemed lost in despair. She grabbed her martini from the table, meticulously eating the olive off the toothpick. "No… no not as long as I've known Caraway’s Daughter; never had a significant boyfriend in Deling. But word is she hooked up with a lot of male suitors… if you know what I mean?"
Remaining silent, she got the hint to continue. "After the Second Sorceress War, Rinoa was seeing someone, rumored it was serious. In fact, I think it was alleged, he was high-ranking at a Garden. I’m surprised you hadn’t heard of the little debutant before now. Hyne knows everyone here knows about her. But when she returned to daddy, no boyfriend. Actually, she never talked about Garden again. Her or Caraway. It’s proper etiquette not to discuss such issues in their attendance. My friend and I have our own speculations though, but I'll save those for another day. Right hun, there will be another day?"
"Sure," he garbled. "Of course, Maude, there is always another day."
She reached down to his hand; one he still wore gloves over. "No, I don’t believe anyone was there to hold her hand. Caraway did spend a trivial amount of time at the hospital. However, with the elections around the corner, he was an occupied man. You… you asked about a Robert?”
Maude halted briefly, edging closer to Squall. "Oh of course, darlin! Robert Caraway the generals nephew, he’s Rinoa’s cousin! Actually, spent a lot of time in Deling after Julie passed away. He’s considered more like a brother, than cousin to the Caraway family. Now Robert lives with her, somewhat curious though. He moved back after the accident, started hanging around her more. They don't go anywhere without each other, trust me, the rumor-mill is flying. I think he was away when the accident happened; took him a couple of months to move back here. After being released from the hospital, Rinoa moved back with daddy. So did Robert."
"Robert is her cousin! But if she moved back here without a boyfriend, what does that mean? Did she really not want our relationship? The note said she found someone else. Why would she lie about that? Unless it really was me, she left, because of me."
As Squall was deep in his own mind, Mrs. McCay started to lean over and whisper in his ear. When the senior-seductress started to whisper, as if a sign from a higher authority, his pager went off.
"Oh no Maude; It’s a code 4-19 Alpha Silver! I have to leave, report back to the Garden on the double. Why did our quality time have to end so soon? I’m so sorry." He swiftly leaped from the davenport, heading absolutely for the door.
"Oh no Mr. Gunblader, you don’t get off that easy. You need to know what you’re missing." With all the vigor of a teenager, the older lady grabbed him by the waist and kissed him square on the lips. He was trying not to heave or knock her to her skinny butt, but wanted the leech off more than anyone could possibly imagine. Squall’s hands were, at long last, capable of prying the piranha away.
As he closed the door, his first thought was 'disinfectant'. Now there were two events in his life he vowed never to tell anyone about. Again, his pager went off for a second time. "I’m glad I set the alarm to go off at lunch. Hope she didn’t comprehend it was not an authentic page. Also hope she didn’t know that 4-19 Alpha Silver was touch-up paint for my gunblade."
Rinoa was sitting in the living room. The room never had a cozy feel, always one of annoyance. Truthfully, no room ever felt right at that place… except hers. Thoughts ran back to her mother holding her, reading stories every night. Always about true love, and other thing she had learned over time, to lose faith in. Now the darkness only echoed the aura of the room, and the dreams lost within its walls.
She listened as footsteps approached. She could tell who was walking in, just by the sound of their steps. It was something to her, as distinctive as voices or facial recognition. She could sense a distinct herbal aroma filling the air.
"You brought me tea? Thank you." Reaching out her hands, he carefully placed the saucer within her grasp. Kneeling down, Robert looked her in the eyes, it was something done out of respect. To him, she could see, could see everything around them.
Even better than he could.
"Feel like going to practice this afternoon?"
Sipping her tea, she just looked out into the distant horizon. He walked over to the couch, grabbing an afghan off the back. Affectionately sheltering his upset cousin with a blanket, he then sat down in the large over-sized chair.
"Yeah, I do. It will help me forget."
"Rin, I’m going to tell you something whether you like it or not. Because I love you. I remembered that man from outside. You have his photograph on the wall in your room. You were also chatting with him at the reception, the other night after the performance. He knows Rin, talk to him."
"I…" The words sank in. "What do you mean I talked to him the other night!? I didn’t talk to anyone I wasn’t familiar with." Then she remembered Lauren, as the realization hit her, her eye couldn't dam the tears beginning to form. "Except for the girl from Balamb Garden… and her two acquaintances, who never spoke. I was looking directly in his eyes, wasn’t I? What the hell was Squall doing at a ballet?"
Shaking she set her cup on the table. Rinoa found herself placing her legs up to her chest. Finally, her body collapsed against her own will. She rested her head on her knees, thinking of everything that had gone wrong. Everything he did… and she cried.
"Yes, you were looking right at him, smiling and talking. Rinoa you stared at your ex-boyfriend and didn’t even acknowledge him. That’s how he realized, because you didn't react."
"But… but… I was three feet away from him and he didn’t speak to me? Of course not, I left him the note. I ‘theoretically’ broke up with him. Without rhyme nor reason, I left him."
Rinoa’s mind was racing; she couldn’t keep the words from being spoken aloud. "Squall never knew I came back to Garden that morning. He never knew I witnessed his... Why did he change aftershave? I always know when anyone with that aroma is near me. He watched me dance? I…I never knew. Rob, what did the other SeeD come across like, not the female I spoke to, the other individual?”
"Rin, slow down, I don’t comprehend everything you're talking about. Going back to the Garden, or about this Squall guy. But, I can answer the other question. It was a male, tall, long blonde hair, a genuine cowboy sort of chap."
"Irvine," she softly believed. "Yesterday he called me out of the blue. Robert, I stared directly at him as well. Squall wouldn’t call me so Irvine did. Irvine knew I was lying. Even went far as to declare, I was currently working in sales… food processors."
Robert smirked, "Cool, the brand that makes those clever rose radishes? Can I purchase one at cost?" Immediately, he was hit square in the face with a throw pillow. "Rin, your aim is still perfect." For the first time all day, she was able to laugh.
Step by step, Squall walked back to the hotel, trying to process all the information he received. This specific region of town was retail, with specialty shops on either side. Looking across the lane, he sighted a small, inviting bookstore. Watching the flow of traffic, he cautiously crossed the hectic street.
When the door opened, he noticed the store was defiantly larger than it looked from outside. Ten-foot bookshelves with ladders extended as far as one could see. A middle-aged lady behind the counter smiled, asking if he needed any assistance.
"Do you have any books on the blind or helping someone cope with being sightless, maybe one on how to understand Braille?" The lady nodded, and then escorted him down a back passageway.
Reaching his hotel room, Squall opened the first book he grabbed out of the huge sack. How was anyone supposed to interpret these random bumps? Closing his eyes, he carefully moved the tips of his fingers along the pages. The sensation of contact momentarily sent chills down his spine. The paper felt awkward to him, and all the raised marks felt the same. It was just a book without any words, without meaning. Signing he gave up, once again opening his eyes to the manuscript.
Going to the alphabet index sheet, he started looking at the distinctive letters. The more he looked at them, the more he could tell the difference with naked eyes. Sitting down at the hotel desk, he reached for a piece of paper and started making dots. At first, he was writing random letters, but before he was aware, his subconscious mind had spelled RINOA and SQUALL. There on the paper were their names, just as an infatuated adolescent would write on a notebook. Nobody could tell; it looked more like a connect-the-dots than a tangible language. Squall looked again at the alphabet page. Then once again, shut his eyes and struggled to make out the texture of the letters.
He couldn’t, not even one.
Shutting the hardback book, he tossed it to the desk with disgust. Warriors were made to fight with their hands, not to read with them. He took of one glove, carefully trying to memorize the feel. Sure, he had worn them all his life, but had he truly every thought about the barrier. Bringing one hand to his eye, he looked at every scar, every flaw. Years of battles had left their marks. Now how was something so deadly supposed to understand the most basic of feel?