The next day he woke up again, and wasn't quite sure what was the dream any more.
Time Compression warped and distorted the Lunatic Pandora like a melting carnival mirror, then broke as fevers broke and returned the world to the usual semblance of order. Squall was gone, and so was his team--Laguna hadn't watched them go, because it had felt as if his face was twisting into his stomach while his chest was bending up behind his ears and until the distortion passed he had to keep his eyes closed tightly so as not to feel ill. But it seemed as if Time Compression had ripped something out of him, and for the rest of the day he felt light-headed and hollow.
When he walked back into his office there was a letter lying on the desk, even though in electronics-age Esthar there were faster and better ways of getting a message through and he hadn't received paper mail in eight years. He picked it up to read it, and found a script he hadn't seen in far longer than that.
In restless dreams, I see you.
You promised you'd come back for me, but you never did.
I wonder if you even remember.
It feels so alone now.
I'm waiting for you.
Do you still remember the chapel by the edge of town?
Or our little room, with the window that overlooks the garden?
It's broken now, did you know?
I can't ever seem to get it replaced...
I miss you.
I can't bear to think that you might forget.
I have so many secrets to tell you...
So many things I need to say.
I keep hoping you'll come back.
I might not have another chance...
The letter was unsigned, ragged and torn at the bottom as if holding a resolution from him by force of cruelty. But the name on the envelope said Raine.
It was ridiculous. Raine was dead. Everyone had told him that, over and over until he had felt sicker than Time Compression could ever make him feel.
And even though he kept telling himself that it couldn't be possible, before he knew it he was on his way to Winhill.
It was foggy, and the fog was rolling over everything and choking color from the town. Faint whiffs of flower-scent tinged the moisture, but on the whole it was still like breathing warm pea soup.
The town square was empty and silent and shrouded. Once, years and years ago, he had helped Raine arrange flowers there, until he had broken two pots and Raine had sent him off to carry full watering cans instead. There wasn't much harm one could do to a tin pail and spigot--or with one, for that matter.
He walked across the square and was almost surprised not to find shattered clay on the tiles.
No one was out and about, and for such a dismal day he didn't expect it. But there was a crow wheeling somewhere high overhead, and its rough caw broke the silence and echoed. Laguna tried to see it--a black shape gliding through a monotony of grey--but was unable to.
He walked across the vacant square to an all-too-familiar door, and hesitated just before he knocked. What was he supposed to say? Hello, I'm here looking for Raine would be, in this town, tantamount to insult. Even with the letter--
--I'm waiting for you--
--it would be hard to believe. Impossible, even.
--I might not have another chance.
Without thinking further, he knocked.
The door opened slightly, hinges creaking in disrepair as it swung from no other force than his fist. The wood was warping and discoloring with age--but Laguna hardly noticed it.
He pushed the door open, slipping into the bar. The air was heavy and stale, dry against the fog now creeping in and curling at the floor. There was a thin sheen of dust on the tables and countertops.
"...hello, anyone? ...Raine?"
He closed the door behind him, looking around. Little light filtered in through the windows--they had been covered with butcher's paper, though where it had torn hairline cracks in the glass were visible. What had happened?
"...there's no one in here?"
No one answered.
He walked to the stairs in the back of the room, noting with some concern that they were splintering where the carpet had been worn away. Up those stairs was a thin wooden door, something that had been cheap to install and did enough to keep the bar noise out. Behind that door was a room that had always been enough for everything else.
--our little room that overlooks the garden...
He walked up the stairs, listening to them creak underneath him, and knocked on the door.
It was a hollow noise, and nothing answered it.
He knocked harder, and then tried the knob. It was unlocked and turned easily--but the door wouldn't open. He rattled it, shook it, pushed and shoved and finally kicked the thing, but it wouldn't move more than a millimeter. Something had jammed it resolutely in place.
It wasn't until he had given up on the old house that he noted the bolts in the hinges and at the top and bottom of the doorframe.
It wasn't until he had stared dumbly in surprise that he noticed the shell of rust covering the bolts.
It wasn't until he had wondered who in hell would want to do such a thing that he got around to wondering why.
"...Raine?" He was quiet, voice hardly above a whisper and expecting no response. when none came, he turned and walked back down the stairs and out of the house.
The fog hadn't lifted--not that he had expected it to. But there was someone in the center of the Town Square, form nothing more than an indefinite silhouette. He was standing slightly hunched over, arms limp by his side, looking back and forth as if lost.
"Excuse me!" Laguna walked toward him, waving. "Do you live here?"
The man looked over, but said nothing. Laguna was deciding he didn't much like the silence of the town.
"I was just wondering if you knew what happened to the woman who used to live in that house," he asked, waving a hand back at the bar. "I was just wondering, 'cause..."
He trailed off.
The man hand turned toward him, and was limping closer. But he wasn't solidifying as he came through the fog--instead, the fog seemed to be thickening around him.
"...uh," Laguna said, and took a step back.
A noise was coming from him--something like static, something like thin, ragged breath, something like words. The fog was dark and viscous around him.
"Wh--who are you?" Laguna kept backing up, and the form kept limping--slowly, painfully, jerking and shuddering like a dying man, and the mindless babble didn't stop.
It was a soldier.
Barely visible under the coat of mist, his helmet jutted from between armored shoulders. Everything was rusted, jagged and broken--the gloves were tattered and moth-eaten, stained with mud and blood. They reached out to him, shuddering with the rising, inscrutable sound.
Laguna caught the man's shoulders as he pitched forward, and was rewarded by cold fingers at his neck--scratching and tearing, pulling and seeking, pounding against his jugular and thrashing against his voicebox--and it was all Laguna could do to push him away, fighting against unholy strength. The soldier collapsed like a rope mannequin, hitting the ground limply and painfully--and began to writhe, hips and shoulders and joints snapping back and forth with a mechanical rapidity. He sprung back up, twisting and uncoiling in a way that defied bone mass--it was far too serpentine.
Laguna reached behind him, fingers searching through the heavy air until they came into contact with something--a shovel left out, worn wooden handle cold and clammy. The soldier walked toward him, undaunted--until Laguna swung the shovel at him, impacting the helmet with enough force to snap the handle and send the metal shovel head clanging to the ground.
The soldier fell, and stopped moving.
Shaken, Laguna stepped carefully around it--staring down, trying to divine anything about it. An identity, some sense of what it was doing--
--what it might have done. As far as he could tell, it was--it had been--the only thing alive here.
...he was hardly going to get any answers out of it now.
The shovel was broken beyond easy repair. Disgusted, he threw the useless handle away; it clattered against a pristine picket fence, swallowed by the fog to lie unseen on the cobblestone.
The man's helmet was smashed, caved in and ruined. No blood leaked from between the slivers and splinters, but it seemed as if the fog was a bit darker around them.
There was a figure in a black coat making its way toward the long downhill path that lead to the stream, and even before he had noticed the fur ruff and the distinctive way he held himself Laguna knew who it was.
Squall didn't turn around.
Laguna rushed after him, trying not to lose sight of his son in the fog. What Squall was doing there, at that time, was anyone's guess--
--then again, if he had expected Time compression to pick him up and take him Hyne knew where, here was as reasonable a place to come back to as any other.
He hurried, nearly tripping over rough patches on the sidewalk and hidden roots beneath the fog, rushing forward even when the object of his pursuit had faded so far it could no longer be seen.
He made it down the slope in a hurried scramble, hopping the last couple of steps to land on smooth cobbling. Squall was sitting on a rock by the stream, his back to the road that lead through the main road of the town. He was wrapped in the fog, unmoving--it was hard to tell if he was breathing, if he was alive. Laguna hesitated, careful.
Neither response nor motion.
He turned his head slowly, empty blue eyes framed by long strands of copper-brown hair. And it was almost Squall's face--but not quite.
So close, though...
"...no. You're not."
Not-Squall stood up, walking over until he was within arm's reach. Laguna took a step back, and then wondered why. "Do I look like someone?"
"My son," Laguna explained. "You look exactly like him!"
Not-Squall tilted his head a little, distain edging his expression. "My name is Sukaru," he snapped.
Laguna raised both hands, palms out in an apologetic gesture. "Sorry. I guess this place... heh. It's just getting to me."
Sukaru leaned forward, staring at Laguna's face. "You confused, or something?"
Laguna took another pace backward, ramming his back inadvertently against the dry-dirt wall behind him. "Maybe, I--I dunno. What happened to the town? Why is it so empty?"
Sukaru smirked, and turned away without answering.
"Wait!" Laguna yelped, putting a hand out to stop the man who was not his son. "Wait. Don't go just yet."
Sukaru glanced back. "What is it?"
"I just--what are you doing here?"
Sukaru frowned, seeming annoyed by his unwanted company. "...I'm looking for someone."
"So am I. My wife. A woman named Raine."
"There's a grave up on the hill by that name."
The self-same hill that couldn't be seen, cloaked in the fog that wouldn't dissipate, and Laguna felt a tattered old rhyme winding its way through his skull. This is the hill, all covered with fog/That buried the girl with the golden dog... He used to read Ellone stories from a thick book of rhymes, and wondered if that had been one of them. "Yeah. Raine died, seventeen years ago." It was easy--too easy--to tell the stranger this.
Sukaru looked over at him, top lip curling. "Then why are you looking for her?"
"Well, I--I got this letter..." Laguna trailed off, wondering how he was supposed to explain something that didn't even make sense to him. "It said it was from her."
"A dead woman can't write a letter."
Laguna found himself agreeing. "Maybe, but I still have to try to find her." He looked over at his companion, trying not to see Squall in that face.
"I don't think you will."
"I still have to try. Who are you looking for?"
"Did you lose someone here?"
"That's not your business."
The vehemence of the words took Laguna back. "...I'm sorry," he apologized. "I just thought maybe we could look together."
Sukaru sat down, staring at the stream again. He didn't say a word.
Laguna sighed. "Well, okay then. ...hey, I'll see you around, okay?"
Sukaru didn't respond.
Laguna turned around, walking away. The man was certainly unfriendly, he reflected--
He jumped what he thought had to be a meter into the air.
"What are you doing?"
Laguna shook his head. "I was going to look for--"
"You were going to leave me here!" Sukaru's eyes were wild and frightening, accusing and condemning. "Weren't you? Weren't you?"
Laguna put up his hands again, warding off an attack Sukaru hadn't physically made. "I'm sorry! I'm--"
"You were gonna just leave me here? With all these monsters around?"
"No, I just thought--"
"I look like your son, right?"
Laguna stared. He's not Squall. He's not. "Yeah."
"You love him, don't you?"
The question was so unexpected, Laguna only stammered.
Sukaru tilted his head to the side, staring at and through him. "Or... maybe you hate him?"
"Of course not!"
"So I'll come with you." He stood up. "Right. We can look together."
Laguna should have been happy that he was no longer alone. Instead, when Sukaru stood up and walked back up the path toward the town, all he could think was how his words hurt when they shouldn't have.
You were gonna just leave me here, weren't you?
The fog began to cool.