Foreword August 29, 2002
Never lose sight of who you are, or why we are here.
Sometimes we lose sight of why we started writing in the first place. In July of 2002, one of our fellow authors passed away. Never in my life, did I think anything I could do, would ever touch anyone. With a simple letter from his wife, I remembered why we are all here.
So, Brian, I want to thank you - for this, for everything. Your stories were truly special, as you were to all of us. I think at times we get lost in all of the fantasy, and forget the reality around us. Sometimes that is good, sometimes that is bad… and sometimes it is wake up call to what is important.
And for that, you shall never be forgotten.
For you Brian, Azrieal, wherever you are, I hope that you found your castle in the sky.
Castles in the Sky
Chapter One: Yesterday
The lights were so intense.
She tried to remember exactly what was happening… voices, many voices. She could feel the vehicle's motion with every breath. Why was it so hard to breathe? They were touching her, poking needles into God knows what. She could feel the pressure, but the pain did not register.
Outside, now she was outside, in the frigid night air being wheeled into a building. They seemed to be yelling in an alarming tone. Who were they? Now she came to an abrupt stop. They were still putting things on her; she just wanted them to stop.
"Female approximately twenty years in age… car accident, head trauma and internal bleeding."
That's it… she remembered portions of the accident. The truck had not seen her. The driver, was the driver all right? She opened her eyes, looking at the ceiling. It was white tile with intense lights recessed in a pattern.
She tried to speak. No words came, only the voice within her mind.
"The driver, I have to know if he's all right. I'm so exhausted. I will just close my eyes for a moment. The pain, will the pain go away?" Then she heard the alarm of the monitor sounding. "Stop touching me!" Her cries were unheard to all around. A sudden darkness overtook her…
"I will just close my eyes a second... just a second, and then I'll see what's going on."
Six Months later:
Boy, he hated these events. Working security for a bunch of affluent people, yeah, that's exactly what he'd trained all his life for. Squall Leonhart, security guard to the rich and annoying. He sat looking out of the window of the limo as the lights of Deling grew closer.
Now he was forced to go to the ballet. It was more a demand of Cid's than anything. Mrs. Maude McCay wanted to show gratitude to the three SeeDs who helped her during the inauguration of the new Galbadian president. How did she thank them? Not with a bottle of wine or even a thank you note. No, she sent them tickets to the ballet. When Squall informed Cid he already had plans, like cleaning his gunblade or counting the tiles on the floor, he was told in no uncertain terms: change them. As every good little mercenary should, he didn't argue. Sometimes when the headmaster made up his mind, it just couldn't be changed. Although, as the city got closer, he really wished he had been counting the tiles in his room.
"Hey buddy," Irvine rudely disturbed his inner thoughts. "Think of it this way - all the girls in tights and short skirts… all the rich young ladies there tonight. If I didn't have Selphie, this could've been a great experience for both of us. Guess I'll have to live vicariously through you."
Squall continued to stare out the window and mumbled, "Whatever" under his breath.
Lauren, the junior SeeD in the car, finally spoke up. "I can't wait! It's going to be so beautiful. Think of the all graceful movements, it's kind of like battle…it's an art."
Irvine turned to Squall, "Next time we're in battle and you start leaping across the ground ending in the splits… is the day I will shoot you myself." He was met with a stern glare from the commander. "Hey just warning you buddy. Squall, if you ever wear tights around me, I'm committing you."
With that, Squall just turned back to the window.
"Ballet, with Irvine… why?"
When they arrived at the Performing Arts Center, it was a most elegant sight, men in tuxedos, women in the finest of dress. Squall all of a sudden thought of not going in, but then decided to handle this situation as any other mission. Just one the commander hoped that he wouldn't fall asleep during. That wouldn't look good on the SeeD reputation, although the three of them had opted not to wear the official uniform. Still the dark blue suit he was wearing felt like it was shrinking every minute. The tie, he was pretty sure, was tightening like a noose around his neck.
Irvine, however, had gone for the 'formal cowboy' look with the long black leather duster and matching pants. However, Cid informed him that a cowboy hat would be inappropriate at the performance. Lauren opted for a simple black strapless dress.
The three SeeDs stepped out of the limo and were immediately escorted to the side waiting area of the queue. Mrs. McCay planned everything, even sitting in an opera box… with her as an escort.
"Great," thought Squall, "my first date in a year and it's with a seventy-five-year-old woman. Who is showing way too much cleavage."
The tight scarlet dress and matching fire engine red lipstick on the senior was drawing attention from all who passed by. Squall tried not to make eye contact with anyone. Now he was pretty sure he had made the leap from mercenary to gigolo in 4.7 seconds. Mrs. McCay held out her hand for Squall to take. He did with an expression of disgust that only his closest friends could differentiate. To everyone else he was being the perfect gentleman.
Irvine leaned over to Squall whispering, "Score! I don't think she's wearing a bra."
Squall did not acknowledge the gunman's unwanted commentary.
Waiting for this ordeal to begin was the hardest part. At last, the lights went down and the orchestra started to play. The first sequence wasn't too bad. Women danced around with elegance. Squall even had to admit the beauty of it, if only to his inner-self. As the dancers cleared, a carriage appeared from off stage. He could see a couple in the horse-driven cart.
"Obviously, the stars of our little show here," he mused to himself. "Either that or villains are traveling in style now. But who would bring live horses on stage, what brilliant person thought of that one?"
His sardonic musings were interrupted when the man got out of carriage and was definitely wearing tights. "Great... well that just made the evening a success."
The woman wore a white dress that glimmered under the stage lights. He could tell she had dark hair pulled up in a sequined barrette, but could only make out her back right now. This performance, for some unknown reason, improved tenfold. After the guy frolicked around stage for a few minutes, he went back to the carriage to retrieve the ballerina. When the dancer stepped out of the carriage, his heart skipped a beat.
"Rinoa, shit… is that Rinoa?" Irvine leaned over to Squall. The expression on the commander's face answered his question. "Damn, she looks hot… um… I mean good." The commander wished he hadn't said anything, but in all reality, Squall never heard a word. He retreated into that place where only Squall Leonhart resided.
Searching back on memories, he recalled a time when she talked about being in dance. Something her father had pushed upon her along with piano and voice lessons. The type of social thing those 'elite' children of Deling were almost required to do by some unwritten law. Rinoa said she had been pretty good, but he never imagined this good. He almost couldn't move, watching every polished motion she made.
"God, Irvine was right, she is more gorgeous than ever."
Mrs. McCay leaned over, informing Squall that was General Caraway's daughter. Squall knew; Squall knew everything except why she left.
One year and a lifetime ago…
The energetic Selphie almost collided with him in the hall for what had to be the hundredth time.
"Guess what, several of the students from Trabia Garden are going to be spending a week with us! Since Rinoa is out of town, I'm already having someone use her room, but there are still about fifteen students that need to be placed. I know that you and Zell are leaving on assignment tomorrow. I was wondering if we could use your room to accommodate someone? One of my best friends will be among them. Lauren is trustworthy and won't touch any of your stuff. Can she please stay in your room please, please, please...?"
"Fine, whatever." He started to walk away, as all this happiness wasn't good for his complexion. As an afterthought he added, "Don't know how long we'll be gone. I'll call before the mission ends. Make sure whomever… or whatever…. in my room, is out by then, got it?"
"Thanks Squall you are so sweet!"
Selphie ran over, giving him an enormous hug. She knew Squall still didn't like being touched, but over the last year, he was getting better day-by-day. He reached down, patting her back as if to say, "It's all right. Now get off." Selphie quickly got the hint and ran down the hall bouncing with joyfulness. Seeing her Trabian friends again would be wonderful.
Four days later, the mission was canceled. Squall called informing Irvine that he'd be back sometime around dawn. He wanted his room back for the sole purpose of collapsing in bed. By the time he arrived home, almost twenty-four hours would have passed without sleep.
When he reached Garden, it was late, or was it really early? Well, for a fact it was dark. Undressing in his room, Squall headed immediately for a quick shower. After getting out and drying himself with a towel, he looked over in his bed and saw Rinoa lying there. Her dark hair was faultless in the moonlight. If he had been more alert, he might have been angry about the invasion of his privacy. But, he had given her a key for emergencies. In his mind, this wasn't one, but lack of sleep kept him from pursuing any negative emotion. Although he had to admit, some part of him liked returning to someone, to her. But, he would never let on.
Foolish pride has its price.
Putting on boxers, he towel-dried his hair and crawled into bed. Reaching over, he turned to the sleeping form and put his arm cautiously around her. Rinoa had only been in his room one night before, but nothing happened, he just lay next to her. Touching another human being was not a big move for anyone one else. But for him, the significance was great; opening up was something that took time. Holding her at night was the first major step he was taking. It was so late, he fell right to sleep holding her secure.
Rinoa couldn't wait to return to Garden. Spending time with her 'father' was something she was committed to doing. Trying to make peace after all the tragic events in her life, it just seemed like the responsible action. The two still had very different opinions on everything, from politics to pizza toppings, but she would try to establish a relationship. Sometimes Rinoa felt that was all she did, a balancing act between two stubborn men… two men she dearly loved.
After a few days in Deling, Caraway was called away. Anti-government rallies were threatening to endanger upcoming elections. So instead of sitting alone in the big, desolate mansion, she decided to go back early and surprise Squall. When the train arrived at Balamb it was early in the morning, she wanted to go directly to the person she missed most.
She grabbed her key card to his room 'for emergencies only' he had told her. It was against regulations to have another SeeD's card, especially one of the opposite gender. However, seeing that had been over two weeks it her mind, this was an emergency. She slid the card in and opened the door.
Rinoa couldn't believe what she saw. Squall lying in bed with his arm draped over someone else. She held her breath, taking a step closer; Rinoa could see that the woman was not wearing any clothes. From the looks of it, neither was Squall. The woman's long black hair was flowing onto the silky pillow. The sensation in her stomach made her feel sick. She could feel the bile rising to her mouth, words escaped her and thoughts betrayed her.
Squall Leonhart only kissed her a few of times, never anything like… like… this. She was aware he wanted to move slow, and with good reasoning. Positive she was giving him all the time he needed. Never pressuring, but always there when he needed her.
Or not there when he didn't.
But now, he did this with her, whoever 'her' was. The tears were beginning to cloud her vision. Rinoa shook her head, but still no words came out. Finally, she was able to whisper the words 'no...please...no'. Turning she closed the door, not only physically but symbolically on that part of her life.
It was still very early and nobody was up at Garden. Rinoa Heartilly walked out of that place swearing she would never return.
Not to Garden, not to him.
Beep, beep, beep
The alarm clock cut through the stillness of the air. Lauren uttered several profanities at the bothersome machine… It was time to get up, take a shower, and face yet another exhilarated day of countless lectures. Sleeping in the nude was a habit she had indulged in for a very long time, but as she turned to get up, she let out a chilling scream. Squall opened his eyes and froze like a deer in headlights.
"Who the Hell are you?" he demanded. The dark-haired girl sat up quickly pulling the sheets around her unclothed chest. For a moment, they just stared at each other, Lauren in shock, Squall in utter fear.
When his mind settled from disbelief he demanded, "Get out!"
Lauren looked down sheepishly at the sheets and embarrassingly replied, "Hello, you must be Squall. Um... Selphie let me use your room and I guess you came back from your mission."
Squall focused his eyes anywhere but at the exposed woman lying in his bed.
"That is Commander Squall Leonhart to you. I called, told them the mission was cut short. I thought you… were someone else, didn't mean to touch you. I'm going into the bathroom. Please get dressed and leave, as commander I'm ordering you never to mention this."
Lauren nodded in mutual understanding, recognizing how it might appear to others. Squall left, she got dressed, exiting his room and neither spoke of the incident again.
"Terrific," Squall thought, "the first time I see a naked woman in my bed I feel like throwing up. Her hair, I just thought it was Rinoa last night." He splashed water on his face glad she was several thousand kilometers away in Deling.
Rinoa didn't know where to go. She made the decision to go back to Timber, hopeful to meet up with Zone and Watts. They always had treated her like a princess and right now, she needed that more than anything. After a few days, Rinoa left a message with Quistis expressing she would be staying in Deling for a little longer, and then would be heading abroad with her cousin. After making excuses for over three weeks, Rinoa finally knew what had to be done. Taking Griever off her necklace, she placed it in a box with a simple note.
The last year has been wonderful,
but it's time we move on.
I found someone else,
please don't try to find me.
I don't want to hear from you.
It was a lie, a painful one at that. Rinoa had not found anyone else, and knew she probably never would. No longer caring about the future, she just wanted him to think she'd moved on in the present. Lies were easier to tell than facing the truth. Rinoa felt as she wasn't good enough for him. At least in her opinion, she must have not been intelligent enough, pretty enough, or had a large enough upper body. She just didn't know why he did it, but she knew Squall Leonhart would never hurt her again.
When Squall received the ring back with the note, he could manage nothing more than to stare at it. He was at a loss of how she could hurt him so much. The commander knew he was opening up slowly, okay… very slowly. Emotions took time, she meant more to him than the heavens and the stars combined. She had to know that, even if he lacked the courage to show it. Squall wanted her to be his first, his first in every way: The first one in his heart, the first one he shared himself fully with, and the first one to look into their children's eyes. Maybe if he had been able to communicate better, to not hide behind fear, none of this would have happened.
Squall tightly grasped the ring and placed it in the box, along with the note. He put the black velvet container in his dresser, knowing he didn't want it now. Ironic, it had been with him all his life… he wasn't thrilled when Zell gave it to Rinoa in the first place. Now he detested seeing the metallic band. Swearing to himself it would never be worn again. The ring would only remind of the pain and heartache she caused. It would also forever remind him never to let anyone in again, as the anguish wasn't worth the price. He closed the drawer, sat on his bed, and in the first time in his life… he felt tears on his cheeks.
He never cried; he never had a reason, until now.
But, that was then…
The music increased until it reached its pinnacle. The entire dance company returned to stage for the final curtain call, now it was over. He watched her bow gracefully to the audience. The male dancer grabbed her slender hand, giving her a bouquet of large pink roses. They were beautiful. Squall wasn't sure if it was the roses, or the woman behind them that held the true beauty. The scene was one of the most memorable events he had ever witnessed.
Leaning over, Maude elbowed him roughly with her bony arms. She thought it very discourteous that he was not clapping, nor joining the audience in a standing ovation. Squall couldn't move at this point, he wasn't even sure if his legs worked. Let alone if he had skillfulness to applaud and stand simultaneously. Mrs. McCay might as well have told him to go dance on stage himself; the results would be the same. Squall just sat spellbound looking at Rinoa.
When everyone was leaving, Maude reached over to Squall more than persistent for a male escort. She had already set her sights on the commander. But, he was oblivious to anything the overanxious lady implied. Albeit not so subtle, the advances were left unanswered. He finally was brought back to reality when Mrs. McCay informed him of the rest of the evening's itinerary. They would be going across the boulevard to the reception that followed.
Squall was still motionless, "Would she be there? Will the other man be there?" He didn't want to go, but curiosity told him he had to find out about her…about her life. Rinoa didn't want him in it, but maybe he could bring some closure to this unbearable event. No, that wasn't ever going to be possible, but he did have to try to comprehend.
The reception hall was adorned with gold trim and accented with floral centerpieces. Irvine and Lauren had stayed steps behind the commander, allowing his personal space. The gunman could only imagine the emotions his best friend must be going through. Lauren had sensed something amiss, but just couldn't quite put her finger on it.
Selphie and Lauren had again become best friends. When a position opened at Balamb, Lauren was more than anxious to put in for a transfer. The commander approved the request, with the utmost professionalism. Lauren felt comfortable around the others, even after the whole 'Squall episode'. Now that a year had passed, she laughed about it internally. Although never telling a soul, just as Squall made her promise. She knew it was for the best, as her boyfriend may not have believed the far-fetched circumstance either.
Squall scanned the room, seeing Rinoa positioned alone in a corner. Looking just as beautiful as she did on stage, if not more. She was wearing an antique-ivory dress, brunette hair pulled up eloquently. The dress emphasized her features, making her look even more angelic. It was tight fitting around the top, falling gently off her shoulders. The beadwork could only be compared to the most exquisite of hand-sown artistry, rivaling anything worn by royalty. The dress went into her waist, and then came softly from her hips.
More than physical beauty, he noticed the aura that surrounded her. Rinoa was never the type to be standing alone in a corner… that was him. But there she stood, almost a mirror image of his former self. He didn't know how long he stared at her, time somehow seemed irrelevant. Part of him wanted to leave, run away, but a larger part wanted to stay. Subconsciously he wished for her to look at him, to smile… to be the person he remembered.
His daydreams were interrupted when Mrs. McCay blocked his view; it was a view he didn't ever care to see. Her cleavage positioned too close for comfort, and he wasn't sure… but he believed Maude had just licked her lips in a seductive motion. Either that or her dentures had just popped out, he hoped for the latter. The fear in his eyes must have been a little too noticeable, as the elderly woman backed slightly away. Which was good, as the amount of perfume she had just applied was strong enough to rival a rotting corpse.
Finally, he again had a straight view to Rinoa, but was saddened to see her slowly walking toward a portly fellow. She never ventured too far from her pillar, never more than a few paces. When she moved, the chiffon skirt flowed with her, not allowing him to catch sight of her feet. It looked as if she was floating. In her arms, she still held the bouquet of flowers presented to her after the performance.
At that moment, poor-timing Maude snatched Squall's arm, dragging him towards the one he had been studying. Irvine and Lauren followed carefully behind. Squall's heart ceased all function as they drew closer. It was in that second, he realized where they were heading. To her.
The young woman quickly crooked her head toward the wanton senior. She gave the annoying voice a congenial welcome, showing the smile he longed to see again - the one haunting his dreams every night.
"Maude McCay, wonderful to see you in attendance this evening. You have outdone yourself yet again… another wonderful reception. Hope you are enjoying yourself this evening."
Unknown to Squall, Maude winked at him, placing one hand on the center of his back.
"More than you know, sweetie… Oh, I want you to meet my handsome new friend and his companions."
Rinoa opened her mouth to speak, but was rudely interrupted. Out of nowhere, a middle-aged pompous man pushed Squall out of the way. "Mrs. McCay we have a predicament and need you right away… the caterer and the head maître d' are in the middle of a lover's quarrel! Hors d'oeuvres and caviar are flying through the kitchen at an appalling rate. And they served a chardonnay! It's most… inexcusable."
Maude rolled her eyes. "When will I ever learn?" Turning to Squall, she gave him a slight pat on the lower back. He never noticed, focused on a far more significant person. "Duty calls, please introduce yourselves for me. I'll be back in a jiffy honey." With that, she sauntered off with the gentleman.
"Hello, I'm Rinoa Heartilly." She looked directly at the three people standing in front of her.
"Wow," expressed Lauren in awe. "You dance magnificently, I saw you about eight months ago when you performed at the Winter Holiday Festival."
Squall couldn't believe it. She was looking right at him, and then at Irvine. She acted as if she didn't know them. They could have been anyone else in the hall; it didn't matter. "Doesn't she remember? Or is this how she is going to play? Fine, whatever, two can play this little game." Squall glared at her. If looks could kill, his would have been deadly.
"Thanks, I always loved dancing since I was a child." Rinoa's bright smile could still light up the room. Right now, it didn't make a dent in his heart; his anger shaded any light.
Looking at her with respect, Lauren continued the conversation. "I always wanted to be introduced to you. You're quite the legend where I'm from."
A lump in the throat kept Squall from speaking as the girl continued. "I transferred from Trabia to Balamb Garden about a year ago. For so many years, I wanted to meet you. But you had already left when I arrived. I personally want to thank you for helping with the time-compression matter."
With the mention of Garden, the grin on Rinoa's face dulled. "Well that was lifetimes ago... how are things..." She stopped herself, no matter how much she wanted to continue. "I'm sorry… never mind."
Abruptly a young gentleman called to her, and Rinoa turned her head towards him. A shadow of the smile she had earlier reappeared. Leaning over, he whispered something into her ear, and she reacted with a slight nod. "Oh this is Robert. He was the male lead in the performance tonight."
Walking up to the three, he offered his hand to the commander. In true form, Squall didn't return the gesture. "Well… okay then. Rin it's time to leave."
With that, he grabbed her arm, immediately escorting her toward the door. Rinoa turned back in the general direction of the group thoughtfully adding, "It was nice meeting everybody. I hope to see you again. Next time maybe we can chat longer." Then without a single word to Squall or Irvine, she left.
Still confused, Irvine was the first of the two men to speak. "Commander, you all right?" Squall continued to scrutinize Robert as he guided Rinoa out of the building.
"I'm fine." The answer short and discourteous.
"Why?" Squall asked himself. "Why would she act like that? It was just so… if that's how Rinoa wants it, so be it."
Holding on tightly to his upper arm, Rinoa walked the few steps up the stoop. "Thanks, Rob it just gets harder to hide… At every occasion all I think about is going home, getting away from everyone." She looked down to the ground, softly tapping her feet on the concrete. "You know those people were from Garden. I shouldn't care, but I just wonder how he is doing." Robert held her arm until they were safely inside Caraway's mansion.
"Look Rinoa you are my favorite cousin, but we can't keep hiding this forever. Someday people are going to find out no matter how hard you try. We've managed for six months to keep this a secret from most of Deling. The challenge gets excessively harder at every turn. Please, think about telling the truth to everyone. No one will pity you."
"No Robert, they will. They will pity me… that poor, unfortunate girl. I don't want people looking at me as someone different, but I guess it's not like I could tell if they did." She finished the comment with a diminutive giggle. "Just a little longer please."
"Fine." Was the only response Robert made. For a moment, they stood in silence, and then he handed her a cane. "Guess I don't have to turn the light on in your room."
Rinoa pleasantly smiled, elbowing him hard in the stomach. "Funny, ha ha. I know right now you're making that face at me. So stop it." Closing the door, she turned around, feeling her way upstairs into the dark abyss.