Chapter Thirty-Six: Where Silence has Lease
It was well before sunrise when Rinoa made her way through the streets of Winhill. She didn't see another living. Given the hour, it wasn't that she had expected to anyway. Her gaze traveled between the cobblestone beneath her feet and the daunting journey before her. While one was figurative and the other was literal, both seemed to embrace certain similarities.
The literal, of course, were the streets she walked and the current conditions of the roadways. The curbside was lined with trash and debris. The little village hadn't had time to sufficiently clean up from the storm's wrath. The figurative would be the challenge before her. The confusion of her emotional being paralleled the wreckage in a state of disarray.
Rinoa now began to second-guess every decision she ever made; unfortunately her latest choice was no exception. Would leaving Winhill be considered running from her present or running from her past? More importantly, could she honestly define the difference of the two? To her, there was no difference - two parallels that broke all known rules to intersect with contrast.
The world itself and everyone she had ever known had the ability to mourn — time had afforded that chance. She had never been given the opportunity. The memories that she still considered the recent present – the world would classify as mere history. She had not been given the time to mourn, to grieve, and to accept eight forgone years without closure. To her, Zone and Watts were still fighting for the independence of an occupied nation, Caraway was sitting behind a desk giving orders in his mansion, and a reunited orphaned family had just decided to return home.
It was their past, but it was very much her present.
She envied her friends from Garden. They could return home, even though many years of memories had been forgotten, they held the freedom to do so. She couldn't ever go home again. She had to shake off this pity; this is what she chose for herself. It was the price she paid for youthful pride.
As Rinoa neared Maude's house, she studied a few nearby buildings. Their shutters were drawn like some storybook lost in the void of time. Part of her just wished she could be satisfied within this tale, this book she was now writing of her life. She was content. She truly was… but she just needed the opportunity to mourn the past, her past. Her mind kept telling her that it was the key to finding the solace she so desired; though her heart seemed more inclined to mourn more recent losses, but her mind refused to mourn for him. He wasn't lost, he was found.
God, she hoped her mind was right.
If not, that would mean that she was leaving Winhill for another reason. Was she just trying to escape the memories of the time they recently spent together? Somehow, she thought that no matter where she went and how far she traveled, truly escaping her feelings for him would prove an impossible task. This only presented her one choice and her reason was just: she was finding closure from her past life. She had lived without him for over seventeen years, she had friends, relatives, and business left unfinished. Not everything was about him, this was about her. She'd be damned if she wouldn't force herself to believe in the lie. For now, at least.
The young woman looked down to her traveling companion for hope but Esperanza offered little encouragement, "I'm sure you'll enjoy staying at Aunt Maude's… I really don't think she'll mind. I hope not at least."
After reaching Maude's doorstep, she never hesitated to knock. This fact truthfully surprised her. For all her second-guessing only minutes before, she felt no uncertainty contained within the action. Maybe she had gone through the self-doubting phase on the way here and now just longed for human companionship in any form… even Maude.
After a few moments, the door opened with a jolt. Rinoa admired Maude's exuberance, how her carefree demeanor shone brightly, even while answering a door. In contrast, the sorceress lived in constant fear of who was on the other side. Maude always seemed to welcome company no matter the visitor, the nature of the call, or even the hour. A thought flashed through her mind. In that instant, she couldn't help but compare Selphie and Maude's outlook on life. In another life, those two could have been quite the duo. Maybe the pairs never meeting was the universe's way of equaling the cosmic balance of overly-optimistic personalities. That concept made her unconsciously smile; it was those types of errant memories that kept her bound to the past.
"Sorry, you just reminded me of someone for a moment," admitted Rinoa.
"Well whoever it is better be handsome, young, sexy thing."
On the other hand, Rinoa surmised, there were also some striking similarities between Maude and Irvine's unique thought process. She really didn't need, or want, to even go there. Rinoa realized how odd her erratic behavior must have appeared from Maude's perspective. She immediately felt guilty for the disruption, especially if she had been responsible for waking her.
"I'm terribly sorry if I woke you. I probably should've waited a little longer."
"Wake me? Of course not. I'd rather get up with the roosters than to sleep with the Chocobos."
"Huh?" Rinoa looked at her questionably; maybe she needed Selphie to translate that adage.
Maude dismissed the young woman's confusion with a gesture of her hand.
"Never mind, sweetie. I seriously doubt that you came all this way to discuss my sleeping habits. If so, you and I need to have a little heart to heart about your social life. So, you going to tell me what gets you up this early?"
Rinoa looked around for her reason – literally. Somewhere during the two humans' verbal exchange, the canine had wiggled her way into the house. Esperanza immediately found an overstuffed chair to proudly claim as her domain. At least Rinoa's fur-coated companion seemed to be fairing though this situation with relative ease.
Hopefully, Maude wouldn't ask too many questions about her sudden desire to escape Winhill. Rinoa had very little answers to offer, even to herself. The sorceress had to gather the courage to ask about Esperanza, because after she did, the journey would become real. Right now, saying goodbye to her old life was just an idealistic notion, a pipe dream, something that was truly illogical.
Would this decision really make the pain she suffered in her new life ease? Or was that too just a dream?
Maude however, was the first to break the silence, "Oh deary me, I completely forgot to offer you a cup of tea. I don't know where my mind is lately."
"No thank you. I just came to ask you a favor--"
"Psssh," Maude interrupted, "Now I'll have none of that at this moment. It's way too early and I know you could use the caffeine… and I'm as sure as a Shumi that I need a dose of caffeine. Not to mention it's very impolite to refuse an offer from your hostess. I just finished brewing a pot of the finest Gysahl Green Tea this side of Deling."
"Gysahl Greens? Um… aren't they just used for Chocobo feed?"
"Well, that's just what the money-grubbing pharmaceutical lobbyists want you to believe. They don't want to let out the little secret that Gysahl Greens are today's modern medical wonder. I could list a hundred of uses for 'em. For me, personally, the tea helps with my arthritis and my gastric problems. And trust me, I need as much help with both of those things as possible."
The sorceress thought it best not to comment. There were many details about Maude McCay's life she didn't want, or ever need, to know. Right now, they were treading dangerously close into that unknown territory. Rinoa figured her safest bet would be to nod politely and just drink the damn tea.
With a sense of foreboding, the young woman chanced to look in the cup, feeling as if its contents would suddenly launch a surprise attack. Then again, after Maude's famed 'Caterchipillar Chowder,' she wasn't completely ruling out that notion. The tea didn't look that dangerous, but she had been fooled by looks before.
"Don't knock it until you've tried it. Live life on the edge a little." Maude's words offered little comfort to her current mental dilemma.
The older woman made her way to the sofa, haphazardly tossing some periodicals on a table. She patted the seat beside her, trying to coax her guest into feeling a little more at ease. It was apparent that the young woman seemed troubled. Maude figured with all the recent events, and recent male arrival, there had to be an important reason for her calling at this hour.
"Trust me Renee, just try the tea. There's also nothing better for calming the ol' nerves. Think about it - how many hypersensitive gassy hobbling Chocobos have you seen in the fields?"
Rinoa found herself smiling at the older woman's antics. God, Selphie would have loved her.
"Here's to something new," Rinoa toasted as she swallowed her fears and the first sips of tea.
To her surprise, it wasn't bad. In fact, it was quite tolerable. It actually reminded her of youthful tea parties shared with stuffed bears and miniature tea sets. The memories were almost welcoming in a world that had been cluttered in so much confusion as of late. Maybe Maude wasn't that crazy after all; maybe the Gysahl tea was a 'modern miracle.' Then again, maybe it was just too early in the morning for her brain to rationalize coherently – Rinoa figured that it was the latter.
"Grew, picked, and cured the leaves myself… Of course had to fight with Lucky, but don't worry, he gets his share."
"Really it's very good, surprisingly."
"Surprisingly," Maude questioned, raising a poignant glare.
"I mean… I mean… it's-"
The older woman laughed as if she were a giddy teenager, setting her cup on the table. "Child, you really need to loosen up. You've been hanging around that male companion of yours way too long. Not that it's a bad thing of course. Speaking of which, where is he? I can always use something young and masculine to decorate the place."
"He's," Rinoa began softly before changing her demeanor. She unconsciously sat up, poised and proper. It was a response ingrained from the etiquette lessons and years with Caraway. "Squall was only in Winhill for business. Meeting up with him was only coincidental. Since his work here was complete, he returned home on yesterday's train."
"Well that's quite the shame," Maude answered earnestly, "and also a tad bit rehearsed, I'd say."
"Hun, I may not look it, but I've been in your shoes once or twice… or five times. Well, you get the general picture. First of all, someone like that doesn't usually have business in Winhill and if he did, you'd be damn straight the whole town would already known about it. Second of all, I don't believe in coincidences – especially ones of that magnitude. Lastly, returning 'home' could have more than one definition; it's just the one that you choose to define."
Rinoa knew that Maude had bested her on the subject. She also knew that she couldn't hide behind this façade any longer. It wasn't as if Maude knew everything, but Rinoa doubted she was able to mask her seemingly-irrational behavior from her senior.
"You know," Maude began, once again taking the pressure off the younger girl. "Everyone has to face their past at some point. If you don't want to talk about it, I completely understand. I just want you to know that there is someone here for you. Though I may not seem like the most likely candidate for the job, I may have a piece or two of advice. I'm guessing that Mr. Wonderful's sudden departure might have something to do with that favor you came here to ask?"
"Yes… and no." Here it was, now or never. Once it was said, it was real… she had come to accept that truth. "Maude, I wanted to know if you could take care of Esperanza for a little bit? I need to leave Winhill for a few…well, no, possibly for quite a while. I really can't give you a specific period of time... I'm not positive of the situation myself. But if watching her is a problem I can-"
"No, no, not at all, my couch is her couch. However, I do see a problem or two with this little venture you want to take."
"I'm sorry… What? Why?"
"For one, transportation… you know the next supply train doesn't arrive for a few days. I mean, you could always bike over the mountains, but something tells me that just isn't going to work. I'd offer you Lucky, but well, he's very moody and would probably go on strike. I wouldn't want to do that to him unless it was an emergency."
Maude smiled as she paused for another spot of tea, "And as far as I know Renee, you have no access to a vehicle or any other mode of transportation. Unless I'm completely wrong, you don't seem the type of girl who'd hotwire one. I'd say rent a car, but this is Winhill, and the only things we have for rent are a few rowboats with severe cases of dry rot. So this leaves us with one feasible option."
"Yeah us… Come on, you don't think that I could use a little break from this place? Seems to me that I have a working car, something you'll be needing for your little adventure. Plus it'll give me a chance to recapture my youth… you, me, the open road, and all the singles bars along the way. I see it as a win-win situation personally."
"Wow, speechless at the possibilities, huh? Don't worry; we'll have Mr. Finnegan look after Esperanza and Lucky. The guy has the hots for me, and who knows? He could be husband number five if he plays his cards right. I'll just need a little time to get my affairs in order,"
Maude slyly winked to her company. Again, Rinoa found it best just not to question. She was still mentally taken aback by husband number five.
"So Renee dear, how 'bout we head out tomorrow morning at the crack of a Chocobos back? That'll give us time this afternoon to fix up any damage from the storm. Responsibilities you know… flowers amazingly don't seem to grow themselves these days. I'm figuring that you can wait 'til morning? Seems like the best offer you'll find around this place… unless again, you know how to hotwire."
"No, I don't," the sorceress answered flatly.
Rinoa closed her eyes trying to quell the uncertainty growing in her stomach. Sure, she was going to get her way – just like that spoiled adolescent image she tried greatly to combat. Yet, that was the problem: she wasn't that teenager anymore, though outwardly it appeared the opposite. Rinoa Heartilly was in her mid-twenties and her first instinct was to still run away from her problems on a whim. She never stopped to consider the consequences of her actions on others, not even Esperanza, or how she was going to obtain her goal. Her basic attitude: she wanted to go, so she would leave. End of story.
Could she really pull Maude away from Winhill and drag her to – well, into a situation far beyond the woman's comprehension? Was it honestly fair to her coworker? If caught, it would be aiding and abetting a sorceress after all. If Maude hadn't offered the car, would the sorceress have even stopped to consider that somewhat major flaw in her plan? Even if she did get a car herself, who was she kidding? When it came to things like 'driving' she honestly still was, by all accounts, an inexperienced teenager.
She scoffed at the idea of her trying to drive a car any great distance. Her vast experience consisted of Zone and Watts's futile attempts of teaching her to drive stick on the outskirts of Timber. This whole situation would almost appear humorous if it weren't so damn real.
The truth was that this time, her slip in logic showed her mental age, not her physical one.
Elise looked at him with uncertainty, his hollow expression and the listlessness of his eyes reminded her of when they first met. Her heart broke at all of the years of struggling to heal that he seemed to have lost, all in the span of 72 hours. Squall looked at her expectantly and she realized suddenly that he had asked her a question.
"When do we leave for Esthar?"
He snapped more irritably than he meant to. His head was reeling in pain.
"Not for another three hours." she replied softly. The doctor could see his familiar agony quite clearly. A part of her, the part that was so angry and hurt by his actions, that part was tempted to allow him to wallow in it. But her compassion, her love for him and the knowledge she had acquired over his absence was stronger. There were words, angry words that pricked at the insides of her lips and pleaded to be set free. Elise pushed them to the back of her tongue and walked into the kitchen to get some aspirin for him, and perhaps for her as well.
Squall sighed helplessly. He couldn't find the words he needed to say to her, he was awash with so many layers of black. He knew there was nothing he could say that would ever redeem himself in her eyes. He wished he could feel more so that he could reach out to her and reclaim the trust she used to have in him, to earn her forgiveness. The reality though, was that he didn't want it.
He wanted her to hate him. It would be so much better for her if she would just hate him…banish him from her life forever. Not for his happiness, but for hers. The silver linings beneath his dark clouds that she had spent so long trying to find were not there. He would always carry his legacy of failure and he would continue to add page after page until his hands were cold and void of the damaged blood that coursed through his veins.
"Here," she said as she placed the aspirin in his hand and offered him a glass of water in the other.
He took the glass from her and chased the pills down his parched throat with the cooling liquid. It would never happen. Her compassion would override her hatred for him. Even after all of this, after all he had done, she still took care of him. It made him want to scream.
"Thank you." he said simply as he sat the glass on the coffee table. Their eyes met for a moment and he quickly turned away like a submissive dog. He didn't deserve her compassion, nor did he want her pity.
The soft lamp light accented the dark circles beneath his eyes and she silently wondered if he would be well enough to stand before council. Garden was the only stability he had left, however little it offered. If he lost that now too, would it break him completely?
Maybe…maybe he should know the truth. If she let go of her bitterness, her own selfish desire to be the one to make him complete, to fuel the fire of his soul and keep it burning. Her pride did not want to admit defeat to a memory before. Now that memory had become a reality. A knight and a sorceress once again together in this world
Once upon a time, she liked to believe that she offered him an anchor to this world, but he would always be adrift with her. She knew now the only anchor he could know was left behind in Winhill. Elise wondered what had transpired between them. As much as she hated to admit it, she knew he wasn't sitting in their living room because he chose to.
"Why are you here?" She hadn't meant to say it aloud.
He glanced at her questionably. "I still live here don't I?"
"Of course, but…"
"None of it matters Elise…If your detective work led you to call her, you know enough of what's happened. It's over. There's nothing else to say about it."
"Did she give you what you wanted?"
"The forgiveness you've been seeking all of these years…did she give it to you?"
"Did it give you any peace of mind?"
"No." Squall shook his head.
The only peace he had found was when he held her close during the storm. He found peace in her laughter and the way she moved across the floor. Through the shattered remains of his soul, he had found peace in Winhill, for a brief time, resting his weary soul next to hers. He allowed himself to be swallowed by the dream, and it was ripped away from him just as it was before. The thought suddenly turned sour in his head and he lashed out at the only other person on the planet who loved him for who he was.
"Elise, why don't you cut all of the psycho-babble shit and go ahead and ask what you really want to know? Did anything happen between us? Did we rekindle a long lost love affair and screw each other's brains out until we were interrupted by your phone call? No, we didn't! Because if we…"
He didn't get a chance to finish before a hand fell hard across his face. His head lurched to the side as the slap she gave him echoed through the room.
"Shut up! God damn you Squall Leonhart! I was worried sick about you! I didn't know if you were alive, dead or passed out drunk in some back alley. Do you think I wanted to tear you apart from her again? Even after I found out, after I struggled to come to terms with all of this, what woman wouldn't wonder what her fiancé was doing with the woman he couldn't let go of for eight fucking years! I know damn well that I will never hold a candle to her, as hard as that is for me to accept! But they can and they will have you arrested if you don't show up to this trial. They will find out where you've been. You know well what they are capable of…and they will sweep through Winhill like a plague of locusts."
She stopped short of going into an emotional tirade and took a moment to compose herself before continuing. "She'll be in more danger than you can protect her from. Is that what you wanted me to let happen?"
Squall took a deep breath. He hadn't meant to lash out at her. As much as he was hurting, he knew that she didn't deserve any more pain than he had already caused her.
"Don't…just don't." she sobbed, letting her emotional dam break. The doctor wiped furiously at the tears streaming down her cheeks. Elise was surprised she had any left to shed over him.
"I…I never meant to hurt you." he whispered.
"I know Squall. I know." She sighed. "Things have spiraled out of control for everyone."
The young woman attempted to regain control of herself but tensed suddenly as she felt his hand close around her own. She looked down at him; however, he did not return her eye contact. He simply stared at the floor and said nothing. He looked more lost than she had ever seen him.
Surely he had found some sort of forgiveness from Rinoa. She knew enough about the girl to know that she wouldn't leave this man to wander the earth for the rest of his life with the guilt he had chained to himself all those years ago. Especially since…they were…
"When was the last time you ate anything Squall?" she questioned him suddenly.
The thought of food made the nausea lurch forward from his stomach. But he showed no outward signs of disgust and merely shrugged his shoulders. The acidic bile creeping around in the back of his throat burned at his tongue before he managed to swallow it back down.
"Let me fix you something to eat."
'No!' his body screamed. "Okay." The last thing he wanted was food but the routine normalcy was too tempting to ignore. He missed routine, it made him forget. It was the next best thing to alcohol.