To others the pain was obvious
The colours of a shame a bruise - unjust
Abuse of trust can't be wiped
I can't remember why
I chose to say goodbye
I'm terrified of what I might have severed
I tried to forget the drowning truth
Lashing inside my sea of youth
Life seemed a fair sacrifice for peace
I can't remember why
I chose to say goodbye
I'm terrified of what I might have severed
I ended up too high
But never learned to fly
So coming down I'm very thankful (you were there)
-- Delerium, "Wisdom"
He could barely see more than a few feet in front of him, the dull grey rain coming down so heavy it curtained everything else from view. He leaned his heavy wooden staff carefully against the wall of the building; be a major pain if he had to stoop to retrieve it in this downpour. He struggled to push the door to the inn open while still keeping a tight grip on the wet strap of his pack, the narrow leather stubbornly attempting to slip from his grasp.
After a bit of prodding, the door grudgingly swung part-way open, enough for him to slip inside with his things. The interior of the wooden building was dark but warm, a welcome respite from the muggy weather outside. The room he was in was wide, the reception desk at the opposite end; on his right, the wall next to the desk opened into another space. He couldn’t see anyone in the immediate area, but he could hear low voices nearby.
Behind the desk, stairs led upstairs, a small dejected vase and flowers sat on a low table next to the window on his left and another on the worn wood near the cash register. Setting his staff in a shadow against the wall next to the door, he hefted his bag and hesitantly made his way deeper into the room. Gold and orange light came from the wide recess in the wall, and he peered around the corner curiously.
Sitting at a large thick hard wood table an older woman and teenage boy sat across from each other, each holding a hand of cards, more of the little cardboard cut-outs scattered in various piles across their end of the table. Behind the boy a healthy fire roared in the stone fireplace; most of the light came from the flames, supplemented by the three yellow lights above the table. Neither of the room’s two occupants seemed to have noticed him.
"Uh, hello?" he ventured, unsure. The old woman looked up in surprise, small lined hands automatically setting her cards in a neat pile on the table.
"Oh! Come in, dear, come in!" She bustled her way over to him, waving him in towards the heavy wooden table and modest fire the whole way. "Tex, get his bag," she ordered, still working him closer to the warmth of the fire, dark eyes bright with welcome. "Terrible weather to be travelling in - here, let me take your coat, dear. We'll have it dry in no time - Yes, Tex, just set it there and go and make a cuppa for the poor boy, why, you look like a drowned kitten! Were you out in that storm for long? - Just settle yourself by the fire, where you'll be toasty warm," she finished warmly, shaking out the heavy leather coat with a practiced air, paying no heed to the water droplets splattering the hard timber floor, before temporarily draping it over one of her arms.
He just stared at her in bewilderment, scratching the back of his head. This was not the welcome he'd expected. To be perfectly honest, he wouldn't have been surprised if they'd quickly rushed him off into one of the rooms, out of sight, out of mind. The local residents weren't known for making outsiders feel - welcome.
"Uh, well, I just need somewhere to stay 'til the weather clears up, ya know?"
She nodded, only half listening, brow furrowed in concentration as she hung his coat over one of the wooden chairs to dry a safe distance from the bright flames. "Of course you do, dear." She clucked her tongue in disapproval, "Only a fool would travel in this weather. Tex! Where's that tea?!" She sighed dramatically, shaking her greyed head. "Honestly, that boy..."
The benighted younger man hurried in, a delicate tea set balanced in his hands. He set it down on the table they'd been playing cards at, sweeping the little rectangles into a neat pile while setting up the tea with his other hand. The old lady beamed at her visitor, plump arms folded loosely in front of her over her loose floral patterned dress, short grey curls framing a bright smile.
"Have a seat, we promise not to bite," she urged him, motioning to the chair directly in front of the fire, and taking the opposite seat. Tex took the seat at the end of the table, in-between the old lady and the seat she'd suggested, still setting out the cookies. He glanced at him out of the corner of one eye, gesturing surreptitiously at the chair she'd indicated. Faced with this kind of opposition, he wisely decided that he'd better sit down.
He took the teacup and saucer Tex handed him after asking how he liked his tea ("Oh, doesn't matter, y'know? It's all good." To which Tex raised one brow and dumped one generous teaspoon of sugar and some cream into the cup), and simply held the small cup, dwarfed in his large hands, and allowed the warmth from the hot liquid to seep into his frozen fingers. It may have been the middle of summer, but here on the southern Galbadian continent, they had the frigid sub-zero westerlys from Trabia to contend with. Shame he hadn't packed any warm clothes...but then he was hardly known for thinking ahead. It's not as if he'd planned to come here. It just sort of - happened.
"Oh! How rude of me!" the old woman exclaimed, colouring slightly at her forgotten manners. "We haven't even introduced ourselves. I'm Kesley Mosien – just Kes is fine, dear. I run this little inn. This is my grandson, Tex," she indicated the silent boy.
"Raijin," he said by ways of introduction, briefly shaking the other boy's hand and nodding once in acknowledgement.
"So, how long are you staying in Winhill, dear?" she asked, sipping her tea.
"Uh, depends if I can find any work here," Raijin replied, shrugging "Else, till the storm blows over, ya know?"
The old woman hummed in understanding, nodding her head. "Yes, I know how it is. Many of our youth have moved away, looking for work - and adventure. Some've even joined SeeD, I hear, nasty business that. Even Tex's older sister went to Deling, isn't that right, dear?" she asked her grandson who nodded in reply. "Working as a secretary for some big-shot bureaucrat last I heard," she added with a sigh, "There’s nothing to keep them in a backwater like Winhill. Not much glamour to be found here, I'm afraid."
I think I've had all the 'glamour' I can take, after these last few months, thanks, Raijin thought. "'S alright. Just as long as they pay in Gil, I don't mind. I'm more of 'n odds 'n ends person, m'self."
Kes beamed. "Well, I'm not sure if there's much work around town... We're not exactly a booming economy..."
"The only thing to do 'round here is maintain the houses and farm," Tex said. "All the grain's been sown, but come autumn, I'm sure there'll be work at old Farmer Edien's. He always needs extra hands to bring in the crop, 'specially now he's getting on in years."
Raijin nodded vaguely, absorbing the information. While he might not be outright dumb, it did take him a bit longer to make decisions. He supposed he might as well stay in town for awhile, and see what jobs were available. It wasn't exactly easy to get a job with no qualifications in the major town centers, and being known as an ex-crony of the 'infamous sorceress' knight' wasn't likely to open doors. He drained his cup and set it down, careful not to chip the china.
He pushed away from table, getting to his feet. "Don’t wanna be rude, but I think I'll just get ta bed now – if ya don’t mind. I've had a long day..."
"That's fine, dear," Kes assured him, setting down her own cup and bustling over to the ledger on the counter. "Well, it seems Room One is free -”
"Uh, Grandma?" Tex called.
"Yes, dear?" she asked, absentmindedly, still flipping through the thick book, checking figures.
"We don't have any - uh, serviceable - rooms, remember? I told you that during cards..."
"What about Room Two?"
"Those SeeDs are holed up in there. They won't be out till the storm's over, either. 'Parently, the water's coming in under the windows in their loft. They didn't notice the whole place was flooded 'til mornin'. 'N we have those merchants staying in the other rooms."
Kes shut the book with a bang, staring at her seated grandson for a moment before turning her attention raptly on Raijin. "Oh dear..."
"The only room that's free's all drafty and leaky what with this weather we've been having. Told ya the houses in town needed fixing," Tex looked at him apologetically. "I was gonna reinforce the roof, but then the rains came, and they haven't cleared up in weeks. We've had twenty-eight days straight of rain, it was only a matter of time before it started leaking."
Kes sighed, leaning on the stool behind the counter. "Worse summer I've seen in years. It usually clears up by late spring. Why, we haven't had this much rain since -” she cut herself off, shaking her head. "Anyway, if it keeps up like this, the crops might all rot... Precarious business, farming. You walk such a fine line between boom and bust. It's why I got into this business." She patted the counter beside her affectionately, but then turned back to them, looking put out. "First time I've not been able to house a customer in over twenty years."
Raijin shifted uncomfortably. "Really, 's alright. I don't mind the water." Been in worse situations before...
"Nonsense! It wouldn't do for you to catch a cold in summer, now, would it? Badly affect your job prospects, I'd expect. My, but I don't know if there's any space in town, we're the only inn, and I doubt the neighbours'd be willing to take on a border..." she fretted. She sat in silence for a good while, obviously thinking hard. She brightened abruptly, her smile adding even more creases to her wrinkled face. Raijin felt a sudden pang of dread.
"I know! Tex, be a dear and fetch those two SeeDs for me, would you?"
Tex eyed her warily. Yes, it was definitely dread he was feeling. Whatever the old lady had cooked up was not going to be in his favour, he was sure. "What're you thinking, Gran?"
She collected the near empty tea pot and bustled round the corner into the adjoining kitchen. Raijin could just make her out, through the door. "I'm sure Storm has some room in that old cottage of hers. Hardly fitting for a girl her age and in her condition to be living on her own in these times - and in this weather! Hyne, how she manages, I don't know. Nerves of steel, that one. Yes," she added, quickly topping up the tea pot and coming back into the dining area, "I think that'd be best." She set the porcelain down carefully, looking pleased with herself.
No relation to a - Squall, please? Pretty please? I didn't do anything that bad during the war to deserve that, did I? It'd be just his luck if he ran into one of Leonhart's long lost relatives on this solo sojourn of his. He cringed inwardly at the thought. If he'd been a religious man, he was sure this was when he should've started praying. Or maybe back when his chocobo had run off leaving him stranded with only one enclave of civilization in a hundred miles. Or even when he won that convenient free ticket to Timber, and had that brainy idea to try his own luck in the world on the subsequent trip and drunken binge (compliments of the vacation organizers).
Where was the nearest temple anyway?
Judging from Tex's expression, turning pilgrim might just be a worthy life pursuit at the moment.
Tex looked horrified. "Uh, I dunno, Gran -”
Kes shushed him with a wave of her hand. "Tex! Really, have a little faith in this old woman. I know what I'm doing, I've lived more then twice as long as you."
"But we don't even know him, he could be an axe murderer looking for his next victim for all we know - no offence, man," he added, glancing at Raijin.
Raijin shrugged, feeling strangely light headed - and not in a good way. "None taken." Axe murderer? No, not quite...
"See? He doesn't mind, dear -”
"I'm sure Storm'll mind. You're asking an awful lot of her, and we don't even know her that well - Y'know how she is about're privacy..."
"Exactly. It'll do her good to socialize a little, and having a border would be perfect. I don't like the idea of her on her own, it's just not right! Now run along and get Lan and Sven. We'll send them down with you to get her. Won't do to have you running around on your own, the monsters'll surely get you!"
"But -” Tex looked torn.
Kes fixed her grandson with a Look and he reluctantly got up. "Do you want 'em to bring her here, or just deliver the message?"
"If she's up to the trip. A little exercise might just be the ticket – being cooped up indoors so long can’t be good for her. If she is, tell her to dress warmly. I don't want her catching a cold either; she has enough on her plate."
Tex sighed. "Alright..." He retreated upstairs, appearing a short time later with two bedraggled young men about Raijin’s age behind him, still yawning as they descended the stairs.
"'Lo, Mrs. Mosien. Tex said you wanted to see us?" the brunette asked, still stretching out kinks in his back.
"Yes, would you be a dear and accompany Tex down to Storm's home? Don't want him getting eaten by monsters - he has a hard enough time in broad daylight, I don't even want to imagine him out in this weather," Kes explained.
The two SeeDs shared an inscrutable look, and then pinned Tex with a hard stare. The younger boy shrank under the two gazes. "What? She insisted!"
The black haired boy sighed and shook his head in exasperation. "We'll get right on it, Mrs. Mosien," the brunette, Lan, assured her, herding the other two boys out the door, but not before grabbing an umbrella or two from the rack next to the door. Luckily, he didn’t seem to notice Raijin’s weapon of choice propped nearby.
Raijin watched them go, meekly. "It's really no problem, I don't mind the leaks," he insisted, weakly. "There're worse things, ya know?" Like, cockatrices under the bed, or Marlboro tentacles between the sheets…
Kes waved him silent, refilling his cup and motioning for him to sit back down with her. He remained standing, fighting the overwhelming urge to bolt out that door and never look back. "Wouldn't feel right if a guest is set up in a room I know isn't up to standard. Storm has that entire great house to herself, and I must admit," she added woefully, "I don't feel right letting her on her own like that. True, she may be used to being independent, what with just moving back from the city and all, but what if she has an accident, eh? Slips and falls, and hits her head. Why, we'd never get there in time if she really needed help, would we? No," Kes shook her head, continuing in a low voice, almost to herself. "Be better if someone's out there with her. Best be on our guard, we can't be too careful..." She trailed off, mumbling into her teacup, frowning in worry.
Her guest shifted his weight uncomfortably. "'N you'd trust me to be'r bodyguard?" Raijin looked skeptical. "Yer grandson could be right, ya know, you don't know anythin' 'bout me." He really didn't want to be put on the spot, put he was too - nice, to turn her down flat. One of his many flaws, Fujin'd said once, over a bottle of bad booze – all alcohol without the niceness. Wasn’t his fault he was no good at impersonating the Trabian tundra like her. He was obviously - in Kes’ eyes - the answer to her prayers. He doubted she'd hold the same view if she knew anything about him.
The old woman fixed him with a penetrating stare over the rim of her cup, long enough to make him squirm. "No. But I know you're a good person - I can tell." She sipped her tea, brow still furrowed in thought. As if she only then realized he was still standing, she gestured to his abandoned tea, still steaming from when she'd refilled it. "Sit, dear, they'll be awhile. Takes about ten minutes to get down to the other end of town on the best of days, and this weather's sure to slow them down."
Raijin reluctantly re-took his seat, reaching for his cup, if only to occupy his hands. He blew carefully across the surface of the dark liquid before taking a sip and studying the contemplative woman across from him. He'd had a lot of practice in studying people; not being the brains and only the brawn of the DC had left him with plenty of time to perfect his people watching skills. He waited patiently for her to come to some sort of internal resolution. He knew from experience not to interrupt when someone was busy working things out in their head. They had a tendency to kick him in the shins.
“So, where’re you from, dear?” Kes asked curiously.
“Balamb, ma’am,” he replied, carefully fishing a comparatively small sugar coated biscuit from the near-full plate between them.
One of Kes’ brows rose towards her hairline. “Pretty different climate, I’d wager.”
Raijin nodded, washing down a bite from the biscuit with some tea. “Tropics, over there. ‘S not like here with the storms coming and going like no one’s business.”
Kes shifted in her seat. “Yes, well, it’s not always this temperamental. It’s really quite lovely when the sun comes out… They have a Garden there, isn’t that right?”
Raijin hesitated a moment before answering. “Yeah, Balamb Garden. Used to be a student.”
“Used to be?” she asked, curiously.
“Bit too old to become a SeeD now. Figured I’d strike out on my own, try my luck.”
“That’s what Lan and Sven’ve done. I can’t quite remember if they graduated or not – they went to Galbadia Garden, if I remember correctly, but they do a fine job of protecting the town. It’s wonderful to be able to let the children play outside again.” She eyed him thoughtfully. “At the very least, I’m sure the town mayor would be glad for any extra help you could offer them. What with the Cry in Esthar only a few months ago, those two have had their work cut out for them keeping the monsters out of the town…”
Raijin winced slightly. And to think, if I’d tried harder, gotten my head out of my ass sooner, maybe I could’ve prevented the Cry – stopped Seif somehow. Not likely, but I could’ve tried harder. I knew it wasn’t right, that there was something wrong with ‘im... ‘S not like Leonhart could’ve done anything; rumour has it he was up in space of all places when it happened.
“Ah, well, I’d be glad to help,” Raijin beamed, knowing it didn’t quite reach his eyes. Kes regarded him a moment longer, unsure of his reaction.
“Well, at the very least, when the weather clears up I’d be grateful if you could help Tex repair the roof. I’d pay you of course, needn’t worry about that. I just worry about that boy…” she trailed off, shaking her head. Raijin thought it was funny, the amount of faith the old lady had in her own grandson, but decided not to comment. He didn’t want to alienate her, and didn’t feel they were anywhere near close enough for him to joke about her family.
“Do you have any family, dear?” she asked suddenly, as if following his train of thought.
He shook his head, no. “Think they died in the Second Sorceress War, or after, when Deling got inta office.” He shrugged. “I don’t remember much ‘bout them, I wasn’t much more than three at tha time. I ended up in Garden with all the other orphans from the area.” Since the Third Sorceress War he’d tried to clean up his accent, but he still slipped sometimes, especially when he was relaxed; it hadn’t taken him long to realize that potential employers preferred employees who at least sounded like they’d gone through some higher education institution. For some reason, the thought always reminded him of Seifer. The tall blonde usually didn’t give a rat’s ass about his accent, but when he wanted to, Seifer could talk. Charm his way in and out of any situation with his voice and words alone. Raijin shivered in memory; Seifer’d always kind’ve spooked him. He was so far beyond anything Raijin ever hoped to be. It wasn’t really any wonder Fujin and he’d been completely taken in. At least Fujin had some sort of excuse for refusing to see the truth until it was too late – love had that effect on people. But not him, he’d been completely gypped and only had his own stupidity to blame.
“So, uh, can you tell me anything about the person I’ll be staying with?” Any information would be useful. And the old ladies back in Balamb had always had the latest gossip; it was how he’d found out that Balamb Garden and a pack of disgruntled SeeDs were hovering just outside Balamb when they’d been searching the town for that Ellone girl. Fat lot of good the information did him.
“Hm? Oh, about Storm? Well,” Kes looked thoughtful as she searched her memory for anything to impart. “She lives on her own – she was originally from around here, or at least her mother was. I heard she went to some orphanage when Rain died… she was a wee little mite when that happened, right at the end of the Second Sorceress War. She came home to Winhill a month or two ago, lives close to her childhood home,” Kes shrugged, both hands cupping her drink, swirling the dark liquid in the bottom. “Well, you’ll see, dear, they shouldn’t be much longer.”
“’N you think she’ll be okay with me staying with her?”
Kes laughed, outright, a warm, open laugh of the tone that Raijin had heard precious little of in the past few months. Since before the war, if he was honest with himself. “Hyne, no, child. She’ll be angrier than a Torama protecting her cubs.” Kes chuckled into her half empty cup, shaking her head in bemusement. “But she’ll come around; she’s a kind soul when you get past all the ice.”
Raijin’s mood improved considerably. It was hard not to, with the elder woman still half laughing behind her cup. At least he had a lot of experience dealing with icy personalities. So long as he kept out of the way, he was pretty sure he’d be fine. That was always how he’d dealt with Fujin - and Seifer, too, when the need had arisen.
They’d been sitting together in a comfortable silence when the considerable increase in the volume of the pattering rain told them that the front door had been opened. Kes set her empty cup down and rose to meet the small bedraggled group entering the inn, a warm smile set firmly on her face. The two SeeDs set their umbrellas back in their rack, Tex taking the umbrella from the slender figure accompanying him and adding them to the pile while his grandmother headed over and wrapped the new arrival in a warm motherly hug. The person remained distinctly stiff through the entire procedure, the two SeeDs snickering at the person’s discomfort.
Raijin, who’d remained seated, had the distinct impression that the person aimed a glare at the two smirking men behind them, because they immediately shut up – or at least pretended to. Meanwhile, Kes was diligently leading her guest further away from the damp area around the door and closer to the fire, repeating much the same things she’d said to Raijin on his arrival.
“Have the boys told you about my little request, dear?” she asked, voice pitched a bit softer than it had been with Raijin.
The person – Storm – nodded, the hood of the thick jumper she’d obviously been bundled into by the three behind them still raised, hiding her face. Raijin, feeling his stomach tie itself in knots, felt like it was some horrible B-grade movie effect, delaying the inevitable ‘shock’ revelation at the end. And he was not disappointed.
“I don’t see what’s so little about it,” Storm told her shortly, tone clipped. Kes smiled indulgently, still leading her by the arm and completely ignorant of her other guest who’d gone completely still, expression turning to one of horror, but trying like mad to hide it.
He knew that voice.
Only heard it a few times directed at him, but you couldn’t be part of Balamb Garden’s near infamous Disciplinary Committee and not hear that voice the few times it actually spoke. Because when it did, it’d usually been aimed at him.
Seifer freakin’ Almasy, Head of the DC. A.K.A the guy who’d merrily marched them on over to the wrong side of popular opinion, and almost ended the world while he was a it.
Raijin studiously tried to swallow his stomach back into his chest cavity where it belonged and stared in absolute mortification at the person next to the kindly old woman who’d got him into this mess.
They’d come into the light of the fire by now, Storm pushing the hood of her jumper back as it got warmer, and got her first look at the vagabond Kes wanted her to house. And stopped, going white in shock.
The unexpected stop let Raijin get his first good look, confirming his worst fears, and cementing the horrible feeling he’d had ever since Kes had suggested the idea.
Oh, dear Hyne in heaven.
If there is a heaven.
… I hate my life.
Because there, standing next to Kes was no stranger like he’d hoped. Expression a shocked, horrified mirror of his own, clear recognition in his eyes, was the very last person he’d ever wanted to see.
I’m so dead.
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