Pupu's Saga Setting 17

0019 DAY 16, Caraway’s Mansion 2F (Master Bedroom)

By Jeremy Chapter

"Love me faithfully!
See how I am faithful:
With all my heart
And all my soul
I am with you
Though I am far away."

Carmina Burana
"Omnia Sol Temperat" 


       "Don't give up on me!" shouted the bastion of courage, his head bobbing just above the surface.

       He had worked to hard for her to quit on him right then.  Even in the state of emergency he wore the mask of mild annoyance that seemed to say, “I’ve put in too much time and effort for you to throw it all away.”  He debated whether to slow down, save his energy, and turn back because she could not hold her own or to push forward, doubly resolute before she capitulated.

       Why do I always have to decide? he wondered.  Why do I get all the hard decisions?

       It was clear that the girl had made her own choice.  He had no right to intervene and deprive her of the path she chose to take.  It was her call and she had ruled in favor of death.  She had even desisted in her screaming.  Did he really have to step in?  He was taking a risk equally grave as it was unnecessary.  If she wanted to go to hell, she should not have to drag him down with her?

       Why can’t they save themselves these days? he asked himself exasperatedly.  Why do I always have to save them?

       They were rhetorical questions whose answers he already knew: The meek had no choice but to act meek, just like he as a hero had to act heroic.  The hero’s life was not one of privilege, not by a long shot if it couldn’t even pass for being fair.  His was the most unfair life of all, made worse by two truths that never ceased to haunt him: One, there was no forum in which any semblance of authority was available to give a flying damn about his grievances; and two, he had to suffer every inch of this miserable life no matter how insufferable it was.  The corollary paradox of this situation was a further injustice and slap to the face.

       He would rather have the function of a hero become obsolete than continue this charade of being valiant for the rest of his life.  He had better things to do in life and more he wanted out of it than be the hero.  Aside from that, what else was he?  The First Son of Esthar?  How did people really expect him to come through and save the day like a Prince Charming when he could not even handle being the President’s son?

       Were it in his power to have the entire antiquated occupation retired for good, it would have been accomplished.  It never failed – whenever he had a moment to spare for himself, there was always another voice crying out and appealing for his help.  Did it ever occur to anyone else that he might not enjoy saving them as much as they liked being saved?  Did they ever consider that he might have better things to do?  That there were times he needed to be alone?  That he deserved his privacy?  That he might want to live his own life and not be responsible for everyone else?  That completing heroic feats usually meant violating the rules he had been trained to obey as a mercenary, undermining the time-honored procedures of the profession, and disregarding the conduct proper to his station as a SeeD?

       It won’t be long now, he guessed.  I’m almost there.

       Altruism should be left to the humanists, and he was no humanist.  He knew that much.  He was a soldier who wanted to keep things simple.  It made him sick to think that his colleagues considered him the dark horse candidate for the man of the year.  On his list of ideal vocations, the soldier was right up there with the Malboro farmer.  He ascribed his reluctant but undeniable calling to the occupation of the world’s superman to dumb luck, or to a dumb curse bestowed upon him by fate.  If the latter case turned out to be true, he would not pass up a chance to meet with this fate – fate with a crooked sense of humor; fate who doled out fortunes with a lame hand; fate who was slipping up on the job because she lacked competition and was growing complacent – and teach her a lesson.

       Just a little further now, he assured himself, still weaving his way through what seemed like an eternity of waves.

       He looked back to the shoreline and entertained in the idea of turning around, wading half of the way there, and letting the ocean do the rest.  Straddling the rushing water and riding it home unconditionally beat having to work against it.  The current was a classic example of a better friend to have than an enemy.

       When he turned back around an instant later, his hopes fell.  Having lost her position, he cursed silently, Damn her, where is she?

       In all probability, he was being punished.  The heavens had decreed in their own secret tongue long lost to man that the innocents who were constantly hurt, slighted, and abandoned in their childhood, and who never sought to hurt, slight, or abandon others, would get no reprieve in maturity.  Or maybe someone up there was just pissed at him for no reason other than he was who he was.  Either way, he was losing out on the life he wanted, the life he deserved.

       A simple life was, in his humble opinion, not too much to ask for, considering all the life-shortening complexities he had endured already.  Did it seem odd to anyone else that the wheel of fortune never seemed to turn for him?  He would have liked to think that the term, “change of fortune,” when applied to his life, meant more than just another life-threatening antagonist, obstacle, or predicament.  Surely there had to be more in store for him in life than bloodletting.

       And then he was remembered where he was and was aptly reminded of every reason why his idealism should have died with his mother.  It was stupid of him to think that he would ever get off the hook with the excuse that it was human nature to be selfish and therefore not a crime to act accordingly.

       She was nowhere in sight.  It was probably all over already; if she had not gone under by herself, then she was dragged under and torn to pieces in the feeding frenzy of the sea monsters.  Case closed.

       Can I go home now? he pleaded with himself.

       He treaded water for a few seconds more, looking for either a proof of life or a proof of death.  One sign was as good as the other.

       The waves crashed against the rock base of the cliff while the sand rattled against the lapping surf.  It was getting late and the upper fringe of the sun was on the verge of disappearing under the horizon as if the sea was wrestling it down into its watery grave.  No amount of wailing could save it, premature a death as it was.

       He spit out some water and watched as it fused back into the oblivion of the main body.  The girl was as good as dead.  There was nothing more that he could do.  He shrugged and looked back towards the inviting shore.

       Turning his back on her, the hero began to leave.

       Rinoa screamed, eyes snapping open, and fell out of her chair.

       Where am I? she wondered frantically.

       Face down, she did not recognize the carpet design since the chance to study it at such close range had never presented itself before.  When she lifted herself to her feet and took a second look, it became unmistakably clear where she was.  It was all there: The ivory ceiling panels, the oaken bedposts, the velvet curtains; and the institutional furniture.

       She pressed two fingers against her chest and felt the frequency of her heartbeats slow to its natural rhythm under the regulation of her newly conscious mind.  It had all been a dream.

       No, she corrected, more than a dream, and much more than a nightmare.  A vision.

       It had seemed so real, like he had been right in front of her, like his sentiments had been directed at her, like his giving up had forsaken her.

       Even her hair smelled salty.

       The night of the celebration, before she had the chance to sneak away to the Balamb Garden balcony with Squall, Mrs. Kramer had dragged her aside and lectured to her about how the sorceress and her knight were linked in a way that defied empirical explanation.  Rinoa just never expected it to be this intimate.  Who knew if Edea’s version of the experience was the norm anyway?  She was a different woman.  It was perfectly possible that she would have to face a different reality.

       At the same time, though, Rinoa was forced to admit that her reality was rapidly becoming one with Squall’s.  The way that she read Squall’s every thought in her vision was testimony enough to this incommunicable phenomenon of psychosomatic union.  At the rate that this strange synergy was occurring, soon there would be no secrets between them.  She was not too sure if Squall would like that. 

       The initial alarm she felt from losing a percentage of her privacy was fading fast, and she was comfortably warming to the idea of sharing her emotional wellspring with the source and sole recipient of her love, Squall Leonhart.

       Oh! she gasped.  I almost forgot!

       Squall and Angelo, the two recipients of her love.  Angelo made about as good a knight as Squall did when it came to protecting her.  The two had approximately the same level of communication skills as well, but sometimes Angelo seemed more articulate and more of a people-person…people-canine.  Angelo was a dog, though, and she had to remember that.

       She whistled in relief, scarcely believing that she had almost left her little princess out of the picture.  After additional consideration, Rinoa was actually glad that she did not have any paranormal bond with her dog because Angelo would have nipped her heel if she ever knew that her mistress had come that close to forgetting her.  Squall, on the other hand, did not dare touch her after that night and the cold shoulder she had practiced to perfection.

       So, she thought, returning to her original inquest, when am I?

       Rinoa looked around for the time, but caught herself, remembering for the second time that the General never installed a timepiece in his room.  It was a wonder how he always knew what was going on.  Perhaps it was his way of making a statement about life, or about love, or about how time affected life and love, or about how time could not affect life or love.  Whatever it was, it was also an inconvenience to her because she wanted to know the time.

       “Guess we’re going to have to try it my way,” she huffed, bending down and placing her hand on the seat of the chair, still warm and proudly displaying her imprint.

       It felt about three hours warm, give or take twenty minutes.  She dusted off her hands and smiled, knowing that she had retained at least one skill from the lessons offered by the School for Ladies.  Three hours warm.  Scalding.

       Her smile curled in disdain at the remembrance of the taunts from one of the upperclasswomen.  The girl, Nana, was assigned Rinoa’s chair the period after her and complained everyday that year about how warm the seat was.  In class and during their lunch break, she publicly denounced Rinoa’s butt as heater too powerful to pass school fire-safety regulations and petitioned to the directorial committee for Rinoa to be quarantined.  As a result, the nickname of “Heater-butt” burgeoned in popularity among the upper echelons and spread, regrettably, like a wildfire to some of the lower circles.  Rinoa maintained that Nana’s accusations were all lies but as she was unable to allow her classmates or the boys from the neighboring academy to test the verity of Nana’s claim, Rinoa’s ill-defended innocence was forfeited and they gave the prom queen title to someone else.  Rinoa held a grudge against the sorority that barred her would-be guaranteed induction, secretly believing that they had ruled under the sway of the crippling allegations.  For all they cared, she might as well have been toting around a scarlet “H” on every dress she wore, the letter being short for “Heater-butt.”  The visual representation of her disgrace would not have any more a stigmatizing effect on her character as the unanimous opinion of the public already dictated.

       Rinoa checked to see if anyone else was in the room and if the curtains were drawn before she felt the back of her skirt.  Reluctantly she conceded that Nana had been right.

       She looked back to the width of her impression on the seat with a frown.

       You’re not that wide, are you? she thought about asking her rump.  I thought we’ve been through this and you said it was fixed!

       The other adamantly maintained that it was not to blame; after all, if had absolutely no control over what kind of food and how much of it went in at the other end.

       Rinoa growled, fists shaking, but capitulated.  It was indeed all her fault.  A grim moment ensued in which Rinoa bemoaned her helpless status, bereft of any authority with which to govern her mutinying body parts.  First her mind had begun to play games with her head and now the situation had dilapidated into her rear giving her lip.  A sassy, insubordinate rear who did not acknowledge who was the boss was the last thing she needed, next to a lap dance from Zell.  Losing her mind was one thing, but losing her shape was another; Squall could handle a Rinoa with a few loose screws in the dusty attic and perhaps even a few visits to the loony bin, but there was no way that he would forgive her for being deformed.  She was so horribly disfigured.  She probably looked like a monster.

       What am I going to do?  How will Squall ever take me back?

       She pulled at her hair with both hands and tried to find a way to take back her body first.

       A cheery thought danced into her head.  It fluttered from one ear to the other before taking a second peek inside, lighting up Rinoa’s eyes with its miny-lantern of optimism.  The glow from behind her dark irises revealed that an idea had been wrought.

       “Maybe it is just the angle,” she suggested rosily, and the world beamed, nodding to her with a wink, and the nightingales sprung to life, shooting up into heavens, chirping with such gaiety unknown even to the land of eternal spring.

       Rinoa moved in front of the reflective window and looked at her behind from another slant.

       And the songbirds fell from their lofty perches headlong, plunging deep into the well of hard facts and even harsher reality, plop plop plop.  They were not the only ones out of breath.

       How could she have let this happen?  It was so unbelievable, she could hardly believe it!

       How did this happen? she screamed inside her head, the jugular muscles constricting.

       The other shrugged in a cavalier fashion and told her not to glare at it any longer.

       It’s not my problem, it seemed to say, I’m perfectly satisfied with my appearance.

       Rinoa decided that it was being too smug for comfort, and she devised the perfect punishment.  She was going to sit back down.

       Genius, she complimented herself, pure genius.

       “Back into the oven with you,” she pronounced with a sinister tone of voice.

       You wouldn’t! it remonstrated, a deep sweat breaking out over its face.

       “Watch me,” she asserted despotically.

       With a graceful twist she was back in the seat, her maneuver muffling the curses exploding from her behind addressed to her and her family.  A self-satisfied grin stretched across her face; it felt good to be in control again.  It was all about who had the power.

       Abruptly the floorboards just outside her room creaked.  Rinoa straightened her posture at the sound of footsteps approaching from the other side of the door.  There followed a few polite taps and a jingle of keys before the knob turned.  The door opened just a crack, but the arc was wide enough for her to see the spectacled face of an elder man peering through the opening.  Upon seeing that she was decent, he swung the door open and walked into the room, replacing the General’s key chain in his pocket.

       “Uncle Zen!” she gasped, standing up in attention.

       Thank Eden you stood up! her bottom rejoiced.  I thought I was going to die!  I’ll be damned if that sandwich isn’t showing!  And damned twice if it is!  You’re so freaking heav-

       “Hush!” she snapped at it, face reddening.

       The man in the gray suit lifted an eyebrow but did not venture to ask her to explain herself, much to Rinoa’s relief.  He laid his briefcase on the ground and walked to the desk behind her.

       “We’re both adults now, Rinoa, so you can just call me Doctor Zen,” he told her.

       Rinoa tried it out but it sounded way too foreign to her ears.  After showing up so much at the mansion after her mother passed away, and visiting every time the General – he had only been a captain at the time – needed his legal counsel, the lawyer had basically become an uncle to her.  To signal her disapproval at the new title he requested, she crinkled her nose and lowered her eyelids skeptically.

       If Zen saw the look on her face, he deliberately ignored it.  He was more interested in flipping through the small stack of papers that had been lying on top of the bureau.

       “Doctor Zen,” she repeated for his benefit, “that name sounds so awkward, uncle Zen.”

       “So does your voice,” he commented without looking up from his work.  “Do you need some water?”

       “No, I’ll be fine,” Rinoa replied, slightly chaffed by his redirection.

       That was the way it was with her pseudo-uncle; they would take verbal stabs at each other and he always won.  She never once got the last word in their little game, but that was probably why she loved to talk to him.  He was a pistol when it came to word games, and the more times he shot her down, the more resilient she became and the more eager to bicker further.  Rinoa figured she had the best shot of winning the duel when he was distracted, so she took every opportunity to test him during his work hours.  This seemed like one of them.  In short, uncle Zen was nothing like the General.  It was so easy to trump her father and get the last say…or at least it used to be.

       “What are you doing?” she asked as he leafed through the pages in the stack.

       “My dear, this would be called ‘shuffling papers’,” he cooed like a kindergartener.

       She ignored the patronizing remark, realizing instead that Zen had not yet given her the daily dose of love she required and without which she could hardly be expected to function at her best.

       “What?” she pouted with open arms.  “No hug?”

       The middle-aged attorney shook his head, put down the loose sheets, and went into the drawers.

       “Too flat and wide for my tastes,” was his dryly-delivered excuse.

       Rinoa’s mouth fell and raised her hand to slap him across the face.  You dirty bastard!

       “I meant the door,” Zen clarified hurriedly.  “The door was too flat and wide for me to hug on my way in.”

       “No, you were not!” screamed Rinoa, eyes flaring.  “You think I’m flat and wide!”

       So it is true? she wondered fearfully.  Does Squall think the same thing?  I cannot…no, it can’t be!  Can it?  He has to be lying.  I wish he were lying.  I don’t look like a door.  Is this why Squall won’t get close to me?  Is it my fault?  Oh, Squall!  I’m…I’m...I’m so sorry!

       “Hey, you said it, not me,” Zen exculpating himself.

       “Don’t you dare turn this around on me, mister!” she menaced like she was not nearly through dealing with him.

       And the ninth deadly plague to man reveals herself, he reflected with a drudging sigh.  O Eden, how do I handle this?  I just can’t resist…oh what the heck.

       “Doctor,” he reminded Rinoa of his proper title, picking the worst possible to time correct her.

       Well aware that Rinoa was going to strike him regardless of her unspoken acknowledgement that his legal expertise was worth every Gil that her father possessed and that he could sue for and manage to win every bit of it if she assaulted him, Zen moved quickly to secure one of the heftier books from the desk shelf with which he intended to the block the imminent blows.

       It worked like a charm and more, obliging Rinoa to abandon her attack prematurely to rub her soft fingers and moan about the pain.  The fact that it was self-inflicted only drew out her tears in greater quantity.  Had the General been present, he might have preferred Angelo’s barking to his daughter’s fresh supply of rumpus.

       Seeing that nothing was going right, Rinoa threw up her arms and decided that the feeling she would get from screaming out all of the frustration she had suffered and stored in her belly for the past two weeks was grand enough to overshadow any pride she might lose in carrying out the act.

       A silent alarm sounded in Zen’s head; he knew that look.  The room was in danger of being stuffier and a lot more embarrassing for the both of them if he did not intervene.

       “You’re not going to be happy until I tell you what you want to hear?” he asked a beat quicker than Rinoa could manage her first and last sniffle, presumably the only buffer between her composure and the flood of lamentation to come.  It was like asking a toothpick to block a tsunami.  He just hoped that the toothpick would hold up long enough for him to do what he did best – parley, stall, and settle.  This precarious matter would have to be handled with the utmost tact.  Once again he would have to prove himself, if the waters were to recede.

       “I want you to speak the truth,” she told him, stifling a wail.  “Swear by the book in your hand that I am shaped perfectly.”

       “How about I just tell you that you have a gift for paradoxes?” Zen offered, trying his luck in hopes of an early settlement.

       His reward was to duck one of Rinoa’s swats.  Guess that’s a “no.”

       It was hard for Zen to believe that after his wife’s death Captain Caraway could not find anyone else save his lawyer to forestall his daughter’s emotional meltdowns.  It would be almost a decade before Caraway was promoted to the rank of General of Galbadia.

       “Tell me I’m beautiful,” she insisted.  If you want to live.

       “I can’t lie,” he replied with artificial honor, even after he read the complementary threat from her eyes.

       “You’re a lawyer,” she reminded him, “it’s your job to say what your client wants to hear.”

       “And my client’s daughter, I suppose?” Zen asked.

       “Say it!” Rinoa ordered.

       “Even if it’s a lie?” her attorney questioned.

       She tried to smack him again but missed.

       “It’s the truth, you evil, conscienceless, diplomatic mercenary!” she yelled.  “Don’t forget you’re my legal representative!”

       “Is this your gimmick to make me take the responsibility for how besmirched your public image is, you little witch?” he inquired.

       “Watch it or I’m going to find myself a new rep,” Rinoa threatened him, jumping up and down.

       “I pity him already,” Zen sympathized wholeheartedly.

       “’Rinoa is beautiful.’  Now say it like you mean it,” she demanded, brushing off his affront.  The room might as well have caught fire at that moment.

       “But this is my book!” Zen protested, showing her the cover of the law manual The Psychology of the Galbadian Justice System.  “I wrote it!  You can’t honestly expect me to swear away its legitimacy.”

       “Say it!” she repeated more forcefully, claws bared like a Wendigo and ready to pounce.  “You have to swear!”

       Zen took a deep breath and mumbled, “With Odin as my witness, I hope the bar association knows that I am speaking under duress.”

       “What was that?” Rinoa snapped.  She was going to make him eat those words.

       “I would not gush over you to save my life-” Zen admitted honestly.

       “Uncle Zen!” Rinoa interrupted furiously.  In the process, she raised her voice by a very noticeable notch – the type of notch that induces the neighboring houses to call with concern the next morning.

       “-but I would do it to save yours,” he completed his statement suavely.

       The remark was dripping with too much charm to be taken seriously, the excess oozing out of its many leaks.  It was so pathetic but cute at the same time

       “Fine,” she conceded, forgiving him, “but you have to tell me what Caraway called you in today to handle.”

       “Are you negotiating with me?” he asked incredulously but unable to suppress a huge smile just the same.

       “I’m offering you a deal you can’t refuse,” she said flatly.  “Believe me, it’s the only way out.”

       “So all I have to do is tell you why I’m snooping around in here and you’ll let me get back down to business?” Zen summarized.

       “You’ll also owe me a double-decker ice-cream sundae with fudge,” Rinoa added at the last second.

       “What time, what store, which flavors, and do I have to attend?” the other inquired, rolling his eyes.

       “The plaintiff will stipulate later at her discretion,” she shot back, making every effort to sound formal.

       “Fine, fine,” Zen agreed hastily but made no attempt to mask his exasperation.  “Just let me be.”

       It was Rinoa’s turn to look at him like he was stupid; it was obvious even to her that he was trying to brush her out of the way.

       “I want a real, written and signed draft,” she accosted him before he could continue digging through the drawers for whatever it was that he was after.  “How dumb do you think I am?”

       Zen squinted and asked cautiously, “How do you want me to answer that?”

       She tried to bury her nails in his arm, but he raised the book just in time to shield himself.  Under the circumstances, Zen decided that it would be best not to arouse her further by asking her if her question had been rhetorical.  He still had a job to do, and the General hated waiting.

       “Okay, okay,” the attorney surrendered without putting up a fight.

       Rinoa settled back, crossed her arms, and beamed triumphantly.

       “Just go sit on the bed quietly while I write it up,” he directed and pulled out a pen from his breast pocket.

       He found a piece of unused piece of leaf paper and was done scripting the deal before she could walk that far.  He bid her to turn around and walk back to the desk.

       “How does it look?” Zen solicited.

       “Perfect except you spelled my name wrong and the paper is lined,” she complained.

       He looked at how he wrote down her name: “Rinoa Caraway.”

       My mistake, he thought without feeling guilty.

       “But I didn’t draw any of them,” he argued, referring to the lines.

       “But there are lines on the page,” Rinoa pointed out stubbornly.

       “All sheets of paper have hundreds of lines running across them,” Zen shot back.  “That is how paper is made – with weaves.”

       “There are visible lines on this page,” she clarified for him.

       “Since when is it my fault that your vision is so poor that you cannot detect any lines on other types of paper?” he returned, becoming annoyed with her.

       Rinoa grumbled something too low for him to catch, so he went back to his business of shuffling papers.  She watched him sort through a few piles before she dared to ask him what he was doing.

       “My job is to look like I am busy,” he informed her without looking up.

       Rinoa’s dogged visage was evidence that he was not fooling anyone.

       “Let’s see if you have a future in modeling for still-life artists,” he told her, bidding her to stop moving and to be quiet.

       Behind his back, Rinoa made a face and caricatured the expression he was wearing when he made the reply.

       “I have all I needed to get from this room,” he notified her.  “Are you going to sign the contract or not?”

       Rinoa nodded fervently.  She swiftly stole the pen that he had replaced in his breast pocket and signed “Rinoa Heartilly” in the column left for her signature.

       “I’m keeping this,” Zen said, taking up the page and folding it to fit in his jacket pocket.  He also wrestled his pen from her kung-fu grasp.

       “Not so fast,” she blurted out, catching his elbow as he turned to leave.

       “What now?” he huffed, evidently jaded by her presence, voice, contact, and input.

       “I get to keep the contract,” she insisted, “until you buy me my double sundae.”

       “Well that isn’t fair,” he defended his position.  “This is my only guarantee that I will walk out of the room in peace.”

       Rinoa lifted an eyebrow, sensing a trick.

       “How about you keep one half and I keep the other half?” Zen proposed.

       Rinoa scoffed at his elementary scam disguised as a compromise.

       “No way!” she shouted.  “Tearing it in half would annul the contract altogether!  What do you take me for?”

       Sensing that it was another one of Rinoa’s rhetorical questions, Zen kept silent and handed the paper over to her.  She snatched it up in a flash like a mother chocobo would her baby chicobos when Selphie or Ellone came bounding onto their nesting grounds.

       “Now tell me what you’re doing,” she said.

       “Having the time of my life chatting with you at this great hour,” Zen replied, crossing his fingers.

       The look on Rinoa’s face told him to try again.

       “What does it look like I am doing?” Zen asked.  “I’m putting together some files for a case that needs our immediate attention.”

       “This late?” she checked him incredulously.

       “I could just be working very, very early this morning,” he suggested as an alternative.

       She did not believe a single world that came out of the lawyer’s mouth. 

       “What you are holding in your hand?” she inquired, looking down.

       Zen looked down at the papers that he was clasping with both hands.

       “I’m holding my other hand,” he replied.

       “What is that?” she rephrased, specifically tapping the other sheet of paper with her index finger.

       Zen was wearing a curious expression on his face when he replied condescendingly, “That, mistress of the obvious, would be your fingernail.”

       Rinoa lifted her index finger and scowled.  It was indeed her fingernail that lied at the tip of her finger.  A great rush of anger churned deep within her bowels, spitting up frothy embers that sizzled against the edge of her stomach.

       “What are those papers you are holding?” she rephrased, struggling to keep her voice down and her countenance ladylike.

       “They are confidential,” Zen trumped her.

       “To be held strictly between my client and myself,” he explained as if she could not possibly understand what he meant by the word “confidential.”

       “You and I both know that in your contract with my father, the client-consultant relationship extends to his immediate family or next of kin if there is no immediate family left,” Rinoa contended.  “Well, I am his only kin.”

       “Besides,” she added when he did not speak, “you promised my mother that you’d take care of me.  So tell me if I should be concerned with those pieces of paper.”

       “Do you have any physical proof that you are his daughter?” Zen debriefed her.

       “Don’t you see the uncanny resemblance?” Rinoa cooed, batting her lashes to accentuate her Bambi eyes.

       “Evidence inadmissible,” Zen judged, shaking his head.  “Members of the jury, please ignore the witness’ last statement.”

       “Objection!” Rinoa quipped, playing along just to spite him, “he is being a jerk.”

       “Objection,” Zen brushed her off, “an aim to strike.”

       “You got that right!” Rinoa growled, vacillating between which hand to use to strangle him.

       “Bailiff,” Zen declared coolly, “restrain her.”

       Rinoa dropped her fist and her façade of sweetness and screamed, “Stop being so difficult, uncle Zen!”

       Zen rolled his eyes and shifted his weight to his other leg before drawing out his documents and listing them off individually:

       “This one is our refutation of the electric company’s penal fees; this is the finalization order for the upgrade of the classification level of the Galbadian military’s telescope to ‘Highest Priority, Top Secret’; here is the record of your father’s executive decision to discontinue the annual funding for the Galbadian Astronomy Program eight days ago; this sheet has the totals for the net worth of all the stock he bought up in the last two weeks to gain control of the Deling City Planetarium and Observatory; here we have the totals for the net losses he suffered when they dropped; this next one is a recent fax from an old claimant whose suit against us we’d thought would go away but apparently has not; here we have a copy of you mother’s will with her clause for a trust fund to manage her money underlined; this is the report from intelligence on the present situation of each trustee on the board; this next page describes where your father stands financially, including property and secret assets; and this last one is so absurd that I won’t mention because, quite frankly, I do not think the aging hearts of this elderly Deling aristocracy can withstand a joke this good.  I have faith that it would garner many laughs at the dinner table over the years and cut many lives short via asphyxiation, not that there is anyone worth saving in our city’s financially elite class.”

       Not expecting him to fold so quickly, Rinoa listened attentively as her attorney identified each document.  From the gravity of his voice and the fact that he had hardly put up a fight, she could guess that it was bad news before he got through telling her about the entire stack.  By the time he had finished, she was near faint and had to hold on to back of the chair to keep herself from falling.

       Zen reached out to steady her but she shook his arm off.  The moment she caught her breath, she turned on him and reproached, “How could you not watch out for him for me?”

       “What are you talking about?” Zen returned, somewhat chaffed by how she recoiled.

       “Did you not think of warning him against any of this?” she pressed, clearly disappointed in her attorney.  “I mean, you could have advised him not to get into these messes.”

       Zen frowned and shot back, “It is my job to save him from legal hassles.  It is not my place to tell him what not to do.  He does what he wants and comes to me when he wants out and needs me to provide the avenue.  That’s my job!  I protect his ass, and yours!  And I am damned good at it!  If you wanted to keep him out of trouble in the first place, you should have hired a nurse or nanny.”

       “You are more than our lawyer, though,” Rinoa scolded softly, “you’re nearly family, too, uncle Zen, and family looks out for one another.”

       She placed a finger on him and gave him a rude push at the same time she emphasized the word “family.”

       “You’ve spent the last year organizing rebel movements against your father’s troops with his own money and you’re lecturing me on values?” Zen retorted.

       Rinoa’s expression dropped and she turned away.  She ended up gazing at the same, partially reflective window.  She fancied how the glass allowed her to see herself and what lied beyond simultaneously.  She saw through her mirror image and noticed that it was no longer raining on the other side.

       Am I that transparent? she reflected.

       Returning to Zen’s question, she mouthed sullenly, “That’s different.”

       “How is that different?” he demanded to know.

       She insisted, “Once a Timber Forest Owl, always a-“

       “Stubborn ox,” Zen inserted for her.

       Rinoa did not turn her gaze away from the window.  Instead, she just glowered at her likeness and grumbled, “Not exactly my choice of words.”

       “Hard-headed nonconformist?” Zen suggested, taking another stab.

       Rinoa could feel her fingers tightening in her fist.  She wanted to lash out.  She wanted to do something that she would regret doing.  She wanted to strangle him, but then she would have lost the game.  Rinoa calmed herself and willed herself to endure the humiliation.  It would all work out in the end and no one would have the advantage over anyone else.  She opened her eyes after a few deep breaths.

       “I’m not going to argue with you, Zen,” she told him seriously.  “Just fill me in on what I need to know and go.”

       The man was seemed elated yet concerned in equal amounts.  He never imagined that his little niece would try to throw him out, but, being familiar with her temper, he was a fool to not expect it.

       Does she have the right to know? he asked himself over and over again.

       He had given too much away already, and if Caraway were a less accommodating client, he could very well be disbarred by that evening.  He was also very fortunate that Caraway’s daughter was not clever enough to blackmail him into giving her the rest of the information by threatening to report him as having already given it all to her.  Like a tour guide who leads a band of tourists into a prohibited area and grows a conscience at the halfway mark, he was bound to pressured into taking them the rest of the way by the threat of a falsehood as damaging as the truth.  At that instant, as there was no other avenue open to Zen, he figured that he might as well tell the truth while its credibility was still intact.  All he had to consider now were the consequences of this unauthorized disclosure:  Disgrace; public ridicule; the loss of vocation; a stigma on his record; and exile from the professional order.

       Rinoa wanted so badly to give him a swift kick; he was taking way too long; he was even drawing out his blink for an extended amount of time.

       And all for what? Zen asked himself fiercely.  Was it something she needed to know?  Can’t I just not tell her?

       Each secret was a burden to keep in one’s house.  To introduce them to the domestic setting was to adopt a problem child.  To Caraway, it would be the type of child that he could not beat; in the end, it would beat him.  Unless I act now.  I might have saved someone.

       He sat down in the chair and adjusted his glasses.  He could not bring himself to divulge any more  What is honesty worth?

       Rinoa watched with interest as the lawyer loosened his tie and rubbed his temples.  This type of grand, moral deliberation was probably alien to him.  For the first time, she thought she saw that he was on the verge of telling him, and that he actually wanted to tell him.

       So what is holding him back? she wondered.  Fear?  Pride?  Selfishness?

       She wanted so badly to give him a hug for finally seeing the light.  Perhaps this was the last leg of the journey home for him.  Was it possible for a man to have gone too far out and seen too much?

       Every profession has a priceWhy does mine have to be my conscience? Zen pondered.

       His own thoughts resonated in his mind.  In the right ear rang, I might have saved someone, and in the left, What is honesty worth?

       Zen frowned.  Well, it’s worth who I am.

       Honesty was only worth as much as the next person could pay you to withhold it.  Its value was its price, and to sell out his own judgment was the cost of the job.  He had been bribed to deceive, bought up to be quiet.

       Your silence is golden, concluded Zen, if your employer can afford it.

       At that point, it all became clear; he was in the wrong, lurking in shadow of good pay.

       Well, of course it is good pay, he contemplated.  It is a good lot of secrets, too.

       So he was back to where he started.  His motives were not evil and neither was his person.  Yet, there was something missing – he could not be himself; he could not wholly be that person whom he wanted to be, unfettered and vociferous.  Suppressing himself – that was the tax that came with the job, and if cash was the perquisite, did it not logically follow that the purging of one’s ethics was a prerequisite?

       Knowing this now, how can I not tell her? he wondered.

       Rinoa curled her lips out to make a pouting face and drooped her eyes to match.

       Why does it feel so painful to do right? was his last thought.

       “Okay,” he muttered with a sigh, “let’s start with the electricity bill.”

       She jumped up in delight and let loose a small shriek.

       “Thank you, uncle Zen,” she whispered, giving him the king of hugs and the hug of kings, and she meant it.

       After he pried her arms off of his neck, he adjusted his spectacles and corrected her, “Doctor.”  Not uncle.

       Rinoa’s eyelids drooped in the most confounded, exasperated fashion; only Zen could ruin a moment so sweet with a single word and without resorting to any blasphemies.

       Zen coughed and held the bill out before all the other papers.

       “We are currently disputing with the local electric company over last month’s bill.  The term ended a few days ago, right after which we received the notice that we would be penalized for over-consumption.”

       “How did this happen?” Rinoa probed and then bit on her lower lip while she waited for the answer.

       “First of all,” her attorney elucidated, “their figures seem way off from what our meters have recorded.  I have walked over this estate three times since and I have not seen any industrial machinery nor witnessed your father call in a group of men to haul over and install any bulky, metal apparatuses.”

       “What makes you think he would need to hire extra manpower?” Rinoa asked.  “Wouldn’t the servants have been enough.”

       “From the figure that the company claims was our true total wattage-time,” Zen said grimly, “it would take a full of factory assembly lines to expend that amount of energy.”

       “So just question the servants behind my father’s back,” she suggested.

       “They witnessed nothing,” Zen replied.  Being one step ahead of her, he had naturally already executed the interrogation.

       “Can you just have the electric company send an investigation team to check out our meter?” posed Rinoa.

       “They would just allege that we had deliberately sabotaged the gage,” he responded.

       Rinoa frowned hugged herself more tightly.  She was running out of ideas.

       “You don’t know the half of it,” the lawyer continued.  “The main issue is not the hourly rate, but the fixed monthly cost that the company is upping with an added penalty fee.”

       “Come again?” Rinoa requested.

       “The owner of each sector has to overestimate the maximum amount of electricity he plans to use that month to avoid having to pay the heavy tax for going over this limit,” Zen explicated.

       “Does the entire sector split the hourly rate as well?” Rinoa inquired.

       Zen shook his head.

       “No, what everyone else uses is their business,” he replied.

       “So what is wrong with splitting just the fixed cost one to three?” she asked, knowing that their land took up a quarter of the land marked within the sector boundaries.

       “The fixed cost also varies depending on the total hours used,” Zen explained.  “After a breaking a certain number of hours, the sector has to upgrade its energy package to one of higher cost.  Since we had no part in using the excessive amount of electricity needed to push the fixed cost up to the next payment level, we have no intention of paying a fourth of the new price; rather we want to see our part of the bill adjusted back to what it was before the fixed cost rose.”

       “It doesn’t seem like an unsolvable probl-” Rinoa remarked.

       “The problem,” Zen cut in, “is that the rest of the sector is using the same excuse and denying the charges of using enough power to run an underwater factory.”

       Rinoa nodded, slowly seeing the light.

       “Furthermore,” the lawyer added, “they do not want to pay any part of the huge penalty fee.”

       “What are you going to do about it?” Rinoa asked plainly.

       Zen frowned.

       “You’re just like your father,” he scoffed.  “Why not just call in the legal remedy as soon as something goes wrong and let him handle it?”

       “Well?” Rinoa repeated, impatiently tapping her feet against the floor.  “What are you going to do?”

       “Lie, cheat, and shift the blame,” he replied bitterly.

       Rinoa threw up her hands from their crossed position and rolled her eyes.

       “Whatever,” she said, seriously getting tired of his incessant string of complaints.  You whine too much.

       Zen shrugged and moved on to next document.

       “This is the army’s telescope,” he explained to her, “but it is about to become his.”

       Rinoa took the page up in her hands and studied the diagram of the telescope carefully.

       “After this last order goes through,” Zen continued, “to get in and operate it will take more clearance than a second-hand book store can offer during a liquidation sale.”

       “Why would he go do that?” she asked.

       “Now that would be ‘Top-Secret’,” he replied in a patronizing voice.

       Surprisingly enough, Rinoa did not react to the jibe.  Instead she scratched her head and made a face of fierce contemplation but entertained no great theories in the end.  Hesitantly she pointed at the next piece of paper and gestured for him to go on.

       “This is how you curb the efforts of the largest non-profit organization in the country to study the stars,” the lawyer lectured, “by discontinuing your fiscal donations during the grant renewal period.”

       “That is no surprise,” Rinoa quipped, “seeing how Caraway has no penchant for either charities or for the humanities.”

        Zen snickered and flipped to the next page.  The subject at hand was still a mystery to him.

       After skimming over it, Rinoa incredulously sought his confirmation on whether or not her father actually spent a large percentage of the family wealth to buy up a staggering percentage of stock of the corporation that subsidizes the Deling City Planetarium and Observatory.”

       “What were the projected returns?” she questioned.

       Zen checked his logs before coming up with the answer, “At the time, the predicted probable return was negative.”

       “He bought high?” Rinoa asked in disbelief.

       “Yes,” the attorney affirmed.

       “That is completely irrational,” said Rinoa, stressing the adverb.

       “It’s in the genes,” Zen remarked decisively.

       She slugged him.  Jerk.

       “Seriously,” she probed, “what would motivate him to do that?”

       “I have no idea but do not go and ask him!” he replied.

       Rinoa alternated between sucking on her thumb and biting on her nail, trying to make sense of the situation and find at least one point that could offer some optimism.  So he bought high, but at least he hasn’t sold low.

       “Just tell me one thing,“ Rinoa pleaded with Zen, her eyes betraying her nervousness.

       Zen waited sullenly for her to verbalize the ineffable – ineffable because it was unthinkable.

       “…are we in danger of going broke?” she finished her question.

       “Your father is flirting with bankruptcy, yes,” her lawyer could confirm for her.

       Rinoa’s face fell and the brightness about her dimmed a shade.

       “How could you let this happen?” she cried pitiably as she buried her face in her hands.

       “Must I remind you that I am not his financial planner, economic advisor, or debt relief,” Zen differentiated stolidly, “I am his legal remedy.”

       Rinoa looked up and glared at him with a hardened countenance.

       “Besides,” Zen rationalized, “no one could predict that his shares would plummet so drastically after the President’s assassination.  Are you going to pin that on me when the entire Galbadian stock market is suffering?”

       With Galbadia’s people coming loose and systems falling apart, Timber’s resistance factions could probably take on the government alone, as in without the help of SeeD.  I’ll have to bring this up with Squall when I see him again.

       “That couldn’t be because some sorceress staged a coup in the capital city, could it?” Rinoa growled her retort spitefully.

       “Are you mad at me or the sorceress?” Zen rejoined angrily.

       He held up his hands and added, “I’m not the one in cahoots with Edea or her SeeDs.”

       After a second had passed, he linked the implicit affront with, “Take care not to try the same thing.”

       Her lower lip quivered, her heart faltered, and she felt the blood drain from her face.  Now that was not fair!

       He had just reminded her that she was new sorceress – the bringer of the plague; the demagogic inspiration of political unrest; and apparently the instigator of economic upset as well.

       Rinoa felt her knees wobble so she quickly took a seat on the mattress and hugged the bedpost for support.  Oh Squall!  Where are you?  I’m scared.

       Her despondent expression and equally dismal posture were inadequate in communicating to what degree of desperation her spirit was screaming, I’m so scared!  I need you!

       Zen seemed to sense at least a iota of her heartrending sentiment, and his features relaxed into an appearance look indicative of the guilty and apologetic feelings that had seized him.

       “No, it’s not your fault either,” he admitted, “but you should not be so harsh on your father.”

       Rinoa wiped away a tear with the back of her hand and raised a questioning eyebrow.

       “A large part of this financial crisis stems from your mother,” Zen informed her.  “She is the root of the problem that he now faces.”

       Rinoa was at a loss for words; she had not expected this turn of events, but now, having been met by them, she sought clarification.

       “You might find this hard to believe,” he spoke, “but six years after Julia’s song “Eyes on Me” topped the charts, your house fell to a barrage of legal hassles.”

       “Which is why you began showing up more and more,” Rinoa inferred.  I was about to be five years old at the time.

       The lawyer nodded and said, “As you can imagine, the entire workload was left to me after your mother passed.”

       “You mentioned the song, which means she was being sued for breaching copyright and stealing the lyrics and score from someone else,” Rinoa speculated further.

       “Investigated, not sued,” Zen corrected though noticeably impressed by her deductive capabilities.  “I managed to keep them from ever going public by threatening to counter-sue for libel if they did not win the case, and by feeding them ideas about a good bargain if they entertained the idea of a quiet settlement.”

       “How much did we lose in the settlement?” Rinoa asked curiously.  Was I exactly five or just five give or take a few months?

       Zen looked slightly annoyed.

       “I never had to settle so you lost nothing,” he bragged.  “How incompetent do you think I am, Rinoa?”

       “It’s been over a decade since and I have never gotten wind of it until now!” Rinoa exclaimed.  “How does a case like this just disappear?”

       “During the mediation sessions they could not produce the original notes and authenticate their claim of composing song,” Zen explained.  “They could not take us to court or I would go through with the counter-suit for the damage that would have done to your mother’s public, celebrity image.”

       After a moment of silence, Rinoa inquired, “Who was the plaintiff?”

       “A certain Lady Wong,” answered Zen, “who still is the plaintiff.”

       “Can you do anything to help my mother this time?” Rinoa pursued.  I was probably no older than five.

       “Not without her notes,” he professed.  “Right now we have no case so the General is standing to lose a lot.”

       Rinoa blinked.

       “Wait a minute,” she told him.  “Are you telling me that you lost the original drafts of the lyrics and music sheets, or that we never had them?”

       Zen deliberately grinned like a twit and held up two fingers, thus indicating that her second guess was right on the money.

       “I bluffed them twelve or thirteen years back into believing that we had our own set,” her attorney confessed proudly.

       “But they are suing us now,” Rinoa reminded him.  I was five at the time.

       “They must have found their notes,” Zen concluded with a shrug.

       How can you be so calm about this? she wondered furiously.

       “How much is ‘a lot’?” Rinoa asked through her glare, backtracking to the figure that Zen had estimated her father would lose.

       “Everything; complete; wholly; all; entire; total,” he replied, not mincing any words.

       As if she could not possibly fathom what any of those synonyms meant, he added, “A man does not recover from a fall like this.”   

       “Where did my mother say she saw her notes last?” Rinoa inquired.

       “She claimed wrote everything in her diary,” he replied.

       “Where did she last see her diary lying around?” she queried further.

       Zen shrugged and responded, “She never told us.  She just said that she lost it.”

       “That is so sad,” Rinoa assessed glumly.

       “Julia was a very tender girl,” Zen recalled.  “The allegations came at a very inopportune time.  I suspect that the embarrassment from the charges, true or not, drove her to, uh, take her own, er-“

       “Whatever,” Rinoa dismissed icily, easily picking up what he was getting at.  Caraway drove my mother to where she is now, not some stupid accusations.  Hell, he only married her the year she released her song and was propelled into stardom, so why would he bother keeping her around if she lost both her money and her image?  He probably ended her himself.  I had just turned five then.

       “Can Lady Wong sue for more than my mother made in record and CD sales?” she wanted to know.

       “Of course not,” Zen replied.

       “Then why is Caraway in danger of losing all of his property?” Rinoa returned.

       “Because he does not have access to any of your mother’s money,” was the answer.

       “Do you mean he has no control over it or do you mean he has no idea where it is?” she asked.

       Zen scratched his nose and muttered, “Both.”

       Rinoa squinted and tried to figure out how it was possible for him to not only cede the managerial authority of his late wife’s earnings, but to completely lose track of the sum itself.

       “For some reason that she never disclosed to any of us,” the attorney illuminated for her, “Julia put all of her money in a trust fund to be managed by a board of ten trustees.”

       “I am assuming that my mother did this before her wedding,” Rinoa guessed.

       “Eight days before she was to be married to Captain Caraway,” Zen was able to confirm with a nod.

       “So who are these fellows?” she inquired.

       Zen handed her a list with ten names set in one column and ten distinct dates set in the other.

       “I don’t recognize any of these surnames,” Rinoa commented.  “Where did these people come from if they’re not from Galbadia?”

       “Esthar,” Zen responded evenly, “all ten of them.”

       Even Rinoa caught the mistrust in his voice.

       “Do they know where the money is?” she followed up.

       “If not them, who else would?” Zen shot back.

       She decided that his remark was more worrisome than reassuring.  Suddenly she noticed the paper’s heading.  It bore an insignia with which she was all too familiar.  Rinoa stared up in shock.

       “What are their names doing on a Galbadian police report?” she demanded.

       “This is classified information that we pulled off the Esthar Interpol over a decade ago,” Zen told her.  “It is a missing person’s report, or missing people’s report in this case.”

       Unable to arrange any of her own jumbled thoughts into a coherent message, Rinoa was grateful when Zen finally spoke her mind for her, “The money seems to have vanished completely.”

       “Is there any other person who might know about its whereabouts?” she tried to solicit again.

       Zen cast a sideways glance at her before suggesting, “Your mother.”

       “My mother,” Rinoa repeated resignedly.  I was passing my fifth birthday.  It was my birthday when she left me.

       Rinoa closed her eyes, unlocking from the oubliette the thoughts that she had forsworn of thinking about ever again.  She had gotten into a car and crashed into a tree on my birthday.  They must have just had a big fight.  She was really upset.  I was only five then, but I still remember the last words she ever said to me.

       Opening her eyes, Rinoa pressed suddenly, “Do you believe her?”  Damn the father.

       “What is that supposed to mean?” Zen returned.  The hell?

       “Do you think she was telling the truth?” she rephrased for him.  Damn the father.

       Zen put his hands up and shook his head.  Oh no she didn’t.

       “Oh no you don’t,” he told her, “I refuse to get drawn into this discussion with you.”

       “Yes or no?” Rinoa urged.  “One syllable is all you have to muster.”  Damn him.

       “What part of my job description have you not been able to understand?” he asked exasperatedly.

       “The entire freaking thing!” Rinoa shouted, unable to keep a ladylike lid on her frustration any longer.  “How can you completely ignore the truth about those whom you defend?  Moreover, how can you ignore your own judgments?”

       Why do I always have to decide? Zen wondered.  Why do I get all the hard decisions?

       “It is not my job to decide what is truth of not,” he managed to grunt, “the jury does that!”

       Self-evaluation should be left to the philosophers, and he was no philosopher.  He knew that much.  He was a lawyer who wanted to keep things simple.

       “I don’t care what you do for a living; it is your job to be honest to yourself!” she screamed back.

       “I only fabricate the truth,” he insisted. “The jury decides what they want to believe.”

       In the end, “right” and “wrong” are just labels.  One sign was as good as the other.

       “Truth can’t be fabricated; only lies can,” Rinoa objected.

       “I think you are confusing my duties with the agenda of a politician,” Zen sneered.  “They get paid to tell the opposite of what they are thinking.  I don’t even get paid to tell what I think.”

       “Then you can’t even be true to yourself,” she scoffed in return.  “How can you fabricate something out of materials that you don’t have?”

       “What are you trying to say?” Zen demanded to know.  “That I can’t be honest to myself?”

       “I think you’ve been lying to yourself the whole time,” Rinoa hissed while looking at him straight in the eye.

       “Then why do you even what to know what I think?” he snapped.

       “Because I want to hear your opinion, not your presentation,” she explained earnestly to justify her request.

       “Why does it matter?” Zen asked.

       “Because it is important,” she stated firmly.

       Well that makes one of us, the man decided.

       “No it is not,” he pronounced and began to gather his belongings together so he could leave.  She had wasted enough of his time and the bill to her father would reflect it.

       Why can’t they help themselves these days? he asked himself exasperatedly.  Why do I always have to help them?

       Were it in his power to have the entire occupation retired for good, it would have been accomplished.  It never failed – whether it was about decision-making or problem solving, whenever he had a moment to spare for himself, there was always another voice crying out and appealing for his help.  Did it ever occur to anyone else that he might not enjoy saving them as much as they liked being saved?  Did they ever consider that he might have better things to do?  That he might want to live his own life and not be responsible for everyone else?

       “No, uncle Zen,” she insisted, catching his wrist as the first traces of tears formed in her eyes, “it is to me.  I need to know.”

       Please answer me, she yearned inside.

       Something about how strained her voice sounded made him pause and take pity on her.  The shift in attitude was gradual.  After a few moments, his ominously-arched eyebrows had drooped to a fairly approachable level.

       She is just a girl after all, Zen, he kept telling himself.

       Zen sighed and craned his neck back to look at the ivory ceiling panels.  And she needs to know.

       He looked back at her and nodded.  Yes, I believe your mother was telling the truth.

       Having admitted his true opinion, for which he felt slightly disoriented, Zen packed the papers in his bag and turned to leave.

       “Not so fast,” Rinoa’s stern voice checked him.

       Zen’s muscles tensed and he gritted his teeth.

       “I want a kiss first,” she demanded and arched her eyebrows like she meant it.

       Zen frowned a very serious frown.  If he was lucky, she would not resort to setting her hands on her hips and manifest what he considered to be the epitome of obstinate stances.

       In response, Rinoa gave him one of her nastiest looks before transforming herself back into a smiling, little angel and then leaned forward to receive his kiss.

       He sighed and grudgingly pecked her on the forehead.

       “See?” Rinoa said.  “That wasn’t so bad now was it?”

       “I think I’m going to have to borrow some of your father’s mouthwash,” the other replied, wiping his mouth disgustedly on the sleeve of his coat.  Then he turned away from the stunned girl and walked towards the exit.  After taking a few steps in that direction, he halted.

       “Does your father strike you as a religious man?” Zen inquired randomly, not taking the time to turn around and face her.

       “Not really,” Rinoa replied, not yet recuperated from his previous slur.  When he strikes me, he is military man with a bat.  All soldier, no father.

       “Why do you ask?” she added verbally once she began thinking straight.

       Zen either did not hear the latter part of her sentence or forgot to answer because he merely returned, “I didn’t think so either.”

       He shrugged and walked the remaining distance to the door.

       “Are you trying to be cryptic?” she reproached, her innards beginning to boil.

       “No,” he answered with an exaggerated, sardonic nod.

       “Why do you have to be so difficult?” Rinoa carped.  “I can’t ever talk to you!”

       “It must be the language barrier,” he suggested dryly.  If she could not catch the exorbitant amount of sarcasm in his voice, then he might have to train Angelo to speak English and converse with the pet in her stead, in the event that he found himself seeking a decent conversation.

       Before she could respond, he had opened the door, stepped through it, and shut it again.

       “Come to the kitchen when you’re hungry,” he called to her from the outside, audibly locking the door.  “I’ll leave the key right out here.”

       He did that on purpose! she realized, giving out a miffed gasp.

       Rinoa stomped the ground with her bare feet, dismissing the caution she usually took to avoid stubbing her toes.  Without the protection offered by the shoes she longer possessed, having discharged them out the window at Dabel and Cary Kay’s heads, jamming some of the joints was inevitable.

       That infuriating, impossible man! she fumed, too incensed to heed the throbbing in her foot.

       She reached for something to hurl at the door.  Without her realizing it, her hands were already gravitating towards the General’s desk.  The first thing Rinoa got her hands on was The Psychology of the Galbadian Justice System.  She noted how aerodynamic the publisher had designed it to be as it whistled through the air.  Unfortunately it veered left at the last minute and missed the door completely.

       She was not through yet, or, rather, she did not want to be through yet.  There had to more options available to her; her pockets might very well afford her some keys, loose change, or other metallic trinkets.

       But Rinoa did not have pockets, nor had she any keys to her house.  The latter deficit was due wholly to the fact that walking back through the front door of Caraway’s mansion had never been a lifelong dream of hers; rather, her goal had been more like the opposite.  As for loose change, without the pocket, it was another impossibility.  All she had was her father’s credit card tucked neatly between her skin and her skirt, but even Rinoa knew that it would reach its terminal velocity and decelerate long before it could even reach the door.  She would be better off just throwing a feather in his direction.

       Her shoes!  Rinoa lifted her leg to strip it.

       Crap!  she cursed silently.  No shoes!  Diablos take Cary Kay for making me throw them at her!

       The surrogate projectile turned out to be a silver-plated marble paperweight that the Farnam Metalwork Industries awarded him for saving one of their factories from a fire when he was young.  It landed in trashcan two feet off to the right of where she had intended to launch it.

       It was still not enough.  The torch within her was unappeased and demanded yet another sacrifice.  The evil, evil lawyer had badmouthed her and she was not happy about it.  She had to break something to redeem herself.  It would make her feel better, and therefore she had every right to break something.  It made perfect sense to her so it should definitely make perfect sense to everyone else.  Anyone who did not see that she was justified for her every action, well, she would break them too.

       The tabletop furnished her with a green cigarette pack next.  Her father’s, she presumed.  From how quickly it had taken Squall to take a liking to smoking them, she guessed that they were highly addictive – possibly more addictive than love.

       She sighed sadly.  She had not minded that he smoked.  The odor was a small price to pay to be within arm’s length of him.  She hardly minded whatever nuisances he could devise anymore, and if he told her that he would never see her again if she did not start smoking herself, then she would do it.  Anything was better than the complete deprivation of his company.  A little stench and mist was insignificant.  But if only he would raise her to his lips and drink her in as deeply as he did with his smokes.  She craved just that little bit of attention, but apparently they had her beat.  He had fallen in love with them and they could go by his side wherever he ventured.

       She had never thought to equate them to compact, convenient, portable packets of Squall’s love before.  Rinoa blinked, realizing that Squall had never picked up anything faster in his life.  That made her jealous, which meant she and the Malboro case were enemies.  Her new relationship with the cigarette pack gave her the drive she needed to fling it towards the doorway.

       Rinoa looked around frantically for another shell to catapult.  She had nothing with which to work and the easy chair was too heavy for her to lift, yet she could not just stand there and watch her father’s stupid lawyer get away with vilifying her in every way possible.  The zero and three count for her aim simply would not stand.

       The insufferable fiend!  He is not going to get away with it.

       She promised herself that vindication would be hers or she would never rest.  With that mentality, she picked up the only thing in the room that was not bolted down and was not too heavy for her to lift, and threw it against the door – herself.  In her moment of madness, she was convinced that Rinoa the wrecking ball was a sound idea and the key to solving all of her problems.

       Even before she slammed into the door, though. she came to her senses.  Too late she drew her arms up to cushion the force of the collision, recalling to mind the density, tensile force, index of ductility, ultimate force, and miscellaneous facts pertaining to the structural integrity of oak that she learned from the home carpentry workshops customary of Trinity School for Ladies of Galbadia Thursdays.  Most importantly, she remembered that the hinges were on her side of the door, making it that much harder for her to successfully break the door down.  Quite the opposite of her hopes, the door broke her velocity and sent her to the floor with a muffled cry.  The furniture in the room jarred slightly at impact but the sturdy wooden portal persevered.

       Aside from the bruises on her hands and knees, Rinoa had garnered a nasty bruise on her forehead.  However, face down in the grimy carpet fuzz, she had no time to distress or agonize about the contusion or how it pulsated – the darkness seized her almost immediately and led her off into the world of dreams.

       She had collapsed onto something hard.  It was a fairly uncomfortable feeling – one that fell between the classifications of itchy and disgusting.  Her mouth and nose was replete with it.  Whatever the material, she was willing to wager all the clothes on her back without even blinking that it was direly filthy and would take more than three extra-strength, full-body lather and rinse cycles to purge from her skin and extricate from her hair.  As for the actual blinking itself, she dared not even open her eyes.

       She wanted to cry.  After taking such good care of herself and responsibly restricting her diet, she was about to lose it all because of this grunge!  How could anyone expect her to meet Squall face to face like that?  Squall would never have it; the fair skin, the perfume, the softness, the smoothness – they all mattered to him.  How could she have been so clumsy, trying to throw herself through the door without a contingency plan for a soft landing?

       No, wait, she caught herself in recognition of the feeling she felt when she hit the floor, I’m still here, aren’t I?  Is this a dream?

       Even as she asked herself that question, she was startled by a new revelation that ran full tilt into her: The thought had been hers, but the voice in her head had been different.  It was hoarse, masculine, deep, but insecure.  So she was not lying in her father’s room that the for the past decade.  She was lying somewhere else.

       She was also lying in something else altogether.  Sand was a good guess.  There was also some salt present.  Salty sand – that was what she was taking a bath in.  If she did not move soon, it would take all the moisture out of her face and leave her as wrinkled as a dried raisin undergoing accelerated aging.

       Rinoa began to cry; she did not want to be a senior-citizen prune.

       Try as she might though, not a single drop came out.  It was more frustrating to not be able to cry than to be forced to cry.  How she had no control over her tears was a mystery to her before she realized that she was no longer herself.  Their experiences were tantamount but she could only witness what he did.

       In a phrase, she was locked into the point where vicarious and palpable sensations met.

       He did not seem to mind the sand a hundredth of a percent as much.  Quite the contrary, he seemed almost relieved to feel it resting against his skin; the swim back had been much more tiring and infinitely less exhilarating than his shoving off.

       Land…land! he rejoiced in his heart, for he had returned to its side in one piece.

       At last he was home.  It did not matter that he was drenched, cold, and shivering, so long as he was out of harm’s reach and secure in the arms of heaven-graced deliverance.

       Finally able to lay his tired limbs to rest, he grunted, “Arrrgh,” and grew still.

       The darkness seized him almost immediately, after which Rinoa saw no more.

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Jeremy's Scribbles:

I would appreciate your reviews for this chapter so I can see what you are thinking or feeling, so as better to go back and make corrections for other readers if I see that everyone is stumbling between the same two chapters.  Also, if you catch any spelling or grammar mistakes, would you please notify me via email so that I may correct them as soon as possible?  Thanks in advance.

Setting 18

Jeremy Chapter's Fanfiction