Hope Keeps Love Alive
[02.02.00] » by Tamzen Marie Baker
Author's notes: This story is dedicated to my best friends -- Lisa, Jeremy & Clara -- with very special thanks going out to Alexis for giving me the title for the piece. I have no idea what made me think of this, but it seemed to be a story waiting to be told.
The last rowdy group of soldiers let the door of the lounge slam behind them, rattling the bottles against the wall, and the bartender shook his head, slowly cleaning off a beer mug with his white rag. Only two mugs were broken tonight, not nearly as bad as usual. He smiled down at the woman sitting at the piano and watched as she glanced at the clock for the third time in the last ten minutes. "Miss Heartilly, you can go back to your room if you'd like. We're not likely to get anymore customers at this late hour."
Julia looked up as if his voice had startled her out of another world and smiled sadly. "Thanks, Jarric, but it's not that..." She turned to gaze for a moment at the table in the back, along the wall, where he always sat. "I was just hoping someone would stop by tonight.... but maybe he'll be by tomorrow."
"Always dangerous to have a thing for them solider boys, Miss Heartilly," Jarric replied with a sad smile of his own. "Never know when Galbadia's gonna cart 'em off somewhere else. If it wasn't for taking care of my family, I'm sure they would have drafted me by now. Maybe they will anyway, who knows." Julia sighed, only half-paying attention to his words, and he turned his back to line up a row of glasses in the cabinet against the wall.
I don't know what to call it, really...but I keep hoping night after night that he'll return...that he'll sit in that seat in the corner with his friends and gaze at me with those shining eyes of his... Julia stood, closing the lid to the piano, lowering the raised top carefully, and running her hands against the smooth and polished black wood. Every night was the same song...maybe different faces, different requests...but still the same empty-hearted monotony. Sometimes even the music wasn't enough anymore, especially in the last week...
Climbing the stairs to her room, Julia counted the days in her head. It really is nearly a week... She didn't realize how much she'd been accustomed to his presence that she noticed it so harshly when he wasn't there. Locking her door behind her, she pulled off her favorite red dress and slipped on a long white satin slip. Her own reflection seemed tired and worn in the mirror and she ran a brush through her shoulder length hair before falling back on the still-made bed with yet another sigh. Was it only six nights ago we had that unique and heart warming "talk"...? It's not even that he was at the lounge every night...but when he's been gone for so many days without word...I miss his smile, his warmth...I don't even know what his new orders were or when he'll return... Blinking back a tear, Julia closed her eyes and let her mind drift back to that night.
The last chord of the song resonated through the noisy lounge and Julia closed her eyes, letting her hands rest on the ivory keys for just a few seconds longer than she needed to. Opening her eyes she was startled yet sincerely pleased to see the young Galbadian solider standing at the foot of the steps to the stage. She smiled invitingly, and he took a step closer, smiling back, then suddenly winced and limped his way back to his table. Julia watched with amusement from her seat at the piano, as his friends seemed to tease him at his return. Somehow the shyness would seem unappealing on most men, but with him, it just makes him more endearing... On sudden impulse she rose from her bench and made her way over to the table where the three often sat, and upon noticing her coming, his two friends made a hasty exit.
Laguna jumped up and whirled to face her, apparently startled by her arrival, and she smiled. "Aaaa..." Julia restrained a laugh as he limped over to allow her room.
"Did I interrupt anything?" she questioned, stepping closer.
"N-N-N-Not at all," he stuttered, folding his hands behind his back. "P-Please, s-sit down." He helped himself to a seat, and Julia finally couldn't help but laugh at the terrified expression on his face as she sat down beside him.
"You ok now?" she said gently, smiling once again. He's so adorable when he gets nervous...
"Kind of..." he said softly, directing his gaze to the floor.
"How's your leg?" she teased.
Laguna looked up, startled yet again. "L-Leg? Oh, this!? Y-Yeah, it's fine. Happens all the time when I get nervous." He coughed, a small blush tickling his face.
I could just give him a big hug right here in front of everyone...but he'd probably drop dead from shock! "Were you nervous?" she asked, already knowing the answer.
"Oh, yeah. I'm still kinda," he replied, finally looking up at her with half a grin.
"You can relax. You don't have to get nervous around me." If only you knew how nervous I feel around you...
"Oh, sorry..." he replied, his gaze returning to the floor.
This is going nowhere fast... "Say..." she said, leaning a little closer and dropping her voice to a whisper. "Would you like to talk somewhere private? I have a room here..." She didn't mean it to sound suggestive, but even her straight face couldn't hide to subtle lilt in her voice.
"I-In your room?" Laguna hissed, jumping up in alarm.
Julia blushed this time, turning her face away to avoid his eyes, knowing she would either laugh or lean over and kiss him if she didn't. "Well...it's pretty hard to talk freely here. Everyone's listening in. If you'd like to, please come by. I've been wanting to talk to you...you don't want to?" She turned back to look at his puzzled expression.
"Of course I do!"
"Then I'll go ahead and wait for you. Ask for my room at the front desk, ok?" With one last smile she rose and climbed the stairs out of the lounge, heading immediately for her room. As she closed the door behind her she breathed a sigh of relief. Please come, please come... She turned to survey her tidy room, and then sat down on the bed, hands clasped together, unable to do anything constructive.
Every time I see him sitting there smiling at me...it's as if I'm all he sees, as if I'm playing just for him...what secrets, what emotions do those shining gray-green eyes hold? A knock at the door made her jump and she rose quickly to answer it, trying her best to calm herself down. "Thanks for coming," she said softly, closing the door behind him.
"No....not at all, uh...thank you for inviting me."
"Have a seat," she offered. Laguna nodded and crossed to sit on the bed, then with a second thought, jumped up and sat in a chair. A moment later he jumped up from that too, and stood there awkwardly as Julia brought her hand to her mouth, unable to stifle her laughter. He walked towards her with yet another embarrassed expression and she looked up at him with curious eyes. "Going so soon?"
Laguna stepped back with a shake of his head. "No, it's not that. It's just that I'm a big fan of yours, so I'm really kinda nervous, y'know?"
"So that's why you come to hear me play so often..." she mused out loud. Laguna jumped and Julia groaned inwardly. What other reason would he have to come see you, dummy...
"You...You saw me?" he said incredulously, back stepping across the room. He began to pace back and forth across the small space and Julia frantically tried to think of something to remedy his distress.
Speak the truth...a voice seemed to echo in her head as she gazed at her reflection in the mirror. "You were always smiling while listening, right?" she began softly, catching his attention. "You have such beautiful eyes...though they look a bit scared now." Laguna turned to look at her and Julia let herself drink in their mesmerizing green-gray color... "I just want to talk, gazing into those eyes," she murmured, turning away. Realizing how that last phrase had sounded, she abruptly changed the subject. "Would you like something to drink? Wine perhaps?"
"I must be dreamin'..." Laguna muttered slowly, coming to her side to take the glass she handed him. Julia simply smiled and poured them each a glass of the warm, rich Port.
As it turned out, a glass of wine was all that was needed to loosen Laguna up, and Julia cheerfully listened as tales of his adventures spilled out in his sweet baritone voice.
"Yeah, I don't like fightin' too much, but you get to travel, y'know? Seeing new places and stuff. And it's fun, 'cause Kiros and Ward are always with me. Hey, we should all go out drinkin' some time! Whaddya say?"
Julia laughed inwardly, wondering what more than a single glass of wine might do to him. But it would be fun...to get out and do something instead of always being alone...
"And, uh...what was I talkin' about? Oh yeah, so I want to quit the army and become a journalist! So I can tell people 'bout all the things I've seen in my travels. So, like, the other day, one of my articles made the reader's column. Pretty cool, huh?" Laguna was so absorbed in his story that he failed to notice Julia's far off gaze. "Yeah, that was way cool..."
"I'm happy for you," Julia said with a slow nod, letting her thoughts drift off as she listened to Laguna's voice. I wonder what it would be like...to go for a walk in the meadows...holding hands...something romantic...if I could spend hours upon hours just gazing into those eyes... Julia sighed to herself, smiling, and let the lilting melody of her latest composition drift into her mind. Will I ever find the words to express the feelings of my heart...to show the world I'm more than just a pretty face, a pretty dress?
"Yikes, I'm talkin' too much again," Laguna grinned down at Julia, startling her out of her reverie.
"Yes?" she said, smiling back, happy that he'd warmed up to her company.
"Tell me about yourself," he requested suddenly and seriously. "Like...your dreams for the future."
The future...? I'm not often sure I've reconciled the present enough to start thinking about the future... Julia stood and walked towards the window, letting Laguna follow her as she looked out. She always found herself gazing out of windows when deep in thought. "I...I want to sing," she confessed softly. "Not just play the piano, but sing too."
"Oh, I'd really love to hear it."
"But I can't," she said, shaking her head. "I'm no good at writing lyrics." I can't find words to express my emotions the same way I can find melodies to...
Laguna crossed to the opposite side of the room, folding his arms across his chest in thought. "Hmm....that must be tough..."
It seems a little less tough whenever you're around...whenever you have your beautiful eyes on me...just keep your eyes on me... She turned to look at Laguna, a smile painting her face. "But, thanks to you, I think I can come up with something."
"Thanks to me?"
"Yes...the many faces you've shown me." Julia walked closer, to stand face to face with him, the words suddenly tumbling out of her. "Times when you were hurt, worried...or felt pain deep inside you.... your smile, your face, your eyes...you've shown me something...I think I can come up with a song." Or at least find a way to start...I feel like I could do anything as long as I know you believe in me...
Laguna waved his hand in front of his face with a laugh. "Wow...I must be dreamin'..."
Julia stepped closer and took his hands in hers, looking up at him earnestly. "It's not a dream, is it?" There was silence for a moment and then a sharp knock sounded at the door.
"Laguna! New orders! Meet by the Presidential Residence, on the double!"
Not now...just when we were feeling a connection..."Can we meet again?" she said, letting go of his hands.
"Of course! I have to come hear you sing!" He grinned impishly, and on impulse, Julia stood on tiptoe to kiss him softly on the cheek.
"Please let me know, if you can, when you'll be back..."
Maybe he realized it was just a fluke, just an imagination, that connection... Julia rolled over and looked at her clock - 3 AM. With a sigh she sat up, giving up on sleeping and moving to grab paper and a pencil from the top drawer of her dresser. She sat down at the little table in her room, one hand twirling a piece of her chestnut colored hair around her finger. Even being on stage is not the same without you there smiling at me, Laguna...
Without really thinking she pressed her pencil to the page and started to write. "Whenever sang my songs...on this stage...on my own..." she whispered to herself as she wrote. Tears welled up in her eyes, but she made herself continue. "Whenever said my words, wishing they would be heard...I saw you smiling at me...was it real or just my fantasy? You'd always be there in the corner of this tiny little bar..."
A knock at the door caused her to drop the pencil and jump to her feet, furiously wiping away the few tears in her eyes. Who would be knocking at my door at this hour? She padded over to it in her bare feet, not even bothering to throw her robe on over her satin slip, and opened it cautiously. "I must be dreaming..." she whispered, her eyes incredulous.
"Can I come in?" he whispered, eyes darting back and forth across the empty hallway. Julia quickly let him in, noticing that he wasn't in his soldier garb, and locked the door behind them.
"I'd be lying if I said I wasn't surprised," she finally said after they'd stared at each other in silence for a few moments. "What are you doing here in the middle of the night?"
Laguna took a deep breath, pacing back and forth across Julia's room as she took a seat at the edge of her bed. Finally he stopped and turned to look at her, the words spilling out. "Reassigned! We've been in a special training for the last week, leaving tomorrow for somewhere, and we agreed, the three of us, me an' Kiros an' Ward, that is, that after this we're gettin' out...can't take it anymore..."
"Can't take what?" Julia questioned, her brow furrowing in both concern and confusion.
"Not knowing what's going on...the adventures aren't fun anymore, seeing the world isn't worth...isn't worth being scared." He looked down at the floor as if ashamed to admit this to her.
Julia frowned and gave him a moment before she stood and took his hand gently, leading him to sit down on the couch against the window. "You told me you wanted to leave the army....so why don't you?"
"Can't right now...they threatened to kill anyone who left, they need every man they said." Laguna turned to look at Julia and she saw a flash of anger pass over his face. "They're shipping us out tomorrow, I heard someone mention Esthar, I don't even know why, don't know when we'll be back."
"I see..." Julia was at a loss for what to tell him, or for why he'd come to tell her this. She looked down at her hands, folded in her lap, resting against the white satin of her gown, and she sighed.
"Julia..." he said, his voice a little softer. "After this is over...we're gonna leave, the three of us...and I'll come back...I'll come back to hear you sing, I promised you..."
There's so much I want to ask you...so much I want to tell you...we've only just begun to know each other...but I feel like I'm losing my best friend... Julia smiled sadly and stood up, walking across the room, feeling as if it was only the other night, playing over again just for them, but without anyone to interrupt. "I know you promised...."
"I wanted to.... to tell you..." he said, getting flustered, picking up a paperweight from the desk next to the couch and turning it over and over in his hands. "Ah, forget it...."
Julia tilted her head in curiosity and Laguna looked at the floor. "Do they know you're here?"
Laguna jumped, dropping the paper weight on his toe, and shook his head furiously. "No...I snuck out...I....I....I had to see you again before we left...and it was the only thing I could think of. Kiros and Ward'll cover for me 'til I get back...."
So he does care...he only was gone for so long...cause he they wouldn't let him leave... Julia felt her heart warm at this thought and she crossed the room the where Laguna sat, eyes gazing at the paper weight he'd just dropped on the floor. She bent to one knee, her hand reaching for it, right next to his boot....I can feel his warmth...right here...his fear.... She looked up as her hand brushed the smooth glass and so did he, their eyes meeting and locking in a silent, yet meaningful gaze. Everything in those eyes of his...every emotion, every memory...
The world around them seemed to blur as Julia reached a hand up to his cheek, and he brought his own hand to cover it, smiling down at her, his nervousness suddenly seeming to fade away a bit. "Julia..." he said softly, and she felt herself melt simply from his intonation of her name. She closed her eyes as he brought a hand to her chin, tilting her face towards his, and then he leaned his head towards hers and kissed her ever so gently. Her arms lifted automatically to twine around his neck and he pulled her into his lap, burying his face in her hair, murmuring her name softly. "Julia...so beautiful...like an angel..." He turned his face to kiss her again and she let herself get lost in the embrace, wishing the night would never end.
The sunlight streaming in the window woke her late the next morning and she stretched with a happy sigh that quickly melted into a small frown when she realized the bed was empty beside her. Laguna... He would be gone by now, sent off to who knows where... She swung her legs over the side of her bed, grabbing her robe from the chair and wrapping it around herself, only then noticing the piece of paper on the stand beside the bed. She hurriedly snatched it up, reading the brief message several times before sighing gently and letting the paper flutter back to the tabletop.
Julia...thank you...I'll be back...you have my word....write me if you can...my angel....
Julia rose from the bed, crossing the room to her closet. Her mind whirled with the previous night, and with a thousand other things, and she knew she needed to get away from Deling City, even if for a day. There's only one place to go... Her hand brushed along a row of dresses, finally choosing a sleeveless one the color of lilacs, and she slipped it on, adding beige sandals and brushing her chestnut hair back into a short but sleek braid. She grabbed her purse and a lightweight jacket and was out the door, out of the hotel, and heading towards the place where she stored her bike.
The ride to the village was a long one, but Julia didn't mind it, knowing she didn't really have the money to rent a car nor the courage to board a train yet. I couldn't possibly...not now...maybe not ever... The day was cool and crisp, early fall, and she soon turned off the main road and headed down a dirt path out past the many farms surrounding Deling City. She finally reached her destination as the sun started to sink lower into the sky, and she stopped for a moment at the fence in front of the house, gazing at it, wondering. I could never claim to not love what I do with my life...but sometimes I simply wish for this...for a little house in the country...for a husband, for a family...
As if her thoughts had been read, three small blurs came flying out of the house as she wheeled her bike down the front path, and she laughed merrily as they called out to her.
"Daddy didn't say you were coming!!"
The last remark came from the youngest child, also the first one to reach her. Julia let her bike drop into the grass and reached down to scoop her up, hugging her tight as two new figures appeared in the doorway of the house. It had been awhile since she'd been to visit her older brother and his family, and as she reached their front steps, she knew he would know something was up. He always does...
"Little sister! What a surprise!" Timothy and Alana came down the steps and tried their best to hug Julia around their daughter, and a few moments later Alana sent the oldest girl, Ruth Ann, inside to check on the bread in the oven. Kaylyn, barely older than a toddler, was rooted firmly in Julia's lap as she sat down in the grass with her brother and his wife, while the middle child, Adam, hovered for a few minutes before running back into the house to "get something for Auntie Julia".
"It's nice to have you here," Alana said, crossing one leg over the other in the slowly browning grass. "I hope you're here for supper because we've got more than enough food on the table, as always."
Julia laughed and nodded, looking up as Ruth Ann came running back out of the house. "How do I know when the bread's done? I forgot to ask." Alana grinned and rose to her feet, following Ruth Ann inside, leaving Julia alone with just her brother and Kaylyn, who still sat in her lap, absent-mindedly twirling a blade of grass around in her hand.
"It's not like you to trek all the way out here without telling us ahead of time," Timothy finally pointed out, giving his sister an inquisitive look. "Is something wrong?"
"I just needed to escape for awhile," she said. It's at least half-true...
"Escape from what?" he pressed.
"Oh, you know...the same old nightly act, the same people, the city itself..." The loneliness that wold have eaten me alive tonight knowing Laguna wouldn't be coming... "Aren't I allowed to come spend time with my family?"
"Of course you are," he replied with a grin as Alana called them for supper. "I just know you better than that."
Although dinner with her family managed to take her mind off the previous night, Julia found that once she was alone in the guestroom, it all came flooding back too quickly. She grabbed her little spiral book out of her bag and curled up in the window seat overlooking the front yard, opening to a fresh page, recording the events of the night before. She had expected a longer lecture from her brother on why she had shown up so suddenly, but he had left her alone after those few moments outside and she almost wondered if her excuses had been enough to pacify him.
As if answering her unspoken question, the door cracked open and he poked his head in. "Am I disturbing you, Jules?" Julia shook her head and he entered, pushing a stray lock of blond hair back from his forehead. He looks so much like I remember Dad looking... Timothy sat down in a chair opposite the window seat and gave his little sister a probing look. "The kids are all in bed now..."
"That's good," she said softly, turning her gaze away to stare out the window. The house was picture perfect - the kids' bikes littering the front lawn, a wooden swing hung in the big oak tree by the side of the road. Across the street fields of corn from the neighboring farm stretched out toward the horizon, the silken green glinting in the light of the crescent moon.
"Is something wrong back in Deling City?" he finally pressed her. "Or are you ready to take us up on our offer?"
"No...I'm not here because I've changed my mind, Tim. What I said last summer stands...I've got to make a life for myself, and I won't lean on you and Alana to do it."
"Jules...you're twenty-two years old....are you really going to spend the rest of your life playing piano in a lounge bar? Is that really all you want out of life? I see the way you look at me and Alana, at the kids..."
"That's just it, Tim," she said in frustration, turning to look at him. "I do want what you have - but I won't give up my dreams just for that security."
"I can understand that..." he reached to place his hand over hers and she shook her head with a sigh. "But at the same time, you know I only want you to be happy..."
"I thought I might be, this time...but...I'm afraid..."
"Afraid of what? You've lost me..."
Afraid he won't come back...afraid that I'll lose him the way we lost Mum and Dad...afraid that I'll always be alone, wishing I were part of something greater...wishing I had someone to share my life with... "Nothing, don't worry about it."
"You know I don't believe you."
Julia turned to look at her brother and smiled slightly. "I'll be fine, I always am." You would like him, brother....you would like my Laguna...
"So you say..." Timothy leaned over to give his sister a hug, bidding her goodnight, and then exited the room, closing the door softly behind him.
I can't keep running back here every time something upsets me...can't keep hiding from my own life...I won't let myself do it anymore... Julia flipped open her book again and started to write another phrase. That's all I ever seem to have, little pieces that don't fit together...but next time I come to see my family, it won't be because I'm trying to get away...
"My last night here for you, same old songs just once more...My last night here with you, maybe yes, maybe no..."
I won't be running anymore...it's time to change the old song...this is the last night I will hide from my own life... Julia snapped the book shut and fixed her eyes out the window on the moon. "I swear it..." she whispered.
"Dare I ask where you've been? I was starting to get worried."
Julia smiled down at Jarric as she descended the stairs to the lounge, ready for the evening's performance, trying not to give away the melancholy in her heart. "Worried? I wasn't gone that long."
Jarric smiled at her, running a hand through his dark curly hair, and beckoned her over to the bar. "Now, Miss Heartilly, it's not like you to disappear without telling anyone here where you've gone off to. And with those beautiful dark blue eyes of yours, any man's likely to just scoop you up and carry you away from here, never to return."
Julia laughed merrily, grabbing a stool at the bar and shook her head at Jarric. They'd been friends since she'd started working here a good two years ago, and even though he was the same age as her, his formality with her always made her feel older. "I just rode out to the country to visit my brother...and Jarric, you know by now that you can call me Julia."
"See! I knew it was a man!" he teased her and Julia laughed again. "You want something to drink? You know I only make the best."
"Of course I know it," she replied, leaning her elbows on the counter and propping her chin up in her hands. "It's gotten me in trouble more than once, remember?"
"So then a sea breeze it is," he said, not even needing to ask what she preferred. "So how're Tim and Alana, and the kids?"
"Oh, they're all good...I think the littlest one's grown a couple inches since I last saw them, but other than that, they're still the same..."
Jarric handed her a drink and then smiled as she absentmindedly stirred it around in circles with her tiny straw. "So...not to be nosy, but what's on your mind? Your eyes don't have the same sparkle they usually do."
Julia looked up from her drink, still untouched, surprised and yet not surprised that he had noticed so quickly that something was wrong. She directed her gaze beyond Jarric, focusing on the rows of bottles lining the wall behind him. "Oh, I don't know..."
"Yes, you do," he said, tilting his head to the side and examining her as if he could read her mind. "My magic powers tell me it has something to do with soldier boy, who, I must note, hasn't been around in about a week."
"Seems your wits are as sharp as your drink," she commented, finally taking a long gulp. Am I that transparent...? "I've got to get onstage now, though."
"Julia." he said as she put her drink down and rose from her seat. "If you want to talk later...go for a walk or something...the offer's good anytime, ok?"
Julia nodded without really replying and turned to head towards the little platform where the grand piano sat. The bar was noisy, even for a Friday night, but as soon as she sat down at the piano it all seemed to fade away. She didn't need any music to play, and Jarric had already raised the top of the piano for her. She closed her eyes, letting her hands feel the white ivory, not even needing to look at the keys anymore either. Why can't everything in life be like this...pure, understandable...simple, yet complex...?
Julia played whatever song came to mind, slow pieces she'd known for years, the latest tunes off the radio that were popular with the soldiers and young people hanging out in the lounge that evening. The air was heavy with smoke and the smell of liquor, and Julia wished Laguna were there to smile at her from the corner. Just to see you smiling at me...your eyes reflecting back that you feel the music, the songs of the world, of life, the same way I do... A crash from the bar area broke her concentration, and Julia finished her song hastily, craning her neck to try and see what was going on.
"Come on, pansy," a loud voice slurred. "You think you better than us?"
Julia jumped up and walked slowly over to the bar to see a couple of burly guys, easily twice Jarric's weight and several years older, leaning over the bar at him menacingly. "Is something wrong here, fellows?" she intoned softly.
The men turned to look at her and the leader of the group whistled loudly, looking her up and down. "Ain't you a pretty one."
"Julia, stay out of this," Jarric warned her from behind the bar.
"That's right, Joooo-lia," one of the others slurred her name, also giving her a rather disgusting look. "We just talkin' to Mr. Bartender here."
"And I was just telling them," Jarric said calmly, picking up a mug to dry with his white rag, "That I'm not serving them anything else tonight."
"And why's that?" the leader said again, placing one hand on the bar as he leaned closer to him. "We here are good payin' customers."
"And I think you've had enough to drink for one night," he said firmly. "If you have a problem with that, you can either leave or go talk to the owner of the hotel.
As Jarric spoke, Julia began to wonder if she should run and get the owner, who also happened to be Jarric's uncle. He was a man as big as these and would certainly put a quick end to the brewing fight. But before she had a chance to act, the leader of the pack had reached over to grab Jarric by his shirt collar, lifting him up into the air, partly across the bar.
"Let go of me," Jarric rasped, struggling against the hold that had started to strangle him.
"I think we need to do a little cleaning up here, boys," he said, ignoring Jarric's words. One of the other men dropped his glass casually on the floor, letting it smash and then stomped on it with his boot, grinding the pieces into the carpet.
"Put him down right now," Julia said warningly, taking a step closer, her dark blue eyes flashing with anger.
"Oh yeah? Whatcha gonna do, little girly?" he said and the group laughed. One of them vaulted over the bar and started grabbing bottles off the shelf, alternately passing them around to his friends and other onlookers who had slowly filtered over to see what was going on, and smashing then against the bar. Jarric still dangled in the air as the leader dragged him across the bar and out into the open floor, kicking at his knees in desperation.
"PUT HIM DOWN RIGHT NOW," she said through clenched teeth.
The leader leaned down towards her, putting his face right even with hers and breathed his stinky breath into her face. "NO."
Julia felt a sudden rage overcome her and she wheeled back, slamming her right fist square into the man's nose, not quite knocking him over, but startling him enough so that he dropped Jarric who, to his credit, aimed a swift kick right at the man's groin. As he went over, the entire lounge erupted into a crazy fight, glasses smashing, voices yelling unintelligibly. Julia brought her hand, already starting to sting, to her face, and was about to make a run for the stairs to get Jarric's uncle when one of the big brutes grabbed her by the arm, hoisting her into the air. Julia kicked a high heel into his ribs and he tossed her down onto the bar, where she flew across it and right over the end, slamming into the floor and the crushed glass. Her head knocked into the row of shelves and everything blurred and spun before turning black.
It wasn't until the next morning that Julia woke, and she was surprised, if happy, to find herself in her own bed. The events of the previous night flitted quickly through her mind and she sat up with a start.
"Hey you," a voice said and she turned to see Jarric sitting in a chair beside her, his arm in a sling.
"Oh, Goddess, are you alright?" she muttered, looking him up and down.
"It's not broken," he assured her with a small smile. "Got thrown around a bit, doctor says it's sprained. Few bumps and bruises....anyways, how do you feel?"
"Last thing I recall was being thrown across the bar..." she said slowly. She lifted her hand up to find it wrapped in a bandage and winced. "I don't think I'll be playing piano for a few weeks..." she muttered.
"I'm sorry..." he said slowly, not sure what else to offer.
"It's not your fault," she shrugged.
"But that was one hell of a shot."
"Yeah, it was."
They both burst out laughing and Jarric leaned over to give her a one-armed hug. "Where'd you learn to hit like that?"
"My brother taught me when I was a kid," she said ruefully, looking again at her injured hand. "Haven't had to use it in years though..."
Jarric laughed. "Well, my uncle said that both of us should not worry about the lounge for awhile, it's a mess and has to be cleaned up and repaired. I'm gonna head downstairs and let him know you're ok. Maybe I'll see you later, all right?"
Julia nodded and a few moments later he left the room. She swung her legs over the side of the bed, getting up and walking around to test for any other injuries. A few bumps and bruises, a couple of cuts from the glass, certainly not the worst she'd ever seen. Wondering if she had enough strength in her hand to hold a pen, she sat down at the desk and grabbed a piece of paper. I did promise Laguna I'd write...
Several hours, a meal and a nap later, Julia set out for the post office, already having the idea that a letter without a real address wasn't going to get anywhere. She was right, as the clerk in the office told her there was no way they could deliver a letter to someone without an address, and told her she'd have better luck trying the military base.
With a grimace and her resolve more heightened, Julia trekked to the edge of the city and down the road toward the forest, hoping there might still be some soldiers at the base. Her hand throbbed against her side and she muttered to herself in annoyance as she saw a clearing up ahead. Signs posted along the road warned of trespassing, but Julia ignored them and continued further into the camp.
The trees had already turned a rainbow of colors, and the air was a little chillier than it had been a week ago. Autumn was always beautiful to her, but winter seemed to be making an early approach this year. Time seems to pass quicker with every year...hard to believe my birthday was over a month ago... The camp was quiet in the clearing and Julia moved cautiously forward until she was standing right at the edge, next to a very large tent. Although there were many tents and buildings set up, with vehicles parked beside them, no one seemed to be in sight. It was starting to get dark and Julia realized she'd need to hurry if she wanted to be back in the city at a reasonable hour. With a deep breath she moved to take another step towards the center of the camp when a strong hand grasped her shoulder. She stumbled backwards against someone and let out a short gasp of surprise.
"What are you doing out here, young lady?"
She whirled to face the man who'd startled her without saying a word. He was exactly the same height as her, not thin and not fat, just right in between. His dark hair, curling a bit at the ends, was covered by a blue military hat, and his outfit, adorned with several medals, displayed the fact that he was more than an ordinary soldier. All this she took in, and still she didn't say a word, for she was too busy losing herself in his eyes. They're....like...amber, gold...but then they're not...they're green and brown...always changing... She finally stopped gaping at the young man, who at her guess was several years older than her, though his youthful face would betray it, and smiled. "I...I was looking for someone."
"Most of the soldiers left yesterday," he said, shaking his head with a small frown. "And that doesn't mean you should be here either. Didn't you read the signs?"
"Oh, well, I know he's left already..." she said softly, looking down at the letter in her hands. "I wanted to try and send him a letter...and I wasn't sure how to go about doing that..."
The young man smiled, placing his hand on her shoulder again, but less coldly than he had the first time. "Well, Miss -"
"Heartilly," she supplied, smiling slightly. "Julia Heartilly."
"Miss Heartilly," he began again. "The soldiers are out in the field, and it's rather difficult to get a letter to any of them."
"But not impossible?" she said, smiling again with a glimmer of hope in her eyes.
"Please, sir," she said, not wanting to beg, but at the same time wanting him to know its importance.
"Caraway," he said softly, smiling in spite of himself.
"What?" she said, looking up at him again.
"My name is Caraway - General Will Caraway."
"Well Mr. ... General Caraway...it would really mean a lot to me...if you could at least try..."
Will sighed, letting go of the young woman's shoulder and reaching to take the envelope from her hands. "No guarantees," he warned her.
"I know," she said softly. "Thank you..." She reached to take his hand, and then on impulse leaned over and hugged him. "Really...thank you..."
Will was a bit startled and said nothing as she turned to go, then noticing the sun had almost set, called out to her retreating form. "Miss Heartilly!"
Julia turned to look back at him. "Yes...?" Please...please don't change your mind...
"It's almost dark - were you planning on walking back to the city?"
Julia stepped back towards the General and nodded. "Yes...I walked here..."
"Well," he said, pausing and thinking to himself. "If you don't mind dining with a bunch of soldiers, I'm sure you could join us and then we'll just give you a lift back to the city after dinner."
"It's really not necessary," she said quickly with a wave of her hand. "I can take care of myself."
For the first time Will noticed the white bandage around her hand and raised an eyebrow. "Is that so?" Julia blushed and he knew he'd won. "Please, I'd really feel much better if I knew a young lady wasn't walking through the woods in the dark alone."
Julia was quiet for a moment and then nodded, stepping closer to take the arm he offered her. "Thank you, General Caraway. It's very thoughtful of you."
"Please, call me Will...I reserve the formalities for my soldiers."
Julia laughed and nodded as they headed towards the center of camp, where a light shown from the largest tent. "In turn, please call me Julia," she said, turning her head to smile at him.
"All right, Julia," he agreed, turning to smile at her as well. "Since we're now past the formalities stage, might I inquire how you injured yourself?"
"Bar fight," she said, blushing, yet grinning.
"Oh really?" he said, now laughing in surprise. "This is a story I'm sure the rest of the soldiers wouldn't mind hearing."
"I'd be glad to tell it," she replied, laughing again.
Frost...I can't believe there's frost on the windows already... Julia looked up from the gifts she was wrapping for her nieces and nephew and noted that it was after 3 o'clock. She pushed the ribbon and paper aside and stood up, throwing her shoes on and running down the stairs to the main lobby of the hotel. It'd been a little over a week since she'd had dinner with Will and the rest of the soldiers, and even though she knew there was no guarantee of her letter getting to Laguna, much less her getting a reply, checking for the mail every day had already become force of habit.
"Good afternoon, Miss Heartilly," called Jarric's uncle from the front desk as she reached the foot of the stairs. "How's your hand doing?"
Julia smiled warmly, displaying her hand for him to see. "Much better than it was a week ago, Mr. Telorin," she said.
"Well don't you be going back to that piano any sooner than you should, young lady," he said with a shake of his head. "I know the lounge is set to reopen in a few days, but I don't want you to aggravate that injury."
"I won't," she promised, leaning over the desk to give him a hug. "Tell me, has the mail come yet?"
"Jarric just went out front to check the box," he replied. "But it's freezing out there so don't you be following him without a coat."
Julia nodded and ran to the front window, rubbing away the frost and peering out with unbridled childlike anticipation. She clasped her hands together as Jarric came back up the icy walk and in the front door of the hotel. "Is there...."
"No letter from Laguna," he said with a shake of his head. "Although there is something here from the military base. Julia snatched the letter out of his hand, not even pausing to ask him if anything else interesting had come, and ran back up the stairs to her room.
I finally got reach of Laguna's unit, though I can't disclose the location. I've sent the letter on to that location, but the unit is out in the field, so I can't be certain if it will reach him. I will let you know if I hear anything in reply. As an aside, I wanted to share with you that the soldiers very much enjoyed your presence last week - I do believe you were the most exciting thing to happen in the last month or two. They've asked me to oblige you to come again sometime, perhaps when the weather is a bit better. Thank you for lightening their lives a bit.
General Willimend Caraway
Julia smiled slightly and then dropped the letter onto her desk, moving to her window to gaze out somewhat forlornly. Perhaps I will return to visit the soldiers... Although the general's gesture was beyond kind, Julia was still disappointed that she couldn't get in touch with Laguna any faster. With her own vow not to return to her brother's for awhile, Laguna away, and her injury keeping her from the piano, her life seemed to have gone from a rut to a grinding halt.
A knock at the door made her jump and she crossed the room to open it, completely surprised to see a very distraught Jarric when she did. "Jules, can I talk to you?" he said in a very hushed voice and she nodded, letting him in and locking the door behind him.
"What's wrong…?" she started as he sat down on the edge of her bed.
"Can you come to Timber with me?"
Julia's eyes went wide in surprise and she gestured without saying anything, the words seeming frozen. "Jarric…what? What is going on…?"
"I need to go to Timber to get my little sister. I got a letter from my mother today…I promise I'll explain on the way, but I would really appreciate the…moral support.
Well…I was complaining that my life was in a rut… "I…I would, but I don't ride trains…it's…a long story…"
He smiled up at her gratefully, then stood to give her a quick hug. "We'll find some other way to get there, I promise. I need to go talk to my Uncle – don't worry about your responsibilities here, he'll understand."
"We'll leave tomorrow – make sure you dress warmly…and…"
"Nothing, nevermind…I'll see you tomorrow morning." Julia watched as he let himself out and then paced around her room several times. Her intuition was telling her that something major was going on that Jarric was afraid to tell her about. But why would he want me along, then? I don't understand… One thing was for sure, life was about to become a mysterious adventure.
"Great…it sounds like something out of a mystery novel," she groaned to herself, crossing her little room to the dresser. She slid the top drawer open to retrieve a long thin box, her heart beating just a bit faster. "Something else I didn't want to look at for a long time…" she whispered. She lifted the box from the drawer and carried it over to the table, lifting the lid carefully and setting it on the chair. The blade reflected the light of her Tiffany lamp, safe within the tissue paper for many years. The three jewels in the handle were as bright as she remembered, two sapphires and one diamond… Oh mom…are you the one whispering to me that I'm going to need this soon…?
"I'm not used to seeing you dressed like that."
Julia smirked in the early morning light as they left the Deling City Hotel behind them and she followed Jarric towards the edge of town. Instead of her usual girlish outfits, she was dressed all in dark blue, with strong black boots and a heavy red cloak tied around her, her mother's short sword sheathed at her side. "I guess there's a lot you don't know about me…"
Jarric smiled at her and then his gaze turned curious as he noticed the sword at her side. "You...know how to fight with that?"
Julia nodded, tucking her hands into her pockets to keep them warmer. "My brother taught me more than just how to throw a punch…I guess losing our parents young made us sure that we could fend for ourselves in any situation. So where are we headed…?"
"The military base…a friend of mine owes me a favor…"
The two walked in silence until they arrived, and Julia wondered why they were stopping here. Her curiosity was further heightened when General Caraway appeared from the main tent, lifting a hand to Jarric in greeting. "This is your friend…?" she said softly.
"Our parents work together," he said in reply, and then quickened his pace to reach where Will stood, offering a hand to shake. "How are you?"
"I'm the same as always…so what about this favor?" He raised an eyebrow expectantly and waited for Jarric to answer.
"Nothing big…I just need to borrow two horses to go to Timber."
It was then that Will noticed Julia standing a few feet behind Jarric, and smiling at her, he gestured for her to come closer. "It's nice to see you again, Miss Heartilly," he said. "I didn't realize you knew Jarric."
Julia nodded as Jarric lifted the flap of the bag at his side to retrieve the letter he'd gotten yesterday, handing it over to the General to read. He skimmed it quickly and then looked up with a frown. "Miss Heartilly, will you excuse us for a moment?" Jarric followed Will inside the tent and she was left alone outside in the chill morning air. Wandering across the clearing she hummed the melody to her latest song, her hands idly playing an air piano. What's in that letter…why did Jarric ask me along…
Her thoughts drifted to her friend Tess who lived in Timber, and she wondered if she should pay her a visit while she was in town. Will and Jarric reappeared then, each leading a horse and she jogged back across the clearing to them with a smile. "Please be careful, you two," Will said seriously as she put one foot in the stirrup and swung herself up and over the horse.
"What's the horse's name?" she asked as Jarric mounted his stead.
"Yours is Sunflower, and the one Jarric's riding is Thistle," Will answered with a small smile.
"Thank you again," Jarric said to Will as he turned his horse to leave. "I will send word as soon as I find out more of what's going on."
Julia waved and then followed Jarric out of the military base and down a narrow path through the woods. "So…"
"Oh…Jul, I didn't even think to ask if you could ride, I just assumed…"
"Don't worry about it," she replied, reaching a gloved her to brush a strand of chestnut hair out of her face. "I just…I really wish you'd tell me what's going on."
"I was planning on it," he said with a sigh. "I just wanted to wait until we were out here where no one could overhear us."
"Now I'm even more curious," she said softly. Jarric was silent for a moment and the only sound was the cold winter wind whipping through the trees.
"I'd simply let you read my mother's letter, but I don't think you'd understand it, so I'll try to explain myself. My parents are agents for the Galbadian government, and they are currently working undercover. It's one of the reasons why I'm here in Deling City with my uncle – it's safer for me to be separated from my parents, and also, my uncle wanted me to watch out for you."
"Me? What do I have to do with this?"
"I'm getting to that," he said with a wry expression. "You do know about the war that's beginning to escalate, right?"
"I know a little bit…that a Sorceress has taken over Esthar…and there's something going on with some ruins on that continent…but I really don't know much more than that."
"Every Sorceress needs a successor," he added. "Sorceress Adel has her sights set on one particular girl, who's barely more than a baby at the moment."
"That's terrible…" she muttered. "Why this one particular girl? I've sure there are many in Esthar that are already highly skilled in magickal arts…"
"Apparently the child is gifted in some way…right now I'm not really sure. Adel murdered the girl's family while they were living peacefully in the little town of Balamb. The government in Balamb is not particularly strong, and they turned to Galbadia for help. The entire thing is very top secret because they don't want to alarm the people. When a war starts hitting too close to people's hearts, they tend to panic…"
"So your parents are working for the government in connection with this situation…?"
"Yes…my father is in Esthar right now with General Caraway's father, trying to track down where the little girl is being kept. My mother knows a lot more about the entire situation, but I think they are going to rescue the girl and take her into hiding. Someone is afraid that Adel passing on her powers to this girl could bring more havoc upon Esthar, and eventually the world."
Julia frowned to herself, trying her hardest to draw upon old memories. "My family is from Esthar…well, I think so, at least. We lived there for quite awhile when I was very young."
"I know that…I think it's the reason I brought you with me."
Julia gave him a startled look and brought her horse to a stop. "What are you talking about? You've completely lost me."
"I don't know a lot about this, I told you…but my mother requested I bring you with me to Timber, and so I did as she asked…" Jarric stopped his horse too, and turned to look at Julia, whose face was about as red as her wool coat at the moment.
"I really dislike being lied to," she said through clenched teeth.
"I'm not lying to you, Jules, I promise," he said, closing his eyes with another sigh. "You know we're better friends than that. Just wait to get mad at me until after we reach Timber…I'd like to get there by nightfall. Time is really of the essence right now…"
Jarric tied their horses to the gate in front of the little house on the edge of town and she followed him in silence to the door. Before he even had a chance to knock, it swung open and a little girl of perhaps six came flying out and wrapped her arms around Jarric's legs. "Mommy said you were coming!!" she squealed excitedly, her blonde ringlets bouncing as she hopped around. Jarric reached down to scoop her up into his arms for a hug and then she turned to look at Julia with curious blue eyes. "Who are you?"
"Rinoa!" another voice intoned sharply from the doorway. The woman had the same blonde hair, twisted into a braid, and Julia could only assume this was their mother. "Don't be so rude!"
Julia laughed at this as she followed Jarric inside. "It's really ok," she said.
"Julia, this is my mother, Felice, and my little sister, Rinoa. Mom, this is Miss Julia Heartilly."
Felice came forward to give Julia a warm hug which she returned somewhat awkwardly. "You look so much like your mother."
"You…you knew my mother?" Julia's eyes went wide.
Felice nodded and then turned to lift Rinoa from Jarric's arms. "I will explain more later on," she said softly. "Right now, I need to get this little one to bed."
Julia nodded and Jarric touched her arm lightly. "Didn't you say you wanted to pay a visit to an old friend of yours? You may want to go now, because I'm not sure how long we'll be here."
Julia nodded and let herself out the front door, wandering down the streets of Timber as the sun started to set, trying to figure out how many years it had been since she'd gone to visit Tess. They'd been friends as children, as soon as she and Tim had gone to live with their grandparents on the farm outside Deling, but she'd left to open a book store in Timber not too long after Julia left to pursue her music. She reached the front door and knocked a bit hesitantly, but as soon as she saw her friend, couldn't help but grin. "Surprise."
"Jules!!!" Tess said in surprise, giving her a huge hug. "What are you doing here?!"
"If you can believe it…I'm not really sure…"
Tess gestured for her to come in, and the two sat down on the couch in the living room. "I haven't heard from you in a few months. I was starting to worry about you."
"You know I'd never forget my best friend," she said with a grin. "It's just been a bit chaotic lately…" She proceeded to fill her friend in on every last detail, and after she finished Tess was silent for a moment, then took her glasses from her face, cleaning them thoughtfully on her blue denim shirt.
"Do you love Laguna?" she asked.
"I…I think I do…"
"Do you love Jarric?"
"Do you love Will?"
"I hardly know him…TESS! That wasn't the point of the story."
Tess grinned and replaced her glasses on her face, standing up and moving to the kitchen. "I know that…but obviously if these people know something about your parents, you're not going to find out until they tell you, right?"
"Yeah…but it still bothers me…the nightmares have been coming back again…"
Tess came back with two glasses and handed one to Julia, reaching over to give her a quick hug. "I know it means a lot to you…but Julia…don't let the agonies of the past ruin the happiness of your present…"
"But Tess…I don't even know if I am happy…"
"So you can see that it's necessary for me to go to Esthar…"
"Why won't you let me go instead," Jarric said with a pointed look at his mother.
"No," Felice said with a shake of her head. "You don't know it like I do, you're not trained like I am…"
Julia sat silently on the couch that same evening, listening as Felice explained to them why she'd summoned them to retrieve Rinoa. "Adel knows there are spies in Esthar – if I am there, your father and I will have a greater chance of escaping with the baby by posing as a family."
"Felice…" Julia finally interrupted. "I understand your needing to go, but why am I here?"
"Simple," she replied. "Those bullies in the bar in Deling were actually agents of Esthar undercover as well – they are after whoever here knows about this mission. Besides the fact that you defended Jarric that evening, your name ties you to the entire thing."
"You didn't know your parents were involved in this? They were part of this same mission…"
A sinking feeling hit Julia and she brought a hand to her head. "You think the soldiers will be after me…?"
"I'm not positive, since it's been years since your parents died and your older brother probably knows nothing of it either. But I felt it safer to let you know before I left."
"I…I'm not feeling so well…I think I'm going to go lay down…"
"I'll be leaving as soon as I finish speaking with Jarric," Felice said, rising to give Julia a hug. "I'm really sorry to have dragged you into this – "
"It's not your fault," Julia said quickly and turned to head for the stairs to the guest room. "I just never knew a lot about my parents so…it's a lot to digest all at once, I guess…"
Alone in her room, Julia sat by the window, tracing designs in the frost on the pane, her mind spinning circle after circle. What if I'd never gone to Deling City to play piano? Would any of this be happening? Why didn't Tim know about Mom and Dad? I know I was young, but he's so much older than me…why…why… The single word echoed in her mind over and over until she finally lay down on the bed, holding the pillow over her head as if it could block out her own consciousness.
I'm so sorry…Timothy…Julia…your parents were killed in a horrible train accident tonight… Seven year old Julia refused to believe it, and she pushed her way past the officer, running down the darkened lane to the main road, past all the farms and into the center of town…up the stairs…they'll be right there…waiting for me… Mommy…Daddy… Tears streamed down her face as she ducked under the turnstile, ignoring the calls of her brother and grandparents behind her. "No…no…" The train station was empty, and the darkness, it was swallowing her whole…eating away at her from the inside out…come back to me…
Julia woke up with a start, her hands clammy and her eyes filled with tears, hating herself for letting the same images haunt her repeatedly. She tumbled out of her bed, reaching into her bag to grab the book she often scribbled her thoughts in. Her mind suddenly recalled her mother's last words, before she'd left with her father on another business trip.
"Momma…don't go…stay here!"
"Oh sweetie…you know I can't…"
"Will you be back…back in time for my birthday…?"
"Oh darling, of course we will be…"
"I've got some better than a promise…see the look in my eyes?" She reached to grab her little girl's hand, pressing it to her heart. "Feel that beat? That's my promise, angel…"
Julia picked up the pen in a shaky hand, scrawling into her book. If I could only feel it again… "So let me come to you…close as I want to be…close enough to feel your beat beating fast…and stay there as I whisper…how I loved your peaceful eyes on me…"
Julia dropped the pencil and buried her face in her hands, the tears running free down her face. "I'd give anything to just to have your eyes on me again..."
The door suddenly flew open without anyone knocking and Jarric looked in at alarm. "Get dressed and grab your bag," he said in a hushed voice. "There's a regiment of Esthar soldiers at the edge of town – we've got to get out of here now."
Julia nodded as he left the room, dressing quickly and throwing her red cloak around her shoulders. She threw her book into her bag and ran down the stairs, her eyes catching the time on the clock. 5 AM… Jarric was already downstairs, buttoning the coat of a very sleepy Rinoa. "Are they looking for your mother or us?"
"I'm not sure…" He lifted Rinoa into his arms and gestured for her to follow him out the back door. "We can't take the horses, they'd hear us leaving…we'll have to go on foot…" Outside the half moon shed just enough light to see by and they made their way quietly through the town, ducking behind trees and market stall when they could. In Jarric's arms, Rinoa started to whimper, sensing their fear and he shushed her. "There's a half dozen of them in front of the train station…I don't know how we can get past…"
A light clicked on behind them, and as the door opened Julia realized they were standing in front of Tess's house. She tapped Jarric on the shoulder, gesturing for him to follow her and ran for the door, pushing Tess aside and closing it behind them, and shutting off the light. "Jules…?" Tess said softly in the darkness.
"We think they might be looking for us…"
"I understand," she said with a quick nod. "If you go out my back door, I think you can get to the south side of the train station…better yet, I'll take you there myself."
Jarric thanked her softly and the group made their way out the back door. As they closed on the station's south side, the early train pulled in and came to a halt. Julia shuddered and looked away, trying not to get upset, and then Jarric turned to them, putting Rinoa down. "Stay here," he said softly. "I'm going to see if there are any soldiers at the south entrance."
He moved with light steps out into the clearing and Julia watched in silence, intuition telling her something was wrong. "HALT!" a loud voice came and Rinoa started to whimper again. In the early morning silence, Jarric's voice was carried on the wind towards them, where snatches of his conversation with a solider could be heard. Suddenly the soldier gave him a swift knee in the stomach and Jarric doubled over. Rinoa shrieked, giving away their hiding space and ran into the clearing towards Jarric, calling his name. Julia and Tess raced after her, and on instinct Julia pulled her sword from its sheath.
Shots sounded across the clearing and little Rinoa sank to the ground. The solider had been so intent on the wailing child he failed to notice the two women, and as Tess lifted Rinoa into her arms, Julia swung the blade through the air to take down the surprised solider in one shot. Jarric stood, drawing his own blade, and shook his head. "Get on the train," he told the two of them. "The soldiers will think I took this one out and won't think to go after the train."
"Jarric…I can't…" Julia started, panic crossing her face.
"It means your life, and Tess' life…and Rinoa's life…"
"Come on, Julia," Tess said fearfully, hugging the crying little girl to her. "I don't think the little one's too badly injured, but we've got to get out of here fast."
Jarric led them up the stairs of the freight train, and took Rinoa from Tess's arms as she climbed into a half-empty box car, kissing the little girl on the forehead before lifting her up to Tess. He turned to look at Julia, who'd gone white as ghost. "I can't, Jarric…I can't…"
"Yes you can," he whispered to her. Julia closed her eyes, feeling dizzy, and then suddenly Jarric's hands were around her waist. His mouth pressed against hers and she lifted her arms around his neck. He lifted her up into his arms, and before she knew what had happened, he'd deposited her into the box car. "Take Rinoa to General Caraway," he said softly as the train started to pull out of the station. "He'll know what to do…"
"What about you?" she called back to him as he grew smaller.
"I'll meet you there! I promise…"
"Tess…God, I'm so sorry…"
"Julia…you know I'd do anything for you…please don't worry about it."
Julia leaned against her best friend, resting her head on her shoulder as the train rumbled along towards Deling City. "Thank you…I…I hate trains…"
Tess laughed softly. "I know, sweetie," she said. "The important thing is getting this little girl somewhere safe." She'd wrapped little Rinoa's arm in part of the skirt torn from her dress, but she was still bleeding pretty badly, and they were both worried she might not make it. "You know where to find this General Caraway?" she asked, her gray eyes shining in the dim light of the box car.
"Yeah…he should still be at the military base…"
Several hours later the train finally rolled to a stop and the two climbed down and started the walk to the base outside of town. Tess followed Julia into the camp and several soldiers came running to greet them, one of them taking Rinoa out of her arms. "I need to see General Caraway right away," Julia said softly and one of the soldiers ran to get him.
"I'm going to follow them to make sure Rinoa is ok," Tess said as Will approached them with a worried expression on his face.
Julia nodded and then headed towards the general, following him into his private tent. "Where is Jarric?"
"Still in Timber…" Will sat down on at the table in the room as Julia explained what had happened. "He'd said he'd meet us back here, but with the amount of soldiers, I'm really worried…"
"Jarric is a lot stronger than he lets people perceive," Will assured her. "All we can do is await his return, or some other word from our agents in Esthar…I assume you know what's going on now…"
"More than I did before…" she said, looking down at the floor in an effort to control her reeling emotions.
"I know now is not really the time, but…I have some other not pleasant news…your friend Laguna's unit was attacked yesterday outside the city of Esthar. He is currently listed as MIA…but much of the unit was massacred in the surprise attack so…"
"Oh God…" she whispered, looking up as her eyes filled with tears. "Then he's…"
Will didn't answer her, only looked at her with sad eyes, and she sat down at the table, tears streaming silently down her face. "Julia…"
Oh God…not again… Will stood up and came around the table, sitting down beside her, and wrapping an arm around her shoulders. "I just…I can't…"
"Nothing's for certain…" he attempted to comfort her. Julia looked up at him and nodded slowly. "I…I'm going to go check on Rinoa…"
"How's the little girl doing?"
Julia looked up from writing in her book as Will entered the tent where she and Tess had been living for the last week and shook her head. "Not so well…she lost a lot of blood during the long trip, and she's very weak. When she isn't sleeping, she's just tossing and crying out for Jarric or her parents…"
"I think she'll be ok in the end…if she doesn't seem any better in a few days, I'll have the medics take her into the city."
"Thank you…" she said, and they stood in silence for a moment before she closed her book and gestured for him to come sit down. "Will, I've been meaning to ask you…but I suppose I haven't had the guts…"
"What is it?"
Please don't take this the wrong way… "How come you're here…I mean, and not in Esthar working with your father?"
"It's…a long story," he said with a frown. "I didn't always intend to enter the military, you know."
"I don't mean any offense, but you seem to be too much a compassionate soul to tolerate a daily diet of fighting…"
Will shrugged and tugged at the sleeve of his jacket. "I wanted the money from the service to put myself through school…when I was younger I wanted to be a writer, an artist…I guess I'm not much of a dreamer anymore. Once you get to be my age, reality takes a toll on you."
Julia smirked and punched him playfully in the arm. "You're only a couple years older than me," she remarked. "You've got your whole life ahead of you!"
"Maybe," he replied with another shrug. "My life's been in a constant rut since I took this position at the base…and maybe I'm just too bitter and tired to bother trying to find something that would make me happier. I guess steady is more important than inspiring at this point."
"But what made you bitter…?" There's something so sad in his eyes, yet he insists on pretending he's strong, bitter and fed up with life… Yet at the same time, he has the compassion to go to all ends to send that letter for me…to be concerned about a child…I just don't get it… "Will…?"
"It's not something I enjoy talking about," he finally answered her. Before Julia could say anything else, a soldier stuck his head in the tent and saluted.
"Sir!" he reported. "Young man named Jarric Telorin here to see you!"
"Thank the Goddess," Julia said with relief as she and Will both jumped up and hurried out of the tent. "Jarric!" she called, running to him and wrapping her arms around him in a tight hug. "I was so worried! Where have you been?"
"Just hiding out," he answered, hugging her back and then moving to shake hands with Will. "I needed to lay low until some of the soldiers left town. How's Rinoa?"
Julia and Will led him toward the tent where he went immediately to his sister's side, reaching a gentle hand to her face. "Noe…I'm here…" The little girl turned to look at him and smiled gently before closing her eyes and drifting back to sleep. Jarric stood and came back over to them with a frown. "Can I talk to you two?"
Will nodded and they made their way back to his tent. "What now, Jarric? I thought this would be over for you…" Julia started.
"No," he said with a shake of his head. "My mother told me that if the soldiers showed up in Timber before we had a chance to leave then it was likely my father and Will's father were caught. She's already in Esthar, working to break them out, but once she does, they still need to rescue the child."
"Do they want backup?" the general asked, sitting down at the table in his room with a perturbed look.
"No…they're under orders to keep this quiet…it could well be a suicide mission…"
"Oh Jarric," Julia said in a shaky voice, bringing a hand to her face.
"I'm going to Esthar – I promised my mother I'd be waiting at the border to take the child from them…if they don't know I have her, my parents can draw attention away and have the soldiers follow them instead."
"I'm coming with you," Will announced suddenly and Jarric nodded. "This is too important a mission for it to fail."
"Well I'm coming too, then," she blurted out.
"What?" Will said, turning to look at her. "Don't be ridiculous. You're not suited to this."
You barely know me…much less know what I'm capable of… "General Caraway," she said icily. "I know how to fight. I would be an asset to you."
"She's right about that," Jarric said, interrupting Julia before she could go off on a tangent. "I've seen her handle a sword, and fight hand to hand…"
"It's a ridiculous idea," Will said with a shake of his head. "You're a musician… you're not a soldier…"
"I am more than a pretty face, a gentle voice…" she said through gritted teeth.
"Her parents were part of this, Will," Jarric interrupted again. "It should really be her decision to make."
There was silence for a moment and finally Will nodded. "Alright…"
"We'll leave tonight," Jarric said and then moved to leave the room. "I'm going to check on Rinoa again…"
Julia and Will stared at each other in silence, neither willing to be less stubborn than the other. I'll prove to you that I can take care of myself…that I'm more than some emotional, fragile, can't-take-care-of-herself girl… She turned and left the tent without another word. You want to hide all of your feelings behind that soldier façade, be my guest…but I put everything I've got out there… She found Tess in their tent, writing a letter home to her family and sat down across from her with a sigh, immediately pouring out everything that had just happened.
"He probably just doesn't want to see anyone else hurt," Tess said to her with all logic, giving her a hug. "I don't think it was meant as a personal insult. I certainly don't know how to fight, but I know you do…"
"Thanks Tess…" she said softly. "Maybe…maybe I can be emotional, maybe I've been hurt a lot in my life…but at least I have the guts to say I always followed my intuition, that I never locked myself inside a wall of bitterness just to keep people from getting close to me…" I start to see now that that's what it is…he doesn't want anyone to see past that wall he keeps up…but why…
"If I'm not back in twenty-four hours, then I want you both to return to Galbadia and notify the government that the mission was aborted…"
"You're sure you want to do this alone?"
"We have no choice in the matter," Jarric said with a shake of his head. "My mother isn't where she said she'd be, and I'm only the only one of us that has entrance papers to Esthar.""
"Please be careful…and don't be ashamed to run if you're surrounded," Julia said, reaching to give him a hug. Jarric hugged her back and then took his bag off to leave it with them.
"Less weight to carry," he said with a small smile and then with a wave, rounded the rock formation, leaving Julia and Will alone.
"This is going to be the longest twenty-four hours of my life," Julia said with a sigh, rubbing her cold hands together. Will said nothing, only started throwing sticks in a pile to start a fire. "Are you not going to speak to me at all?" Julia finally asked after a good ten minutes of silence.
"I thought you were angry with me," he finally answered her. "I don't like confrontation, so I just didn't say anything."
Julia smiled wryly and then gave him a grateful look as the fire crackled to life in front of them. "I was…but I'm not really, anymore. I'm more curious than anything else."
"Curious about what?"
"Why you act the way you do."
Will sat down across from her, holding his own hands closer to the fire and raised an eyebrow. "What do you mean?"
"Someone must have hurt you terribly for you to act the way you do," she said softly. "I know that underneath that bitter soldier façade is a truly caring man. I saw it the first day I met you, when I was frantic to get that letter to Laguna…" She bit her lip at the mention of his name, but Will didn't say anything so she continued. "I saw it again when we brought Rinoa to the camp…"
"I never said I didn't care about anyone."
"I know…it's just…when you were talking to me about the things you dreamed about when you were younger…I want to know what made you not follow the dream you had…"
"Why does it matter?" He pulled his hat off, setting it beside him and ran his fingers through his dark curly hair. As she contemplated what to say next, she suddenly realized how very attractive her was.
"Because I find you interesting? Because I care about you?"
"How can you care about someone you don't even know that well?"
Julia sighed in frustration. "Was it a woman? A girlfriend?"
"Yes. Are you satisfied now?"
"Miss Heartilly, what do you want from me?" he said, averting her eyes and gazing into the fire instead.
"I want to know…you…I guess…don't you want to know me?"
"It's been a long time since I let myself get close to anyone," he replied, leaning forward to rest his elbows on his legs. "It's too hard to let people know me anymore."
"If you give up and shut everyone out, of course it is," she replied. "You think I've never been hurt in my life? Do you having my parents die, having my brother fall in love and get a family, watching everyone else around me find happiness...made me feel any better about myself? It hasn't stopped me from caring about people, from letting myself feel sadness…from letting myself feel joy…"
"Her name was Becky," he finally interrupted her. "I was very young then, barely twenty…I thought I was in love. I took a position at the base here to stay close to her, took classes so that when I got out of the military I could get a good job, make a life for us…"
"Suffice to say, I was too young to really understand what love is…it fell apart…if you don't mind, I'd rather not talk about it anymore…"
Julia stood up and came around the fire to sit next to him, looping an arm around his waist and leaning her head on his shoulder. He turned his head to look down at her with a wry smile, asking her with his eyes why she had done that. "Thanks for sharing," she said softly.
He nodded silently, and then a few moments later, looped an arm around her shoulders too.
A gun shot in the distance startled Julia out of a sound sleep and she jumped up, rubbing her eyes furiously, to see Will in a crouch, peering around the edge of the rock formation. "What's going on?" she whispered.
"I'm not sure, it's too dark to make it out…" he whispered back. "Something's going on by the gate…I'd go and see, but we promised Jarric we wouldn't leave this spot…"
The end of his words were muffled as running footsteps became louder and Jarric appeared around the edge of the rocks, breathing heavily and clutching a bundle to his chest. "What's going on?" Will asked as Jarric handed the bundle to Julia. She could tell as soon as her arms grasped it that it was the little girl, wrapped in a blanket.
"Our fathers…caught, shot to death trying to escape," he muttered, still trying to catch his breath. "My mother is leading them in the other direction, but I have no doubt they'll catch her – they saw give me the child. I want you two to run, leave me here, I'm already injured."
"No," Will said forcefully. "You go with Julia and escape, you'll never make it if you stay here – you're bleeding terribly already."
"I don't want you to get killed," Jarric rasped, but Julia was already tugging on his arm.
"Jarric, we've got to run!"
Will and Julia met eyes and her mouthed a thank you to her. "Meet back at base. Don't stop running whatever you do."
"Will…" Jarric started again.
"You have a little sister, Julia has a whole family – my life is not much next to that. If I die here, then it was the will of the Goddess, and I completely accept it. Now go!"
Julia grabbed Jarric's arm and they started to run across the open fields of Esthar, towards a rocky part of the coast where they'd hidden the boat. Behind them gunshot after gunshot rang out, sounding closer and closer by the minute. There was no moon in the overcast sky, and in the dark Julia stumbled, going down on one knee and trying not to hurt the baby in her arms. Behind her she heard another gunshot and Jarric cried out.
She put the babe down carefully in the grass and crawled towards where he'd fallen, her ankle screaming a pain that signified she'd injured something. "Jarric?" she whispered.
He propped himself up on one elbow and she could see the blood trailing down his side. "Run, Julia, please…" he said to her, his voice barely above a whisper. "You can't worry about me…I know you're scared…I know I'm not going to make it…please…finish this for me…"
"Jarric," she said, the tears running down her face, one hand reaching out to touch his face, all the while watching the blood pool in its inky crimson color around them. There you are…with that look on your face…as if you've never hurt…as if you've never down… "Don't you leave me too," she sobbed.
"Be strong, Jules," he whispered. "Your mother would have wanted you to…so would mine…so do I…"
He coughed hard after that last statement and without thinking, Julia bent over him, kissing him long and hard, knowing it would be a last. "Thank you…thank you for bringing some life back into my lonely world…"
He smiled up at her, his eyes blinking slowly. "Someone…better pinch me…I must be dreaming…cause I think I'm seeing an angel before me…Julia…" His eyes closed softly and he went limp in her arms. Julia had no time to mourn for the gunshots were drawing closer again, and she reached behind her to pick up the child. Stumbling in the darkness, its threat to swallow her whole present with every painful step, she ran for the boat, for the water, for freedom, safety, life…
Julia collapsed into Tess's arms the moment she arrived back at camp, too drained to even cry, and her last thoughts were bleak ones as the world faded to black around her.
It was dark again when she finally woke in the infirmary, though it had been dawn when she'd arrived. She felt her with her hands in the dark, the stitches across her forehead and then turned to look at the bed beside her. The little girl, barely a year old, lay sound asleep, her short dark hair framing her round face as she breathed softly. Images and memories came flooding back to Julia as she sat alone in the dark, and she let them for once, sobbing into her hands. She was surprised when a moment later a figure sat down in the dark on the end of her bed, and she looked up, expecting it to be Tess. Strong arms wrapped around her and she realized it was Will, that he was alive, and she started sobbing anew. He hands stroked her hair, her back, holding her tightly, and she cried…for her parents, for Laguna, for Jarric, his family…for all the people who'd ever lost someone, for the people they had lost… And in that suffocating darkness, for once, she wasn't alone…
Light was flooding into the tent when Julia woke again, and she realized with a start that she must have cried herself right to sleep the night before. The tent was empty, even the little girl was gone from her place the evening before. Julia crawled out of the bed, testing her weight carefully on her bruised ankle. As she reached the door to the tent, the flap moved aside and Tess came in, smiling and embracing her. "I'm so glad you're ok…"
"Where is Will…?" she said softly, suddenly afraid that the night before had been a dream.
Tess frowned and then reached into her pocket. "he…he left early this morning and didn't tell anyone where he was going…he left you a letter…" Julia turned away, unfolding the paper in shaky hands, sitting down on the bed as she read it once, twice, a third time…
It was Jarric's last request to me, before we even left for Esthar, that if he should be killed, I finish his task. As is such, I've taken baby Ellone and his sister Rinoa to an undisclosed location, where another Galbadian agent will see to their care. I had the feeling you would be upset about this, and as Jarric wished you to be free of all ties to this, I can't tell you where they are. Please don't be angry with Jarric or myself, it is in everyone's best interests to leave it this way. I shall return this afternoon to escort you and Tess back to Deling City.
Julia's hands shook as she finally set the letter down beside her. "I…I'm not sure why I'm upset…"
"It's better off this way," Tess said softly. "Jules…"
"It's not even the children…I know the mission had to end this way but…but last night…it seemed we were so close…and this letter…it's so cold…"
Julia looked u at Tess and shook her head. "Don't worry about me, I'll be alright. I always am…"
Tess nodded and left Julia alone in the tent. How can you sit and hold someone while they cry…how can you share such emotion…and then turn around the next day as if nothing had happened… Julia paced the room slowly and then sat down on the bed again and reached to pull her book from the bag. "I kind of liked it your way…how you shyly placed your eyes on me…did you ever know…that I had mine on you…?" I thought we were starting to understand each other…
The hours passed as Julia lay on her back staring at the ceiling, her mind playing her songs, and she realized she needed to get back to her music. I need it…it's my only saving grace at moments like these… She had just made up her mind to walk back to Deling City herself when the flap of the tent moved aside and General Caraway entered.
"Are you ready to return to Deling City?" he said softly, his face betraying no emotion. Julia stood up without a word and limped slowly over to him, her eyes never leaving his face. Midnight blue met green-gold and she shook her head slowly.
"I have lost so many people in my life," she said softly. "I have never used it as an excuse to keep myself from caring, from loving, again. You can spend the rest of your life in denial, never crying for those you've lost, never loving those in your life, but I won't stand by and watch."
"Julia, you can't possibly understand – "
"But I do," she said pointedly. "With every glimmer in your soulful eyes, I see the pain, I see the past…and I know it eats away at you the same way it eats away at me. But it is a personal choice whether or not to dwell forever in that past, or to look to every day as another new beginning." She reached a hand up to touch his face lightly. "There is always a choice."
She stepped around him, calling out to Tess as she left the tent. The two of them climbed into the car the soldiers had brought them from the city, and then waved to the soldiers as the small car drove out of sight.
You will always have a job here, Miss Heartilly…it'll be nice to hear some sweet music come from that piano again… Julia's hands swept over the keys as the last customer climbed the stairs and Tess smiled at her from her seat at the bar. "As lovely as I remember," she applauded and Julia laughed.
"I wish you didn't have to leave tomorrow," she said with a sigh.
"I'll only be gone a few days," she replied, hopping off the stool and coming over to give her friend a hug. "I just need to close up the store in Timber, and then I'll be back."
"Are you sure this is what you want?" Julia asked with a worried look.
"Positive," Tess replied. "I've got a long trip tomorrow, so I'm going to get some sleep. Don't stay up too late, alright?"
Julia nodded to her friend as she climbed the stairs and then let her hands drift over the ivory keys, an old favorite composition coming to her mind…The same one I played the last night Laguna was here… Tears sprung to her eyes and she lifted her left hand to brush them away, her other hand still spinning out the lonesome melody.
She closed her eyes for a moment and then suddenly there was harmony again. Her eyes snapped open as someone slid onto the bench beside her, adding the other part that she had neglected in order to brush her tears away. The simply melody wove around the two as they played, and when the song was over, the feeling seemed to linger in the air.
Julia turned to look at Will in surprise and he reached a hand to her face to brush another tear away. "I guess I forgot to mention I could play a little…or that I've been here and heard you play, a long time ago…"
"Why are you here?" she said softly, turning away with a sigh.
"I've been thinking about what you said," he replied. "I guess I have spent the last few years in my locked little castle…but there was also no one willing to try hard enough to break down the door."
"Maybe you didn't want them to…"
"What you said…about the past eating way…about there always being a choice…"
He reached a gentle hand up again to turn her face towards him, and as she looked into his eyes, his feelings were clear. "Will…" she whispered.
"I'm making a choice…and I'm choosing you." She closed her eyes as his lips met hers, their arms winding around each other in the dark, and the world around them, to Julia, seemed to burst into colorful and joyous song.
And that is how I know…that it is possible to love more than one person in a lifetime…For love is a bittersweet and glorious thing, unbound by time and space… I love Laguna…I love Jarric…I love Will…each in a very different and special way…
There is an old saying, if I can remember it… "Love like you've never been hurt, dance like no one is watching…" Through all the days of my life, I've tried to follow this…through the tears, through the pains, through the joys… For it is faith…it is hope… that keeps love alive in the darkest times… and gives hope always …for a brighter tomorrow…
Rinoa Heartilly flipped the last page of her mother's journal with a thoughtful sigh, placing the book carefully back into the box under her bed. Her own thoughts flashed to the people who'd already come in and out of her life, and she crossed her room in Balamb Garden to step out onto her balcony. Squall greeted her with a small smile and she moved to join him at the railing. Above the Garden, the sky was filled with stars… to her; they suddenly seemed a little brighter than they'd ever been before…