Afraid To Love: Thirty Days
By Black Rose
As much as I've come to have some serious issues with what it stands for, I have to admit -- Squall wears a uniform really really damn well.
His Garden uniform is black edged in filigree gold, broad across his already solid shoulders, crisp and tailored. The only decorations are the triple insignia across his collar and the rank bars on his sleeve; I asked about medals, once, and why he didn't wear his. He told me he didn't have any -- the Gardens don't award medals for anything. He's a world-reknown war hero, wounded in battle countless times over, and he doesn't own a single medal to commemorate any of it.
Did I say "issues"? I meant "Issues", uppercase capital letter and some large gaudy font, italic and bold and underlined. The kind of issues that make me have to remind myself to unlock my jaw when I see black and gold, because grinding my teeth gives me a headache. But sweet Hyne, the man makes the uniform look really damn good.
The collar fastenings always give him trouble, tiny hook and eye closures tucked underneath, and he was leaning forward across the sink to wrestle with them via the mirror. Under the pretext of looking for a hair tie I was shamelessly appreciating the presented view, the jacket piping tailored down to curve over his hips and ass. He caught me watching in our combined reflection, his gaze meeting mine through the glass, and spared me a tolerantly amused look -- a ghost of a smile, sketched in the barest lowering of his lashes and a faint narrowing at the corners of his eyes.
I gave him a grin in return and reached out to needlessly straighten the crisp lines of fabric at his waist. "You look very official."
The look turned sour, eyes rolling up briefly and then away, lips pressed thin. "That's the idea," he allowed. The collar finally gave in to his effort and he grunted in satisfaction, straightening and tugging the jacket back into perfect alignment. "Fuck, I hate this."
"I know." I brushed my lips across the short cut hair at the nape of his neck, just above the gold piped collar. "Squall..."
"Hmm?" His fingers pressed my own for a brief moment before he slid out of my grasp. I followed him from the bath, leaning in the doorway as I watched him stride around the suite gathering up holsters and reports and loose papers that he had left strewn across the table.
"What do you want for your birthday?"
I'd actually meant to phrase it better than that, sort of sidle up to the subject in a less obvious way, but my mouth has a habit of failing me at the moment of truth and this was no exception. Squall paused in the act of buckling a pistol to his belt, casting me a look that was anything but amused. "Laguna..."
"Look, either you tell me or I guess and get it all wrong," I said, hastily cutting him off. "I'm really awful at this birthday thing. You know that."
"Laguna." There were at least fifteen shades of warning in his voice and stubborn irritation written all over the line of his shoulders. He thumbed the tab of his belt closed, adjusting the cock of the pistol grip against his hip. "You don't have to get me anything."
"Yes I do," I protested. "Hyne, Squall, you're turning twenty." He frowned and I held up my hands placatingly. "Look... just think about it, will you? You don't have to tell me now. Just think about it!"
He dismissed the whole subject with a sharp gesture, gathering up the collected reports and rolling them neatly in one hand. "Last meeting is seventeen hundred," he told me, coming back to claim a quick kiss. "Should be wrapped in time for dinner."
"I won't keep it warm if you don't," I joked. I hooked my fingers into his belt, tugging him back when he would have stepped away. "Squall..."
He sighed, exasperated. "I'll think about it," he promised, his tone making it clear that it was a promise made under duress. "Get going, Laguna. Kiros will have your head if you leave him holding that cabinet meeting."
"I know my own schedule," I mock-protested. "See you at dinner," I added, brushing one last kiss over his cheek.
"Hopefully," he growled. I let him go and watched him stride towards the door. 'Hopefully', my ass. 'Hopefully', or so help me I'd have someone's head on a plate if they kept him working late again.
There was a hair band in my pocket. I fished it out and swept the lot back into a quick tail before going to gather up my own reports. Squall was right -- Kiros would skin me in inches if I left him stalling the Interior Defense minister too long.
Luck and the gods who watch over people who work too damn much for their own good were on my side -- Squall walked through the door less than twenty minutes after seventeen that evening, belt and bandoleer already off and struggling out of his jacket before the door had closed behind him.
I rescued a handful of leather from him before the pistol ended up on the floor, caught the jacket when he let it fall, and got out of the way as he steadied himself against the wall to pull off his boots. "That bad?"
He shot me a look, lips pressed tight and brows low. One boot came free with a jerk and thumped onto the carpet. "Could have been worse," he admitted through his teeth. The second boot came free and he kicked them both to the corner, stripping the thin undershirt off over his head as he straightened. Mussed, his hair stuck out in damp rumpled spikes. "Too hot for Esthar... fuck, I need a shower."
"Go," I told him. "Or run a bath. I'll bring dinner in."
"That," he sighed, "sounds like a damn good idea." He caught my shoulder in passing and pulled me in for a quick kiss. The bitter tastes of black coffee and smoke were heavy on his lips. "Join me?"
"I said I was bringing dinner in, didn't I?" I tossed the belts and uniform jacket across the nearest chair. "Scotch or soda?"
"Soda," he called over his shoulder, already heading for the bath. The sound of the water started in a muted rush a moment after he got there.
I gathered up the trays that had been warmimg -- and could have easily stayed that way for another hour or more, the kitchen long familiar with my own habit of forgetting to eat on a schedule -- and grabbed two sodas at random from the cooler. "You realize," I said, walking back to the bath, "that we're both going to lose weight when we have to do our own cooking?"
"Can't be soon enough," Squall shot back. The water was pouring into the deep tub, steam already rising to mist the mirrors. Squall had already stripped out of the rest of his clothes and slid into the water. I toed the black puddle of his discarded pants out of the way and put the trays down on the floor, dropping to sit on the edge of the tub to tackle my own shoes.
Squall rescued one of the sodas with a long-armed reach over the side of the tub, tucking the cold can behind his neck as he leaned back, eyes closed. "I can go get you an icepack," I offered.
He shook his head slightly. "Just feels good." The steam was flattening his hair into a dark fringe around his cheeks and trailing down into his eyes. "Your day all right?"
"Infinately more boring than yours," I predicted confidently. My shoes came free and I stood up to wriggle out of slacks and shirt, leaving them all on the floor with Squall's. The water in the bath was nicely hot but not scalding, a compromise between my preference for blistering and Squall's tendancy for lukewarm. He moved to give me room, letting me slide in beside him. The water sloshed up and I hastily slapped the tap off, settling back gingerly with the porcelain to my back. A little splashing got us comfortably tangled, facing each other across the length of the tub, his legs across mine, feet tucked against my hip. He hadn't opened his eyes; I caught his ankle in my hand, letting my fingers dig into the hard muscles across the arch of his foot. "Let's see... Interior Defense this morning..."
Squall groaned, a sound of disgust that slid into a softer moan as I worked my thumb into a knot of muscles and tendons. "Fuck. Man could put a grat to sleep by talking to it."
"...followed by a rousing round of referreeing a finance versus defense fight..."
"Did Kiros throw anything this time?"
"Unfortunately no. General status over lunch, and then Odine wanted an hour or five of my time to go over his reports..."
Squall flinched, muscles tightening back up under my hands. "Fucking little useless..."
"I know," I soothed, stroking down across his calf. "Sorry. But you know what his reports are like. So I can safely say my day was far more boring than yours." Squall said nothing, but after a few minutes he relaxed again, each muscle unlocking with reluctant slowness as I continued with light, stroking touches. "Want to talk about it?"
He opened one eye to look at me, finally shifting to fish the soda can out from behind his neck. "No. Same shit." Sighing, he shoved the damp strands of his hair out of his eyes. "Caraway has an inflated sense of power because Galbadia's one of the Gardens' top clients. He wants to play hardball that bad, I'll pull the whole damn Garden out of Galbadia and he can pay non-host rates."
I winced. "We're already funding the Centra construction, love. I don't think Esthar could support a second..."
Squall waved a hand impatiently, water drops flying. "Fuck it. Put it up for the highest bidder." He grinned, a sharp-edged flash of bare of teeth. "Let Timber have it."
A low whistle escaped my lips. "Oh fuck, Caraway would have a heart attack on the spot..."
Squall snorted. He shifted lower, the water sloshing upwards. "Be worth thinking about just for that." He shrugged slightly. "I don't know. Take months to do it. Might not be worth it." He cupped water between his hands and lifted it, slicking his hair back in a spray of droplets. "I'll think about it when I have to. Drop it for now."
"All right." I let my hands wander back to his ankles, drawing a small inarticulate sound from him as I worked the tension from his muscles. "Hmmm... hey. Squall?"
I grinned, dragging a teasing thumbnail over the ball of one heel to get his attention. "Did you think about it?"
I kept my tone light and the grin open, expecting nothing beyond a mock-exasperated dismissal. To my surprise he opened his eyes, regarding me from under half-closed lids, and shrugged, the water rippling. "Yeah."
My jaw dropped. "You did?"
A small, smug grin curved the corners of his mouth. He stretched leisurely, water splashing in a broad display of slick, wet, pale skin. "Yes."
I waited, but there wasn't anything else beyond that infuriating little grin to be had. "And?" I demanded at last.
"And what...?" He had perfected the disinterested tone of boredom to a fine art.
I dug my nail into his heel again, far less teasing than the last time. "You thought about it. So what do you want?"
He pulled his foot out of my grasp, splashing water at me. "Don't know if I ought to tell you, now."
He shook his head, letting me settle his foot back against my hip once more. "Fine." He was quiet for a moment, head tilted back and eyes closed. "Write me something."
I blinked. "Huh?"
One dark eye slitted open again. "Write me something," he repeated. "I don't need anything, Laguna. If it's something that can be bought I can get it for myself easier than you could get it for me. So don't bother getting anything. Do something instead. You used to be a writer, didn't you?"
"Er..." I must have looked like a beached fish, because Squall snorted, shutting his eyes firmly once more.
"Never mind. Look, Laguna, I don't care..."
"Wait!" It came out in a squeak, my voice still tight with surprise in my throat. "Wait, I didn't say I wouldn't! But... Hyne, Squall, why?"
He regarded me for a minute, his eyes unreadable. "It'd be something you did just for me," he said at last, quietly.
I swallowed, my mouth dry. "I can try," I promised. "I... look, I'm really not that good. Never was. It was just these stupid little columns in magazines, half of it was just travel logs..."
"Then tell me about the places you've been," Squall said tiredly, tipping his head back against the edge of the tub once more. "Tell me about Esthar, about Winhil. Tell me about Galbadia. I don't care, Laguna. Just... write me something."
I smoothed my hand over the sole of his foot and back up his calf, water-slick skin warm and relaxed under my touch. "Why?" I repeated at last.
The answer was several minutes in coming, slow and sleepy. "Can't forget what's written down."
I swallowed again, forcing the tension in my jaw to unlock. Long practice kept my tone light, cajoling as I sat up and nudged at him to do likewise. "Come on... no, don't go to sleep, Squall, you need to eat something..."
"I can't do this," I was saying the next day over coffee and reports. "I can't do this. I'm not a writer. I don't even do my own speeches most of the time, you know that, Kiros! What am I supposed to do? I was a second-rate hack editorial columnist, not a writer. I'm a..."
"Writer," Kiros interjected around the edge of his coffee cup without looking up. "You were a writer. That's what it said on the royalty checks."
I glared at him. "You're not helping," I accused. "I'm not a good writer. I could turn out a column for a check, sure, but it was just crap."
"Laguna," Kiros said firmly, never looking up from where he was jotting notes on the report in front of him, "you're a fine writer."
"Ha," I shot back. "Like you ever read any of it."
That netted me a disgusted look. "Primary proofreader, remember?" he chided, waving his pen at me. "And fuck knows you needed it. Laguna, you can write just fine. Your grammar needs help, you run your sentences on for paragraphs, and for fuck's sake never do anything without a spell check, but you can write perfectly well." He snorted, flipping the page of the report over, the tip of the pen flicking quickly down the lines of text. "At least you do write some of your own speeches. I guarantee Caraway and Khamare don't."
I was chewing a groove into the cap of my pen. "You really think I can write?"
"If you stop thinking about it," Kiros replied. "You write like you talk, Laguna. If you stop thinking about it you'll be fine."
"You're the only person I know who can turn a compliment into an insult, and vice versa," I complained. "Fine. You're so smart -- what should I write?"
Kiros shrugged. The beaded tips of his braids clanged against the back of his chair as he sat up, stretching. "Sounds like he just wants memoires. Write whatever you feel like. Tell him about his grandparents, or how you ended up in the army. Or that summer semester in University..."
"Oh fuck, don't remind me," I groaned.
Kiros leaned back, smirking. "Took you a year to grow your hair back," he noted, "just in time for them to shave you bald in boot camp."
I covered my face with my hands, feeling the heated rush across my cheeks. "You know, there's some days I don't even know why I like you. And why don't you ever bring up embarrassing stuff about Ward? Why just me?"
"After the shit you put us through when they made you squad commander?" Kiros asked archly. "You need to ask? Be glad all I do is embarrass you."
I gave him a nonverbal answer that made him laugh. "Save it for the twenty-year-old you're trying to keep up with, old man," he advised.
"You're no help," I complained.
"Then stop thinking about it," he advised. "Here..." A stack of reports was shoved over to my side of the table. "Start doing some real work. I'm getting a cramp in my wrist from forging that scribble you call a signature."
"I'm going to remember this when your birthday rolls around," I warned.
"Considering you forgot it this year, I'm not too concerned," Kiros said. "Start working, Laguna. You can figure out your little problem some other time."
//There is nothing more intimidating than a blank screen with a balefully blinking cursor. I've faced down hungry red dragons that thought I'd make a nice appetizer easier than this.
Yes, I know. I've got twenty-seven days left until your birthday. Surely I can come up with something in that amount of time. Right?
Maybe. That's why I'm starting early. Consider this a preamble. Prologue. Monologue. Something. Maybe inspiration will strike and you won't have to see me babble on endlessly hoping to come up with an idea.
You said you wanted anything. Descriptions of places I've been or people I've met. Kiros thinks you want memoires -- about me, or the family you never had a chance to meet, your grandparents or your mother. I don't know... if you want that, Squall, you can always just ask me. You know that, don't you? We don't talk about it much but if you ever wanted to know it's there for the asking. I'm just never sure how much you actually want to know.
Kiros says I write the way I talk -- which, coming from him, means I babble. He's probably right. I can talk for hours and never say a damn thing. This isn't supposed to be "nothing", though. It's supposed to be something. I mean, I want it to be something -- for you, something that really means something, and I have no fucking clue what I'm doing or what to say and this is all just a huge mess -//
Squall's voice broke the pattern of my fingers on the keys, interrupting the letters in mid-stroke. The rest was pure instinct -- select all, delete. The screen went blank in a flash of two keystrokes, and I snapped the laptop shut with guilty speed. "Ah... no. No, just checking email."
"Mm." His arms came around me from behind as he leaned over the back of my chair, his cheek pressed to mine. "Hungry," he noted. "What do you want for dinner?"
"I don't know," I responded automatically. "Um... just let me close up here. I'll be right there."
"All right." His lips ghosted over my cheek, his breath warm, and then he was gone. I waited until I heard his steps retreat, then fumbled the laptop open again.
The cursor blinked at me, accusingly, from a blank screen.
Put your fingers on the keyboard and type, Laguna. It's not that hard. Just put your hands on the keys. The keyboard isn't going to bite you.
I've told myself that repeatedly but I haven't really managed to convince myself of it. My fingers sit on the keys, and I stare at the blank screen, and the cursor blinks at me and I blink back. Blink. Blink.
Maybe I should name the cursor Hari, because then Hari and I could have a conversation, carried out in silent blinking code, about the futility of words and language in general.
Hari doesn't like words. Hari eats them with a voracious appetite. Every time I try to type something out, Hari backspaces right over it and whisks the letters away, banishing them back into oblivion. We've had this little talk, Hari and I. Hari is a very exacting critic. Possibly Hari just likes having the big blank screen all to himself, a tiny blinking dictator of all he surveys.
I'm anthropomorphizing the cursor of my word processing program and I haven't even had a drink. This is a bad sign.
I don't know where to start. If I could just find somewhere to start, some place to begin, I think it would all flow from there. I just need to catch my stride, or a stride, or something other than the rhythm of the blinking cursor on the blank screen.
Put your fingers on the keyboard, Laguna, and just type.
//Let me tell you a story...//
I've wanted to protect you. Isn't that strange? You're so strong. On the surface you don't need anyone or anything. But all the same... I've wanted to protect you. Sweep you up and keep you safe, take the burden off your shoulders when it weighs you down. You're too young to have such old eyes, love.
But sometimes... sometimes I'm still your father. So maybe it isn't so strange after all.
Let me tell you a story, love. A little something to dream when you close your eyes. I'm no writer... but somewhere down south kilometers of beach stretch out along the coast and play tag with the ocean. And the sun is clear and the days are long and the air is sweet and salty and wet and perfect. The rain rolls in during the afternoons and the flowers are as big as outstretched hands and the whole place smells green and warm.
There's a house there, above the tide line, with a gravel path leading down to the beach. A house with room for two, with big bay windows, and a little garden out back for a kitten to play in. There's tall palm trees leaning over to shade a red tile roof and a smooth plank porch big enough to sit out on.
The nearest neighbor is nearly two kilometers down the beach and they couldn't care less about that little house or the people in it.
You're going to be sunburnt. And then you're going to freckle, all across your nose and cheeks. There's going to be bright auburn gold streaks in your hair, where the sun strips the color out. Your closet is going to forget what it's like to have starch in it -- sweatpants and tank tops and soft cotton shorts are going to crowd out the uniform jackets, and leather, no matter how sexy, is going to be just a little too hot. Too formal. Boots are going to collect dust under the bed.
And when you wake up in the morning, with the sun coming up over the ocean, there isn't going to be an alarm going off. The phone's not going to be ringing. Your email won't be fit to burst with a national crisis. And if you want to close your eyes and sleep another hour, no one will tell you otherwise. Certainly not me. I'll be right there beside you.
The words 'office' and 'conference call' won't be in your vocabulary and the day will be whatever you want it to.
And the best part is... it's not just a story.//
My fingers hit the last keys - R, Y, period. Save. Trite, stupid, sentimental, trash... probably. But they were words, damn it, and by gods I was going to save them. The laptop hummed softly as the file wrote itself, all the words safely locked away in memory.
I couldn't quite bring myself to look back over it, just saved and shut it down. It might be better than I thought, though all I'd done was babble. More likely it was worse than anticipated. But it was words, and if I didn't stop deleting them left and right I'd never get anything written -- so, for right now, the words could stay. Maybe I could make something decent out of it later.
Maybe, if I just write something each day, I can find something real to say. I told you I wasn't a writer.
Sometimes I wonder if this is just a dream. And then I look over -- and there you are. I wake up and you're still there. You can't be awake and dream at the same time, can you?
Yes you can. I know, because I'm doing it. Every day, here, with you.
I know you don't want me to talk about you. But... you are an integral part of my life now. You are one of the most important things I have, if not the most important. You are all of that and more.
Squall... I love you. Always remember that. Always.\\
It's so easy to live day to day, never thinking beyond the end of the week. I've done it for years; we all do. But sometimes, when I'm waiting for the day to end and counting the turns of the clock, I try to think beyond that to the future.
It's strange. I can picture you years from now. Older. Easier with yourself. With the rank and the Gardens left behind, the tight tension you hold yourself in relaxed to something that is just... you. Not the Commander, not the soldier, not the tactician who sees the world in puzzles to be solved. Just you.
I can see myself with you. I can see us together, each of us living in the day to day of that future. Days of sun, of sand, of walking that beach together. Of waking up together and going to sleep together. Each of us as ourselves -- not the men we are now, bound by our duties and the roles of our jobs, but us. The men we will be. Together.
But it's strange... I can envision you at that age, but my imagination fails me when it comes to myself. Maybe I just don't want to remember how much older I will be. I know -- you keep telling me I'm not old. Maybe you're right. Or maybe it just won't matter. Maybe like that, in that day to day, when every moment will be real instead of just passing ticks on the clock... it won't matter because I won't feel it.
No. No 'maybe'. I know it. You already make me forget now. And all you've ever needed to do is be there.\\
I gave you a dream, something to think about. Let me give you another. This one is a favorite of mine.
You and me. Relaxing together, nothing planned, nothing to do. Just sitting together in some little outdoor cafe, under mid morning sun and shade. Coffee and croissants, a spring breeze, no eyes on us, no need to keep our eyes on anyone else.
And then there's you. I'll have done something, or said something. And you... you'll smile. One of those slow, gradual, genuine smiles, the ones that linger in your eyes and brighten your entire face. The ones that no one else sees. Just me. And that alone can change my whole day for the better, just to see one of those smiles, to see you relaxed and enjoying yourself. It strips the years off of you, peels off the mask, like sunlight through clouds. It's amazing to see. I love that smile, the curve on your lips and the light in your eyes.
You'll glance down, then, because you're always self conscious as soon as you realize you've done it. But the smile will still be there, peeking out, and you'll have to forgive me my answering smile -- I can't help it. Not when you make me that happy.\\
Sometimes I wonder what it would have been like. You, me, Ellone, your mother. Together. A family. To have been there when you were born, to have watched while you grew up. I can't even imagine.
I have a hard time envisioning myself as a father. I made a good uncle sort of figure, I think, for a girl Ellone's age. But a father? I wouldn't have known where to start. Your mother used to say that I was too much of an overgrown boy myself -- I was more like one of the kids instead of the adult watching over them.
Raine would have been a good mother. I think... if you could have met her, you would have liked her. And I know she would be proud of you. She was such a small thing but you hardly ever noticed; she had a presence that preceded her into any room, and a spirit and fire to her that made things like height immaterial. She was far more practical than I was. Levelheaded, a planner. You get that from her, I think. You got a lot of things from her -- Ward is right, you look far more like her than you do like me, and you have her strength and steadiness.
I was afraid, at first, that when I saw you I would be seeing too much of her ghost. For a little while I think I did. But it didn't last -- it couldn't. You're too much your own person, and maybe, in the end, you got the best of both worlds. I like to think so.
Raine would have been proud of you, but she's not the only one.\\
One of the peculiarities of my whole life, I think, is that I don't have goals, or dreams, or anything really to strive for. I have convictions, and I tend to make an ass out of myself standing by them, but they're not really goals. It's not something you set out to do, it's just something you stick to along the way.
Don't laugh. Yes, I've got "President" tacked on in front of my name, and "the man who overthrew the Sorceress Adel" tacked on behind it, but that wasn't anything I had ambitions for. It just sort of happened. I got involved in the coup against Adel because I had a conviction against people who set themselves up as rulers of the world and who go around kidnapping other people's children. And a personal gripe because Ellone was one of the children kidnapped. But I sure as hells didn't set out to be put down in the history books as the man who did all of that. I definitely didn't have any damn ambition to be president; they pulled that one on me when I wasn't paying attention and the next thing I knew I was somehow in charge of putting the government back together.
It's been the same all along. I didn't volunteer for the army -- I was drafted for it. I ended up squad captain by means of sheer dumb luck and being in the wrong place at the right time. I ended up getting out the same way. Before the army I was fumbling around through university with decent marks but no idea what I should major in.
I have... morals, I guess. I have a set view of right and wrong, should and shouldn't, good and bad. But my personal goals amount to such smaller things -- to wake up in the morning the way I want to, to do the best that I can through the day, to go to sleep the same way -- it's not the sort of goals you spend your whole life striving for, structuring everything else around it. I tend to get where I am by accident or circumstance, and I'm fine with that. I suppose, given the things I have accidentally done along the way, history will make me out to be ambitious. That, or a saint. I'm not sure which. But really... it's nothing of the sort.\\