Afraid To Love: Thirty Days
By Black Rose
It's nice to know I can still wear you out, love. Does my ego good. Not that I wasn't tired too, but it's a good feeling, afterwards, just watching you close your eyes and relax. To have that little shadow of a smile on your face all day, like a cat that's gotten into something it knows it shouldn't but has clean gotten away with it anyways. Smug, love. You looked smug, and I know I sure as hells was. Ought to spend every day off just like that.
(You are such a tease. All day without a stitch on, nothing but bare skin every time I turned around. Just how much willpower do you think I have?)
And after the fact, with the sheets a tangled mess and you stretched out across them, just listening to the sound of your breath until I fell asleep with you; that was perfect. That was something we ought to do more often.\\
You have so much strength. Discipline and strength, a focus I can't even come close to. I know you don't think of it that way -- you measure yourself by a scale so much greater than what the rest of us think in, a scale reserved for the impossible, for the earth shapers, for the quick and the dead.
The scars that mark your skin are the only medals you have, worn with as much pride as a fistful of gleaming metal. I can map out the war on your body in the lines of scars, too many to count and beyond your ability to recall where or how you got them. Even spells can't fade them fast enough. Some of them will be there forever, permanant reminders of a full life lived before you were ever grown. You aren't the only one, either -- you all have them, even Selphie, who seems so young and small I can barely envision her in combat. But she wears her scars, the same as you do, and you are all so much stronger than you look.
I haven't decided if I ought to thank the Gardens for giving you that strength, or damn them for putting you in a position where you needed it in the first place.
I know. You have your own troubles with them. You aren't blinded by idealism -- you're a realist, you know what's wrong with the system that produced you, and you've ripped it apart and redesigned it bare-handed in order to keep the mistakes from perpetuating into future generations. But realism means admitting that you yourself are the result of the very flaws you're trying to abolish. You know what you've lost, what you've sacrificed, and what you won't ever be able to get back.
I think that is what makes me angriest. But from the outside, looking in, I suppose I can afford my own type of futile idealism. You, who are living it -- you can't. Or you won't. And that is where your strength shines; in the will that gets you up each morning to do a job that you hate, but to do it as well as it is in your power to do because you won't accept less. From anyone, for any reason. Not even yourself.
They aren't going to know, or appreciate, what they created -- and, at the same time, ruined -- until you leave. And I can't help but hope they choke on it.\\
Do you know how gratifying it is to an old man to know that you wanted me?
I know. I won't go on about my age if you won't. But it's the truth. You could have anyone; your name is internationally known, you're a hero, an officer, you're on the same level as the head of most governments. You're respected, you're young, you're incredibly handsome, you're smart, you're capable... the list is longer than my arm, Squall, and no matter how you roll your eyes and shake your head it's still all true. There isn't a person alive with a functioning heartbeat who wouldn't fall all over themselves to come running if you called.
And you wanted... me.
Don't say it. I know. I am, according to the Esthar social circle gossip, a bit of a catch myself. Every time I turn my back they make me out to be something else - war hero, Sorceress vanquisher, President, and some sort of tragic romantic figure out of a bad movie just because I never remarried and I didn't want to talk about Raine to the press. Which is why I didn't want to, because the press makes up plenty of shit by itself without giving them more ammunition to work with.
But you... you know the truth behind the image of me that they market. You said it yourself, that first time. Blunt fact -- I'm nothing but a silly Galbadian soldier. I wasn't even a good soldier, I just had a string of dumb luck. Twenty years in Esthar hasn't polished that out of me -- I have the most efficient secretary in the whole country because without her I'd be a walking disaster. If I drink too much you can still hear the south Deling accent on my vowels. I'm a lousy politician, Squall. I'm too inclined to go with gut instinct instead of security reports, I'm too trusting, I'm not nearly cutthroat enough. If the mess with Adel hadn't catapulted me here there's no way in hells I could have climbed this far on my own. Left to my own devices I'd be.... nothing. No one. No one of any importance or significance.
And you know it. You know it. And yet... you still wanted me. Out of everyone you could have had, you picked me.
I don't know why. I just know how thankful I am that you did. Because I'm not blind, and I know what a catch I have in you. Maybe Hyne has a sense of humor. Maybe somehow, in the mix of things that we both are and aren't, maybe, together, we make up the difference. I don't know, but sometimes it feels like it. You are everything I have never been but have always admired. I don't understand what you see in me, but I'll trust that whatever it is, it must be right.\\
This gets a little easier every time I sit down to do it. Writing, I mean. I've tried hard to think about what to write, what you might want to hear. Some days I can't seem to think of anything, and other days I can think of so much that I don't know where to start.
Writer's block, the perfect allegory for the rest of my life.
It's hard to picture what I'm going to do when I get out of office. I know I want out. I know I want that house, with you. I can picture all of that vividly in my mind. I just... don't know, day by day, what in hell I'm going to do if I'm not dealing with meetings and conferences and paperwork and a million other official things.
Sleeping in. That's the first step. I am going to spend a month just getting used to not having an alarm waking me up every morning. Growing really accustomed to the feeling of having enough sleep, of drinking coffee because I feel like it and not because I need it to achieve some semblance of coherency. And the feeling you only get on your days off all right, on my days off. You... get up whenever you get up, and if you really like the crack of dawn I won't argue as long as you don't expect me to get up at that hour.) when you can wake up leisurely, stretch and roll over, and take your time getting up. I want to get very very accustomed to that feeling.
But after that... I don't know. I haven't had the time for a hobby in years. Maybe I ought to make the time now.
If you suggest writing my memoires I'll put vinegar in your scotch.\\
If anyone asked me what being in love was like I would have to tell them... it's a little like deliberately standing in the middle of a cactaur nest. And then setting yourself on fire.
All right, that's an exaggeration. But not by much. Love is a lot of things -- thrilling, spontaneous, exhilarating, overwhelming, out of control -- but I don't think I've ever heard anyone describe it as "comfortable" or "stable". Or if they did, they weren't talking about the act of falling in love. They were talking about the love that you have two decades and a family later. The first can grow into the second, but they're two different things.
As uncomfortable as 'falling' in love can be, I want it to last. For as long as it can, I want it to last. I want to look back over each day and remember one moment when the frisson hit me all over again, as fresh and new as the first time -- you, your voice, your smile, your touch -- and I can feel the overwhelming awe of it. Maybe it's just one moment or even one second out of each day but it wakes you up. It makes you look at it all out of fresh eyes. It makes your heart pound and your breath catch and you feel alive in a way nothing else can compare to.
I want to treasure those moments. I want them to last. I won't mind being comfortable with you, but I don't ever want to take you for granted.\\
Illicit secrets -- can I share those here? Well, why not?
Here's a secret, then -- when you were back in Balamb, those last months, and you asked me to send you something; I knew exactly what to send you. Because it's exactly what I would have wanted, in your circumstance.
There's something so... I'm not sure of the right word to use here. So warm, so comforting, so perfect in putting on someone else's shirt. Something that someone you love has worn before you, that belongs to them. It's like wrapping yourself in their embrace, wearing their presence spread over your skin, as close as the fabric. It's worn and creased in places yours wouldn't be, it maybe still has a subtle scent -- their scent, the fragrance they wear, or a touch of shampoo against the collar, or a detergent different than yours. All together, it's a scent that just means them; that person, that love.
Wearing someone else's shirt during the day is a subtle, invisible thrill -- a secret held only between you, them, and the fabric touching your skin like an extension of their fingers.
It might sound strange, but it's true. And I'm not the only one who thinks so. I'll tell you a secret -- your mother had a habit of 'borrowing' my shirts on the pretext that hers were in the laundry. You must have gotten it from her, but you've cut out the 'excuse' part and just borrow them at will.
Of course, you've probably noticed I borrow yours too. Like I said -- I knew what to send you because it's what I would have wanted. A shirt is the next best thing when you can't be there yourself.\\
In thirteen days you'll turn twenty. You've already done more, in two decades, than many people do their entire lives.
At your age... no. Let's backtrack. You became the Commander of Balamb Garden at seventeen. Let's start from there. At seventeen I had just started university. Galbadia West -- my marks in school hadn't been good enough to get into Deling. It was less a lack of understanding than it was a lack of discipline; I had a record of skipping classes and a habit of forgetting about papers until the last minute. I made myself a promise that I would do better in university; bring my marks up, really make something out of myself.
Worked great during that first year, prelim base classes, nose in the books, trying to stay focused and work hard. The problem started towards the end of the year, when I had to start picking classes for the next year -- in theory, classes that would lead to a major and then to a profession.
You majored in tactical strategy, didn't you? Minor in programming. And the Garden starts you early, speed trains you, so that both were so advanced that you were considered qualified to use them as a professional at the age when most people are just trying to figure out what they want to start training in. Me? I... dabbled. I dabbled in everything. I put myself on the one and a half course track just so that I could take one class here, another class there, try one subject, then another... I had no fucking idea what I wanted to do. I liked school. I did. Yes, when the weather was good I'd rather have been out and doing things, but I liked learning new ideas. I liked knowledge for its own sake, not with a goal in mind. I would go into a class and love learning the theory, but have no real desire to put it into practice. Statistics, social theory, psychology, law, journalism -- I took beginning classes in all of them, and the only one I really didn't enjoy was accounting.
Dabbler in all subjects, professional in none. If there had been such a thing as a professional student I probably could have done that easily. Instead, I ended up drafted for mandatory service in the tail end of my third year and then, when my five-year term with the army was almost up, Adel took control in Esthar and resistance fighting broke out on the Timber front and everyone already in service was recalled for an extended term. And here we are... funny. It never really occurs to me, unless I sit down and think about it, that I don't even have a university degree. Never seemed to really get in the way, you know? I think I probably put everything I tried to good use at some point. Maybe dabbling just makes you a career do-it-all.\\
I cannot wait to be able to take you out. To have us both out of the public eye, away from where we're expected to be seen, somewhere we can go walking without the security guards, without the hassle, without the constant vigilance. I want to be able to take you out for dinner. I want to be able to go walking, shopping... just anything. Anything we want.
I want to be able to take you out to do something fun. Something you enjoy. Something as far away from business and offices and paperwork as we can get.
Would you go dancing with me?
I'm sure I'm nowhere near as up to date on the club scene as you and your friends are. But I know what I like. I know what looks good. And I've seen you move to a drum beat. I want to take you out and show you off, because that deserves to be shown off. You know damn well how good-looking you are, even if you don't like saying it. At your age, that deserves to be taken out and flaunted.
I admit it -- I want to watch them watching you. Because at the end of the night, I'm the one who gets to take you home.\\
When I asked you, once, where you had gotten the scar on your face, I didn't know what to expect as a reply. It's too clean and straight to be from a beast, too sharp to be anything but man-made. I think maybe I was expecting some story of a fierce battle during the war, close quarters hand-to-hand, an ambush, a mission, something that would really linger in the memory.
Instead, you told me it was a training scar. "Just" a training scar, as though it were nothing at all and you were almost surprised I bothered to mention it. When pressed on the subject you admitted that the Gardens don't waste spells on minor training wounds, which is why it scarred the way it did. When pressed even more you admitted it had been caused by a gunblade.
I lost it. I realize that. I've used a gunblade, Squall, Galbadia trained with them back in boot camp. And all I was seeing was a horrific vision of what would have happened if the shot, as well as the blade, had hit you in the face like that. A really, really horrifying vision of your dead body. I think I can be excused for a mildly hysterical reaction.
We didn't have the same rapport back then as we do now. You rolled your eyes and sharply informed me that you didn't train with live ammunition. Good. But you certainly trained with live steel and I will forever stand by the fact that if something as big and heavy as a gunblade is close enough to leave that kind of mark then it's too damn close. I understand weapons training, I understand the occasional accidents that come with it. But it is absolutely negligent of the Gardens to allow their trainees to inflict that kind of damage on each other, and that was exactly what your tone implied -- that it was so routine, so unremarkable, that it barely even qualified as an event.
I think that was probably when I started having issues with how the Gardens conducted business. There is a cavalier disregard for life in the way they were initially set up that is, on some level, utterly abhorent to me. I know you've done your best to change that, to improve the chances and the options for the graduating classes that will come after you. I appreciate that. But the attitude, that way of thinking, is still in some respect there. It shows in all of you, in your acceptance of your chances, in your almost casual recitation of personal facts like the number of life or healing spells that have been used on you. It's more than just the way a soldier thinks. Soldiers in an army will look forward to their next paychecks, to their families, their homes, their lovers, their futures.
When I first met all of you there wasn't a one of you who even understood the concept of "future". You had no plans, no ambitions, no aspirations. You -- and I mean that in the plural, Squall, you and Zell and Selphie, all of you -- had one thing only: duty. An adherence to duty at the cost of your personal dreams, health and life that was almost mechanical. You were not the soldiers carrying out the mission -- you were the mission, the weapon, created for one purpose without recourse to any other.
I've met Cid Kramer. I can't really blame him solely for what the Gardens became; I don't think he knew, in his grand dream of what could be, what was actually being done. He's a sharp business man and he might be a good tactician, but he's not a bureaucrat and I think it was probably a bureaucratic decision to place finances and success above life.
You told me once, when you were looking forward to the prospect of field missions as a welcome respite from desk work, that your probable life expectancy was less than thirty years. You weren't sure, but that's what the statistics said. And then you couldn't understand why I so emphatically didn't want you out on the field.
Love, if they told you thirty years in those statistics, they lied. The Garden doesn't train military personnel. The Garden trains front line soldiers. Front line soldiers who are on the front line, every mission, every day, every hour. The burnout rate for a front line soldier on duty rotations is less than three years, and they didn't even offer you that buffer. "Off duty", to you, is still on duty. Always. A body and mind can't maintain that level of constant top-of-the-line readiness without wearing out. Thirty years -- thirteen of them active -- would have taken a miracle.
I am more grateful than I can say that you are getting out. I can only hope the others do likewise -- sooner, rather than later. The Garden sees statistics, troop strength and numbers. I see far too many young men and women who have been put on death row before they ever learned how to live.\\
I'm sorry. I meant this to be about pleasant subjects, a comforting read, and instead I keep finding unpleasant things to talk about.
I suppose that's the way life is. Some things are unpleasant, and sometimes the harder you try not to talk about them the more they build up, until the pressure bursts and you find yourself saying things you might not have started out to say.
You know what I mean. You're an awful liar, Squall. If it's in the line of duty you can put on your command face and change or omit any facts necessary for the greater good of the mission. But if it's personal... you don't lie well. I'm not sure I've ever heard an outright falsehood from you. You prefer to not talk at all rather than lie, and even when you aren't talking the things you don't say lay heavy on you.
It's not a fault, love. If anything, it's an admirable quality. But I know it's not the most comfortable of ones.
If I had never asked about that scar you wouldn't have been put in a position where you had to tell me more than you meant to. If you were less honest than you are, you could have brushed it aside and simply never brought it up. But you are, and I did... The subject kept coming back to haunt you until you told me all of it, presented in stone-faced bits of information that you didn't want to discuss. I won't say I'm sorry for it. I value the trust you've given me far too much to be sorry for it.
What I am sorry for is the events themselves. I'm sorry that fucking bastard ever lived to lay a hand on you. I'm sorry we didn't track him down and arrest him at the end of the war, so that I could have put a gun to his goddamn head myself. I'm sorry, and I'm angry.
No -- I'm not angry. That's not the right word. I'm goddamn fucking furious. And there is nothing I can do about it. There is nothing I will do about it. It's not mine to do.
I won't pretend to understand because I don't. Looking in from the outside, maybe all I see is the surface -- I see that he hurt you, I see that he marked you, I see shame and guilt written on you and all I want is a good chance to wring his damn neck. Maybe I'm not seeing all of the picture. Maybe I'm not seeing reasons, or circumstances, or what it was you felt at the time -- you tell me facts, enough to qualify as truth, but you can't make me see through your eyes. I'm not asking you to. Just... understand that I can't see through yours, and at the same time I can't make you see through mine.
When I first heard the name "Seifer Almasy" it was in the context of a field intelligence report, a footnote on the identity of the Sorceress Edea's Knight, and the general in charge of the army that was threatening my country's borders. It wasn't hate, then, so much as just black and white - battlefield terms, war terms; to attack my people makes you my enemy, so that's what he was. There was nothing personal in it.
It wasn't until I learned how many of the scars on your body have his name on them, how many habits have his name stamped on them... until I learned what he did, how he marked you... it wasn't until then that I learned to hate him. It is very personal, and that is why there isn't a damn thing I can do. Laguna, the man, would like to track the bastard down and kill him -- for what he did to my lover, for what he did to my son. But President Loire doesn't have that sort of option or freedom, and maybe that's what you were counting on... because really, it's not my place to do anything. You are your own man, and it's far too late for me to go charging in and wreak retribution for things which are none of my business.
It doesn't stop the anger, but the difference between man and beast is our ability to reason above and beyond our emotions.
I'm sorry for a lot of things, and maybe some of them you can understand and some of them you can't, just like I can and can't understand why those things happened in the first place. But I'm not sorry you told me. I'm grateful that you trust me that much. You were honest with me and now... I'm being honest with you. It's all we can do, love.\\