Afraid To Love: Thirty Days
By Black Rose
From the bad to the good, the past to the present.
There is a single flower on my desk. Not a rose, nothing so cliched or common. Just a flower, pale cream yellow shaded to sunset orange on the tips, the petals folded inwards in a neat, perfect bud, and thin, dark green leaves. It is, for lack of anything more elegant to put it in, sitting in a styrofoam cup of water that was left over from this morning, presiding in unlikely elegance on the corner of my desk.
If anyone had ever asked me if I thought you would give me flowers, I would have confidently said no. You're a romantic, love, no matter how you try to deny it, but you're not an obvious romantic. You're all about subtlety, not the grand or showy gestures. And yet today, when you came in, you kissed me and put a single cut flower on my keyboard like a left behind finance report, and with about as much fanfare. Not a word of explanation, no presentation, no production; just the flower, left to speak for itself.
Just when I think I can predict you, you never fail to surprise me.
I'm not sure, really, what the flower is supposed to tell me. What I hear from it is "love". I'm going to leave it right there, on my desk, and wait for it open. Michi suggested putting a spoon of sweetener in the water - I'm not sure why, but I'll take her advice since I assume she knows how to keep it alive better than I do.
You're such a romantic. And I'm so incredibly lucky to be able to call you mine.\\
Why do you hate birthdays so much? Or is it only that you hate being the center of attention? I've heard the edict you passed down to the others - no gifts, no cards, no parties, no unauthorized kidnapping of your superior officer for purposes of surprise dinners. You do realize it's futile, right? You've surrounded yourself with some strong-willed individuals. You're their friend. Friends get birthday gifts and birthday parties. Therefore, you get gifts and a party whether you like it or not.
Yes, I'm running interference to make certain that Selphie doesn't get carried away. Everyone has, as far as I know, gotten you something small, practical, and inoffensive. They know you well.
I'm going to have to get you something you can unwrap, you know. So that they don't think I neglected to get you anything at all. Which leads back to the original dilemma of my not having any idea what to get you because you're right - anything I could buy you either don't need or could get yourself with less guessing than I have to do. Well, I have eight days to figure out something...
Ah. No. I know. Or at least I have an idea. It won't be anything big or ostentatious, I promise. You're a very difficult man to shop for, Squall.\\
You've done some amazing things in your life. I know you don't think of it that way, but looking in from the exterior -- my gods. It's not just the military service, or the rank versus your age, or the war. Those, by themselves, would be extraordinary. But combined with the rest, it's almost unreal. The junctions that you take almost for granted, the spells you've had access to and used... and Rinoa.
There aren't that many who can say they have stood that close to a Sorceress, clear-minded, and come away unscathed. I know, in my day, I was one of the few who could claim to have stood face to face with Adel and lived to tell about it. But you... you knew Rinoa before she inherited the power. You knew her before, you knew her after, and more importantly, you were her Knight.
It's a sort of mythic phrase, you know -- the Sorceress' Knight. A figure out of legend, the warrior who would stand at her side and, in theory, both keep her safe and keep the people safe from her. You hear about it in stories, but no one really knows what the reality is... except you. You and Cid Kramer.
Everyone hears the stories when they're children. Now, in this day and age, I have scientific fact to back up the stories -- reams of reports and observations and Odine's cramped, run-on, rambling notes. Between... well, the closest I ever came to even thinking about it, inbetween fiction and fact, was a brief stint as a Knight stunt double in a really (and I do mean really) bad film, which I'm sure Kiros would be only too happy to tell you about in excruciating detail if you asked. But even all of those stacks of reports don't tell the whole story. They boil it down to medical notes, physical symptoms and reactions, but they don't tell the most important point of all -- what is it like?
You've never really spoken about it. When you did you said it was brief, just at the very tail end of the war when she first needed someone to help her adapt. But it doesn't work like that, does it? It's not something that just goes away. I've watched you cope with it, these last months. I've watched you thread your way around it as though you were walking blindfolded through an unmapped mine field. I've watched the Garden Commander and the Sorceress Knight struggle in silence behind your eyes until you were worn ragged with it... and yet you still managed, somehow, to do what was best. To find a solution that you -- and everyone else -- could live with. That she could live with.
She is the only thing I have ever seen drive you to actual tears, and I am more sorry than I can say for my part in that.
I never knew her that well. I wish I had known her better. She seemed like a sweet girl, very like her mother, though I think she must have inherited her temper and strength from her father. But it's hard to see that when the word "Sorceress" is looming like every childhood fear we're ever fed from the cradle on up. It was hard to see her without seeing the thing that Adel became, hard to listen to her without listening to the fear. I'm not as strong as you, and I didn't know her well enough beforehand.
I watched you struggle with it, some days, the Commander needing to think of the broader picture when the Knight wanted to think only of his Sorceress. I watched the Garden Commander sign orders with stone-faced determination that the Knight wouldn't have ever thought of, and I watched the Knight, with silent assurance, face down the worst of his Sorceress' temper when Esthar's finest troops were too scared to even enter the room. I watched you do both of those things, whatever was necessary, whenever it was needed. I watched you, Squall, decide that it would, in the end, be you who carried all of it out -- because you were her friend, and you owed it to one another to see it through together.
Odine's reports talk about measurable fact, the physical responses she had to you and you to her. They can't tell what actually goes on inside. Is it love? Is it loyalty? Is it, as you said, friendship... and that, to your own credit, is simply what you do for your friends? Is it something else, or something more, something we don't have a word for? And so we call it the only thing we can, the Sorceress' Knight, and when Rinoa chose you, Squall, she made the best choice of her life.
I'm not asking you to explain. I know some things can't be put into words. But if you ever do want to try, I will always be ready to listen.
PS - My flower bloomed today. It's a light shade of yellowish green in the center, and the petals curve upwards like a bell. It's lovely.\\
Do you remember our first vacation, love? Our first real one, not those enforced leaves your CMO kept sending you on. Hyne, it must have been my first real vacation in... four years? Closer to four than three, I think. There just never seemed to be a point to all the work of planning to go somewhere if I didn't have anyone to go with.
I remember how much you initially didn't want to go -- you didn't like beaches, you didn't like sun, you didn't like the heat, you didn't surf or sail, and you didn't see the point. Did you know, then, that we would be spending our future down there? Did you have it planned, and all of that protesting just a lot of noise to throw me off track so that you could surprise me later? Or did it sneak up and surprise you as well?
I think it was that last day, for me. All packed up, ready to leave the next morning, nothing else planned, nothing to do. Just sitting on that little patio with you, watching the afternoon rain come in. Listening to the rain, and the ocean, and you. I think I knew then that I didn't want to go... I didn't want to come back to the city and my office, I sure as hells didn't want to put you back on a plane to Balamb. I could have been perfectly content with us in that little bungalow for the rest of my life.
The only problem was that I had absolutely no idea of how to go about bringing up the subject with you. I was trying not to tie you down, remember? The irony of life -- we probably could have saved each other a lot of indecision if we'd just known that we were both thinking the same thing.
Sand, love. My vote is still on the sand-colored sofa with the dark wood. Page forty-three of the catalog, I left it marked.\\
There's a lot to be said for having the stamina of a (soon-to-be) twenty-year-old, but you're going to have to concede that there's something to be said for having the patience and determination of a forty-plus-year-old too.
Hyne, I love watching you sleep.
It's a sort of guilty pleasure, as though I shouldn't be doing it but I am anyways... that doesn't make any sense, I know. But it's true. You relax when you're asleep. You didn't used to, you know, but you do now. I can hold you against me and watch all the tension drain out of you.
You're far too young to have lines but you're starting to develop them, tiny marks between your brows and at the corner of your eyes. They're not permanant yet, though. When you relax, when you stop thinking about work or duties, they fade away, invisible. The tension threaded all through you fades, from scalp to toes, and your weight against me is heavy, quiet, and one of the most welcome things that I know.
It's a cliche, but you look younger like this. Happier. All the walls come tumbling down, all of the shields lowered. I can hold you and I'm just holding you, Squall, not the Commander or the soldier.
Have you ever had anyone who could hold you? Who you could trust to watch over you, who you could relax with? I remember a year ago, two years ago. You were wound so tightly that no one could even walk into your bedroom without waking you, and you woke with a gun in hand, cocked and aimed before you ever opened your eyes. The lines didn't fade away, then. The tension never drained. There wasn't any respite, sleeping or waking.
Don't apologize for sleeping, love. You need it. And I will never complain about holding you while you do.\\
It's odd, sometimes, to remember that I'm sharing you. Not with someone else but with some thing else, something holed up behind your eyes, tucked away in your head where I can't even see it.
I'm really not sure what to think of the junctions, most of the time. Here, in Esthar, you don't use them much. It's easy to forget they're there until I see a side effect from them -- Selphie lifting something that's got to be heavier than she is, or Zell doing katas in a blur of speed faster than the eye can catch. It's things like that which drive it home and they're things the lot of you take for granted... but sweet Hyne, at what price?
I know. I know I don't need to tell you. You do know. You lived through it, I watched you live through it, but even knowing that, even still... you went back and took another as soon as you could. And it -- she -- sits in your mind, eating away at you, and yet you deem it a fair price for the advantages it gives.
I can't argue it. I wish I could, but I can't. I watched it keep Kiros alive. Hyne, it's kept you alive -- all of you have said it, that it was the junctions and the spells that kept you alive through the war. I can't argue with that. All I can do is be incredibly grateful for it. And yet, at the same time, it makes my skin crawl. I saw what you went through, Squall. I don't wish that on any of the others. I sure as hells don't ever want to wish it back on you.
You called it an addiction. Maybe it is. I don't think I would understand... but I've seen Shiva. When you showed her to me, that day, I started to understand. However long I live, that is one moment I won't forget -- watching you disappear before my eyes and her shape take your place, watching the sheer destructive power unleashed in the blink of an eye, and realizing that that was what slept in your mind, curled up like a piece of you inside your head.
It's not just power, or spells, or all of the side effect advantages, is it? They aren't just useful... they're beautiful. Seductive, unearthly, beautiful, and poisonous. But for all that they do, you're more than willing to risk what they take away. I can't blame you, really. If our positions were reversed, I can't say I wouldn't do the same.\\
Soon, love. Three more days. Looking forward to it? Or living in dread? Selphie and Quistis ordered the cake. I think Irvine and Zell are just supplying enough alcohol so that hopefully you won't mind.
Kiros got you something but he won't say what. I'd suggest finding a way to open it from across the room.
Have you started composing your resignation speech yet? I've got mine all written out. I'll probably end up re-drafting it three more times before it's done, though. Don't suppose you can re-use most of the one you used when you resigned from Balamb, can you?
But just think, it'll be the last one you ever have to step up to a podium and give. Ever.
Has a nice sound to it, doesn't it?
I want you down south on that beach. I want you on that beach, with the realization sinking in that you never have to go back. I want to be there, watching, when that realization finally really hits and all of the tension, all of the strain, all of the worry, just drains out of you.
I want to be there, to be the one who catches you, when it does.\\
If I were to tell anyone the sort of things you do when it's just the two of us, they wouldn't believe me. You've perfected that ice-cold public image so well that it's astounding to reconcile the man I know with the man the rest of the world sees.
When I first met you, you believed in the mask. The image was all there was; that was the reality. Over the last years I've watched that image crumble, bit by small bit, cracking and breaking away as you discovered that it was just a mask and that the reality was something much different. I've watched you, cliched as it sounds, discover yourself. I've seen the man who emerged, and I've watched as that man has become more confident in himself.
I couldn't be more pleased or proud. Or glad.
I've watched you smile, the expression coming more easily to your lips, your eyes, than it ever has before. I've listened to you laugh, quiet but real, and out of the public eye you are slowly becoming comfortably unconscious of it. You are relaxed and happy. I've listened to you contemplate and discuss ideas not for battle or death, but for future and life. Our life. Your life. I've watched you fearlessly take yourself apart in ways most men never dare to do, discover a 'new' you, and then create a path into that new direction that you couldn't even see the possibility of two years ago.
No. No one would believe me. In public the mask is a perfect act, what they have all come to expect. It is only behind closed doors that I glimpse the real you. I count the hours and days until the mask is put aside and I wonder, when we are beyond the watching eyes forever, what else we will discover.\\
It is completely unfair that now, this close to the end, I come down with writer's block again. Where's the justice in this?
You didn't say what to write, or how much. Just to write something. It was a personal goal to write you something every day, thoughts and ideas doled out in daily parcels. I started out wanting to write something grand and complete, with beginning, middle and end, but it devolved into this -- tidbits, dreams, observations, whatever flowed off of my fingers when I sat down each day, whatever was on my mind at the time. I hope it's something you will like, or at least something resembling what you wanted. I hope it is something you will remember.
I will certainly remember it. Words have power. Once committed, written down and passed on, they can't be taken back. I wouldn't take any of these back. I mean every one of them. But there's a responsibility when you're writing to pick the choicest and set those down for all time, to give your audience the best thing that you can.
I have an audience of one but even still I can't tell if what I've written will be what you want, or will say what I mean once it leaves my head and is put into words. I hope it does. I hope, when you read this, that you will be able to feel me there through the written words, speaking them to you.\\
It is the eve of your birth. At the hour I sit to write this, twenty years ago, your mother would have already been in labor. Ellone told me she was in labor ten hours before you were born. It was sometime in the early morning of the twenty-third when you were delivered and Raine lived until an hour before noon. Long enough to hold you, Squall. Long enough to give you your name. Long enough, I hope, for her to know the wonder that is her son.
Twenty years later, I lay beside you on our bed and watch you sleep. Watch the clock turn over, closer each minute to precisely twenty years since you first drew breath.
They say that every parent realizes a moment of change when they hold their first child. That it alters something in you permanantly. I wasn't there when you were small enough to fit in the crook of one arm. I wasn't there to hear your first cry. I never knew the child that I should have. I think some part of me will always regret that.
But only a part. The majority of me can't regret. What I lost then can't be regained... and what I have now is nothing I would trade. I love you, Squall. I love you as a friend, as a lover, and yes, as a father. I cannot find it in me to ever regret that. I wouldn't want to.
I love you. And though it's still an hour or so shy of the actual event, the clock has just turned over to the new day -- Happy birthday, love. I know you don't care for it, but let the rest of us celebrate a little... I, for one, am incredibly glad that you were born.\\
The wrapping paper was long gone, torn and crumpled and pitched towards the trash. We'd teased him with it, all of us -- bright gold chocobos on vivid purple fields, fluffy kittens parading over rainbow colored geometric patterns, the more glitter and iridescent shimmer and sparkle and curly ribbon bows the better. In exchange I'd made certain he slept in; "happy birthday" had been uttered in the same tone and lack of emphasis as "good morning" and that had been the last he'd had to hear of it until we descended on him for a quiet, dignified dinner.
He'd born it with good grace and a minimum of grumbling. Selphie had done a master's job of planning the whole thing, in a series of compromises that threaded a fine line between what Squall would consider too much attention and what wouldn't have been enough. We didn't put candles on the cake. It was small, just enough for one piece per person, round and cream flavored with plain white frosting. In exchange, Squall had cut it without complaint and passed the pieces around. The toast had been short and to the point -- happy birthday and good luck in the year to come -- so that even the one being toasted couldn't find an excuse to roll his eyes. By the end of it we all felt we'd pulled off a real feat, rather smug and proud of ourselves, and Squall hadn't put up more than a token resistance the entire evening. The wrapping paper alone -- on one small gift from each of us -- had been exuberant and Squall had sighed once and then taken it with decent humor and a flair for ripping the paper to shreds.
The evening had trailed off with a minimum of fuss, last minute good nights and good lucks and happy birthdays before everyone had wandered off. Back in our rooms, Squall had spilled the gifts, sans wrapping paper, onto the low table and then poured himself across the couch in a boneless sprawl. It looked a pitiful haul for a milestone birthday, only a handful of small gifts, but each one of them had been picked carefully and were more expensive than they looked at first glance -- a set of custom software cds, a bottle of the finest aged scotch, a velvet lined case of iridescent spell laced ammo sized for a pistol caliber and the custom engraved pistol to go with them, and an upswept slice of pale ice and blue crystal that had brought a flicker of stillness to his eyes.
And mine, the token gift I had wrapped in the brightest extravagance of spangled paper that I could find, and which had found their way onto his hands the minute after he'd opened them and had yet to find their way back off again. I leaned down over the arm of the couch to steal a quick kiss. "Happy?"
Squall debated, eyes closed to bare slits, but not for very long. "Yes." He reached up, looping one gloved hand around my neck, and pulled me down for another kiss. "That was less painful than I thought it'd be."
I caught his hand in mine, sliding my fingers through his. The black leather gloves were cut to the first joint and I tugged his hand around, pressing my lips to his bare fingertips. "Told you," I chided.
He made a noise somewhere between disbelief and disgust. His fingers squeezed mine before letting go. He tilted his head back to catch my eyes, upside down, and reached his hands upwards in a long armed stretch. "These really yours?"
I couldn't supress a grin. "No... and yes." I ducked down to press a kiss to his forehead. "Last pair I owned have been in storage for years. Leather's split. I had those cut and made to the same pattern." His fingers were in my hair and I pulled back slowly until he let go. "Broke them in all last week," I admitted. "Conditioner soak, wear them until they dry, repeat. Softens them up fast."
Squall sighed, the ghost of a smile brightening his eyes. "I could tell," he told me, flexing his fingers in slow appreciation. "They feel like you."
"Good." It was too easy to lean down for another kiss; I pushed myself up instead. "Drink?"
"Yes," he answered, and I went to the bar to fetch two glasses, a shot of amber scotch for him and gin splashed tonic for myself.
And the last present, the real one. The one I'd left on the central table, shuffled in amongst our combined paperwork. The thin bundle of printed pages, caught in an unmarked binder, just like any other report. The one I'd spent a lot more time and energy on than the replica of my former combat gloves.
The one which, I found, was a lot harder to pick up and carry back to him than it had been to hand him a box wrapped in glitter spangled rainbow hearts.
In the end it was easiest to just do it quick, with as little fanfare as we'd used the whole rest of the day. He had sat up when I came back and I slipped onto the couch beside him, put his drink in one hand, and slid the binder into the other. "For you," I told him before he could ask. "Present."
Squall gave me a quizzical look, but he took the binder. I settled into the couch cushions as well as I could, my shoulders too tense, and busied myself with a quick sip of the drink that I was cradeling in my hands. I didn't watch -- couldn't, maybe -- as he opened the binder and started to read.
I couldn't bring myself to look up, but I couldn't block out the awareness of what he was doing either. I was absolutely certain I was bright scarlet from my hairline down, the flush hot through my face. He had taken a sip of the scotch before he had started reading, but he was still on the first page when he leaned forward to slide the glass onto the table. He stayed there, elbows braced on his knees, as he read. I listened to the slow turn of each page, gulped another mouthful of gin, and squirmed.
He read it in silence, with the same sort of studied concentration he gave to anything. Twice he made a small noise, something too muted and muffled for me to tell if it was a good sound or a bad one. There was a vice twisting around in my stomach and I bolted down the rest of my drink in quick swallows. When I dared to glance up I couldn't see his expression, hidden behind the tense curve of his shoulder and the fall of his hair. The hand that was turning the pages alternated in slow motion from his mouth to the papers, but from the angle I was sitting at I couldn't tell if he was just reflexively licking his fingertips or if he was deliberately stifling any further outburst of sound.
The last page turned over; the back side was blank. Squall stayed where he was for a long moment, then slowly closed the binder, setting it carefully on the low table. I tried to clear my throat around a tight lump. "Ah... happy birthday, Squall. I wanted... I mean, you asked, and I... um..."
When he looked up I caught my breath. I had, in the last days, written random thoughts about masks, about the ones he kept and the eventual lack of need for them. I'd written a few hopes, thing I couldn't even recall right then, just blathering rambles and idle thoughts.
Until he looked up, and the mask that I had seen crack and thin so often was... gone. Dropped away, cleaner than in sleep or passion, as raw and naked as the wet gleam of his eyes. I lost the words, the sounds turning dry in my mouth, my breath lodged somewhere under my ribs.
He slid into my arms, his own arms tight around me. I grasped him reflexively, the muscles of his back shivering in a slow spasm beneath my hands. "Squall," I gasped, but I couldn't find a word after.
He found one instead, breathed hot against my neck, his hands clenched tight on my shirt and hair. "Thank you." It was small and quiet, exhaled on a shudder, and the unguarded emotion in two syllables took my breath away.
I pulled him closer, pressing my lips to the short hairs at the nape of his neck. Our arms went around each other, tightening, and I gladly sacrificed breath for the warm, solid weight of him. I closed my eyes, finding the ragged end of my voice in a choked whisper.