WARNING: In this chapter; very heavy angst, a dash of yaoi lemonade, thoughts of suicide and more than 4,000 words of plot. Squall's POV, in case you haven't already guessed. Almost justifies the NC-17 rating on its own. I think it might start to clear up the mysteries surrounding Squall's involvement in the Intelligence puzzle...
DISCLAIMER: You must have figured it out by now. The characters and locations are Squaresoft's. I own nothing but a PC, Britain's second last copy of FFVIII for said operating platform (seriously), and a sick mind.
Chapter Ten - Of Voluntary Death
Seifer was looking at him again. He kept doing it, glancing sideways at him like he thought he was hiding something. It made it worse that he really was hiding things, of course. But that was nothing new.
Squall wanted to tell him that it was the same old silence as before, but he knew Seifer wouldn't accept that answer. Seifer had never accepted that Squall needed to hide anything at all from him. Now wasn't the time to make him accept that. Now, when Alex Brannard had been dead for less than three days. When one of his colleagues had killed him.
He looked up from his scrutiny of the pattern of the carpet outside Laguna's office when Seifer's mobile went off. He didn't know whether or not to hope it was Selphie. Seifer listened intently for a moment, said something Squall didn't catch and looked over to him. "She wants us down there."
"One moment." He opened the office door; Laguna and one of his ministers looked up from their study of a report. To stop his father asking inappropriate questions Squall quickly cut in, "Selphie needs us. Will you manage for now?"
Laguna smiled. "It's not like you're leaving me undefended. Get down there before you start needing protecting from her." Squall nodded and withdrew without another word. Words took so much effort to say sometimes. Especially words like 'Forgive me', or 'I'm sorry'.
Seifer had called in another pair of guards to double for himself and Squall. He stood there at the end of the corridor with his finger on the elevator button, waiting, looking like some angel of retribution who could not take his eyes off Squall because of the price that still had to be paid. At least he wouldn't try to talk to Squall till they were downstairs. But three days ago their silences had been friendly. Now...
Squall fought the urge to break and run as they approached the door to Laguna's apartment. There wasn't even the hint of a smile on Seifer's face. He normally smiles even when he's angry. He's going to ask questions. I heard them talking, when they thought I wasn't there. They're going to ask me about it. Got to find a lie that won't hurt.
Any lie hurts now. Was it your lies that killed Brannard?
Selphie was waiting in the middle of the living room, almost jumping up and down in excitement. She managed to hold back until Squall got the door shut. "I got the final suspect list sorted out! Now I want us to go over those bios again, and look at all the details. There's a couple I think we can rule out real quickly, but there's some who look really suspicious."
"You mean the ones where there isn't full debriefing data on all of their missions?" Seifer said all casually. The pit dropped out of the bottom of Squall's stomach.
"Sometimes," Selphie said with a dubious look, "but I was thinking maybe there might be other explanations for that. Squall? I hoped you could tell us. Because there's no detail in the debrief for one of your missions, and it's a bit weird, specially because it's the dead guy - Brannard - who was supposed to have done it." She stopped, looking all expectant, almost like a child after sweets.
How could he tell her this candy wouldn't suit her taste? The question and its horrible answer had been revolving round Squall's mind for two days, since he'd started wondering why Brannard had died. He'd almost gone mad with it all. He would, if he had to face now what he'd done then. Lie. You know you can.
"I don't know why it isn't there," he said, trying to keep his face blank.
"We jumped on the problem because it was one of the missions Meiroth says was sabotaged," Seifer told him, suspicion radiating out of his very being. (You'll lose him, you'll lose him...) "Do you know what she found?"
Thank Hyne there's something I can tell them. "Yeah, the enemy was listening in on our radio conversations. It was meant to be a protected line. Brannard reckoned they hadn't needed help to break it." He felt like he was babbling and shut up as quickly as he could. He'd hardly talked at all in two days. Not even when he and Seifer had been in bed together. He'd wanted to tell Seifer how much he loved him, so he would hear it before he found out the truth and stopped loving Squall back, stopped listening to what he had to say. The words just hadn't come out. Yet another failure on his slate, inscribed on his soul so he couldn't forget what kind of person he was.
Selphie wasn't finished. Some part of Squall wanted to wrap his hands round her neck and squeeze and squeeze till she stopped asking him questions; another part hated himself even more for daring to think a thought like that. She was right to ask because he was wrong. Always and fundamentally wrong. "There aren't even the usual details on who you were fighting and what you were doing."
OK. Partial truth doesn't hurt. Can't hurt. "A terrorist group active across the Protectorates. The army wanted to wipe them out. We had Galbadia's support because the group was attacking them mainly, Esthar on the side."
"On the side was a big enough reason for Esthar to step on them?" Seifer sounded like he didn't believe it. Sure, it was out of character for the mighty Estharian army to step on bugs. But...
"They were raising hell without even trying. They were so much trouble they had to be got rid of." You told the truth again. You're getting good at this.
"What were you doing in there? Fighting?"
He shook his head. "I was a scout."
"They wasted you on scout work?" Selphie said, amazed.
"I got injured. Broke a bone and had to drop out before the fighting started. It was a messy break; they couldn't set it in the field hospital, so I couldn't throw a Curaga over it - you get the picture." He forced himself not to lick his dry lips and continued, "The army wiped out the group. Completely. Killed them all. We got their records to prove it. Maybe that's why there isn't an EIC record of that mission. We completely finished the job, couldn't go back to it, so there wasn't any point writing down what was done. Or maybe the traitors did steal the records because Brannard put in something about the leak in the radio system," he added belatedly. He was babbling again. Not for the first time he wished his mouth had a rewind button.
"That's probably it." Seifer relaxed a little, and Squall relaxed a lot. Seifer was actually acting like he wasn't going to ask him anything else. He wasn't going to get close to that question. "How about we take a look at the rest of the stuff?"
"Yes, yes, over here," Selphie chattered immediately, pulling the two men over to her computer. "Come see. The top five people are the ones we need to look at first.
"Now, not all the missions went wrong in ways that had to be caused by people on the mission. Of course there's times when undercover agents were killed before they'd had a chance to arouse suspicion, but there's things like Squall's tapped radio where someone at HQ could have got hold of the right information and called the enemy. But we don't always know who really did know the right information. So most of the list is people who might have known things, rather than people who actually did.
"The ones at the top we have to look at first because any three of them, or almost any combination of two of them plus one of the rest of the list, could have found out everything or been everywhere. So we're looking for at least one, almost certainly two, maybe three, of these guys."
"How many on the rest of the list?" Seifer asked.
"Thirty or so. But once we get which of the main gang it is, we can rule out a lot of the rest because most of them could only have supplied the gaps for one or two of the main suspects." She opened the five Intelligence bio sheets on the desk, spreading them out where Squall and Seifer could see them. Four of the main suspects were men, the other was a woman; there was no way Squall could tell if he would recognise them or not, when they had no pictures to go off but only brief physical descriptions. For security reasons, photographs of Intelligence agents were kept separate from their mission records. Meiroth would release the photos to them only when they had definite names.
"Martin Goldhawk, Dayn Lamond, Silvar Morris, Melanie Hadham and Hertisan Stubbs. Was this all from opportunity?" Seifer asked.
"Yes. That stuff in their off-duty records you looked for really helped." Selphie looked back at the record. "Morris wasn't in the offices at all on the day Brannard was killed. And they're sure it had to be a man that did it - or a woman a lot stronger than Hadham is. So, if it was someone from the main group it was one of the other three. Of course, it could have been an accomplice -"
"Whatever," Squall cut her off, starting to feel more like himself. "What about the past thirteen months? What about that ambush that went pear-shaped?"
"Goldhawk was the only one who probably didn't know about it."
"I thought hardly anyone knew about it -"
"That's the thing. It was just these four and Meiroth that did know. Hadham and Stubbs were infiltrating, and Lamond was mission control. Morris was working with Meiroth to set it up."
"So why is he still in question?" Seifer asked, jabbing at Martin Goldhawk's file.
"Because he was the only person who knew the whereabouts of two assassinated agents, and he was the only one except Hadham who knew about one of the raids soon enough to warn the enemy about it."
Squall forced his brain into gear. "I think we could go on all night proving these guys could have done every screw-up on the list. You still think it's more likely that there's fewer than five in on it, Selphie?"
She nodded. "They could be all in on it together - but I think someone would have made a mistake by now, really."
"So we stop looking at opportunity."
"Motive?" she inquired. "Any of them could be in on it for the money -"
"So we get their bank statements," Seifer interrupted her.
"They wouldn't put illegal money in a public bank account. Not if there was lots of it."
"So we look for small unmarked pay-ins, and we check for big purchases that they didn't pay for with traceable gil." Seifer was starting to look pleased with himself.
"And we look for other motives," Squall added.
"Like what?" Selphie asked.
He pointed to the computer, which was displaying Laguna and Meiroth's timeline of trouble. "You were the one who first said most of the leaks benefited troublemakers or rebels."
"So we're looking for someone with a background of supporting rebellion."
"It's more than that. Say these rebel groups, or some of them, trade information and make alliances. We might be looking for someone from anywhere on the planet that would actually benefit from civic disturbance."
"Or one person from that kind of area and one or two who're being paid for it," Seifer sighed.
"You got it," Selphie answered. "Squall, I'll go off and get Meiroth to try to hunt down the bank statements and their proper payslips. You two want to look through the bios for suggestive stuff?"
"Sure." Squall turned Morris's file to the right page and started reading. As Selphie left the room, Seifer drew over Lamond's bio.
They read in silence for a few minutes. Suddenly, Seifer pushed back the file. "This ain't going to work. We need stuff that won't be in here."
"Like what they think about rebellion, rather than whether they come from somewhere prone to it? I agree."
"So how can we really narrow this down?"
Squall frowned. He had half an idea but, firstly, it would mean leaving Esthar and, secondly, he didn't know if he could bring himself to work on just any angle of the problem. "We might have to go into the field if we get something that might match psychologically."
"So we might as well find something else to do now." Seifer grinned, looking more like a feral cat than usual, and dropped the file and drew Squall into a fierce kiss.
After a minute or so Squall was able to break away. "We can't stop working just because you're horny."
"And you aren't? C'mon, Squall, we didn't get any time last night. And you were the one who said we aren't doing anything useful here."
So it was faintly true. But that didn't change his own feelings. Yeah, he'd missed it last night when he and Seifer had just fallen into bed and gone straight to sleep with barely a word to each other. But, while there were times in his life when he'd felt less like having sex - such as when he'd come straight from a nightmare - there weren't many. But I don't want him to hate me. Come on, this won't be the first time I've done things I didn't want to do for the sake of something worthwhile.
So when Seifer pressed their lips together again he kissed back, surprising himself with the intensity he could conjure from a single resolution to make his lover happy. He was the first to touch, to stroke sensitive skin and feel the tiny rush of satisfaction when he realised how much pleasure a brushing hand could bring. And if he was the first to mention that having sex in someone else's living room wasn't a good idea, he was the one who brought up the suggestion of the bathroom. He was the one who locked the door behind them - so I have to go through with this - and the one who straddled Seifer's lap while they sat on the edge of the bathtub so they could make out some more. He was the one who started the loosening of clothing.
There was one moment, when he was busy rubbing shampoo over Seifer's hardness, when he decided he ought to say why Brannard had failed to file all the debriefing data from that mission. But when he bent over the sink and Seifer slowly slid into his expertly relaxed ass he knew he couldn't. There was no way he could stand the hatred and the rejection.
For the first time he saw a possible virtue in rear entry. Seifer couldn't see the look on his face. Maybe I'll even learn to like this, in the time we have before he leaves me. Seifer's hand rubbing over him, pleasuring him in the first sense of the word, felt so good that it almost hurt. Squall leant back into him, moving in the way Seifer liked so much - can't allow myself to feel the pleasure properly, not when I don't deserve it - and, when Seifer's hand tightened spasmodically over him, he gave vent to the moans he'd spent so long holding back. He came over Seifer's waiting fingers, helpless before the other man's skill and his own need.
For he could see now that he really did need Seifer, as far more than an outlet for sexual frustration. He needed the other man's strength just to help him through both the days and the interminable nights. He needed Seifer's charisma to help him lead when he had nothing left. He needed Seifer's wit when he couldn't smile and his cleverness when he couldn't think of a single thing to say or do, when the knowledge of what he was threatened to paralyse him. He simply needed Seifer, his own shining knight, so much more and so much better than he could ever be.
How will I cope when he leaves me?
Seifer cried out as his seed flooded Squall. He almost fell forward, and clung onto the shorter man like there was nothing else in the world but him. Squall felt another rush of unhappiness, this time because of the way he'd deluded his wonderful Seifer so badly. "I love you," he whispered, reaching out backwards and pulling the tall blond's body even closer to him. Had sex always been so bittersweet?
Seifer kissed the back of Squall's neck, still breathing hard. Eventually he pulled all the way out and turned Squall round in his arms so they could play tonsil hockey again. "You're wonderful," he said a few minutes later. Squall bit back the pain and the knowledge of how impossible it would be to make Seifer see the truth. He just pressed his face into Seifer's chest and wished they could stay where they were forever.
"Selphie's going to come back," he said to Seifer's right nipple. "We can't stay here."
"Damn you; you're so sensible." Seifer kissed him again, then released him. "You kind of made a mess," he added, pointing to the floor at their feet.
"Leave it," Seifer told him, grabbing a handful of toilet paper and wiping himself off. "You go take a shower. In your own bathroom. If you stay in here now I'll get in with you and we'll never get anything done."
Squall blushed at the thought. "I won't be long." He pulled his clothes back round him and hurried out of the apartment.
He leant against the door after he'd pushed it shut, trying not to think. Seifer couldn't help but remind him of things but it was worse when he wasn't there. When it didn't even look like he loved Squall. When it might be just another dream.
He started to walk towards his own rooms, turning the whole problem over and over in his mind. He was getting more and more desperate to tell the truth. Every time he saw Seifer he remembered how Seifer had forgiven him for things like giving him that scar and trying to kill him and not protecting him from Ultimecia. But this time he'd done something Seifer would truly hate him for. Something everyone would hate him for.
The half-memory of the conversation he might have dreamt prodded at his mind again, like it had for three days. If he hadn't imagined it - if it were real - then he had a clue to the traitor's identity. But it was a clue he couldn't bring himself to reveal.
And yet... Brannard's death had been terrible, but there was little Squall could have done to prevent it. That wouldn't be true next time, or the time after that. If Seifer died because Squall couldn't face rejection...it would be ten times as bad as abandonment. More than that, because he would have to know that the world had lost a wonderful person.
I can't live without him. But in the end, I'll lose him either way. Wouldn't it be better to know he's alive somewhere, even if he can't stand to look at me, than to know he'd died because he didn't know the truth?
But maybe the truth would kill him. Maybe that was why Brannard died. Because he was the only one who did guess, the only one who was there to see.
He pushed open his door and stared at the bed. It was worse when they were in here, when he and Seifer shared a bed while trying to pretend there was nothing wrong. That was a lie and they both knew it. Their lovemaking earlier proved it.
Squall stopped in his tracks. Something was wrong. The room somehow didn't feel like it normally did; was that a trace of cigarette smoke in the air? Neither he nor Seifer smoked, and the staff wouldn't have been indulging in his bedroom. And nobody else should have been in here. So how...?
Then he saw the envelopes. They were lying on the floor by the bed. Squall slowly walked up to them, his heartbeat thudding in his chest. One letter was addressed to Seifer, the other to him.
Squall pulled on his leather gloves automatically and picked up Seifer's letter, the one on top. He weighed it in his hand for a second. Nothing appeared to be inside other than maybe a single sheet of paper. He set down the sealed envelope and picked up the other, the one addressed to him. This was heavier. Only slightly, but it was noticeable.
He moved away from the bed towards the window. Perhaps it would be better to open it in the bathroom, just in case there was something like a poisoned needle inside. He told himself that there was nothing to be afraid of; it was only a letter. Only a piece of paper. Words couldn't hurt.
They could and did.
Squall pushed the bathroom door open, then in a blinding piece of illogic closed it behind him. He held the envelope over the sink and gingerly opened it, sliding one finger along the seam. No suspicious powder or sharp scraps of metal fell out. He stuck his hand inside. His fingers closed round a thick, glossed sheet of paper. A photograph.
Something inside his mind melted.
They didn't...not that. Anything but that.
His fingers twitched. There was a scrap of paper nestled up against the photo; he tweaked it out with nerveless fingers. It landed right side up in the sink.
Squall's hands were shaking. This isn't happening. Sweet Hyne, I must be dreaming. The nightmares are getting more inventive. Do I find out how inventive? I don't want to. I want to burn that envelope right now. Fuck this, come on, Squall; get a hold of yourself. It might not be that.
It might not...it might...
He slid the photograph out of the envelope and looked at it.
The picture fell to the floor, a crumpled ball of filth. Squall ran to the door and threw the bolt across, and just made it over to the toilet before he started to throw up. A few minutes later he wiped his mouth with a trembling hand and turned round to look at it. Lying there, on the floor. Proof of what he'd done. Evidence of how he'd betrayed Seifer and himself and all the people he'd ever loved. Evidence of how wicked he was.
Squall sank down against the wall, curling his knees to his chest, unable to tear his gaze from the six-by-four sheet of paper that had finally ruined his life for good. It proved to him and all the world that however far he ran and however hard he tried to hide he couldn't escape the consequences of his actions. He didn't deserve to.
He'd thought they'd all died. And then Brannard had died too, and there had been no-one left except him who knew. Nobody who could tell Seifer and make him leave. But there was someone out there after all who understood that Squall didn't really deserve to escape this truth. It was what he was. He knew that as well as he knew his name.
Seifer knew he was in here. He would break down the door, and look at the picture, and walk out of Squall's life then and there.
But he couldn't move. He couldn't go over to the picture and tear it into unidentifiable pieces and throw it out of the window for the Esthar breeze to scatter. Because there was something out there that was larger than him, and that something was Esthar itself. The picture might be evidence. There might be fingerprints or DNA traces on it that would help them identify the traitor within the Intelligence corps. It didn't matter in the end that he hurt every day and every night, so badly that he felt he was bleeding to death inside. It wouldn't matter when he lost everything. As he would, if anyone other than himself ever saw the proof of what he was.
He had to hide it...but where? He finally dragged his eyes away from the thing and looked around the bathroom, becoming frantic. Seifer shared his stuff; he might look into anything that could hide the photograph. Finally, he focused on the stack of pill boxes on the ground by the sink. Seifer wouldn't go through his prescribed medicines. He grabbed the photo and folded it up small, along with the note, and opened a box, slid the papers inside and shoved the whole thing to the bottom of the pile.
Safe. For now. But the traitor knows. How? Was he there? Has to be a man, has to be. Oh, Hyne - he'll tell, if we ever catch him, even if we don't have to use the photo as evidence anyway. He'll tell because he'll want to hurt me. Because he knows I deserve to be hurt. He knows...
The pile of pills. Ten months' worth of antidepressants and a whole load of sleeping pills. How easy it would be to open every box - not that one - and swallow every capsule one at a time. Then it wouldn't hurt anymore. He would be able to forget it at last.
But maybe all the stories of life after death were true. Maybe he wouldn't be able to forget, and he would be stuck for all eternity with that same reel of film playing endlessly in the back of his head. And his mother might be there too. She shouldn't have to see something like that. And...Hyne...if they were dead, they would be there, they would never leave him alone, he would have to face what he'd become again, and again, and again...
Squall bit down hard on one gloved finger, pressing the scream into the back of his throat. Coward. Now he was a coward as well. But he'd always known that. It was why he'd turned into the other thing, the thing he couldn't think even to himself. He wanted to cry but he couldn't. He'd learnt too well how to force back the tears. All the times he'd awoken with the screams fresh on his lips, and he'd never truly wept. Not in eleven months. Not since that day.
The shadows moved across the room and the sunlight gradually changed colour. It continued to rest on the immobile figure etched in black and white, sitting on the floor with one hand in his mouth, until it slid to one side and finally disappeared.
(to be continued...)
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