Chapter 1 - Bedtime Story
The waves broke in smooth crests against the shore, splashing cool against tiny feet that rested just along the water’s edge, bare toes burying themselves in dampened sand. An especially large wave rose above the rest in a sheet of iridescent blue-green topped with frothy white, to crash in a spray of salt and foam against the beach. The little boy squealed in delight as the rushing torrent washed against his shins and soaked into his clothing.
Laughing, the boy raised his arms outward until his lean body formed a cross, and tilted his sun-darkened face to the sky. He stayed that way for a moment, watching as gulls swooped and dived in careening circles, their bodies white and stark against the blue. The boy’s small chestnut-red ponytail caught in ghost fingers of the breeze, and his hair flickered where the sun hit it: gold, red, brown.
Then he lifted onto his toes, arms still held out as he fell gracefully backwards to the sand, its dampness immediately sinking into the back of his t-shirt, the birds ignoring him as they wheeled and drifted in their sky-world. And his grin faded a little, replaced by a winsome smile as the sun caught the wings of a white arcing body, shining around and through the feathers as if each was composed of gossamer butterfly wings. The wind shifted, tugging at the bottom of his shirt and rushing harsh against his wet skin, eliciting a shiver from the boy.
He pulled himself up and drew his legs to his chest, the tattered ends of his once-rolled pant cuffs trailing in the sand as he wrapped thin arms around his knees. Tilting his head so it rested comfortably on the tops of his knees, he caught the whip-thin figure of a child a bit further down the beach, not far from where he sat, framed in the low yellow sun. He squinted his violet eyes-unique, a sign of beauty, the woman with long black hair had told him, but he knew they were strange and different, and not at all beautiful- and made out familiar wind-blown locks of dark hair framing the face of a boy not any older than himself, but smaller, and fair-skinned. He had forgotten the boy’s name, but he was almost certain it started with an "S".
His good mood restored, he rose fluidly to his feet and walked along the shore toward the other boy, who was kneeling beside a prospering sand castle, bottom lip caught between his teeth as he patted and smoothed a wall. Then he stepped back, regarded his work critically. The waves were washing steadily closer towards shore, and the bigger boy wondered why "S" had constructed the castle in such close proximity to the water. The other didn’t seem to notice his approach as he watched the sea’s foamy fingers brush ominously against the castle, pulling back clumps of sand in their clutches. The waves advanced upon the construction, but the dark-haired boy merely watched in detached acceptance as the perfectly symmetrical terraces were crushed and eaten by the sea, the spoils carried out on rolling tides.
And the walking boy stopped, suddenly hesitant, watching the sun sink rapidly behind the pale boy and his ruined castle, dark hair red in the dying light.
At a light touch on his shoulder, he gasped and spun to find the source, forgetting the vision of white skin and wine-colored hair as blood churned in his veins. A girl jumped back as if struck, long blonde hair swinging gently about her face as she came to rest a few feet in front of him. Seeing his surprise, the girl shyly dipped her head, self-consciously tucking loose strands behind her ears before bringing pale blue eyes to meet his. "Um, hi," she said, her voice barely a whisper. She stopped then, waiting for a reply, and the boy quickly regained his composure, allowing his slack mouth to pull into a reassuring grin.
"Hi," he said, casually tucking his hands in his front pockets. "My name’s Irvine."
The girl smiled a little, displaying toothless gaps. "I’m Quistis."
"That’s a neat name, Quisty."
She giggled. "That’s what Zell calls me, too!"
Then, she looked behind him, at the small figure framed in the sun. Irvine noticed the direction of her gaze, and turned, motioning to the boy with a toss of his head. "Who’s that?"
"Oh, that’s Squall," she stated matter-of-factly.
"Wanna go talk to him?"
Her eyes shot to his face, regarding him with a look that one might receive at asking another to beat him to death with a stick. "No, no, you shouldn’t talk to him," she said in an urgent whisper.
"Why not?" Irvine scratched the back of his head, confused by the girls’ sudden change in demeanor.
Her arms flailed animatedly. "He’d get mad and do something mean because he doesn’t like anybody, ‘specially since Sis left." She dropped her voice to a hush, emphasizing her words. "He’s bad. Nobody likes him."
Irvine pursed his lips. "Well, I was just gonna talk to him," he said, glancing back at the boy in the sun. He certainly didn’t look mean. The boy was hugging his arms around his small body in an attempt to shield himself from the cold, refusing to move from the lumpy remnants of his castle although the waves lapped greedily at his pant legs. Tide was coming in.
Irvine nodded to himself with an air of resolution, and started towards the boy again. "I’m just gonna go talk to him."
"NO!" Quistis was latched to his arm, trying to pull him back from the shore.
"Quisty," he sighed, annoyed. "Let go off my arm, will ya?"
"Come back inside," she said hopefully, loosening her grip a little. "We can color or-"
"Hey, what do you think you’re doin’?" Both children turned at the new voice. A tall, blonde boy stood watching them with narrowed eyes.
"Seifer, don’t," Quistis pleaded, tugging at Irvine’s sleeve. "C’mon, Irvine let’s go inside-"
"Your not going anywhere, loser." Seifer snarled, grabbing Irvine’s arm roughly and pulling him away from the girl. Irvine stumbled, suddenly sprawled on his stomach on the ground as a firm weight crashed into him. He sucked in air, trying to rise, but was promptly forced back down again with a sharp jab between his shoulder blades. Faintly, as if from a great distance, he heard a girl’s voice shouting as blow after blow was delivered to his body, someone(he was not sure whether it was him or the girl, or both) crying out as a foot came smashing into his ribs.
And then it was over, a silence slipping over him as the voices faded abruptly.. He laid there, cheek pressed against the sand, and he could feel the protests of his battered rib cage each time he took a breath. He whimpered brokenly, his eyes squeezed shut against the pain.
Footsteps. He could hear the soft give of sand from beneath light feet as a person approached. Irvine kept his eyes closed, too tired to move. The footsteps drew closer until a shadow blocked the light from the boy’s closed lids. When a silence stretched for several moments, only broken by the irregular hissing roar of waves, Irvine cracked an eye open slightly, wincing as he felt the pull of a bruise on his cheekbone. Directly in front of him, he saw bare, sand-crusted feet and legs clad in oversized khaki pants, soggy with water, in the brief second before his eye slipped shut and his vision blackened again.
Then there came a rustle of clothing as the person kneeled beside him, and he felt small, cold hands gently coaxing him, tugging him over so that he lay on his battered back. Irvine groaned in response to the pain shooting up his spine, and heard a quiet voice offer an apologetic whisper in an accent he couldn’t place. Tentative hands ghosted over his brow and cheek, brushing sand away, taking great care at the his cheekbone, which bit with pain regardless. He stifled a whimper, forcing his eyes open. His vision swam a bit until a face materialized above him, large eyes the color of snow shadows, framed in black, moisture-spiked lashes, regarding him with concern and fear. Sable hair brushed high cheekbones on a face as pale as a winter moon.
Before him, the little boy’s face began to change, thinning, cheek-bones becoming pronounced, the subtle slant of blue-gray eyes becoming more evident. The same, only altered with the effects of age and a life not meant for a child. Now, a thin red gash ran between the eyes and across the bridge of the nose in stark relief against colorless skin, unnaturally gray with repressed pain and fatigue. The pallid lips moved, had been moving for quite some time now, the soft, familiar voice washing over him, a vague accent still coloring rolling syllables. "…Irvine…"
His throat was dry and rough and he closed his eyes in concentration; his mouth formed words, but only air escaped them in a high-pitched, rasping sound. Then, the tip of a flask was tipped to his lips, cool liquid running down his tortured throat, only causing him to cough and sputter more. The flask was withdrawn, and while he gasped for air, a leather-clad hand was placed at his brow, an incantation muttered in a lost language. Irvine allowed an exhausted sigh to escape him as he felt the wispy tendrils of curative magic springing from the fingers at his forehead, encircling him and instantly relaxing him as every shred of pain was erased from his body, ruptured skin closing, fresh cells fusing together as the spell hovered over him, healing him with an ancient magic.
Then it was gone, and his mind was returned abruptly to the present, finding himself staring up at an industrial white ceiling inside of an open sky, his body resting on crisp, Garden-issue sheets instead of pliant sand. But the reserved, stoic presence beside him was the same, although changed to one of detached apathy and currently radiating annoyance. "Squall."
The youth sighed and drew away slightly, apparently satisfied with Irvine’s acknowledgement and the lack of disorientation that would be present under a serious head injury; magic can only do so much. The place above the bridge of Irvine’s nose itched where leather-encased fingers had rested not moments before. He brought his own gloved hand to scratch at it clumsily, simultaneously rising in one fluid motion. It wasn’t long before he realized his mistake, his vision dancing with tiny sparks and the contents of his stomach lurching reflexively. "Uhn…shit."
A wiry arm encircled his back and chest, carefully avoiding Irvine’s troubled abdominal region, drawing his forehead to rest on the collar of a bomber-style leather jacket-one that would be immediately recognizable in any city of any country in the known world . The infamous wolf-fur trim was soft and cool to Irvine’s skin, and he unconsciously leaned into it, feeling the other boy tense at the close proximity. The dark-haired boy had always been unnaturally wary of others, evident now in his disdain of large crowds; he exercised this case of "public anxiety", as Quistis had described it, to the point where he would take long routes through the network of halls in Garden to avoid the majority of passerbys. Irvine couldn’t remember him being any different, if he ever was. So he was surprised when the smaller boy allowed Irvine’s head to rest on the bony structure of his shoulder, softened only by a combination of thick leather and fur collar.
Several minutes passed, and he felt the wooziness subside into a dull ache in the pit of his stomach. He raised his head to look over Squall’s shoulder, and found he had been lying on a matchbox of a bed, standard white sheets drawn neatly to a flat, shapeless pillow placed in a symmetrically perfect position near the head-board. He had to be in Squall’s room. Now the question was, how exactly did had he arrived there?
"Um, Squall?", he croaked as he pulled back slightly, mentally cursing as his voice cracked pathetically.
The other boy’s eyes snapped to his, slowly focusing as if returning from a vast distance. They were rimmed with silver in the dim light, framed in a drawn, sallow face. "Yeah?" His voice was hollow and monotone, and Irvine felt as though the one-word answer had required an enormous amount of energy.
"You were injured in the last battle."
"An Abandon." Ah yes, Irvine recalled the beast’s curved black claws digging into his flesh right before his face impacted with the ground. He and the taciturn Commander had gone on extermination duty, finishing off the last pesky survivors of the Lunar Cry. He had been inspecting a fallen Toroma when the winged abomination had attacked him from behind.
"How did I get here?"
"I carried you." He must have outweighed the slight boy by thirty or more pounds and towered over him by nearly half a foot, but Irvine’s comment died in his throat at a reproachful look from Squall.
He might as well continue with the procedure that he, upon discovering that conversing with Squall was a lot like pulling teeth, had long-since dubbed as "20 Questions": A successful method of dragging information from the sordid youth, although a bit tedious. Luckily, Irvine Kinneas was nothing if not patient. "All the way here?"
"Why didn’t you just take me to the infirmary? It’s closer."
"Dr. Kodawaki was on call at the Training Center." Before Irvine could coax him into expanding, he reluctantly added, "Junior students…careless… didn’t know how to deal with a serious injury."
"Weren’t there any orderlies or anything on duty?"
"Yes, but they’re inexperienced and I would rather make sure you were healed properly," Squall said, speaking slowly as if explaining something perfectly simple to a small child.
"Oh," Irvine replied stupidly. "Thanks."
Squall remained silent, and under his unnerving stare, Irvine found himself stumbling for words. "Er, so…what was so hard about casting a "Cure" or two, that the Meds couldn’t handle it?"
"Some of your ribs were broken. I set them." That explained the course Irvine’s unconscious mind had taken. Funny how pain evokes memories.
Irvine sighed heavily, turning towards the other boy with a rueful smile. "I really am sorry about all the trouble I put you through…" He searched for a word that would express his thanks without making his gratitude sound like another empty phrase, polite and meaningless. He ended up with a single word from what he was fairly certain was the dark-haired youth’s native language, spoken in pre-revolution Winhillian, before the influence of a highly militaristic Galbadia enforced its culture on the rest of the world .
Squall looked at him with a sort of incredulous wariness. "How did you…"
"You have an accent. It’s really light, but it’s there," Irvine explained, watching the suspicion fade from the other boy’s features, to be replaced with a blank weariness. "I noticed it more when we were kids." The boy was quiet, his face turned so that his hair splayed artfully over his face, hiding his eyes. Irvine suppressed the urge to go on, noticing the tell-tale sag of lean shoulders.
After a moment of silence, broken only by the regular sounds of breathing, Irvine reached out with measured slowness to place his hand on the wolf-fur collar, making sure Squall saw his movements. The smaller boy made no move to shrug off the touch as he would normally have done; Irvine could feel the tiredness radiating in waves from his body. Gently, he turned the boy towards him, releasing him when flat gray eyes fixed on his. Irvine cursed internally as he took in the glassy, red-rimmed orbs framed beneath with what appeared to be hastily-blended charcoal smeared into the skin there. He was exhausted. "Squall, are you okay?"
The eyes dropped to study a wrinkle in the bed-sheet. "Yeah."
Irvine crooked his head to the side, trying to peer up through the fall of sable hair. "Really?"
"I said yes!" The words came out in a clipped growl.
"Okay, okay!" Irvine threw his hands up in mock surrender, only succeeding in earning himself a dark glare. He sighed. He didn’t understand Squall’s hostility towards him, and quite frankly, he was becoming increasingly irritated with the boy’s behavior. "Stop with the Squall Leonhart patented ‘Glare-o-Death’ already, and just try to act like a normal human being for once," he ground out in frustration. "I’m just trying to make sure you’re alright."
"I said I’m fine." The quiet voice was devoid of inflection, and only annoyed Irvine further.
"Bullshit!", he snarled, jumping to his feet and drawing up to his full height over the other boy, who sat nonplussed on the edge of the bed. "What the hell’s wrong with you?", he demanded glaring down at Squall, who looked back at him blankly.
The tall youth cursed, running a hand over his head and down his waist-length ponytail, sending it whipping out behind him at it as he turned violently to pace the small, box-shaped room, taking slow, measured breaths. It’s just Squall… I will not hurt him. I will not hurt him. I will not- He came to an abrupt stop in the middle of the room. "Squall, where’s my hat?"
Squall regarded him coolly. "On the lamp." As Irvine crossed the room to retrieve the black(and slightly dented) cowboy hat from where it rested haphazardly on a manila lamp-shade, Squall continued in a low, even voice. "If you’re done prancing around my room, you can go. Your ribs will probably be sore for a few days, but other than that, you’re fine."
Irvine settled the cowboy hat carefully on his head, tucking loose strands of wavy auburn hair behind his ears as he turned purposefully, plopping into a feeble-looking chair by the bed and crossing his arms. "No."
Squall narrowed his eyes. "Irvine, I think you should go." His voice was laced with malice. It was a tone Irvine recognized, used rarely and occasionally followed with the infliction of pain upon whatever poor soul had prompted such a reaction from the famed "Ice Prince" of Balamb. He knew he was treading on dangerous ground, but he’d never let the inevitable promise of intense pain get in the way before.
"No, no, I think I’ll stay right here, actually," Irvine drawled propping his booted feet on the edge of the bed for emphasis. He smiled amiably. "If that’s okay with you, of course."
Suddenly, as if a switch had been flipped(and perhaps it had, Irvine thought wryly to himself) the small, willowy figure on the bed underwent a drastic change. The edge of weariness vanished as Squall drew his back up rim-rod straight, squaring his shoulders and levering himself up gracefully to stand over Irvine, who watched with a growing sense of trepidation. It was going to be one of those times when Squall proved why he had been made commander.
He knew there was no logical reason why he should be intimidated by the wisp of a boy, who stood at a scrawny 5 feet, 8 inches tall, and was very unlikely to grow any more even if he lived to reach adulthood. And yet, there he was, Irvine Kinneas, resident sharp-shooter and self-proclaimed lady’s man, practically cowering in the shadow of a leather-clad demigod.
If anything, the boy’s clothing--consisting of inky black leather accessorized by multiple belts, steel-toed combat boots, a single silver stud in his left ear, and a cruel metal necklace that looked suspiciously like a choke-collar, upon which hung the infamous "Griever" pendent in all its snarling glory--only served to accentuate the malicious, unapproachable attitude Squall had at some time acquired when Irvine wasn’t looking. Although, Irvine’s early transfer to Galbadia hadn’t exactly kept him out of the dark, he couldn’t began to place where the transition from a shy boy in hand-me-downs to a cold teen in bondage-gear had occurred. And he wasn’t sure he wanted to.
Irvine found himself being jerked all to quickly back to the present--literally--when the very hands that had worked to heal him not an hour ago were now clutching fistfuls of his collar, drawing him roughly from sitting to standing within the space of a second. Needless to say, he stumbled a little when he was suddenly released and prodded toward the door—well thrown would be a better way of putting it. Tossed like a frickin’ rag-doll, like an oversized football, like he didn’t spend hours in the training center making sure he didn’t allow himself to atrophy in the relatively lazy days following the Second Sorceress War. Well, he thought to himself, lips creasing grimly, he sure the hell wasn’t going without a fight.
However, Squall must have figured on this, because as Irvine made a wild grab for the door-frame as he hurtled past it, the leather-clad teen issued a well-aimed kick to the tender back of his knee, causing him to flail suspended in mid-air a moment before sprawling in an undignified heap in the middle of the hallway. He barely registered the mechanical slide of the commander’s door closing before he sprang to his feet (more or less) making a last desperate dive for the rapidly sealing entrance-way.
Irvine opened his eyes to find his head wrenched at a decidedly unnatural angle, one forearm stretched out uselessly through the void in front of him—Squall had stopped the door just before it managed to make him into a big cuddly Irvine-pretzel. He wondered if Selphie would still look at him in the same light if he were to become a mangled invalid who evoked images of bow-shaped snack-food…
"Why are you doing this?" The voice was drained of all previous undercurrents of agitation, low and raw, sounding as though it had been dragged over sandpaper on its way out its owner’s throat.
Irvine strained to lift his head, or to move it at all, but found his cranium had wedged itself quite firmly in the space between the door and the wall. "Um, Squall?," he asked, amazingly steadily considering his neck really hurt twisted to the side as it was, and he was rapidly losing feeling in his arm. "A little help here, buddy?"
A heaving sigh from the other side of the door and the treacherous device was rolling away, releasing his trapped body with only a mild creak of protest. He rose to his feet slowly, experimentally rolling his shoulders as he did so, gingerly massaging the back of his neck and trying not to wince as he felt his spine snapping itself back into place with a few popping cracks.
What the hell? He glanced down to see Squall fishing something out from the hallway as the door slid shut again, something black and crumpled and… "Oh, Hyne, please tell me that’s not my…" It was. Mouth working soundlessly, Irvine snatched the tortured remnants of his hat from the outstretched hand of the dark-haired boy, a pained whimper escaping his throat. Squall, meanwhile, regarded the tall Galbadian cradling the jumbled ball that had once been his most cherished belonging, and closed his eyes in defeat, bringing up a gloved hand to pinch the bridge of his nose and the source of a blossoming headache.
"Irvine." The cowboy’s head shot up, the expression on his face suggesting that someone had just kicked his puppy and he was not taking it well. Squall resisted the urge to roll his eyes. "Look, I’m…for what it’s worth, I’m sorry. About your hat." Irvine stared at him. "And, um, I shouldn’t have tried to force you out like that. I’m sorry." There.
The taller boy continued to look at him—in shock, he supposed—nervously fiddling with what appeared to have been the brim of his hat. Then he looked down suddenly, mouth hitching into a sheepish half-smile. "Nah, it’s alright. I was being stubborn, anyway. Besides, it’s just a hat, right?" He met Squall’s eyes with a grin. "And, anyhow, I think I can fix it. Mind if I use your sink?"
Twenty minutes later found them together in the solitude of Squall’s room, Irvine perched on the edge of the chair tending to his well-dampened hat, and Squall stretched out on his back on the bed, one arm thrown across his closed eyelids to shut out the scant amount of light the lamp was producing. "I’ll have to work at it for a while, but I think I can manage to get it reshaped pretty well before it dries," Irvine said triumphantly, eyes narrowed in concentration. "Of course, I could always just…" He trailed off, realizing his companion was no longer listening to him at all, and was instead fast asleep, chest rising in slow inhalations, murmuring sleepily as he moved to curl up on his side, drawing his knees to his chest as he dozed on oblivious to his audience.
Irvine found himself smiling at the scene, pleased that his long-winded tales of summer ranch-work had been sufficient in the subduing of the Lion. Nothing like a riveting portrayal of the intricacies involved in the shoveling of chocobo manure to lull the commander into the rest he needed. Irvine chuckled lightly as he switched off the lamp, the transition between orange half-light and uninterrupted black merely causing a slight stir from the occupant of the bed before he relaxed back into dreamless slumber. Sometimes, Irvine pondered, he was just too damn smart for his own good.
Now, though, he thought as he allowed the door to swish closed behind him, there was the matter of a certain hat which was beginning to take a crude likeness to Zell’s favorite snack food, that desperately needed tending to.
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