By Black Rose
The flag of Esthar is blue and silver - almost the same shades as the emblem of Balamb Garden. In the fading light of sunset the silver gleams against the sky, edges snapping in the wind. I can hear the sound of the fabric and the clang of the fasteners as they ring like small bells against the pole.
They don't lower them to half mast, here. All the way up, framed against the sky, where the wind can toss them out proudly.
But there are flowers at the base of the poles, blossoms that aren't part of the grounds decor. Flowers laid, like a thick fragrant carpet, up the steps to the presidential palace.
He lead with his heart. And in return, the people loved him for it. He's left an empty space they'll be hard put to fill.
The scent of the flowers is in the air, even inside, thick and heavy in the summer warmth that lingers beneath the labour of the air system. Their colors are everywhere, petals of every shape and size, in a sea of sweet fragrance and pastels. It makes my eyes water, the dull ache spreading out from between my eyes to throb across my cheekbones with every indrawn breath after hours of swimming in that scent.
Finding him there should be a surprise. Should be. Maybe. Or maybe we've all learned to know each other a little too well.
Maybe there's just no surprise left in me.
Maybe there's no anything any more.
My footsteps on the tiles echo back with sharp ricochet sounds from the vaulted ceiling. The boots have worn my left ankle raw - it's screaming with every step, hot and wet under the leather, which means the blister has either finally broken or it's skipped straight over that to outright bleeding. I won't be able to tell until I can peel the damn boot off and have a look at the damage. A glance in the washroom mirror earlier already proved I've got a terrific red line around my throat, like somebody's half assed attempt at using a garrote, and all for the sake of a stiff collar that's been driving me nuts all day. Formal uniform. Fucking save me.
But those little pains are what's keeping me going. They're something normal, something predictable and expected. In the midst of all of this having some small thing that I can just be genuinely pissed about helps take the edge out of everything else.
It's kept me from breaking anything all day. That's something, at least.
The lights have been dimmed. It's quiet and still and the sound of my steps almost seems like a sort of sacrilege, too loud and sharp for this place now in the emptiness that comes with nightfall. Too loud for him, where he sits on the tiles, half lost in the shadows.
"Wondered where you got to." If my footsteps are sacrilege then my voice is blasphemy; I know it, I can flinch to hear it, but the words, such as they are, spill out anyways. He doesn't look up. I don't expect him to.
My ankle bitches bloody murder as I drop down to my heels. One of the remaining lights catches across his hair, stark in the dimness. He could be a statue, for all he moves.
"Been looking for you," I offer quietly. If he's breathing, I can't tell. "People wondered where you were. Earlier."
The tremble shivers through his jaw, tendons standing out in stiff cords for one moment, then smoothed away again. Of all of us, I might have the best chance at this. If I knew what to say. If there was anything to be said. Somehow, I don't think there is.
"They thought you should be there," I tell him. Reporting, really. Here are the facts. Here's what happened. Dry and impersonal, just words, and if they're hurting him he won't say so. "Nobody asked us outright, though." They probably hadn't dared. What could we have said, anyways? We knew what was right. We knew. The image of him, in the bright summer sun, formal uniform gleaming black and silver and stiff - that would have been wrong. That would have made standing through all of it unbearable.
I'd wondered, in the end, if he'd come at all. But now, at night, with the rest of the world slipping into the quiet of evening - now it was right.
I don't ask him if he wants to be alone. There's some times when you just have to take the temptation of the choice away. The tiles are hard and cool and not particularly comfortable to sit on, but I'll sit as long as he does. As long as he needs and it doesn't matter if he admits the need or not.
We do know each other. All of us. And if I've wanted to break something for days, I can only imagine what he's feeling.
He won't ever put it in words. It's there in the silence, in the stillness, and in the slump of his shoulders beneath the black leather of his jacket as he sits on the floor, umoving, unspeaking.
I set myself beside him. I paid my public respects during the day, at attention, stiff and straight and formal in the public's eye. Gestures, meaningless, pointless. Pomp and circumstance. This, here, now, is the real thing. This is what it should be.
The scent of the flowers is heavy and thick. The air is still and quiet. The lights, what there are of them, fall gleaming across the presidential seal of Esthar, picked out in glittering embroidery against dark cloth, where it falls in clean folds across polished ebony.
Squall won't look at me, won't turn or move or speak. But he lets me sit there, our knees just touching, and that's enough.
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