Chapter One: Steel and Silk
Wind, wet with ocean spray, whipped Squall's hair into his eyes and across his face. He leaned forward, spreading his palms on the back of the creature beneath him, feeling the powerful muscles bunch and stretch under the Chocobo's feather-covered skin. He slid his knees up slowly onto the Chocobo so that he was riding with his legs tucked under and leaned even farther forward, his forehead brushing the bowed neck of the gold Chocobo.
After a few moments he moved his legs out so that his feet rested flat on the animal's back. Slowly, slowly, fighting each jump and jerk the creature made, he stood, arms outstretched for balance. The 'bo gave a startled squawk beneath him, craning its head around to look at him, but Squall simply concentrated on hooking his toes into the thick layer of feathers covering the bird.
The sun was bright and warm on his skin but the breeze coming off the ocean was cool. He threw his head back and held his breath, willing himself to become a part of the creature beneath him--part of the sinew and muscles and bones and blood.
The Chocobo gave another squawk and Squall opened his eyes. The creature bucked and Squall, his concentration broken, fell in a glorious arc of flailing limbs and curses to the shallow surf below. The water broke his fall, but he hit it flat so his back stung with the smack. He let himself fall down to the sand under the water, blowing out his breath in a spray of bubbles. After a long moment he sat up and pushed his wet mop of hair off of his forehead.
Something nudged him and he turned. The Chocobo was butting him with its beak, nuzzling at his hair. He scowled and gently pushed it away.
"Get out of here, you worthless 'bo."
The creature nipped playfully at his hair and then trotted a few paces away to the dry sand.
Squall sighed heavily, momentarily grateful that no one had been around to witness his graceless tumble. He got to his feet and walked up to the beach, then flung himself onto the sand, arms and legs stretched straight out.
The rays of the sun beat down on him, drying his wet flesh so quickly that he could feel the tingle of the salt on his skin. He brushed some sand from his bare chest, then adjusted his Griever pendant so it lay comfortably nestled against his collarbone. He rested his hand on his breast for a moment, feeling the warmth of the sun but thinking of the heat of a touch.
Her touch, sweet and gentle, soft and fine like porcelain. Her hair, long and black, silk wrapping around his loving fingers as he pet her when he held her in his arms.
And his touch, hot and hard, hungry and demanding and so sure, so certain. His hair, gold and smooth like Chocobo feathers as it tickled his thighs and brushed his face when they kissed.
How could he love them both, need them both, want them both so much? They were so different, gave him such different things, but each fulfilled his needs so completely and, most importantly, had never left him. Since childhood Seifer had always been there, hounding him and needing his attention even before they were lovers. And from the moment they met, Rinoa had taken Squall by the hand and pulled him with her wherever she went, never letting him alone--whether he wanted to be or not. She tried to make him a better person--and loved him even though he was not.
No, the question was not 'how could he love them both?' but 'how could he choose?'. How could he betray either of them when he loved them so completely? How could he leave one of them behind when neither of them had ever left him?
Though these days he was walking a fine line there. His harp strings were wound tight, one more chord and they would snap. Seifer knew, of course, about Rinoa--the world knew. She was the princess to his knight in shining armor, the heroine to his conquering hero. The boy had saved the world and gotten the girl--the world loved them.
Seifer knew--but Rinoa did not. She would never forgive him. She would understand, would believe Squall when he cried and told her he did not mean it, that he had no choice, that he did not want to fall in love with his oldest friend and rival. She would understand because she was so good and honest and loving that she could look into someone's eyes and know their pain; know their story. She would understand--but she would never forgive. And that Squall could not live with.
He had lived a twelve-year agony in self-imposed exile with no love, no light in his life--no valuable human contact or emotion except for the frantic battles he allowed Seifer to goad him into every few weeks. The wanton desperation of his cheap affairs with half his Garden class were never more than physical, one more labor in a long line of exercise and activity he worked his body through in the course of becoming a SeeD. That had never been about love, it had always been fucking for the sake of sensation and spite, nothing more...nothing deeper.
Seifer had been something deeper, something real... But then, Squall had fucked that harder and faster than any Garden student shoved up against the wall, gasping as he worked his hand under her skirt.
Somehow, after all the mistakes and the tragedy he had made of his life, Squall had found meaning and truth--love that was real--love that he wanted and needed to hold onto. He had been spoiled, now, by this emotion, this love. He would never be happy knowing that Rinoa did not forgive him, did not, in short, love him anymore.
So no, Rinoa could not know. It would not kill her--she was too strong for that--it would kill Squall.
Seifer knew--and if Squall ever had reason to doubt Seifer's love for him he had only to remember that Seifer knew--yet did not tell. He did not tell Rinoa, did not insist that Squall tell Rinoa about their affair, and never demanded that Squall choose.
Which was, of course, why he had to do it.
But to choose between the two--Seifer and Rinoa--would be like choosing between fire and ice, the sun and the moon, steel and silk, man and woman. He wanted both, needed both in his life--did not want to live without either. He was paralyzed by the weight of this choice. He was weak, he was desperate.
The Chocobo gave a sudden disgruntled cry and nudged him in the face with its beak. He batted it away, not wanting to move yet, but it only shoved him harder. He opened his eyes and squinted against the bright sun. Lifting his hand to his forehead to shield his face with shadow he rubbed the 'bo's head and then leaned on it to help him stand.
"You're right, I guess. Better be heading back if I want to make evening roll call. Would probably look pretty bad if the Headmaster of the Garden didn't show up for headcount two days in a row."
He checked the straps on the leather belt around the bird's middle that held his gunblade, tightening the buckle. He ran an absent hand over the black stock peeking out of the top of the scabbard and rested his weight against the Chocobo.
"Gods, what am I going to do?" he whispered.
The 'bo squawked loudly and Squall started. He was about to scold the creature when he sensed something. It wasn't anything tangible, perhaps a change in the sound of the breeze, or in the way the air felt on his flesh. The hairs on the back of his neck stood up and he quickly but silently slid the blade out of its sheath.
A screaming wail erupted behind him and he whirled, gunblade low and ready. The swirling adrenaline blur of impending battle swept through his brain, making his vision go runny at the edges for a moment. Then something crested the rise of the sand dune before him and he saw the monster that had made that cry.
His blood ran cold, he broke out in a sweat, and his hands tightened on the stock of his blade so hard that his knuckles were white. This was no monster! It was a demon!
The creature swayed before him, then attacked. A long, claw-tipped appendage shot at him, piercing him quickly and deeply in the chest. He cried out and curled briefly around the wound. He cast a weak healing spell, hoping to stop the bleeding until he could defeat the monster and then use a more powerful spell.
Before he could straighten the creature attacked again. Another black claw-tipped appendage came at him and froze in front of his face. He lifted his gunblade and sliced three feet off of the thing. The monster shrieked, a high-pitched wailing that made Squall want to cover his ears. He attacked again before the creature could recover and cast a fire spell on it, sending a wave of lava, coal, flame and sparks rocketing towards the creature.
Quickly he tuned into the SeeD battle magic that let all of its students and soldiers assess damage done to a foe. He waited somewhat frantically, groping out with his mind towards the creature for the sense of pain, anguish, even frustration that accompanied a hit.
The spell had done no damage.
Squall cursed and tried to remember what spells he was equipped with today on this quiet outing along the strip of beach that was patrolled and protected by the Garden. It was supposed to be monster-free. Squall did not have many spells with him.
Moving quicker than his eye could follow, the creature moved towards him again. It drew up on two of its swirling, red appendages and then leapt forward, claws outstretched and writhing towards him.
Squall quickly threw a sleep on the thing, already pulling up an ice spell as a follow-up.
The creature did not even slow.
It tucked its tentacle-like appendages close to its body and then threw them at Squall all at once. He felt them hit him in a storm of pain as a hundred razor-edged claws dug into his flesh. He screamed briefly, his voice cut off as a tentacle wound around his neck. He felt the warmth of sticky red blood flowing from a hundred wounds and his gunblade fell from his useless, punctured hand.
At least I didn't have to choose, he thought with a cowardly yet satisfied grin as the creature drew his body close into its web of arms. He saw Rinoa's sad eyes, her forehead crinkled in the center as it did when she cried. He could feel his life force draining and realized distantly that it was draining his hit points. His head dropped forward and the tentacle at his throat caressed his cheek almost gently.
Then, suddenly, from nowhere, he saw Seifer's mocking grin. Heard his lover's laugh as he learned that a monster had been the end of Squall Leonhart.
"I couldn't kill him, but a lousy monster gets him in two blows? Ah, Squall, I suppose that I should have kept on challenging you to duels even after we climbed into bed together. I should have kept you accustomed to more than one sword, eh? Poor Squall."
Seifer laughing, pitying him.
Squall summoned the last of his strength and called a Guardian Force. He only carried one with him now, ever since he had learned what they did to his memory. He never used Shiva, but he kept her with him in case an emergency came up.
One had come up.
He felt ice on the back of his neck and then the glowing body of Shiva hovered ahead, pointing at the monster with angry contempt. The creature was frozen and it seemed to be looking at the Guardian, though Squall could not tell as he had no idea where its head was.
Ice so cold it burned erupted from Shiva's fingers and enveloped them. The monster screamed again, that noise that ripped Squall's ear drums to shreds. He felt its claws jerking themselves from his flesh, tearing skin in their eagerness to get away. Shiva continued to hover overhead and the monster, seemingly afraid and wanting to be rid of the thing that kept the Guardian here, shrieked and threw Squall away.
Squall felt air pummel his body as he flew towards the ocean, and wondered with a laugh if, after all this, he was going to drown.
There was the shock of cold on his skin--like ice--and then he was unconscious.
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