Chapter Three: Phantom Pain
"No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No."
Quistis narrowed her eyes at Squall. "Do you know any other words?"
Squall looked soberly at her. "Yes."
Her eyes narrowed even further into two thin slits. "Any others?" she asked menacingly.
Squall blinked and without changing expression, said, "Whatever."
Quistis cried out and threw her hands in the air. "I give up."
Squall smiled a little and looked back down at the computer screen embedded in his desk. He tapped his fingers on the keyboard, hitting keys at random before waving his hand over the screen. It went black.
"Quistis, I have looked at hundreds of pictures of monsters all afternoon. It wasn't T-Rexaur, it wasn't Tiamat, or Krysta, or an Imp, or a Cactuar, or a Hexadragon--"
"All right, Squall, I get the point," Quistis said dangerously.
"--or Anacondaur, or a Bite Bug, or a Behemoth, or Abadon, or--"
"Squall," Quistis said warningly.
Squall sighed heavily and leaned back in his chair. He scratched his chest, wincing as he rubbed against a tender spot. Quistis came around his desk immediately and put her hand on his shoulder. "Are you all right?"
Squall grunted. "I wish people would stop asking me that."
"You wouldn't say that if you had seen the way you looked when Seifer brought you here."
He looked down at his hands, at his pale skin flecked with scars. There was a new one, now, on his right hand, a small, shiny patch where the monster's claw had ripped through his skin and bones. He rubbed it softly and did not speak.
"Well," she said after a long silence. "I've got Dr. Zhabedy working on it, and he's drafted his Garden History students, too. They're searching through all Balamb's archives, and whatever we could salvage from NORG's file system as well. They'll find it. Who knows? Maybe one of the teams out there now will capture one and we'll have answers before the day's out."
"Maybe," Squall said, nodding.
Quistis sighed audibly and started for the door. Without turning to face him she said, "Squall Leonhart, a man of many words."
"Why waste your breath on words when there's nothing to say?"
Quistis opened his door and looked back at him. "Maybe you should come up with some things to say, Squall. People would like you a lot better for it."
He arched one eyebrow. "I don't go through life worrying about other people all the time, Quistis."
She snorted softly. "Maybe you should start." She walked into the corridor and closed the office door behind her.
Squall blew out a hard breath and leaned back in his chair, throwing his head back until it hit the nape of his neck. He threw his arms to his side and let them dangle over the floor uselessly.
Everything was falling apart around him, nothing was the same anymore. Ever since he had taken over as Headmaster of Balamb Garden his life had taken a turn for the worse. Suddenly there were so many people looking to him for guidance and leadership. Everyone seemed to want something from him.
Quistis had changed so much. He had naturally looked to her to be his second-in-command at the Garden, and she had gladly accepted the position, but it changed her. The stress of responsibility hardened her some, and she seemed to resent that Squall did not suffer more visibly under the pressure of duty. She took her anger out on him, always making comments about his decisions or his behavior, giving praise or support only grudgingly. He didn't know what to do about Quistis. He was not very good with handling people and emotions, he recognized and accepted that fact, but he hated having her mad at him. He decided to talk to Rinoa about it; his girlfriend would probably know what to do.
Gods, Quistis and the Garden were the least of his problems. He was being torn in so many different directions he felt dizzy and sick. He needed a rest, he needed a vacation, he needed a drink, he needed....
He wanted them both, wanted to go to them both--wanted to pour himself into their hands and let them take care of him until he could bear to breathe on his own again. He wanted--
The two people that meant the most to him in his life were also the two that made his life so very difficult at times. Everything was so complicated, nothing was easy anymore.
And when it had started, it was so simple, so pure. Just two friends seeking comfort, reaching out towards each other in the shadows, finding each other and holding on tight. It was so right, so true and honest despite the guilt, the sin of what they were doing. Cheating. Hiding. Despite the lies.
If only it hadn't been love.
Squall put his hands across his eyes to block out the light and moaned softly. He had been sitting like this, that night when it first started, and it had been dark then, too. Months and months ago, almost a year, when he had thought he had problems but, in truth, the shadows had been in his own heart.
Balamb Garden was still being rebuilt and restaffed after the disastrous battle with Galbadia and then NORG's coup. Despite constant, round-the-clock repairs the behemoth structure still needed so much work. They had to tear down and rebuild certain parts of the outer walls and all the gears that let the Garden fly were so old as to be untrustworthy. Squall had a team of the best engineers loaned him by his father, Laguna Loire, studying the machinery and making improvements where they could.
Even though things were coming along, the Garden still showed signs of its misuse at times. Like that night. The Garden, having put into port on the east shore of Galbadia, had settled into the water, made a disconcerting shimmy, and then promptly blacked out. All the rooms and corridors in the Garden were without power, and the only light anywhere came from emergency generators and lamps set up by students and staff around the building.
Squall spent two hours settling panicked nerves and calming students and soldiers alike, giving everyone tasks to keep them busy. Then, after talking with the teams handling repairs to assess the situation, he had wearily climbed the stairs to the third floor and entered his office. He extinguished the small, battery-powered lamps that someone had lit around the room so only the blue glow from the room shining through the windows created any light.
He collapsed on the couch, throwing his head back against the cushions, stretching his neck, his throat curved and bared--vulnerable to attack.
He stayed like that for a long time, letting his fears and pains wash over him and drag him down. Rinoa was away again, as she often was, in Timber to help the citizens rebuild their nation after this most recent Sorceress War. She still had ties with the Timber Owls there and she had worked so hard to see her continent liberated--she deserved to share in the celebration and rebirth after the transition. Squall let her go without argument, not begrudging her at all, but he did miss her. At times like this it was especially hard to be without her.
Squall had never been very emotional--when he was being brutally honest with himself he could admit just how cold and stone-like he had been before Rinoa. She opened him with her love, letting him see that there were people who cared--that would never take advantage of him and use his love as a weakness to be exploited--would never leave him.
It was hard, dealing with all these emotions that he had never paid attention to before. He had always taught himself to ignore pain, laugh at sadness, kill any trace of sentimentality or affection lest it get in the way. Lest he grow to depend on it. Now he allowed himself to stay open to all these things and he was overwhelmed.
Suddenly, sprawled in the dark and feeling like he was the only person in the world, Squall began to cry. The tears came silently, no sobbing, no hysterical screams, only a silent whimpering in the back of his throat--soft on the wings of each breath. Tears blazed a hot path down his cheeks, their warmth burning his cool skin. He did not bother to wipe them away, he just closed his eyes, letting them pool behind his lids and burn his eyes before escaping.
There was a loud bang on his door and then the hollow boom as it was thrown open so hard that it hit the wall. Boots crushed the carpet of the office floor and someone entered the room, striding quickly across to the desk. Stopped. Turned and then came over to stop just in front of Squall, who never opened his eyes. He did not know who was there, and he did not care.
Seifer. Of course. Bastard rarely knocked, and when he did it was one loud, heedless slam on the wood that was really just an announcement of his approach before he entered--whether invited to or not. Squall kept his eyes closed and grunted noncommittally.
"The mayor of Dollet called all up in arms. Apparently the engineers at work on fixing the power cells in this old heap of junk are drawing power from the surrounding areas to do it. The lights are flickering on and off in Dollet like a cheap neon sign, and he called to, oh-so-politely, tell us to knock it the fuck off."
Squall was silent for a long moment before opening his eyes and clearing his throat.
"Call him back after we have our power back and tell him we will of course comply with his wishes. Balamb Garden has no desire to upset its neighbors and wishes him to note our absolute willingness to cooperate with his request."
Seifer laughed out loud, tipping his head back and bathing his skin in the blue light of the moon.
"Very diplomatically put, Leonhart. Love it. You were born for this bureaucratic shit."
"Thanks," Squall said dryly as he closed his eyes again. The tears were coming slower, now, pooling in the circles beneath his eyes before running down alongside his nose.
Seifer was quiet and Squall thought that he had turned to go. Squall opened his eyes again and found Seifer staring at him, mouth open in a little o of surprise.
"Yes, Seifer," Squall said in a resigned tone of voice.
"You're crying, Leonhart."
"Yes, Seifer," Squall said again with a sigh. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to expose you to any sort of real emotion. If you back away slowly and run as soon as you hit the hallway you should be able to escape unscathed."
Seifer's pale face wrinkled with a frown, creating deep shadows in the valleys and hills of his flesh.
"Why are you crying, Leonhart?" he asked in a tone that was curious and a little suspicious.
Squall sighed yet again, running the air over the back of his throat so it growled a little. Frustrated and wishing that Seifer would leave him alone to his shameful and mournful little display of depression, he answered flatly.
"Someone kicked my puppy and I'm all torn up about it. Leave me the hell alone, Seifer."
Seifer was silent again and Squall closed his eyes, still refusing to wipe away his tears. To brush them away was to acknowledge their existence--to recognize a weakness. Despite how much he had changed, Squall still knew that some emotions were nothing but a fault--a failing, and needed to be ignored or destroyed. He hated being caught indulging his desperation like this--it was worse than being caught naked--worse than being attacked without his gunblade by his side.
"You missing your girlfriend?" Seifer asked after a long moment, his tone teasing.
"Fuck you, Seifer," Squall said conversationally, silently willing the other to just get bored with the game of torturing Squall and leave. He didn't know why he would, though. The game was very old between them, and it had never failed to entertain Seifer before.
"What's wrong, Squally?" Seifer asked, his voice high and sugary sweet. "Are you feeling down in the dumps? Are you sad? Are you all depressed and lonely?"
Squall lifted his head off of the couch and looked at Seifer straight on, then tilted his head to the side and pinched his lips against a grimace of pain.
"What do you want, Seifer? Can't you just leave? Go on. Get out and leave me alone."
Seifer shook his head and laughed.
"Why would I do that? I've got you on the run, now."
Squall closed his eyes yet again, giving into the urge to block out the world. He leaned his elbow on the arm of the couch and dropped his face into his hand, squeezing the bridge of his nose between thumb and forefinger. Gods, his head ached. His scar hurt tonight, like it did some nights. It was phantom pain, he knew, as the wound was certainly long healed.
Sometimes he wished they did not have magical healing spells that could cure all with only a few whispered words. Sometimes Squall wanted nothing more than to let his body heal naturally--to have his injuries with him for weeks--to be able to feel the pain and be reminded of what he had been through, of what he had fought for. Sometimes pain was the only way he knew he was real.
Seifer was silent, waiting for Squall to come back at him with something, some insult or glib comment that would keep their battle with words going, but Squall just did not have the energy to keep Seifer entertained. He wanted only to be alone.
"Seifer. Please," Squall whispered, glancing up at the tall blond. "Please, leave me alone."
Seifer opened his mouth to speak, but then he was still. He was looking at Squall intently, his eyes roaming over the brunet's face, searching. He seemed to find something he didn't like, because he frowned deeply, his lips forming a bowed shadow across his face.
"What's wrong with you, Squall?"
Squall almost laughed. Seifer asked it like he might ask where that horrible smell was coming from. His voice almost curdled with distaste.
"It doesn't matter," Squall said tiredly. He shook his head. "It really doesn't."
"Well, it obviously matters to you if it's got you blubbering over it."
Squall rolled his eyes and sank down into the big, soft cushions and pillows covering the couch. He let them cradle him on all sides, like a velvet upholstered nest.
"You're right, it does matter. But it's not important to you, so don't worry about it. Just--just leave."
Seifer scowled, seeming to become only more determined to stay.
"Not until you tell me what's wrong."
"Why do you want to know?"
"Because I'm curious."
"Well it's none of your business."
"You're the Headmaster of my Garden. Everything you do affects all the rest of us. Therefore, your every action, from accepting a contract from Esthar down to taking a piss, is my business."
"You're so vulgar."
"Quit skirting the issue."
"There is no issue."
"Yes, there is. What's wrong with you?"
"Why do you want to know?"
Seifer muttered something unintelligible.
"What was that?"
Seifer glared at Squall and went on the offensive.
"Why are you sitting here in the dark?"
"Because I didn't like the light of the lamps."
"Why are you sitting here alone?"
"Because I don't like people."
"Yes, well, that's true, anyway. Okay, then. Is it because Rinoa's gone?"
Squall shook his head in frustration. "No, not really. But it's none of your--"
"Is it because of the blackout?"
"No, guess not. Is it your father?"
"What, him? You think I'd cry over him?"
"Hmph. The...the pressure of being Headmaster?"
Squall shrugged uncomfortably. "Well, not really. I--I mean, that might be part of it, but--"
Seifer laughed and shifted his weight on his feet. "Go on, spill it, Leonhart."
"I don't know. It's just a lot of responsibility. A lot of added duties that I never had to deal with before. I always kind of relied on myself for myself and didn't concern myself with anyone else's well-being. Now--" He trailed off and shrugged.
"Yeah, well, I kind of know how that feels."
Squall looked up unbelievingly. "You do."
Seifer lifted his eyebrows in a show of hurt. "Hey, until recently I had a few command positions of my own, Leonhart. 'Til you and the goody-goody brigade put me out of a job, anyway," he said, shaking his head as if he were lamenting his loss.
"Yeah," Squall said sardonically. "But for some reason I don't think the mantle of responsibility weighed on you so heavily."
"Yes, well." Seifer said, looking down. "I was never really in control, anyway. It was always Ultimecia. She was always there, in my head, telling me what to do and forcing me when and if I refused."
Squall heard the guilt in his friend's voice and he spoke gently. "You had no choice, Seifer."
Seifer looked up with narrowed eyes. "I didn't always refuse," he said, eager to prove he wasn't as good a person as Squall might be thinking.
"You had no choice," Squall said again.
Seifer looked at Squall for a long moment before taking a deep breath and exhaling. His shoulders slumped slightly and he nodded. "Yeah, I suppose not."
"It's all right," Squall said tentatively, not sure how to maneuver around this suddenly thoughtful Seifer. "You're on the right side, now. It took you a while to get here, but you came around."
Seifer met his eyes somberly. In the silver light of the moon, Seifer's eyes looked black.
"I just never wanted to be anyone's second choice, Squall, you know? Around here it was always you. You were everyone's favorite, everyone's hero. And you never even tried, that's what got me! You never even try! You don't even want their love, their admiration, but you get it. It comes so easily to you--it's so easy for you. I always wanted what you had around here, and I knew I could never have it. I wanted to be the first choice, Squall, but around here I was always second best." He sighed and ran a hand over his hair. "Always will be, I guess, but I think I'm finally learning to live with that."
Squall stared openly at Seifer.
"It's not easy," Squall disagreed softly, shaking his head. "It's..." He shook his head again and pressed his fingers to his forehead. "It's really not."
Seifer was silent again. The quiet grew and was swallowed up by the deep shadows which encased the room and blanketed the two men. Squall thought that perhaps Seifer had said all he had to say but then he spoke again.
"Squall. Leonhart. Squall. What's--what is wrong with you?"
Squall bit his lip and stared at his hands. He opened them slowly, turned them over so he could see his palms. He closed his hands slowly, wrapping his fingers around empty air to ball them into loose fists. They held nothing--they were empty, empty.
"I'm scared, Seifer," he whispered, so softly he wasn't sure that Seifer heard him.
Squall swallowed hard and realized that he had started shaking.
"I don't know. I don't know, exactly. I just--I'm just so scared. I don't know what I'm doing, I don't-- This isn't right. I shouldn't be here."
"Uh-huh. And where, exactly, should you be?"
Squall just stared at his fists and shook his head. "I don't know," he said on the faintest breath.
His shaking grew stronger until his whole body was shivering. His teeth chattered loudly and he clamped his jaws shut. He hugged his arms around his body and leaned down, wanting to curl forward.
"Hey," Seifer said, surprised but concerned. "Hey, hey. No. Come on. Squall."
Squall could barely manage to shake his head. He dug his fingers into the fabric of his white shirt and squeezed until he was pinching his own flesh. It hurt, but the pain helped him focus.
"Squall," Seifer said softly, and the cushions shifted as he sat beside Squall on the sofa. Squall felt a tentative hand on his left shoulder before Seifer slowly, hesitantly, slowly, pulled him into a hug.
Squall squeezed his eyes shut. Another weakness, another failure...but he did not pull away or push Seifer from him. He stayed still within the circle of Seifer's arms and leaned just a little towards the other.
"Calm down, Leonhart, you're having a fit, here," Seifer said lightly. His finger brushed Squall's chin gently. "Come on."
As Squall began slowly to relax he felt Seifer's right hand rubbing his arm. He felt Seifer's left hand tugging gently on a few soft strands of his hair. He took long, deep breaths and slumped against Seifer.
"Gods, Squall," Seifer said, and that was all.
Squall lifted his head and turned to face Seifer. They were close, bodies pressed together, sharing warmth. Such nearness limited Squall's options. He had choices before him, directions in which he could move. He chose one.
He leaned closer to Seifer, breathing in the scent of whatever aftershave Seifer used--something spicy that made his nose itch. He leaned closer until his lips were right by Seifer's, until their mouths were sighing small brushes of air against one another. He leaned close, and then he kissed Seifer. He kissed Seifer and his hands were on Seifer's arms, holding them against his body--until he realized that Seifer was kissing back.
They shifted slightly as they kissed, moving so their bodies faced one another. Seifer's mouth was strong against his, and his tongue worked into Squall's mouth like he needed no invitation. Seifer kissed Squall with his lips, with his tongue, and with his fingers, creeping up to cup Squall's cheeks and caress his flesh, and with his hips, pushing against Squall's as he slowly backed Squall into the corner of the sofa. Squall found himself half lying down with Seifer over him, trapped and pinning him against the cushions. He let out a soft moan, begging, gently, and spread his hands over Seifer's chest so that they weren't empty anymore.
By the time the lights finally came back on, they were both beyond caring. Squall immediately turned them back off and quickly locked the door.
Squall sighed deeply. The memories were so real sometimes, he could still feel the sharp pain of that night, could still feel the soft warmth of Seifer's caresses. He put his hand on his throat, his palm warm on cool skin, and closed his fingers gently around his neck. He slid his hand down to his collarbone, then lifted his Griever pendant out from under his white button-down.
He stared at the silver pendant. It caught the light and threw a beam into his eye. He traced the cross at the bottom, the symbol that was so similar to the one that Seifer wore on the sleeves of his long trench, and had on his coat of arms.
Gods, he was fooling himself. It had never been simple, and it had never been honest. Squall had entangled himself in a web of lies for so long, and for what? For sex? For love?
Yes, for love. And for cowardice.
He cupped the pendant in the palm of one hand and let his eyes follow the lines of the lion's head--its mouth was open in a roar, a challenging cry. He did not look up even when someone knocked once at his door before opening it and closing it behind them.
"Moping, I presume?"
Squall smiled slightly and looked up. "Hello, Seifer."
Seifer cocked his head and adopted an incredulous look. "'Hello, Seifer'? Is that the best you can do? Listen, I saved your worthless life this morning, Squally-baby. I want some major gratitude. Now."
Squall suppressed a laugh and rolled his eyes. "Yes, sir. Sorry, sir."
Seifer sighed happily. "Good boy."
Squall arched one eyebrow and waved his hand in a beckoning gesture. Seifer looked up at the ceiling and, as if he were doing Squall a great favor, walked around the desk to where Squall was sitting.
"Good boy," Squall said with a smile as he reached up to pull Seifer towards him.
And no, it wasn't simple. And no, it wasn't honest. For the rest of the world it wasn't right or good or pure or easy. But for Squall and Seifer, moving in each other's arms, it was all of those things and more.
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