Author's Note: And so the angst ensues! I'm... really, really sorry for that, and the extended delay, as always. With more exploration into the world of the Cardboard Cutout Dominatrix & Co. In an attempt to make Vael less cardboard and more realistic, I played a little with the character... as a result, she's turned out a little insane. Sorry about that. I am trying to remember the plot of this -_-" Also... I would like to add that I actually like Zell and Irvine (to some extent), and I don't intend for character-bashing, so I apologise if it comes across that way. Much love to Sukunami for beta'ing this, it's an ugly process. No Seifer in this one, remarkably. It could be cause for celebration ^^
DISCLAIMER: Characters of Final Fantasy VIII are the property of Square and I claim no rights to them. Additionally, the song "Breath From Another" is property of Esthero and its producers.
So I follow you down this road
Well, you try, but you can't let go
So hold on to years ago
Cold as a lover - don't you wanna stay?
Breath from another - and I'll have my way
-- "Breath From Another", Esthero
The moment that Squall entered the cafeteria, he stopped dead in his tracks. It could have been in his imagination, but the temperature seemed significantly lower in there. Scanning the busy scene he caught sight of the familiar blond spike and striking tattoo. Squall snatched his routine dose of coffee from the machine and started towards Zell.
'The blonde was alone at the far wall, sitting hunched over a steaming mug as he stared into it vacantly. Zell glanced up at the sharp scrape of the metal chair, wide blue gaze relaxing as he saw that it was Squall. Squall flicked the hair from his eyes and looked to his friend as he moved his chair closer to the table.
"Hey." For the first time in history, Squall Leonhart initiated conversation.
The corner of Zell's mouth quirked as he attempted a smile, but those bright blue eyes fell from storm grey, returning to mull over the contents of his mug. Squall frowned slightly, instantly determining that this was indeed not going to be easy. And he sucked at consolation anyway, but he owed the martial artist for putting up with him all their years as friends… or acquaintances. No, their history went back to their first years of life; Zell was amongst some of the most special people in his. Even if he made it worse, he had to try something.
On closer scrutiny, Squall noticed the light red-rimmed outline of Zell's eyes as well as the occasional sniffle that the boy would cover with a discrete cough.
"You deserve better," Squall said bluntly, taking a sip from his coffee.
Zell didn't say anything, fingers clutching the mug tighter as though trying to steal its warmth.
Squall continued, motioning with a hand that indicated one of the tall pot-plants by the wall for no particular reason. "If Irvine's cheating on you, you shouldn't.... "
Zell cut him off with a low whisper. "He's not." He met Squall's patient gaze. "He was cheating on Selphie. I never wanted to hurt her like that, but...."
Squall nodded as Zell trailed off. "What about Irvine?"
Zell paused for a moment, sighing heavily as he leaned back in his chair and released the Garden issue mug. "I don't know. Didn't even realise when it first happened, I mean we always used to joke around, but I never thought it'd become anything serious.... " Zell's voice choked and he swallowed hard, looking anywhere but Squall.
The blond gave a bitter chuckle. "Me. Him and me. But a while after that, he started... saying other stuff and I was afraid it was getting serious. I mean, I felt like shit for even playing around behind Selphie's back in the first place!"
Squall knew this story well, recognizing that there must have been some incentive to continue. "So why did you keep doing it?"
Zell was silent for a long time. When he did speak, his voice quavered in its struggle to remain firm. "Because... after a while it started hurting. Real bad like a burn. But only when he wasn't around and when I saw him and Sefie together..." He had to stop again and Squall gave him what he hoped was a look of sympathy or at least encouragement. No, he really didn’t have any idea what the martial artist was going through, but that didn’t matter. He was there for support, present even if useless.
Zell coughed under his breath, picking up the mug again. "He didn't want her to know ‘cos he knew it'd hurt her, ‘n he said he loved her. And I knew he did - that he does." Those bright blue eyes shone and Zell blinked rapidly, the heel of one hand coming up to brush away an escaped tear.
Squall hummed thoughtfully at the back of his throat and folded his arms tightly. "And you?"
"What?" was the weak reply.
"What did he say about you?"
Zell bit his tongue hard and stood abruptly, setting down his mug. "I don't want to repeat it. Don't even want to remember it," he stumbled, voice shaking. Squall didn't move to stop him as he rushed from the cafeteria, probably back to his dorm. He looked at the discarded mug, dark liquid still full to the brim and steaming - Zell hadn't touched it.
Frowning at his social inexperience, Squall wondered if he had only made the problem worse. Well, this was certainly a bright forecast.
He looked up and Quistis smiled at him warmly. She motioned to the empty chair. "Is someone sitting here?"
"Not anymore." Squall finished his cup of coffee and reached for Zell's.
Quistis sat down, setting a small bunch of folders on the table. "Hangover?"
Squall scoffed, bringing the mug to his lips. "No.”
She opened a manila folder and began leafing through various papers. "Then why all the coffee?"
Squall frowned, pursing his lips. He'd only realised it after Seifer had left, but there was the strangest flavour on his tongue... And he didn't necessarily like it. Better to wash it down.
His only reply was a shrug. "I didn't see you at all last night, where were you?"
She smiled, peering at him over rectangular-rimmed glasses. "Trying to dissuade Rinoa from pinning your butt."
Ah. "Is she angry?"
"Jealous, maybe." Quistis settled on a particular sheet and skimmed it quickly. "She thinks that you slept with Seifer."
Squall's eyes leaped wide, but he quickly masked his shock in time to meet her smiling gaze. "… What?"
"So... ? Did you?"
"Of course not!" he snapped indignantly, perhaps a little too harshly.
The Instructor chuckled. "Good." But she didn't sound convinced. "She wouldn't believe me when I told her the same. Though, I didn't know if you had, but to avoid mass murder.... "
Squall glared at her. "Did you think I would?"
"Well, you didn't and that's the bottom line. Now you can tell Rinoa what you just told me." Quistis began marking Cadet essays to criteria on a sheet she held in her other hand.
Squall's lips pressed in a thin line. "So where is she now?"
She didn't look up from her work. "I think she’s looking for you. She could be patrolling the dormitory, yours more specifically."
Thank Hyne he had changed his code the other day.
Quistis glanced at the brunette, taking in the familiar scowl that was more pensive than perturbed. “You’re going to have to speak with her. It’s not fair to lead her on.”
“I am not,” he stated indignantly.
Her smile was gentle as she tapped her pen against the thick writing pad. “Squall, this is Rinoa we’re talking about. Not doing anything, not dissuading her amounts to encouragement in her mind. She’ll only grow more persistent if you don’t make her understand.”
Squall bit the inside of his cheek, reflecting on Rinoa’s subtle marriage proposition. “This was a mistake from the beginning.”
“Why say that?”
“I don’t even remember why I got together with her in the first place! It just happened!” Squall cursed himself for his inaction. Why hadn’t he stopped it before it degraded this far?
Squall stopped his silent conflict to regard the Instructor.
“She made you happy, didn’t she?” Quistis asked softly, arms folding on the table. “We all saw it, and you have to admit that she possesses something that draws people in.”
Like a moth to the flame.
Quistis shook her head as though reading his thoughts. “It’s not malicious. It’s simply her personality; she’s a socialite and I think you were both a challenge for each other. She wanted to be with you, but her extrovert nature still conflicts with your preferred solitude. Her feelings are genuine and maybe that’s why you submitted. She really does care for you, Squall.”
He was silent for a while, turning her words over in his mind. Rinoa could talk a mile a minute. She had boundless energy that could be exhausting at most times, though uplifting at others. She always wore a smile… and she had made him smile in turn.
“She wants me to marry her.”
Quistis’ gaze was so intense that he almost shrank back. “Are you sure?”
Something in her tone made him doubt his own words, and now that he thought about it…
Rinoa yanking him along to the wedding dress stall and cooing over the displays, but then didn’t plenty of other women do that simply for fashion? And she had promptly moved on to the next window which had comprised of hiking and sports gear; far less conventional. She loved buying new things, though she usually browsed more than bought. When they had entered the jewelers, Rinoa had pointed out a specific ring that she claimed resembled Griever. He disagreed inwardly but had only given her a shrug. She could gush over anything, but was he reading too much into it?
Quistis tapped the pen against her lower lip when he said nothing. “Or are you afraid?”
“Afraid of what?” The retort was so ground out it sounded close to a snarl.
“Afraid of Rinoa because she’s a Sorceress? Or simply commitment.... ?”
As absurd as the suggestion sounded to Squall’s mind, some part of it rang a chime of truth. “We’ve been a couple for an entire year-“
Quistis broke in, raising her pen for silence. “And how much of that time have you actually spent with her? How many times have you cancelled on her so that you could train? Just how much are you committed to her? Although the war is over, Rinoa is still very much a Sorceress. Are you willing or able to continue being her Knight? Could you repeat all the promises you made to her when we thought we were going to die? You said yourself that you don’t remember why you first got together and now that Seifer’s back-”
It was Squall’s turn to interrupt. “Seifer has nothing to do with this.”
She waved her pen and held both hands up in defence. “Let me finish. I don’t presume to know everything that went on between you and him, and it’s none of my business so I won’t pretend to. But I’m not blind or ignorant, albeit blonde. You two were never easy acquaintances, though whatever you have has been growing since our days in the orphanage.”
Squall ground his teeth. “You’re digressing.”
Quistis tapped the scar that streaked his brow. “Where did you get that? Who was Rinoa’s boyfriend before you? Who else was a Sorceress’ Knight before you killed his Sorceress?”
“There’s nothing between us.”
She tilted her head to one side, the pen twirling elegantly between her slender fingers. “Then where were you the night before the SeeD field exam?”
Squall paled, but the reflexive glower set itself on the woman before him. “That’s none of your business.”
“That’s something you could clarify for me,” she replied swiftly, not deterred by the barb in his tone. “If I recall correctly, there is a code of conduct restricting students to their own dormitories after curfew and alcohol consumption is a strict breach of regulation. Now, I thought the leader of the disciplinary committee would uphold the same rules he enforced… unless he considered there to be something worth breaking those rules for.”
“That’s enough.” He had a vague idea where this was heading and it wasn’t a pleasant prospect.
“Do you have any idea how much trouble the two of you alone have made? Damage of property, breach of conduct… Do you know why you never suffered more than detention?”
The droll monotone enforced itself as he met her intense blue eyes impassively. “Guess I’m a lucky bastard.”
“Don’t make my efforts worthless, Squall! I lost my license because I pulled too many strings and it started getting ridiculous. Maybe they were right and I was unfit to be an Instructor then. Perhaps I did lack the conviction to reprimand my students, but you were also my friends and I refused to dismiss that. I knew that you and he could accomplish so much together if only you could learn to co-operate; on some level you did. I thought that maybe if I gave you one more chance, the two of you could really gain something, but that just led to another and another.... ”
She motioned helplessly, her hands falling to the table with a defeated sigh. Squall could only stare in mixed horror and disbelief.
“I thought you lost your license because of what happened during our exam,” he said slowly.
Quistis nodded. “I tried to appeal for Seifer, but they said that that was the last straw. I managed to have them dismiss his suspension, but they cancelled my teaching license that same day.”
Well, he felt like shit. Squall’s gaze fell, unable to meet hers any longer. “Quisty, I’m real sorry. I mean, I didn’t know.... “
She waved it off and leaned forward. “It’s not important anymore, it's been redeemed. But I believe Seifer has learned the hardest way of all that there are forces and higher powers beyond our control; the world isn’t going to bend over for him. You two complied with each other in some twisted way, and while I don’t know if it’s healthy, I really think that whatever you guys have… it may work out better than your relationship with Rinoa.”
Squall bit his tongue as fingers curled tight around the mug and he forced himself to look at her. Her expression was earnest and her eyes seemed to plead with him.
“He saw the same thing in you that Rinoa does now. But the question is, do you return either of their feelings?”
This was not something he wanted to discuss. His mind wanted to retort “no”, but hearing all that Quistis had done because she had believed in them… If he let his ego soothe his discomfort, it would be spitting in her face. She risked a lot for them; she cared more than he realized. Quistis really was the older sister that looked out for them all. He wondered what else he had missed in the people around him. Was he really that ignorant?
“This ‘thing’ you keep talking about,” he shook his head. There wasn’t anything to see in him.
He stopped short when she brushed the hair back from his eyes, smiling sadly. “You really have no idea what we see in you? You don’t see how much we all care for you?”
Squall shrugged, a little unnerved by the touch. “Sure, you guys always tell me-“
She shook her head. “You’re aware, but you don’t realize it, Squall. You haven’t accepted it. We all love you nonetheless, but we’re family. Rinoa isn’t one of us, so she doesn’t understand. She isn’t someone of infinite patience, by the time you come to terms, it may be too late for you and her.”
His voice was hushed, barely above a murmur. “I don’t want her. Not as my girlfriend. Not like that.”
Quistis gave him a smile that was as encouraging as the calm strength in her voice. “Then you have to tell her.”
They were more words I should have already known. Instead I became so fixated upon the task at hand and opened myself entirely to the onslaught that was to come. I should have been paying more attention.
If I'd known what was coming... I'm still not sure what I would have done. Too much was happening at once and I dealt with it as well as I could. But in the end it amounts to this: I was being selfish. I should have been keeping an eye out....
That's the sort of thing a Commander is supposed to do, isn't it?
"Are you lost, Kitty?"
I blinked, almost stopping to glance in the direction of the voice. They must have been talking to someone else, no-one I knew was daring enough to give me an endearment that wasn't my own name (let alone one so ridiculous). Squall, plain and simple. Commander Leonhart if I was approached by a subordinate, or simply Commander. Rank was safest.
I was going on with my internal discussion when I saw a figure out of the corner of my eye and came to a halt, looking up at the person who stood right in my path. I blinked a few times, quietly masking my curiousity at the woman before me. From her neo-gothic garb and exotic outlandish looks, the first thought that came to mind was that she certainly wasn't from around here. She was about my height, she might have even had an inch or so on me, but I wasn't sure how much of that was contributed by those black-buckled boots of hers.
Scanning her quickly I made a few quick assumptions. She wasn't a student, I definitely would have spotted someone like her before. Her skin was very pale but I couldn't detect any make-up on her, not from a brief glance anyway. Decked in all that leather with several buckles on her wrists I was a little surprised that I didn't find any spikes. Spikes was something of a default with that fashion sense, wasn't it? Then again... she reminded me a little of myself.
I hadn't realised I'd been staring so intently until her dark lips curled at the corners in a smile that reached cat green eyes. She almost looked approachable. "You're looking much better, Kitty. Lucid. I can see right through your eyes...." She leaned forward and raised a hand.
Frowning, I mentally took a step back. Did I know her? " ... "
"... To your bones," she purred slowly, pulling her hand back. "They're so very shiny. Do you floss?"
She seemed to know me, but I had no idea who she could be. I would have remembered meeting someone like her. That is, unless.... "Do I know you?" I finally voiced my suspicion, scrutinising her closely.
"You will." Her lips pulled back in a sly smirk and I caught the strange glint in her eye. "And then we'll dance with the puppy under the moon. He'll howl for you. Pretty kitty."
Oh great, I had a stalker? An unstable one that liked moondancing, no less."You must be thinking of someone else." I maneuvered to continue past her, but a quick step later she had blocked my path again. "Look," I began with a tired sigh, "I'm in a hurry." And I'm sure as hell not the person you're looking for.
"But I only met you last night, Kitty. Parting is such sweet sorrow." She pouted then, looking remarkably like a young child as a free hand settled at her throat; but just as suddenly, her eyes brightened. "Can I put a collar on you with a leash that I may hold?"
Well, that explained it. I must have stumbled upon her sometime between getting drunk and passing out. "Why do you keep calling me that?"
She cocked her head to one side, a garnet streak through mahogany locks falling over her brow. "The puppy always promised to bring us a kitty, but he's so very selfish. I love to share."
Crackpot from the slums, I should have known. I didn't have time for this bullshit. A gloved hand raised between us as I waved her off. "I’m busy.”
A pale hand grasped my wrist with surprising strength, I looked at her eyes set in a face tinged with sorrow. "You'll talk to him for us, won't you, Kitty?"
She was just a little scary, but I'd seen worse. It was a toss-up between near death and insanity in the throes of Armageddon or waking up to Rinoa sleeping next to me, wondering how the hell she got there. This woman didn't even compare to the horror I'd seen. Still, she made me a little edgy, especially with those striking eyes of hers....
But all this 'Kitty' business was quickly working to piss me off.
"I don't who you-" The words died in my throat as I looked to her hand still holding my wrist. My eyes went from the numerous buckles on her forearm up to a strange mark branded on lithe muscle of her upper arm. I felt cold when I recognised it.
The cross-sword. Seifer's mark.
Subconsciously my eyes grew wide and I glanced up at her. Who was this woman? She stared at me, her gaze narrowed in what seemed to be sadness and not malice.
"Tell him to come home," she requested softly, searching my face.
I really didn't like her eyes on me, but I was transfixed. Question and confusion were all I could register and movement was not an option as she wasn't looking to release me anytime soon. I think she would have been perfectly content to stand with me in the empty halls, only the trickle of water and my own heartbeat breaking the silence. I wondered if she could hear it, something in me guessed that she could.
I nearly jumped when a familiar voice met my ear, breaking the morbid reverie.
"Squall, could I talk to you for a minute?"
Turning, I tried to hide my relief at Selphie's approach. The usual go-lucky energy had seemed to dissipate from her aura entirely, she looked very apprehensive, wringing her hands as her eyes glanced between myself and the stranger.
"Oh, I-I'm sorry, I can-" She stuttered nervously, shrinking under the woman's sharp gaze.
"No, no," I interjected quickly, taking my hand back and placing it on Selphie's shoulder which earned me a startled look. "I'm sure it's important. If you need directions the informations desk is back that way." A brief wave at the front of the Garden concluded my directions and I turned my back on the stranger, leading Selphie away. I exhaled quickly, calming the little shiver that threatened to run down my spine because I could still feel her eyes on us.
Her words echoed in my head, but one in particular would't fade. 'Home'...
"Squall, did I interrupt something?" Selphie asked timidly, hands now clasped to her chest.
I shook my head, my hand still on her shoulder as if to protect her. "You were just in time."
She blinked up at me. "For what?"
To save me from that weirdo. "She thinks she knows me." I glanced down at the girl tucked to my side, feeling a brush of that need to protect her again. She looked so small and scared, it was uncharacteristic of the bubbling optimist that was our weapons expert. "Do you know her?"
Selphie shook her head and I felt a small hand settle on my hip. "She's a little scary."
"I think she's an animal lover too," I muttered under my breath as we turned the corner into the Quad. Only when we were through the tall archway did I look over my shoulder to make sure we weren't being followed. When I let go Selphie slipped away, sitting rigidly on one of the benches. Her hands settled on knees and I belatedly noticed that she was wearing jeans. I'd only seen her wear pants once before and that was on a hiking trip. The colours she adorned were also looking somber today with the soft brown blouse she wore.
"You wanted to speak to me about something?" I prompted when she remained silent.
She nodded and met my eyes. "We received a transmission from Trabia Garden this morning. They don't have the proper facilities or equipment to transfer the undetonated missiles and requested assistance... I was hoping I could go there in person and help. In case anything goes wrong, that is, and this issue has already been delayed for so long-"
Selphie looked a little surprised that I had agreed so quickly, but what reason did I have to refuse her request? "Really, Sir?"
"I just said so, didn't I?" I didn't like it when people made me repeat myself.
She let out a heavy exhale as though she'd been expecting the opposite response. Looking very relieved she stood and saluted me. "Thank you, Sir. I know I should have come to your office to discuss such an official matter with you, but you weren't there and-"
I noticed she was rambling and dismissed her tension with a wave. "I think you could use a little time away, go on, Captain."
Her mouth cracked the first smile I had seen on her that morning, it was reassuring to see a glimmer of the Selphie I knew. She was one of the many factors I relied on for the continuity in life. "I'll go and complete the paperwork right now so that I-"
"I'll take care of it, just go," I interrupted her again, taking a little pleasure in her dumbfounded look. She wasn't the only one who had some spontaneity. "Take as much time as you need since we don't want any mistakes with such a high risk mission."
Her smile softened, but when I caught the faint glimmer in her eye, I felt myself begin to frown. Why was she crying when I gave her what she wanted? "Thanks... Thank you, Squall." Ah, they were tears of gratitude. And she had me so worried for a minute there.
I didn't mind so much when she reached up for a brief hug. I placed a hand gently on her shoulder as a notion of support before she pulled back and gave me a final smile before departing without another word.
I watched the flickering patches of sunlight on the grass instead of her retreating back and buried my hands in my pockets. Selphie needed the time away, she had been working hard the last few months and her absence would lessen the potential of a soap opera breaking out. Maybe I was discrediting my staff, and though they were also people I knew well, they were still human; unpredictable at times like these.
Watching the light shift and distort, my thoughts were drawn back to that woman in the hall. She was very unnerving and few people disquieted me. It was something in her eyes... why did she look so sad? It was as though she was mourning the loss of something... or someone. And why was she wearing Seifer's mark? Did Seifer have another gang now that the Disciplinary Committee was no longer his? What was with that fixation on animals and why the fuck did she keep calling me 'Kitty'?
Despite her claims to know me I was highly doubting it. I would have remembered someone like that. She didn't look too much older than me, but she certainly wasn't an old tutor I'd had before. I would definitely remember that.
Hey, do you remember Professor so-and-so from our review class in first year? Ever wonder how they turned out?
I sighed, settling onto the bench, I hunched with elbows on my knees and thought back.
Her eyes. They were nothing short of amazing. I couldn't find the words to describe their depth and shade, but they were brilliant, chilling. I don't know why I couldn't look away... they pulled you in, muffled your thought and breath. It was like drowning, but not in any romanticized sense one would usually associate with such a thing. I didn't like her.
I sighed, knowing that until I had some answers, this was going to haunt me for hours. An image of the brand on her arm came back to me and I stood with the knowledge that I had my first source.
Rinoa could wait - it was time to look for Seifer.
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