Author’s Notes: Desperate for feedback!


Chapter 3 - Absence of Light

By Ashi

The walk has never seemed longer, not even during those first awkward years as a cadet, dog-tired and aching with the effects of a long day of training—not even lately, as a shadow, heading for a bed that is never warm, wanting nothing more than a rest will never come. And a shadow I have become—dead air in the absence of light.

Years after a star burns out, the light keeps coming. But it’s not real; the star is dead—it’s the light, caught in some stellar form of suspended animation, that reaches our eyes. Such a fitting analogy. I’ve been going through the motions, as well.

I round a corner and a girl stumbles, staggering backwards and clutching her books to her chest. Her hair is pulled back into a sloppy ponytail and her uniform is arranged haphazardly, eyes drooping with the remnants of sleep—she should be ten minutes into her first class by now; I know; I waited until the halls were well-cleared before leaving my office. She recognizes me, her eyes go wide and her mouth gapes and she launches into a hurried apology I struggle to understand, blushing crimson and looking at the floor, giving me quick, concealed glances from beneath her lashes. I’m sure it would be odd to almost literally run into your commander wondering the halls between classes, pale and bleary eyed, wearing a wrinkled, half-buttoned shirt and paint-splattered jeans. I break into her flow of jumbled words to offer a clumsy assurance that sounds terse even to my ears, and she’s already hurrying away, ducking her head in embarrassment.

Irvine once joked that I was ‘seriously lacking in the social department,’ after a rather awkward situation involving a group of fresh cadets and a welcoming speech that never made it off the ground. This was placed in a much lighter context than Seifer’s ‘emotional wasteland’ comment some years earlier, which had been directed with a great deal of scorn at my retreating back…If hatred was an audible entity, I suppose that would have come pretty close. Not that I hadn’t deserved it. And yet, somehow the Galbadian’s reference to my admittedly below-par people skills affected me to a point that I had to make up an excuse and leave abruptly, a burning sensation sitting unfamiliar in my chest. Maybe it was the fact that he had been a teammate, an ally, a friend, one of the few people I have grown to trust with only a small deal of wariness. A companion I couldn’t bear to lose. Getting too used to a good thing is dangerous, especially for me. I feel something with Irvine, with Zell and Quistis and Selphie. With Rinoa.

Rinoa. I’m walking again, and I falter a little, confused, my thoughts coming to an abrupt halt. Looking around, I see my feet have taken me to the men’s sector of dorms, directly in front of door 138, where I had been headed initially. But, I don’t remember how I got here.

That had been the main problem. She said she couldn’t understand me, why I forgot things I should know, why my hands shook when I poured her coffee, why I shuddered when she touched me…I’ll never forget the horror and betrayal in those dark, beautiful eyes that had always reminded me of the hot chocolate she adored so much, walking in to discover me in a quivering ball in the corner of our room, tears running uncontrollably down my face as a nightmare played itself out in my head.

She thought I had been taking drugs. When she confronted me earlier that week, concerned about my sparse appetite and odd habits that had been becoming more and more evident when we were together, I had denied it. She believed me immediately, already making plans to arrange a check-up with Dr. Kodawaki as she rose on tip-toes to place a delicate hand to my forehead. "Oh…Squall, you’re burning up," she’d said, brow wrinkling with worry. She grabbed my wrist, tugging me gently to the dorms. "Lay down for a while; Quistis can take care of things for a couple hours." I didn’t argue, although I knew it was a futile effort. I’d do anything to make her happy, even if it meant pretending to sleep while she fretted over me, pulling up a chair beside my bed and leaning forward every now and then to ghost her fingers over my forehead, carefully avoiding my scar. She’d always deserved better than a flawed toy-soldier.

The door I’ve been standing in front of swishes open, and I’m suddenly face-to-face with an image of the past—or rather would be face-to-face if not for the obvious height difference. I’m forced to look up into the eloquent green eyes I remember all too well, currently regarding me with a look of bored disdain. "Mingling with the commoners?," he asks me, voice dripping with ill-concealed sarcasm. "I always figured you to be too damn big for that." He emphasizes the word "big" while taking a step forward so that I have to tilt my head uncomfortably, or stare at his collar-bone. Stepping backward isn’t an option.

I glare at him, struggling to control my expression when his mouth pulls up into an easy grin; an unrecognizable expression on a face usually associated with "fight" or the occasional hormone-fueled tumble as cadets, twisting together in the solitude of his dorm room. Blood rushes to my face at the memory, and my blushing only serves to widen the strange smile as I curse my pale complexion. "I see you haven’t changed…It’s been a while, hasn’t it, Squall?" All satire is gone, and what’s left is honest commentary, spoken with a hint of playfulness that sounds almost foreign from the lips of someone I had thought of as an enemy for far too long.

"Welcome back, Seifer." And I mean it, if on more than one level.

I’m asleep when my laptop issues a series of shrill bleats, startling me from a dream that I can’t remember, my hand reaching out on its own accord to activate the monitor while I adjust my hat and peel a slip of paper from the side of my face in the same motion. It’s shaping up to be a hot-ass day, and I know there will be ink marks on my cheek where a student’s handwriting absorbed into my skin. Grading term papers isn’t exactly my idea of an exhilarating experience, and that combined with the heat nearly always manages to put me out half-way through the stack.

Zell’s face jumps on the screen, his image skipping and skittering about before resolving itself; his mouth is already moving and his brows are drawn together, and a cold feeling settles in my gut when I see his expression. "—leaving a soon as I can. I think I’m going to take her to a hospital in Esthar ‘cause they have the best doctors…"

"Whoa, whoa, whoa--Wait a minute," I cut in, panic causing my words to tumble out in a stream before I force myself to slow down. "Who’re you taking to a hospital?"

"Ma." He’s upset and more than a little scared, running a hand through his wayward bangs which only droop further to hang in front of his eyes. "I don’t know what’s wrong with her—she’s really sick."

"Where are you now?"

His eyes snap up, pale blue and terrified, and I know he’s doing his best to sound confident. "In Balamb, but not for long. I’ve go some of her stuff packed and we’re going. I just wanted to call you before we leave…Gods, my class starts in fifteen minutes," he says, looking at his wristwatch, the edge of alarm creeping into his voice.

"Don’t worry about it," I assure him. "Just get out of here. I’ll watch ‘em."

The sudden depart of tension from his body leaves his arms hanging limply by his sides, and he’s looking at me like I’m some sort of godsend. "Shit, thanks, Irvine…I don’t know what I’d do without you…"

I shake my head slowly, giving him a crooked smile. "You’d do the same for me, right? Besides, I’m worried about Ma, too. You just make sure she gets better, okay?"

"Yeah…yeah, I—thank you," he says again, struggling to return my smile; it looks painful and it wavers slightly, but it’s better than nothing.

"Don’t mention it. Take as long as you need; I’ve got it covered."

"Alright…" He looks as if he’s going to thank me again, and I move my finger to hover over the power button.

"Well, get going, man, you’re burning daylight. And call when you get there."

" ‘Kay," he says, dipping his head in acknowledgment. "Bye, Irv." The last thing I see is his grave smile before the link is terminated, and I’m scooping up an armful of papers, already thinking up ways to keep his students occupied while I head for the door.

//Damn…he sure hasn’t changed.//, I find myself thinking as I watch the unconscious, yet utterly enticing sway of his hips while he moves to stand in the center of my room, turning back to look at me with that unreadable expression—the very same that graces the cover of nearly every magazine I own. It could prove to be fairly embarrassing if he finds the all-too-revealing mini-shrine I’ve constructed from various newspaper articles, magazine shots, and old photographs stashed in a box beneath my bed—one of the few belongings I’ve brought with me. I’m just a sentimental kinda guy, that’s all.

As expected, he just stands there, looking at me, at the floor, at the bed (it’s the same room; he must remember, judging by the way his face has taken a decidedly red tint), and I take the opportunity to admire the vision I’m presented with: Squall Leonhart, tousled and blushing, shirt buttons void of their corresponding holes so that a good deal of chest and a triangle of lean stomach show through, hands tucked in the pockets of low-slung, well-fitting jeans…quite an eyeful, if I do say so myself. Not that anything other than that can ever happen between us, I remind myself. It’s too easy to get lost in aesthetics.

"What the hell’d you do to win a humanitarian award?" He looks up, startled, and I have to grin at the sudden reproachful look my words have provoked. It’s too easy to push his buttons, once you’ve learned how; I could probably teach a course.

"I…" He’s staring at the floor again, and in the blue light from the window, I look at him as if seeing him for the first time. No, he’s changed, alright. I can’t believe I didn’t notice earlier the dark circles under his eyes, or just how pale his skin has become with the absence of his blush , bordering on downright white against the black of his hair. He speaks, rather haltingly as if suddenly self-conscious (perhaps he’s noticed the way I’ve been looking at him), crossing his arms over the sliver of belly visible beneath the folds of his shirt. "I—I don’t know, exactly…I just donated some money to help with an orphanage program, really."

"What qualifies as ‘some’ money to you?"

"I don’t need a quarter as much as I make…" He trails off, looking everywhere but me. Oh, right. He’s the commander, no doubt earning a literal truck-load of cash every time he breaths. And somehow, I’m inclined to believe he was a lot more involved in this orphanage thing than he’s letting on, but I don’t say anything. Rather, I change the subject.

"So, you paint?" He blinks, the abrupt and poorly-timed question throwing him off for a split-second before my words register.

"Um, yeah…," he says awkwardly, and I wonder what his press conferences are like. Must be entertaining, anyway. Squall looks down at the cuffs of his jeans, where large, multi-colored splotches of dried paint adorn the faded material till a point near his knee, where only a few random flecks preside.

Before I’m given a chance to continue our little round of questioning, his dark brows draw together and his eyes clear slightly, as if he’s just remembered what he’d came here for. Definitely not like him, to put off business for small-talk. "So, you’re alright with everything," he says, gesturing toward the expanse of the room as I fight to keep my eyes from traveling to the pale, muscular planes of skin his movement has revealed.

"Uh…yes. Yes. I fine." Way to be, Mr. Eloquent. "I’ll admit I was a little dubious when your two minions appeared at my doorstep, but now I’m glad I came." I’m sure it took a load of Fujin’s mind, anyway, knowing that I was at least employed and finally well-sheltered. The small, er, modest house I owned in Balamb could only best be described as a one-room shack, but being the knight of an evil sorceress hadn’t exactly been my best career-choice.

Squall nods, taking on a sudden businesslike demeanor and reminding me more of the endearing tight-ass I used to know, all work and no play. Or very little play, at least. "And you’ve been informed of your duties?" Yes, sir, shoveling Grat manure and basically working as Balamb G’s janitor as payment for my stay here. Could be worse, I suppose, considering the havoc I’ve wreaked on this place in years past.

"Yep. Quisty told me all about it." He looks at me strangely for a moment, and I wonder if it’s the old nickname that’s thrown him—I haven’t called her that since we were kids. He releases a breath, looking tired, suddenly, and moves to brush past me on his way to the door, pausing to peer back at me over a lean shoulder. "If there’s…anything you need," Squall says, and I can tell he means no implications, although I could think of a few things in particular I certainly wouldn’t mind at the moment. "I’ll be in my office. I…" And he turns his head, voice barely a notch above a whisper. "It’s good to see you again."

"Yeah," I breathe, running a hand through the short threads of my hair as the door slides open. "You too."

I stand for a while after he leaves, staring at the space he had occupied not moments before, contemplating…Giving a quick glance to the digital numbers my bed-side clock displays, I see there’s at least a couple hours before my first shift starts, leaving plenty of time to take care of a few things. I nod to myself in quiet confirmation; a trip to the library is in order.



Notes: Hope the POV changes in this chapter weren’t too confusing. First-person from now on.

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