Author’s Notes: Desperate for feedback!


Chapter 6 - The Walking Wounded

By Ashi

"You’re leaving?," I say in an occupied tone, eyes transfixed by the slide of water in his still-wet hair as it converges and beads like tiny diamonds on the tips; they fatten and drop to trace shimmering lines down the planes of his back. He doesn’t answer right away.

"I should be in my office by now," Squall finally replies without turning (predictable little prick), voice hoarse and scratchy, and I hope to all hells Garden walls aren’t too thin-- I’d have a hard time explaining this one. At the same time I feel a surge of pride at the knowledge that it was me—I had been the one to make the commander scream, moan and/or whimper with that special brand of mindless abandon that only occurs when I know it’s a job well-done. Sort of like a pat on the back, so to speak. And from Squall--gods, I’m good.

I’m smirking to myself by the time he decides to acknowledge my presence and pivots on his bare feet to face me, hand on his hip and looking more than mildly irritated. Those raggedy denim jeans look damn good on him, holes in all the right places and fitting like a second skin, but I can’t help picturing him in his customary leather. My smile widens.

"What the hell are you grinning at?"

"Oh, I was just thinking…"

"Good," he says in that frustrating monotone. "Maybe you could help me find my shirt while you’re in the mood."

At the moment, that’s the last thing I want to do. "Yeah," I say resignedly. "Sure." Way to spoil the party, Squall, I think as I kneel to peer under the bed. Magazines, empty ammo cases, a few miscellaneous alcohol bottles…no shirt. "Okay, man, there’s nothing under here--"

"Never mind," he announces as I lever myself up with a groan. "I found it."

"Great," I say sarcastically, turning to find him in a rather compromising position, one arm stretched out under my dresser, his back a play of sinew and muscle as he shifts to rest his weight on one elbow, arching so that much of his upper body is flush with the floor. I feel like the wolf in some corny cartoon—my jaw’s dropped at least six inches and I gape like an oversexed teenager (which isn’t at all surprising, considering that’s exactly what I am, after all) as my mind churns with fresh images of his body under mine. Leather or not, Squall is absolutely breath-taking, as I’m sure he would be under any circumstances: in a burlap sack, a mini-skirt and stilettos, completely naked, naked with whipped cream, naked and wet, naked—

"Irvine?" My jaw snaps shut with an audible clash of teeth. Ow. Squall sits crouched on my floor, peering up at me through his jagged bangs—the kind of hair-cut that can only be achieved by a pocket-knife and somebody who doesn’t give a flying piss about his hair. Wouldn’t surprise me. "I can’t reach it," he mumbles, offering me a shy smile. Sweetest thing I’ve ever seen, and somehow it’s better than any highly implausible, lurid fantasy my imagination can conjure up. And I’ve got one highly implausible, lurid imagination, let me tell you…

He slides over as I stretch out in front of the dark stretch of open space beneath my dresser, resting my head on the floor and squinting into the musty gloom. Ah, there it is, a shred of white material at the very back, mashed up against the wall. How exactly it got there, I’ll never know, as I only vaguely remember chucking our clothes across the room in the urgency to feel skin on skin.

I can feel his eyes on me as I reach into the abyss that is the underside of my dresser, my fingers brushing soft cotton by the time my shoulder is jammed between the biting edge of Balamb timber and unyielding floor planking. Gritting my teeth, I manage to lurch forward that last little bit, snatching the crumbled ball of Squall’s shirt and drawing it back with me. I shake it out, him watching quietly, and give a half-laugh, half-groan as my hat rolls out from where it had been covertly tucked in the folds. Squall picks it up and turns it over in his hands, obviously unable to tell one end from the next. "Maybe you can take it somewhere…," he begins uncertainly, but I place a hand on his knee and shake my head in amusement.

"Squall, trust me. It’s not worth salvaging."

"Oh," he says softly, still cradling the tortured lump as if it were made of gold. "Sorry…"

I give his denim-clad knee a squeeze and offer a crooked smile and a wink that’s meant to be reassuring. "Forget the stupid thing." I take it from him and set it on the floor, my eyes never leaving his. "You made up for it." He blushes and looks away (like I said, predictable), unable to hide that small, sweet smile I know is only for me.

Then I remember something, a concern that’s been on the tip of my tongue ever since this morning. "Are you alright?," I say abruptly, catching him off-guard; his eyes sweep up, questioning. "I mean—uh, you know, since you passed out…"

"Oh," he says offhandedly, looking at a point on the floor. "I was just…tired. I’m fine now."

"Tired?," I repeat skeptically. "Are you sure that’s all?" It made sense, I suppose; he had been working himself into the ground lately. But, still, he’s been close to death with exhaustion before and never took a nose-dive for the dirt.

Squall exhales slowly, his hand finding mine and guiding it up to his face, his eyes sliding closed. He kisses the pulse-point of my wrist, nuzzling into the palm and placing and holding it to his smooth, flushing cheek. I realize he hasn’t answered my question, but he does seem perfectly healthy, now…I lean in, pausing just before our lips touch and not believing how much things have changed, and how much they keep changing.

He draws back a bit, his hand leaving mine and reaching to run gentle fingers along my jaw, his half-opened eyes following their movement, head cocked to the side pensively. His forefinger runs against my parted lips, and I take it in, suckling gently. Squall shudders and looks at me with a mixture of worshipful adoration and sorrow that both elates and scares me. "Why did you kiss me?," he asks breathily, a tremor entering his voice as I take another finger. "…Last night…"

I pull away reluctantly, my tongue making a last swipe around his fingertips before releasing them. I lean back and look at him, suppressing a groan as he moves those fingers to his lips and touches experimentally. "Because I wanted to."

"But, why?" There’s a stirring behind the grey of his eyes, a longing, and I know my answer will determine something of great importance to him.

"I wanted…" I search for words that would express the way I feel when I’m with him, growing nervous as he watches me tensely, waiting with bated breath for my reply. I feel it now, but it’s not just any one emotion, nothing I can put a finger on. Not quite lust, or not wholly, at any rate, not exactly the need for closeness, although that played a part, and certainly not…"I just did," I finish lamely, fighting to keep my voice casual, although all that remains unvoiced settles heavily in my heart.

"Oh," he says again, dropping his gaze to his hands, which now rest balled in his lap. I want to take it back, smack myself upside the head, anything to resurrect the wilted smile, to erase the pained acceptance in his beautiful, wounded eyes. I consider telling him everything that had come to my mind in that brief moment of speculation, but somehow, I know there will be nothing he will want to hear. I don’t dare kiss him. "I should probably get to work," he’s saying, refusing to look up.

"Yeah," I say, nodding vaguely. "I’ve got papers…" We avoid each other’s eyes, and I fumble for something to say before giving up and examining a speck of lint on my pant leg.

He rises stiffly, taking his shirt from where it lay forgotten on the floor with an utterance of thanks, while I sit stupidly and watch him pull it on without bothering to button it. His socks and boots are quickly recovered from the middle of the room, and he moves to my bed to settle noiselessly on the edge of the mattress. The sheets have been drawn up and smoothed so that it is almost as if last night hadn’t happened at all.

I watch from the corner of my eye as he hastily pulls on his boots with uncharacteristic clumsiness. Seeing no point in getting up, as I’d probably only result in furthering my fuck-up record, I remain seated on the floor, staring vacantly at the place he had been and mentally berating myself. This was a mistake.

Squall seems to be having troubles with the laces, and finally knots them in frustration, clearly wanting nothing more than to get as far away from here as fast as possible, and I can’t say I blame him. He walks past without looking at me, faltering a bit at the door panel and stopping. His voice is weary and half-choked, so quiet even in the utter stillness of my room that I’m not sure he’s speaking at first. "I need to know something."

"What?," I ask softly, tilting my head to look up at his profile. He runs a shaky hand through his hair, and turns to face me, eyes trained on mine with that closed, unreadable expression I’ve been lucky to have missed out on these last few hours.

"Will this happen again?"

I manage a weak smile. "If you want it to."

He looks away and nods, a moment later slipping out into the empty hallway to leave me with a dripping shower and his clean, soapy scent lingering after him.

Paint trickles down my forearm in a curving arc, gravity drawing it downwards to splatter audibly on the floor. Good thing I’d rolled up my sleeves. Too bad I’d forgotten to lay down newspaper. I sigh and step back to assess the damage, eyes scanning the developing sky-scape stretching across my canvas before dropping to rest on the blossoming bit of blue on the floor of my office.

By the time I’d slouched through the door, distinctly glad I had given my secretary the day off (thereby avoiding watching wheels turn as she takes in my wet and rumpled appearance coupled with an unusually late entrance—not even she’s that stupid), I found the various mountains of paperwork on my desk less than appealing. This led me to wondering the confined space of my office aimlessly, digging a battered apple out of the tiny fridge Zell had insisted I keep and chewing around the bruised spots, balancing a pencil on it’s lead tip before it inevitably toppled to the ground, kicking the offending utensil under my desk, then finally remembered the half-finished painting I had been neglecting for quite some time and recovering it from the back of my supply closet, digging out a dented easel, brushes, and a few misshapen tubes of paint, as well.

I’d never thought I’d be suited for it, and apparently the feeling was mutual with everyone else—Selphie swallowed her gum when she overheard me making an order for fan brushes and linseed oil. Zell was always the artistic one; I didn’t have a creative bone in my body, as far as I knew. But it’s…calming, more so than numbly attaching my signature to stacks of paper and sorting them into piles. And I don’t think while I paint, which is probably the real appeal. My mind doesn’t wander as I decide which brush would be best suited for clouds, or what a little more red would do blended into the acrylic dusk on my canvas.

The paint begins to seep into the cracks of the floor, and I turn to get something to wipe it up before turpentine’s necessary, only to catch a flicker of movement from the corner of my eye, too late. I’m unprepared for the trunk-like arm that twists savagely around my waist, pinning my arms to my sides and forcing the air from my lungs. There’s a sharp prick as something—a needle—is plunged into the side of my neck, even as I struggle against the unyielding grip. A hot, cigarette-laden breath stirs the hair near my ear, and the man speaks in that scratchy murmur I remember so well, sending a shock of panicked disbelief coiling inside my chest.

"Found you…"

I watch Zell’s student’s file past, a few of the female cadets giving me lingering looks from beneath their lashes (which I ignore as I hurry to usher the last out), my mind as far away from women as it’s ever been. The halls are crowded with students leaving their last class of the day, and I feel strangely detached from the bustle and noise of the suddenly cloying, all-together too-cheerful atmosphere. I push past a particularly large cluster of laughing, talking people, for once in my life possessing full insight to how Squall must feel everyday.

I walk faster. I need to get back to the quiet of my cadet-free room to think…Not that I haven’t been doing exactly that all morning since he left—thinking; staring at some point on the floor and pretending to watch the class. If there’s some kind of conclusion I should be reaching, I haven’t gotten there quite yet… It would have been a lot easier if everyone wouldn’t have kept asking me if I was alright; apparently, I’d taken a glazed expression. Not to mention there’s the absence of my hat, which I had to make excuses for on a regular basis (none of which involved the commander, although I’m sure that would be anyone’s last guess)…Thank Hyne I found an extra hair-tie…

Halfway there. The hallway traffic’s only increasing the closer to the dorms I get, as everyone seems to be in a hurry to change and get somewhere with more air-conditioning. Not that I blame them—a field day in the fire-cavern might have been cooler—but they’ve slowed my progress to an awkward shuffle as more students filter from adjoining classrooms and mill about, and before long, I’ve returned to brooding over my predicament.

If only there had been some sort of excuse—alcohol, delirium—maybe we could have put it behind us, blamed it on booze or stress or just an enormous and prolonged lapse in judgement. Even then, we’d just be denying we had ever been any more than just good friends, and losing something in the process.

I make up mind near the fountain, and turn to launch myself back into the crowd, which is a lot like trying to swim upstream in a very strong and very noisy current, heading back to the elevator that will take me to Squall. I’ll talk to him. I’ll apologize, and look forward to a future of exchanging tight-lipped smiles and polite nods when we pass in halls (I’ll smile; Squall will just make a curt inclination of his head), and we’ll still be as friends to outsiders.

But we won’t be, not really, I think as I board the elevator, thankful to be alone as I punch the 3rd floor button and a familiar jolt signals my ascent. I watch the 2nd floor flash by in digital red, feeling as though I’d just swallowed a rather large tub of snakes, which were now twisting and writhing in my stomach.

I shift nervously, crossing my arms and leaning back against the wall to prevent myself from pacing the inside of the elevator. Was a few hours of closeness worth the almost certain loss of a solid friendship? No, and as long as I’m still part of the problem, things will always be awkward and delicate between us. I still want him, and I’m not sure if I can stop. Even now, in the simple act of thinking about him, my fingers tingle with the memory of his warm and willing body, his own hands, curious and eager, tracing fire up my back to tangle in my hair.

If I had the soul of a poet, I would try, and fail, to describe the way he makes me feel, to trap his essence in a compact jumble of words. I wish I could forget the way his eyes darkened before a kiss, or how my name sounded from lips, in that way… And I can’t make myself regret it.

What if he feels the same way?, my mind chimes in practically. He wanted it, remember? He asked you to…What if he doesn’t mind being your friend during the day and warming your bed at night? What’s the harm? And he’d felt so good…

A bright ding and a shuddering lurch announces my arrival before I’m ready, the elevator doors sliding open before I can change my mind. Time to grow up, Kinneas, I think to myself, distinctly hating my sudden longing for my hat, which, in its absence, leaves me feeling open to the elements (or to be more precise, a certain ill-tempered entity known, quite coincidentally, as Squall).

I notice something’s wrong almost immediately. Maybe he just stepped out for a moment, I reason, although this does little to quell my rising anxiety as I march briskly past the secretary’s untended desk toward his open door, which is absolutely never left open under any circumstances…He could have passed out again, or—

Blood pounding in my ears, I give the small, plain room a quick once-over before feeling mildly annoyed by my own nerves as I realize nothing’s out of order. Squall probably left for a few moments, not expecting me to show up and barge into his office. Something catches my eye—a vivid shock of blue--and I turn to see a fairly large painting in a desolate corner, half-hidden in afternoon shadows. There’s no way I could have missed it, though; the color stands stark against the drab, off-white wall.

I walk over to it for a closer look, appreciating the fine, precise lines of what’s shaping up to be a bright, sunny beach-scene; a few gulls drift amidst perfect reproductions of clouds, and the sand is a perfect, sun-drenched white-gold. I have a hard time associating this painting, with the brilliant intensity of its colors, with a guy who prefers to dress in monochrome.

Then I see it: a splash of blue on the floor. This, in itself, is fairly unspectacular, but the half-dried puddle of paint is not what sends a wave of cold washing over me. It’s the fragmented footprint, in that vibrant sky-blue, that catches my attention and makes me whip around, my eyes following the unfamiliar tread-marks (which is the true source of my immense disquiet, as I’d recognize the prints Squall’s boots leave anywhere) in a gradually diminishing line straight out the doorway I’d just walked through.

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