Author’s Notes: Desperate for feedback!


Chapter 7 - Sticks and Stones

By Ashi

There’s no light in this place.  My thoughts come slow and it’s dark, so dark I can’t tell whether my eyes are open or closed.  The stale air whispers over me, a sensation that’s finely acute compared to the sluggish filtering of my mind.  I move to get up, only to find this impossible. For one terrifying moment, I think I’m back in D-district--my limbs are stretched and bound across a hard surface—a table—metal clasps biting into my skin; the only movement I can manage is a useless squirm.

I panic, twisting and wrenching until blood runs warm over my heated skin.  It takes me a moment to realize there’s no clothing to absorb it. 

I’m naked, strapped to a table in the dark, and any awareness that’s left in me knows this can’t be the prison.

I lie still, the sounds of my own harsh breathing filling the dark space around me.  My mind’s a distorted kaleidoscope, half-remembered images sliding and resurfacing too quickly for me to grasp.  I don’t understand. 

My confusion triggers a fresh surge of fear, and I struggle with all my might, my flesh tearing under the unyielding metal—

“Easy there,” a voice rings out from somewhere to my right, and I still abruptly, staring into the black.  I hadn’t considered that another person could be here with me, and if anything, my pace quickens as my flight-or-fight instinct sends adrenaline coursing through my blood .  Because I know that voice.  Because this isn’t a dream.  Light floods my vision, and I’m forced to close my eyes under the glare.

In the once dead silence, the steady click of advancing footsteps is strangely amplified, and I force my eyes open with an overpowering sense of dread. Even the pallid, flickering light burns sharply, and it’s through bleary, squinting eyes I watch the subject of my most vivid nightmares walking toward me, a background of white walls and mirrored glass completing the scene, this nightmare, brought to life under a sickly yellow glow. 

In a last-ditch effort to free myself, I surge upward against the biting cuffs as his hulking shadow falls over me, but my movements have become lethargic, my breathing too fast, and my thoughts, if possible, have grown even more indistinct, bordering on nonexistent, replaced by raw, animalistic panic.

I thrash about uselessly a few more moments before lying still, exhausted and gulping air, my body limp and unresisting as his cold, thick finger traces languidly over my thigh.  “You remember me.”  Not a question—a statement, spoken in a soft, knowing voice.  I close my eyes, praying to wake up alone in my office, shaking with the memory of a too-real dream, and far away from this place. 

“Such a pretty, pretty boy,” he coos in a would-be paternal manner, if not for the hunger in his tone or the rough hand stroking my inner thigh.  He moves upward, one hand sweeping the hair from my eyes with a kind of reigned gentleness, while the other slides up my abdomen, fingers splayed possessively over my skin.  “Mmmm, yes, you’ve grown up nicely…”

“Leave me alone,” I hear myself slur from what seems like a great distance, and he chuckles in amusement, his fingers gliding to my chest and circling over a nipple.  I shift away from the unwanted touch, only to have no place to escape, my back pressed flat against the table.

My head lolls to the side and he catches it, cupping my cheek in his clammy palm and brushing his thumb over my brow with deceptive tenderness; I know just how quickly a caress can turn into something much darker in nature, if not in intent. 

“Open your eyes for me, pretty,” he coaxes hoarsely, all the while toying lazily with my nipple. 

It takes much of my remaining strength to wrench my face away from him, cuffs catching my raw, bleeding skin as I strain in what I’m vaguely aware is a futile effort to distance myself from this encounter. 

“I said,” he snarls, his fingers closing over the sensitive nub in warning, “Open. Your. Eyes!”  He twists savagely and I cry out, my eyes snapping open as I arch in pain. 

“Yes, that’s better,” he sighs contentedly as I fall back, chest heaving.  “I want you to watch.”

I find myself face-to-face with an image from a past I’ve been powerless to bury all these years.  Pale eyes glint with an edge of mania, a self-satisfied smirk twisting thin, cracked lips; they curl into a malicious semblance of a grin as I look at him, revealing straight rows of cigarette-stained teeth.  His short-cropped hair is a color that had perhaps once been brown, now a dull, musty grey that the oily light seems to lurk in. 

He strokes my forehead affectionately.  “Watch me…”

We drive in silence.  I hazard a glance at Quistis—she’s staring unwaveringly at the road, white-knuckled hands clutching the wheel like a lifeline. 

She’d pulled over some five miles out of Balamb, and I’d told her everything—what I knew as the truth, and what little I could tell about Squall, back then.  And she’d taken it hard.  Her Garden, the very same she’d served so selflessly for so many years, her home, her pride, had betrayed her in the very most personal way.  I knew she wouldn’t be so forgiving.

Her phone rings and she jumps, cursing in a manner that would strike me as funny if not for the circumstances, and she snatches it up while simultaneously swerving to miss a pothole.  “Yes?,” she barks, not even bothering to hide her irritation.  Her face goes abruptly white.  When she speaks again, her voice is hushed in disbelief, which quickly transitions into a grim tone of authority with a smoothness that only Quistis is capable of.  “…Are you sure?… Get Zell—he should be back by now.  Make a call for Selphie…Yes, and I’ve got Seifer….Yes…We’ll be there in five minutes.” 

Quistis switches of the phone with more force than necessary, tossing it on the seat cushion, her foot bearing down on the gas pedal. 

“What’s going on?,” I ask, against my better judgement.  Something tells me I don’t want to know.

She turns to me, her face ashen with fear.  “He’s gone.”

The atmosphere is grim.  We stand around Squall’s office, not touching anything, just in case.  The footprints leave a glistening trail out the doorway, smudging off on the carpeting near the elevator, and everyone agrees they’ve never noticed boots with that particular tread marking in their life. 

“Selphie and Zell should be getting back,” Irvine says anxiously, carefully avoiding stepping on the prints, though they’ve dried, to keep watch by the doorway.

 He seems different than I remember him, but then, out of everyone, he’s the one I know the least about.  The Galbadian appears trustworthy enough, visibly shaken and genuinely worried, from what I can tell, but I can’t shake the feeling that he’s less than keen on my presence here.  Maybe it’s the fact that I’d tried to kill Squall—as well as everyone else, including him—on more than one occasion.  I also get the feeling that Quistis’s influence is the only reason why I’m here at all.

Moments later, the slide of the elevator doors is audible, and Irvine steps aside as Selphie marches in, Zell on her tail.  Under three expectant gazes, the two hang their heads in an unmistakable expression of failure. 

“Nothing?,” Quistis asks with dismay.

“Not a trace,” Zell replies, staring forlornly at the painting in the corner.  It had been Zell that had got Squall started in the first place, I’ve been told.  Apparently he’d taken to it like a natural.  That doesn’t surprise me; he was always good at everything.  And always a step ahead of me, too, I muse, and for once I’m not bitter.  

“What should we do?,” Irvine asks quietly.  I move to examine the painting, trying to come up with alternatives, all the while feeling as though we’ve been missing something.

“We’ve searched the grounds…,” Quistis is saying.  I kneel next to the dried pool of paint, which is smudged at the corner with the imprint of a turning heel.   “…We’ve already made one call for him.  We can’t afford to upset the students this early….”

“How could anyone have taken him?”  Selphie’s voice is pure disbelief. 

“Yeah, I don’t get it, either,” Zell agrees.  “He’s the strongest guy we’ve got.”  His voice swells with emotion, and I hear his clothing rustle as he gestures animatedly .  “And how could somebody just waltz in here, kidnap the frickin’ commander, and walk out without anyone noticing?!”

“It’s the last day of the week,”  Irvine murmurs from the door.  “Most of the staff around here took off early.  Everyone else was in classes.”  His voice is heavy with guilt.  “I should’ve checked when he didn’t come for lunch, but I just…thought…”

The room goes quiet.  

And then I see it, flashing in the light from the window; it’s been right under my nose this whole time. I retrieve it from where it had rested unnoticed beside the easel, and it breaks the silence with a loud rustling crinkle as I study it in my hands: part of a clear plastic wrapping from the outside of a cigarette box, if I’m not mistaken, and I stand rather shakily, head spinning with the shock of an unpleasant revelation. 

“Quistis?,” I say without turning, clutching the wrapper in my fist and almost hoping I’m wrong. 

“Yes?,” she says with exasperation, then, as if sensing the urgency I’ve left unvoiced, takes a step toward me.  “What is it, Seifer?”

“Do you remember…what we talked about earlier?”  Silence.  “I think it’s him.”

“Doctor Allen Walker, head of Esthar’s biological weapons department.” Quistis hands Zell an unlabeled manila folder that I hadn’t noticed earlier.

 We’ve moved to the tactics room, a large, airy compartment, complete with numerous wall-length maps and an enormous retractable vidscreen--one of Squall’s first additions to Garden.   The five of us sit gathered around the main table, Quistis and Seifer on one side, Selphie, Zell, and I on the other.  Between us rests a crumpled plastic wrapping.

Zell’s pulled out a thick packet of papers from the folder, and  what appears to be a profile—bearing the name of the guy Quistis is referring to—stapled on top.  His picture depicts a middle-aged, large-framed man I’ve never seen—

“I’ve never seen this guy before,” Zell remarks skeptically, squinting at the photo.  Selphie and I look to Quistis expectantly.

“I don’t suppose you have,” she says.  “He was fired four years ago.”  Quistis stands up, crossing the room toward a vast map of the Centra continent, turning to face us.  Seifer doesn’t bother to look up. 

“Walker’s main lab was actually in Centra, near the crater—isolated from other military groups.  But that wasn’t the only reason.

“His specialty was psychochemical drugs, mainly incapacitants.  Lack of test subjects made it difficult for him to experiment, however, but after some time he managed to get a small number of prisoners, homeless people…sometimes even children--orphans.”

At this point, Zell, who had been absently leafing through the file as Quistis spoke, gasps loudly, eyes riveted on a page somewhere near the middle of the packet.  I lean in for a closer look, Selphie doing the same, and nearly fall off my chair as what I’m seeing hits me: A picture of a little boy—all wide, grey eyes and dark, messy hair—staring solemnly from where he sits crouched beside an empty bowl, an apple poised halfway to his mouth.  It’s Squall.  Impossibly small and spindly-limbed, but it’s his eyes and his hair and his pale, smooth skin--achingly beautiful even as a child.   

“What does this mean?,” Selphie asks quietly.

Quistis, who had walked back to take her seat next to Seifer while we had been gawking at the photo, says what I’d feared she would.  “Squall was one of those subjects.”

A dead silence stretches over us as we each digest her words, and I don’t look at Zell to see his reaction; he’s gone completely still, the same as he does when something hits him especially hard.

“How long?,” I find myself asking, my voice strangely rough.

Quistis swallows and looks at me, eyes bright with unshed tears.  “Five years.”

A slap in the face would have left less of a sting.  Five years.  I try to bend my mind around it, try to comprehend, and only come up with more questions.  “When?”

Tears are streaming down her face now, and its almost harder watching her cry than it is to listen to what she’s saying.  “He was five when they took him…”  She trails off, and Seifer wraps an arm around her in an awkward embrace, rubbing circles on her shoulder.  Seifer…He doesn’t seem at all affected by any of this, I consider, but once again, it’s Zell who beats me to the punch, brash as ever.  “What’s Seifer got to do with it?”

Quistis straightens and Seifer drops his arm, staring at the table.  “Seifer,” Quistis states softly, “was there, too.”

Suddenly the tall blonde has become the focus of our attention.

“You were there?,” Zell manages after a few moments of numbed disbelief, gaping at Seifer’s hunched form.

“I was…admitted… a year before Squall,” Seifer says in a low voice, taking the packet from Zell’s slack hands and flipping to the next page.  When he hands it back, it’s his picture staring back at us—a five-year-old Seifer, thin and gangly, eyes narrowed spitefully and directed somewhere beyond the camera.

The nineteen-year-old Seifer smiles wanly.  “Cute kid, huh?”

“But, why…,” Selphie falters, apparently at a loss for words.  Zell turns the next page, then the next, each bearing a different photograph—a handful of grizzled old men, several surly-looking teens, and a few tattered children. 

Zell looks up.  “Are these all…?”

“Yes,” Quistis says.  “Forty-seven in all.”

I turn to Seifer, who is no longer smiling.  “So,” I say, flipping back to the front and indicating Walker’s photo, “You think he might be the one who took Squall.”  A nod.  “And what’s this got to do with anything?”  I pick up the wrapper, turning it over in my hands. 

“I think he left it…He used to smoke all the time.”   I look closely at the wrapper, noticing for the first time one corner still remains unfurled, looking as though a cigarette box’s dimensions would be a perfect fit.

“And you think he might be in Centra?” 

“Well, that’s the only place I can think of…,” Seifer says carefully.  “No one here would know about it, and for all he knows, I’m still livin’ it up it Balamb.”  Zell chuckles weakly.

“So, let’s go, then,” Selphie proclaims, jumping to her feet, obviously in better spirits now that a plan’s been made.  Everyone’s quick to follow suit, quick to focus on what we’re doing rather than why we’re doing it.

Quistis stands as well, the dried streaks on her face the only indication she had ever lost her composure.  “The Ragnarok will get us there in half an hour.  We’ll tell you the rest on the way,” she informs us evenly.  “It might make more sense once you’ve heard everything.” 

As I head for the door, Seifer remarks lightly, “Didn’t you used to have a hat?”

“Yeah,” I reply with a slight wince.  “It was pretty trashed.  I thought it might be time to get a new one.”

“Huh.”  Thankfully, he doesn’t ask anymore, and we walk in a silence only permeated by our separate thoughts.

“You should be grateful,” he’s saying, freeing my ankles from the clasps and running his hand up my calf to squeeze the sensitive back of my knee.  It’s all to easy for him to position my legs as he sees fit, to heave himself onto the table with me, settling between my thighs.  I know any movement I make will only amount to a lethargic writhing, which would do nothing to prevent what he’s going to do.  Besides, he doesn’t need encouragement.

He’s leaning over me, his hot, ragged breath pouring over my face, and he runs his thumb over my jaw, tilting my chin so that my lips part obediently.  “…Grateful that--,” he murmurs, wetting his lips.  “—that I like you.”

His mouth smashes against mine, his tongue forcing itself between my passive lips; his teeth scrape over my gums, and he laps at the blood greedily, all the while running his free hand over my torso with a bruising roughness that makes me whimper against him. 

Minutes later, he pulls away, panting harshly, eyes shadowed with lust and my blood smeared across his lips.

 He drags his sleeve over his mouth, pondering me as I lay spread and helpless beneath him.  “You can be mine,” he whispers, eyes flitting over my face and body as he reaches to unzip his fly.  “I can take care of you…I can love you.”  He groans as he pulls my legs around him.  “Haven’t you always wanted that?”  A warm wetness slides down my face, and I have to agree.

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