Originally written as part of the MEEP exchange with Larathia.

Right Here

By Black Rose

When you've been outside in the depths of night, under the stars, you start to think of the night as being all in shades of grey; all made of deep velvet in tones of black.

Esthar at night wasn't black. It was blue. Iridescent, glowing; steel and chrome and translucent fluorescents, bright and alive like the ripple of sunlight over tropic reefs. Cool and beautiful, reaching long fingers up towards the sky like something out of a fairytale.

There weren't any stars in Esthar. Even the moon at its fullest was hard put to compete with the lights of the city itself. I've stood on the plains of Centra in the night, looking up, where there aren't any lights for miles and the stars are so bright and so thick you feel as though you could just reach up and touch them, scoop them right out of the sky. Esthar is the polar opposite. Esthar is what I sometimes imagine it must be like to dive within the heart of a single star, where the fires burn all around you so bright that you can't see beyond them.

Squall had been out on the balcony for over half an hour, unmoving and silent, head tilted up to look at a sky that he couldn't possibly see anything in.

I've never been good at being still, but for his sake I was trying. There was something rattling around inside of me, wound up like a spring about to break; it just wanted to scream and yell, to find its way out in the pound of my knuckles against something. This wasn't right. This wasn't real. But no matter how many times I repeat it to myself, it wasn't going to go away.

I was with him when he got the news. I saw his face. He had the phone tucked against one shoulder, only half listening as he leaned over the desk to reach for a pen. When it hit him he dropped the pen, let it slip off the desk to clatter onto the floor, and all expression slid off of his face with it. Nothing. Just nothing. Not in his eyes, not in his mouth, just nothing at all. Like a mask, rigid and impenetrable.

That hadn't changed. For two days, that hadn't changed.

I know wounds. I know where to apply pressure, how to staunch the bleeding, how to rig a tourniquet or stitches in a pinch and how to breathe out bright warm shivers of pure life that wash it all away. I know a half dozen ways of starting a heart beating again when it's gone still in someone's chest. I just had no idea how to reach him. I felt like I was watching him drown and I didn't know what to do.

So I stayed beside him. And I watched. I felt like I had seen the distant flash of lightning, turning night into day, and now I was just waiting for the roll of the thunder. I couldn't tell if he knew or cared that I was there.

I felt like I was flying apart, all of it just beneath my skin and twisting into knots.

There was a breeze blowing in from the balcony, cool and dry. It was getting late and tomorrow... tomorrow was going to be hell. I knew, down in my gut, that Squall wasn't going to sleep. I didn't think he had since he took that call. He had switched to automatic somewhere, in that state where he could just keep going until the flesh caught up to him and his body dropped. Where he could function without thinking. I just wished I knew what he was feeling.

He didn't look around when I stepped out onto the balcony. The breeze was sharper there, raising shivers across my arms as I leaned them against the railing. That close to him, our elbows almost touching, it was as though the quiet stillness he had fallen into could reach out and wash over me, soothing some of the restless twitching inside of me. The lights of Esthar are beautiful but right then I couldn't see them.

When he spoke it was low and toneless, the words tossed out as though he didn't care if I heard them or not. "You don't have to stay, Zell."

I turned to look at him. His eyes were trained on the horizon, the mask perfectly in place and marred only by the black smudge of shadows beneath his eyes. The flicker of lights from a passing lift tube played across his profile, turning flesh to ice. His eyes never wavered, his words dry. "I won't jump."

"Didn't think you would," I answered as lightly as I could, though it wasn't the truth. The thought had crossed my mind, born more from formless worry than any real fear. "You want me to go?"

He shrugged, the barest motion, one shoulder lifting and falling again. I was debating my choices - go or stay, neither one really accomplishing anything - when he surprised me by turning away from the balcony rail.

The mask was still there, drawn silent over his face and eyes. He looked at me but I couldn't tell what his gaze really saw. Flat and still, his eyes offered my own reflection back to me and nothing of what was happening behind them. Drowning, and I didn't know how to offer him my hand. My voice was thin in the night breeze. "Squall..."

He reached up, his hand silencing any words I might find. His fingertips, cold from the metal rail, barely brushed against my lips. For one breath I watched the ice in his eyes break beneath its own weight, cracking, to let me glimpse what was underneath.

Silent question. He wouldn't ask. But after all the time I've known him, all we've been through... he shouldn't need to. Just like I didn't need to answer, but I did anyways, breathing the words against his fingers. "I'll stay."

Squall looked at me for another minute, the mask slipping back into place as I watched. He nodded, once, then turned on his heel and left me standing on the balcony as he retreated back inside.

When I followed, pushing the balcony door shut behind me, it was to find him slumped in the chair I had been in earlier. "You should try to sleep," I offered quietly, but the shake of his head answered me.

"Yes," I countered firmly. "At least lay down." And when that got no response I sighed to myself and stepped forward, holding my hand out in front of his face. "Humor me, Squall."

It took him long moments to react, during which I started considering options up to and including casting sleep on him, though even that wasn't a sure bet. But in the end his fingers slipped gingerly around my own and I could feel the stiffness there, where his palm lay against mine.

//I won't let go,// I wanted to tell him, but I didn't. There were too many words that could make a hash of things. Instead I pulled, lifting him up, and then tugged him towards the bed.

He sank down to it, not looking up at me. After a moment he leaned down, wrestling with the fastenings of his boots. I had left my own things in my room, my bag tossed next to the door before I left to track down Squall, but coat and shoes were easy enough to slip out of and I'd certainly slept in worse. Squall pushed his own boots off, followed by the ring of metal on metal as he dumped his belts to the ground. I leaned one knee on the bed and reached to catch at his shoulder, pushing him back towards the pillows. He shrugged me off and laid down, turning on his side to face the balcony windows and away from me.

If I was that easily put off I would have been gone years ago.

His shoulder was cold to the touch, still chilled from outside. "You want a blanket?"

He shook his head again, hair rustling against the pillow. I sighed and stretched out beside him. When I turned my head I could see his back, tiny muscles across his shoulders clenching and unclenching in no real rhythm as he curled into himself. Neither of us had bothered to turn the lights up when the sun set and the glow from the windows set everything off in indigo shadows and silvery liquid slides. I reached out, touching those muscles lightly, feeling his skin flinch beneath my fingertips. "I'm right here," I whispered softly. He said nothing, stiff and rigid beneath my touch.

I sighed again. "Squall... I know you don't want to talk. And you know I never do anything else. But..."

"Don't." Hard and abrupt, like the edge of a blade in the shadows. He pulled his shoulder away from my touch.

Rolling towards him, I propped myself up on one elbow. "Don't what?" I demanded quietly. "Don't tell you that if he were here he'd hit you upside your stubborn head for doing this to yourself? Don't tell you that you know damn well he'd be laughing himself sick at the idea of that funeral tomorrow?"

Squall was silent, turning his face into the pillows, his back set against me like a wall that could keep out my words. I reached out again, not quite touching. Offering. "We all miss him. Selphie's cried herself sick. Everybody needs to grieve - but when it's all over, you need to let go."

He tucked his head down and I could have been talking to a rock for all it seemed to matter. But the words, once started, weren't going to stop; I had bottled them up for days, watching as he blocked himself off and slipped into some place we couldn't follow. "You're driving yourself ragged. That's fine for now, but you don't let go. Dammit, I know you. You pull it all inside and you forget that we're here, that you're not alone. We're not just your allies, we're your friends." I felt my voice catch, somewhere on the ragged edge of my own grief, the words of a man now dead sitting heavy on my tongue, no matter how much I believed them. "Love, friendship... and courage, Squall. You know he'd say it. You know he would."

I expected to be told to shut up. Hells, I was even prepared to duck a punch if it came to that - I was pushing boundaries I didn't really have a right to be treading on and if I had a fifty-fifty chance of getting away with it than there was always the other chance that I wouldn't. I was prepared for everything from unmoving silence to yelling but in the end he only curled one notch tighter into himself, his face turned away. The fingers of one hand had crept into the loose strands of his hair, clenched and twisted through them.

He didn't make a sound. Not one. Only the tiny tremors in his shoulders spoke, like silent witnesses to an act that he wouldn't grace with voice.

"Squall..." My own words failed me. When I reached out he let me, heavy and unresponsive in my arms as I turned him and pulled him close. The tremors shook through us both and my eyes were blurred with my own tears, streaming wet down my cheeks. His breath caught, the smallest of choked sounds, before he lowered his head to muffle all of it against my shoulder. His fingers, caught in my shirt, left bruises against my ribs.

"I'm right here," I whispered against his hair, holding him as tight as I dared. "I'm right here, Squall." //I won't leave. I promise.//

But that was a promise none of us could make. Right here, right now - in the end, that's all there is.

"I'm right here."

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