Sins of the Living
Chapter 2 - breakfast of champions
When he woke the next morning, it was all he could do not to throw the alarm clock across the room. He fumbled with an arm that refused to move, until he finally managed to hit the right button and shut the damn noise off.
Squall flopped back onto his narrow bed, throwing one arm over his eyes to block the sunlight that washed through the half open curtains. Under the cover of his arm, he blinked dazedly and tried to shake off the nightmare. He was sweating still, his body chill under covers that were so twisted he must have been thrashing in his sleep again. He tried to remember but it had all slipped away again, lost in the fragile morning light. Cursing quietly, he pressed his hands against his eyes and tried to force himself awake.
He had to get up, there were things he needed to do and be, even if he couldn't quite recall what they were at this moment. There was always something, from the moment he woke up until the moment he forced himself to sleep. He'd never realized how much power and control the Headmaster of Balamb Garden wielded until the reins of it had been thrust into his hands, cleverly disguised as a gift. Not that he really blamed Cid for landing him with the job and the responsibility, or at least, didn't blame him enough to do anything about it. Cid deserved the break, deserved to spend the time with the woman he loved and that had against all odds had been returned to him.
His traitor mind flashed to Rinoa and he brutally throttled back the biting despair. Damn it, he'd knew they weren't right for each other. It had been so apparent after the terror had worn off and they'd become themselves again that they came from completely opposite understandings. They had both known it, but she had been the one to walk away when the silence had grown unbearable. That had to say something, that he'd been willing to live the lie.
Cursing, he looked at the clock, struggling to keep from falling into that dark, familiar well. Seven in the morning. Better than the night before, but still only four and a half hours sleep. He could feel the fatigue weighing him down, but refused to let it rule his body even as it clawed at his mind. He threw his legs over the side of the bed and stood up, letting the blankets fall away from his body.
He swayed on his feet momentarily and licked his lips, still tasting the blood that had flowed through his nightmare. The details were all but lost but the copper sweet taste of metal on his tongue was not to be denied. He groped after the dream, but it had faded away before he could touch it, leaving him only an impression of darkness and light, and the lingering taste. In an unconscious ritual, he closed his eyes and stretched, pulling himself back into focus and locking away all that he could not face and refused to understand.
In the morning light, his hair lit with a corona of gold, streaking its normal chestnut with waves of bronze and cinnamon. It touched hesitant fingers over his taut muscles, caressing the lean planes of his body as he stretched. Shyly it gilded the faint hairs on his arms and belly, glazing them with fire against the pale flesh that seemed more suited to moonlight. As his arms fell to his side he opened his eyes on reality.
It was then that the warmth of the sun was revealed as the illusion it was, for they were ice. Storm grey, mercury clouds, they were rimmed in softest black that only served to frame the stark gaze of a predator. Most saw the body and the face, carved as if by a sculptor's wet dream, but few dared the eyes and fewer still the mind behind them. Squall neither cared for, nor worried about the desires of others and so it touched him not at all, both guard and prisoner in his shield of ice.
A moment longer he stood in silence, a statue of himself in the morning light. Then he turned to stalk with animal grace to the bathroom, to the cold shower that would bring him fully into the world.
"Hellfire, Squall, you look like you've been playing tag with Ifrit again."
That came from somewhere over his right shoulder. He knew that chipper voice and ignored it with the ease of long practice. When Zell's face came into view he wasn't surprised that the blonde hadn't taken the hint of his continuing silence. The cheerful grin on the man's face an affront to anyone who'd barely managed a few hours of sleep. Squall continued to eat his breakfast with methodical motions. It was sometimes the only thing he managed to get into his body until late in the evening, so while he didn't really care for swiftly cooling eggs and definitely cold toast, at least it kept him on his feet.
"Not sleeping well?" Zell asked. Squall didn't bother to answer. The tattooed blonde still didn't take the hint and sat down at the small table with his tray, clattering the cutlery. The noise made Squall wince slightly in reaction.
"Don't worry about it," Zell assured him, "the Summer Festival will be over real soon and Selphie will calm down again. At least," the man said distractedly as he stared at his bagel, "as calm as she ever gets. Swear to god, if I have to hang from my heels putting up garlands in any more obscure places, or check any more lists of party guests, I will personally kick her ass six ways from Sunday. It just ain't natural I'm telling ya," he said as he decided against the bread product and started in on the hash browns, "that a man be involved in any kind of party planning. What about you Squall?" Brilliant blue eyes turned to him quizzically and he hunched a little further over his tray. "What's she roped you into doing?"
Squall finished eating his eggs before finally replying. Zell was like a puppy, irrepressible until you stepped on him. Then he was all hurt eyes and feelings until you somehow made it up to him. It was easier by far to give him his chew toy and send him on his way to bother somebody else.
"Supplies," he said briefly.
"Man, that's gotta be sweet," Zell said with a hint of envy in his voice. "What'd you have to do to get that cushy job?"
"Asked if she'd rather have me on the Hospitality Committee," Squall replied blandly. Zell choked so hard on the hash browns, they nearly came out his nose. Squall lifted an eyebrow but let the faint grin pass across his face. "We both agreed that Supplies was more my area," he continued in his soft voice.
"No wonder they made you Commander," Zell said after he'd gulped down some orange juice. "Brains as well as beauty."
There was a soft chime and a voice came over the intercom, interrupting their meal.
"Commander Leonhart, report to the Infirmary at your convenience. Commander Leonhart, report to the Infirmary."
Squall looked down at the remains of his breakfast but realized he just didn't have the appetite to finish it. He did force himself to take another slice of toast, pushing his chair back as he stood up to leave. It never occurred to him to say anything to Zell, simply turning away from the table.
"Later Squall!" the blonde called after him. The Commander raised a hand in acknowledgement but said nothing as he began to leave. Before he was even halfway across the room, he'd already left Zell behind.
Zell's eyes trailed the lean figure thoughtfully but he kept any observations to himself. He continued eating quietly, or at least what passed for quietly for him. In this case it occasioned the relocation of only two squeamish girls who'd made the mistake of sitting too close. In their defense, they'd probably sat down when the only occupant of the table had been the Commander. Those were the breaks.
He wasn't alone for long as an unmistakable silhouette hove into view, obviously looking for a table.
"Ho!" he yelled, waving the bagel and scattering crumbs indiscriminately. "Over here cowboy!"
Irvine grinned from across the room, pushing his way through the cafeteria to fall with a soft sprawl into the seat across from his friend.
"Mornin'," he drawled happily, eyes still sleepy under his hat but alert enough for all that. "Did I see our fair Commander headin' outta here on automatic pilot? I tried to say hi but he sorta just breezed on by." Irvine waved a hand in the air, with a motion like a leaf landing. Zell looked at his friend steadily for a moment.
"Yeah, that was our fearless leader all right," he replied. He played with his food for a minute or two, breaking his bagel into small pieces and dunking them into his orange juice. Irvine was used to the morning routine, but still didn't look too closely at it - some things were just better left unexplained. Irvine distracted himself with his own morning rituals, missing the first part of the conversation when Zell began to speak again.
"Been meaning to ask you," Zell started quietly, "hell, I've been meaning to ask everybody. You notice anything... well, different about Squall lately? I mean," he waved a hand dismissively in the air and showering a few tables with more breadcrumbs, "I figured since Rinoa left that he'd be in a major funk and I was all set to rope you and Selphie into dragging him outta his shell again. But this... this wall" he emphasized, "is different from his usual one and damned if I know how I know that."
Zell frowned for a moment, a line creasing between his eyebrows as he tried to express his vague uneasiness.
"I can't tell if its Squall being Squall or if there's anything really wrong." Zell propped his head on one hand and doodling things with his spilled orange juice."It just seems a little cold, even for our original strong and silent type. I wasn't expecting hysterics or anything but I was sure I'd see some kind of reaction. I'm not getting any vibes at all, good, bad or otherwise. Damned if he hasn't totally shut down again."
Irvine didn't reply right away, ducking under his hat to eat his own breakfast and incidentally protect himself from the worst of Zell's breakfast happiness. He though about his friend's observations, compared it to his own recent dealings with the Commander. Finally he shrugged expressively.
"I can't really say Zell, Squall's always been pretty closed up. I swear the man shits diamonds every night, he's so goddamn tight." That got a laugh from Zell and Irvine ducked his head in reflex with his own grin. "Gotta say I haven't seen much of him lately, what with Selphie runnin' me ragged all over Garden when I'm not in classes and Squall's never encouraged me t'have casual conversations with him in the halls. D’you think there's somethin' wrong?"
"I'm not sure," Zell replied, staring moodily at his orange juice decorations, "his reactions just seem a little off to me. Almost too quiet, like he's hiding something or repressing something or ... hell, I dunno. Maybe a diamond just got stuck sideways and he's too proud to admit it."
Now it was Irvine's turn to laugh and the two friends dropped the subject of their Commander, mutually agreeing to shelve it for the moment. There were bigger fish to fry, the first one being how to turn the tables on Selphie for the agony she was putting them through. Two heads, one blonde and one amber, came together and the serious conversation began.
Squall walked down the hallways and made the turn to the Infirmary on the autopilot that Irvine had accused him of back in the cafeteria. He wouldn't have denied it if he'd been asked, he just didn't think about it. He'd been shorting himself on sleep for months now and it was just getting worse as time went on. The nightmares were almost worse than not sleeping at all, and he'd taken to the training center in the forlorn hope that sheer exhaustion would keep the dreams at bay. It might have been better perhaps if he could remember anything, but although he'd wake up time after time in a sheer sweat and scared out of his wits, nothing would remain but a few scattered impressions and the taste of copper in his mouth.
Fighting himself into exhaustion helped but he still wasn't getting enough sleep and he knew it. Finally, reluctantly, he'd turned to the doctor for some kind of help. It was easy to explain away his reasons without telling her how bad it was or the simmering rage beneath it that never went away any more. Post traumatic stress they called it, something that Garden saw a lot of and was fully equipped to handle. Before it had been a couple of chapters in a textbook; now he struggled to keep himself functioning through it.
The first few of the doctor's concoctions had done their job and knocked him on his ass whether he wanted it or not. The side effect was that he couldn't function through the next day without feeling like he'd been wrapped in several yards of insulating cotton. Given the choice between the nightmares and fuzzy edges, he'd take the nightmares every time. The good doctor had assured him that it was just a matter of matching up dosage to metabolism. Maybe this early morning summons was a new magic potion she wanted to try.
As he walked into the Infirmary the clean white walls screamed in his eyes. He really didn't like this place at all, the professionally warm manner of Dr. Kadowaki notwithstanding. All the memories he had of this place were of him waking up in either pain or agony depending on the severity of his injuries or hanging around waiting for a friend to go through the same ordeal. He suppressed a shudder.
That was the ineffable Doctor, unphased by everything that war and ambitious students could throw at her. She stepped around her console and waved her fingers haphazardly in the air in what might have been a salute. He took a few more steps closer, stopping near her desk as she walked over to a long cabinet against the far wall. She bent over and all but disappeared from view but Squall could hear the rummaging sounds. It only took a moment and she reappeared, holding a small bottle in her hand.
"This should be it, Commander," she said with professional brusqueness. "I've checked it against your physical profile and I'm pretty sure I've got the bugs worked out. Now remember," she admonished as she handed it over to Squall, "the same instructions apply as the last few dosages. One in the evening, a half an hour before you intend to be asleep and schedule yourself a full eight hours of downtime since you won't be waking up any sooner than that. Check in with me in a few days if you're still having problems and I'll take another look at it."
Squall hefted the small bottle, his eyes reflecting absolutely nothing as he looked at it. He pocketed it methodically before raising his gaze back to the Doctor.
"Thanks," he said, bringing a brief smile to his face. It must have been good enough, for the Doctor patted him maternally on the shoulder as she went back around her desk.
"No problem Commander, I'm glad I'm able to help. It's always a good idea to get on top of these things right away, before they become bigger problems. Don't forget; let me know if there're any adverse effects. You know the kind I've warned you about."
Squall nodded and walked away, back out of the Infirmary and away from the white walls that seemed to stare at him in accusation.
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