Sins of the Living
Chapter 3 - ice fishing
He walked down the hallways of the Garden, the secret bottle of pills digging into his hip and rattling almost inaudibly with every step. Each brusque stride brought that small sound to his ears, damning to his pride. It angered him that it was necessary, that even this he couldn't handle without help. Insomnia was for those with guilty consciences or mortal griefs.
He had neither, damn it. He’d done what he'd needed to do to survive and to win, and his friends had made it through the fire with him, battered but alive. Damned if it was fair, and Squall's breath caught in his throat as a wave of acid, impotent anger washed through him, bringing the taste of wood and copper to his mouth. His hands unconsciously flexed at his side, opening and closing as fists formed.
The students in the hallways passed him by with murmured words of respectful greeting, but his burning gaze kept them all carefully away from him. Halfway to the elevator he knew he was walking much too quickly, too forcefully as his own building rage drove him forward. With iron control he forced himself to slow and to straighten his face from the scowl it wore, if not into something cheery, then at least into something suitably blank. He even managed to nod at the few people he recognized before he was able to step into the elevator and the mirrored steel closed him away from all the curious eyes.
Leaning forward, he punched in the command code that would override the student lock on the allowable destinations and take him instead to the administration area. Reflexively, he examined himself in the metal sheen of the doors as the elevator began to lift smoothly to his office. Everything was monochrome, from the black leather pants and silver studded belts around his slim hips to the sleeveless white shirt that creased comfortably over his shoulders. He really didn’t give a damn what that said about him.
Griever winked at him, hanging coldly from the heavy silver chain around his throat. More silver glinted in accent, from the buckles on his boots to the studs in from one ear, caught randomly by the light as it flashed through the glass sides of the elevator. Swift and smooth he rose to the higher floors, where he made casual decisions every day that governed the lives of all that lived in Garden, and affected how the world worked outside it.
Squall studied himself without interest as the metal wavered with the infinitesimal shuddering of the machinery. His reflection seemed insubstantial, almost like he was a mirage of himself. Today, that seemed about right.
The secretary on duty looked up and gave him a small smile as he stepped out of the elevator into the foyer where her desk was strategically placed. She intelligent hazel eyes matched to soft blonde hair that had been cut in a short bob. He vaguely recognized her and acknowledged her with a small wave of his fingers in quasi-greeting.
"Good morning, sir," she ventured quietly, the hesitant but genuine smile still lingering on her lips.
"Good morning," he replied neutrally. "Anything new on the agenda today?" He wasn't surprised that the girl was only vaguely familiar, since his secretarial staff switched around with amazing regularity. He trusted that they all knew what they were up to and since their appointments were the responsibility of Quistis, he knew they were all trained and efficient. At the beginning of his tenure as acting Headmaster and SeeD Commander, it had been a different matter but when he'd reduced two secretaries to tears in quick succession, Instructor Trepe had stepped in and solved his problem out of sheer exasperation.
Now, things got done without him having to do anything other than read the appropriate paperwork and attend the scheduled meetings and for that he was grateful to his former teacher and friend. Squall knew very well that Quistis replaced his secretaries as soon as they started showing signs of infatuation, and for that alone she was worth her weight in gold.
"Nothing outstanding sir, the files you need are on your desk and a reminder that you have a scheduled call with President Loire at eleven o'clock."
"Thanks," he said briefly and was rewarded again with that small smile. He continued the journey into his office, closing the doors behind him with relief. His shoulders slumped and he ran a hand that trembled faintly through his hair, letting the silky strands fall where they may. His eyes burned and the little bit of breakfast he'd managed to eat sat like a rock in his stomach. He closed long eyes and grimaced, forcibly reminding himself that getting sick was not an option. After a few moments, his gut subsided in uneasy truce and he walked slowly to the desk and sat down.
Even after all the months he'd been here, he still thought of it as Cid's office. Everything was casually elegant, plush and inviting without being overblown. The military contracts that Garden entered into were negotiated here; power and information moved through these few rooms like an invisible wind. Everything reflected that, from the deep cherry lacquer of the desk and the restful artwork that adorned the walls, to the soft comfort of the brown leather chairs and couches that fairly screamed of good taste and culture.
Squall looked around and knew himself to be the one jarring note, keen as a knife and twice as cold amidst all this understated luxury. Then his mouth twitched as he remembered the rest of the gang in this inner sanctum, this place of quiet power, most of them drunk out of their minds and laughing hysterically as Irvine attempted to demonstrate how one rode a wild Mesmerize from the back of one of the couches. It was a brief flash but it lightened Squall's mood for a moment. He settled down to the paperwork, keeping an eye on the time for Laguna's call.
When the intercom bell sounded softly, he'd almost managed to banish the haze in his mind, although he could still feel the odd delayed echo in his body that made him feel half a step behind himself. Stretching for a moment, his back kinked from having been stationary for hours hunched over the desk. He reached out a slender finger and pushed the flashing light. The blonde secretary's voice whispered softly at him and then a second light on the console lit up. Sighing softly, he pushed that one as well and the ever-smiling face of his father appeared on the screen.
"Squall," Laguna said warmly, "good to see you, son."
Squall winced a little internally, but there was no point denying the relationship. They even looked alike, once you got past the extreme differences in personality. Just his luck that his long lost father turned out to be a cross between a hyperactive four year old and a plush toy.
"Good ... afternoon, sir," he replied after a quick internal reckoning of Esthar time. "How're things on your side of the water?"
Laguna's smile dimmed a little but didn't disappear as he waved his fingers in the air, as if flicking bits of dust away.
"Same old, same old, nothing much changes anymore, thank the sweet gods. How're things with you?"
"The same," Squall replied, reminding himself to let a ghost of a smile pass across his face. "Just slogging through the morning paperwork so I can clear the desk for the afternoon's influx."
"Never ending, isn't it?" Laguna commiserated, his green eyes flashing in sympathy. "I wish I could tell you some comforting words of wisdom, but bureaucracy waits for no man as I'm sure you've discovered." The President of Esthar paused and regarded his son with keen eyes, hesitating as he studied his son's face. Squall didn't have to struggle anymore for an emotionless facade; the difficult part now was remembering to let something touch his face when it was necessary to forestall certain conversations. This was one of those times. He could just feel a concerned lecture building up behind Laguna's lips and he desperately didn't want to get into it while he felt so damn fuzzy. In an effort to distract the man, he said the first thing that came to mind.
"Balamb's having its Summer Festival in a couple of weeks, and I can't remember if we've issued you your invitation yet. Has Selphie sent you anything by courier?"
A purely Laguna smile flashed across the older man's face at the conversational gambit, wicked and amused at the same time.
"Oh yes," the president breathed gently, "I got my invitation by courier all right. Kiros and Ward's came as well, but theirs weren't done up in a red ribbon with little golden hearts on the band, and glitter dust inside the envelope." The president cocked an expressive eyebrow at his son as Squall groaned into his hand. "I guess that means I'm extra specially invited, right?"
"Gods above, Selphie is just not to be believed," Squall apologized in a rueful tone. "I'm sorry, but I just don't think she's ever gotten past that schoolgirl crush on you. And if I try and confront her about opportuning the leader of an allied country, she'll just start giving me those big wide eyes and saying something about how much you deserve getting invitations with gold hearts because you work so hard." Laguna held up a hand to forestall Squall's half-hearted explanation, a knowing grin still plastered on his face.
"Selphie is a sweetheart and we both know it. I'll bring her a gift when I come and it'll make her day - Kiros and Ward can protect me from the fallout. It's what I pay them for," he grumped happily.
"Your funeral," Squall agreed ruefully, "but if encouraging younger women to pander to your ego is really your thing, don't let me rain on the admiration parade." Squall's tone was dry and Laguna's face flushed. The president's mouth opened and closed a few times as he tried to figure out a snappy reply but Squall beat him to the punch. "Look, I'm sorry Laguna, I hate to cut this short, but we need to get down to business before the next emergency is pounding on my door. I've got some supply and manpower requests that I'm hoping Esthar can help me out with and I've also gotten some fairly strong complaints in regards to machine part deliveries routing through Dollet, and I'm not sure if it's your customs or mine that's causing the problem."
Laguna closed his mouth finally and they got down to business, but it took a few minutes before the flush finally faded away from his cheeks. Squall kept the conversation firmly on track for the rest of their call and was finally able to sign off after twenty minutes, having not once touched on a subject that pertained to him personally. The relief was short lived however, as no sooner had he finished with the Esthar president than the secretary's notice light flashed again. His hand moved before he even thought about not replying, too used to the motions of it.
"What now?" he growled, feeling the beginnings of a headache move through his temples. He rubbed a hand at the back of his neck, trying to forestall the incipent pain. The secretary's voice was smooth and unphased at his grumpy tone; Quistis chose them not only for efficiency but also for a calm and unflappable manner. That was another thing to thank her for.
"Head Instructor Trepe to see you, sir."
Ask and ye shall receive. Squall glared at the flashing light but couldn't think of a reason to refuse the visit without sounding rude, or worse, childish.
"Send the Instructor in please," he replied after a moment, sighing softly under his breath. A moment later and the door of his office opened to reveal the slim form of Quistis as she slipped gracefully inside. Cool and beautiful, she suited the room far more than Squall himself did, confidence and strength in her face and stride as she moved across the room. She must have just finished one of her classes for she was still dressed in her SeeD uniform, impeccably pressed and worn. In contrast, Squall instantly felt a little grubby in his comfortable clothes and self-consciously stood until she seated herself on one of the smaller couches closest to his desk. Obviously this was more of a social visit; if it had been official, she would have come right up to the desk and stated the nature of her request.
Squall shrugged his shoulders and moved around the desk to flop into the chair opposite hers. Gods that felt good, and he slouched a little further into the forgiving leather, letting his head loll to the side as neck muscles protested. He regarded Quistis through half closed eyes as she smiled at his obvious attempts to get comfortable.
"Rough day Commander?" she inquired gently. The light sparked golden flashes from her hair, and Squall admired her remotely. Although they'd gone through hell and back together, and he technically outranked her now, at least a small part of himself was the boy in the back of the classroom with a crush on his pretty teacher. A little of that glinted in his eyes as Quistis gave him a quizzical look, her eyes warm on his.
"Not really," he sighed, "mostly catching up on reports and making sure that Selphie's party supplies are on track and on their way." He watched Quistis through the glimmer of his lowered eyelashes, wondering what she was angling for with the unexpected visit. "I just got off the line with Laguna, and you know how talking to him always makes me cranky." Quistis smiled a little more, sympathy and mischief sparkling back at him.
"You know that you two are more alike than either of you will admit, its just that your intensities go in opposite directions. You know Laguna worries about you, so you'll just have to forgive him if he comes across a little too strong."
Squall let a small groan cross his lips.
"A little strong?" he said with a note of exasperated emphasis. "The man is a tidal wave of good intentions." He held up a hand to forestall Quistis' defense. "I know, I know, he's trying to make up for lost time, but I'm just not used to this whole father-son-family thing. He pushes too hard, looking for something that doesn't really exist. I can admire the man for the job he does and even understand the reasoning that led him there, but he keeps trying to get me to admit to feelings that I just don't have."
Quistis regarded him thoughtfully, gently propping up her head as she leaned a little more into the arm of the couch. The nearly afternoon light flashed off her glasses and kept Squall from reading her eyes. When she replied, her tone was neutral and without judgment.
"Give it time Squall, give it time. It's still new to him, to you both. I'm sure you'll both eventually find a middle ground where you're comfortable." Squall tipped his head in acknowledgement but ventured nothing further. Silence fell between them, comfortable for the moment.
Quistis hesitated, searching what she could see of Squall's face for anything out of the ordinary. What he'd said about Laguna was nothing new, and his matter of fact tone about the awkward situation was not a hair out of place. Yet the longer she sat in his office, the more she felt that Zell was right, that something was indeed off kilter. He was rubbing the back of his neck as if it pained him, and he did seem a little worn down around the edges but nothing really obvious, nothing that she would have noticed if she hadn't been looking for it.
Squall's expression was closed and unreadable, but then that was usual - only ghosts and fragments of emotion ever slipped through his iron control at the best of times. Even now, although his body was obviously relaxing into the soft leather, his pale eyes were staring at her with their guarded blankness. She sorted through a half a dozen approaches in her head, trying to choose the one least likely to set him off into defensive mode. Finally, she gave an internal shrug and picked one at random. Trying to second-guess Squall's likely reactions wasn't really one of her strong points.
"I bumped into Zell in the hallway this morning," she started obliquely, "and he reminded me that its been awhile since we all got together. That got me to thinking and counting on my fingers and he's right, it's been weeks since we did anything as a group. In fact, I can't remember the last time you were able to make time to come out with us." Her tone was non-accusatory but it didn't matter. Squall's expression shifted not an iota from his look of casual interest but the temperature of the air dropped a few degrees. Quistis was made of sterner stuff however, and she faced Squall with the same degree of confident aggressiveness that she used in combat situations. "So tell me what you've been doing with yourself for the last few weeks. Don't try and tell me that you've been busy here. I keep tabs on your schedule you know."
"Control freak," he teased gently, but the ice in his eyes didn't shift. Quistis didn't let him off the hook and sat quietly, smiling gently as she waited for him to reply. She couldn't see anything on the face, but she knew he was rapidly trying out explanations in his head. She leaned a little more into the couch and let him decide what to offer. What Squall didn't say would tell her more than what he did anyway.
Finally, the Commander shrugged his shoulders, the tight fabric of his shirt tightening suggestively for a moment. Quistis ignored her own brief reaction with the ease of long understanding, for that particular awareness wasn't ever going to be an issue between them. When the silence stretched a little further, Quistis came to the realization that he wasn't going to reply at all. A steely glint entered her eyes and she switched to a more head on approach. Her next words were soft, but battle-hardened.
"Heard from Rinoa lately?"
That got a reaction. Squall's head came up and his eyes flashed anger at her, the temperature definitely taking a downturn. A thunderous frown crossed his face, a white line suddenly creasing between his eyebrows. Quistis settled back and brought a hand up to idly adjust her glasses. She kept her own expression smooth and stared in satisfaction as Squall tensed up, all pretense of casualness forgotten.
"We spoke yesterday," he bit off, his voice rumbling with undertones of something hard and dangerous.
"So what's going on with you two then?" she inquired with an ingenious expression of interest, like she hadn't noticed Squall's reaction. "It's been, what? A month now since she left? I think we're all kind of missing her."
Squall stared at her with a lethal expression in his eyes for a heartbeat. Then those hard grey eyes flicked down, shuttered away behind smoky lashes. One breath, then two, and when he shifted his gaze to hers again, they were eerily blank, drained of all that emotion. Belatedly he relaxed back again into the leather, although he couldn't hide all tension that had thrummed through his body.
"Yeah, I guess we all are," he replied, a hint of sudden humor threading through his silky voice. Quistis raised an eyebrow, and surprisingly, Squall elaborated. "It's alright, Quistis, I'm not going to deny that it hurts. Rinoa ... Rinoa needs to do what's best for Rinoa, and that means she needs to learn to live her own life. Its time for her to move on, to really start making decisions about where her life is going now that all the dust has settled." Squall stared at her, a rueful grin hovering just behind his lips. "It's just taken awhile for us both to see it and to accept it."
"So she's not coming back?" Quistis probed gently.
Squall rubbed a finger against his temple for a moment before replying.
"This autumn she's going to be enrolling in the Timber University, to try and catch up on all the things she had to drop when the whole mess started. She's really upbeat about it, looking forward to the challenge. I think she'll do well." His voice remained bland, but Quistis had seen what she'd come to see.
"Then I'm glad for her too," she replied quietly. "And what about you, Squall?" she pressed gently, cocking her head in implied understanding. "What's best for you?"
Squall had recovered his aplomb with astonishing speed, although Quistis wasn't all that surprised. His eyes glinted at her, all his emotional reactions firmly under control again. He stretched his legs out, crossing them at the ankles. It was a distracting sight in leather pants, and not for the first time Quistis wondered if he did it deliberately to sidetrack her.
"I'm not sure yet, but my plate is pretty full of Headmaster and Commander duties. When Cid comes back I've been thinking I might take a vacation or something, get away for a bit. I might even go visit Laguna in Esthar for a while. I know he'd love that idea."
Quistis could only admire how smoothly he turned the conversation away, giving her little crumbs of information without revealing anything at all of importance. But she was SeeD, and she knew when she'd played her best card. She’d gotten what she'd come to get and now was the time for a tactical retreat to let the smoke clear and see what she'd rattled loose.
"Well, remember that I'm here for you, that we're all here. Laguna's not the only one that's allowed to be concerned about you. Try not to forget that, hmmm?" With that, she got to her feet and stared down at her sprawled Commander, placing her hands on her hips as she regarded him thoughtfully. "I'll warn you right now that Zell and Irvine are planning some kind of inspired revenge thing on Selphie, and they'll probably be hitting you up for help. I told them to quit griping and take their lumps like men, but they're both arrested six year olds." Quistis shook her head in exasperation. "I'd warn Selphie, but to be honest, she's got it coming as long as the boys can pull it off. Try not to damage your reputation as SeeD Commander hmmm?"
A glimmer of wicked interest showed in his eyes as Squall inclined his head in acknowledgment. "Yes, Matron," he quipped back.
She took that as her cue to exit and quietly left the office. Closing the door behind her, she blew a few stray hairs out of her face as she took a moment to lean on the carved wood panels to get her breath back. It was nerve wracking sometimes, facing down those flat eyes without any real idea where the battle-lines were drawn, which step would take her across the one that disguised the minefield. Frowning slightly, she ran her hands lightly over her arms, realizing how warm the outer office felt through her jacket. It was cold in Squall's office, something she hadn't really noticed while she'd been intent on her verbal skirmishing.
The frown remained her face as she walked away, murmuring words of farewell to the long-suffering secretary on her way out. Definitely much warmer out here.
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