Sins of the Living
Chapter 4 - dreamscape
Quistis had left, closing the door behind her fifteen minutes ago, but Squall hadn't moved from the chair he slouched in. To the casual observer, he looked the picture of sleepy tranquility, his long legs outstretched, head bowed and tucked into his chest. All he was missing was the comfort toy and the blanket. But an observant person couldn't fail to notice the hands carefully crossed over the chest, the fists clenched as tight as tension wires. A closer look would also have revealed grey eyes glittering with carefully suppressed anger beneath lowered lashes and the breath that turned to white clouds of ice in the freezing air.
Squall didn't notice the unnatural cold, unaware as it spread around him in roiling waves for it left him untouched at the center. He was focused down and inside himself, angry with Quistis for her unwelcome intrusion but equally angry with himself for reacting to her clever tactics. He'd not meant to give so much away, but she'd blindsided him with that casual question about Rinoa and he'd been tired enough and surprised enough to react. He knew she meant well, was probably even concerned about him, but he hated it when she tried to interfere in his personal life. He hadn't even decided yet what he really felt about Rinoa's necessary defection.
Hurt, hell yes, even a little betrayed perhaps but for all that he knew that the rage that boiled beneath the surface had nothing to do with his feelings for her, and everything to do with himself. Anger tinged the air he breathed, and his vision could flash to white in an instant with a rage so intense it was like a firestorm. So far he’d kept it contained but he could feel it slowly eroding his barriers from the inside.
Something was very wrong and he knew it, but strangers, or worse, friends, poking and prodding at him was just unacceptable. They would fuss, they would give him psych tests, they would restrict his life out of good intentions, and damned if he'd let that happen.
For the first time since he'd agreed to take on this position, he seriously contemplated yanking Cid back to his duties. He had agreed to be acting Headmaster only, a temporary position until Cid returned and relieved him of it. SeeD Commander he was and that was something he was suited for, but the administration of Garden was not what he wanted to do with the rest of his life. And although Cid had made noises a few times about seriously retiring, Squall had flatly refused to step into his shoes in any kind of permanent way. Someone else could run Garden if Cid didn't feel up to it anymore, Quistis maybe, or Xu.
Squall shifted restlessly in his seat but couldn't get rid of the image of Cid's happy smile the last time they'd talked. The man deserved the downtime, perhaps more than anyone else, and he was reluctant to drag the absent Headmaster back to his job before the man was ready to return on his own. Not to mention that he'd probably have to explain exactly why he wanted to be relieved so urgently.
You could bet hard gil that as soon as Cid figured out what was going on, there would be psych majors all over his ass in a heartbeat. Edea would be right behind them too to keep tabs on his progress. Better after all to leave Cid where he was and figure things out on his own. What he needed most of all was sleep. With a clear head he could work out the rest.
He glanced at the clock on the wall and realized the lunch hour was rapidly drifting away. He wasn't hungry really, but he'd been closeted in this office since too damned early this morning. It was time for a break. He stood up and the cold around him broke with an almost audible snap but Squall only rubbed his arms absently as walked back to his desk. With narrowed gaze he stared at the leftover paperwork, and rapidly went over in his head the afternoon's schedule. If he put off the trade reports, asked his secretary to reschedule the conference call with Trabia and Galbadia, did a bit of fancy footwork with the requisition forms ... yes, that could work, he could make it work.
Impulsively decided, he turned on his heel and stalked out of the office that suddenly seemed too small and choking.
It was ridiculously easy; his secretary unphased by his sudden shuffling and hasty retreat. She gave him another of those pretty smiles and he felt a vague guilt at the abandonment but too relieved to really care. He took the back ways of Garden to his quarters, using service corridors where possible since he very definitely did not want to bump into anybody he knew. It was good to be the Commander, for having the master key to every door in Garden was immensely useful.
He made it to his quarters without encountering a single soul. He closed his front door and locked it with hands that shook ever so faintly. Leaning on the door, he hooked a finger into his front pocket and removed the incriminating bottle of pills.
His gaze was bleak, bitterly aware that even if he despised the weakness that drove him to rely on this crutch, at this point he didn't dare refuse it. His hand clenched abruptly on the pills and he thrust himself angrily away from the door. He found his personal comm unit badge on the table where he’d thrown it last and deactivated the thing. There was nothing he could do about a system wide Garden emergency announcement, but if the pills the good doctor had given him were anything like the last set, his room could be on fire and he’d sleep through the event.
He kept going through the small living area and entered the bedroom. He yanked his shirt impatiently over his head with one hand and dropped it to the floor, using his foot to kick the door shut. Closing the curtains tight took only a moment and he stood there in the sudden gloom, suddenly and desperately tired.
He sat down on the bed and fumbled with the lid of the bottle. It finally gave, twisting open in his strong hands and he tapped out a single, yellow pill. It was the smallest thing he'd ever seen, barely half the size of his littlest fingernail. It stared up at him balefully from the palm of his hand. Cursing, Squall jammed the reluctant lid back onto the bottle and tossed it onto his headboard with a violent motion. Before he could change his mind he swallowed the damn thing dry.
He reached down and slid off his boots, letting them fall haphazardly from his hands. The buckles on his belts were a little tougher, but he persevered and eventually they were off as well to jangle discordantly to the floor. The pants he left on; it was too much effort to bother struggling with the leather. Gratefully he sprawled on the bed, stretching out on his stomach. He clutched a pillow under his head and determinedly closed his eyes.
Although it was the middle of the day, it was a deep twilight in his room and very little noise penetrated. For a while Squall concentrated on his breathing, feeling himself start to relax as tension drained away. There was a floating feeling that was almost pleasant. Without really being aware of it, his breathing slowed and deepened as the drug began to virulently circulate through his system. Finally, he drifted away from the waking world without ever opening his eyes.
For awhile all was still as Squall slept but gradually he started to twitch as his dream cycle began. Moaning in his sleep, a light sweat broke out over his body and he began to jerk in dream reaction. The drug held him under though, held him down when his own movements would have long since woken him up out of nightmare. Rigid on his bed, Squall trembled and cried out, the sound swallowed by the blank walls.
It always started in darkness, a fragment of memory. This was a place of flickering twilight and the random flash of soundless lightning. Zell stood rigid at his side with Irvine a solid warmth at his back, companionable in his accustomed silence. They had walked him into hell at the end, these two, had stood side by side with him at the last when the world had fallen apart. It was fitting that they be here now, breathing softly at his side.
Through the darkness he could hear their enemies pacing them. Squall held Lionheart tighter, its blue flame another familiar comfort in this strange place. They waited together, and Squall didn't turn as he felt Irvine's hand stroke his hair once, comforting and strong. Zell flashed him a cocky smile as Irvine put a hand on his shoulder and they moved into darkness, using Lionheart as the guide.
When it finally began, there was no fear, no remorse. Lionheart raged in his hand even as Exeter spoke over his shoulder, Zell flashing like lightning incarnate. They killed and killed and killed; blood like wine as their enemies broke upon them and fell before the unstoppable wind that they were. Squall laughed even as Zell danced, as Irvine spoke in tongues of flame and terror. They were always meant to be here, meant to be the demons of death and destruction as the blood stained his pale skin the color of hatred. It was all the same in this place that was all places. An eternity, an instant, it was the same and then there were no more to slay.
Squall stood panting, grinning crazily as he heard the shells strike the floor as Irvine reloaded. Zell had frozen again, listening intently in the dimness. Eyes gleamed in the fitful light as Zell watched the darkness, sparks flashing in his hair as he turned to grin at them both.
"This way," he pointed and began to drift away.
Irvine moved around Squall, so close his hair whispered over Squall’s skin as the gunslinger hefted Exeter to his shoulder. Belatedly Squall realized he couldn't see Zell anymore. For the first time a breath of fear touched his spine and he hurried after Irvine, not willing to let his other lodestone out of his sight. He followed behind the tall form of the cowboy, Irvine turning a head occasionally to flash him a pinball smile.
"Keep up Squall," Irvine said happily, "you don't want to miss the best part." Their footsteps echoed oddly in this place, as if the ground was father away than one thought.
They approached a lighter section of the darkness and it swelled and surged as if to meet them as they came closer. Zell knelt at the edge of the brightness, eagerly straining forward. As the other two came up behind them, he turned his head to grin at them.
"You're late," he said gaily, his fangs flashing white. "C'mon Squall, you always miss the fun."
Squall felt himself hesitate on the edge of the circle, suddenly dreading the light. With a sound of impatience, Irvine laid a heavy hand between his shoulderblades and pushed. Stumbling, Squall almost but Irvine and Zell surged up behind him as if he'd broken the wall that kept them out. For a timeless instant they stood bathed in light, the smell of ozone and thunder trembling in that liquid air.
And then She came.
Like a nightmare made flesh She fell through the light. Incarnate hatred, She reached for them and Lionheart flashed even as Exeter roared and over all Zell’s laughter like his heart was breaking.
Squall fought, fought with everything that he was, everything that he once might have been. Again and again he lost her to the light even as her talons reached out of darkness to rake his skin to tatters. She whirled in his arms and broke him open to bleed red life onto the shifting, whispering ground. Again and yet again Zell laughed, a crazed sound of hard lightning in this place. It was life, slamming back into him, raising him higher and higher into agony and rage.
He couldn't hear Exeter anymore. It was Irvine's savage voice that sang to him now, waves of green healing riding his body even as implacable Zell forced him to his feet again and again. Squall screamed his rage, his terrible, impotent grief as pieces of himself crumbled under the onslaught. He screamed but still he fought, Lionheart a living, twisting thing in his hands as he struggled to keep them all alive.
And then She was there, raging in that hard edged light. This was the time, and this was finally the place. A step, a languid twist of the hip and wrist and there was only the razor blue heat that slid like velvet through the heavy space. Lionheart sang, for she was sweet as honey, clear as glass and he had desired her life for an eternity. It was perfection of a kind.
High and clear she screamed, blood like molten gold pouring from her broken eyes. It burned his flesh like acid, but Lionheart only roared his joy.
On and on that terrible wail of anger and vengeance, even as she fell away from the him. Only the crazed sound remained, louder and louder as it battered at his mind. He fell to his knees, Lionheart forgotten on the ground as that wave of hatred crashed and broke through him and he began to shatter inside like glass.
Finally the sound trembled, faded - and was gone. Blessed silence, cool darkness fell over him as he knelt there shaking. His breathing was in his ears, tears like brands on his cold cheeks. He struggled to his feet, Lionheart a dull shadow of itself on the ground.
"Don't you want it anymore?”
Irvine stood off to his right, looking at him with a brooding expression. Zell sat cross-legged at his feet, one arm snaking up Irvine's leg as he leaned against his friend. The cowboy cocked his head and touched a finger to his hat to move it up from his eyes.
If you don't want it, I'll take it." His tone was threatening and Squall looked down at the weapon at his feet.
Shaking, he reached to pick it up. He hesitated for a breath with his hand above the grip. Then Lionheart's flame flared to life again in his hands as the shock of it burned up his arm like fire. Irvine smiled, approval on his face as Squall gritted his teeth from the pain.
A chuckle began in the darkness, a laugh that swelled, deep and mocking. Squall looked up in panic, the tears still frozen on his face.
"Can't leave well enough alone, can you, Leonhart?" came that achingly familiar voice.
It wasn't as though the light revealed him, but more like the darkness slipped away to edge his form in shadow. Tall, arrogant, that smile blazing on his face like the sun. Squall blinked away the tears to focus on the Seifer who still laughed with something that was almost joy. The Knight was unchanged, short blond hair rakish and nearly glowing with light, the crosses on his coat stark and wet. This time the rage was welcome, building inside and warming the empty spaces that were so achingly cold. Squall stalked forward, Lionheart growling once more in his hand. This time he reveled in the pain as Lionheart sang sweet violence to his heart.
"Dance with me," Seifer invited and spread his arms wide.
Squall lunged, the blue chaos that was the gunblade a storm imprint in the darkness. Seifer was gone, even as his disembodied voice floated from the right, mocking and cold.
"Pay attention Squall. You'll never figure it out if you don't concentrate."
He whirled but Seifer was half-hidden in the dim light, his smile cold and brilliant even as he crooked a finger to summon him onward.
Irvine was there, barring his way. His lean body pressed up against Squall's as if to hold him back, honey-scented breath caressing his face.
"For luck," Irvine whispered even as copper waves tumbled around them both.
The kiss was hard and sweet as jade eyes burned into his, paralyzing him with their brilliant intensity. There could be no defense against that color and Squall trembled in Irvine’s arms. It was unbidden desire that choked him, twisting low and deep in his belly. He was frozen, hating and yet wanting the feeling that devoured him even as Irvine's kiss danced along his bones. Lionheart blazed with cold light, burning like ice in his hand until he was crucified between those two overwhelming vertigos of pain.
Then with a scent of cinnamon and gunpowder Irvine was gone and it was Zell pressed against him, hard and cruel. The blonde tasted of lightning and storms, and Squall whimpered as Zell licked his tears away. It was divine. It was torture and he shook with emotions he didn't understand and refused to name. With a final kiss and a smile like wildfire, Zell was gone and Irvine with him. The darkness closed over him, empty and cold.
The sound of his breathing echoing intimately in that darkness. His lips burned and he could still taste the sweetness in his mouth, mingled with the copper of blood.
A sudden arm snaked out of the darkness and encircled his waist, pulling him roughly into a tight embrace. That terrible, smoky voice whispered in his ear as warm breath caressed the nape of his neck.
"Don't you want to dance?"
Squall whirled but Seifer had already melted away. He caught sight of the retreating grey trench coat as Seifer walked away and anguish boiled in his throat.
”Don't you leave me!" he screamed.
"I'm not leaving. You're just never look in the right places."
Seifer's voice drifted back to him, caressing and angry at the same time. Squall charged blindly forward, lost in darkness with only Lionheart seemingly real in his hand. He halted, angry and confused as laughter floated again through the void. It was a mocking, caressing sound; Seifer at his most playful and most dangerous.
"Poor Commander, all dressed up and nowhere to go.”
Confused, Squall looked down and realized he was wearing his SeeD uniform. A stuffed kitten was clutched in the hand that wasn't holding Lionheart.
"I have the key, you just have to find me," the voice promised, dark and rich.
Squall felt the ice drift over his skin again, sheathing his rage in chains of remote silence. He knew what to do now, knew it and acted on it. He put down the little stuffed animal and touched the soft fur with Lionheart.
"Griever," he whispered.
The cat yawned its predator smile, sharp fangs flashing in the glimmering void. He followed the great cat as it padded through the dream place on silent feet. Light again swelled in the distance and as they neared it, the cat bounded forward, a growl rumbling along the air. When Squall strode into the light, Seifer was there, kneeling as he caressed the great cat.
Gone was the trench coat and he was bare to the waist, golden flesh like marble in this lost place. Squall's breath caught and the pounding of his heart trembled through his fingers. Seifer stood and blazing eyes caught his as Griever yowled his happiness. The firecross was emblazoned still on Seifer's arms and the blood trickled down his strong arms to stain Griever's fur. His blue eyes were alive with malice and welcome as Squall hesitated, suddenly afraid to advance.
"Clever Commander. Griever always knows the way," Seifer whispered intensely. The tall blonde slid a step closer, Griever pressed tight against his side as if for support. "What is it you want?" the Knight asked, cocking his head sideway, to bare the clean line of his throat. That husky voice shivered along Squall's skin, trembling over the ice. "What is it you need?" Seifer’s skin gleaming gold and red as the blood fell from his fingers in drops of fire.
He glared at Seifer across the intervening space. This was the true enemy, the one who denied him, who defied him, the one who always left him alone in the echoing dark.
"I'll never forgive you!" he choked and sprang forward. Lionheart was a streaming corona of implacable intent. Seifer never moved, a smile playing over his cruel lips. The pure light that was the blade speared his side, straight and true as it sank through flesh and bone like light through water.
And still Seifer smiled down at him, malice dancing in his electric blue eyes.
"I am the key," he whispered cryptically.
They were so close now with Lionheart buried in his heart. Seifer leaned forward, his breath caressing Squall's face, warm and shocking. He could feel the heat of Seifer's body radiating into his own and when Seifer pulled him closer, he did not resist. Like a mockery of a heartbeat Lionheart pulsed in his hand. Griever was a warm presence at their side, more felt than seen.
"What is it you need?" Seifer whispered again, a murmur at his throat as teeth bit into skin.
Squall shook with fire and froze with ice, heartbeat crazily moving against Seifer's lips as they traveled over his exposed throat. The darkness overhead was shot with falling stars. Teeth bit gently into the hollow of his shoulder and Squall closed his eyes, letting the emptiness roar inside like a white wind.
"Blood," he whispered. "Blood to wash it all away, make it clean again."
Squall heard his own voice from far away, echoing oddly in this strange place that glittered over both of them.
"For you, everything," Seifer breathed and his lips met Squall's. Wild and sweet and insane, Seifer's taste riding his senses even Griever keened his sorrow into the air.
And the blood came, pouring down Seifer's body from the crosses on his arms, from his mouth as he kissed Squall savagely, pouring it into him as Squall choked on the crimson tide and screamed.
He couldn't remember who he was for a moment, eyelids fluttering in confusion. He blinked, his eyes narrowed slits as he stared groggily across the dark room. At some unknown point night had fallen and his room was as quiet and dark as a tomb.
He tried to remember what the hell was going on. His head ached, pounding like a drum and his dry mouth tasted like copper. He licked his lips, forcing himself up on one elbow. Tumbled hair brushed his cheeks as he stared blankly down at the pillow, haphazardly pulling pieces of himself back out of the air. Damn it, he’d been dreaming again - he could still smell the slick scent of fear on his skin. He groped after it, and this time managed to get the tail end of mocking laughter and the feeling that Griever had somehow been there, alive and warm.
He frowned but it was all slipping away, eluding him like small silver fish. He sighed in frustration.
Finally he gave it up as a lost cause and with effort pushed himself to a sitting position. He finally managed to get bare feet on the floor as he untangled himself from the twisted covers. A sharp look at the chronometer said nine o'clock and change. Squall blinked in the darkness, surprising registering on his face. He'd been sleeping for nearly ten hours?
It seemed unreal. He ran a rough hand through his hair and then across his face as he tried to shake the last of the drug off. Damn, those pills weren't supposed to have quite that much of a kick. And they were supposed to keep him from dreaming as well, but that didn't seem to have worked at all. But ten hours was damned near amazing, nightmares that he couldn't remember or no, and Squall got to his feet with something approaching pleasure.
Perhaps his problems weren't all so insurmountable after all.
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