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Same As It Never Was

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Esthar looked the same as it had the last time he'd seen it, Squall thought: shiny and overwhelming and strange. The only real difference was in the number of guards — and civilians, he noted with a slight frown — carrying weapons; the report had said the Lunar Cry had hit Esthar badly, but the number of young mothers and elderly gentlemen carrying guns drove that fact home in a way the printout hadn't. He shifted his grip on his hastily-packed duffel bag — the two men who'd met him with the cardboard sign saying Squall in something that looked suspiciously like a glitter pen had tried to carry his luggage, but Squall wasn't about to give that up — and looked around, a little closer. A lot of the shops were empty, either abandoned or closed up, sleek storefronts still clean and shining like everything else in Esthar, only empty. Esthar had always seemed like that to Squall, though, gleaming lines and technological glitter hiding absolutely nothing, a vacuous lack of substance. Then again, it wasn't fair to tarnish all of Esthar because he didn't like Laguna Loire.

And Squall had to recognize the irony in that: that he'd jumped at the chance to visit — professionally visit — a man whose very existence irritated the hell out of him, because he couldn't stand for another minute to be around his own girlfriend. Ex-girlfriend? It clawed at him, a little, that strange sloshing feeling threatening to overcome him again. Squall frowned. He wasn't going to spend all of his time thinking about her — about them; the point of a break was to take a break, right? Not for the first time that day, Squall systematically cursed out the string of responsibilities that had convinced him to come here rather than take a nice simple vacation somewhere in the mountains. Alone.

His two guides gestured him into something that looked like a cab from outer space; he recognized the Presidential seal on the side. As he sat down and settled in, he debated the wisdom of labeling which cars were carrying the important people around, like a gigantic flashing target for terrorists or enemies. Written in glitter pen, perhaps. The space cab started moving; the ride was blissfully smooth, and Squall set a grumpy look on his face and glared out the window. It wasn't too hard to manufacture annoyance. The man who had sat with him in the back of the spacemobile didn't even try to make conversation.

The ride to the Presidential Palace was short. Squall had tried to keep track of the turns and twists, but the glittering facade of Esthar's streets made directionality confusing, and he settled for keeping a mental account of the number of civilians he spotted sporting arms. The proportion was roughly over half. It said a good deal about Esthar in general that half of the population could walk around carrying guns, swords, and in one very odd case, a flail — and yet the mood in the city seemed calm and casual, a sort of grim cheerfulness. He thought about the tense situation in Timber, full of rebels and terrorists and angry sentiment boiling beneath the surface; he thought about half of Timber's citizenry carrying guns, and a chill crept across him. Thank god Rinoa was— his brain choked off the thought, because thinking about Rinoa hurt, an ache in his chest as if he were actually missing a piece of his heart.

The car stopped. Squall climbed out, again ignoring the subtle gestures of assistance the guards had offered, and straightened to look at the Presidential Palace. One of the guides drove the space cab off somewhere; the other gestured for Squall to follow into the building. The cold air hit him in the face; he hadn't even noticed the heat of the day, but inside the Palace was cool, artificial and dry. Squall followed his guide through a series of hallways, each one as markedly bland as the next.

They stopped in front of a door whose tag read: President Laguna Loire. Squall's escort knocked, and Squall gritted his teeth and reminded himself that he'd chosen to come here.

The door swung open, and Loire was already grinning as he reached for Squall's hand, turning it into an awkward combination of handshake and hug as he clapped Squall on the shoulder, completely oblivious to the lack of response on Squall's part. "Hey, Squall! It's good to see you. We were just getting things together for the meeting this afternoon, but your room's ready — here, I'll take you, it's alright." A vague wave of the hand not clasping Squall's, and the guide nodded and left. "We set you up in a suite, it's a great room. Plenty of space." His eyes dropped to Squall's duffel bag. "Hey, is that all you brought? You SeeDs must be pretty efficient packers."

Squall belatedly realized Laguna was wearing a suit, and an expensive one, carefully fitted to his frame in a way that flattered his build; he'd never seen the President in any kind of suit before, and he wondered, rather too late, whether fashion in Esthar was— well, he'd just wear his uniform, and Esthar could pretty much deal. He also belatedly realized he hadn't yet said a word.

"Thank you for having me in," he said, and it came out stiff, like a machine. He wondered whether it was obvious, the exhaustion he felt written on his face. He wished for a bit of Rinoa's grace, the way she could smile at anyone and make it heartfelt, the way her easy cheer relaxed every room - his heart clenched at it.

"Well," Laguna said, and it was clear that he was sizing up Squall somewhat; Squall felt the other man's regard like a weight, the scrutiny surprising. "I'm really just excited that you're here to talk about the Garden. You! The Commander himself!" He stopped, and looked at Squall: clear blue-green eyes focused on him with an unasked question. Squall was confused; Laguna looked expectant, as if he were waiting for Squall to say something. About the Garden? Squall hated this part of politics, all the unspoken play, the words between the lines. He was terrible at it; he had neither the time nor the patience to decipher insinuations, and Laguna was insinuating something. He resisted the urge to roll his eyes. What the heck was he supposed to do now?

"Nothing is decided yet," Squall said finally, thinking it must have been something to do with the Garden. "But Esthar's proposal is worth investigating, and the timing for a visit was ideal." He clamped his mouth shut on those last few words; where had that come from? Hopefully Laguna would think he meant politically, or something, and not ...emotionally.

Laguna's intense gaze lasted another second or so before it broke off into his goofy grin. "Come on," he said, grabbing a cardkey off of his desk. "Let's go get you settled in so that you can relax a bit before this afternoon. There'll be a meeting with some of the chairmen of the board this afternoon, a good one - they'll have a presentation on their ideas, and probably a cocktail hour afterward."

Squall followed Laguna out into the hall, feeling strangely awkward and stiff with it; this had been a terrible idea. He wasn't in the mood for meetings or presentations or cocktail hours, he wasn't in the mood for long leading glances and double conversations; he just wanted to be left alone, alone with his thoughts, maybe to sleep for a week or two straight. He couldn't even make conversation — which didn't seem to be a deterrent; Laguna was still chattering on about cocktails, as if he didn't actually need responses anyway. Squall's brain felt overstuffed and dry.

"And tomorrow we've got even more meetings for you," Laguna said as they ascended a spiral staircase; Squall realized belatedly that he hadn't been paying attention at all. Some Commander he'd make, unable to find his way out of the labyrinth of the Presidential Palace. Maybe he could have Laguna assign him a permanent guide. Maybe the guide could then make conversation with the President and leave Squall alone. "And the next day I think we'll do a tour, show you the actual sites, kind of get you thinking the way we're thinking. And next week I've set up some stuff with Odine's lab and some of the other labs we have, because I think that's gonna be really important."

Next week. Squall could barely even think about the next day — more meetings, more time alone with his thoughts and this man in tandem, one of the worst combinations he'd ever successfully chosen for himself. "Important?"

"Well, yeah. To build a Garden, you know." Laguna winked at him, and Squall wondered whether this was another hidden subliminal message or if Laguna was just being an idiot. "With you actually here, I want to make sure we cover everything."

Nothing has been decided, Squall wanted to say again, because the message just wasn't getting through, apparently. Was he being too obvious? He made some kind of noise, a half-grunt in the back of his throat, hoping it would sound encouraging; it came out sounding grumpy and constipated.

"Here you go." Laguna swiped the keycard through the slot on the door and presented it to Squall with a flourish. Squall opened the door and stepped inside. The room was decorated almost to the point of garishness: an extremely large four-poster bed in the middle — swathed with red silk and sporting enough pillows to sleep a small city — fought with an assaultingly-bright blue couch across the room. He blinked. Laguna barreled on in, eagerly, gesturing. "This is the best room in the house, you know. Designed by Foster Perrera himself, he's a pretty famous decorator around here; we had him in last year when we refurbished the place. The closet opens up, here—" He swung open a set of double doors leading into a space the size of Squall's dorm, complete with hangers and a matching set of dressers inside. "Over here is your wet bar, completely on the house, heh, and there's access for a computer over there."

Squall dropped his duffel onto the silk bedspread and turned. Laguna was standing there, his hands in his pockets, trying to look casual, but there was an air of expectation around him: in the smile on his face, eagerly hopeful, and the way he kept shifting his weight from foot to foot — and Squall realized he remembered that, recognized it as one of Laguna's nervous tics, an unconscious shuffle which inevitably led to those embarrassing leg cramps— he looked away, sharply, down at his duffel. He'd forgotten that, the strange uncomfortable awareness of their excursions to the past. Did Laguna think they would be great friends, now, just since Squall had spent a little time in his head? Was that what this was about?

Laguna cleared his throat, and the tension in the room ramped up suddenly, an awkward feeling Squall could almost taste in the back of his throat, thick and bitter. "I'll just let you settle in," he said graciously, and Squall wondered how he knew Laguna was disappointed to not be invited in, greeted, maybe offered a drink from his own wet bar and a chat about Garden gossip. Was the other man just so simple, so easy to read, or was it a carryover from Ellone's dreaming? Did it matter?

"I'll be back in about an hour," Laguna said, and his grin was only a little dampened.


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"Laguna. Cut it out." Kiros's voice was laughing at him and Laguna did not feel all that threatened, though a guilty twinge wormed through his belly — Kiros's patience did have an end after all — but as long as Kiros was finding Laguna's panic funny, Laguna did not feel all that bad about it. He jerked at the buttons of his suit and wondered— no, Squall would notice if he changed it, that would probably be painfully obvious and he—

Kiros's hand landed on his, warm weight over Laguna's fingers on his suit buttons, settling and stilling them. "Relax," Kiros said, long and low and rolling down Laguna's spine.

Laguna breathed out. He stopped; stopped pacing his suite, stopped fidgeting with his clothes, stopped— cripes, stopped hyperventilating. Kiros' fingers gave his a squeeze, and Laguna nodded abstracted thanks: Kiros grounding him like always. The nearest place to collapse was one of the nicer armchairs, and Laguna took the opportunity immediately. The restless anxiety seemed to leak out of him as he sat, leaving behind a tepid residue that made Laguna's mouth twist as Kiros perched on the chair's arm, cocking a hip over it. Laguna sighed (apparently with enough drama to draw a small snort from Kiros) and leaned his head against Kiros's conveniently-placed thigh; Kiros' fingers laced comfortably through Laguna's hair (the snort was forgiven).

He drifted, for a few moments, in a kind of limbo of neutral comfort, Kiros's presence and touch canceling out the unpleasant twisting of his stomach — if only just. Laguna didn't know what he'd expected — this was Squall after all, prickly and distant and preoccupied. And weirdly intense. He hadn't forgotten that, but he'd forgotten how much; it made Laguna wonder what Squall looked like when he really smiled. Cripes, that must be— something. Not that I have much of a chance of seeing that anytime soon, and his belly went hollow. He wished he had any idea what Squall was thinking.

"I wish I had any idea what he's thinking," Laguna said aloud. "I wish you'd been there. Ugh, but you were busy saving my ass with getting the meeting ready. Can you watch him when we go? But don't stare."

"I never stare," Kiros murmured; Laguna tapped his head against Kiros's thigh in rebuke for the smile layered over every syllable.

"I'm not babbling," he said in preemptive defense.

"No comment." Kiros shifted, sifted his fingers out of Laguna's hair, so he could place that palm on his shoulder. Kiros leaned over to catch Laguna's eye. "But you're looking almost as grouchy as he gets."

Laguna realized his face had tensed into a frown only because he had to shift it aside to answer Kiros; it made him want to frown more, the unhelpful queasy tightness returning. This excitement vacillated dizzily between pleasant nerves and— unpleasant nerves. He didn't like it.

"Sorry," Laguna— grouched, okay, fine. "I just—"

"Don't know how to feel about all this?" Kiros offered.

Laguna tilted his head back and up, to look at him. "Yeah." Kiros's face had turned fond-serious, and Laguna's lip quirked in a small, grateful smile before smoothing again. "I don't know. It's like— I mean. I want this. Right?" His voice turned a little too plaintive there at the end.

Kiros hummed something completely and unhelpfully neutral — and raised his eyebrow, the bastard, reflecting the query back at him. Laguna felt the scowl snapping onto his face, though he couldn't possibly look as threatening as Squall managed. He should know better by now, he really should. Kiros knew him entirely too well to let him get away with that little shouldn't-have-been-a-question, and Laguna just — he didn't want to think about it. "Anyway. I wish he'd give me something to work with," he continued instead, distracting Kiros with some more honesty. "He'd tell me to fuck off if he really wanted me to. And he hasn't. So now what?"

"Now you wait. And breathe."

"Aren't you supposed to be giving comforting advice? Offering insights?"

Kiros grinned. "I haven't even seen him yet."

"I demand immediate answers," Laguna grumbled, and threw his forearm over his eyes. Hyne, he was already tired and it was barely afternoon. There was still the introductory meeting to get to, and the schmoozefest tonight. "Well, you're going to see him in a minute. It's time for the first meeting." The thought of getting up sounded deeply unappetizing.

Kiros slid off the chair's arm and Laguna stubbornly refused to envy the ease of the motion. Then Kiros was tapping him on the shoulder and Laguna lowered his arm to find Kiros offering him a hand up. He sighed, and took it, a warm thankful flush for Kiros's steadiness bolstering his flagging — everything. He liked Squall. He really did. He wished the guy was easier to read. Dammit. And then he was on his feet, absently (and needlessly) dusting at his suit — which Kiros had successfully distracted him from changing. Laguna felt depressingly predictable.

"Ready?" Kiros asked, his tone that unique Kiros-trick balance that would let Laguna decide whether to take it seriously or not.

Laguna grinned. "Who are you even talking to? Let's just go!"

Kiros' lips quirked.


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Squall's belongings were already distributed about the room — his two spare uniforms hung in the cavernous closet beside the few other clothes he'd bought, and his boots had been toed into a neat line underneath; he'd stuck his head in the bathroom to deposit his razor and retreated after a long blank stare at the glistening array of amenities. He'd found himself standing in the middle of the room, the suite feeling both hollowly large, beneath the pathetically thin layer of his possessions, and strangely close, pressing against his skin with an imprint of irritating eagerness: the loud blue couch and the ridiculous bed, the intimidatingly over-abundant bathroom, the bright, clashing rugs and paintings — the thickly stocked wet bar squatting in the corner like an overenthused puppy. It was as if Loire had left frenetic energy behind like a scent, hovering over the entire room. This could, Squall began to feel, be a very long visit.

His shoulders twitched away the oppressive welcome of the room; he turned on his heel, precise by habit, and sat down before the console, keying it to life. He'd already sent Zell a list of notes and instructions that he should have given before he'd even left Garden, and opened a blank email for Cid, when the knocking interrupted him, a too-quick series of rap-rap-rap, rap-rap. Squall's fingers froze over the keyboard, stretching out tense and relaxing again with Squall's long breath. He turned off the console.

When Squall opened the door he half-expected to see Laguna's hand raised, about to knock again, but instead he was trading looks with — Kiros. Squall blinked, and Kiros's gaze flicked over to him.

Kiros's regard was steady and somehow — deep, layered, like currents ran under the surface and Squall was deliberately allowed to see that fact, if not what the currents contained: an honesty entirely different from the way Laguna's eyes and gestures spilled truths all over the place. Laguna, Squall abruptly realized, was watching the silent exchange with rapt attention. Squall cut him a puzzled frown, what? and the moment slipped away from him; Kiros exchanged a quick glance with Laguna and Squall caught Kiros's mouth quirking, just a little, before Kiros turned back to him and offered a hand, unpressingly. "Squall," he greeted, cutting across the potential for awkwardness over the long pause with the easy, warm, formal tone of his voice.

"Kiros," Squall returned, clasping his hand; Kiros forced no further contact on him and dropped his hand after two firm shakes. And of all things it made Squall feel vaguely ashamed, like he'd been being impolite somehow since he'd gotten here; he didn't understand it but it sat strangely in the air anyway, almost tangible, and he found himself adding, "Good to see you again."

Kiros smiled, but Squall was distracted by a twitch from Laguna, a flicker of something tight over his face, and then Laguna had inserted himself between them, already talking. "Great! Well, it's time to get this started, we have an introductory meeting to go to — you'll meet the heads of all the interested parties, lots of names and titles — don't worry, we made a cheat sheet for you, and notes, um—" Laguna fumbled an array of papers in his hand, flicking through for the right set. Then Kiros cleared his throat, and handed Squall a neatly stapled stack of papers; Laguna shot Kiros a grateful look and Squall resisted a deep urge to roll his eyes and Loire was already babbling again: "Awesome. There they are. Come on—" he waved them along, and handed his papers, disordered by his search, to Kiros, who fell in behind Squall, already sorting them. Squall found himself beside Laguna at a brisk march down the hallways.

"Well. Here's how it is. The investors — they're coming later, they have to detach themselves from all their money things first — want a precise budget estimate first before they'll confirm the funds. And the planning people -- that's all of us, everyone you'll meet in a sec — want figures to work with before they decide on project scope and what programs they want to run and — well, you know how it is." Laguna waved his hand, and Squall had to dodge backward for a second; Kiros, momentarily even with him, glanced up from his sorting with a knowing smile that seemed to slide right over Squall's irritation. Laguna looked around for Squall, and actually turned to walk backwards, even though Squall could see they were entering more populated terrain — but everyone here seemed used to this, dodging around their oblivious President, and Laguna was still talking. "This is just supposed to be introductions and some quick presentations but it's going to end up all about money. Sorry." Laguna's mouth twisted in brief apology, and why can't he just steer the meeting in a different direction, if he doesn't want that? But then Laguna pivoted on his heel, facing forward again and stopping; Squall perforce stopped with him, a few steps short of a conference-room style double door. "Well. Here we are. Ready or not."

And Laguna glanced over to him, his smile tinged all over with — what? hesitance? — Squall jerked a nod, just so they could get this over with. Whatever Laguna had been expecting — hoping for? — that didn't seem to be it, the smile flickering on his face — Squall distracted for a moment by the memory of Rinoa's smile wobbling — and then Laguna was squaring his shoulders, marching forward, and throwing open the double doors.

Squall thought he heard a tiny snort from Kiros at the dramatic gesture.

The introductions dragged on forever, seeming even slower after Laguna's rapid-fire delivery as they'd marched down here. Squall tried to fix the faces and names in his memory, check them against the notes in front of him; he'd been trained for memorization, for dealing with different titles and power structures, but this solid wall of the kind of all-grey variety and lengthiness of titles and positions that only a full-fledged bureaucracy could provide strained the limits of even his training. He found himself seated next to Loire in a place of honour as the introductions gave way to presentations of possible plans and projects, punctuated by Laguna's voice calling up a new speaker or arguing over something in the current one's proposal, and Squall felt his eyes glazing over.

"So what you're saying is that this would strain our sector to benefit—"

"What we're saying," Laguna interrupted the director — was that one of the directors or one of the managers or one of the chief-something-officers? — whoever he was, Laguna interrupted him with enough good-naturedness to have it come off as smoothly, pinning a friendly smile on the man and then the rest of the table in one sweep before continuing — "is that this is an investment that will bring us all cross-sector benefits in the long run." Squall could almost imagine Laguna lovingly highlighting the dazzlingly polysyllabic keywords in glitter pen throughout his presentation notes: investment, cross-sector, sustainability. Laguna gave his point a moment to sink in before turning to Squall and prompting, with a full, wide — hopeful? — smile, "Aren't we?"

The wattage on that smile — visible, he realized suddenly and for no reason, only to Squall — was damn near blinding. He bit back irritation at that "we"; how had Laguna managed to turn this into some kind of "the Commander and I are totally buddies" proposal? The encouraging grin was reminding him of how Rinoa would try to draw him out with smiles and gentle prompting during their public co-appearances: solidarity, Squall! And he blinked, at an odd double-layered moment, remembering the echo of those smiles across Rinoa's Bond — and the way he'd felt Laguna's mouth stretch comfortably into those goofy grins and how the smiles would relax his whole body — his? not his. Dammit. He realized that he'd been staring at Laguna's mouth for several silent seconds and hadn't dropped the conversational ball so much as hurled it off a cliff. Fucking meetings; couldn't they just give him reports to read and manage these negotiations through writing, like normal people?

Hell, what was Laguna asking him to agree to? Don't answer that. It wasn't a general question. Investment, right.

He jerked a nod; this seemed insufficient to cover the pause, especially as Laguna's mouth twitched, smile fading, and Squall was somehow compelled to tack on a "Yes" to the gesture. Laguna beamed, quick and quiet; Squall felt his irritation begin to manifest as a bona fide headache and scowled. But Laguna was already turning away, the inviting smile fading into something more personable and businesslike for the table's benefit, and Squall had to swallow a cough as he belatedly realized that both expressions had been genuine. He chased the cough down with some water and shoved aside whatever implications that discovery had for the odd private edge of hopeful inquiry in Laguna's grins, because there was a much more important corollary: Laguna's actually enjoying this. He likes meetings. God, he really is an idiot.

Squall put his face in his hands.


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Laguna flirted harmlessly with his undersecretary and took her for a round on the floor, followed by the chief engineer and then her secretary; Hyne but he loved nerdily intelligent women. He slid off the dance floor, flushed and smiling, and considered taking Kiros for a spin, sweeping the room for the unmistakably fetching sight of Kiros in a suit when he glimpsed Squall glued to the wall instead. The crowd closed in again, and Laguna frowned, craning his head and shuffling to the side to see — was Squall just catching his breath? He managed a clear line of sight and — no, Squall had definitely not moved in a while: his face was clear and pale, no flush of recent animated conversation or movement. Or alcohol. This called for alcohol.

He flagged down a waiter, reached for the champagne flutes arranged geometrically on his tray, but changed his mind and gave the man a quiet word instead. Laguna wove through the crowd, distributing smiles and handshakes as necessary — wait, had the Press Secretary replaced his assistant again? never mind, ask tomorrow — working his way over to the corner Squall had chosen to haunt. He looked up to orient himself as the crowd thinned around the edges, and his throat did something funny and uncomfortable as he saw that Squall was already watching him, marking his path and angle of approach. The easy, habitual glide through swathes of people felt different, stilted and self-conscious, under that impassive scrutiny, and Laguna found himself abandoning the pleasantries and drifting over more directly. He could almost feel it as he entered Squall's personal bubble: the air denser, like a cloud casting shadow all around him, Squall's deepening scowl as good as a small-talk-repelling forcefield. At least they wouldn't be interrupted.

Having found himself within arm's length of his quarry, Laguna realized he had no idea what to do. I used to be a journalist. I did interviews. I swear. Squall's eyes, previously busy watching Laguna's face and making him all kinds of uncomfortable, suddenly flicked down to Laguna's feet. Laguna glanced down without thinking; all he saw was the slight shuffle of his shoes. He looked back up, puzzled, to find Squall looking away and making a face that might have been exasperated, transferring his weight to his other leg. A beat, two, and then awareness dripped tepidly across his skin — he'd been shifting his weight, could feel the faint beginning of a leg cramp coming on now that he was thinking about it; Squall had echoed the gesture, probably unconsciously, and Laguna wondered again what Squall remembered, what he knew, what Ellone's dreams had felt like to him.

The thought dried his throat; he glanced around for something to talk about and caught sight of the waiter sweeping to his rescue, thank Hyne. Even the imperturbable waitstaff felt it — the man paused a moment outside Squall's do-not-enter radius, then valiantly pressed onward, tray held at an aesthetically impeccable angle. Give this man a raise.

"Sirs, " the waiter murmured, offering the tray with a bow.

Squall eyed the proffered refreshments — served, still, in the elegant flutes but definitely in a variety of wrong colours and degrees of carbonation to be champagne — and raised an eyebrow in Laguna's direction.

Laguna grinned. "Something a little less boring? Thought you might be interested."

At that, Squall's face did something very confusing — what? did I say that weird? — but settled so quickly Laguna wasn't convinced he hadn't imagined it, and Squall was already reaching for one of the drinks, a clear one that must be vodka. Laguna aimed for one of the temptingly rich amber ones.

"Cheers," he said, raising the glass in Squall’s direction. He waited, one beat too long — two — Squall’s eyes were determinedly on the small cordial-glass in his hand, his face set like stone. What do I do? Laguna had just decided to turn the gesture into a grand flourish and down the entire thing like a shot, movie-star style, when Squall moved, shifted, relented — hope and relief rose in Laguna’s chest, happy fluttering birds — and then Squall lifted his glass to his own mouth, the bastard, and took a long deliberate sip. Laguna’s hand hung in the air, unanswered, and he could have sworn he read a smirk in Squall’s eyes for a fraction of a second.

Laguna choked down the sound that had risen unbidden in his throat, surprised and affronted, and then he did turn his gesture into an elaborate quaff, a half-bow that almost had him coughing up brandy all over Squall’s handsome uniform. Maybe that would get a reaction out of him. But resorting to dramatics wouldn’t help him win any points. He’d have to play this Squall’s way. Squall was a professional, right? He had probably been to dinners like this countless times. Why were his palms sweating? "Here, I’ll take this," he said, snagging the tray from the waiter. Delicate crystal chimed as the glasses tottered and clinked, and Laguna felt his leg cramping up. Oh, good.

Squall raised an eyebrow as Laguna struggled to balance with the tray — how had the waiter managed? Was Kiros hiring acrobats behind his back? "It would help if you drank some of these," Laguna offered with a sideways grin, trying to wave them appetizingly at Squall. They jingled against each other again in a way he fervently hoped Squall found intriguing rather than threatening.

Squall eyed the tray and then shrugged. He downed his glass while delicately plucking another one almost at random and took that in one smooth hit; almost lazily, he dropped the two glasses down on the tray next to each other. Of course they stayed upright. Laguna looked at the tray, offended at its treachery, and then shoved it at the nearest passing waiter.

"I think we all just come to these things to ogle each other," Laguna said before any kind of awkward silence could fall; he felt Squall’s shoulders shifting forward in the increased chill of his demeanor. "I mean, I keep catching people gawking at me. As if they didn’t realize I could tie a tie."

Squall’s tiny shift in stance stated his agreement clearer than any words. Laguna just didn't get it; he'd seen Squall tell people to piss off — in fact, he'd seen Squall do it earlier, to a junior council member, a brilliantly deadpan comment just short of insulting that Laguna was going to have to remember for the next meeting they had — but Squall wasn't giving him any go-away signs. He wasn't giving him any signs; it was like talking to a wall, or a statue, all one-sided conversation and no response.

"They keep glancing over here at you, too," Laguna continued, teasing, panicking at Squall’s silence, his brain-to-mouth filter overloaded and derailed by the weight of it; he hated silences, wrought with all of their dangerous potential to crash and burn. Not that there was too much built between himself and Squall that could be wrecked by going off-course. "Probably wondering who the nice attractive young man in the corner is, and whether they can ask the President for an introduction."

Squall grimaced at this, the first honest gesture he’d made in the entire conversation. Laguna glanced him up and down: SeeD dress uniform, so crisply pressed he must have done it himself in his hotel room, creases making neat lines of his lean build, generous shoulders. The dark fabric suited Squall’s coloring, the gold trim highlighting the light on his dark hair; the kid was good-looking, certainly, and would be even more if he were at all able to stop frowning.

Squall’s eyes flickered up and Laguna blinked just a second too late, caught in his too-obvious regard, and he flushed, thinking of Squall in his hotel room, carefully (angrily?) and precisely ironing out the wrinkles from his haphazard travel — Laguna had seen the duffel bag, it wasn’t even real luggage — and this was such a big dumb mess, and his mouth opened before he could think better of it. "See anyone here you want to get to know better?"

The glare Squall shot him flickered strangely, as if even Squall couldn’t decide how to reply, and Laguna frowned: I seem to be messing this up really badly, somehow. "That is what these things are for, you know."

Squall’s lips pursed, and Laguna didn’t miss the way his eyes flicked to Laguna’s own suit jacket before his face cooled into composure again. "I’m good," Squall said, noncommittal, skirting the edges of polite.

Laguna wanted to frown, but he didn’t. He certainly recognized an unwelcome battle field when shown one; he hadn’t made it this far in his career without knowing when to retreat. "Well, if you want anything else, you know where to find me." It came out strangely low, and intense, with the way it rattled around the space between them, bouncing off of Squall’s walls and glower until it held too many meanings.

Laguna made a little awkward bow in Squall’s direction and hurried off to find someone who would make him feel like the President of Esthar again, not twelve and helpless with it.


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Squall shucked his uniform as soon as the door was closed, wishing all the evening's impressions would leave his skin with it; he never liked that after-feeling of a formal party, the way the scent of too many bodies lingered in the uniform's thick fabric, like all the fakery and stiff smiles left impressions on it that mixed with the uncomfortable sweat that always dripped between his shoulderblades, slicking against his skin under the clothes. Rinoa — Rinoa had always laughed at him, slipped out of her own dresses with a playful tease of curves, scrubbed between his shoulders in the shower, her smile up-curled and mischievous. Squall scowled. He hadn't drunk enough — despite Laguna and his strange intensity and insistent variety of alcohol — to have much of an uplifting effect at this later hour, but it was enough to give his thoughts an unhelpful degree of slipperiness, one sliding into another with too little control. He pushed all of them firmly aside.

The bathroom gleamed when he flicked on the light and for a second he hesitated; skipping the shower was almost better than this ridiculous glittering brightness right now— then he turned them back off, backed up and switched on the lights by the bed. With the door open, it left enough light in the bathroom that he wouldn't split his head open on any of these surfaces, architectural and functional and everywhere.

He breathed out when the water hit his skin, sluicing away the dinner's residue, sweat and smells and memories: he could almost feel them running down his skin, the slide of Laguna's eyes and the non-smell of really good vodka and he didn't want to think about any of it, didn't want to remember it again. He reached for his Guardians, for the litany of checks and rechecks, the routine a soothing distraction as he sifted through his inner organization, setting them in order for the night. Cerberus submitted to the once-over and retreated to his dark corner without comment. Shiva... Shiva responded like a cat stretching, like the upward curve of a woman's naked back, yearning up into a hand, chill and distantly sensuous. Cold sympathy bloomed across his skin, the shower suddenly scalding-hot against it, and Squall hissed: stop that. An icy crackle of laughter echoed in his thoughts, faint unaffiliated brushes of memory — someone skating on a frozen lake, and the ice breaking; the deep booming crack of glaciers; warmth glimpsed from the outside as frost rimed the window — and then she, too, quieted and settled into her place in his mind.

Squall's hand snapped up to shut off the shower before its real temperature registered again, and he breathed into the ringing silence of the dark bathroom, the water drying cold on his skin. Shiva's echoes rippled inside him, soft and unsettling, brushing against the Bond, stirring echoes and memories — phantom hands, Rinoa's, on his skin, and he gritted his teeth, hollow anger thick in his throat, the faint taste of alcohol still hot on his tongue and making his breath an icy burn as it hissed between his teeth.

He yanked a towel loose from the abundant array, jerky motions chafing himself dry; fumbled for boxers in the dim light, his walk to the bed too unsteady. The sheets were crisp and cool as his back sank against them, the unsteady afterwash of alcohol mixing with the Bond's disorientation and it felt like falling backwards into nothing, the belly-float of zero gravity, and he sucked a breath in, tamped down on all his memories of space and the emptiness between stars. His breath rattled loud in the night.

His mind had been too full, the night he'd spent on the train — full of a buzzing irritation, full of the duties he was leaving behind or reassigning or taking with him — full of a blankness, a void of thought; and this night's emptiness was different, cavernous and strange, stirring old dark things that wanted to fight out of his skin, like some ancient part of him-not-him knew that he should be there, not here, and Squall's mouth tightened as he fought away the yearning of the Knight, the call of the night, the touch of things outside himself.

Squall breathed, ice and emptiness, even; the disoriented desire faded under his resolve, like a far-off keen. It left him feeling— hollow. It left him remembering, how Rinoa would wake with her eyes full of tears and eternities, the echo of her dreams pulling at him, something vast and protective, and him, just him, dammit, reaching out to touch her shivering skin.

It was almost strange, to not have her there to share this distant, hollow echo of magic with, and he found his throat was dry. Her absence was an actual space beside him, and for a moment—

He swallowed, wetting his throat. Blinked his eyes open to find the half-lit ceiling mundane and blank above him, edged by the bed's draperies; a light faint buzz of alcohol lingering along his veins and all the irritated exhaustion after the dinner still riding his shoulders. His breath trickled out of him, and he closed his eyes again for a moment before reaching up for the lights.


_________________________________


Squall showed up for the tour in his SeeD uniform and Laguna's stomach sank. He wasn't stupid; he understood just fine that uniforms could be roles, defenses, distance — excuses to never step outside a comfortable context. Laguna was acutely aware of his own loose shirt and half-bare arms. And maybe that had been a bad idea, canceling everyone else's plans and making this a more private outing, but after the — okay, disaster, that had been last night. Maybe it was just that Squall didn't like crowds. Or maybe the uniform was a sign. Or not. Maybe Squall just hadn't gotten the memo.

"Er," he angled, "did you check your messages this morning?"

Squall gave him that unreadable deadpan look. "Yes."

The stomach situation failed to improve at this and was joined by a foot shuffle (cut it out, leg cramps don't go well with hikes). Laguna tucked imaginary loose hair behind his ear, and caught Squall watching the nervous gesture; Squall's hand, hanging loose by his thigh, gave the barest twitch and Laguna looked away from this unhelpful reminder that Squall knew all his tics from the inside out. It seemed unfair, that Squall was so unreadable to him, giving him nothing but a reflection of all the habits that had been so comfortably unconscious before.

Disappointed silence clung to the air, sticky and a little pathetic. Laguna cleared his throat. "Well. Let's get started?" He hadn't meant for his voice to turn that into a question.

Squall frowned. "We're not waiting?"

"Waiting? Did you— um. What?" I am a political mastermind. In my spare time.

Squall regarded him with a look that very clearly said both What and Are you some kind of idiot. This conversation was quite evidently happening on two entirely different wavelengths. Laguna tried again. "What would we wait for?"

Irritation seemed to pull actual elaborating honesty out of Squall. "A herd of bureaucrats all wanting their opinions heard in triplicate."

Laguna blinked. Then he laughed, as much out of surprise at the grumpy humour as at the unsteady wash of relief. Squall had misread his note, somehow. The uniform didn't mean anything. This trip might still stand a chance. But even as he relaxed by inches, some undercurrent still whispered in sluggish discontent at the way Squall's reactions could make his stomach flip-flop, at this new weird dependence and the way Squall deflected it. Laguna grabbed at the thread of conversation, stubbornly paving over his doubts.

"No," he said. "Just us this time." And he smiled, a little crooked.

Squall gave him a long, long, quiet look; the irritation at least seemed to fade from his face but whatever was left there made Laguna's spine itch with how it was both direct and unreadable. Laguna resisted the urge to twitch his shoulders — or his feet, or his hands — and felt unnaturally stuffed and still under Squall's gaze.

And finally, finally, Squall just shrugged, and Laguna ignored the tepid melt of his stomach to find that the crooked smile still fit fine on his face: good enough. "Well, let's hit the road, huh?"

He ambled over to the car. Squall climbed in the passenger side as Laguna settled in to drive, one hand relaxed and low on the wheel. "Anyway," he continued, "this way you won't have ten different people telling you why this site is good for their interests and the others are all wrong and blah blah blah." Ha! That was almost a smile. It was. "I already know all that. And you don't really want to hear what sites are good for Esthar—" a small almost — startled? — glance aside from Squall, dammit why did he have to keep his eyes on the road "—and I don't want to hear it again. I wanna hear what sites are good for Garden. I—um," Laguna stumbled along with the invitation, feeling like it was entirely too naked, "wanna hear what you think."

And this time Laguna could not resist a sidelong glance, only to immediately realize that Squall had his elbow propped on the open window just like Laguna did and the uncomfortable self-awareness dripped over him again. But Squall remained blank-faced, and if anything had flickered across his expression at the first, Laguna had been too distracted by his elbow to notice. Now Squall just looked straight ahead, the car's breeze catching at his hair. Laguna tried not to make his swallow too obvious.

"I'll write up a report," Squall said at last, dry, and it took Laguna beat to realize that had been a joke.

A chuckle bubbled up his throat, helplessly, even as some part of him felt hollow that Squall hadn't said — something. Anything else. Anything less— impersonal.

The first site came up on their right, and Laguna pulled over, gratefully. They climbed out and Laguna occupied himself with pointing out the site's features, rattling off the geography. Squall — Squall was quiet, observing, asking a few to-the-point questions and otherwise... saying very little. Laguna wound down the litany, and couldn't help adding a "So?" to the end. He tried not to cringe.

Squall was silent for a moment, thinking. "It's close. Convenient, but maybe too close. A Garden shouldn't be close enough to a sponsor city that a single strike could hit both." Another pause. "Land's all right. A little too open and even. We'd have to make an artificial training ground for maneuvering on different terrain."

And Squall turned to look at him, and that was, all too plainly, it. Laguna blew out a breath. "Well. Ha. I didn't like this site much, either. The city development people really wanted it, and the budget was nice, for managing the commuting, but otherwise it's really just, eh, okay." And the babble was off, Laguna all too aware of it, and of how he propped his arm up when he got back in the car to drive; of how Squall's silences felt like hollow spaces in the air.

The other sites went the same, Laguna filling the empty silences with information, the rhythm of his own words — punctuated by Squall's silences and all-too-infrequent responses — seeming to drum a weight down onto him, the outing falling flat around him even as he couldn't help but rise inside a little as they neared the end, the last site. They pulled up to the series of low ridges, finally, and Laguna blew out a covert breath as he turned off the ignition.

And for once, his babble dried up, and all he managed was: "Up there." A wave of his hand. Squall's eyes followed the gesture up the sharp upward sweep of land, but he waited for Laguna to take the lead. The scrubby hills coughed dust onto their pants with their every step, and Laguna felt a momentary twinge for Squall's uniform, followed by a grumpy It's not my fault he can't read.

Laguna scrambled over the next rise, paused for a moment on the ridge to savour the tug of wind in his hair and, more surreptitiously, catch his breath. Squall didn't seem in the least winded and Laguna indulged in a little envy of his youth, blithely choosing the ignore the fact that he had definitely not been that fit at Squall's age. The car looked small and lonely down below, but it wasn't that far a hike, really. Squall hovered silently, turning to see what Laguna was looking at, and an urge to explain tugged at him — he felt a little stupid trekking up here on foot, as if Squall's silence was censure. But then Squall turned to continue on, apparently having lost interest once he knew that Laguna was just gauging the distance from the car; his steps were strong and steady on the uneven, rocky ground, navigating between the springy tussocks of grass and aiming for the last ridge. Laguna watched without speaking, acutely aware of the anxiety rippling across the skin of his back now that Squall was about to see the place.

Squall reached the top and stopped. Laguna couldn't see his face, but after a moment he saw Squall tip his head back, just a little, errant breezes playing in his hair, and he knew that Squall's eyes were closed. He needed to see it, all of a sudden, wanted to see his expression, wanted to see what Squall looked like relaxed. Wanted to see if he loved this place like Laguna did. He hiked up the rise, pushing off his knees with his hands with his hurry, but when he had drawn almost even with Squall he was suddenly afraid that he'd turn only to see Squall shuttered again, unwelcoming and unreadable.

Words came, instead, soft and spoken to the vista below them, both of them looking down into the vale and not at each other.

"This last one is my favourite. No car access from this side yet — the road would go there, that little dip — and we could have done a flyover, but I wanted you to see..." He trailed off, and his arm came up to point out the rill sparkling on the far side, the fascinating rise of rocky formations to the right where cadets could train, the flat sweep where aircraft could land, and the break through the trees where rails could go. Drifts of grass staggered, swaying in the breeze, across the sloped shallow half-bowl of land. His hand turned over, palm up, as if cupping the rocky rolling little valley for a moment, the jag of his fingers echoing the scrape of mountain on the vale's far side. Then his fingers crumpled in, light and a little hesitant, closing his hand again and letting it drift down. "It looks small, from the air. I like how it looks from here better."

Squall was silent for a long moment. "It's... nice," he managed at last, and Laguna felt distinctly tepid. He tried to assure himself that, for Squall, it was evidently a very encouraging show of support. But this mantra fell flat against the confusing array of expectations and hopes and anxieties that had somehow crept all over Laguna in the past few weeks. He didn't even know what he wanted out of this thing with Squall. But whatever it was he wanted, Squall seemed uninterested in giving it to him. And Laguna, with a slick of nausea, knew that in all honesty he couldn't blame Squall for that, had no place wishing Squall was— different: friendlier, more open with him, anything at all. Squall had no way of knowing how much this little pocket of rolling land reminded Laguna of Winhill — what were a few stolen hours in that place to him? And Laguna could tell him. Anytime. He almost did, feeling the disappointment bubble up as the beginning of words — bitter or eager, he didn't even know — but it was the almost that bit at him, the acrid taste of swallowing it all back down, because the thing that was really making him sick was the slow stained dawning of suspicion: maybe this was so awkward and halting and not-happening not because of Squall but because of him, because he'd always been a terrible father and known it. And maybe — maybe some part of him didn't even want to try.

Laguna sat down, suddenly tired, not caring that his hair had escaped the tail again.


_________________________________


Formless terror slammed through a confused anxious impression of Laguna pushing him toward some nebulous twisting thing; he clawed his way up out of a welter of — fearpainpanicohnonono — cold air burned down his throat in a ragged gasp and he was fighting with his sheets, thrashing inside the damp tangled fabric. He stilled, immediately; clamped a forced calm over his thrilling nerves, over the shriek of his mind; forced his eyes shut and his mind open. He groped for the sideways-listen that let him talk to his GFs, that diving-backwards — he felt like his fingers would be shaking, slipping off some surface as his hands scrabbled all over it— Breathe. He tried it again -- precious seconds devoted to doing it slow and calm, doing it right — and it never felt right, it was just the best way they'd found so far, misaligned and imperfect — there. No mental click of connection, more like half-catching a radio station under blaring static; Squall slid mind-sideways, searching: Rinoa Rinoa Rinoa

Breath. Breathing. For a moment, he couldn't tease it apart from his own sensations, so faint, the feeling so much like what he wanted to be doing himself: short sharp jerks of breath, ripples of fear, distant and muddled like thoughts at the back of his own mind. Then it faded out, hovering above him for a moment— then rushed back in, too overwhelming to interpret, a moment of perfect clarity of doubled existence, two heartbeats and two breaths, two sets of hands shaking, and far too much tangled thought and feeling for him to understand. Squall gritted his teeth, hands fisting in the damp-cold sheets (separate sensation, just him, only his hands), and rode out the fluctuations of the Bond — Hyne it was always so slick-nauseous, trying to listen on purpose, trying to see

Vastness came, white glory, wings, love and fear thrilling through his fingers, up his spine, distant awareness of his fragile shell of a body fighting for breath drowned out by the endless rush of true magic unleashed, echoing in his blood, rippling under his skin, singing to him even across this tenuous connection, across the faded half-shattered remnants of the Bond, tearing at all his allegiances — follow this anywhere, wait for me, I'll be there, I'll be there

No. Hiss, his breath, Squall fighting to remember himself as Knight breathed out of him everywhere, erupting from his skin as if he sweated loyalty to this vast and distant being, iron in his blood drawn like a magnet— No. He didn't want the Sorceress, he wanted Rinoa, and he dug through the blaring static, looking for her, but that was never what this gave, layers and layers and layers of Sorceress, hundreds of years passed down hand to hand to hand, echoing into the future — where was Rinoa in all this endlessness?

Fire, ice, fear and triumph and pain, and he couldn't reach Rinoa anywhere under it and then — Squall, Squall, please, a flash of her face under the snarl of magic, like a hand reaching out to him but he couldn't move, Bond too broken, connection too weak, and he snarled at himself — is this what we chose, the two of us? — and the connection faded again, the glimpse of real-Rinoa fading with it before it slammed through him again, vast and white and holy, then away, sick and dizzy with the disconnect — and then the endless well collapsed like something had shattered it and Squall screamed inside for a moment, NO, before he felt the garbled echo of exhaustion, of breathing, of quiet (Silence); healing wind and shelter — something, something else, some connection he couldn't touch — a rush of relief that wasn't his own and all the flare-sparks of confused emotions fading into the distance, the Sorceress gone and the unsteady blare of connection with her and he was slipping off the surface again, looking for Rinoa underneath everything but all that was left behind was a vague sense of security that felt entirely out of place along his sweaty nerve-taut skin.

And then just the night, and his breathing, and the shivers of cold air along his body.

He opened his eyes. Blew out one long breath through his nose. Sat up and threw off the sheets, stumbled to the bathroom and waited to see if he would be sick.

Something had happened, something with Rinoa, bad enough to echo down to him even — even with everything. She was safe, now; he knew that like he knew which way was down and it gave him just as little comfort as he wavered on his feet, off-balance and nauseous. Saliva pooled in his mouth, sickly sweet, and he hunched over the sink and spat, once; no pre-vomit tension followed and he waited, tasting bile. Long training took over the medical self-monitoring with professional detachment as his thoughts boiled, furiously and sluggishly, slow and thick in the aftermath of Bond-listening and sudden magic and interrupted sleep. He was trying to listen, even now, but it was hit-or-miss at the best of times and now that Rinoa was calmer he could barely feel anything — but his mind still echoed with it like the aftershocks of a rung bell, and he breathed. His body alerted him and he spat again, automatically. The computer was right outside; he could call. No. Quistis was there; he wouldn't interrupt her dealing with the emergency. She would give him a report soon — this morning at the latest, late night her time. Whatever had happened had been in broad daylight. The news feeds would be all over it. Spit, much less this time; he wiped his mouth and ran some water. Should he alert Laguna? The man insisted on press-awareness. No, he didn't have enough information, and this didn't have anything to do with Laguna — why had he thought of him, anyway? He grimaced, then washed his face with cool water.

His reflection looked haggard in the mirror, pupils still blown wide, hair damp with sweat and rinsewater. The night seemed too quiet to contain what had happened within it, and his nerves stretched at the silence; he put his face in his hands, shaky and unpleasant everywhere from the invasion of sensation, all this magic that was none of his business, nothing he knew about, nothing simple. His thoughts seemed to cast about, formless with exhaustion— and caught on an alien tinge of curiousity. Cerberus, he realized. His Guardians, still listening, from his vain attempts to learn more of what happened. Not quite in tune, but he'd stirred them up with his reaching. He was about to force his attention away — how was that review of GF use policy going? He had to ask Zell, he'd lost track of it... A thought occurred to him, and he jerked himself back, sinking quick and automatic into his own mind, seeking Cerberus again.

Did you hear anything? Anything more than I did?

Cerberus whined, a friendly wuffle in his head; he’s trying to describe it to Rinoa, but she ends up teasing him about having his own Angelo in his head and he gives up because she isn’t really listening—Squall caught that thought-memory in hungry fingers, angrily hefting it away from his concentration, as if throwing away refuse. You couldn’t have eaten that one?

A flash of cool regard pierced the noisy mess in his head and Squall almost sighed in relief: Shiva, like balm, cold and compatible, easy with it. Shiva keened, an almost-crystal sound like the sun on ice, a hawk’s-cry on a cold day, brilliant and sharp, and Squall didn’t know how to ask but didn’t really have to.

Shiva spun images like snowflakes, flicking upwards from her fingertips like wayward knitting: wings — feathers, sharp and pointed, pinpricks of Holy — a line of fire, crossing stone like an emblem — Rinoa: drowning — a wall, Reflect, fire and ice merging and mixing into white-pearl-noise and pain, painpainpain

Squall gagged; breathed in, ragged, and Shiva’s soothing hand caressed his sweating forehead. What else, he asked, even though he wasn’t sure he wanted to know; he braced himself, staring into the mirror, his eyes suddenly looking uncannily unlike his own and he wondered whether this was what it was like for Rinoa, what it had been like every time she’d mis-dreamed and ended up strewn across the bathroom floor in heaving sobs he couldn’t understand, as if her half-gasped words were a different language. What else, Shiva?

Shiva keened and Cerberus started up, a low rumbling growl he felt as a sharp sensation right where his skull met his neck: not pain, but close, dangling along the line of too-much. Rinoa smiling, her finger pointing upwards; millions of stars wheeling, plunging, pulled to the earth by gravity — becoming darts, ice, flowers, feathers — tiny bullets piercing wings, shards of frozen ice — a sudden sharp pain in his chest, gaping wound staring back at him — Rinoa, reflected off of a million mirrors, faces that were and were not hers, were and were not Sorceress, and they all looked familiar. He and not-Rinoa at Balamb’s Annual Fair, eating tarts; him and not-Rinoa dancing at the first SeeD ball after the conflict; not-Rinoa waking beside him, her lips gentle and soft—

Squall growled and slammed his hand into the wall next to the mirror, pressing his palm into it with angry force, fingertips digging in as if he could gouge all of this out of plaster and paint, fill this gaping crater in his heart with mortar and cement. Here, he spat, angrily, as Cerberus and Shiva wheeled about each other in a slow yin-yang, as his rage gaped beneath them like a chasm. You like memories? His hand twitched against the wall and he thought of half-a-dozen things simultaneously: Rinoa, with a flower pinned in her hair; Rinoa in his office, standing by the door, the look on her face already leagues away from him; Laguna, bearing a tray of cordials and the smile that embodied everything Squall wanted to punch walls about. Rinoa, standing in the sea, tired and lovely and leaving him. Squall bunched them together in his fingers like a bouquet of crumpled flowers: Here. Take these, thrusting them in the mental direction of his Guardians, huddled together in wait as he retched these memories up towards them like a heaving gift.

No? Their refusal to do anything other than watch him in a still sort of dismay-amusement-concern-apathy only irritated Squall further. Don’t like the taste of those? Neither do I. That’s the point. His mind veered away from further thoughts of Rinoa; they were blossoming across the surface of his mind’s-eye as if Shiva were dredging them slowly from the deep: Stop that. Abruptly he made himself think of Laguna: irritation struck him across the brow and Squall welcomed it, the fresh shallow burning frustration so different from the deep throbbing pain of the Bond that it felt like release even as his headache spiked. Laguna, in the ballroom, watching him with uncanny eyes across the room; Laguna, greeting him that morning with a huge smile and a bright-green 'pistachio' muffin; him-in-Laguna, younger and laughing at Kiros, as that woman Raine poured them more wine (it figures he would drink white); Squall grabbed at all of these, I dreamt I was a moron again, and thrust them towards Cerberus. Laguna’s body, younger; his leg cramping as he shyly eyed the lovely woman in the red dress, watching white fingers idle a glass of wine; I don’t want these. He pulled from the base of his skull, strands catching on each other, tendrils spreading: him-in-Laguna, younger, teaching little Elle how to play baseball (those aren’t the real rules!); Laguna, handing him a folder of notes, his smile quirking a little to the side. Squall balled them up into a wad of tangled memory and shoved, because he didn’t want any of this anymore--

But Cerberus didn’t budge, and the memories went spinning past Squall’s sense of him-it-Guardian back into the darkness, where they splashed and sank. The ripples smelled like Rinoa and Squall sank to the floor of the bathroom. Why won’t you take any of this?

There was a faint sense of waiting, as if someone had taken a deep breath — and then Squall felt Shiva stir, blessed numbness spreading from the center of her presence as she cast a layer of ice-snow-crystal, love-obedience-cold: of not-feeling over the agony of the Bond and the muted frustration of his last few days (weeks) (months) and it was the feeling of a hush, someone whispering him to sleep as all the lights slowly dimmed.

Squall leaned his head back against the bathroom wall. He must have slept, because when he opened his eyes, his muscles were stiff with cold and his mouth tasted dry, and Shiva and Cerberus were still weaving blissful silence in the back of his mind.

He stood— stumbled his way back into the room, his mind sweetly blank and empty, intending nothing but to drop into bed and sleep through Laguna's entire schedule — but then he saw the light on his console blinking, steady and even, and suddenly he was in his chair mashing the on button, his mouth full of RinoaRinoaRinoa as it came back to him, the sick feeling knotting like tumbling stones in his stomach as he waited for the computer to load.

The note was from Quistis, in official mission missive format. Location: Timber, former library site. Damages sustained: Structural. Injuries sustained by employer: None. Injuries sustained by SeeD: None. Resources used: None. In the slot for description, she'd simply typed, surprise attack (assassination?) on employer; a trap was left at the library site. Civilians harmed. Heartilly and Trepe uninjured.

It was brief, too fucking short, and for a minute Squall was filled with an irrational rage towards Quistis: what the hell did she think this was, the world's shortest mission missive, as if Rinoa hadn't screamed terror and defiance and holy-bright-pain into his heart just a few hours ago? Where were the details? Where was the little note, attached at the end, Quistis' bossy-sister voice telling him everything was alright, Rinoa was okay, here's exactly what had happened down to the angle of the sun and she had already bought him a ticket to Timber? But no — and what the hell were they doing in Timber anyway?

He read it again. Still devoid of details, of answers, of any sort of reassurance. He closed his eyes and breathed, fumbling around the peace his GFs had built for him until he could feel the beat of the Bond, unsteady like breath but still there. Belatedly he realized his orders for Quistis had been simply to act as Rinoa's bodyguard; if Rinoa had left Garden — dammit, Rin, can't you ever listen — she would have had no choice but to follow... and his previous rage transmuted directly into a sobering gratitude, quiet and almost ashamed; whatever had happened, Quistis had in fact kept Rinoa safe. Quistis Trepe wouldn't lie on an interim mission missive. Squall read it a third time, trying to peel details from the handful of words with his eyes. Maybe this was somehow Quistis' revenge for the bad missions he'd sent her on, for years of being ignored, for being told to go talk to a wall. Or maybe Rinoa had asked her to be brief. Did it matter?

Squall realized he was reading it for a fourth time, and snapped the console shut immediately. He stalked over to the bed but couldn't bring himself to lie on his back, staring at the ceiling and digesting the report until his brain was full of acid and bile. He sat down, instead, and put his head in his hands.

Stay safe. It had been the last thing he'd said to her, and it echoed now in his memory, mocking and sad.


_________________________________


Watching Squall in meetings was painful. At first he'd just looked bored; now he wore a strange combination of boredom and exhaustion, written lightly into the lines of his face. Laguna doubted anyone in the room would notice, as he doubted anyone else here had spent the majority of the previous day watching every single expression flicker across Squall's face (except maybe Kiros, who might have done so just for fun). It wasn't hard to count Squall's expressions in meetings. He flicked through shades of detached boredom like the grayest rainbow ever: annoyance, frustration, distraction, contemplation - and a strangely insulting vague interest, as if the speaker was this close to becoming truly interesting but continued to fall short of the mark. Laguna had noted the last one mainly because Squall had directed it at him, time and time again. Maybe it was supposed to look polite. Laguna was finding he had a great deal of trouble reading his son; his own expressions skewed towards the grand and excited and would have looked positively clownish on the kid's face. It was hard to work without a manual. Or an introductory course. Say, the first seventeen or so years.

But now he had a baseline to set this all against, and Squall looked just tired and strangely angry with it, as if he were actually upset at his own body's weakness, or the lack of control his iron will could exert on something as simple as staying awake. And it wasn't benign exhaustion, either; Laguna caught icy shadows flickering in Squall's eyes, when he took a moment too long to blink the stone mask back over his face.

Not that I'm watching or anything. Kiros elbowed him; Laguna jerked back to attention, grinning - and then he flicked his eyes to Squall again, who had momentarily moved into 'annoyed and bored' at Laguna's completely obvious inattention.

Right. Meeting. Laguna made the right gesture eventually, and the presentation continued. Laguna made a mental note not to drag Squall to so many meetings — and then frowned as he compared that with the mental schedule he'd constructed for next week, which was almost all meetings. Dammit. He'd already shown Squall the sites, too — wasted that opportunity on the first day, so eager to make some kind of connection; maybe they could head out again? These awful formal meetings, at least, had to go - something more lively, with lots of drinks, and food. Only the best, from Esthar.

He risked another look at Squall, whose face had gone back into 'neutral bored'; Laguna eyed the shadows, the faint hoods under Squall's eyes, the kind of thing he wouldn't have noticed had he not spent all of yesterday secretly learning his son's face, his eyes hungry and roving for any small hints of himself, angles of Raine, planes of some combination of the two. It was hard, too, because his conclusions kept jolting him in and out of reality; he'd look at Squall and start to learn the slope of his nose, and then Squall's head would turn and a glint of Raine would flash into his eyes and Laguna would remember: this is your kid. But Squall didn't seem like his.

It had been hard enough for Laguna when he'd realized what happened, when Ellone had taken him back-into-himself (and wasn't that a weird experience he kind of regretted having) to show him, the obvious potential of her joy quenched instantly by the shock of his reaction. This — Squall, here — was harder.

Laguna set his mouth. He wasn't going to make a big deal out of it if Squall wasn't. He would follow Squall's lead in this, too: if Squall didn't want to talk about it, then fine, they could talk about plenty of other stuff. For now, they could just get to learn each other. But not by having meetings, you moron! His mouth twisted into a half-frown, no longer so firmly decided; this was a business-trip, made obvious by the professional distance Squall was keeping between himself and— everything, but it couldn't be all business. His head began to fill with plans: taking Squall out on the town, maybe a pub crawl like he and Ward and Kiros had done so many times when they were younger; heading out to dinner, trying one of those fancy places with eight forks and an obligatory wine tasting...

He watched Squall's expression begin to fade into 'wearily bored' and wondered what it was that was eating away at the edges of Squall's composure, this exhaustion he was carrying around like very faint static over a radio. Maybe complex plans weren't the right way to start this out.

Laguna sighed through his teeth. Was it supposed to be this hard?


_________________________________


The car slowed to a stop outside the Presidential Palace, and Laguna got out first, stopping to hold the door open and gallantly wave Squall from the vehicle. Squall followed, managing to glower only slightly. The mostly-pleasant, almost relaxed mood the good wine and appetizers had induced in him was fading as the alcohol buzz faded — Squall hated how much he enjoyed the feeling of being drunk; Laguna, weaving happily through his own front doors, seemed to have no such qualms — and he was fairly ready to retire to his room and read Quistis’ mission missive for the forty-second time before bed. The casual meeting had gone fairly well, for a meeting; he was sick of them, but at least this one had been productive — apparently Estharian dignitaries needed to be bribed with wine before they would discuss budgets. He’d have to remember that for the next couple days.

Laguna stopped at the double doors leading to the side elevator — stopped, and looked back at Squall, his face suddenly pensive. Laguna wore everything he was thinking on his face, Squall thought, with a bit of disdain; it was amazing he got anything done being so obvious with his real opinions — although it probably helped that Laguna’s range of emotion covered mostly things from Hey, that’s kind of cool to Hey, that’s really really cool and on rare occasions, Man, that is so cool I would like to cover it in glitter-pen exclamation points.

"What do you say we—" Laguna stopped, frowned, and backed up over his own words. "Would you like to come down to the corner pub with me? Us. With us. Kiros and I usually head down around the corner for a drink when we can, and tonight’s a really good night for it." He shrugged, turning on that broad-wattage smile he wore so much, easy charm seeping from his face. "I know it’s silly, but I actually enjoy really cheap beer."

Squall frowned, trying to think of an excuse that would sound plausible, because Laguna knew his whole schedule — he hadn’t told Laguna about the news from Timber yet, although he was sure the general gist of it had been relayed through the news stations by now. He just really wasn’t in the mood — not that he ever was, but the thought of an evening making stilted forced conversation with Laguna and Kiros, fighting that high-beam shit-eating grin Laguna wore all the time and trying to keep up with fanciful conversation while his brain turned Rinoa and Timber over and over again on a neverending circuit — he was really really not in the mood.

But as he looked up at Laguna, something faltered on the man’s face. Laguna shrugged, sighed, and opened the double doors, holding them open for Squall. "Okay, look," he said, and his voice for once didn’t sound falsely cheerful, or optimistic, or — or falsely anything; he just sounded defeated. "Don’t break your brain coming up with an excuse. It’s alright." He didn’t sound mad; the words weren’t angry. They just... were. Squall frowned.

Laguna shook his head. "You know, you’re lucky," he said, and he smiled — a small, sad smile, something wrought with an intricacy that flashed across his face for all of two seconds: bitterness, joy, relief, disappointment. Then he sighed. "You’re the guest here. If you don’t feel like being cordial, you can go right ahead and be a jackass, because you know we’re all going to keep trying to impress you no matter what."

The strangest thing was, it wasn’t a criticism — it wasn’t snarky, or bitter, or begrudging. It was just a fact, delivered calmly into a small secluded personal space between them — a space Squall was suddenly and physically aware of. Laguna’s eyes were on him, serious but not judging; curious but not prying. It was a completely different side of the glimmering firework-wheel that was President Laguna Loire — and yet not; this new identity, the simple and genuine side of the man, slipped itself neatly into Squall’s heightened awareness of Laguna like a missing puzzle piece.

It didn't help that the only other person to ever really talk straight to him this way - straight and honest, highlighting his good points and bad points in perfect tandem like facts of life instead of excuses or, worse, projects; as if people's personalities were just things to be talked about like the weather - had been Rinoa.

And now Laguna frowned, as if Squall’s response — or, to be honest, lack of response; Squall really had to stop getting lost in thought around this man — had confused him substantially.

"You don’t need to impress me," Squall said finally, the first words to come to his tongue - and he had absolutely no idea what he meant by that, but somehow he knew it was the truth.

Laguna’s mouth quirked sideways in an almost-smile. "Don’t I?"

Squall took a second to try to figure out what that meant — one second too long, because Laguna nodded goodnight at him and headed to the stairs, presumably to retrieve Kiros from whatever other boring meeting he’d been trapped in, destination: the corner bar.

For a brief swift moment so fleeting and fast Squall felt it hit him behind the knees, unbalancing his senses, he thought about meeting them there.