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The Asshole Effect

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“She got her feelings hurt and just left the next morning, no warning.  What the hell?  It’s not like she was on her period.”

Squall stares with narrowed eyes at the guy sitting on the other side of the table and contemplates whether or not throwing his coffee in the guy’s face would be worth the fuss.  He does rather like this shop: a little smaller than most, doesn’t try so hard to appear less corporate than Starbucks actually is.  The table in the back corner, beside several floor-to-ceiling windows, and its three chairs have become his in all but name, no doubt so deeply imbued with his aura of general misanthropy that most people pretend the corner doesn’t exist.  It’d be annoying to try settling somewhere else.

“First of all,” he says, slowly, so as not to overwhelm a lesser being, “she did not get her feelings hurt.  You did that, presumably because you’re a prick.  Second, I don’t give a fuck.  Third, I really don’t give a fuck.  If you’re looking for sympathy, go talk to a wall.”

The guy looks shocked, as though Squall is deviating from a script in which men are supposed to commiserate with one another about unreasonable women.  Squall looks down and pointedly turns a page in The Myth of Sisyphys.  From the corner of his eye he can see the guy starting to lean forward, frowning, apparently ready to tell Squall exactly how he’s a jackass or whatever, maybe throw in some gender-biased insults or commentary on Squall’s black skinny jeans.

“Are you being an asshole again?” Cloud drawls, coming over from the front counter and looming over the table as much as a five-seven person carrying a green tea latte can.

“Truth hurts.”

“Fuck you,” the guy spits, kicking back his chair to get up and storm off.  Cloud watches him go with an arched brow he’d stolen straight from Sephiroth before taking the abused chair, not bothering to argue about the overflowing bookbag emblazoned with the stylized portrait of an old revolutionary that’s conquered the third one.

“Was he a tool of the patriarchy?  Reeking of white privilege?”

“Whatever,” Squall mutters.  He slouches a little more and raises his book.  Cloud half-smiles, and Squall suddenly realizes that he can’t recall a time he’s ever seen Cloud smile normally.  He takes note of Cloud’s clothes and reminds himself to use masculine pronouns for the day.

“Been a while, thought I’d come over and let your particular brand of acid eat away the stress of finals.”

“You fix engines, the fuck do you have to stress about?”

“You sit on your ass and argue about whether or not Yevon is real, the fuck do you have to worry about?”

“It’s hardly my fault that the philosophy department is overwhelmingly ethnocentric and imperialistic in its approach.”

“And it’s hardly my fault that the engineering department has, you know, practical applications in the real world.”

Squall meets Cloud’s gaze over the top of his book.  They stare at one another for a long moment before Cloud half-smiles again – that’s twice now, must be one of the good days – and Squall huffs a small laugh.

“How’s Sephiroth?”

“On the edge of setting fire to his classroom,” says Cloud, absently sliding his straw up and down in the plastic lid so that it goes squeak-squeak-squeak and makes Squall consider homicide.  The girl at the nearest table shoots him a dirty look and gets up, walks away.  Squall reaches out with a long leg to hook a foot under the newly-vacated chair seat and pull it close enough to use as a footstool.  Cloud goes on, “You know how they make junior professors teach the one-hundred courses.  Half the students are only there to satisfy a gen-ed and couldn’t care less about calculus.  How’s Seifer?”

Squall takes a sip from his black coffee and says, “I don’t know.  I’m not his mother.”

Cloud has a tendency to slip into thousand-yard stares, remembering things that Squall can only guess at, but when those vivid blue eyes are focused it’s like having one’s brain dissected and put on display.  Squall refuses to look away, daring Cloud to push, but then Cloud blinks and reaches, casually, for his green tea latte.  “So, Sisyphus?"

Squall, giving up on getting any reading done, slips the bookmark back in (The Literary Guillotine – “Read a fucking book.”) and runs an idle hand over the cover.  “He’s the one who tricked the gods too many times and was sentenced to rolling a boulder up a hill for the rest of eternity.  Every time he gets to the top the boulder rolls back down and he has to start all over again.”

“Yeah, Aeris told me about him once.  You taking a Classics course or something?”

“It’s an absurdist essay.  Camus is exploring how to overcome the meaninglessness of the world by acknowledging how hopeless it is and finding happiness in the act of rebelling against its arbitrary rules.”

Cloud blinks slowly at him, then says, “Do I need to remove all the sharp things from your dorm?”

Squall gives him a flat look as he hears familiar, heavy-booted footsteps cross the shop’s threshold and head towards them.  “Don’t be an idiot.”

“That would be like telling the sun not to rise,” says Lightning, dry as toast.  She drops her messenger bag on the floor, plucking Squall’s bag from the third chair so she can unceremoniously sling it on the floor where it lands, half-open, leaning against one of Squall’s chair legs.  She sits down with the air of someone ready to be absolutely done with the world, sets down her drink on which some smartass had drawn a Harry Potter-style lightning bolt instead of her name, and takes out a notebook and pencil that she summarily ignores.

“We have no good reason to believe the sun will rise anyway.”

Cloud and Lightning both raise their eyebrows.  Perhaps Lightning has been exposed to Sephiroth as well, like radiation: quiet, seemingly mild, but ultimately lethal.

“Our conceptions of natural laws are being redefined all the time, based purely on observation.  Thus far we’ve observed natural tendencies, but it’s entirely possible that tomorrow those tendencies will change based on a principle we don’t know yet.”

The table is silent for a moment.  Squall takes a sip of coffee.

“I hate you,” says Lightning.

“I’m terrified by how close to reasonable that sounds,” says Cloud.  “Change the topic before I start believing the table isn’t real.”

Squall huffs.

“How’s Serah?” Cloud asks Lightning, because he’s marginally better than the other two at maintaining a social circle.  Squall’s one psychology class told him it’s probably because of Cloud’s lonely childhood, or possibly latent anxiety over the size of his dick, Freud wasn’t too clear.

Lightning’s hand briefly tightens around her black iced coffee, threatening to pop the top and spill it all over Cloud’s sleeveless turtleneck and cargo pants, while the other hand busies itself with lining up the pencil perfectly parallel to the notebook.  “Still intent on going to Bodhum to get her teaching credentials.”

“Bodhum?” Squall repeats.  “Over by Kalm?”

“Yes,” Lightning says wryly.  “And yes, I’ve reminded her that Garden has one of the best teaching programs.”

No wonder she’s ready to flip some tables.  “Hmm.  It’s almost like she wants to be her own person.”

Instead of punching him in the face – she’d done that once already, almost immediately after they’d first met and Squall had inevitably said something stupid – she sighs softly.  “That’s what Fang said.”

Hearing the odd tone in her voice, Cloud ventures, “You two still on a break?”

Lightning is now sitting up very straight, a leftover from past Guardian Corps training, and her attention seems fixed intently on her coffee.  “She’s still getting things settled with the court over Vanille’s custody.  I remember what that was like with Serah.  It’s…not a good time.”

“Here’s to stalled-out relationships,” says Cloud, raising his latte, and Lightning taps her coffee against it.  After a moment, so does Squall, and all three drink like they’re knocking back hard liquor at the pub.  (There’s a reason Seventh Heaven is next door to the main campus.)

“Perhaps we just need to accept how meaningless it is and move on,” says Lightning with arid sarcasm, and the other two look so unsettled (because how does she know that, was she eavesdropping, is she a mind-reader) that she adds, with a nod at the closed book by Squall’s elbow, “You’re not the only one who’s taken a philosophy class.  And there’s a reason I say a class, not classes, you know.”

“The one-hundred series isn’t representative of the entire discipline – “

“Which is ethnocentric and imperialistic anyway, isn’t it?” Cloud provides sweetly.

“I seem to recall a certain Yevonite book, several bottles of Tifa’s best, and a dramatic recital in the Great Hall at two in the morning,” Lightning says thoughtfully.

“You have to admit, that was pretty funny,” Cloud muses.  “I had no idea Squall could sing soprano.”

“Is that what that was?”

“Whatever,” Squall scowls.  Despite himself, he can’t help noticing the contrast between Cloud’s soft tones and Lightning’s blunt voice, and wonders how much one’s personality can unconsciously inform one’s physical presentation; Squall reminds himself not to start making assumptions about Cloud’s presentation.

“I still can’t eat éclairs.  Not even Aeris’, and I’m not sure you understand how much of a sin against humanity that is,” Cloud is saying.

“Who was the dumbass who decided to eat a shit-ton of éclairs and nothing else before getting blackout drunk?” Lightning counters.

“Who was the idiot who locked herself in the library at four AM and had to call the cops because she didn’t know how to get a hold of campus security?”

“I’m passing the Asshole Stick to you,” Squall deadpans, and Cloud rolls his eyes, absently nudging his plastic straw along the table with an engine oil-stained finger.  There are small scars across his knuckles and fingers, souvenirs from stray wires and sharp metal edges, and there are also calluses on his palm, but those came from the grip of a military-grade gun.

“The next time I’m trapped in a small space full of marble busts of old men who once perpetuated an overwhelmingly misogynistic culture in academia, I won’t be responsible for my actions.”

“You should bring it up to the board,” says Cloud.

Lightning snorts.  “And say what?”

“That the lack of representation in something so visually present makes the school’s charter of equal opportunity look like lip service,” Squall promptly supplies.

She smiles.  It’s a nice smile, when she remembers it exists.  “I have to admit, there are times when your pessimistic criticism comes in handy.”

“Which only proves its validity, meaning that it isn’t pessimism so much as realism.”

“As proven by that vest made of organic fibers in a fair-trade economy.”

Squall resists the urge to cross his arms over his chest and the white vest he’d bought at a crafts fair.  “Sociologists always were terrible about translating theory into practices that actually help the disenfranchised people they observe.”

“You can take the Asshole Stick back,” smirks Cloud into his latte.  Lightning takes her pencil, flicks it with a deadpan, “Here you go,” and, Lightning being Lightning, it sticks point-first with unerring accuracy in the weave of Squall’s checkered neck scarf.

“I know where you sleep at night,” Squall says flatly.  He takes the pencil – a rather nice one with the university’s seal stamped in gold leaf on the end – and drops it in his half-open bag as a spoil of war.

“With a knife under the pillow,” she agrees.  Which is true.  Squall nearly lost a finger to it when he’d tripped over a terrifyingly high stack of her sociology textbooks and took a header onto the bed.

“Didn’t you give that one to Hope?” asks Cloud.

“It’s cute how you think it’s my only one.”

Squall’s brow furrows.  “Hope?”

“The short, painfully earnest kid with the white hair,” explains Cloud, earning a glare from Lightning worthy of any mother bear.  “I think he’s in the physics department – theoretical, right?”

“He’s convinced that quantum physics holds the key to time travel and is determined to beat the correct equations out of it.”

Aah.  The kid that Lightning had practically adopted not long after his mother had died; Squall vaguely recalls a freshman of a precociously young age who swung between angry, brooding silences and the painfully earnest need to be helpful.  Lightning doesn’t hide the pride in her voice very well.

“And apparently he’s also a science fiction fan,” Squall snorts, unimpressed.

“And you own the entire boxed set of Lionheart: Master Monster Tamer.  Your point?”

Lionheart is a classic.”

“So is Catcher in the Rye.”

“Zack likes that book,” Cloud says aloud into his latte.

“Because of the cussing?”

“Probably,” Cloud admits.

Lightning looks at Squall as though this somehow proves her point.  Squall drinks his coffee and refuses to give her the satisfaction that he might, deep down under his childhood love of cheesy monster films and an adult’s appreciation for cinema that tries to be subversive but probably isn’t, actually agree with her.  “I take it back.  I hope you get trapped in a space full of the busts of old misogynists again.”

“You two have no idea what it’s like when people treat you poorly because of something you can’t help,” Lightning starts, obviously only partially serious, but Squall interrupts with a sharp, “Foster system,” and Cloud, who doesn’t even have to say anything, who wears pieces of his history in the calluses on his hands, just gives her a derisive look.  Neither of them point out that the first time they met, it was when someone was calling Squall a faggot or cocksucker or whatever; Cloud walked up out of the blue and socked them in the nose, and then Lightning stuck out a foot so that when they stumbled backwards they ended up landing hard on their ass.  Half an hour later, they’d been sitting in Seventh Heaven, ripping one another to pieces and loving every moment of it.

“…Aah.  Yes, that – wasn’t fair.”

Squall leans precariously sideways to dig around his bag, unearth the fancy and no doubt expensive pencil, and throw it back at her.  She winces, but catches it, and bears the makeshift Asshole Stick with great dignity.

“And so we come full circle,” Cloud mutters, and the other two tip their drinks in sardonic agreement.