Geez. I shouldn't give everything away, I guess. Anyway - here comes the dramatic part.
Squall stepped out into the night, breathing the salty air that blew in the wind from the west. He stood just outside the entrance to the cave, looking up at the moon. It shone brilliantly, its huge shape nearly blotting out the rest of the sky. Careful not to disturb Quistis, Squall sat on a rock, his eyes following the path of one of the few constellations he remembered from his course in celestial navigation. He held up a hand, tracing a finger along the shape. "At the point, follow the line two handbreadths to the brightest star you see, and you find the east…" he murmured. He let his hand drop, smiling faintly.
The wind changed, now blowing in from the north-east. It brought with it the faint smell of blood. Squall's smile faded, and he sighed. He rubbed his arm, where the dragon had clawed him. It still hurt a little. Squall closed his eyes. 'Every time,' he thought remorsefully. He could feel the last traces of Aura, even three hours later. He waited expectantly, and felt a surge of adrenaline rush through him at the thought of a battle. He dropped his head into his hands and groaned quietly, waiting for the feeling to pass.
'It's been so long since I've felt that way,' he mused. Once, after a particularly difficult battle, Selphie had told him that using Aura felt like being airborne, like her first time flying the Ragnarok. Quistis thought it was a horrible spell, but confided to him that she felt like she had when she'd passed the SeeD exams every time she used it. Squall dragged his hand through his hair. He had never told anyone this, but just when he snapped, when he fell into his limit break – he thought it felt like climax. He thought of Rinoa, after they had sex: her flushed cheeks, her sweaty brow, and her sleepy, satisfied smile looking up at him. Squall shivered slightly, closing his eyes. 'Who could resist feeling like that?' he thought to himself. He rubbed his arm again. 'Even when you're hurt, it feels that way. Feels better, because you know that any second, you'll get your break again…'
He tried to shake off the desire to use the spell again, familiar, by now, with the feeling. During the last battle with Ultimecia, while Rinoa had fallen into the uncontrolled sorceress' daze and begun casting spells wildly, while Selphie kept them healed and Irvine and Zell attacked over and over again, Quistis had kept him dosed on Aura – and he had used his limit until his finger was raw where he squeezed the trigger on Lionheart, and then he used it again. After the battle, after time compression, after Rinoa had found him, the feeling of it lingered, echoing through his chest. It had plagued him for the last month of the war, when SeeD had been busy wiping out the last Galbadian resistance and attempting to rid human habitations from the monsters brought down by the Lunar Cry. He would jolt awake, just as he had tonight, with fading thoughts of battle ringing in his head.
He started, thinking he had spoken unknowingly. But then he heard someone shifting, and a softly muttered "Don't…" drifted out of the cave. He peered in, not seeing much: the fire had long since died down, and the light of a few burning embers was all he had to work with.
A hitching gasp filled the air, and Squall's eyes fell on Irvine. He crept back into the cave, carefully stepping over Seifer and Zell's bodies, making his way to the very rear, where Irvine lay. He crouched down, frowning as the boy continued to make soft, distressed noises. "Please… stop, I'm sorry…"
He moved to shake him awake, but hesitated. People said it was dangerous to wake those who were talking in their sleep. Or was that sleepwalking?
Irvine tossed his head back and forth, becoming more upset. He threw off Squall's jacket, and his hands came up as though he were fending off an unseen attacker. Squall grew worried, thinking he should wake someone, but Irvine started muttering again.
"Don't be angry… I'm sorry – don't hurt me…" A tear slipped out from beneath his tightly closed eyelid. "No –" Squall watched, alarmed, as his chest started heaving under great, gasping breaths. "Oh – please! No! Ah… don't, I'm sorry, I'll – I'll do anything, please –" Irvine made a strangled, hurt sound in the back of his throat, as though someone had hit him.
Squall finally shook off his horrified fascination and grabbed Irvine's heaving shoulders. "Irvine! Wake up, it's just a dream," he said softly, trying not to wake the others. "Kinneas, c'mon, get up!"
Irvine went stiff as soon as he felt Squall's hands, and he stopped breathing.
"What the hell?" Seifer sat up, muttering angrily. "What are you doing?" He waved his hand at the fire, lighting it with a thought.
"It's Irvine. I don't know what's wrong…" Squall shook him slightly. "Irvine?"
Seifer moved over, and crouched next to Squall. He wiped his eyes. "What's the matter with him now?" he asked grumpily.
Irvine started to shudder under Squall's hands. "He's having a dream or something…" Squall said, distracted. He stroked his hand over Irvine's face, as he'd seen Zell do, but Irvine only shook harder, eyes screwed tightly shut.
"Damn it," Seifer said, annoyed. He elbowed Squall aside, and grabbed Irvine himself. "Come on, sniper," he growled. "Get up!" Irvine's eyes shot open, and he stared up at Seifer wildly, looking terrified. "Get up, you fucking idiot –"
Irvine took a great, sobbing breath in, and screamed, thrashing violently. Seifer released him as though he'd been burned and shoved himself back, staring.
"Hyne!" Quistis said, brought abruptly awake.
"What's going on?" Zell yelped, leaping to his feet and looking around for an enemy.
Irvine continued to struggle and gasp desperately, throwing off Squall's attempts to restrain him. The others dashed over. "Irvine, stop it!" Quistis said.
"No – not again, please… Stop! No! Stay away from me, not again –"
Zell and Quistis exchanged a worried glance, and Squall lunged for Irvine's hands, straddling his flexing thighs and pinning him down. "Will someone – please – get him to just – stop?"
Everyone just stared, shocked, as Irvine started bucking and wailing when Squall tried to pin him. "Zell, get over here! Help me hold him!"
Quistis dragged Seifer to the side. "What the fuck happened?" she demanded, shocked into vulgarity.
He shook his head, still staring at Irvine. "I don't know," he started. "I woke up, and Squall was trying to get Kinneas out of a dream. He was… acting really strange – breathing all weird, and shaking when Squall tried to wake him." He shivered slightly. "I grabbed him, and he gave me this crazy look, and he screamed…" He shivered again, scraping his hands through his short-cropped blond hair. "Hyne, it was creepy."
Quistis opened her mouth, but Squall's voice cut her off. "Irvine! Irvine, it's me, it's Squall!" Irvine whimpered, still trying to buck him off. Zell wrapped his arms around Irvine from behind. Squall still sat on Irvine's thighs, holding on grimly. "Irvine Kinneas, you know who I am. My name is Squall Leonhart. We grew up together, at Edea Kramer's orphanage. We fought together. You are a SeeD at Balamb Garden under my command." He let go of Irvine's wrists abruptly, not caring if Irvine tried to hit him. He placed his hands on either side of Irvine's face instead, trying to hold him steady. Glancing at the three of them, he forced his face to a soft, comforting expression. "I am not going to hurt you. I have never hurt you, and I won't let anyone else hurt you." Irvine's eyes opened slowly.
"Please, don't be angry – I didn't mean it… I'm sorry –" He panted, and Squall ran his hand over his cheek in what he hoped was a soothing manner.
"No, it's all right. I'm not angry at you." He held Irvine's gaze, slowly calming him down. "Everything will be okay." He motioned for Zell to let go. The shorter boy scooted carefully away, looking at Irvine warily. Squall risked a glance at Quistis, who looked horrified. He could empathize.
"I'll – whatever you want, don't be mad –" Irvine whispered.
Squall made soft shushing sounds. "Hush, Irvine." He smoothed Irvine's hair away from his face somewhat awkwardly. "Don't worry, nothing bad will happen," he said softly. Squall grabbed his discarded jacket, keeping his eyes on Irvine's, and tucked it about the shaking shoulders.
"Are you sure?" Irvine whispered. He looked terrified.
Squall nodded reassuringly. "Absolutely." He eased himself off of Irvine's legs very slowly, and tried to lay the sniper back down, but Irvine grabbed his arm, looking up at him with panicked violet eyes.
"Okay, that's all right," Squall murmured, looking worriedly up at the silent three watching them. "I'll stay with you." Irvine turned himself around so his head was resting on Squall's thigh, his forehead nearly pressed against the commander's sharp pelvic bone, clinging to Squall's right hand like a lifeline.
"Please," Irvine mumbled. "I won't – I just want –" He clutched Squall's hand to his chest, closing his eyes tightly.
"Go back to sleep," Squall said, hiding his shock. "I'll be right here."
The cave was silent but for the sound of Irvine's gradually steadying breath. Squall placed his free hand against Irvine's brow for a moment, and with a sharp surge of magic muttered, "Sleep."
He looked up at Seifer, Quistis, and Zell, who stared back at him, astounded.
"What… what happened to him?" Quistis whispered. She had tears in her eyes.
"How did you find him?" Zell asked.
He explained, feeling rather dazed. "He wouldn't open his eyes," Squall finished. "Not until…" He looked at Seifer.
"What?" Zell demanded, looking between the two of them.
"I got up and came over, to see what all the fuss was about." Seifer was still staring at Irvine, now sleeping calmly. "I grabbed his shoulders, and told him to get up."
"Is that exactly what you said?" Quistis probed.
"He said 'you fucking idiot'," Squall muttered, looking down at Irvine. He still had a pained look around his eyes and mouth.
"I was pissed, wasn't I?" Seifer said, looking annoyed. "He woke me up! I thought he was just having a fucking bad dream, I didn't know –"
Squall cut him off. "I think it triggered something, some memory, maybe." He swallowed. "He was really scared." He stared down, unwilling to see the horrible look on Quistis' face. "When I came over, he kept saying 'please', and – and 'don't hurt me'. Well, you heard it." A shiver traveled down his spine.
"Hyne," Zell said, sounding sick.
"Well. We can't keep him here," Quistis said. "We ought to – I don't know, move him back to Garden. Should he go to the infirmary?"
"I don't know." Squall sighed. "But we can't stay here in the forest, you're right about that. Let's just do what we planned to do, and go to the Garden in the morning. Maybe he'll be fine by then."
The others gave brief nods of assent. Seifer lay down by the entrance, Quistis curling up with him. Zell moved very close to the dying fire, closing his eyes with the sick expression still on his face. Squall looked down at Irvine and very carefully shifted the two of them so he could lie down as well, awkwardly curled around Irvine's body.
'Please let him be all right by then.'
But he wasn't. When Squall woke, Irvine was still clinging to him and showed no signs of stirring. He and Zell managed to get Irvine into a position in which Squall could carry him comfortably, and they set out through the forest. Quistis and Seifer acted as scouts, making sure they wouldn't be caught unaware by any monsters while one of their comrades was vulnerable. Fortunately, they made it out of the forest unmolested, and started walking toward the beach.
"Wait," Squall said. He stopped, kneeling, and placed Irvine on the ground. He wiped his forehead with his left hand, the other still held by the unresponsive boy. "I just need a second."
Zell bounced impatiently on the balls of his feet, and Quistis folded her arms, looking worried. "Everything all right?"
"Well, there is the fact that I'm carrying a man who's half a foot taller than me, unconscious, and has my right hand in a death grip," Squall said sarcastically. Her mouth thinned, though Squall was sure he could see the corners twitching. He let out a long breath, panting slightly.
"How is it that you can kill twenty dragons without breaking a sweat, but carrying a one hundred-fifty pound guy gets you all winded?" Quistis asked dryly.
He stretched out his arms as well as he could, plucking the neck of his shirt away from his body for some air, casually ignoring her. He felt the pressure increase slightly on his hand, and looked back to see Irvine's face tightening in his sleep. He let out a soft whimper, cheek pressing against the dirt, and Quistis jumped, all composure gone. "Is he –?"
She stopped abruptly as Irvine's eyes slit open. "Where –?" He tugged on Squall's hand.
"I'm right here, Irvine." Squall watched Irvine's eyes close almost immediately on hearing his voice, the line between his brows smoothing out.
"You won't let – please – nothing will happen –"
"Not a thing. I promise," Squall said, lifting Irvine back up and circling his shoulders with his left arm. "Don’t worry." He very gently eased his right hand out of Irvine's grip, and gathered his long legs up, standing smoothly. "I've got you," he muttered.
Zell moved over silently and placed Irvine's arms around Squall's neck. Seifer raised an eyebrow, but didn't comment. As they walked on, Irvine mumbled a few more times and burrowed into Squall's neck, until he was pressed as close as was possible. Squall was more than relieved when they reached the beach after about half an hour and the Garden was there.
A ramp extended smoothly into the grey-blue surf, waiting for them to step aboard. Quistis turned to him. "What shall I tell everyone?"
Squall shook his head. "I have no idea," he admitted, not having thought of the people in the Garden who would need an explanation. He shifted his grip on Irvine's legs, provoking a whimper into his throat.
"I don't think we should take him to Dr. Kadowaki," Zell said, frowning at the two of them. "She won't like it if Squall stays in there, and it doesn't look like Irvine's letting go."
Seifer shrugged. "You could just take him to his room. Stay there with him."
Squall stared around at the three of them. "You all think I should stay at his side?"
Quistis looked slightly uncomfortable, but nodded. "What do you think will happen if we leave him alone?" she asked.
Squall sighed. "Fine," he muttered. "Anyone know his door code?"
After an unprofitable twenty minutes in which no one knew the password to Irvine's room (Squall suspected that Selphie had programmed it), he and the still dormant Irvine had ended up in Squall's new apartments. As Quistis had been immediately whisked away on her return by demanding staff, and Seifer strode off saying he needed sleep, it was left to Zell to help get Irvine settled. Squall had eventually sat on edge of the couch and Zell had wrapped Irvine around him from behind.
"Hey," Zell grinned, as he dropped a heavy stack of papers on the coffee table in front of them. "At least this way you get to do your paperwork." Unfortunately, Squall had finished this within a couple of hours, and was now trapped on a couch with an unconscious sniper.
Squall turned in Irvine's grip, looking carefully at him. He was sweating slightly, and his lips moved soundlessly a couple of times, but he looked otherwise serene. He tried to move away, and Irvine's face immediately tightened. Squall settled back with a small sigh, and watched Irvine's expression slowly become calm again. 'This is going to be a long day,' he thought. He reached out without thinking and stroked Irvine's hair back, a smile tugging at his mouth as Irvine leaned into the touch.
He drew his hand back and leaned slightly closer to him, saying his name softly. "Irvine?" There was no response. "Irvine?" He placed one hand on Irvine's cheek. "I-Irvy." There – a flutter of awareness. "Irvy." Another. He leaned back again, and frowned, thinking. Irvine wrapped an arm around Squall's leg, curling further around him.
Squall retrieved his phone from the mess of papers on the table. He dialed quickly. "…Quistis. Look, this is getting very strange, all right? We can't just leave him like this – he needs to eat, drink, piss. We need to decide what to do. Call a meeting – I want you, Seifer, Zell, and Xu."
"Better make it Dr. Kadowaki, too," she said.
"Yes, all right."
"And we ought to tell Selphie."
"Oh, damn," Squall sighed. "I forgot about that." He thought for a second. "No. We've got an obligation to Trabia, and she needs her head there, not worrying about Irvine, when she probably couldn't do anything anyway."
"When do you want us there? I have a conference call with Martine from Galbadia in twenty minutes."
"Listen, I'm trapped here. I'd like you as soon as you can." He looked down at Irvine. "Don't linger over the small talk."
Quistis laughed, sounding strangely tinny over the phone. "Yes, Commander."
"Shut up, Headmistress," he retorted. He clicked the phone closed and patted Irvine's arm, where it lay across his thigh. "They're coming," he muttered. "Thank Hyne for that."
"Yo, Squall. You want to start the meeting on time, then?"
Squall's eyes cracked open, and he glared at Zell, who was grinning unrepentantly. He struggled to sit upright but couldn't, due to a restriction around his middle. He looked down. Irvine had now wrapped himself completely around Squall, with his head resting once more in his lap and his arms clamped around his back. Squall sighed, gently adjusting Irvine's grip so he could sit up straight. "Are we all here?" he asked gruffly, voice sleep-rough.
"Dr. Kadowaki couldn't make it – she's swamped with injuries. Over-zealous SeeD candidates, no doubt." Quistis' cool voice seemed amused, and he looked over at her with a scowl.
Xu was staring at the two of them with a very curious expression on her face, and Quistis was having some trouble not laughing at her. Squall frowned slightly. "How was President McArthur, Xu?"
She flushed, caught staring. "Oh. He was fine. He seemed rather eager to cooperate with Esthar and SeeD after what happened to old President Deling."
"Good," Squall said coolly. He looked over at Seifer, who raised an eyebrow, and Zell, who was still grinning. "What?"
"Nothing at all, Commander," Seifer said smoothly. "We've filled Xu in on the details, so we should launch right in, wouldn't you say?"
"I still don't understand what made him go all – well – comatose in the first place," Xu said.
"He got a really bad injury from a ruby dragon," Zell said. "We set it by hand, and poured an elixir in him, so he was sleeping that off. But then…" He raised his hands, shrugging.
"But he woke up, right?" she asked, looking between them. "When Seifer shook him, while he was having the nightmare." She paused, looking thoughtfully at the back of Irvine's head. "I wonder what the nightmare was about…"
Zell cleared his throat. "I dunno," he said uncomfortably. "But," and he looked apologetically at Quistis and Squall, "he acted kind of the same when I was setting the bone." He rubbed the back of his neck. "He, uh… well, he was making really awful noises, right? But he didn't start to get really bad until we tried to hold him down, and he went nuts. And – and he said…" Zell seemed unable to finish, looking sick again.
"He said 'hurts', and 'please don't'," Seifer put in impassively. "The same sort of things he was saying after the nightmare. After Chicken petted him, Kinneas let him get in. Just like last night."
Xu plopped down into a leather armchair. "Hyne," she said, frowning.
The others sat as well, all of them watching the peacefully sleeping Irvine.
"Why doesn't he wake up?" Quistis asked plaintively.
"Well, you can get through to him," Squall said. "If I –" He paused, embarrassed. "I'll just show you," he muttered. He shifted carefully, and Irvine clung to him, moving when he did. He turned the other boy over gently, so the others could see his face. "Irvine." Nothing. He touched Irvine's cheek, and Irvine leaned into his hand. "Irvy," he said, and there was that flicker again. His eyelids fluttered, but he remained as he was. Squall looked around at the group with a slightly exasperated look on his face. "That's all he ever does. And he won't let me leave him alone – we have to be touching the whole time."
Seifer looked away. "Have you actually tried getting up? Tried forcing him away from you?"
Squall paused. "No. Not really."
Seifer shrugged. "Maybe you should."
"Do you think that's a good idea?" Quistis asked, a faint anxious note coloring her voice.
Squall looked to Zell and Xu, who had no objection. "Should I – just stand up, or…?"
Seifer rolled his eyes. "Just do whatever it is that makes him all clingy."
Squall scowled at him, but shifted, preparing to rise. He looked down at Irvine for a second, and then stood abruptly, keeping close to the couch but breaking all contact. The change was immediate. While before he had been very calm, now a pained expression spread across Irvine's face. He groped for Squall's body, and when he did not find it, curled into himself very tightly. He gradually started to shake, and rocked slowly back and forth. When his breathing became erratic, Squall looked to the others for their reactions. Xu had clapped her hand over her mouth, while Quistis was starting to get teary-eyed again. Zell had returned to his sick look and Seifer's face was too blank.
Irvine let out a whimper. "Oh, go back!" Quistis hissed. "Don't make him –"
But Squall was already gathering Irvine back to his chest, holding him tightly. He smoothed his hands through Irvine's tangled red hair, allowing the boy to burrow his face into Squall's neck once more. "It's me, Squall – it's all right, hush…" Irvine made a noise into his throat. "I won't let anything happen, shh…"
Quistis made a harsh sound between a sob and a curse, and turned away. Xu sat very still and stared at her hands in her lap.
A few minutes passed, while the five of them looked at each other, pondering what to do.
"Why you?" Zell asked.
Squall started. "What?"
"Why is he attached to you? Why not one of us?"
"Probably because Squall was the one who tried to bring him out of it," Seifer said. "In the cave. Told him everything was going to be all right, and all that. He must have formed some attachment."
Xu nodded. "That makes sense. Maybe he thinks being around Squall is safe."
"It is," Zell muttered.
"Squall." Quistis continued to stare at the wall. "We have to find out what it was that's causing the – I don't know what to call it – the break."
"You think he's had a mental break?" asked Zell incredulously.
"Well, I don't know!" she said, suddenly lashing out. "But he was acting oddly, Zell, you said that yourself! We've all noticed it," she continued, glancing around at them. Her normally clear blue eyes were suspiciously wet. "He hasn't been acting himself. Maybe something happened in the past couple of months, or something. We have to find out!"
"Well, I agree, Quistis," Xu began. "But how are we going to do that? We can't exactly ask him, can we?"
"Hey! Maybe Selphie would know!" Zell started excitedly. "She and Irvine –"
Squall interrupted. "She doesn't. She came to me before she left to tell me –" he glanced at Seifer, "that she knew something was wrong, but that he hadn't even told her what it was."
Zell slumped, deflated. "If only we could go back in time," Xu said. "Get into his head…"
Quistis stiffened. Squall looked up at her as she slowly turned around. He caught Zell's eye, too. "We can," he said quietly.
"Ellone," Quistis murmured.
She smiled. Squall actually smiled back.
Wow! A lot of stuff goes down in that part, man. Any comments?