DISCLAIMER: If FFVIII were mine would I be a penniless jobseeker? I think not. We can safely assume, then, that it still belongs to Squaresoft.

WARNING: This chapter contains not merely offensive but potentially lethal levels of shounen-ai, sap, small children and Selphie. And writing it was (to my great surprise) about as easy as pulling teeth, so its quality is not assured. Read at your peril...

Darkened Sunrise

Chapter Eighteen - Of the Friend

By Persephone

The dream seemed half-hearted, unreal. For the first time he could appreciate that it was no more than a dream, a memory of a long-gone time. And for the first time he wasn't really afraid.

A soft hand brushed his forehead. Words he couldn't hear properly skimmed the edge of his consciousness. The dream images withdrew further till he couldn't really see them anymore. Then everything went dark again, and he lost himself in a cool reassuring maze that reminded him so much of his early childhood.

The morning light trickled round the edge of the window blind. Squall woke as slowly as ever. He gradually realised something was out of place but he couldn't pinpoint it however hard he tried. He'd slept in his clothes and the bedclothes were tangled around him; these physical differences couldn't have produced the otherworldly feeling - almost of safety - which hung in the air and nestled around him.


He jumped as he realised he wasn't as alone as he'd thought. Edea rose out of an armchair by the window, crossing to him with a little gesture that meant 'stay where you are'. "How are you feeling?"

"OK, I guess," he answered, sitting up gingerly and touching his forehead scar. His head felt fuzzy but it wasn't as if he could improve the situation by knocking the dust out.

His stomach took a dive sideways as he remembered the abortive meeting with the EIC traitors. "Oh, Hyne," he muttered, hiding his face in his hands. He steeled himself for the rush of total self-loathing he knew was coming. But after a few seconds of failing to feel it he abandoned it for complete confusion.

"What is it?" Edea asked, watching from what felt alarmingly like a carefully picked safe distance.

"It was morning a few minutes ago," he said lamely. "Later in the morning than it is now. And I thought you were in Balamb..." He trailed off. Vague memories drifted around his head, of talking to Laguna and getting increasingly short of self-control, of crying in Ellone's arms and being unable to stop, of not being able to understand why strangers kept enforcing their presence upon him. Of wishing the world would just go away. Of wishing all those people hadn't seen how pathetic he was.

He shivered, although the room was warm, and lowered himself back into the nest of bedcovers. Edea obviously knew. But her gentle sympathy didn't hurt. Not like the rejection he had told himself to expect. And, somehow, the memories didn't hurt as much as they should have either. Why not?

Edea finally came up to him, sitting on the edge of his bed and taking his hand. "We were talking about you last night, Squall," she said to him, her tone half apologetic, half comforting. "Myself, Laguna and the others. We all feel for you a lot. I want you to know that you can relax around us because we all know the truth and none of us think badly of you for it - or for concealing it."

He stared at their hands, lying interlinked on the bedcover. He couldn't believe it. He couldn't understand why she wanted to be here, with him.

"You were in my mind," he whispered, the truth settling on him like a weighted net. "You did something - stopped me remembering..."

"Squall -"

"You shouldn't have done it," he cut her off, the panic rising. It must have hurt her to see that, and he didn't want her to be hurt. Not ever. "I'm sorry, I -"

"Hush," she told him, taking him in her arms and kissing the scar on his forehead. "Not another word."

He obeyed her because he didn't know what else to do. He trembled. He fought the urge to hide, whether with her or from her. The ache in his chest grew and grew till he thought it would swallow him. That or he would dive into it to escape the spectres of terror and shame and the intangible feeling of being used.

But she was here and she was comforting him. She knew the truth, more intimately than anyone else ever could, and she wasn't pushing him aside. Slowly, so slowly, he forced his heart rate down and got his emotions under control.

"That's better." Squall blinked and looked up at Edea. She half-smiled. "You do realise that you're unfit for field work. And that you'll stay that way until you can control your fear within half a second of feeling it."

"I've been sacked because of this. SeeD doesn't want me anymore. I knew -"

"That's not what I said. I said you're unfit for work. You're on sick leave. How long you stay that way is mostly up to you."

A light sound of splashing from the bathroom distracted them. Edea glanced at the door and rose, but she said over her shoulder, "Healing emotional wounds is hard, Squall. Especially when you've been trying to deny everything for so long, and when you've grown to hate yourself as much as you have - and for as little reason. You're going to have to open up to your friends. Let them tell you how much they care and how much you ought to care."

I ought to care? Why? Maybe - maybe if I knew why other people care, I would understand how to care for myself. But she's not going to tell me. She thinks it's self-evident.

The bathroom door swung open while Edea's hand still hovered over the handle. Squall couldn't see her face properly from his angle but he could have sworn she was smiling. "I was just coming."

"You don't know how happy I am to hear that," a very familiar voice answered. "I can't make him stay in one place, and there's still glass everywhere."

"Whose fault is that?" Edea was definitely grinning now.

"Yeah, yeah," Seifer grumbled, hustling past her. He stopped in the doorway, the smile falling from his face, his glittering green eyes resting on Squall. For a second Squall didn't know whether to run to him or flee, but then Seifer answered the question for him. Squall gasped as Seifer crossed the space between them in two strides and pulled him into his arms.

Squall's eyes misted over. He pulled Seifer's face down and their lips touched, met, linked. Seifer's hands ran over his back, through his hair, communicating a desperate need that Squall might not have understood were it expressed in words. He felt Seifer tremble under his hands. Why? How could Seifer act like he was afraid? Maybe he wasn't sure... "I love you," he said into Seifer's mouth, breaking off the kiss for as short a period as possible. Maybe he could convince Seifer he hadn't meant it.

Seifer pulled back and rested his forehead against Squall's, his breathing becoming short and unsteady. "You're wonderful," he replied, his voice low, almost a growl. The intensity in him was almost frightening. "I thought - I - oh, Squall, I wish you'd told me! I can't - you were all on your own - I would have tried to comfort you. I would!"

He burrowed deep into his lover's embrace, like he could lose himself there and be forced to stay forever in such sweet seclusion. "I don't know - I thought I had to try and forget it - but I couldn't and I was so cross with myself I can't tell you and -"

"Shhh, love," Seifer breathed. His fingers dug channels in Squall's tangles, massaged down to the scalp, easing the tension that had made him think he was about to cry. Skin to skin, heart to heart, they wound together and filled themselves with the sense of each other.

A few minutes later Squall felt able to stir, just a little, a very little. Seifer immediately loosened his hold, cradling Squall against him like a tiny child. Squall managed a weak laugh at the thought. Almost at once he had to choke back a sob. He couldn't understand it. How could someone feel so ecstatic and so fragile all at the same time?

"I'm still here, precious," and Seifer kissed the T-Rexaur scar on his cheek. Squall shivered as the tingle ran through him. Seifer still held him close as he whispered, "Anything you want, anything you need, I will give you. Any time you hurt I'll hold you. I'll love you whatever you do or say. Hear me, Squall? Do you hear me?"

Squall raised a hand and stroked Seifer's face. He touched the lids of the eyes that glittered now with tears, not passion. "Don't cry, Seif! Please!"

"I'm not crying."

This time the half-smile felt real on his face. "Yeah, right. Big bad gunblade boys don't cry."

Seifer growled and dipped his head for another kiss. This one started out as sweet and innocent as the last but soon turned strong enough to bruise. Squall heard soft footsteps somewhere in the vicinity but couldn't give one anymore. "I'll see you boys later, then," he dimly heard Edea say. He ignored her.

The front door clicked shut just as Squall came up for air. He met Seifer's gaze and couldn't look away. The emerald glow was magnetic. It had to be. There could be no other reason why he was stuck here, forever outside time, with nothing but his love's breath to sustain him.

"Can I have a kiss too?"

Squall jumped and looked down. His half-brother was standing on one leg by the window, chewing a finger and staring earnestly at Seifer and Squall. Squall opened his mouth to ask what under the skies Storm was doing in his room, but before he could say anything Seifer laughed and held out his hands. "Up here, sport." Storm ran over to the bed and jumped up to the welcoming arms. He smelt of Seifer's soap and Squall's shampoo. Seifer grinned and croaked when the little arms locked round his neck. "Stormy! Not so tight!"

"But you want a cuddle, Seif, don't'cha?"

Squall just stared like he couldn't understand. He hardly could. "Um," he started, knowing it sounded lame, "why..."

Seifer chuckled. It was almost like Storm's presence had forced him into at least the appearance of a good mood. "Little Storm wanted to sleep with us last night - didn't you?" and he rubbed noses with the child. "Elle's going to come round for him in a little while, don't worry."

"Mmm," Storm agreed. He solemnly kissed Seifer's cheek, wriggled out of his arms and scrambled over Squall, digging in the blankets like he was playing at looking for something. Squall just watched, bemused. Little children were something he couldn't understand.

He jumped when Seifer waved a hand in front of his face. "Don't drift off," the blond ordered. "I want to know where you are every second today. I mean it."

Squall watched Storm worm over the edge of the bed before turning back to his lover. "What if I'm somewhere you don't want to go?"

"Then I go anyway." He cupped Squall's face between his hands. "I let you hide for months when I knew there was something wrong. I don't repeat mistakes."

"When all I would do is hurt you too? I don't want to do that. That's -" He stopped. It was almost true. But just far enough away that he didn't want to say it.

Seifer squeezed his arm, with just enough pressure to let Squall know he would go on squeezing if necessary. "Hmm?"

He hung his head. "I was going to say I didn't tell you anything because I didn't want to hurt you. That - it's not true. Not really. It was partly that, when I thought you would still like me. But I thought - you would - you wouldn't like me anymore..."

"Not like you? Because you got hurt? That is what it was, Squall." Go away, Seifer. Don't keep looking at me or you'll find reasons to not like me. "I want to protect you. Can't you see that?"

He swiped at his eyes with the back of his hand, jerkily, just the once. "Seifer, I betrayed you. I spread my legs for more than fifteen men in less than twenty-four hours. Don't you see -"

"See that they hurt you? Yes. See that they victimised you? That they made you doubt yourself like this? Yes, yes, yes." He dropped another kiss on the curve of Squall's neck. "You aren't a slut, Squall," he murmured against the skin. "You aren't bad or depraved. I know you didn't want to do it."

"But I -"

"Not another word." Seifer stuck his tongue in Squall's mouth before he could argue.

They'd barely broken off when Squall heard an aggrieved whimper from behind Seifer. The older man touched Squall's cheek for a second before looking over his shoulder. Storm popped up from under the bed, scowling. "What's up?" Seifer asked him.

Storm clambered up beside the men. "Griever's gone," he said sadly.

Seifer made encouraging noises. "He's hiding from you."

"Noooo, he's not up here and he's not down there and - Squa'!" he squeaked. "You sat on him!" He made a dive for the pillows Squall was leaning on and came up with a rather lopsided cuddly lion in his arms. "Say sorry!" Storm demanded, holding out the lion for inspection.

Seifer chuckled. When Squall looked up at him he said, "You heard, Squally."

Squall sighed. This was so silly he couldn't believe he was doing it. "I'm sorry," he said to the toy, hoping Storm would be satisfied with that.

Storm looked hard at the lion. "He says thanks," he said in the end, and latched onto Squall like a barnacle. Squall stared up at the ceiling and wondered how this had happened. Seifer touched his arm. Squall turned to him, and relaxed at the sight of the other man's wonderful smile.

Someone knocked loudly on the door. Before Squall could say anything it swung open. A large tray walked in, filled with toast, teapots, butter dishes, jam pots, pains aux chocolats and three kinds of cereal. "Good morning!" Selphie's voice floated from somewhere behind it. As Squall stared, she popped her head round the edge of her encumbrance and smiled. She had a very attractive smile, Squall noticed through the haze that was starting to cover his vision. "I thought, well, we thought, you'd be feeling a bit better by now, so anyway I brought lots and lots of breakfast for us all and you need to eat some because you're too thin and you need to get well really quickly -" She set the tray down on the edge of Squall's bed and started buttering toast. "- and we all love you so everything's OK - Storm, darling, don't stick your fingers in the jam - and you're going to have fun today whether you like it or not, so don't worry about anything at all. Tea, coffee or hot chocolate?"

He wanted to say 'whatever' and make Selphie get out of his room. He didn't care if someone threw her out of the window so long as she left. But she was here and grinning at him and stuffing his face with the evidence that he'd been, yet again, totally wrong.

She hadn't rejected him. She cared about him. Even though she knew the truth.

"This building's too freakin' complicated," someone who couldn't possibly be in Esthar muttered from the door. "I mean, who puts a computer bank in the middle of the corridor, anyway? Morning, Squall," Zell added, sauntering over to the bed and reaching out to pluck a slice of toast from the rack. Seifer and Selphie didn't demand to know what he was doing here. Squall somehow couldn't either. His voice didn't want to work. "D'you think this whole place is overdone?" the martial artist asked idly. "Maybe not. Your dad's house, so he picks the decor - right?"

"Zell, leave him alone." Quistis's sigh all but floated across the room as she strolled in. She looked happier than often, Squall noted with that part of his mind set aside for the often either harried or frantic collection of random information about his team-mates. Was tranquil the right word for it? "Did you sleep OK, Squall?" she asked with a friendly concern that differed enough from Edea and Seifer's cosseting to not make him feel smothered.

"Yeah," he answered, getting his voice under control at the end of the syllable. "Better than often. Quisty - Zell - why...?" He trailed off, at a loss for any way to ask them how they'd got to Esthar that didn't make him sound like he didn't want them there.

"Oh, we came to help," Zell replied, almost bouncing down onto the corner of Squall's bed that wasn't already covered by people and food. "Seif pulled us in on this. And Quisty thinks it's got something to do with the stuff in Galbadia. She's got so much on the rebels there, you wouldn't believe it."

"But you aren't going to think about it right now," Seifer said firmly, squeezing Squall's shoulder and removing Storm from his neck at the same time. "Have something to eat. I'm fed up of bedding a toast rack." He picked up the flimsy silver thing from the tray and shook it for emphasis, dropping a slice as he did so. Selphie caught it and smacked the bridge of his nose with it before devouring it. Storm squeaked in protest, watching the toast vanish, before Quistis diverted his attention with half a pastry.

He'd rarely felt so strange. These people he'd thought he knew so well were clustering round him, welcoming him into their corner of the world. He'd never felt this sense of belonging anywhere other than in Seifer's arms before. He almost wanted to cry but he didn't know why. Crazy. Why should he cry because he was happy?

Maybe Seifer saw his eyes filling up, or maybe he was just psychic, but for whatever reason he pulled Squall against him before starting to try to force-feed him. As often, the physical contact revitalised him, made him feel something other than confusion and fear. He looked up at Seifer, trying to display his love with his eyes as he could not with his voice, before turning back to the others. "Thanks," he murmured, trying to shake off the hateful feeling that he was making a speech - and to his friends, for Hyne's sake. "Thank you for coming round."

"Hey," Zell protested, "we want to be with you. Right?" He gestured to Selphie and Quistis for support. That irrepressible smile spread across his face again. "'Sides, it's better for all of us if we're together. Know what I mean?"

He tried to answer. He honestly did. But no words sprang to mind and for once he didn't feel 'whatever' was suited to the occasion. Maybe he didn't need to talk. Maybe they didn't mind his silence.

Zell touched Squall's outstretched hand for a second before tucking into the meal. Quistis perched on the edge of the bed nearest to him and Seifer, close enough to seem friendly, far enough away to avoid intrusion. Selphie gave him another big smile before spreading strawberry jam onto toast so she could feed it to Storm. Seifer kissed his cheek, very gently, and lifted a chocolate pastry to his lips. Squall scowled at it. He wasn't a fan of sweet things in the morning. He felt Seifer's smile before he could look up and knew the blond man appreciated Squall's change of focus from internal worries to external annoyances. But Seifer shouldn't make fun of him unless Squall could tease back. He took a bite out of the pastry - and nibbled at Seifer's fingers as he did so. This time he looked up at his lover, met his gaze. I'll be OK, Seifer. Because you're here with me. You can make me face anything in the end. Even the past. Even the future.

(to be continued...)

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