Fragile Hope

By Fyre Byrd

"Yo, guys, c'mon you have to got to see this, it's like, too freaky."

Squall never thought he would ever be so damnably bored. After months of constant battle, the sudden absence of purpose that followed was close to unbearable. At first there had been Rinoa in those few precious weeks of celebration, but even then it had already begun to gall him. They were through now, she had been unable to deal with his returning silences. Rinoa couldn't see that while he was still quiet and appeared to be sullen at times, Squall was somewhat content now in the knowledge that he had friends and that he could depend on people without being weak. She just heard the silence and was stung by it. Squall had been unable to frame a pretty phrase to get her to stay. He couldn't keep up with her constant energy anyway.

"Hey Quistis, come take a look at this. We have to do something about it and we need your help."

At first Squall had made himself busy. He had killed so many monsters in the Training Centre that he'd been irrevocably barred from it. Then he'd gone on small missions to clean the monsters out of Esthar, but slowly things were growing more peaceful in the world and there wasn't much of a need for a school full of mercenaries. Edea was working with Garden to begin training the students in more academic pursuits. Squall was losing his mind.

"Listen man, you're scaring me!" Zell exclaimed as he watched Squall attack invisible enemies with his gunblade.

"You have to find some other way to channel all of this energy," Quistis added, wincing as he thrust the weapon particularly viciously at a shadow.

"Like what?" Squall asked, feeling sweat trickle between his shoulder blades, and the delicious burn of his muscles as he pivoted on one foot and ducked an imaginary blow.

"Take a vacation," Selphie suggested cheerfully. "They're having a festival in Dollet, with a parade and art shows and games. Maybe we could all go," she suggested, slyly poking Irvine in the ribs. Irvine meanwhile was looking searchingly at the quicksilver fog that was currently Squall.

"I think maybe Squall needs some time to himself, Sefie," he said. Once the idea had gotten into his friends' heads, there was nothing for it but to agree to take a vacation. Squall left from Balamb the next afternoon, his head still ringing with his Quistis' orders for him to enjoy himself.

Squall got off the ferry later that evening, suitcase in hand and walked meekly ashore, trying not to be too conspicuous. He felt so out of place on the bright cobblestoned streets of the sea-side town. It was also strange to have left his gunblade behind. He kept reaching for it for reassurance and finding it missing. There was music drifting sweetly on the air, the waltz that he and Rinoa had danced at the SeeD ball. Squall glared at the musicians as he passed them on the street and continued on to his hotel. He threw his suitcase down on his bed and began to unpack. Squall had resolved to just stay in his room this evening and sleep or think or something. As he was unpacking his clothes a note fell out, written in Quistis' neat scholarly script:

"Don't even think of just staying in your room this whole trip. I don't want you coming back here in a worse mood than you left. Go out, have fun. You may consider that an order. Quistis."

Squall raised an eyebrow and glanced at the pair of boxers the slip of paper had fallen off of.

Wandering the streets full of singing and laughter, Squall felt like a ghost. He started to wonder if people could see right through him. Why had his friends suggested he come alone to Dollet? He didn't know what to do with himself. Eventually he headed to the bar and had a few drinks. A pretty blonde-haired waitress tried to start up a conversation with him, but Squall had little to say to her and she eventually got the hint. Turning his glass restlessly in his hands Squall realized that he needed something else. The gunblade and Garden were not enough. His friends were wonderful, but they had their own lives and Squall didn't want them to have to put their lives on hold just because he couldn't learn to deal with peace. He got up from the bar and walked outside again. It was easier for Squall to think when he was moving. Walking through the brightly lit-up square, he was so lost in his thoughts that he nearly killed himself tripping over a striped awning set up near the fountain. When he pulled himself up off of the ground Squall came face to face with his own eyes. It was amazing, there they were staring back at him, cool and gray and stormy from a painting.

"Hey, you all right? Have to watch where you're going, you clumsy . . ." The tantalizingly familiar voice trailed off suddenly as Squall found a pair of worn black boots blocking his view of the remarkable painting.

"Shit, it's really you, isn't it?" Seifer hissed as Squall got to his feet slowly. "Come to gloat over your victory?" Even if everyone had known what the former Sorceress' knight looked like Seifer might have managed to evade their notice. He had changed of course, his shoulders had a slump to them and his eyes had lost a bit of their light. Without the ankle length jacket and the glittering Hyperion, Seifer seemed smaller somehow, but he was just as good looking as ever.

"No," Squall replied simply and let his eyes roam over the other paintings hanging in the crowded tent. Squall blinked, unsettled, as he was confronted with dozens of pairs of his own eyes. They glared at him and sneered at him and looked blankly at him too from the faces of children and old men and teenaged girls. Every figure in every painting had Squall's eyes. He turned away from them abruptly and looked at Seifer.

"Did you?"

"Yeah, I painted 'em. You got a problem with that?" Squall rolled his eyes.

"Why would I have a problem with it? When did you learn to paint anyway?"

"Always knew how, but it didn't fit my image before. Now I figure, I haven't got any image to lose so I can do whatever I want. What are you doing here anyway?"

"Vacation. There's not much to do anymore. Quistis and the others told me to get lost. They thought I needed to get away from Garden." Squall let his eyes wander through the painted images again they came to rest on a picture of an older man, holding a rusty key and smiling enigmatically out of glowing silver-gray eyes.

"How much?" Squall asked, jerking his chin towards the golden hued canvas. Seifer's eyes narrowed suspiciously and he said "3000 gil," as though daring Squall to argue with him over it.

"That's not enough," Squall shook his head and frowned "I'll give you 6000 gil for it. What do you say?" Seifer's eyes widened and his shoulders slumped a bit more. "You really think it's worth that?"

"At least. Here," Squall rummaged through his wallet and handed Seifer some bills. The blonde-haired man counted the money carefully and put it in a cash box behind the table he'd been sitting at before. He meticulously wrote out a receipt and handed it to Squall. Then he carefully took down the painting and wrapped it up in brown paper and twine. Squall watched all of this with some fascination. He'd never had an honest job in his life, only been paid to do other people's dirty work.

"You have a lot of talent," Squall said solemnly, holding the painting to his chest.

"Ahhh thanks. I mean, it was nothing I ever dreamed of doing" Seifer grinned self-depracatingly, "but it's something you know."

"Hey, wanna get something to eat with me?" Squall asked, slightly nervous. "I don't even know what to do with myself here."

"Heh, you, Leonhart are telling me you want my company?" Seifer grinned, his green eyes sparkling merrily, like the ocean struck by golden sunlight.


"All right I was just getting ready to close up for the night anyway and I'm starving. Help me pack this stuff up okay?" Seifer started to take down paintings and stack them carefully between layers of cardboard into crates. After observing him for a few moments Squall followed the tall blonde's lead, placing his own neatly wrapped painting on the top of the stack. Setting the cash box on top of his crate Seifer lifted it and motioned for Squall to follow him into a nearby building. Squall climbed a set of narrow stairs carefully gripping the heavy crate in his arms and unconsciously staring at Seifer's ascending form. Squall reflected that his rival was still in pretty good shape by the looks of things, then shook his head as he realized what he was doing, checking Seifer out.

"Usually I have to do this in two trips" Seifer said, his voice echoing in the dark hallway with its peeling paint. He had set the crate down by a door as he pulled his keys out of his pocket. "It makes me nervous, leaving half of my paintings down there by themselves, but you know, no one really wants to hang around long once they find out who I am anyway so there's never anyone to help me. Even if I don't usually tell people who I am." Seifer held the door open and gestured for Squall to go through first. The room was large and mostly empty except for painting supplies. Squall set down his crate on a table and noticed the small unmade bed in the corner and the kitchenette on one side of the room. One whole wall, however, opened to a view of the stars glittering in the ocean and the golden glow of street lamps by the water's edge.

"That's really something," Squall said as Seifer came in and closed the door.

"Yeah, the room isn't much, but I love the view," he said, setting down his precious cargo in a corner. Squall noticed an easel set up by the window, beside it sat several unfinished paintings, all portraits and all painted with his eyes in that same disturbing manner, but on the easel sat a large canvas with only a pair of stormy gray eyes painted in blank white space. As he walked closer to inspect the painting Seifer interrupted his quiet perusal.

"Ahh, hey Squall," he said.

"Yeah." Squall glanced at Seifer and noticed a sort of rosy tint to his face. Could it possibly be that Seifer Almasy was blushing and if so, why?

"Want to eat here? I mean, I haven't got a lot of money and I have some leftover stuff I could heat up quick."

"Sure. You cook too?" Squall asked surprised.

"Of course I do. You gonna make some stupid comment about me being a wuss now?" Seifer asked, frowning.

"No. I - I want to be able to do things like this. Hell, Seifer I don't know how to do anything except kill things. Look at you, you're completely self-sufficient. You have a purpose. I have nothing." Squall found himself giving voice to his self-pity somehow. He was surprised at himself for this show of incredible weakness before his nemesis, but he thought that maybe Seifer would understand. Squall found himself clenching his fists at his sides so hard that his hands ached. Suddenly Seifer was there beside him, gripping Squall's shoulders tightly and shaking him. Seifer's green eyes bored into Squall's gray ones intensely from barely a hand's breadth away.

"Don't ever say that," Seifer said tightly, his voice strained. "You have friends who care about you. You have everything." Abruptly, he let go of Squall and backed away. "I'll make us something to eat," he said quickly and walked across the room where he opened the fridge and busied himself at the stove. Squall watched Seifer's practised, easy movements in the kitchen as he set some sort of pasta dish on the stove to heat and chopped vegetables to make a salad. Then, disgusted with himself for imagining other uses for those skilled, firm hands, Squall crouched down and looked at Seifer's paintings. One of them was of a pretty young woman with shining, brown hair and sad eyes. Squall bit his lip as he recognized the look of loneliness and sorrow there and wondered suddenly why Seifer put his eyes in all of his figures. Perhaps it was only Squall's imagination that the woman looked so much like him. Perhaps Seifer just liked gray eyes, although that brought up another set of questions. Behind the woman, there was a blurry landscape, dripping with rain. The sky was crying, and the woman's face was wet, but Squall could not tell for certain if it was wet with real tears. Squall had never cried, although he had come close when he had been lost after the battle with Ultimecia. The futility, the weariness, the simple thirst and hunger had nearly broken him apart then. He wondered if that was what Seifer felt now all the time. No one had come to save Seifer from that nightmarish time, unless it was Rajin and Fujin and where were they now?

Seifer's hand was on his shoulder. "Hey, food's done. Come sit down," Seifer said quietly.

"You've changed," Squall observed as they sat together at Seifer's scratched formica table.

"You have too. I almost feel like I'm talking to a living, breathing person." Squall glared at him and he relented under the force of those angry, gray eyes. "All right, I'm glad I got to see the new Squall, okay?" That prompted a faint smile.

"Why?" Squall breathed quietly, turning the conundrum of his rival over in his mind as he munched on a slice of tomato.

"Huh?" Seifer looked at him funny.

"Why do all the people you paint have gray eyes?" Squall had to ask now that he had begun. He found that he wanted to hear a particular answer, but supposed he'd only be disappointed.

"They're your eyes," Seifer replied simply and gracelessly, his expression flat and closed off. He had dropped his fork and was looking at Squall piercingly, waiting for a reaction.

"Why?" Squall asked again, feeling a charge building in the room and waiting for lightning to strike.

"At first I just wanted to figure you out, why you had won, why you were always one up on me. Then it became something of an obsession. I knew your eyes, I could capture them in paint, but I couldn't remember . . ." Seifer was frowning, running his index finger over his scar again and again. "Do a favour for an old enemy, Squall. Stick around for awhile and let me paint your face."

"Not for an enemy," Squall said and Seifer winced. "For an old friend," Squall finished. He was feeling something again, a longing for Seifer to say something more. He and Seifer had always fought, but for the same reason. The fought because they liked to fight. It was as simple as that and it was the whole reason why Squall had gone through it all to the end. Not to save the world, although of course that was part of it, but just to do his job, to feel the exhilaration of the fight and the tingle of danger as adrenalin coursed through his veins. He and Seifer had always shared this primal understanding and Squall realized he had missed the tension between them when Seifer had been gone. Rinoa could never have known, she wasn't built to fight. Zell and Irvine and Quistis and Selphie knew to some degree, but to them it was just a job. Squall felt empty without the fighting and he needed something to fill that space. He thought that maybe Seifer would be able to help him. "You want to do it tonight?" Squall asked.

Seifer shuddered, letting himself imagine the question meant more than it actually did. "No, I'm tired. Could you come by tomorrow night?" he asked, continuing his own private little fantasy. "I want to do this right."

Squall agreed to meet Seifer in the square the next evening at about eight o'clock, when he usually closed up shop and thanked him for the late dinner. He picked up his brown paper wrapped painting in his arms and then he left, heading back to the hotel. Squall looked back at Seifer's doorway regretfully as he left and saw the cool green eyes still watching him from the hall. Squall wished he could turn back again and stay the night and perhaps . . . He dashed those thoughts and started down the stairs.

That evening Squall's dreams were full of formless desires. He tossed and turned all night and woke up in an embarrassing state of arousal. The only common thread he could recall from all of that dreaming was a pair of persistent, capable hands and green eyes that pierced his thoughts like lightning. Squall flushed, realizing just who had caused this problem. He headed to the bathroom to take a shower, taking care of his problem at the same time. Squall hoped that Seifer wouldn't want him to pose nude in case something similar occurred, but that brought up another whole interesting barrage of images that he quickly suppressed before they could make him hard again. Squall sighed at the state of his recalcitrant hormones as he got dressed. It was going to be a hard evening at Seifer's. He grinned to himself at the thought of his little pun and headed out to breakfast with a bounce in his step.

Squall knew he had a lot of time to kill and he spent the early part of the day doing a bit of shopping for his friends back at the Garden. He knew that Selphie would expect a gift since she had not been able to come along and then he decided to get something for everyone. He got Zell a special edition of a combat magazine that Zell had been looking for everywhere. For Irvine, he bought a hand-tooled leather belt with eagles on it. Quistis was getting a silver mesh bracelet, and Selphie a lamp with multicoloured stars and moons on the glass shade. Squall had to make several trips back to his hotel and he wondered how he would get all of this extra stuff back with him.

Squall took a walk along the water, while eating the sandwich he'd bought for lunch and quietly anticipated his next meeting with Seifer. Squall didn't know what exactly he would do to convince Seifer to spend more time with him, but he figured that this painting would take more than just one evening. Perhaps he'd have time . . . To what? To form a relationship with his old enemy. Squall didn't even know if Seifer was gay, although the paintings seemed to provide some evidence, though inconclusive, that Seifer had feelings for him. Squall rubbed his finger gently across the scar on his forehead as he wandered down to the beach. He remembered the fierce rivalry between Seifer and himself and thought that perhaps he missed it. The burning tang of blood as he bit through his lip in the midst of a fight against Seifer was something like the ocean spray that Squall tasted on his lips now. Their antagonism towards each other was exhilarating in a way that only a few primal things could be. Squall picked up a flat rock and threw it, watching it skip three times across the water before settling in with a satisfying plop. He headed back towards town where he'd seen an interesting old book shop that he wanted to explore.

A few hours later, Squall glanced up from his science fiction novel and noticed that it was dark outside. His watch told him that he was late meeting Seifer already. Squall hoped Seifer wouldn't be too mad and thought that he'd probably already started to close up for the night. He closed the book, grabbed his keys and wallet and hurried out to meet Seifer. Walking through the street, Squall felt a bit uneasy. He really wished that he had paid more attention to the time. Quickening his steps he came into the square only to be met with a scene of complete chaos. Seifer sat on his heels in the midst of snapped tent poles and splinters of wood, rocking on his heels, his head in his hands.

"Fuck! Seifer, what the hell happened here?" Squall shouted, his voice breaking as he ran towards the prone form of his proud rival. Tears streamed down the blonde man's reddened face, making his green eyes swim ocean bright in the light from the lamps along the street. Seifer scrubbed angrily at his eyes. "I didn't want you to see me like this. God, I almost wish you weren't here. Some bastard SeeDs that I used to torment when I was the head of the Discipline Committee trashed my stuff. I've seen them hanging around and I knew they recognized me as the Sorceress' Knight. I was coming out of my apartment when I heard shit breaking and I saw them run away when I came out the door." Seifer's voice was coming in gasps as he related the incident to Squall. In his hand was clutched a shred of canvas with stormy gray eyes painted on it. Squall's own eyes were hard and sharp as silver knives.

"Come on," he said, crouching down beside Seifer and squeezing his shoulder. "We'll get this cleaned up and then I think you need to relax a little." Seifer's eyes were still crystalline with tears.

"You know I could have taken anything but this, Squall. Do you realize how many years of work I . . . These paintings, they meant so much to me. I won't ever be able to replace them."

"I know," Squall said. "I know." They managed to salvage one smaller painting that must have fallen underneath some pieces of other canvas as the men were destroying things haphazardly. Seifer found another that wasn't too badly ripped and said he could probably repair it. The tent wasn't really ripped much and would be fine as soon as they found new poles and boards to support it. The thugs hadn't managed to wreck the table or the chairs, probably thinking it wasn't worth their trouble. They had known where they could do real damage. Squall followed Seifer up to his apartment with an armload of salvageable debris. They piled it carefully in a corner and Squall covered the mess with the tent fabric so that Seifer wouldn't have to be reminded of it too much. He hadn't really stopped crying the whole time they were choosing which pieces of beautifully painted canvas would have to be thrown into the dumpster at the end of the alleyway. Now, sitting on his bed, Seifer still had tears glistening in the corners of his eyes.

"They must have told everyone around here who I am. I'll probably have to leave now."

"Like hell you will," Squall said angrily. "If they wanted to pick a fight with you, they should have done it instead of destroying the beautiful things you created. It's like killing someone's kids or something."

Seifer turned a tear-streaked gaze on him and said, "that's exactly what it feels like." His whole body spoke of defeat, his shoulders slumped and his breath still shuddering in and out of him.

"Yeah, I'll bet I know why those creeps took it out on your stuff," Squall said, sitting down next to Seifer. "They didn't want to get their ass kicked by the best gunblader in the world." Seifer snorted slightly and smiled weakly at Squall. "One of the best gunbladers in the world, you mean," he said. "You did give me this scar you know."

"Okay, okay," Squall conceded with a humourless grin, "but now those bastards got something they didn't count on. They aren't too smart really I have to say."

"What'd they get?" Seifer asked confused, taking the bait just the way Squall had hoped he would.

"Well now they got both of the world's best gunbladers angry at them and no one who does that can expect to stay healthy long." Seifer laughed sharply, and turning sideways, fell back on his bed.

"Squall," he said after a moment of staring at the ceiling.

"Yeah," Squall said softly.

"I won't be able to start the painting tonight, I'm too wrung out," Seifer said, in a defeated tone.

"S'all right. My face isn't going anywhere," Squall said, "but I have to warn you that if you want to paint me nude then I don't think I can get my courage up all over again so this is your last offer." That provoked a real laugh from Seifer. Squall got up from the bed.

"You aren't leaving, are you?" Seifer asked, trying to sound casual.

"I was just going to go get us something to eat from that restaurant down the street. What do you think?"

"Sounds good, hey, umm how much are you paying to stay at that hotel?"

"Too much of course." Squall said, hoping he knew where this was going.

"Well, I was wondering if you'd want to stay here with me. I could use the help with my shop now that I have to fix everything up. That way too I could sketch you during the day when business is slow."

"Sounds great. I'll save a lot of money that way and with me around you won't have to leave your paintings unattended. Would you help me get my stuff from the hotel then, and we'll go get some food together."

"Sure. Just give me a minute to make myself presentable." Seifer went to the bathroom and Squall could hear the water running as he washed his face. Squall couldn't help but think that he was glad that his friends had forced him to take this trip. He couldn't imagine what Seifer might have done if he had been alone when this happened. The new Seifer had seemed contented with his life in a way that Squall never had been with his own, but he realized now how fragile this state was and that it could be taken away from you at will by anyone who had some little thing against you. It was a chilling thought. Still Squall knew it would be worth it to even have a happiness that fleeting.

Later that evening Squall's suitcase was shoved under Seifer's bed and they were eating Chinese food out of styrofoam boxes in front of the window with most of the lights turned off, watching the lights of boats on the water fracture and reflect over the black waves.

"How many of your paintings did they get Seifer?" Squall asked solemnly.

"I saved twenty one. They got thirteen, not including the one I'm going to fix up."

"I should have been there to help you," Squall poked at his egg roll with a plastic fork.

"It definitely isn't your fault." Seifer said around a mouthful of bean sprouts. "If you weren't here I just would have sat there for a lot longer and maybe slashed my fucking wrists after, who knows?"

"You wouldn't do that, would you?" Gray eyes searched downcast green ones urgently.

"Naw, probably not. When all is said and done it's probably best that you beat the crap out of me every time the Sorceress sent me after you, because I couldn't have killed you. I haven't got the balls to even end my own life and anyway," Seifer glanced at Squall's face where it curved in the moonlight and shadow. "I want to find out what happens next." Seifer yawned hugely and stretched his arms wide, causing his blue t-shirt to ride up and expose his smoothly muscled stomach. Squall, watching wide-eyed was hard pressed to understand him when he muttered, "man am I tired."

"Ahhh me too." Squall added, hoping to see Seifer remove some of his clothing. "So, where do I sleep?"

"What, you afraid I'll bite? My bed's pretty big you know."

"No, that's fine and I'm sure you only bite if you're asked too."

"Oh ha ha, Leonhart, that's rich," Seifer got up slowly and grabbed the take out boxes and threw them in the garbage. Squall pulled off his shirt and unzipped his jeans, not noticing his avid audience. Seifer turned off the one lamp they'd left on and manoeuvred his way to his bed by moonlight, taking off his clothes and throwing them in the closet. Squall was already in bed, laying there stretched out invitingly. He was quietly praying that he wouldn't have any more erotic dreams tonight. Seifer climbed in beside Squall and turned towards him. "Thanks for helping me, Squall. Good night." Squall reflected, as he drifted off to sleep after a long exhausting day, that it was the first time he'd heard Seifer thank anyone for anything at all.

Squall woke up slowly, feeling more comfortable even than he ever was in bed at the Garden, which he considered home. His arms were wrapped around something soft and he pressed his face into the warmth beside him trying to keep the sun that had awakened him out of his eyes. At last he gave up and squinted angrily at the light streaming through Seifer's window. Seifer chuckled at the expression on his face.

"Mmmph! I'm sorry Seifer!" Squall exclaimed, nearly nose to nose with the blonde-haired man. His heart was pounding furiously as he tried to move away, but Seifer's leg draped over his body prevented him from moving much. Seifer smiled languidly.

"Don't be. I don't think I've slept so well in ages."

"You mean, you mean you don't . . . mind?" Squall asked, his brain still fuzzy around the edges with sleep.

Seifer just shook his head, disentangling himself and getting up to make some coffee.

"So what's on the agenda for today?" Squall asked as he made Seifer's bed.

"Well, fix the tent first, then set up shop and I start sketching you," Seifer said as he scrambled eggs in the kitchen area across the room.

They ate breakfast quickly and started to work on the tent. Seifer taught Squall how to sew a little so that they could repair the rips in the fabric. They rigged up some new walls and poles for the tent with some cheap scraps of wood from a guy who Seifer knew on the outskirts of town. By two o'clock, Seifer was set up again at his table beneath the awning out in the square. Squall sat near Seifer in a black metal folding chair. Squall was clearly uncomfortable, running his hands through his hair and looking down at his feet.

"Listen, Squall," Seifer said. "You have to look at me and hold still or how am I going to draw you properly?"

"Sorry," Squall said contritely, bringing his liquid, silver eyes up to gaze into Seifer's. Seifer smiled reassuringly at him. "I may be able to draw your eyes from memory, but it will be easier this way," he said, sharpening a drawing pencil with a pocket knife. Settling, his sketch pad on his knees, Seifer smiled again to himself as he began to draw, it was a good excuse to stare at his obsession for an hour or so. He pencilled in the soft brown hair that he wished he could sift through his fingers, and drew the line of a smooth cheek. Squall's eyes stayed locked on Seifer's the whole time, he barely even seemed to blink, but his rosy lips curved into a gentle smile as Seifer recorded them on the paper, and the eyes that haunted Seifer's waking and sleeping alike were sparkling with a light that he could never hope to come close to capturing in the dull gray of pencil lead. Squall, meanwhile was gazing wonderingly at the transformation in Seifer as he drew. His forehead was drawn up in fierce concentration sometimes, at other moments Seifer grinned or bit his lower lip as he worked. All too soon the pencil was dropped and Seifer said "there, finished. Would you like to see?" He held up the drawing pad in Squall's direction. Squall blinked at the beauty of the drawing before him.

"That's . . . me? Is that how you see me, Seifer? It's, wow, it's beautiful." Seifer just flushed a little, the words he wanted to say wouldn't come out, not just yet. So he settled for saying "yeah, that's how I see you Leonheart." Neither of them had noticed that they'd gathered a small audience while Seifer was working so diligently.

"It is very well done," an older woman said, startling them both. "Would you mind if I asked in what price range your marvellous paintings run?"

"Oh, of course," Seifer said and started to show the woman around. She ended up purchasing two paintings, one that pictured a little girl standing sadly in an empty room and clutching a doll in her small, pale hand, the other of a solemn young man looking up from a book as though surprised in the midst of his study. A young man who had also been part of the audience bought a small painting of a man sitting alone in a desert, staring helplessly at the ground, his hands clenched into fists. Squall helped Seifer wrap all of the paintings carefully and as soon as the customers had left, Seifer grabbed Squall's hands and squeezed hard, laughing.

"Three paintings in one day!" he exclaimed. "That's never happened before. You're good luck, Leonheart."

"It's all you, Seifer. You're a very talented man." Squall looked closer at the smiling blonde-haired man and reached up to rub a finger against the bridge of his nose. Seifer blinked and quirked an eyebrow at him questioningly. "You had a bit of pencil on your nose," Squall said softly.

"Ahhh," Seifer replied and reluctantly let go of Squall's other hand. "Well, what say we close this up early and have a celebration tonight?" Seifer asked, looking at his slightly shorter brown-haired assistant for approval.

"Sounds like a plan," Squall said, nodding solemnly. So after another rather dull hour or so of sitting around they packed up Seifer's work and went shopping for the necessary celebratory items. Seifer bought the ingredients for a special meal and promised to teach Squall how to make it. They bought a bottle of wine as well, along with some crystal glasses since Seifer said he hadn't anything fancy enough for them to drink celebratory wine out of.

Squall sat on the kitchen counter as Seifer chopped broccoli and snow peas, tomato and garlic and green pepper. He stirred the sauce while Seifer drained the pasta and cooked the chicken and veggies in a skillet. It was ridiculous how happy Squall felt just doing these silly little things. He'd never so much as boiled water back at the Garden before. As they made dinner the two talked about memories, happy ones and not so pleasant ones. When dinner was ready Squall set the table while Seifer poured the wine and lit some candles he'd had kicking around in case of a black out.

"It's really good," Squall said happily as he twirled more pasta around his fork.

"Of course it is!" Seifer said looking put out. "Did you expect any less of the Great Seifer Almasy?" Squall chuckled softly and raised his glass.

"To the Great Seifer Almasy then," he said.

"To the Great Seifer Almasy and the Amazing Squall Leonheart," Seifer corrected politely, and they drank to it.

As they were washing dishes, Squall found that they would inevitably touch each other with a fair amount of frequency. Seifer's hand would brush Squall's as he passed him a dish to dry. Squall's arm would graze Seifer's shoulder as he reached to put a plate away in the cupboard. They had nearly finished the wine between each other and Squall soon found himself purposely touching Seifer as often as he could. Seifer, for his part, made an extra effort to touch him back, and so their dance as they washed up was particularly full of accidental touches which made Seifer feel a little more dizzy than the wine could have. As they each had one last glass of wine, Seifer noticed the sun was about to go down.

"Come on Squall, I know my window has a good view and everything, but you have to see this from outside, it's the best free show around." Squall just followed bemused when Seifer tugged on his arm and dragged him down to the beach to sit on the sand and watch the sun set. The sand was damp under Squall's hands and on a whim he tugged off his boots and socks and wriggled his feet in it. Seifer watched this display with amusement. "I always knew you were a closet sensualist and now you've proved it for me."

"Whatever," Squall said, watching the sunset stain the clouds pink and lavender.

"And now you're pouting," Seifer added. "Although if everyone looked like that when they pouted it'd come into fashion pretty quick.."

"Looked like what?" Squall asked, still thrusting out his bottom lip ever so slightly.

"Like they're just begging to have their lip sucked on," Seifer said, realizing that the wine had gone a little more to his head than he'd have liked.

"Oh, well, why don't you then."

Seifer caught his breath at that statement, uttered with a more exaggerated pout. He knelt on the sand with his hands on either side of Squall, leaned over slowly and gently sucked Squall's lower lip into his mouth and after running his tongue over the silky moist skin, he released it and sat back on his heels. Seifer's only warning of an imminent attack was a sultry look from under thick, dark lashes and then Squall's lips were pressed against his and Squall's tongue was in his mouth. Seifer stroked the soft flushed skin of Squall's cheek and put an arm around the brunette's back, sliding his hand up the back of Squall's shirt and restlessly caressing his skin. Squall made a soft sound deep in his throat and getting up onto his knees, crowded closer to Seifer as though he wanted to crawl into his skin. At last they broke apart and Squall gasped for breath and trembled slightly.

"Hey, Squall, it's okay," Seifer said, seeing his gray eyes were large, luminous and uncertain. "I'm not going anywhere," he squeezed Squall's arms softly and pulled him close, then sucked gently at his neck. "God, you're so sweet. I don't think I'll ever get enough of you," Seifer whispered against his neck.

"Seifer, let's go back to your place now," Squall was still trembling a little, but growing more confident. His face was lit by the waning orange light of the sun, but his eyes glowed with their own fire.

"All right." Seifer swiftly grabbed at Squall's hand, picking up his boots and socks as an afterthought and as if they could read one another's minds they both ran along the sand, stopping only so Squall could put his boots back on. Then they jogged together down the dark street in and out of the pools of light created by the street lamps making it to Seifer's door out of breath and giggling madly.

"Here, you put the key in," Seifer thrust it at him. "The door keeps getting all fuzzy on me." Squall slid the key in the lock and turned it with finesse, then held the door. Seifer walked through casually, then grabbed his companion and pulled him inside, closing the door behind him and pressing Squall back against it, kissing him hard. Seifer grabbed his keys back from Squall and said breathlessly, "now I've got you." Seifer shoved the keys in his pocket and accosted his willing captive again, kissing his jaw and his lips lightly as he gently ground his hand against Squall's erection, so that he nearly slid down the door and onto the ground. "What'll you do now, Squall? How will you escape from your evil ex-rival?"

"Don't want to escape," Squall managed, as he pushed Seifer back towards his bed. Seifer's legs hit the mattress and he fell onto his back on the bed with Squall looming over him and grinning.

"Now just a minute," Seifer's brow furrowed as he sat up and his hands came to rest on his hips. "I thought I was the evil one here, mmmph." Squall smiled into the kiss as he sat, rather awkwardly straddling Seifer's lap, his knees on either side of the blonde man's hips. Seifer arched upwards into the kiss and his erection pressed into Squall's through their clothing.

"Oh god, Seifer, I need you," Squall hissed softly. Seifer fell back and pulled Squall down so that they were laying full length against one another.

"And do you know how much I've wanted you since the moment you tripped and fell on your lovely face the other day? No, it was before that actually. You've been driving me crazy my whole life."

"No need to worry," Squall said. "I'm about to make it up to you." He moved back and took off his shirt while Seifer watched, his lip caught between his teeth. Seifer's eyes followed Squall's every movement deliciously as he got up and pulled off his boots and socks and peeled off his black leather pants and briefs. Then he crept up onto the bed and started taking off Seifer's clothes for him. As he pulled off Seifer's boxers, Squall trailed his tongue down Seifer's thigh and slid his hands down the backs of Seifer's legs. Seifer grabbed Squall's shoulders and pulled him back up so their bodies were flush with one another, then he kissed the brunette's lovely, full lips again and again while he rubbed his body against Squall's so that every inch of their heated skin was touching.

Later, when they were moving together, their blood beating in their ears like waves on the shore, Squall lay beneath Seifer, his breath catching and his eyes squeezed shut. He was making little noises, like a small hungry sea bird. Seifer lifted his chin and stroked it with his hand, all the while moving inside of Squall steadily and slowly. "Open your eyes, Squall." Seifer said hoarsely, feeling the need for an affirmation of some kind. "I want to see your eyes when you come." The Squall's lustrous gray eyes were deeper than the ocean. They were so full of intensity and entreaty that Seifer sped up his thrusts and began to stroke Squall's erection, causing the tide to break at last and pulling them both down into a passionate quiet, where waves of pleasure just licked softly at the edges of their consciousness. Seifer gently kissed Squall's lips, brushing his damp hair back from his face, with a tender touch across the heated brow of his lover. Squall tucked his head under Seifer's chin and wrapped his arms around the blonde-haired man and they fell asleep.

When Squall woke up all intertwined with Seifer he just made a contented noise and sucked at Seifer's neck with a hot, wet mouth. Seifer raised his eyebrows and stroked Squall's soft brown hair. "You really aren't a chore to sleep with you know." Squall bit his shoulder and actually growled. "I didn't even mean it that way, you little pervert."

"Oh, in that case," Squall said and did something wicked with his left hand beneath the covers. Seifer closed his eyes and moaned. When he'd recovered from his initial shock Seifer said, "oh yes, do let's talk about that," rubbing his knee between Squall's legs. Squall's head fell back, his eyes closed in pleasure as the tables were turned. "I was going to ask you if you regretted last night, seeing as we were both rather drunk, but I think I can take a hint." They grappled for a bit on the bed, twisting the blankets every which way. Seifer came out on top and got up abruptly after pressing a kiss on Squall's forehead and saying, "don't move." He pulled on his boxers and walked across the room.

"What are you doing?" Squall asked yawning and stretching. He saw Seifer rifling through a toolbox on the floor. Seifer came up with a handful of brushes and some oil paints. Squall started to get up, but Seifer's voice stayed him, "Don't move, you wanton. I want to paint you just as you are. If you don't mind that is?" A serious green gaze pinned Squall to the spot and he laid back on the bed, unconsciously graceful.

"I don't mind, but my hair is a mess."

"Oh, I always knew you were vain about your hair," Seifer said as he set up his easel near the bed. "You just never let on, but I could tell." Squall pouted and moved to touch his brown locks, then stopped as Seifer laughed softly.

"Do keep the pout, if you can. I'm rather fond of it." Squall lay still as Seifer poured some solvent out into a container and squeezed brown paint onto his palette and began to sketch on the canvas. A light seemed to shine out of Seifer's face as he painted almost feverishly, trying to capture as much of Squall's sex-mussed appearance as he could, although he hoped to be seeing more of it. Squall watched his lover, mesmerised by the fluid movements of his hands as he painted, remembering how those hands had gripped and squeezed him last night, the way Seifer was gripping the paint brush and squeezing the paint.

"Whatever are you thinking of?" Seifer asked with a devilish grin, noticing Squall's growing arousal. Squall blushed and pointed out, "you're only painting in your boxers you know, it's incredibly sexy, especially the way you handle your paint, although you could be handling other things," he finished suggestively.

Seifer dropped his paintbrush. "Oh god. You're going to be my undoing," he said, carefully putting down his painting things and swiftly moving to capture his model's lips in a bruising kiss.

"Seifer, ahhh, you're getting paint all over me."

"You're right you know. Guess I'd better stop then." Seifer moved to get up and was held in a rather intimate grip, which effectively restrained him from leaving. Soon the playful groping degenerated into more serious activities.

Afterwards, they took a shower together to remove paint from various embarrassing places. It took several days for the painting to be finished. Days in which neither of them could be troubled to leave the apartment much. They were having far too much fun exploring each other. Of course, Seifer had to try and get his subject to look as sex rumpled as he had for the first sitting. This was not a hardship for either the artist or the model. When Seifer had finished his painting he finally allowed Squall to see himself, flushed and satisfied, his eyes half lidded, looking more seductive than any painting of Venus or Adonis ever painted before perhaps. Squall caught his breath when he saw it. He was draped over his lover's back and stroking Seifer's shoulder as he looked. "Seifer, it's well amazing," Squall began hesitantly.

"What is it?" Seifer asked turning around to face the brunette whose eyes had driven him to paint in the first place.

"Well, your paintings, when they were destroyed I couldn't help thinking that it was terrible that the happiness you got from them could be so easily taken away and I . . ." Squall trailed off and looked down at his feet, as if uncertain if he should finish what he was going to say. Seifer searched his face intently and finally lifted up Squall's chin and said, "Listen Squall, no one is going to take this away from you. If you're as happy with me as I am with you, then nothing and no one can destroy that."

Squall looked uncertain and maybe as though he was on the verge of tears, but it was hard to be sure. "But what if something happened to you?" he asked.

Seifer smiled at him and stroked Squall's lips with his thumb saying, "even if something happened to me, we'd still have this. No one can take happiness away from you, not unless you let them. You hold happiness inside of yourself, in your memories and in the people who you know have held you close. Smile Squall," Seifer said softly, kissing his lips gently. "My happiness in those paintings was mostly because of you, so do you know how much happier I am now that you're really here? You'll always have that too, you made Seifer Almasy, the terror of Balamb Garden, truly happy. I used to think, that even if I couldn't paint your whole face, at least I could have your eyes to encourage me, to comfort me, to cry and laugh with me, but now I have you" the look of contentment on Seifer's face was overwhelming. It was a look full of hope that refused to be dashed. Hope shone in his brilliant green eyes, like candlelight behind fine stained glass.

Squall understood what Seifer meant in what he had said and what he didn't say. Then Squall smiled and it was more radiant and precious than any painting Seifer could have ever created.

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