Chapter Six

By Twig

Squall is smiling for Selphie’s sake, though Quistis knows she may be the only one who can see it.  Selphie’s welcome back party, and she’s dragging everyone else along through a sheer force of will.  Selphie, who shows the way she cares through celebration and laughter and being cheerful even when it hurts, because she believes it’s the only way to turn sorrow into victory.

Quistis believes in Selphie, and hopes it will be enough.  It is no small victory that Squall is smiling for her, even if it is thin and strained and she can see what is underneath. 

No surprise then, that a few hours in Squall is out on the balcony, hands against the cool railing to steady himself, and his face is like stone and his eyes are so empty, desolate.  Worse than it was before, wounded, although if he’ll smile for Selphie that’s something, right?

The band starts up behind them, the first few chords of a familiar symphony, and she feels a blazing moment of mindless rage.  Half-turns and shivers at Quetzacoatal’s rustling, a crackle of energy stirring gently in the back of her mind, roused by her fury.  It isn’t their fault, no reason anyone would have to remember this song, not when it is so well-known and always played at these sort of affairs, a popular anonymous tune that coasts by most unremembered - maybe, maybe -

Quistis turns back, and can already see her hopes are futile.  The line of Squall’s spine threatens to cut the night, stiff and bowed and his head is in his hands.  His shoulders jerk, just once, and she has seen the movement in someone who had been shot in front of her, exactly the same.  It is almost enough for her to go to him - to forget that being around others will hold no comfort for him, not now, not anymore.  Quistis stops as a familiar figure shifts back into view, watching from another ledge much as she is.  Seifer, and he notices her just as she sees him, and they both stay silent, and still.

Squall wipes one hand hard across the back of his eyes, she can see the breath shake him as he takes it, willing his expression back into whatever it will take to get through the night.  He looks up, and looks up, and though Quistis glances up she can not see what has captured him, realizes after a long moment as Squall stares unblinking into the void that he hasn’t found a place to hold his gaze.  He is only searching.  Pleading with the stars for secrets they no longer wish to tell.

A voice calls from inside, and she watches Squall retreat inside himself as he turns.  The mask he slips into is a little more personable now, but only that much more a mask because of it.  It is the last bit of what Rinoa’s love gave him, and Quistis thinks it is as poison as anything else.

Seifer doesn’t move, not even when she approaches him.  Many, many people have voiced their opinions about him since the fight with Ultimecia.  Quite a few declaring, with fair evidence, that he blamed the Sorceress for what was a perfectly voluntary decision, weaseling his way out of any blame in the aftermath only when he knew he’d lost.  He was a bully, an egotist, and the Garden, the world was better without him.

The argument was sound, but met its death knell the moment someone bothered to ask Squall for his opinion.

“He called you an honorable man.”

The last time they talked, Quistis could barely see out of her left eye, and her ears were ringing with the blood loss.  He had been the one to find Squall when she could not.  He probably saved his life. 

Seifer just shrugs.

“I think love made him stupid.” 

The words are tinged with regret.  She is not sure that the Seifer she knew before even knew what regret was.  Maybe that change is why Squall was so quick to forgive his former adversary - and right to do so.

“I want to speak with you, later.”

“Fair enough.”

Quistis wonders what he’ll be doing for the rest of the night, as she tries her best to watch Squall without actually having to see him.

 “No, you’re not coming down.  There’s no need.  Yes, I /know/ Ellone is on her way, but he’s confused enough as it is.  It won’t be helping.”

Seifer switched hands, taking a large swallow of coffee and wincing as it seared the roof of his mouth.  Damn if he didn’t still feel tongue-tied - weren’t people supposed to need less sleep as they aged?  Still, here he was, no good to anyone before noon and wishing Laguna would hand the phone back to Kiros so they could have a sensible conversation.

Wishing he knew where Squall was, or better yet, had the man sitting in front of him.  Even if he’d responded when called, out for a walk to try and clear his head -

//If she wants him, she can take him from you.  Anywhere, anytime.  Rinoa snaps her fingers and he’ll be gone.  You were a knight.  You know.//

It was all conjecture.  He had to remember that.  Whatever Laguna was spluttering about, whatever Ellone had said, there was no reason to think that Squall was in danger.

//Ellone does.  Who could know better?//

He wished Matron were with them still, Ellone knew many things but Matron had been the sorceress.  She had come up with the plan, so long ago, and there was no reason it shouldn’t have been a permanent solution.

“Seifer, there has not been a sorceress, not since-”

“I know.”

“Are you going to tell him?”

“Hyne, Laguna...” 

Seifer leaned back in his chair, sighing.  If it were up to him, no.  Hell no, there were things that were better left forgotten, and even if Squall started to remember it might be better for him to be confused than to know. 

Not that he wasn’t confused enough already, Seifer had seen him falter more than once, expression going blank and more than a little panicked at a question he didn’t have the history to answer, or a remodeled corridor that had been rendered completely unknown.  Squall had pushed himself hard to navigate the world around him, with Quistis at his side to assist with what he couldn’t remember directly.  No need to switch leaders in a Garden and disrupt half the world - and Squall had insisted, even when Zell tried to protest.  It had worked well, but the strain - Seifer was certain Squall would have approached him by now, at least once, if the burden of everything else hadn’t been so great.

“He’s doing the best he can, he’s still trying to adjust himself to this world.  I can’t just throw that at him.  It isn’t like we kept it a secret from him the first time for shits and giggles, you know.”

“I’m just worried.”

“We all are, but we don’t know anything for sure, yet.  Let Ellone come and be with him for a while.  Let’s just keep things calm until we know for sure what’s going on.”

Funny that he could make it sound convincing, when he could feel the tension all through his own body, and he sure as hell wasn’t taking it easy.  A part of him stupidly hoped Ellone could come and fix things, could make things the way they were such a short time ago and they wouldn’t have to worry any more about any of this.  All the problems that had been relegated to the past would stay there and Squall would look at him and know who he was and come back to him.

He knew about Rinoa now.  Seifer wasn’t sure when it happened, but Squall remembered, it was in his eyes all the time, especially when Seifer offered to talk and he immediately turned him down.

//He shuts down, he shuts down just like he did, and I can see that fear in him.  It’s the damn same as when... Hyne help us all if Ellone is right.//

Hyne help him if he had to figure out how to reach Squall again.  As if he’d ever understood it the first time.

“Whatever I’m doing for you, it isn’t going to be cheap.  I want to be SeeD.  Fuujin and Raiijin too.  No probations, no limits.  Full credit.”

It’s partly done for economic reasons, partly because Seifer knows he can, and even a little bit just to see if Quistis will get upset.


She doesn’t blink twice.  So, things really are that serious.

“What do you want me to do?”

It should be fairly obvious, even to someone without Trepies, that Seifer isn’t going to be anyone Squall wants to see.

“Talk to him.  Spar with him.  Play Triple Triad.  Take him back outside and beat the shit out of him. I don’t care.”

Xu looks up just briefly, the only sign that Quistis probably doesn’t swear like this all the time.  He watches her sigh, resting her head in one hand.

“We’re going to lose him, Seifer.  He doesn’t talk, not about Rinoa, not about any of it.  He’s the way he was before - but worse this time, and it’ll only get worse.  I can’t get through, and you’re the only other person who’s ever reached him, even if it’s just to piss him off.”

So that’s why he’s here now.  Why it took him the better part of an afternoon to insult Squall into facing him in their old training spot.  He could do it, knew he could, but the attitude and the sneer and all of it feels uncomfortable around his shoulders, too loose or too tight and wrong.  He doesn’t want to wear it anymore and it is ironic that he is doing this all for Squall’s sake.  If it was real, this teasing, he wouldn’t have cared enough to do it at all.

Why the hell does he care, then?  He wants to consider the answer, but Squall’s gunblade comes up in a sudden strike and there are slightly more pressing concerns.

It’s clear from the first strike that Squall is holding back.  The usual anger is there, Seifer can see it, but it’s tangled up with so many other things he can’t let out, that he can’t fight with more than a fraction of his usual ability.  Quistis meant for this to happen, he knows, she wants him to push Squall far enough that he’ll break down, because nothing else will get through.

It isn’t fair to ask him to do this, SeeD or no SeeD.  He doesn’t care like Quistis does and he’s not a friend like Zell and hell, even Raiijin is a bastion of contemplative thought compared to him, when it comes right down to it.

Gunblades clash, Seifer isn’t even going to bother with magic, and this is more than a little boring, even for a warm up.  He keeps forgetting it doesn’t matter if its interesting, that this is about more than having the chance to spar with an equal and for that reason alone he should not be the one doing this.  He’s an asshole, he admits it, so he should not be here now. 

“We going to do this all day, or are you going to try to hit me?” 

A flicker of something in the blue, and he is immediately on the defensive, blocking three strikes that seem to have a bit more power behind them, although Squall soon recedes back into that standardized, by-the-book fencing that gets more and more irritating to try and fight.  It doesn’t help that even at his worst, Squall is pretty damn good and Seifer tries to think up something to say, to do what Quistis wants him to do and do it all before he runs out of energy because the gunblade is getting pretty damn heavy already.

“So, one dead girlfriend’s all it takes, huh?”

It isn’t what he means to say.  The words come from that same place that decided, once, it would be fun to tell Rinoa that yes, her ass did look stunningly enormous in that dress, and her dog could cut back on the biscuits, since they were on the subject.

A week later, she was still bursting into tears when he tried to apologize.

It takes a lot of thought to be so carefully arrogant, and Seifer has always kept a running tally of what he’s said and to whom, and this was too low, too thoughtless even for him.

It does, however, finally break whatever has been holding Squall back all this time.  It’s a shame he’s too surprised to do much about it, still shocked by what he’s said to really pay attention to just how hard the strike is that comes up, and though he blocks it he does not get so lucky with the second hit and Hyperion is wrenched from his hand and for a moment all he can see is the glint of another blade.  He wonders just how many people have been witness to this as their final moment.  The blade hovers less than an inch from his throat, and Seifer really can’t tell what’s holding Squall back.

“I didn’t mean to do it, Quistis.  You know I didn’t.”  The usual monotone is too light now, mocking innocence and so, so angry.  “I thought Seifer would block it.  He always did before.  We were just fooling around, like we used to do.  I certainly didn’t mean to kill him.”

Seifer looks up at that.  If all this has been meant to make Squall angry it has certainly worked, but where there has always been irritation and annoyance before there is rage now, something deep and terrible behind the flat blue stare - and none of it is for him.  None.  Squall is keeping all that loathing for himself.

The gunblade falls away.

“Stay the fuck away from me, Seifer.  We’re not children anymore.”

The government has had them on contract for the better part of a month, but waits until the last moment to finally call in the SeeDs, which makes Quistis rage quietly and Fuujin not worth talking to for the rest of the day.  They are deployed quickly and dispatch the enemy just as quickly and now Seifer is here, the sun shining down against the Garden’s wall, everything silent and still.  He doesn’t know if he’s about to make things worse or better but he can’t let things stand as they are.

It is the sort of impulse that should have killed him a hundred times before now, gunblade or no gunblade. 

Squall is staring down at the thin line of a scar across his arm, and Seifer knows just what kind of blow would put it there.  Recklessness is as particular as junctioning a GF.  The tendency to act before thinking fits him just fine, but does not belong on someone like Squall.

“Two more inches and that would have been your heart.”

Squall drops his arm, turning to the side, away from Seifer’s approach.  He looks painfully thin and fragile in profile, holding together by a strength that cannot possibly be enough to last.

“You were always a bastard, Squall.  It isn’t going to push them away.  We’re not children anymore, but I’d say that just means they’ll fight even harder for you now.”

He can’t tell if he’s made any sort of an impact, but Squall seems fixed on not looking at him, so it seems a good start.

“Quistis told you to do this, didn’t she?  Told you she’d make you SeeD if you cooperated.”

The orders must have gone past him at some point, but Squall has no reason to care about that, any more than anything else.  Seifer snorts.

“She /asked/, and yeah, I thought it would be a good way to get a few extra bucks for doing what I do anyway.  But I don’t do anything unless I want to.  Shit, you should know that much at least.”

“Why?”  Squall frowns, shaking his head before Seifer can answer.  “I’m fine.  She worries too much.”

No way for those words to come out, without sounding like a lie.

“Oh yeah, you sound fine.  Pull the other one, Squall.  It plays ‘Jingle Mog.’” 

Seifer grimaces in the silence that follows, hands already searching for a weapon and body longing to go into stance.  He hasn’t faced Squall any other way, really, and words seem completely inadequate for the task.

“You need Selphie for this, she’s Miss Mary Sunshine and all.  All I’m saying is... you don’t want to go back.  You don’t want to go back to where you were.  It’s no good, to try and pretend you can take life on that way.  It won’t keep you from hurting, it won’t protect you.  Trust me, I know.”

Nothing.  It’s just like sparring, and if he can’t clip Squall this way, he attacks from the other side instead.

“You know, Fuujin killed a child a little while ago.”

Slate blue eyes glance up, and Seifer nods.

“It happened while we were fighting... some town to the north.  Mercenary bullshit.  There were a lot of towns like that, all the same, just streets no one could see down and fighting everywhere, you know the drill.  We were getting down to the last of the enemy, and things were tight and the kid just got caught in the crossfire.”

Probably an Aero, though all he’d seen was a splash of blood and the curve of an arm, the running body suddenly flung broken to the ground.  He’d never heard Fuujin scream before, not like that, and the rest of the battle was spent with him and Raiijin in a close circle around her.  Fighting the last of it themselves, as Fuujin cradled the body and rocked and sobbed and was just lost to them, lost to all of it.

“I’ve never seen Fuu fall apart.  It took a long time before she’d talk, and even longer before she’d fight again.  We helped, as much as we could.  Eventually, she let us in.”

// Because we're a posse, we want to help you.//

”No one’s asking for more than that, you know.  No one’s asking for more than that you don’t wall yourself up and die behind it.”

The frown deepens when Squall doesn’t respond, one hand still loosely clutches his arm, doing his best ‘tortured model basted in ennui’ impression.  Not that he doesn’t have the angst or the cheekbones for it, but Seifer isn’t going to let it end like this.  It is just stupid, maybe not for Squall with the well-sculpted pout, but certainly for Squall the Garden commander and gunblade fighter.

“Damn it, you asshole, I’m not letting anyone who can kick /my/ ass off that easy.”

He rounds on Squall, letting one hand slam into the wall a few centimeters from his head.  It usually scares the hell out of SeeD recruits but he isn’t surprised when Squall doesn’t flinch.  He keeps up the act, because it seems rather stupid to stop.

“Listen, Leonhart, you’ve got people who care about you here, and they’re not going to give up without a fight.  It’s gotta hurt like hell to be without Rinoa.  It’s gotta, and it’s gonna hurt for a real damn long time, but...” 

He fumbles the snarl, loses it to something less abrasive.  Hell, if Squall can tack another facet onto his personality then maybe it is time Seifer learned a little humility. 

“You have people who care about you, Squall.  You have a responsibility to let them help you.  It isn’t all about what you can do for them - you can take, too.”

Damn if any of this is getting through.  The Squall he’d grown up with had two moods, ‘off’ and ‘pissed off,’ and it seems he’s abandoned the latter.  The silver-blue eyes are frozen over, though Seifer doesn’t think he’s started junctioning again.

“No one wants to see you curl up and die.  You hear me?” 

He means it to come out angry, but it barely comes out at all.  Seifer half expects Squall to punch him, standing this close, forcing him to deal with the fact that his friends /want/ to help him.  Forcing him to think about facing life on some mode other than ‘survival’. 

He doesn’t expect to feel a hand close around the end of his sleeve, clenching into a very tight fist as Squall suddenly pulls him closer, leaning in to eliminate the distance between them.

Squall kisses him like a man freezing to death, both wanting and fearing the fire, the thaw.  His lips are so soft.  Seifer has never kissed lips so soft.  It is such a simple kiss, very nearly chaste, except for who is kissing him.  He knows he will remember it for the rest of his life.

Squall doesn’t even open his eyes as he steps back, turns away, arms tense and shoulders set.  He is expecting a blow, expecting Seifer to lash out - as if he hasn’t left the man too shocked to do more than breathe and blink and stare.

He’s not sure what he should expect, being kissed like this, but he feels a lot like a bird hitting a plate glass window at somewhere near mach nine.

“Sorry.”  The word is barely a murmur, and Squall quickly walks away.  Flees really, never turns back.  Seifer watches him go, already playing back the entire conversation in his mind, trying to figure out just what the hell he said.





Author’s Notes -

1. Will not string you along forever.  Fic won’t be that long, swear.

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