Kurai Kaze

Chapter Seven: Missing Chances
(Rum and Resentment)

By FlyGirl

Squall attended the short debriefing meeting via vid phone from the Infirmary. It was nearly dawn and everyone was exhausted and sore. The meeting was very informal as there were still a few teams of SeeDs out at Meta. Also, there was not much new to report. Just as Squall was about to palm the phone off, Captain Caret thrust his face into the view-screen.

"Commander Squall, I have a very serious complaint to bring to your attention."

Squall did not bother to swallow his sigh. He leaned back in the chair of Dr. Kadowaki’s desk, which she had graciously lent him. "What, Caret?" he barked shortly, made irritable by lack of sleep and the itching tingle of the Potions that he had allowed the doctor to put on some of his larger wounds.

"Well," the Captain responded officiously. "I must request that you tell Lieutenant Almasy to stop ordering me around! He constantly disrespects me! Frankly, Commander, I outrank him, and—"

The Captain was interrupted suddenly by a familiar voice. "Shut yer trap, Caret. I’ll order around anyone that needs it, and you can’t tell your ass from your elbow!"

Captain Caret’s lips tightened and he glared at Squall through the vid-screen. "See?"

Squall sighed heavily again. "So, it’s the fact that Lieutenant Almasy holds a lower rank than you that upsets you, correct?"

"Well, yes," Caret replied slowly. "I mean, he should not be giving a Captain orders when he merely holds the rank of—"


Caret broke off. "Yes, sir?"

"No," Squall said, shaking his head. "I wasn’t trying to get your attention. I was stating Captain Almasy’s rank. I’ve just promoted him. Now you will no longer have to take orders from a Lieutenant. If that’s all, I’ll just terminate this call and adjourn the debriefing. Leonhart out." Before the vid phone was off, Squall heard a bark of familiar laugh and saw a look of chagrin on Caret’s face. Then, the screen went black and Squall leaned his head back.

"Now, that’s over with," Dr. Kadowaki said, coming forward from where she had been waiting just out of sight of the screen. Her tone was disapproving; she had been very adverse to Squall taking part in the debriefing—even by phone.

"Yes, Doctor, it is," Squall said with a note of finality. He stood and started from the Infirmary.


Squall paused at the door and looked back. "Yes, Doctor?"

"Headmaster, where are you going? You need a full-body course of Cures and Potions, and I really want another look at that chest wound!"

Squall shook his head and snatched a roll of bandaging material from a tray near the door. "Here," he said, tossing the roll up in the air and then catching it. "I’ll have Rinoa wrap my chest. Okay?"

"Headmaster," the doctor said sternly, "as Chief Medical Doctor here at Garden, I have the right to order you to stay here in the Infirmary and submit to medical attention, if I see fit."

Squall gave her a small smile. "Yes, Doctor, you do have the right to give that order. But that does not mean I will listen to you. I promise to take care of my chest and come by the Infirmary tomorrow, all right?"

The doctor scowled darkly, then sighed. "Squall, I want you to know that you do this with my extreme disapproval and despite my best judgment."

"It has been duly noted," Squall said with great solemnity.

Dr. Kadowaki sighed again and asked, "Do you have any Cures on you?"

Squall nodded, yes, he did have Cures—though he did not intend to use them.

"Fine, then. Go, before I change my mind and have you restrained."

Squall smiled at her and winked. "Stop making promises you’ll never keep, you old tease," he joked lightly, and waited until he got an exasperated smile from the doctor before leaving the Infirmary, bandage material in hand.

Squall stepped out of the elevator on the basement level and hesitated a moment before walking towards the debriefing room. He looked in but there was no one left in the large conference room. Strange; he had only just adjourned the meeting, and he was sure that Captain Caret would hold Quistis up for at least half an hour, haranguing her and protesting the injustice that Seifer’s promotion would present him with.

He heard the low murmur of near voices and understood. In Dr. Kencie’s scientific laboratory he found the head of Garden’s science department, Quistis, the Historian Dr. Zhabedy, as well as Seifer and Rinoa. They were all standing with their backs to the door and Squall, heads bowed over something one of Dr. Kencie’s examination tables. Again, Squall hesitated at the threshold of the room, this time caught staring at his two lovers standing side by side and staring at something that Squall could not see around their bodies.

Quistis turned, then, and saw him there.

"Squall! I didn’t think that Dr. Kadowaki would let you out of the Infirmary before she had the chance to cast a cure on every scratch and scrape."

The others turned to see Squall and Seifer added laconically, "Right down to your pinky toes."

Squall tossed the roll of bandages in the air as he entered the room. "I promised her I would have Rinoa wrap my chest and that I would come see her if I have any pain."

Rinoa came to meet him before he reached the table where they all clustered. She looked up and regarded him with disapproval tightening her small face. He laughed a little and tapped her nose with an index finger.

"Don’t worry, Rinoa. She poured a vat-full of Potion on anything that bled."

She still frowned unhappily and he handed her the bandaging material. He started over to where the others stood, but Rinoa laid a restraining hand on his arm and held up the roll.

"What, here?" Squall asked, surprised.

"Are you saying that we can go right now to your apartment so I can wrap your chest in private?"

Squall pinched his lips together, then shook his head.

"Didn’t think so. Now, strip."

Squall sighed slightly and took off his leather coat and the bloodied T-shirt that he had thrown on before running out to direct the SeeDs loading onto trucks bound for Meta.

"What’s over there?" he asked, gesturing to the others as he held up his arms so she could wrap his now-bare chest.

"It’s—" she started, but was cut off.

"This," Seifer said loudly, taking a big step back from the table. At his movement, the others clumped around the table also stepped away and Squall had a clear view of the thing on the examining table.

"Ah," Squall said softly.

On the metal slab was the pink, amorphous body of the dead monster, its hundred stumps flopped over its shiny, rubbery skin, draping down to touch the tabletop and drip thick, viscous green fluid onto the sterile surface. About half the arms were crisped black, evidence that they had been in Seifer’s bonfire when Dr. Kencie arrived to save the body for study.

He sucked his breath in as Rinoa wrapped the bandage tight over his chest wound. The Potion had stopped the bleeding, closed the skin over the wound, but was too weak to completely heal it, and it was incredibly sore to the touch. He jerked back involuntarily and she whispered apology, pressing a gentle hand to his face.

Squall stared at the stumps where the creature’s tentacles had been—remembered the crushing feeling of 99 arms wrapped around his body, tightening, squeezing out his air—his life.

He realized suddenly that Dr. Kencie was talking and he tried to focus.

"I don’t believe—and my assistants agree—that this monster had any regenerative powers. Monsters with the ability to grow back certain limbs after they have been damaged or destroyed, usually exercise this power immediately after their injury. The fact that this monster lost an arm when the SeeD shot it off on the beach this afternoon—as we saw on the recording that Sergeant Rawl made—and had not regenerated the tentacle by tonight when the Headmaster and the Lady and the Captain encountered it highly suggests that the creature could not repair its own flesh."

The scientist took a breath as if to go on but Seifer scowled and interrupted.

"And tell me how the hell that information helps us now?"

Dr. Kencie pursed his lips and his expression turned sour. "In the interest of scientific study—"

Seifer cut the doctor off again. He sighed and said, "And you made me yank the damn thing out of the fire for that?"

Dr. Kencie narrowed his eyes and opened his mouth, but this time it was Quistis that interrupted.

"We appreciate it, Dr. Kencie. But have either your or Dr. Zhabedy discovered yet what exactly this monster is?"

Dr. Kencie tilted his head and said, "Well, I still have to dissect and study the creature, but—"

"I think I know what the monster is," Dr. Zhabedy interjected and Dr. Kencie scowled at him darkly.

"Please tell us, Doctor," Quistis invited.

Dr. Zhabedy cleared his throat before speaking.

"In an old text—so old that it was written, not in Standard, but in Hynean—we found a reference made to a monster with an hundred arms that would grasp its victims, drive its claws into its victim’s body and drain his or her strength—indeed, the very life force that kept him or her alive—until that victim was dead and summarily discarded."

Quistis regarded the doctor with wide blue eyes. "That sounds like our monster. What’s it called? Where does it come from?"

Dr. Zhabedy cleared his throat again. "The text names the monster Scylla. It apparently came down on the Lunar Cry one thousand years ago and, likewise, almost two years ago during the Sorceress War."

At that Rinoa slid a hand onto Squall’s shoulder—an offer of comfort, a link to understanding. Squall reached up to put a hand over hers, but watched Seifer. The tall blond was looking at Dr. Zhabedy calmly, but Squall could see beneath the mask—could see the guilt in those sea-green eyes. He drew a breath and let it out slowly, sadly accepting his inability to give Seifer comfort.

"The text is one which deals with the exploits and adventures of a particular knight of that era a millennium ago when the last Lunar Cry occurred. This man, Sir Thedry, and a cadre of knights had been ordered by their king to await the Lunar Cry at its destination point and kill as many monsters as they could—a suicide mission, to be sure. Indeed, Sir Thedry and all his fellow knights died that day. The death of the creature, Scylla, was observed and later recorded by a squire of Thedry’s.

"The author of this text does not go into great detail with the monster, save to say that it was destroyed using something called Ultimate Guardian—which I can only assume is one of the many Guardian Forces lost to us during the Hyurai War in the beginning of the forty-first century."

"A Guardian Force," Squall murmured, nodding thanks to Rinoa as she finished bandaging his chest. Then he said, "Did this book say anything about the creature being immune to magic, as Rinoa suggested at the Debriefing this afternoon?"

Dr. Zhabedy paused, then went on unhappily. "Like the SeeDs Captain Caret led on the beach and also just as you, Headmaster, used a great variety of magical attacks on the Scylla to no avail, so did the knights utilize a number of spells as well as attempting damage with physical violence. Nothing harmed the creature until Sir Thedry summoned the Ultimate Guardian—and then it was killed."

Squall was thoughtful as he worked through an idea. "It would seem, then, that magical and physical attacks do not affect the Scylla monster at all. Guardian Forces, however, must at least harm it."

"Like Shiva," Rinoa said pensively.

Squall nodded. "Right. When I summoned Shiva, her Diamond Dust hurt the monster. I had to call on her multiple times, though, before doing significant damage to Scylla. And in the end, Shiva froze the monster so that Captain Almasy could cleave it with his gunblade—but had the ice been allowed to melt, it is possible that the monster would have survived."

"Then only Guardian Forces can hurt this monster—but as far as we know, it can only be killed if extremely harmed and immobilized first by a GF—or if it attacked by this lost GF, the Ultimate Guardian," Quistis said.

Dr. Kencie frowned at her for a moment before turning his gaze eagerly back to the monster where he had been staring for the last few minutes with the full force of his scientific curiosity. The man obviously could not wait to dissect the creature and poke around its innards. Squall shuddered at the thought.

"You speak in the present tense, Commander Trepe," the scientist said disapprovingly, "as if this monster is still a problem. But it is dead, now! Lieutenant Almasy killed it!" He threw another frown at Seifer.

"That’s Captain," Seifer muttered.

"Of course, Doctor," Quistis said placatingly. "The Scylla is dead and we do not have to worry about it anymore, but it is always best to know everything there is to know about a monster. If we research and discover all we can about the Scylla, we can leave the information behind for a future generation—namely the one that might have to deal with the monster if it comes down again on the next Lunar Cry in the fifty-sixth century."

Dr. Kencie cleared his throat and nodded, visibly chastened.

Squall had been avoiding looking over at the monster, but he fixed his eyes on it now and suppressed a shiver. 99 arms…99 arms… He remembered the feeling of them, crushing him, their slimy pink flesh caressing his skin greedily, the razor-sharp claws at the end of those 99 tentacles digging into his skin and filling his mouth in a perverse parody of a kiss. Those 99 arms choking him until he began to accept that he would not live through the attack…

99 arms. 99 arms… "Squall, is something wrong?" Rinoa asked. 99 arms…99 arms… "No, he replied. 99 arms…

He rubbed the back of his neck, pressed the skin at the base of his skull and remembered the sharp pain there when the monster—when he had thought—had hallucinated the monster—its thoughts, penetrating his mind with sick hunger, clawing at him inside and out, famished and feeding on his life and his fear—draining him and singing to him in both shrieks and whispers…

"Did—does this text say anything—make any mention of the monster being able to communicate? Through telepathy or perhaps the ability to make another noise besides that high scream?"

Dr. Zhabedy furrowed his brow and tilted his head. "No, sir," he replied, shaking his head. "No, it made no such mention. Why, Headmaster, did you experience any such telepathic contact with Scylla?"

Squall shook his head slowly. "No, no. I just wondered—I—I thought perhaps it was possible for the creature to communicate in that way as it had no mouth or other orifice that I could see, at least. I—no." Squall, aware that he was babbling and hating himself for it, shut his mouth and shrugged his leather jacket on over his bandages.

Out of the corner of his eye, Squall could see Seifer’s face turned his way, aqua eyes fixed steadily on him, but he did not return the gaze. He stared at the Scylla’s charred pink body and those 100 red stumps with their torn, jagged-edged skin where there had been arms. His hands shook and he clenched his fists. 99 arms…one lost to the bullet of a SeeD soldier, the other 99 severed by Seifer’s gunblade. 99.

"Well, I think that’s all we can get done for now," Quistis announced definitively. "It’s almost dawn and I have had about three hours of sleep tonight. I am going to go to bed and I suggest that you all do the same."

"Right, indeed," Dr. Zhabedy said, yawning. "Come now, Dr. Kencie, you can poke and prod that creature tomorrow to your heart’s delight, but not if you fall asleep while you’re doing it."

Dr. Kencie looked mournfully at the two halves of the Scylla on the slab, then sighed regretfully. "Yes, of course you’re right. I will sleep tonight and learn tomorrow."

"There’s a good man," Dr. Zhabedy said, clapping the scientist on the shoulder.

"Now, not to be rude," Dr. Kencie said, looking at the others, "but I need to lock the laboratory up and I would rather that none of you are in here when I do so."

Rinoa laughed and cupped Squall’s elbow to help him stand. "Of course, Doctor. We’re going to go to bed now, too."

Squall turned before he could see Seifer turn his head towards them. Yes, Squall would go to his bed now to share his sleep with Rinoa, while Seifer would go alone to cold, empty sheets.

"Rinoa," Squall said as they reached the elevator and put his hand on her shoulder to stop her. "Rinoa, I’m not going to bed just yet. No, before you say anything, I have some work to do that just won’t wait." As she opened her mouth to protest, he said, "I want to write the parents of Private Bal about their daughter, and find out the names of the families of the victims killed tonight in Meta."

She regarded him silently, sadly, then nodded. "Of course. Get it over with right away so you don’t have that awful task hanging over your head. Squall, you’re a good man, and I love you, but you are always too hard on yourself. Just remember that Private Bal chose to be a SeeD, you did not force her to become a soldier. She knew the responsibility she took on when she gave the SeeD Oath—and I am sure that she was proud to be a soldier."

Squall smiled a little. "Of course." He took her in his arms and kissed the top of her head, her temple, her cheek, her lips. "Good night, Rinoa."

"Good night, Squall," she said with a sad sigh and stepped onto the lift. The glass doors closed and the elevator started up the tunnel. Squall did not watch it as it left; he did not want to know if Seifer was looking at him as the lift floated up the channel leading out of the basement level.

Squall had a flask of Centradi rum in his office. This he retrieved when he was sure that the others were in their own respective apartments and not likely to come back down to the basement level. As soon as he had the rum, he went down, down, down the elevator, looking out at the doors to the classrooms, at the empty atrium, then at the machinery embedded in the walls as the glass-walled lift brought him down to the basement again.

The Centradi people made strong rum. It burned his throat as Squall swallowed. He kept swallowing more of the alcohol until it no longer burned, but rather ran smooth down the back of his throat. He fingered the lettering on the flask—a gift given him by Laguna, what a wonderful thing for a father to give his son—and then turned the bottle so that the inscription (For Squall, Love Dad, so very original) no longer faced him.

Squall walked determinedly to the closed door of the laboratory. He lifted his hand and regarded it, noting with pleasure that it no longer shook. He rested his fingers on the keypad of the terminal that controlled the lock on the door, then touched the numbers of his pass code that let him, as Headmaster, into all the rooms of Balamb Garden.

The electronic door shushed open and he stepped into the darkened room. There were a few small, dim lights on over certain experiments around the laboratory, but otherwise the room was drenched in shadows. Squall walked cautiously forward and stopped about five feet from the slab in the center of the room. The dead monster lay on the metal table and the doctor had placed a large, glass container over it. The glass top had a metal pole attached to the top of it and Squall surmised that it lowered from the ceiling. He looked around for a controller for the device.

He found a likely panel and chewed on his lip for a long moment before pressing a button with a small "up" arrow on it. The glass gave a shimmy, then the pole lifted slowly and brought the container with it.

Squall stopped when the glass hovered four feet off the steel slab, then walked over to the examining table. He took a drink and stared at the monster’s remains. Again, he seemed to hear its voice in his mind, the greedy slithering of its thoughts inside his brain. Famishedtaste sweetwe’ve had this one before

He shivered and took a long drink from the flask, letting the rum trickle down his throat and fill his belly. He could feel it in his veins, warming his blood; could feel its sweet, comforting fumes in his head, making the room around him easy and painless.

Squall took another gulp for bravery, then hesitantly touched the stump of one tentacle, bracing himself for its jerk, sudden movement, reaching towards him hungrily. It did not move.

Squall let out a sigh that sounded more like a sob and slumped forward. He rested the heels of his palms on the slab and leaned on them, bowing his head and shaking. After a long time, he stood up and stumbled over to the control panel to lower the pole and the glass over the monster’s body again. Then, he left the laboratory, clutching the half-empty flask of rum, and locked the door behind him.

He walked down the halogen-lit hallway to the conference room where they had held the debriefing that afternoon. He turned on the light and it looked unnatural; too bright, the purple-tinged fluorescent bulbs glaring. They cast odd, overlapping shadows that seemed to impose themselves on the walls and floor.

He turned the lights down to a dim, pleasing glow and flopped down into the large chair at the head of the long conference table. He put his feet up on the table and used his legs to swivel his chair back and forth as he tilted the rum flask against his lips. He waited, occasionally glancing at the door, all the while swinging left and right in the chair and drinking rum.

Seifer came in five minutes later, paused on the threshold, then walked in and sat in the chair to the right of Squall’s. The brunet stopped swinging his chair back and forth and looked at the blond.

"What took you so long?" Squall asked with a scowl.

Seifer was taken aback. "I didn’t realize you were waiting for me," he said in a completely unapologetic tone.

Squall shrugged and resumed playing with the swivel chair. "I knew you would come back."

Seifer scowled a little and leaned back in his chair. "Well aren’t you the King of Perception, then?"

Squall snorted and took a long drag from his flask. He shook it unhappily, noting that there was very little liquid left inside.

"You’re smashed, aren’t you?" Seifer asked, dripping disapproval and not a little disgust.

"And what’s your problem with that?" Squall asked belligerently. "It’s not like I drink often."

"No, only when something’s really bothering you."

Squall went on as if he hadn’t heard that. "And even when I do, I keep to myself. I do it quietly, discreetly. I do nothing that would be ill-befitting of a Headmaster, a Hero and a Legend," Squall stated, purposefully lifting his nose in the air.

"And all-around good guy," Seifer tacked onto the title.

Squall narrowed his eyes at his lover and drained the last of the rum. He regarded the flask, tracing the engraved words with his index finger.

"You’ll never guess what he wants me to do now."

Seifer’s eyebrows went up. "Who’s that?"

Squall lifted an eyebrow. "Laguna," he said, exasperated with Seifer for not following. "He wants me to change my name."

Seifer’s brow furrowed. "To what?"

"Loire," Squall scoffed. "He says that I’m his son and I should have his name. He says it’s unnatural for a boy to have his mother’s surname. As if I want his name—as if I want the world to know I’m connected to that—that—incompetent fool."

Squall spat bitterly. Seifer watched him quietly, waiting for him to go on. It took a minute for Squall to collect himself, to get over his fury—fueled by rum and resentment—and speak.

"His reasoning is a total bluff, of course. He wants me to take his name because he feels guilty and he can’t go back in time and give me a father. I guess he thinks giving me his name makes up for seventeen years of nothing. An empty handout from President Loire. I should be honored.

"Can you see it?" he asked Seifer with mock eagerness. "Squall Loire, the President’s Bastard. I like that. I think I’ll add it to my official title. I’ll even have stationery printed up."

Squall dropped the flask angrily to the carpet and fell silent. Seifer was quiet for a while before he spoke.

"Hey, look at it this way," he said mildly, his tone light. "At least you have a father to get on your nerves and piss you off."

Squall’s lips twisted with distaste. "Yeah, I should feel lucky. Don’t give me that." He affected a deeper intonation and put an exaggerated moan in his voice. "Oh, I’m so sad, I’m so unfortunate. I have no father, no mother, I’m just an orphan all alone in the world. No one to take care of me. Oh, pity me, please. Nobody loves me."

Seifer frowned and opened his mouth as if to speak, then thought better of it. He bowed his head and looked up at Squall through thick eyelashes. "Yeah, something like that."

Squall glared at Seifer, resenting his capitulation as much as he had bitterly hated his blond lover as the other saved him from the monster’s 99 crushing arms and then killed it after Shiva had frozen it because Squall was too weak.

Squall loved both Rinoa and Seifer, went to them both for different things; each fulfilled different needs within him—Seifer let Squall rest, be weak, be protected, drop the façade of strong, controlled Headmaster and Commander that everyone seemed to expect from him. Suddenly, though, Squall hated Seifer’s strength, power, and dominance over him—resented, despised, his own need for protection and shelter. He clenched his fists, ground his teeth, overcome with an anger so strong that it was almost tangible.

"Gods, Seifer, what do you want?" Squall snapped suddenly and Seifer started with surprise. "Why did you come back down here? Were you afraid I might be hurt? Did you think I needed you?"

Seifer’s eyebrows were up. He held his hands out innocently. "I just thought you might want some company."

"That’s bull shit," Squall burst out. "I saw the looks you were throwing at me when you heard me telling Rinoa I wasn’t going to bed. I saw you looking my way before that, too, when I told her I had refused to stay in the Infirmary. You’re worried, aren’t you? You thought I was injured and I needed your help. Or maybe a shoulder to cry on, hmm?" Squall asked, purposefully belligerent and patronizing.

Seifer lifted one eyebrow and tucked the corners of his lips, visibly offended. "Excuse me for being concerned."

"No," Squall said flatly. "No, because I’m sick of it. Sick of you protecting me, and defending me. Worrying about me." More than that, he was sick of needing that protection, that defense, prompting that concern, but he was drunk and angry and too proud to say it. Instead, he glared angrily at Seifer, feeling a spiteful twinge of satisfaction at the hurt turning those aquamarine eyes down.

Seifer shook his head. "I hate you when you’re drunk."

Squall flipped back a thick lock of hair that had strayed into his eyes. "Why don’t you leave, then?" He smiled toothily. "To be honest, I’m not all that keen on having you around right now, anyway."

Seifer snorted laughter and some of his old malevolence seeped into his eyes. "I don’t think so, Squall. You can’t have me only when it’s convenient. A relationship doesn’t work that way."

Squall narrowed his eyes and dropped his feet to the floor. "A relationship, Seifer? Is that what you think this is? No, I’m sorry. We are not in a relationship. I already have one of those. We, Seifer my dear, are just a fucking affair." He laughed humorlessly. "Pardon the pun."

Seifer looked away and Squall went on spitefully.

"I mean you, Seifer, are just the other lover and nothing more. It’s really a good setup for me. I have Rinoa, my public girlfriend, Love of the Conquering Hero, Lady Heartilly the Benevolent Sorceress…and then I have you, whom I could never take to all those official functions—can you imagine yourself trying to fit in with Lords, Ladies and Presidents?—I have you for fun. My—my mistress," Squall said with another dark laugh. "I have Rinoa for her beauty and her brains, and I keep you around for when I want to get fucked. What a wonderful system. I got laid twice today!"

Seifer’s head was bowed and Squall could not see his eyes, but he heard the hurt in the other’s voice when he said, "Good for you," quietly, clearly trying—and failing—to cover his wounded emotions.

Squall laughed again, feeling good in a nasty, spiteful way each time he said something hurtful to the blond. He got to let out his anger and injure the object of his resentment at the same time. What great stuff that Centradi rum was—he knew he would never have been able to say all this if he had not just drunk an entire flask full of the stuff.

"I really hate you when you’re drunk," Seifer said quietly, but Squall took no offense. The tall blond was sitting curled in on himself, perhaps unconsciously trying to make himself smaller, less vulnerable to attack. The blush spread across the creamy pale skin of his cheeks was offset by the blue of his long-sleeved blouse. The fabric stretched across his back from shoulder to shoulder where he was hunching forward. Despite his strong anger with the blond, Squall could still recognize how beautiful Seifer looked just then.

Squall got up and walked with surprising coordination to where Seifer was sitting and jumped up to lean his butt on the tabletop. Then he slid back so he was sitting and then shimmied over to sit right in front of Seifer, one leg on either side of the blond’s body.

Seifer glanced up for a second, then, as if it hurt to keep his eyes on the brunet’s, he bowed his head quickly.

"What?" Seifer’s muttered question came up from his hidden mouth, obviously sensing Squall’s intense gaze on him.

"You’re beautiful when you’re hurt, you know," Squall said coyly. Seifer looked up in surprise and Squall cupped his chin before he could look back down again. "Your eyes are so wide, and there’s so much blue. Your mouth is open a little, and for some reason your lips just look kind of swollen and very kissable. And you blush such a delightful shade of pink!"

Seifer bit his lower lip and blinked slowly, the way he always did. Squall loved Seifer’s eyes, the lids heavy and low, the thick, blond-tipped lashes falling to brush his pale cheeks and then lifting slowly. Squall moved his hand, tracing his fingers over Seifer’s cheekbone and then pressing gently Seifer’s closed eyelid. Then, he slid forward off of the table onto Seifer’s lap, straddling the blond’s torso, and locked his arms around Seifer’s head to crush a kiss onto his mouth.

Seifer cried out onto Squall’s tongue before desperately and helplessly responding with hungry lips and the warmth of his own tongue. Squall sucked Seifer’s lips, licked at his tongue and teeth, took complete control of the kiss as he held Seifer locked in place between his hands. He drew in the taste of Seifer’s mouth, the warm wetness. He rubbed his chest against Seifer’s, dropped one hand down to stroke his neck, rub circles on his chest, and briefly fondle him through the crotch of his black pants. Then, with a sudden smack and pop of separating lips, he reached back for the table and lifted himself up again.

Seifer gasped breathlessly and threw himself back in his seat. He panted for a moment, then wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. He stared wide-eyed up at Squall, his eyes so stricken that Squall blinked and looked away for a moment. When he looked back, Seifer had stood and was heading for the door.

"Seifer," Squall said as the other neared the threshold. "I wonder about you."

Seifer paused in the doorway and half turned. "Oh, yeah?" he said, his voice shaking, his tone mildly curious and very hurt. The light from the hallway outside the conference room blackened his body and cast his face in a dark inky profile. "Why’s that?"

Squall folded his legs up on the table and slid around to face Seifer. "Well, you once told me that you wanted to be first choice—everyone’s favorite, everyone’s hero. But then, how is it that you don’t seem to mind always being second best to me?"

The profile of Seifer furrowed its brow and pursed its lips. It lifted one shoulder in a shrug, an attempt to appear nonchalant, unaffected. Seifer looked at the molding of the door, fingered some peeling paint. "I don’t know, Squall." He turned all the way and met Squall’s eyes. His expression had smoothed—no longer devastated, only sorrowing, regretful…sad. "You, Squall…you’ve always been my first choice." He drew a breath, shrugged one shoulder again, and left.

Squall stared at the spot where Seifer had been for a long minute. Then he shook his head slowly, over and over.

"Seifer," he said softly, hoarsely. "Seifer, come back. Seifer," he whispered, "I’m sorry, Seifer."

There was no answer, only the rush of the air coming from the ventilation system. Seifer was gone; up the long glass tunnel in the elevator—Squall was too late with his apology, too late with his love—always too late. Squall was eternally late, forever hesitating that crucial second too long. He always missed his chances.

Squall didn’t know it when he began to cry. It seemed that all of the sudden his face was wet, his throat hurt, he was sobbing. He crawled forward on the table and lay down. He rolled onto his left side and faced the wall. Tears dripped over his nose and down his cheek into his ear. His chest hurt and his shoulders shook with his sobs. He forgot about the wound in his chest and when he lay on his side and his skin folded over itself, the injury was aggravated and he cried out in sudden pain. He rolled onto his back, letting his arms flop out to the side.

Squall had not been laying there long—maybe only ten minutes—before Seifer came back. The blond came in quietly and looked down at Squall. The brunet lifted watery gray eyes to blue-green irises surrounded by red-veined white.

Sniffing, Squall reached up, stretching his arm towards Seifer. The blond stared at the straining arm for a moment before stepping close enough to the table for Squall to be able to cup his fingers on Seifer’s cheek.

"Did I make you cry?" Squall asked in a hitched, tearful voice.

Seifer drew a breath but did not answer, only resting his face against Squall’s hand.

"Come on," Seifer said softly, reaching down and taking Squall in his arms. He grunted and lifted the prone brunet. Squall curled against Seifer’s chest, crying quietly, now.

Squall closed his eyes as Seifer carried him out of the conference room. Seifer walked down the hallway, bringing him somewhere, but Squall did not look to see where. He did not open his eyes until he heard a door swish open. Then, he looked and immediately recognized Seifer’s apartment down in the renovated basement level where all the faculty had living quarters.

"Didn’t think you should go home to Rinoa like this," Seifer said in a quiet, almost resigned voice.

Seifer lay Squall on his bed. Squall shut his eyes again and almost immediately fell asleep; he was suddenly so tired. He half dozed as Seifer propped him against one knee and took off his black leather jacket. Then, with gentle fingers, he took down Squall’s leather pants and discarded the clothing—Squall heard the rustle of fabric as they fell to the floor.

Squall woke. There was a trickle of silver pre-dawn filling the room with gray light. He rolled over with an outstretched arm and found himself alone in bed. He frowned and stood up, swaying on his feet. Still drunk, he knew, and damn that Centradi rum was strong stuff.

He made his way into the living room of the fairly spacious apartment and found Seifer stretched out on the sofa, his feet hanging over the arm of the couch. Squall frowned and shook Seifer awake, then took his hand and pulled him into a sitting position. Seifer was still asleep enough to stand and follow Squall a few steps before pulling up short.

Squall looked back, his expression asking the question. Seifer shook his head and leaned back towards the couch. Squall frowned. Was Seifer angry because Squall had gotten drunk? Because he had said such hurtful things—things that he could not really remember now, in a different phase of intoxication. Seifer had a right to be angry over any number of things, but that did not mean Squall would stand for it.

Squall tugged on Seifer’s hand again, pulling him forcefully towards the bedroom. Finally Seifer sighed, a helpless, hopeless sound, and followed Squall. He climbed into the bed and let Squall draw him into an embrace. He rested his head on Squall’s chest, and his thick blond hair was soft on Squall’s flesh.

"I love you, Seifer. And you’re not second best. You’ve never been."

Seifer sighed again, his breath warm and tickling. "I know, Squall," he said quietly.

Squall grimaced at the doubt in his lover’s voice. He stroked Seifer’s hair and squeezed him tight, suddenly desperate to hold him—to keep him. To never let him go.

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