They found him two days later.
A back up party had been dispatched - should the first group fail, and it had turned into a search party for survivors after the realization that the hazard had been destroyed. They knew this from the lack of monsters hindering their progress and the fact that the strange energy that had hung in the air during the sorcerer's rise to power had vanished.
Selphie spotted him first. It was dim in the cave and the once spotless pale gray trench coat was filthy with dirt and shredded in places. Its owner was in no better shape.
"He's here!" Selphie called to the others, her voice shrill with concern at the state she saw Seifer was in.
Not only dirt soiled his clothes and skin, but also an abundance of dried blood. He'd spent two days here, mainly crouched against the wall he now lay against. The battle he'd won, but it had been so traumatic he had barely been able to move afterwards. The last cure had been of little use and he hadn't really cared. He'd eaten the last of their supplies - enough to keep him going but he'd planned on not searching for more. He felt so numb he didn't care. He wanted die but couldn't bring himself to do it. Squall's words had stopped him somehow, but he also couldn't motivate himself enough to survive, so he stayed in the corner and waited, mind blank, so traumatized he hadn't even begun to grieve. Yet his rage and grief had won the battle for him and the sorcerer was defeated. He'd won his redemption but at what cost. There was no triumph in victory. His heart was dead.
"He's alive...," Selphie piped, glad at least that she could see that.
"Oh, my God..." Rinoa said, breathlessly, seeing how bad a condition Seifer was in. She had volunteered for this mission, wanting to help her friends.
Irvine crouched down before Seifer. Gently he touched the blond's dirty shoulder. Seifer had been staring forward, unseeing. At the touch he flinched and turned glazed eyes at Irvine. At once the tears began. Shocked, Irvine took his hand away but, to his credit, he didn't move back.
"Squall is dead," Seifer whispered, as if someone had just told him; as if it had just occurred to him. He hadn't wanted to face it before. His eyes moved to the two girls. The familiar faces made reality suddenly very harsh.
"And Zell...," Selphie said in hushed tones, realizing the fact of the blond martial artist's absence probably meant he too was gone.
Rinoa looked from her, back down to Seifer. She bent down next to Irvine, sensing the pony tailed brunette and the perky girl were both too shocked to do anything for the man who obviously needed their help right now.
She took hold of both his shoulders and stared straight into Seifer's drawn face.
"He's gone," he said, looking at her, the silent tears falling from his blue green eyes, streaking the dirt away. He had a sense that she knew how he felt somehow; that she would understand.
She nodded, biting her lip. Her hand went to his cheek and wiped at a tear. Her eyes were starting to well up too. She'd loved both these men, the handsome blond before her and the lovely, quiet man Seifer was now crying for. Yes, she understood the pain he must be feeling.
Seifer's breath started to hitch. He began to sob, the buildup of two days worth of intense grief abruptly surfaced and broke. Rinoa ignored the dirt and blood that threatened to cover her as she held Seifer close to her as he wept. Irvine had collapsed on the ground, stunned at the realization that both Squall and Zell were dead. Selphie was uncharacteristically silent, shifting uncomfortably from foot to foot, watching Rinoa comforting Seifer with sorrow in her heart. Zell and Squall had meant a lot to all of them but the three of them all knew about Seifer's bond with Squall, more than love - it had been something real; a special link. They'd never considered one of them dying. It hadn't seemed possible.
The echoing sound of Seifer's racking sobs made it real for all of them.
They finally arrived back in Balamb Garden.
The journey had taken longer due to their constant coaxing of Seifer. He was weak, all their curagas and potions having no effect on his mental state which threatened to collapse at times, but at the last he always pulled himself together enough to go a little further. Their coaxing kept him going - especially Selphie's chirpy, positive attitude which would have usually annoyed him.
They didn't want to leave him alone.
Back in Seifer's room at Garden, Rinoa helped him with his filthy clothes. There had been no inns along the route of the journey back and nowhere to purchase new clothes so he'd traveled in what he'd worn, his face still stained, though a halfhearted attempt had been made to clean it.
She drew him a bath, thinking it better then a shower as he could lie back and relax. She offered to help him clean up but he said he'd be ok to do it himself. As he closed the door to the bathroom and she heard him lock it, she felt concern at what he might do, but conceded he probably would have tried it already if that was what he really wanted. She still sat in his room waiting for him to come back out to make sure.
Seifer lay back in the bath, closing his eyes, letting the heated water soak away the dirt from his body. He saw Squall in his mind; a light, pretty smile; a sweet kiss; the turn of his head; flick of his bangs; then his fall... Seifer opened his eyes, tears falling again. He mechanically started washing himself, his thoughts elsewhere.
As he soaped and washed the days old grime from his long limbs with a luxuriously soft sea sponge he kept seeing Squall's face, memories of their last year together. The softness of his skin; the hardness of his firm body; warm kisses; long talks after making love; safe in each other's arms; dreaming of their future together. Seifer was crying openly as he cleaned himself. Memories. Was that all Squall was now? He let out a strangled cry of despair, his hand thumping the side of the tub, splashing water.
There was a knock on the door. A girl's voice.
"Seifer? Are you ok in there?" Rinoa sounded a little scared.
Her tone recovered Seifer enough to reply.
"Yes. I'll... I'll be out shortly, ok?"
What could he say? He smiled grimly to himself.
"Yes. I'm not going to slit my wrists, don't worry."
Rinoa didn't reply and he was glad. He didn't want to talk to her. He didn't want to talk to anyone. He wanted now just be alone. With Squall. And their memories. He concentrated on his cleaning, sluicing away all the dirt off his body.
Rinoa heard the shower running. Seifer must be cleaning off the excess dirt, she hoped. His cry had startled her badly. Her heart was still beating furiously. She hadn't had time to grieve for Squall or Zell herself. She was too concerned right now for Seifer and thought mainly of him, but she still couldn't help feeling a little sorry for herself as well. She could have fallen in love with Squall too, had he been a little warmer towards her but her feelings had not been reciprocated. When the two men had gotten together she'd understood she'd never really had a chance - with either of them - as they had always belonged together.
And Seifer. She had lost her heart to him, however briefly. With his ideals and romantic dreams, he'd been a girl's fantasy - and so good looking too... She sighed. All lost. What did it matter now. Squall was gone. Seifer... What could she really do for him now? She could do nothing except be there if he needed her support.
And so she waited.
To be continued...
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