Sins of the Living

Chapter 9 - tea party

By Sexylyon

As they descended into the tree line the incessant heat that was attempting to fry his brain finally cut off. It was blessed, wonderful relief.

He ruffled his hair, dislodging the sticking clumps as he let the cooler air circulate. Ahead of him, Kinneas actually adjusted his hat but that seemed to be the only concession to the change in ambient temperature. Ok, so it had been awhile but he sure as hell didn't remember this baking heat. Maybe he was getting old, his blood slowing down or something.

Seifer snorted to himself. Or maybe the sniper was just a closet masochist. He spread his arms wide, enjoying the sensation as a slight breeze ghosted over his skin. Damn but it was hot out on the plain.

Curious, he looked around the small pocket of forest they'd just walked into. The Aucauld Plains were his old stomping grounds and if he recollected right, ought to be an actual stream through this particular valley. It would be a welcome respite after the dry heat of the flatlands. Thirst was nagging at him, proof that he wasn't as well prepared for this hike as he'd thought. And goddamned if his feet didn't hurt.

Not that he'd ever admit any of that to his traveling companion though. But if they found the stream and Kinneas refused to stop, he'd fake a sprained ankle or something.

Right on cue the sniper glanced over his shoulder, as if making sure that Seifer hadn't ducked out on him when they'd entered the forest. Since he'd been mentally undressing the man for the last couple of miles he was surprised the sniper needed to check. Seifer smirked back but made no attempt to lengthen his stride to catch up. If the man wanted to lead, Seifer had no problem letting him forge ahead. From this angle, the view was pretty fantastic - no point giving it up if he didn’t have to.

The Galbadian was a little taller than he liked them, but with that unusual combination of turquoise-violet eyes and copper hair he was more than prepared to be forgiving. In deference to the heat, Kinneas wasn't wearing a whole lot more than he was which was all to the good as far as he was concerned. Black and tight, low-slung jeans hugged the man's hips; he hadn't put up more than token resistance to the urge to fantasize about what they were covering. The sniper apparently hadn't bothered with a shirt today either, wearing only a loose vest that swayed with each stride. The shifting motion revealed and then hid the sleek muscles of his lower back.

It was distracting as all hell, especially when the sniper leaned down a little to duck overhanging branches.

He made no effort to rein in his imagination. So far, this hike had turned out to be about as exciting as watching the dust collect on his boots. Idly wondering what his chances were with the cowboy was infinitely preferable to wondering about what might be waiting to greet him at Garden. The best case scenario would be if everyone stayed the hell out of his way... and that was just plain depressing to think about. A pariah in the place he had once considered home. It was enough to make a man swear off acts of rampant megalomania.

Damn it, he'd play it by ear, like always. If it got too nasty he could always turn right around and walk out. There was nothing tying him to the place after all, not anymore. Fujin would just have to forgive him if he had to bail.

Realizing his thoughts were starting to wander down a path he'd sworn to avoid, he grimly yanked them away. He really didn't want to think about his likely reception at Garden. Worrying about it wouldn't do him any good at all and he was too damned young to be trying for ulcers. Ahead of him, Kinneas swayed easily to the side as he moved around some fallen deadwood, and the sleek movement gave him something else to focus on. Given tactic permission to distract itself, his mind moved back to the nearest available target - in this case, the rather intriguing personality that the sniper had turned into.

As he trailed along silently in Kinneas' wake, he tried to decide what the man's agenda was. When he'd stepped off the train and seen the two of them waiting he'd hesitated out of sheer surprise. He'd been so sure it would be Trepe that would come to meet him. Damn it, he'd psyched himself up to deal with his old Instructor. Instead, he'd gotten the chicken… and Kinneas. Zell was easy to dismiss, he'd spent so much of his life picking on the blonde that it was ingrained habit by this point. But the cowboy now... that definitely required some strategic re-thinking.

He'd long ago realised that he couldn't really trust his memories from when he'd been the Knight. He remembered the sniper, remembered very well the scream of the bullets that had torn his shoulder apart, blown half his chest away. It hadn't mattered then, and it didn't matter all that much more now. So much of that time was filtered through what the Sorceress had needed, had demanded of him that there was nothing left for personal animosity. He'd done what he'd had to do. The sniper had no doubt done the same.

So odd as it sounded, considering they'd been been doing their level best to kill each other nearly twelve months ago, this was the first time he'd had the chance to meet the man that his childhood playmate had grown up into.

When they'd stood measuring each other up at the station, Kinneas hadn't once cowered or shown any real fear towards him. Respect, oh yes, that had been there. A wary recognition that Seifer was a loose cannon at the best of times. But no shadows in those clear eyes, no flinching or hesitation. No fear at all as far as he'd been able to tell. The cowboy had stood there and stared him down, had all but dared him to draw Hyperion in a fit of temper. Kinneas hadn't seemed be even remotely worried about consequences.

It had been... soothing. He spent too much of his damn time among people who cringed in front of him, who looked at him out of eyes that refused to hold steady. The sniper probably hadn't known it, but he'd been an absolute breath of fresh air. He'd all but forgotten what it felt like, to be with those who knew him for exactly who he was and weren't particularly intimidated. To know that if he didn't toe the line, they'd try to kick his ass for it.

For some reason, that was oddly comforting.

It certainly didn't help that somewhere along the way while he'd been distracted, Kinneas had gone from pretty child to stunningly handsome man. The sniper made no effort to hide the fact that he was better put together than most women, in fact seemed almost to flaunt his nearly feminine beauty. Warm colors over warmer skin; the sleek, feral grace of that tall body; if Kinneas was an animal he'd be a panther. From the dusty golds and rich blacks of his clothing, to the barbaric necklace at his throat that seemed more suited to a courtesan - this was a not a man afraid of attracting attention, of any kind. A raw sexuality practically glowed beneath that skin, radiating with the impact of a small nova.

If he was a betting man, he put down solid gil that the sniper played up that androgynous look on purpose. The man probably had more lovers than he had bullets. And that was definitely saying something.

He hadn't seen any evidence of any hangups over that ambiguous appearance either, even on this extremely short acquaintance. He'd met men with that brand of prettiness before and it usually ruined them. Either they went all the way over into trying to be women, or they became rabid dogs trying to live it down. Kinneas wasn't that easily categorized, obviously very comfortable in his own skin. Assured. Confident. Oh yeah, Kinneas had the confidence corner all sewn up. There had been a very penetrating intelligence in those eyes, coolly looking him over at the station. And behind that reserve there had been a definite, specific warmth. The man really had been glad to see him.

Seifer didn't try to fool himself that he was immune to the attraction, since last time he'd checked he'd still been an air-breathing mammal. Kinneas probably had that effect on most people, the only exceptions probably being the ones safely dead and out of active contention. Maybe that's all it was and he could write off his strange reactions to simple lust. To the appetites of his body that he'd long ago thought dead and buried in the wreckage of his life. An simple, instinctive response to that blazing warmth, to the all but palpable sensuality the man exuded. Gods knew he had been all but celibate for months, since long before the War.

Standing there, in the filtered light of the station, he'd felt... something. Wasn't even sure what exactly but he could feel it still, a filament of fire. Something cold and dead was coming back to life and he could feel the tingle of returning sensation beneath his skin. It wasn't lust although he wasn't going to say that wasn't part of it. What it did feel like was... acceptance. The oddball certainty that he was back where he was supposed to be. That he belonged, standing in that cold station squaring off with Kinneas. Even trading insults with Dincht had been a strange deja vu, like nothing at all had happened to change who they were to each other.

And that was just plain crazy. He'd come within a hair of handing the world to his Sorceress, damn near killing them all in the process. Hell, he'd sacrificed Rinoa without a second's hesitation, delivered the woman he'd sworn to protect right into Her hands. There was no way that they could ever forgive him for that. Hell, he wasn't even sure he'd gotten around to forgiving himself yet. But still, the certainty persisted.

When the sniper had practically ordered him to lose the posse... he hadn't hesitated at all. Even in the face of Fujin's legitimate suspicions and worries, he'd gone with his gut instinct and followed Kinneas' lead. While he was the first to admit he was almost recklessly impulsive by nature, his capitulation was ringing tiny little alarm bells in his head.

He never, ever second-guessed himself. That would be an invitation to disaster considering the kinds of choices he habitually went for. On the train he'd determined to just get to Garden and get it over with, let the damned consequences fall where they may. But something in the sniper's eyes had stopped him cold, something he'd seen and still couldn't identify had made him reorient on the spot.

Maybe... it had been the intensity he'd seen. Kinneas had been very smooth, very slick, but he'd felt that almost desperate urgency in the man. So he'd posed, he'd said the expected things, but in the end he'd let the sniper have his way.

And he had the sneaking suspicion that Kinneas had seen right through the pretense.

Oblivious to his straying thoughts, the man ahead of him put out a hand to move a branch out of his way. Black gloves caught his attention, cut off fingers more suited to precision control than comfort. Seifer had tried that style himself, but Hyperion was more blade than gun and he'd discovered he needed full gloves in order to keep his two-handed grip secure in bad weather. Kinneas was a sniper though, a SeeD assassin, and no doubt sacrificed the grip for being able to feel the sensitive pressure of the trigger.

Gunblades weren't that finicky - as long as the blade was on target, the bullets would travel more or less where they needed to go. No finesse on the revolver, but it made up for it with sheer power. It was an extra edge that Seifer had used to dig himself out of some pretty deep holes.

Nothing quite so satisfying as an opponent who thought they were safe if they were out of reach.

The shotgun in the sniper's left hand was held very casually, almost dangling from the fingers, but Seifer knew better than to think that Kinneas wasn't prepared. Better than anyone, he knew just how fast and accurate the sniper was on the draw. The fact that he was behind the cowboy was a small advantage but he wouldn't underestimate the man, not again. He wasn't even sure what kind of ammo the sniper was packing, and without knowing it would be foolhardy to push anything just to satisfy his curiosity. Hyperion was still secured to his back and the few seconds it would take him to pull it forward would be all the time the Galbadian would need. No doubt Kinneas knew it too, which was probably why he was walking ahead of Seifer.

Cocky bastard. He couldn't help but smile.

He automatically ducked to avoid a cluster of vines that were trying to wrap themselves around his throat. Kinneas had already ghosted ahead, moving with economic grace through this pocket of cool greenery. Seifer followed almost as easily, a little out of practice but it was coming back to him with every step. He made sure not to let the sniper get too far ahead of him. Wouldn’t do to get caught by something large and nasty, with Hyperion that crucial few moments out of reach. This wasn't the plains; they could walk right into something before they even realised it was there.

He knew very well what he was doing. Question was if the Galbadian had figured it out yet. With his gunblade still sheathed, the sniper was the one who was responsible for keeping them both alive. He found himself amused by the irony of that.

Idly he wondered what Kinneas would look like wearing nothing but that half-hidden necklace. A wave of heat went through him, tightening his body. Seifer grinned mockingly at himself. It really had been far too long. And perhaps it was time to remedy that.

So far on this little side trip they'd said very little to each other. He'd kept his mouth shut once they'd left Balamb and he’d allowed Kinneas to dictate the pace. Regardless of whatever was on the sniper's schedule it delayed his eventual arrival at Garden which was all to the good at this point. The closer he got to the reason for this trip, the harder it was to remind himself that this wasn't the stupidest idea he'd ever had. This detour was turning out to be a blessing in disguise, the physical exertion at least working off some of his edge. Being able to admire how well the Galbadian had turned out was strictly icing.

He heard it before he saw it; the sound of running water. He lengthened his stride without thinking about it, the dryness in his mouth a convincing argument for haste. He broke into the small clearing almost on the cowboy's heels.

It was just as he remembered. A small break in the trees, the stream here had reached the surface and bubbled along in happy contentment. A shelf of rock underneath this area had forced it up and created this pocket of forest on the otherwise featureless grass plain. It was very welcome sight. Ignoring Kinneas, he bent on one knee and used his cupped hands to bring the fresh water to his lips, slaking his thirst.

At his side, the sniper remained alert, continuing to scan the surrounding foliage. Seifer left him to it, pulling water carefully into his body. Wouldn't do to cool down too fast and risk cramps. Finally, the cowboy must have determined that they were safe enough and bent down himself at the water's edge, laying the rifle within easy reach.

Seifer drank a little more and rubbed wet hands over his face and hair. Out of the corner of his eye he watched as Kinneas finally capitulated to the heat, removing the hat to splash water over the back of his neck. Copper flared against the backdrop of green, and Seifer sat back on his heel to admire the view. The cowboy splashed water over his face and bent to take another mouthful before noticing Seifer’s stare. The sniper turned to look at him and he could only grin in definite admiration.

"See somethin' interestin'?" Kinneas asked after a long moment.

Seifer grinned a little more and lazily stretched his arms above his head. He climbed to his feet, deliberately ignoring the sniper's question and curious gaze. Scanning the forest himself, he let the small breeze play over his arms, breathing deeply. Here in the heart of the Aucauld, these little oases were almost magical places. Here was where you could be alone, if you were brave enough to dare the creatures that lived here. This place, or one very like it, had been his escape more times that he would admit to anyone.

Looking back over the recklessness of his younger self he could only shake his head ruefully. Damn, he'd been lucky - and more than lucky a few times. Would it have made a difference to how things had turned out if he'd even once lost one of those fights? Would he have learned to become more cautious? To take on smaller risks, lesser challenges? How much different would things have been if he hadn't always been so convinced he could win?

It was a sobering thought.

Kinneas finished drinking and reclaimed both rifle and hat, climbing back to his feet with the easy grace that Seifer was coming to understand as natural. For a moment they stood there together, both of them listening to the small sounds of the forest around them. Seifer found himself wondering what the man was thinking, for in profile the cowboy's face was both cool and remote. However, when the sniper began to move away Seifer simply turned to follow. He found himself still reluctant to push for anything, even the explanations he probably should have been demanding.

But the sniper only went as far as the edge of the small clearing. At the border of the surrounding brush, a half-hidden boulder became apparent as Kinneas turned to sit on it. He stared at Seifer from across that small distance, one booted foot propped up on the grey rock even as the other braced him against it. From under the tipped darkness of his hat, his eyes watched Seifer with an unmistakable alertness.

Seifer came to an uncertain halt, suddenly wary of the sniper's motives. Didn't take a genius to figure out they were getting around to the point of this little excursion. Exeter was cradled negligently in those bare arms but Seifer still tensed with a prickling foreboding. From this distance, there was no way he'd get Hyperion out before Kinneas could nail him.

He berated himself silently. If the sniper went for the single, fatal shot, he'd never know it anyways. If it was anything less than a killing hit he would Heal instantly.

Hyperion was never more than a heartbeat away.

"Y' know," the sniper said abruptly, "you look jus' like Leonhart when y' talk to yourself."

Seifer was startled. He managed to get a sneer on his face though.

"Fuck you Kinneas," he replied, if somewhat less than smoothly. "The only thing me and Leonhart got in common is good taste in weapons."

"I wouldn't be so damn sure 'bout that," the man said imperturbly. The cowboy lapsed back into silence and continued staring enigmatically across the clearing at him. Seifer let it ride for a minute or two but it was starting to get uncomfortable, just waiting there. Felt like he'd been dragged up to Cid's office again, only to have the Headmaster glower at him without saying anything. He looked around but didn't see anything obvious to sit on and damned if he'd sit on the ground in front of the sniper.

Finally he shrugged. It wasn't like he was helpless here.

He turned away and took a few steps back towards the other side of the clearing, unbuckling Hyperion as he went. The sheath fell into his hands as sweetly as always, the hilt swinging forward and nestling into his hand with the ease of long practice. In one smooth motion he pulled the blade free, discarding the sheath to the side. Behind him, he heard Irvine shifting but didn't turn around to see if the man had put his finger on the trigger or not. He picked a likely looking tree and began the deceptively slow turn that would swing the blade in a destructive arc over his head.

The noise was impressive. Birds scattered in every direction from the crash of the foliage and he could hear the panicked flight echoing away in all directions. He smirked. Nice to know he hadn't lost his touch with wholesale forest clearing. Random destruction always had been one of life's little pleasures.

He kicked the tree with one foot. Solid. A couple passes with the gunblade cleared a couple of smaller branches out of his way and he turned to sit facing Kinneas, the tree still protesting its demise beneath him. He casually dug the point of Hyperion into the ground, the grip secure in his hand as he leaned some of his weight on it.

Sure enough, the sniper had adjusted Exeter to a better firing position. Seifer let his smirk grow into a full-fledged grin. If Kinneas thought he was in control of this, he was more than willing to show him the error of his ways. Across from him, the cowboy sighed.

"You're a pain in the ass, Almasy."

"You love me for it," he riposted. He cocked his head and watched the sniper obliquely. "Your life was boring before I got here."

Surprisingly, Kinneas actually grinned back at him.

"That's one way t' put it," was the answer. "On the plus side, at least we don't have t' worry about anythin' jumpin' us now. The commotion probably scared most everythin' right outta the forest."

"My plan exactly," he agreed. "So start talking cowboy. What the fuck is so goddamned urgent that you gotta haul both of us halfway across the plains? These boots were made for walking, but my feet have gotten used to the good life."

The amused expression on the sniper's face almost instantly retreated to be replaced by an ominous blankness. Seifer cocked an eyebrow in surprise. Damn, whatever it was, it was important based on that look alone. His guess was pretty much confirmed when the cowboy's eyes slid away a moment later to stare at the ground. This was the first time since they'd met at the station that he'd seen the man look anything other than self-assured. Shit. Not good. Not good at all. Something was definitely wrong.

He frowned, eyebrows pulling together as he tried to figure out what exactly could produce that particular lack of expression on the cowboy's face. Wasn't actually fooling him any. He knew that mask, used it all the time himself and it really didn't bode well for the cowboy's eventual topic of conversation. He'd been hauled out to the middle of the Aucauld, with only the 'bugs and the 'rexaurs for company for miles in any direction. Add into the equation that Kinneas was staring at the ground like grass was fascinating and that he still hadn't said a damn thing. It was all totalling up to something pretty damn serious.

It took a second, but then ice began to crawl up his spine.

From the place where he buried all his nightmares, an ugly voice was whispering the answer to him. Oh shit. Oh please god no. But it would more than explain the look on the cowboy's face, the remoteness of the location.

There suddenly wasn't anywhere near enough air in his lungs. He ignored the sick feeling of vertigo, bracing himself as best he could for the words he knew were coming. Had to hear it. Had to know.

"Who died?" Oh sweet fucking gods, no.

Kinneas' gaze flew up and Seifer could read the astonishment on his face. It was all he could do not to visibly sag as he realised he'd guessed wrong. Thank all the fucking gods, he'd guessed wrong.

"Ain't nobody dead. But... maybe you ain't so far off either."

Now how about that for a confusing statement. He glared across the clearing at the cowboy, aching relief predictably giving way to anger. He let it ride, wanting the familiar heat to chase away the wooden taste of fear in his mouth.

"Damn it cowboy, then what the hell is the problem? Somebody 'almost' dead?" He could handle that. 'Almost dead' was a hell of a long way from 'cold in the ground'. 'Almost dead' he might be able to do something about.

Across the way, the cowboy sighed and rubbed a hand over the back of his neck as if easing a strain. Seifer leaned forward impatiently, Hyperion sinking a little further into the dirt. Kinneas was trying to work himself up to something; he could see the signs. Wire thin tension was still trying to sing along his nerves but he willed himself to stay calm. He could wait for the revelation.

"Why the hell you here, Seifer?"

Seifer could only blink. What?

"Why here? Why now?"

He frowned at the other man. Why was he here? Had the cowboy hit his head or something recently?

"Its Festival, you idiot. Tilmitt sent me an invitation." Seifer shrugged, vaguely uneasy about that glib explanation. Damn it, it was the truth. Wasn't it?

"So y' dropped everythin' to come runnin' back. Never knew you was that interested in ring toss an' dart balloons." The dry sarcasm in the sniper's voice was unmistakable. Seifer glowered at him. Well, if he was gonna put it that way, sure it sounded stupid.

"I ain't buying it Almasy. You disappeared damn it, nobody knew where th' hell you were. Trust me, we turned over every damn stone we could think of t' find you. Then Selphie waves some kind of magic wand to track you down jus' to send you an invite to the fair. An' you drop everythin' t' come rushin' right back. You mean t' tell me you don't notice somethin' unusual about that?"

He jerked his chin up in a defensive reaction. He didn't have to explain his reasoning to Irvine. Damn it, he hadn't even gotten around to explaining it to himself yet.

"Alright cowboy, you're acting like you got all the damned answers. So you tell me. Why the hell am I here?"

"Because Fujin said something t' you. An' you had to come."

Seifer could only gape.

"Fuck cowboy, how the hell'd you come up with that little fantasy?"

"S'truth, ain't it? Tell me I'm wrong Seifer. You tell me somethin' that Fujin said didn't put a fire spell under your ass t' make you come flyin' back here."

Seifer glared at him. No way was that right. He opened his mouth to say it, to throw those words right back.


All he could do was glare. Irvine nodded slowly.

"I don't know what exactly Fujin said, but I know she an' Selphie figured out some plan t' get you here. An' we took this little walk cause I decided you need t' know why."

Seifer grimaced, his temper flaring. Damn it, he was going to strangle Fujin's pretty little neck. He'd just known she was buried up to her eyebrows in something when she'd set this up. His own damn fault for not insisting on details.

"Selphie set you up for this?" he demanded crossly. Surprisingly, Irvine shook his head.

"She's got a damned good guess what th' deal is, but she's still pretty much workin' in th' dark. They were gonna let you walk in blind, y'know, jus' t'see how things went down. That ain't gonna work, but there's no point tellin' Selphie that. She's really got a thing for surprises." Irvine shook his head as if his friend's thinking was unfathomable. Seifer tried to keep his anger down to a low simmer. So far, the cowboy seemed to be playing it straight.

"Spill it, Kinneas. All this dancing around's really starting to piss me off."

From across the small clearing, Irvine shrugged.

"Ain't that easy Seifer, and even you have got t've figured that out by now. Right now, your biggest worry should be whether or not you're even goin' to get t' Garden."

In a fluid motion almost too fast to see, the sniper brought Exeter to his shoulder. Seifer had his hand on Hyperion but didn't have a hope in hell of bringing it up in time.

Shit. Shit. Shit. He'd allowed himself to be distracted, and the sniper had used that to put him away. He kept his hand on Hyperion's grip though. One wrong move, one distracted blink in the wrong direction and he'd have the cowboy. Or go down trying.

"Who died?" Irvine demanded.

What the hell?

"You thought somebody died. I saw it in your eyes; you thought the fuckin' worst. Who died?"

Vertigo. Hard metal in his mouth. The blood that had been fucking everywhere. And those eyes. They'd raged. Hated. But even at the last they'd still seen him. Life on this mudball planet would be worthless if they'd closed for the final time.

"Fuck you, cowboy," Seifer snarled.

The sniper was steady, sighting down at him along the smooth bore. Irvine's eyes were blank, a deadly calm over that smooth skin. Fucked if the cowboy wasn't prepared to nail him where he sat. He remained still, tensed and vibrating. One chance maybe. One chance to move and take the cowboy down with him.

With an easy motion, Irvine shouldered the rifle.

Seifer surged up, Hyperion in a death grip in his hand. Had it cocked and ready faster than he'd ever moved, aimed right for the cowboy's heart. Kinneas didn't even flinch, staring steadily down the blade at him. From this distance he couldn't miss, he'd blow a hole through anything a dozen feet in front of him.

One second.


His hand was starting to waver. Fuck. Fuck the cowboy. Fuck what he said.

"D'you get it yet?" Kinneas asked as if he wasn't staring down the barrel of a weapon that could blast a hole in his body big enough to fly through. "Figured it out, Seifer? He ain't dead. But he might as well be."

Shut up, cowboy. Shut the fuck up. Those fearless eyes were staring at him, into him, as if the sniper could see what he'd shaken loose with that question. Seifer's hand was shaking, and it wasn't just from the strain of holding Hyperion at arm's length. Those eyes, the ones he fucking couldn't forget were burning holes in his mind. Goddamn it cowboy, what the fucking hell was going down in Garden?

Pull the trigger Almasy, or put the goddamn thing down. Hyperion wasn't a fucking feather.

Pull. The. Goddamn. Trigger.

Seifer let his arm drop.

Slowly Kinneas reached up and tossed his black hat to the ground in a careless motion. The rifle followed to rest against the rock, still within easy range but no longer a threat. The man hooked a thumb through the belt loop on his jeans, staring consideringly at Seifer from his vantage point. He was posed like a model from a glossy magazine with that amber-gold hair gleaming against the backdrop of deep green forest.

Ten minutes ago he would have been riveted by the sight. Now it was all he could do to keep his breathing under control.

"Don't fucking play with me, cowboy," he finally managed to growl through the hammer of his heart. "You fucking point that thing at me again and I'll take your goddamn head off."

"Shove it, Seifer. Next time Exeter's aimed at your head, you ain't gonna have the chance to do anythin' about it afterwards."

The sneer was in the words, but the tone was inexpressibly weary. Seifer took the hint and sat back down before his knees gave way. Hyperion rang like a muted bell as he stabbed it viciously into the ground, striking a stray rock. Across the clearing Kinneas ran an impatient hand through his hair, raking it out of his eyes.

"I needed t' know. I figured... hell, I don't know what I figured." Those intense jade eyes stared across at him as Irvine cocked his head. Seifer could feel the random twitches running through his fingers where they were still wound around Hyperion's hilt. Fuck, he'd come that close to blowing a hole in the cowboy. A part of him was wondering why the hell he hadn't. Nobody got away with screwing with him like that. Nobody.

"What the fuck is going down in Garden?" He couldn't bring himself to say the name. Kinneas could do all the goddamn talking.

"Other than the usual Festival madness? Oh nothin' much," Irvine said in a deadpan voice. Seifer jerked his head up and glared. The cowboy held up a conciliatory hand.

"Sorry. Just don't know where t' start. Or how much is safe t' tell you."

"Start talking, Kinneas. I'm holding onto the urge to beat you into a pulp by my fucking teeth."

"That and twenty gil will get you a return ticket back on the Timber train."

Seifer narrowed his eyes; belatedly re-evaluating how fast the sniper could pick up the rifle. Nah, this time he'd have him beat. He wouldn't get caught out like that again. Kinneas continued, his soft voice eerily clear across the sound of the water between them.

"If at any point durin' this conversation I figure you're goin' to make the situation worse, we're turnin' around and I'm packin' you back on that train, even if its your carcass I load. I can't afford to make a mistake on this."

Seifer glared at him, keeping his breathing deep and level. Ok, something had obviously gone extremely wrong in Garden-land, and from the name that they were both avoiding, he had a very clear idea as to who. Question was, what the fucking hell had happened. Visions of the Infirmary kept trying to flash through his mind, pristine walls awash in blood. He locked ghost fingers over that image and ruthlessly held it under.

"Start talking cowboy," he said as gently as he could. It came out more like a snarl, but hey, he was trying.

"T' hell with that. You talk to me," Irvine said. "Start at the beginnin'."

"We got time for that?" When in doubt, fall back on sarcasm.

"At this point, it's probably th' only thing we got," was his cryptic reply. "Let's start laying a few things down t' rest, see where it gets us. I gotta know I can trust you, and for that, I gotta know who the hell you are."

He couldn't help himself; he started to chuckle. Bitterly amused, it welled up and filled the air around him with anger. His eyes speared the sniper where he sat.

"You figure out who I am cowboy, you tell me. Trust me, I'm the first one interested in knowing."

"Where the hell'd you go after the trial Almasy? We looked, but you just up an' disappeared. We tore that city apart but you'd just vanished like a bird."

"Oh hell, ask me a tough one. It was easy, cowboy. Just walked out of that damned courtroom down to the bus station and boarded the first thing that came by. Ended up in a little hole called ... oh hell, Rolock I think. Had a stiff drink in the hotel bar, and got the next one going out in a different direction. Four days and I have no fucking idea how many drinks later, I wound up in a little backwater somewhere near Heaven. A couple of dozen people, a little fishing, a little tourist trade going through... I fit in like nobody's business. Pretty much stayed there ever since."

"How'd the posse find you then?"

Seifer sneered at him.

"Fujin's smarter than you assholes."

For a moment, Irvine looked like he was going to take exception to that. Then a crooked grin flitted over his lips.

"Yeah, I guess that's right," the sniper agreed after a small silence.

"If we're playing twenty questions, it's my goddamn turn. Who the hell made you judge and jury to decide what I'm allowed to do? I don't recall you getting elected Headmaster and I sure as hell don't remember appointing you my social coordinator."

This time the grin was unmistakable and it was setting his teeth on edge. When was the cowboy going to get to the point?

"You need a keeper Seifer, if only t' keep your dance card straight." Irvine continued to look at him with that odd quirky expression, and Seifer did his level best to glare back. Despite his best effort to hang onto it, his anger was starting to bleed away. Problem was, under that anger was a sick feeling that wasn't going away.

Kinneas had said he was alive. He held onto that like a mantra.

"Now who's being a pain in the ass?" he growled.

Irvine gave him a small shrug. The sniper's expression cooled down as the warmth disappeared. In fact, if he had to name the expression, he'd say the cowboy was brooding at him. That was just plain weird. Leonhart was the one who brooded. The laid-back cowboy just wasn't the type.

"What was Zell's favorite toy? The one he used to hide under his bed all th' time because you kept threatenin' to break it?"

Now where the hell did that come from?

"Damn it cowboy, what's that got to do with anything?"

"Answer the goddamn question, Almasy." Irvine's voice was as hard as nails and about as relenting.

"Shit, I don't know. That stupid toy train? Nah, he broke that himself." Seifer racked his memory for a couple of seconds. Who the hell remembered what the chicken had played with as a kid? And he'd probably threatened to break practically everybody's toys at one time or another. He snapped his fingers. "I know, that dumbass clockwork dragon, the one with the wings that were supposed to flap and never did."

Irvine stared at him for a moment or two, with a tight expression on his face. Seifer glowered back at him, unimpressed. He'd done a lot worse since than break a few toys.

"You remember the orphanage, you remember Matron, you remember being a child. How is that possible? They wiped you!"

Seifer's train of his thought come to a crashing pileup in his forebrain as Irvine's words sunk in. What the hell?

"Wiped?" he repeated stupidly.

"Yeah," the cowboy confirmed in a hard voice. "When we were sent away from th' orphanage, when Matron gave us away to th' Gardens, they raised a Guardian for us. Eight fucking years old and they junctioned us to it. At least, everyone but me. Me, they left alone." Irvine bit off each word, like they were bitter pills.

Seifer couldn't wrap his head around it. He stared at Irvine, racking his mind for a memory of what the man was saying. Of course he fucking remembered being a kid. He remembered the garden they played in, Zell's stupid toys that he was always tripping over, the cake that Matron had made him on his birthday. He remembered leaving the orphanage ... there was nothing after that.

Seifer frowned. He scanned back and forth in his mind, rooting up memories of that time. Nothing. Nothing from the time he'd walked out of the orphanage holding Leonhart's hand... until he was in Balamb, training to be a SeeD cadet. He'd been ten when he'd been accepted for candidacy. Two fucking years. Lost somewhere.

Across from him, Irvine was nodding slowly as the sniper read the darkening, incredulous look on his face.

"It was deliberate. That part of your life is probably gone forever, totally blanked out. What I wanna know is how you remember anythin' from when you were a kid. In th' station you threw up in my face that I'd kissed you in that garden. I was th' only one they left intact, so how come you remember?"

Bile was rising in his throat. He knew. But he didn't want to say.

"I just do, alright?" he finally managed to spit out. It was weak, and he knew it. He glared at the cowboy, wanting him to get the message that this was not a line of questioning he wanted to continue with. Kinneas didn't seem to be catching his drift though.

"Screw that Seifer. You remember and I wanna know why. I haven't seen you in years, and I'm the one with th' key to those memories." No mistaking the cold anger in that voice, although he could tell the emotion wasn't directed specifically at him. "Cid an' Edea wiped you, erased everybody but me before they sent us away. What the hell happened?"

"Fuck cowboy, what do you think?" Agitation drove him to his feet, Hyperion a dead weight in his hand. "Why you being so damned insistent? Who the hell cares what happened?"

"I do. I care."

Seifer blinked in the cowboy's direction. The words had been so damned soft, he'd nearly missed them. It took him aback for half a second.

"Always knew you was hot for me," he finally managed to sneer back.

"Damn it Seifer, don't be such an ass. What happened to you?"

"Edea happened to me, alright? Sorceress fucking Edea, who according to you was the one who arranged my little blank spot in the first place. Fuck cowboy, she tore my fucking mind apart alright?"

It took a moment, but he actually started to laugh at the expression the cowboy's face. Looked like the man had been shot with his own rifle and that restored a good measure of his humor. He took a relaxed stance, letting Hyperion dangle to one side as he cocked a hip.

"Cowboy, you are cracking me up. 'What happened to you?' A first year cadet coulda made an educated guess. A Sorceress is a living junction to her Knight, even you ought t've figured out what that meant. She was junctioned to me. If there was anything buried in my messed up brain, trust me cowboy, She knew about it."

"Damn, but that just don't make sense then. Why th' hell did Edea wipe your memories in th' first place, only t'give them back to you when She made you Her Knight?"

Seifer shrugged. Who the hell cared?

"Who the hell cares?" he echoed out loud. "All I know is that when She accepted me as Knight, She wanted to know what She was getting. Not my fault if She left all those little bits still intact when She died." He shrugged again, impatient with the direction of this conversation. "Ultimecia was my Sorceress," he said somewhat unwillingly, after a moment or two of silence, "Edea was just a conduit for a time. Maybe... fuck, I don't know cowboy. Maybe Matron was trying to hide something from that bitch."

"Maybe," came the slow return. "Maybe not. Probably never know at this point. I doubt Matron remembers much of anything from that time. She never talks about it anyways."

Seifer snorted.

"Amen to that cowboy. Fuck, this is the most I've ever talked about it either and trust me, its not much for pleasant experiences. You think I want to remember? A part of me wishes She'd short circuited all my goddamn memories when She took the big dive. I'd be a happier man if I was a drooling vegetable somewhere."

Across the way, the cowboy shuddered at the harsh words. Seifer didn't regret having said them. It was the truth... sometimes. Maybe not always, but sometimes.

"Alright, its my goddamn turn again. What the fucking hell is going down in Garden? Leonhart pick up his gunblade and start butchering the students in the hallways or something?"

He'd startled the cowboy, he could see it. Damn, was that it? Had the high and mighty hero of the War gone ballistic on the defenseless?

"No," Kinneas said, "nothin' quite so drastic. But he has racked up the most 'kills' the Training Center has ever recorded. I know, I checked th' stats this afternoon."

Seifer stared at him, a puzzled frown creasing his eyebrows.

"How many would that be exactly?" he asked, not sure where this was going.

"Just over three thousand," the cowboy replied steadily. "S'far as I can tell from the times, he's been in th' Center every night practically for the last ten months, killin' things. Big things too. He's takin' on Red Giants and Marlboro by himself."

"What the hell?! Has he gone fucking nuts?"

"Crazy? I don't think so. Th' commander's just as together as he's always been. Problem is, he was never all that well put together in th' first place an' it just seems t'be gettin' worse as time goes on. I think," he said, "I know what's actually wrong. An' as it turns out, you're the only one that has a hope in hell of fixin' it. The irony is, you're also the one that can actually fuck it up worse than it already is."

"Cowboy, you're still talking in circles. What the fuck is wrong with Leonhart?"

"Not quite yet," was his maddening reply. He started to snarl but didn't get a chance to work up a full head of anger.

"Why'd you go with the Sorceress, Almasy?" The words were rapid-fire, hard. They hit him where it hurt, where he hurt. "You jumped on that bandwagon like it was th' only thing going. Didn't even so much as hesitate, s'far as I can tell. What the hell was with that? You shoulda been with us fightin' Her."

Ever since he'd stepped off that train, that single question had been the burning, unacknowledged subtext between them. Nearly a whole fucking year later and enough water under the bridge to drown an army, and he still didn't want to answer. No way, no way could he remain still while Kinneas sat there and demanded an explanation, a reason for what he had done.

Fuck, he owed the man. He owed them all.

Those hot eyes drove him into motion again. He paced, eating up the ground in his agitation. Although the clearing wasn't big, he could get a few good strides in from side to side.

"She wanted me. I went. You don't fucking say 'no' to a Sorceress." That was the truth. Of a kind, at least.

"Don't believe it Almasy. Not for a second."

God damn you cowboy, shut up. Haven't you figured out yet that some things are better left buried? Leave it fucking alone. He glared at the sniper but Kinneas didn't take the hint, just kept driving those words at him like he was another kind of target.

"You walked into that room waving Hyperion around like it was a toy, and you was all excited about takin' out the nasty ol' President in the name of truth, justice and the Forest Owls. I might not of been there but I heard about it from those who were. When She came She offered you a goddamn choice! You chose Seifer, an' you left with Her, by all accounts willingly enough. An' I wanna know why."

"What the fucking hell makes you think I had a choice? I didn't fucking dare refuse!"

He tried. Tried to hold the them back, but they'd been locked behind his teeth too long. The sick feeling in his body exploded, making him feel like he'd been caught in that trap again. Exultation. Rage. Terror. It was all there, just like before. And if he was reading Kinneas right, it had all been for nothing.

The gunblade was smooth, heavy in his hand. A piece of his heart. A twisted part of his soul. The balanced turn, the deadly graceful pirouette that had the blade whistling like vengeance above his head. The forest exploded around him, destroyed in a violent arc as the heavy blade carved through everything in its path. He whirled and struck once more, tense muscles flexing as Hyperion shuddered in his hand. The scream of the things that died around him was sweet, the scream of his rage no softer in his mind.

"There was no fucking choice! No fucking choice at all!" The words spilled from him like a poison, acid and painful. They burned their way to the surface and he could no more have stopped them than he could have stopped his heart. "Gods above and fucking below Kinneas, if I hadn'ta gone with Her, She was gonna take him instead! No way was I going to let that happen. No fucking way was She getting her claws into him. He. Was. Mine!"

Impassioned. Raw. They'd thought he'd gone with her because he was who he was. And they were right. But they'd never understood that who he was wasn't what they'd always assumed. No point denying he'd craved what Edea had offered him. He'd wanted it, needed it, had fucking fought for it all his life. He deserved it for what he'd had to live through.

Sorceress Knight. He'd dreamed of that, all those long years of struggling to prove that he had what it took. He'd hoarded that fantasy away in a secret place, tucked it close where sunlight couldn't touch it, destroy it. He'd be strong. Powerful. Cities would tremble under his hand. The world would fucking crawl to his feet.

And it would be for Her.

Knights were goddamned special. A Sorceress and her Knight, inseparable. Complete. Joined. That is exactly who he wanted to be, what he wanted his life to be. In the dead of night, bruised and bleeding, he'd sworn that to himself. If She was out there, he'd find Her. He would be Hers just as She would be his. Together.

But in that moment, that timeless instant when She'd finally called him, given him his dream... he'd looked into Her mad eyes and he'd known. She didn't want him, she wanted Her promised Knight. And if he refused She'd take another in his place.

That wasn't a choice. That was a fucking ultimatum. His dream... ash. Dust and ash. But in the aftermath Leonhart had walked away from that room, untouched.

And that had to be enough, because that was the only thing he had managed to deny his Sorceress. He'd been wholly Hers after that.

Dust and ash.

"You were protecting him?" Irvine's voice almost astonished but he didn't react. They'd never known after all. He'd never bothered to tell them and it didn't fucking matter what his reasons were. He flexed his fingers over Hyperion's hilt, blankly staring at the wreckage around him. A voice deep in his mind laughed at him, chortled its amusement. It was a goddamn good thing that the cowboy had hauled him out to the middle of the Aucauld. This really would have been messy in Balamb.

"Why, Seifer?" Irvine's voice was urgent, insistent. He tried to block it out, but now the words were an unbearable pressure. He'd strangled them for too long. He refused to look back at the cowboy though, knowing that his face was anything but blank. He stared up at the sky instead, opening burning eyes to the falling light.

"Fuck you cowboy. How the hell do I know?" Bitter acid in his throat. "Couldn't fucking bear to have her take him away from me, that's all I know. What the hell that means, I have no goddamned idea. Possession maybe. Obsession. Oh hell yeah, I've been fucking obsessed over that prick for years. At the end, that bitch riding my mind like a goddamn knife at my throat, and all I could think about was the color of his eyes."

"She was controlling you."

Irvine's voice was almost a question, but relief colored it a certain shade of cool. Seifer whirled on one heel, rounding on him. His lips curled back into a feral grin even as Hyperion slashed through the air in emphatic denial.

"Don't fucking kid yourself cowboy. That was me up there, doing what I do best. She said 'destroy Trabia', so I was the one who figured out how. She said 'get the information' so I hung him up on that rack like the crucified angel he is and fucking near killed him to get it. I was the best goddamned Knight any Sorceress ever had! And a part of me fucking enjoyed it!"

For a long moment, there was only the harsh sound of his breathing echoing in his ears. His last shouted confession dwindled and was lost, swallowed by the pain between them. He stared at Kinneas, but wasn't really seeing anything.

All of it. So much hatred in Her, so intense it had eaten him alive to share it. The madness that had been Her caress. The chaos reflecting in Her eyes. He'd craved it. Even as She'd broken him open, raped his mind and his dreams, he'd still been Hers. She'd taken everything he was, everything he had to give. All of it.

Dust and ash.

"How much of that was you?" Such a quiet sound, that voice. Sane. The voice of someone that once upon a time had been his friend. He refused to soften any of the truth for it.

"Enough cowboy. Fucking enough to qualify me for the execution that I got pardoned from." His eyes refocused and he glared at the sniper. This wasn't twenty questions anymore. This was ripping pieces of his life away.

"But not all."

He bared his teeth at the sniper again. What the fuck was the man trying to do, make excuses for him?

"No, damn it. Not all. Maybe not even most. But enough. Enough that I didn't expect to be alive afterwards. Didn't fucking expect to be breathing when the dust settled. Surprised the hell out of me when Leonhart walked away without finishing the kill."

"Surprised all of us. We thought... I thought... by that point he was too far gone... t' hold back any more."

And that was too goddamn much. Too much truth. Too much memory of what he'd been. Of what he'd done. No more. No fucking more. He'd taken all he was gonna take - this goddamn game was fucking over.

Hyperion went down, anchoring itself one last time into the abused ground. He flowed across the intervening space like it wasn't there. To where the cowboy was taking shots at him, stripping away pieces of who he was.

As they landed Seifer was on top of the cowboy, one hand already starting to wrap around that smooth throat. He was only in control for a moment because the sniper arched even as they fell, throwing him off with a single twist of his hips. Seifer rolled, coming up on one knee just enough to reorient himself. Then he launched himself back at the cowboy. They rolled once more until Seifer's greater weight pinned the other man to the dirt. He straddled those lean hips and went for the throat grip again. He was going to goddamn shake something loose.

He didn't have a chance to consolidate the hold. The cowboy's hands were steel vices on his wrists, holding him back from the strangehold.

"Fuck you, Seifer." That deep jade glared at him, hot and fierce. "Broke my ribs once already today. You break 'em again and you can explain it to Leonhart."

The name choked him, made him forget almost everything else except the need to return the pain. He leaned into it, sliding his weight down the man's legs to pin them to the ground even as he pressed his hips down, lowering his centre so that he couldn't be thrown off again. Still the fingers strained over his wrists, keeping him from consolidating his hold on that lying throat. Irvine surged underneath him and he struggled to maintain his position of control. The angry fire in the cowboy's eyes only made him hotter, more focused.

In a swift motion he twisted one hand, reversing the sniper's lock on his wrist to grab for the same hold. Kinneas grunted as he yanked that arm up and over, fingers digging into the skin to numb the nerve points, to spasm the hand. He pressed his chest down to prevent the sniper's automatic slide to the side, away from the punishing pressure.

The cowboy bucked his hips, but Seifer had already set himself for that. He switched the grip to the other hand and pulled, locking the sniper's arm behind his own head, one hand pinning the forearm now to the ground. His body was already restraining the man's other arm, although he could feel that the cowboy was searching for a grip on his belt. He settled himself, letting sheer body weight pin that arm by the shoulder.

Kinneas glared at him even as he arched his body, trying to get enough leverage to throw Seifer off. It was no good. They were both breathing heavily, Seifer from anger and exertion. He grinned and used his free hand to run a finger over the sniper's lips. Teeth snapped at him, but he had the cowboy immobilized.

"My turn now," he purred, watching the lights in Kinneas' eyes flare and flicker. "I want fucking answers so start talking cowboy. Or I swear to god, I'll make you regret ever starting this with me."

His only answer was hard breathing.

"I bet you know," Seifer said almost conversationally, "why Leonhart had the judge pardon me at the trial. Its been driving me crazy, wondering what the hell was going through that fucked up head of his. Tell me Kinneas. Tell me what he meant by that."

"I. Don't. Know." Irvine spat out. Seifer grinned again as the sniper strained against him, unintentionally pressing his heated flesh closer to the Knight's. Oh, no way was the sniper getting away from him, not now. Not when he was so close to getting his answers. All of them.

"But you do know, little pet," he whispered back. He leaned down and licked softly at the side of the man's lips. Kinneas' eyes startled wide and flew to his face in shock. The body he was holding so tightly trembled and broke out into fresh heat. He let anger roll over his skin, let rage spark in his eyes and face. They were entwined around each other so close now, like lovers. He wanted to make the cowboy hurt, like he was hurting.

"You. Know. Why." He licked again at that warm skin, tasting salt, tasting heat. He nuzzled farther down, licking at the curve of jawline. Underneath him, Kinneas broke out into fresh refusal. He rode it, shifting his weight to keep himself in control. By inches they struggled, even as Seifer used the punishing grip on the arm to keep Kinneas pinned beneath him. When finally the sniper came to a panting halt, his body was still wired and trembling but Seifer could feel no more resistance.

When Seifer licked again at the strong throat, Kinneas didn't struggle. Not to say the sniper was passive, no, anything but that. But Seifer had his arm twisted so hard now that any further motion would break it at the joints. Almost whimpers were shuddering from between those lips, but still the sniper did not yield. Seifer approved. He definitely approved.

"Tell me my pet," he purred once more. "What the fuck was Leonhart thinking?"

"Told you, asshole," came the faint response, "that I don't fuckin' know."

He applied the faintest twitch of pressure on that arm and felt the helpless surge in the sniper's body. He knew how to do this. Knew how to break a man. How to strip away that which was unnecessary and leave behind only the body which was pain. Knew how to take the agony and transmute it into exquisitely pure sensation.

Been there. Done that.

"Guess," he whispered.

"Fuck you Seifer. He didn't want you t' die."

"Fuck that cowboy," he denied softly. He brushed his lips over that shaking skin, breathing in the scent of cinnamon and metal. "Leonhart tried to put that damn blade of his through my heart more times that I wanna think about. Guess again."

Kinneas managed a small headshake, his glazed eyes stabbing impossibly deep into Seifer's.

"He won't let you die," the cowboy said again, insistently. "You're th' one. You're th' key. This mornin', he told me."

Aqua jade stripped him apart, tore his heart open with that burning color.

"Said that th' reason was because he had t' save me. An' you know why I had to be saved? Because he wouldn't fuckin' allow Her to take anyone else from him. Who the fuck d'y' think he meant by that?" Kinneas laughed, the merest puff of breath against his cheek. "Sound familiar, asshole?"

Rage flared, trembled on the edge of culmination. His grip spasmed and Kinneas arched, screaming beneath him as his arm was pulled nearly to the breaking point. Seifer released the tension by a mere finger's width, stroking his free hand over the straining flesh of the cowboy's body, like he might calm an animal. Without even thinking about it, he danced his fingers over the buttons of the vest to release the material. It fell away to reveal the smooth chest that glowed and twisted under his searching fingers. He ran a rough hand over that heat, feeling muscles tremble and twitch beneath his sensitive touch.

"Beautiful, my pet," he murmured, eyes slitted.

"Goddamn you, Seifer," Kinneas panted into his skin. "Not your fuckin' pet. Let go!"

He didn't bother replying, stroking the smooth line of ribs exposed by his caress. Hot and dusty, the smell of gunpowder and metal mingled with the scent of crushed grass and dirt. He stroked a hand up and down that quivering skin, feeling the twitch and shudder of muscles strained to near breaking. He'd been here before, done this before. The memory of lightning and ozone rode his senses, the hard tang of metal in his mouth. It had been sweeter than honey then.

It was just as sweet now.

He looked into the cowboy's face, so close to his own. Those violet-jade eyes had almost closed, their brilliance hidden now by gold dusted lashes that fluttered over that sun warmed flesh. Blood flecked those lips where they'd been bitten. It was one of the most arousing things he'd ever seen. To feel the fight still trembling beneath him, and to have that face turned into his shoulder, the smooth colum of throat exposed.

He didn't even bother trying to resist the urge.

When he lifted his head, blood was smeared over that smooth skin, staining everything in shades of crimson and gold. Scalding copper filled his mouth. He licked his lips, letting the taste shudder all the way down his body. Gods, but the cowboy was one of the sweetest things he'd ever had. The man had arched beneath him but hadn't protested, hadn't struggled. The blazing heat of the sniper's body was radiating through them both. It was too much. It was too goddamn much.

And it had been so long.

He gave up questions, gave up thinking at all. He sank his hand into the fan spread of hair, spreading his fingers through that wealth of color. Tilted that beautiful face towards his and branded his kiss hard onto that unwilling flesh. It was intoxicating, the domination and the shuddering body beneath him. He burned his desire onto the lips below his, bruising them, forcing himself onto that stained skin.

Over and over again, he tried to break through that skin to the buried fire beneath. It was there and it was rising for him. He could all but feel it, all but fucking taste it on the breath that panted against his lips. He took that surrender and gave it back, used hands and body to bring that furnace heat to the surface where he wanted it to be. Somewhere along the way he released the grip on the man's arm, desperate to get his hands into that glorious hair.

Because somewhere along the way the cowboy started to kiss him back.

Blood. Desire. Skin hot enough to burn. Lips that were sweet with copper, teeth that bit and tore at his skin. He growled low in his throat, threading his fingers behind the jaw even as he sank into the offered heat. Fuck but the cowboy could kiss.

When Kinneas rolled him over he didn't protest, let the man straddle his hips. He looked up with eyes slitted in pleasure even as his hands slid up the man's thighs, digging into that hard flesh. Blood was trickling down from the wound on the throat, staining that dusky skin the color of violence. The cowboy's eyes were nearly closed, only a thin crescent of smouldering violet showing. Amber hair had tumbled everywhere and Seifer groaned, thrusting up against the pinning weight. Breath hissed out from between the cowboy's teeth as his head snapped back.

It had been so long.

When the cowboy looked down again, Seifer smiled savagely at the raw heat on the man's face. Kinneas looked about as far gone as he felt, and he was only barely hanging onto his need to finish this. He wanted. Needed.

"What color are my eyes?" the man asked in a husky voice.

He licked his lips. That barely contained heat stared back at him.

"Violet. Pure fucking amethyst," he said rawly. He surged up and sank his hands into that tumbled hair, twisting his body to pin the cowboy so that they sprawled in a tangled heap. Mindlessly he kissed those burning lips, licking at that clever tongue. He wanted to devour the man alive. So fucking hot. So sweet. He moved down to the throat, the hollow of the collarbone. His hand moved over the curve of the man's hip, stroking the thigh through the rough fabric.

"What color they supposed t' be?"

He froze. Involuntarily his eyes closed even as his heart counted out the rhythm of his strangled silence.

"Goddamn you cowboy," he said finally, in a voice that was a harsh whisper. "Silver. They're supposed to be fucking silver."

He thrust himself away before he could give in to the urge to break something. He gained his feet in a rush and walked unsteadily away. He refused to look at the man he left stretched out on the ground behind him. He ran suddenly trembling fingers through his hair, scrubbing at the skin on his face. His body was aching, still craved those burning honey kisses. But the cowboy had nailed him, more surely than if he'd put a bullet through his heart.

They were supposed to be silver.

He heard Kinneas get slowly to his feet behind him. He didn't - couldn't turn around. Felt like he'd been running a damn marathon, his breathing strained and harsh. He hooked his thumbs savagely through the loops on his belt and shook his body violently. Desire was heavy slickness on his skin, but a choked, helpless anger was winding around his heart. Damn the cowboy. Damn him for reminding him of what he wanted to forget.

He felt the spell trigger, the slight sensation of cold as Kinneas Healed himself. But even when the soft footsteps moved up behind him he didn't turn around. Unexpectedly hands settled on his waist and warm breath caressed the back of his neck. His eyes startled wide even as he felt the cowboy lean into his body.

He swallowed convulsively but didn't move, didn't protest the intimacy. Even now, it felt too damn good to be touched by that warmth.

"All that's left is fragments," Kinneas said unexpectedly, his voice a single thread of smoke behind him, "an' the only thing holdin' the pieces together is th' ice. When the ice finally cracks from the pressure, they'll be nothin' left." Impossible not believe those quiet, fatalistic words.

"How bad, cowboy?" he blindly asked the air.

"Shattered," came the strained reply, "broken like glass inside. You... you're the only one that might know how t' put what's left back together. Ressurect some of the pieces maybe. I... can't, he jus' won't let me get far enough inside. But you can. You're th' only one that has a hope in hell of knowin' how."

He started to shake his head, feeling Kinneas' grip spasm on his belt.

"You're giving me too much goddamn credit, cowboy," he replied, "Leonhart has always shut me the fuck out. I've spent my whole goddamn life trying to get inside those walls. What the hell makes you think I can do anything now?"

Behind him he felt Kinneas breathing, the warmth shivering over the nape of his neck . When the voice came, it was so ragged that it was barely recognisable.

"Maybe.. maybe you can't. But if that's true then he's a walkin' dead man. We just haven't buried him yet."

Dread clutched at his heart. Compelled, he turned in the circle of those strong arms to look straight into the cowboy's eyes. He was met with hard turquoise jade, not even a shimmer of amethyst in those depths. Irvine's warm hands remained a solid connection at his waist but he barely felt them. He searched those eyes, looking for anything that might lessen the flat horror of those words.

Nothing. The cowboy was fucking bleeding inside over what he'd said. He believed that Leonhart was a walking dead man.

And Kinneas wouldn't say something like that unless it was damn well true.

"Goddamn you, cowboy," he growled, suddenly angry again, "don't you fucking dare lay this on me. I ain't Leonhart's personal goddamn savior!"

"You'd better fuckin' be," Kinneas said with an answering flare, "'cause I'm trustin' you t' do this! If you turn around an' walk away he'll be dead within th' month. He'll walk into the Centre late one night an' he just won't come back out. He can't take a goddamn knife to his wrist so he's tryin' to find another way t' end his pain. You find a way t' fuckin' save him Seifer, or I'll never fuckin' forgive you!"

He stared into those burning eyes so close to his own, shocked at the vehemence. As he watched, a bead of moisture curved away from one clear eye. And then another.

"Fuck cowboy," he groaned, his heart aching hard enough to shatter, "don't you fall apart on me." He reached out and brushed away the clear stickiness with a rough thumb.

"It seems that it's all I can damn well do is cry for him," the cowboy said viciously. "Save him Seifer. If he dies, I don't know how I'm s'pposed to go on livin' either." A faint, mocking smile twisted for a moment on those lips. "An' I'm too damn handsome to die young."

"Got that fuckin' right," he agreed throatily. It seemed the thing to do so he leaned in and kissed the cowboy. Salt and sorrow this time, but still sweet, still a warmth he was starting to wonder how he'd ever done without. He finally broke the kiss and pulled back, but only far enough to rest his forehead on Kinneas'.

"Can't promise a goddamn thing cowboy," he finally sighed. "Leonhart...Squall's the coldest fucking bastard I've ever met. And I've met more than a few," he said with a haunted ghost of a smile. He looked hard into the cowboy's eyes, seeing the raw hurt turning deep in that color. That vulnerability didn't seem even remotely odd in that steady gaze, the hands that had once pulled the trigger that had nearly killed him now resting possessively on his skin.

"I'll give you this much Kinneas," he said quietly after a long moment. "If he fucking dares to take the long walk after we're done trying to save his ass, you and me are gonna get together. We'll get the drunkest we've ever fucking got on the most expensive thing we can steal, we'll screw each other until we damn well can't see straight and then we'll both start walking after him. Fucking deal?"

Warm breath puffed against his lips for a few moments as Kinneas' laughed silently. Caught his breath to see the rise of violet in that jade. Goddamn cowboy. Never what you thought he was and never afraid to show it. Leonhart was a fool to walk away from this.

"Melodramatic asshole," the man finally breathed at him. "Deal."

"Alright cowboy, alright. I'm too goddamn beautiful to die young either, so let's go nail Leonhart to the goddamn wall."

And with that he broke away to find Hyperion.

Return to Archive | next | previous