The Redcrosse Knight
Part 7 - whisper
By fyre byrd
The ocean sounds much louder at night with only the orange canvas walls of a tent between Squall and Seifer and the outdoors. The waves sound like they could be howling and lapping at the edge of the tent, when really Seifer and Squall are quite a distance away from the shore, beyond the sand dunes where the ground is a bit more solid.
The sound of the sea is at once soothing and frightening to Squall. On its own it is a lovely lulling sound, but it suggests the violence of the water which boils up white around the rocks during a storm, throwing up huge pieces of driftwood, moving stones and sand and tangles of seaweed up past the tide mark. Sometimes stranger things turn up on shore as well: a broken tea-cup, the head of a porcelain doll, scraps of clothing, twisted and ripped beyond recognition, a shoe, lost things, things that are maybe missed.
The other children sometimes put messages in corked bottles and throw them out from the tip of the peninsula. They are only allowed when Mrs. Kramer is with them because of the undertow, caused by the currents of water meeting at that point. Usually the bottles wash up on shore again, but if Squall and Seifer find them, they hide them from the children at the top of the lighthouse out of kindness. Yet, some of the bottles never do come back, just like Seifer is maybe never going to come back.
"Idiot," Seifer says, nudging Squall's knee and making a swishy noise as his arm brushes the floor of the tent. "It's your turn."
"Oh, yeah, sorry." Squall puts down a card and Seifer makes a noise of triumph as he flips Squall's card over to its blue side. Seifer always makes Squall take the red side because he says it is definitely not red, it's pink and Squall is more girly. Squall retorts that it's more girly to worry so much about colours.
"That was a stupid move," Seifer says, ruffling Squall's hair. Squall frowns and slaps at his hand. "You're lucky we're not actually playing for cards tonight."
"Oh, I could win them back if I wanted to," Squall replies, casually.
"That so?" Seifer asks, smirking. "Let's go another round then, and you can eat your words."
The glass lantern throws warm light on Seifer's face. He looks different, his cheekbones sharper and his hair paler. Squall wants to reach out and stroke the lamplight gilded lock of hair back from Seifer's eyes while he bends over the Triple Triad grid gathering up his cards. Squall reaches for his own cards instead, his fingers brushing Seifer's. The touch sends tingles up his arm, but he ignores them as he always does and tries to enjoy the feeling of safety and closeness that the orange canvas tent encloses.
In a week Seifer goes away to Balamb Garden, away across the sea. Mrs. Kramer showed Squall on a map in her Atlas. The edges of the map were decorated with sea creatures with long pointed teeth and scales, and writhing undulant bodies. Squall knows that such creatures are only myths, but they still make him a little uneasy. They're symbols, aren't they? Symbols of the unknown that used to hover on the edges of maps and to Squall, Balamb, although he can see it marked out on the paper in Mrs. Kramer's book, is unknown territory.
So Squall is hugging the tent close around him. He is staring at Seifer and memorizing the angle of his jawbone in the wavering light.
"Squall!" Seifer's hand closes over Squall's shoulder and he jumps, dropping cards. "It's your turn again," Seifer says, watching the cards flutter onto Squall's lap. "Maybe we should do something else," Seifer offers, laughter in his eyes, which look darker in the lamplight than they do in the sunlight. In this tent Seifer's eyes are the colour of pine needles.
"I'm sorry," Squall says, and he feels sorry too, to be wasting the time that is left. Mrs. Kramer has relieved them of lessons for the week and has let them spend it camping out in the tent. It is a nice balance between being independent and not. They can go inside if they need anything, but they are alone out here, just the two of them and they can imagine themselves out in a wilderness if they want.
"Naw, it's okay," Seifer says, scooping up the cards and folding up the Triple Triad board and returning them to their box. "I didn't really want to play that much anyway."
"But what'll we do instead?" Squall asks, idly shuffling his cards before putting them away in their faded cardboard pack which is held together mainly with tape.
"Why don't you tell me some more of those stories of yours?" Seifer asks, yawning and stretching out on his sleeping bag. The fabric of the sleeping bag hisses beneath Seifer's bare feet and his t-shirt rides up so that a slice of his tanned stomach shows, shining bronze in the lamplight.
"All right," Squall says. He can never resist when Seifer asks anything of him, so it is useless to argue. Anyway he likes having Seifer's attention focused completely on him. Seifer watches him when he tells stories, Squall can feel Seifer's gaze while his lips form the words of the tales he reads in books of legends about knights and sorceresses. Except Seifer isn't looking at him now, he's gazing at his own bare toes.
"There were two knights named Damon and Pythias," Squall pokes his finger at the smooth slice of Seifer's stomach. Seifer sucks in his breath and laughs. He slaps at Squall's hand.
"Knock it off, jerk," he says.
"I wasn't sure you were listening," Squall replies, blinking.
"I'm listening," Seifer scowls and folds his arms back behind his head.
"So the two of them were really good friends," Squall continues, remembering the story as he speaks, slowly and deliberately. Sometimes he changes the stories a little on purpose, sometimes he realizes when he re-reads them that he has changed them in his head without even being aware of it.
"While they were fighting in the wars . . . "
"The Sorceress Wars?" Seifer interrupts. Squall looks at Seifer, sprawled out against his sleeping bag and shrugs.
"Sure, the Sorceress Wars. Well, they got captured by the king they were fighting against."
"Tough luck," Seifer remarks, leaning on one elbow so that he is closer to Squall. When Seifer speaks Squall can feel Seifer's breath warming the hand that lays near Seifer's face. If he moves his fingers a little further he'll feel Seifer's lips paint the words against the back of his hand. "They must have been poor fighters to get caught anyway."
"No, they were the best knights in their kingdom, but things just went wrong and they were outnumbered in a foreign country. So it was just very bad luck and it got worse. The king decided to execute Pythias to prove a point to the opposing army. But Pythias had family who he wanted to provide for before his death. So he begged the king for permission to return home to set his affairs in order. But the king demanded that Damon stay with him so that if Pythias did not return on the appointed day his friend would be killed in his place."
"He agreed to that?" Seifer examines his left hand where it rests against his leg. His eyelashes throw lacy shadows on his sharp cheekbones.
"What other choice did he have?"
"They should have fought their way out of it, back to back, if they were such good knights," Seifer bites off the words, clenching his quivering fist on his thigh.
"But what good would that have done?" Squall asks, shrugging. "This way, at least one of them could go home and then maybe one of them could go free.
"But . . ."
"Let me continue the story, okay?" Squall says. He isn't irritated. This is the way that Seifer likes to listen to stories. He can't seem to help asking questions and interrupting. It shows Squall that Seifer's interested anyway. Squall laces his fingers together in his lap.
"So Pythias went home and Damon stayed. As the day of the execution got closer, the king began to make fun of Damon for placing such trust in Pythias. He said that any man in Pythias' position would want to save his own skin, not worry about his friend's."
Seifer brings his hand to his mouth and bites at his fingernail and frowns, "what did Damon think about that?"
"He just smiled and told the king that his friend would certainly return for him and even if he didn't, that Damon would think of his own death as a worthy exchange for his friend's."
"So," Seifer sounds a little breathless, "what happened?"
"On the appointed day, Pythias still had not returned. Damon was standing before the king, awaiting his death. He stood there straight and tall and unafraid and the king was amazed, but he was going to kill him anyway in just a few hours. For most of the afternoon he stood there, hoping less and less for his friend to return, but still standing calmly, not raging or weeping." Seifer is biting his finger, staring at Squall.
"But Damon arrived just before the appointed hour." Squall continues, not wanting to keep his audience in too much suspense.
"His clothes were torn, his face was gaunt, and his feet were bloody, but he stood before the king and demanded that Damon be released now that he had fulfilled his part of the bargain. But the king was astonished at Pythias' loyalty to his friend and he asked about his ragged appearance and his late arrival."
"Yes, why did he wait till the very last minute?" Seifer's eyes repeat the question, darting from Squall's eyes to his lips.
"He didn't. Not purposely, anyway," Squall replies, throwing himself down on his stomach beside Seifer. Now his face is just inches away from Seifer's. "Pythias explained to the king how the ship he had a passage on was attacked and every last one of their things stolen and how he journeyed many many miles on foot, counting the days and hurrying, tearing up his feet because they'd taken his shoes, eating nothing but berries and roots. The king was so impressed that he let both of the knights go away free."
Squall shifts over onto his back, his bare feet making a hissing sound against the slippery fabric of his sleeping bag as he turns his body. It feels good beneath his feet. He slides them back and forth a little.
"I still think they should have fought their way out of it, together." Seifer says, picking at the fraying edge of his blue jeans. "But it worked out for the best, I guess. Do you think someone would really do that?" Squall looks over at Seifer. He is staring at the ceiling of the tent, his eyes unfocused and vague with thought.
"I would, for you," Squall says. His throat feels tight. He swallows anyway and it almost hurts. His eyes are stinging. "Seifer, am I going to see you again?"
Seifer looks at Squall and his eyes are profoundly watchful now, not distant at all.
"Tell you what," Seifer says, "let's make a promise."
"Yeah," Seifer rubs his index finger across his lips, like he's thinking hard to get the words right. "If you ever need me, or I ever need you, we'll just send each other a message. It can be something really simple, like . . . I'll be here."
"I'll be here?"
"I don't get it," Squall says, turning onto his side to face Seifer more comfortably.
"Well, it's simple," Seifer says, facing Squall too and gripping his shoulder lightly. "We'll make a promise to meet here whenever we get that message."
"Right here?" Squall asks.
"Yeah, right here at the orphanage. Neither of us is likely to forget how to get here." Seifer clutches Squall's shoulder gently. "Squall," he whispers, peering at his friend, leaning towards him. "Squall, you're shaking." Squall feels like someone is squeezing his heart. His eyes are stinging even more now that Seifer is being kind to him, making this promise. "So if you ever need me or I ever need you we'll meet here. Do you promise?"
"I promise," Squall replies, feeling hopeless. Seifer is really leaving, and Squall feels like he'll need him twice a day, every day, but obviously this kind of promise isn't for something as frivolous as that kind of everyday need. Squall feels his eyes get wet. His shoulders shudder and he holds back a sob.
Seifer's eyes go wide. Squall can barely see him through the blur.
"Oh Squall," he says. He releases Squall's shoulder and sits up. For a minute Squall thinks he may be turning away in disgust, getting up to leave now, but instead Seifer hauls Squall up by the shoulders and pulls him awkwardly and roughly against his chest and holds him, tight. Squall makes some gulping sobbing noises and scrubs at his eyes with the hand that isn't wrapped around Seifer's shoulders.
"I'll be here," Seifer says, rubbing Squall's back. "I'll be here."
Squall brushes his knuckles against his eyes again and again, but it takes awhile for the tears to stop, even with Seifer's arms around him. Having Seifer's arms around him makes Squall feel like maybe everything will be okay, but then he remembers that soon he won't be able to have Seifer's arms around him and he feels like he might be this soggy and stupid forever. Seifer pulls back a little and brushes his cheek against Squall's, probably getting it all wet. At least Squall doesn't have a runny nose. That'd be gross. Whenever Zell cries he gets a runny nose and wipes it on his sleeves. Squall wonders if knights ever need tissue. The thought is too depressing and he stops. Seifer is rubbing his cheek back and forth against Squall's. Then he pulls back some more and looks at Squall solemnly again.
"Going to be okay?" he asks, brushing his thumb against Squall's other cheek to gather up the moisture there. He sucks it off of his thumb and smiles stupidly. "Salty," he remarks. Squall feels himself smile without meaning to. His lips feel shaky, but he can't help it anyway.
"Stupid," he says fondly.
Seifer won't look away from him. He keeps on looking and at first Squall thinks that it is his imagination that the space between them is getting smaller, but then Seifer's lips are brushing his damp cheeks, the tip of his tongue leaving its own slick trail against Squall's skin. It should be incredibly gross, but it makes Squall's face heat up instead and the pit of his stomach.
"What're you doing?" Squall asks, not sure if he wants an explanation or not.
"Salty," Seifer repeats, as if it's an answer. He is looking into Squall's eyes, searching for something. Then his lips are on Squall's lips, just pressing lightly. Squall opens his mouth, surprised and Seifer's lips are open too, dragging against Squall's, pressing and moving against Squall's lips, making that feeling in his stomach deepen and intensify. Seifer's breath is heating Squall's mouth, he swipes his tongue against Squall's lips and Squall wants more, but doesn't know how to ask for it. His hands are limp at his side with surprise and just when he thinks of using them again, to grab at Seifer and make him keep going, Seifer stops, abruptly, lets go of Squall's arms, and lays down in his own space again with his eyes closed. "M'sorry," Seifer says.
Squall doesn't say anything. There aren't any words left in his head, they've all been melted down in his stomach where the pleasant twinges of heat are slowly dissipating. He slides into his sleeping bag with his fingers on his lips, still lacking the appropriate words or actions to ask for more. Seifer puts out the lamp and touches Squall's arm lightly, raises his hand up instantly as if the touch was hurtful, then lets his fingertips come to light on Squall's shoulder again, nervous as a butterfly.
"Sorry," he repeats. "Promise?"
"Promise," Squall replies, feeling too dazed to be sad. The sounds of the sea drift into Squall's dreams with the weight of Seifer's fingers on his shoulder, anchoring him to this moment.
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