Into Esthar

BY : Chemotaxis
Category: Final Fantasy VIII > Yaoi - Male/Male
Dragon prints: 999
Disclaimer: We do not own Final Fantasy or any of the characters in this story, nor do we profit from writing this story.

 




~ Chapter Fourteen - Turning Point ~



[Outside the Police Headquarters, Vana'diel Avenue, Sphinxara District, Tuesday, 21st of October, 10:17 am]

Switching on the engine of his car, Calder pulled out of the parking lot in front of the police headquarters. Next to him Rinoa looked distant, a frown on her brow. In the rear view mirror, he could see Seifer's grim and vacant expression.

"What are you expecting to find?" he asked, frowning. It had sounded like the commander had simply gone missing, but Rinoa and Seifer's expressions told a different story.

"We can't be sure, but... he might need help."

Calder pushed down harder on the gas pedal. "It shouldn't take long."

For the rest of the drive no one said a word. Calder didn't know what to say or do. He'd never expected to meet anyone from Seifer's past after so long, let alone be thrown head first into a hunt for the SeeD Commander—the blond's ex-sparring partner and latest one night stand. But the silence in the car was oppressive, not allowing any room for questions.

When the driveway of the target hotel finally came into view, he shook off the many questions milling through his head and pulled over. In the back of the car, Seifer shifted in his seat, but before he could tell the blond to wait up, the man was out of the car, rushing towards the cheap looking building.

With Seifer disappearing inside the hotel, about to cause Hyne knows what kind of havoc, Rinoa quickly got out of the car as well, striding after the blond. Entering the small foyer crammed with worn down furniture and carpets, she hastened her steps. This was exactly the kind of place Squall would pick for himself.

"What do you mean you haven't seen anyone like that?" Seifer growled at the old woman behind the reception desk. It wasn't hard to remember a guy like Squall. First of all, the man had a scar cut across his forehead, and second of all, he looked like a fucking dream compared to the rest of the lowlifes in there. He narrowed his eyes, his knuckles growing white as he clenched his fists. Squall was close by, most likely in pain, and he couldn't do a damned thing about it.

Upon seeing the impatient blond scaring the living daylight out of the reception lady, Rinoa painted a disarming smile on her face and pushed the man aside.

"Please excuse my friend, Miss. He has a bit of a... temper problem, but he means well," she said, keeping her voice light.

Noticing that the woman was casting Seifer a wary look, she continued politely, "We're looking for our friend, Elios Vargha. He should be staying here. He was supposed to meet us some time ago, but it seems he must have overslept. Could you please point us in the direction of his room?"

The reception lady gave a reluctant nod, her eyes glancing once more at the now quietly seething blond before turning to her computer. "Let me check the register for you." After a moment of searching, a relieved look crossed her expression. "That would be room 326, on the third floor."

Having all the information he needed, Seifer scanned the foyer for the nearest stairwell. There was no way he was going to wait for an elevator. Setting off into a jog, he hurried to the third floor. As he ran up the stairs and down a narrow corridor, his eyes darted from door to door, his heart hammering in his chest. At the number "326" he stopped abruptly in place.

"Squall, open up!" he yelled, pounding his fists against the locked door. When no reply came, he cursed under his breath.

Running down the hallway, Rinoa stopped behind Seifer, her breath labored at having run two flights of stairs. "Would you wait for a second?" she huffed, before taking in the closed door separating them from the brunet. "Can't you bust the door open?"

Distancing himself from the door to gain momentum, Seifer threw himself against it full force. When it didn't budge, he tried again, repeating the move until the door finally gave way.

Inside, the small hotel room was cast in darkness, its heavy curtains closed and the air stale. The warm beam of light that fell in from the doorway revealed a bed, the sheets messy. Switching on the light, Seifer continued farther into the room.

A tatty armchair stood in the corner, some bags resting on top of it. Two gunblade cases were placed next to it, neatly aligned. He recognized one of the cases, knew the pattern of scratches on the worn black leather like the back of his hand. Revolver.

Heart beating faster, he took in the state of the rest of the room: a paper bag had fallen onto its side on top of a wooden dresser, revealing small pill jars inside. One jar lay abandoned on the floor.

Pushing open the only other door in the room, Seifer fumbled for the light switch. Cold light flooded the room, revealing white, tiled walls.

And Squall.

The brunet was slumped against the side of the bathtub, his head resting awkwardly against its edge, and his eyes wrenched shut in reaction to the sudden bright light.

In a split second Seifer was kneeling in front of Squall, his hand against the man's cheek. At the burning heat that met his touch, he grit his teeth.

"Squall," he demanded loudly, but only received a pained grimace in response. Gripping hold of Squall's arms tightly, he shook the man. But nothing happened—Squall's eyes remained shut, only a slight wince betraying the brunet had even felt the forceful grip.

A loud gasp left Rinoa as she halted in the bathroom doorway, her eyes falling to the limp form next to Seifer. Her world froze along with the breath in her lungs, before she registered the flushed color to Squall's skin and the rise and fall of his chest.

"Turn off the lights," Seifer bit out as he snuck an arm behind Squall's shoulders and another beneath the man's knees, hauling him up from the floor. Hot, damp skin and hair met his neck as the brunet's head tilted to rest against him. Tightening his grip, he clenched his jaws.

"Where do we take him? Odine's lab or a hospital?" he asked firmly, carrying the brunet into the other room.

Quickly switching off the light, Rinoa watched wordlessly as Seifer placed Squall on the bed. She had heard Seifer's question, but thoughts on what they should do failed to form. She could only see Squall's unmoving form as big tears rolled down her cheeks. She had done this to him.

"Rinoa, get Odine on the phone, now," Seifer ordered as he disappeared into the bathroom again, whatever patience he'd mustered earlier long gone.

When Calder entered the dark room through the busted-in door, he found a crying Rinoa talking on her cell phone. He'd only lingered in the car for a couple of moments, but it had been long enough to seriously lag behind, the key he'd acquired to the commander's room sitting uselessly in his pocket.

Following Rinoa's gaze, his eyes landed on the unmoving form lying on the bed. The SeeD commander. He was much younger than Calder had imagined: their age. A slender brunet, shorter than himself. Nothing at all like what the stories had led him to believe. Returning his gaze to Rinoa, he watched the flow of unrestrained tears, the girl's cheeks already tinged red. The scene was unlike anything he'd imagined.

Inside the bathroom, Seifer was busy soaking some towels in cold water, his lips down-turned and his movements rushed by the need to be back by Squall's side. Turning off the tap, he hurried back into the bedroom and wrapped the fabric around Squall's wrists.

"... No, I'm okay. The seals and the amulet work fine... No. It's Squall... He's very sick..." Casting a brief glance at the brunet lying on the hotel bed, Rinoa felt new tears well up instantly at the sight. "He has a fever and isn't responding."

Frowning at what the doctor was saying, she moved to scan the dark room, her eyes finally settling on a brown bag. Walking to the dresser, she took the paper bag in hand and inspected the medication inside. "He didn't take any of it," she said softly. Listening intently to the man on the other end of the line, she fished out one of the plastic jars, carefully checking its labeling.

With a trembling hand she held out the medication to Seifer. "One pill every 12 hours. For when his fever gets too high," she repeated the doctor's words, her voice thick.

Taking the plastic container from Rinoa, Seifer got out a pill and fetched some water from the bathroom. Back by Squall's side, he lowered himself onto the edge of the bed and gently lifted Squall's head, placing a pillow beneath it.

"... I don't know when... No, we just got to him..." Rinoa said from behind him, continuing her conversation with the doctor.

"Come on, you gotta take this," he urged as he slipped the pill into Squall's mouth. Tilting the glass in his other hand, he poured some water in as well, hoping Squall's reflexes would kick in. When the brunet swallowed the pill without any problems, he allowed himself a deep breath.

"... I don't understand... But then why was he able to drive his car all the way here? ... He did, his car is parked right outside... Okay." Turning to face Seifer again, Rinoa issued Odine's next instruction. "Check his eyes."

Frowning, Seifer did as requested. Drawing up the brunet's eyelids, he froze into place at the sight that greeted him. Squall's eyes were shifting between gray-blue and a glowing silver, never remaining one color for long.

"It's his junction with Shiva—it's messed up," he said, transfixed.

Relaying the information to the doctor, Rinoa's eyes darkened, before she snapped sharply, "I don't care about your theories. I want to know if it's bad." Humming in understanding, the frown on her brow abated.

"He needs to unjunction now. The strain is too much."

Pushed into action by Rinoa's words, Seifer stood from the bed. "Calder," he ordered, not taking his eyes off Squall. "Hold him down."

Hesitating for only a moment, Calder hurried to the other side of the bed and pressed his hands against the commander's chest.

Leaning in over Squall, Seifer placed a hand at either side of Squall's head and aligned their eyes. "Relax, Squall," he said gently as he moved his thumb against the brunet's cheek. "Give her to me."

As he located the familiar bond between Guardian Force and master, he closed his eyes and focused all of his attention on drawing the icy goddess. Not only did he have to break the fluctuating junction, he also had to pry Shiva away from her favorite host.

The moment he managed to establish a magical connection, he opened his eyes to see tendrils of glowing magic materialize between them. Watching as the ethereal flow grew stronger, he increased his pull. Squall's eyes flew open in response, revealing intense silver irises regarding him in offense. Shiva seized firmer hold of the brunet's mind, not about to give Squall up.

Using everything he'd learned about magic at Garden, Seifer fought Shiva's resistance. He had never been good at communicating with Guardian Forces, so he tried his best to project the detrimental effect she was having on Squall. As she wavered in her resolve, the bond started to give way.

Breaking into a seizure, Squall convulsed violently beneath Seifer as the drawing process stretched on. The flowing magic flickered brighter than before, becoming almost blinding in its intensity. When the room was plunged back into darkness, the brunet went limp on the bed.

Instantly punished with a crippling headache, Seifer grasped at his forehead. Dry heaving, he rushed into the bathroom, the sound of retching soon following.

Taking a brief look at the man lying motionless beneath him, Calder pushed away from the bed. He wasn't sure what had just taken place, but he didn't like it one bit. Eyeing Rinoa carefully, he walked past her into the bathroom. He'd seen magic used a fair number of times, enough to know Seifer had drawn something. A something called "Shiva."

"What the hell just happened?" he demanded when his eyes fell on Seifer, the blond leaning over the sink.

Seifer didn't answer. Instead, he turned around and emptied his stomach into the toilet.

Expression stark, Calder narrowed his eyes. What he'd witnessed just moments before meant Seifer knew magic; it meant Seifer could use magic. And with Seifer's apparent connection to the SeeD commander, he would hazard a guess Seifer was connected to SeeD as well. Wanting some answers, he opened his mouth to speak, but was immediately cut short.

"Not now," Seifer said firmly, needing to see Squall.

Frowning, Calder remained in place. He hated being pushed to the sidelines like this, hated seeing Seifer in pain.

"Move," Seifer ordered, not about to be slowed down by the man's misplaced concern.

Calder stared at the blond. "You'll tell me everything later?"

Gritting his teeth, Seifer yielded to a nod to get the man off his case. Immediately making it clear that this would be his only concession, he pushed past Calder, but abruptly came to a halt inside the other room. On the bed, Rinoa was gently dabbing away beads of sweat clinging to Squall's flushed skin as she spoke with Odine on the phone. Beneath her touch, Squall lay entirely still. Feeling like an intruder, Seifer looked away, trying to ignore the jealousy the scene inspired. It was Rinoa's job to take care of Squall, not his.

"... So, that's all?" Rinoa asked, her movements stilling as her hand clenched around the damp towel in her grip. "Isn't there anything else we can do?" Face falling as the eccentric doctor replied, she slowly dropped the hand holding the cell phone to her lap.

Averting her gaze from Squall, Rinoa pushed up from the bed and turned to regard Seifer, the blond looking much worse for wear. "Are you feeling okay? Is Shiva giving you a hard time?"

Breaking Rinoa's gaze, Seifer ignored her questions and looked over to Squall instead. Apart from the brunet's damp hair and skin, it seemed as if the man was merely sleeping. "What did Odine say?"

Sighing at Seifer's single-minded behavior, Rinoa gave a defeated shrug. "... A lot of things," she answered faintly. "Junctioning Shiva at the moment of severing must have helped delaying... this..." she said softly, her gaze traveling to the brunet. "But the strain caused by breaking our bond... It takes a composed mind to control a junction. It must have backfired, for both of them... Shiva wouldn't harm Squall on purpose."

She rubbed at the tears staining her eyes and cheeks. "Why does he always need to put on a strong front? ... For Hyne's sake, he's probably been like this ever since—" Not finishing her sentence, her gaze dropped to the floor, her shoulders starting to shake with sobs.

"Will there be any permanent damage?" Seifer asked coldly, feeling little compassion for the girl when she was the one who had brought this upon Squall in the first place.

When Rinoa continued sobbing, making no sign of having heard the blond's question, Calder moved away from his position at the back of the room.

Eyes opening wide as she felt a steadying hand on her arm, Rinoa briefly allowed herself to draw comfort from Calder's touch. Reining in her tears, she realized she needed to be calm if she was going to be of any use. After a small smile sent Calder's way, she took a deep breath and met Seifer's gaze.

"...When we went to Odine for help, our main concern was—was keeping my powers dormant," she began, reluctant to explain how little they knew. "His field of expertise is sorceresses and para-magic. Not knights... What happens when they are cut off... Odine said he didn't know for sure. And now... with Shiva... We'll have to wait until Squall wakes up to be sure."

Turning his back to them, Seifer slammed his fist against the wall. Only a week ago Squall had been fine.

Standing perfectly still, Calder looked at Rinoa with wide eyes. "You're... a sorceress?"

About to ask Seifer whether he'd been like this after Ultimecia's death, Rinoa quickly swallowed the question. Cursing her big mouth and distracted state of mind, she knew it was too late to retract what she had said.

"Yes," she replied in a flat voice, keeping her eyes on the man who was regarding her in obvious shock, ready to pick up on any warning signs. She knew what Estharians thought of sorceresses, had experienced their way of dealing with one first hand.

"But... I thought they were extinct," Calder said with a frown. That's what he'd been taught at school. He'd seen pictures of Adel. Rinoa looked nothing like that vile creature. "How?"

His blood pressure skyrocketing at Calder's interference—at choosing this moment to start his questions, Seifer turned around. "No," he demanded. "Not. Now."

"But—" Calder's words died on his tongue. He'd never seen Seifer so angry before. Glancing over at Rinoa, he couldn't reconcile what he knew about sorceresses with the harmless looking girl in front of him. She looked more wary of him than the other way around. He relaxed his posture. He'd have to trust Seifer—wait for his answers until the blond had calmed down.

"Okay," he relented, breaking the strained silence. "It can wait."

At Calder's words, Rinoa let her hands fall back to her sides, withdrawing the reflexive touch to her magic inhibitors.

"So, where do we go from here?" Calder asked, looking between the two.

"We take him to your apartment," Seifer said, nodding in Rinoa's direction.

She shook her head at the suggestion. "That's not a good idea." The bond was freshly cut, the wound still bleeding, and she was back on a daily dosage of meds to suppress her powers and volatile emotions until she adapted. She was far too unstable and didn't trust herself around Squall one bit. Even if she didn't lose it the way she had before coming to Esthar, she could still try to take him back in a moment of weakness, while he was unconscious and unwilling. The thought alone was enough to force herself to refuse.

"What?" Seifer demanded hotly, his eyes narrowed. "Why? You weren't there to take care of him in the first place, and now you can't even be bothered to do this?"

At the accusation, Rinoa flinched. "How—How was I supposed to know? He couldn't leave the place quickly enough! He was gone in a split second... I wanted to help. I told him to call. I was so worried... I—He doesn't want my help!" Trembling, she looked at the blond with wide, red-rimmed eyes.

"You could have done something," Seifer let out in a near growl. He couldn't believe her gall. "What do you suggest then? We just leave him here?"

"Seifer," Calder reprimanded, unable to watch from the sidelines any longer. Walking over to stand behind Rinoa, he placed his hands on her shoulders and ignored the way Seifer's eyes narrowed further at the silent move of support.

Not having expected any sympathy from Calder after revealing she was a sorceress, Rinoa looked over her shoulder to meet the man's gaze. Her heart warmed to him, a stranger who could overlook everything he'd been told about sorceresses to come to her aid.

Shifting her gaze to study Seifer closely, she took in every little detail. Seifer's anger with her, along with the man's every action that day, was clearly sparked by a deep concern for Squall. It seemed he'd go to great lengths for the brunet. She had even heard him cry out Squall's name in distress, had seen the care with which he'd gathered the man in his arms.

The petty part of her protested against the idea that was starting to take root—the part of her that remembered the war and Seifer's role in it, the way the blond had stolen away her knight—but she smothered those thoughts. She needed to focus on what was best for Squall.

Steeling herself, she stepped away from the safety of Calder's support, the man's hold on her shoulders immediately releasing. "Thank you," she said softly, regarding him with a small smile, "...but... would you give me and Seifer a moment to talk in private?"

Watching Rinoa carefully, Calder considered the sense in leaving the two alone. He had been far from impressed with the blond's attitude so far. "You sure?"

Rinoa nodded, feeling more grounded now that she knew what to do.

Casting Seifer one last look of warning, Calder sighed. "I'll be in the lobby, then."

The moment the man started towards the door, Seifer crossed his arms and turned his gaze to Rinoa.

Waiting until Calder was out of earshot, Rinoa gathered her courage and faced the blond. "It can't be me... He won't accept my help... But more importantly... I—I just can't, no matter how badly I want to. When I broke our bond, I cut him out of my life. I amputated a piece of me."

"He's right there. On that bed. But I can no longer feel him. He's... gone and it's driving me crazy. I'm not sure I'll be able to control myself. The seals and inhibitors Odine placed on me... They're untested. A calculated gamble. I don't think being close to Squall for longer periods of time iswise. I just... I don't want to hurt him again."

Pouring all of her resolve into the request, she asked softly, "Would you please take care of him? Until he's better?"

Seifer huffed. What Rinoa was suggesting was absurd; she'd lost her mind. If anything, Squall would sooner be driven to jump out of a window than recover while staying at his place.

"No," he replied firmly, not pondering her suggestion any further.

"No?" Rinoa shot back, meeting the blond head on. "Just like that, after you nearly ran off on your own to find him, you say no?" She wouldn't allow him to downplay just how worked up he'd been, let alone claim he was not involved in this.

"You're out of your mind if you think he'd get better from staying at my place."

"And what exactly makes you think it's a good idea to have him stay with me?" Rinoa plowed on, needing Seifer to see things from her point of view. "I'm the reason he's like this in the first place. Being around me will only make things worse when we both need the distance." Not wanting to linger on that painful truth, she pressed on.

"I can't send him back to Garden. He'll just walk all over them and refuse their help. You know how he is." That brought her to the core of her argument. Pausing briefly to emphasize her point, she looked Seifer square in the eyes. "You know him—you know how to handle him. You can call his bluffs."

Loath to accept Rinoa's reasoning wasn't completely flawed, Seifer frowned. The girl had already proved exactly how lousyshe was at looking after Squall. He couldn't believe how easily he had jumped to the conclusion that she should be the one to take care of him. And Garden... He knew how Garden handled Squall. Or rather the other way around. Squall was an expert at tricking people into believing he was fine when he really wasn't. He'd watched the performance first hand many times.

Rinoa was right: both of those options sucked.

Turning to look at Squall, he caught himself actually considering Rinoa's suggestion. It wasn't that he didn't want to take care of Squall. If anything, he was reluctant to hand Squall over to anyone else.

But... he just couldn't. He wasn't going to force Squall to stay with him. He wasn't going to be a constant reminder of everything that had happened between them.

As he glanced over at Squall's unmoving form, a memory he'd buried deep in the recesses of his mind came back to him, the two images overlapping. His thoughts grew disconnected as he remembered the scene—Squall lying on a metal stretcher, the man's head lolling in time with the careless moves of the two Galbadian soldiers carrying him away.

Gray tones and static blurred out the memory, replacing it with security footage of Squall coming to in a prison cell; his own cue to get to work. As Squall fell to the floor, the cell starting into motion, haughty amusement had filled him. The sickly sweet anticipation of seeing the SeeD pinned to the wall in the torture chamber had come next.

Snapping back into the present, he turned away from the bed.

"No," he repeated, the fight from earlier gone from his voice. "I put him through hell."

Watching as Seifer fell silent, the blond staring off into nothing, Rinoa didn't need to ask what the man was talking about. "Maybe," she said, her voice contemplative as she studied him. Squall had never really talked about it, but she knew all the same how deeply D-District had affected him. "... Maybe, but that's in the past. Squall is right here, and he needs help now."

Seifer's expression didn't change, his eyes still averted. She hadn't expected this, this guilt eating away at the blond. Feeling an echoing twinge of her own guilty conscience, she moved to where Seifer was standing and lightly rested her hand on the blond's arm. "When you called... I said things I shouldn't have. You didn't want those things to happen; I know that now."

She'd done her own fair share of hurting Squall. Letting her hand fall back to her side, her eyes travelled to the unconscious brunet, taking in each slow rise and fall of his chest. "He knows too," she said simply. "And he needs your help. If you know what he's going through, what he needs, even by a little, then you should help him. He won't refuse if it's you."

Curbing the urge to snort at her words, Seifer stepped away from her. She knew nothing and neither did Squall. He might not like what he'd done, but that didn't change the fact that it had happened.

The whole conversation was starting to annoy him. It was dragging out when it had been a pointless discussion from the start. So what if Squall's options sucked? It didn't mean the man should stay with him, it just meant Squall was shit out of luck. He didn't have any special knowledge; he'd been out cold when Raijin and Fujin had looked after him.

And what had Rinoa claimed? He won't refuse if it's you. That was downright bullshit. Squall did whatever the hell he wanted, always had. The only difference was that he would make Squall's life a living hell if the man was being stupid, and that wasn't really the best road to recovery.

When no reply came, the blond keeping at a distance, Rinoa's patience ran thin. She knew the situation was far from ideal. She didn't want to entrust Squall to Seifer, but this wasn't about what either of them wanted. This was about what Squall needed. And if what he needed happened to be someone equally pigheaded who would forcefully harass him into getting better, then she'd damn well get him that someone.

"I honestly don't care about your reasons why you won't do this. All I care about is him," she said, her voice dead-serious. "You owe Squall at least this much."

Seifer squared his jaw as he faced Rinoa. He knew he owed Squall. Hell, he wouldn't even know where to begin if he were to ever make up for the amount of shit he'd put the man through. How the hell could he?

He grit his teeth, not liking what she was asking of him one bit. Even if she was starting to make just a tiny bit of sense.

He knew he'd be able to see through Squall's bullshit. He also knew he'd be able to force the man into a speedy recovery. Squall's defiance and annoyance had never intimidated him. He didn't care what Squall would think of him; he only cared about Squall getting better. If the war hadn't happened, there'd be no doubt in his mind—he'd be the better option to take care of the man. But it had happened, and there was nothing they could do to change that. Squall shouldn't have to deal with him. It didn't matter if Squall had forgiven him or not.

A frown grew on his brow.

You didn't want those things to happen; I know that now. He knows too.

He sighed. Maybe he was the one with the problem—the one who needed to start looking past the war. For Squall's sake.

Squall had always been strong and able to deal with anything that came his way. If Rinoa was wrong and Squall couldn't stand his presence, they could always take it from there and find somewhere else for Squall.

And maybe this was his chance at redemption—a way to start making up for some of the things he'd done... Maybe Rinoa was right.

Suddenly determined at the unexpected turn of events, Seifer held Rinoa's gaze. "Okay," he said with an air of conviction, as if it had been his idea all along. "Go tell Calder to come up and carry Squall's stuff, and have him settle any bills." He moved his eyes to the unconscious brunet. "I'll be down with Squall in a minute."

Relieved at having convinced the stubborn blond, Rinoa gave a small nod in understanding and started into action. She wasn't going to risk stalling and give Seifer the opportunity to change his mind.

Briskly, she walked around the room and collected all of Squall's belongings, leaving only the two heavy gunblade cases behind.

Coming to a halt in the doorway, her eyes trailed back to the two men. Forcing a smile on her face, her eyes brimming with tears, she faltered for the slightest of moments before turning around and leaving them alone.

Already, Seifer's resolve wavered. Taking care of Squall would be weird. The entire situation was a mess. He scowled at Squall, but all resentment left him when he noticed new beads of sweat forming on the man's brow. Walking closer, he let his eyes roam the brunet's unmoving form.

Shiva still hadn't settled in his mind, the proximity to Squall causing her to stir and reach for the man. Wondering what exactly it was about Squall's mind that had lured the ice goddess in so deeply, a faint smile tugged at his lips. Maybe Squall really was Shiva's lover after all.

"Let's get you out of here," he said, feeling the need to explain his actions to Squall even though the man was out cold. Lifting Squall up from the bed, he adjusted his hold so the man's face was resting against his neck. About to leave, he halted his steps when Calder entered the room.

"... I'll get the cases," Calder said, lingering by the doorway.

Seifer hummed in reply. "Thanks."

"No problem," Calder replied, getting Seifer's meaning. Breaking their gaze, he grabbed the gunblade cases and followed Seifer out of the room. As they made their way down to the foyer, he chanced a few glances at the unconscious man in Seifer's arm, but kept his questions to himself.

Outside, Seifer's eyes immediately traveled to where Rinoa was waiting by Calder's car. Her eyes didn't meet his; instead they were fixed on the man in his hold. His grasp on Squall tightened.

At the surreal sight of Squall looking so helpless, Rinoa's chest constricted. Squall had always remained unflinching through even the most severe of injuries, always quick to recover and return to the field. In the end she had managed to hurt Squall more that his job ever had.

"What should we do about his car?" Calder asked once they reached his own.

"I'll drive it," Seifer informed tersely as he opened a door to the back of Calder's car and made Squall comfortable on the leather seats. "You sit with him," he told Rinoa in a tone that brooked no argument, underlining his command with a jerk of his head.

Rinoa frowned but kept her mouth shut. She felt too drained to point out to Seifer that he was being an ass and didn't want to start an argument when she had already won the one that mattered anyway. Moving to sit in the backseat as ordered, she carefully guided Squall's head to rest in her lap.

"Do you have the keys?" Seifer asked, sticking his head into the car.

Fishing out the set of keys from her pocket, Rinoa handed them over. "You'll be all right?" she asked carefully.

"Yeah. Worry about him," Seifer dissuaded. Closing the door before she would hold them up any longer, he walked over to Squall's car.

Frowning at Seifer's retreating back, Calder forced himself into action. Inside the car, he stole a quick glance at Rinoa in the rear view mirror. The woman had her eyes glued on the commander, her expression strained. In front of them Seifer pulled out of the parking lot.

Tightening an arm around Squall's limp form, Rinoa brushed aside damp locks and dabbed at clammy skin with her sleeve. The streets whizzed by without either her or Calder saying a word, when an insistent ring tone shattered the silence in the car. Fumbling for her cell phone, she sighed as she spotted Laguna's name on the bright display.

She should have expected the man would call her again so soon. It wasn't long after Laguna had found out about Squall's leave in Esthar that the president had managed to wheedle a promise for dinner plans out of the reluctant brunet. Her inquiry over the phone earlier that morning, on whether Squall had already called him or stopped by, had clearly only spurred him on.

She hadn't meant to mislead Laguna, but there had been no other way to ask whether Squall had shown up at the palace without alarming him. The man would have raised all hell if he'd known the truth. The news she had to break to him now wasn't much better.

"Hello," she said, her voice faint.

"Rinoa," Laguna greeted fondly. "...I hope I didn't catch you at a bad time? It was just, ah, the dinner—I was hoping we could set a time."

Rinoa grimaced at the man's obvious eagerness. Whatever she told the man, she would only upset him.

"Perhaps, if you guys don't have any other plans, you could come by tonight? The chef, he—"

"I'm afraid... we won't be able to for a while," Rinoa interrupted before Laguna made her feel even more awful about what she had to say. "Look," she said softly, casting a glance in Calder's direction, "This isn't a good time to talk... I'll come by later today." She had to be careful with her words; Laguna and Squall's kinship was the last thing she could afford to blurt out unintentionally.

"What's the matter? Is everything okay?" came the rushed reply, the president clearly alarmed.

Acutely aware of Calder listening in on every word, her voice took on a more impatient tone as she spoke again. "I—Everything will be fine, but... We need to discuss this in person. I'll be there shortly, okay?"

Not waiting for Laguna to reply, she quickly hung up. Hopefully she'd have more courage when seeing the president in person. With a sigh, she put away her cell phone and returned her attention to the brunet in her arms, willing him to snap out of it and wake up. But Squall didn't stir, his fever continuing to burn against her hand.

Not bothering with even trying to understand the phone call he'd just overheard, Calder kept his focus on the road and followed the black car ahead. Minutes passed in silence, before he realized where Seifer was leading them. He frowned, unable to understand what the hell was going on. If Rinoa was Squall's girlfriend, then why were they taking the commander to Seifer's?

Turning down Windurst Road, they soon reached Seifer's building. Pulling over, Calder tried to find some words of reassurance or encouragement. When none came to mind, he got out of the car instead. Seifer was already making his way over.

Realizing the moment where she would have to say goodbye was approaching fast, Rinoa stayed in the backseat for just a little longer, wanting to delay the inevitable. She kept her gaze on Squall's face, his features deceivingly unguarded in unconsciousness, and gently let her hand follow the line of his jaw before settling against a flushed cheek; a touch she knew he would have pulled away from if he'd been awake.

Noticing the expression on Rinoa's face, Seifer remained at a distance. He hadn't missed the way she'd looked at Squall so many times that day; her eyes full of love and worry. She deserved the room and time she needed to say goodbye.

Not knowing what to do with himself, a feeling he was quickly getting used to, Calder stood by idly, shifting uneasily from one foot to the other. The day was just one uncomfortable moment after the other.

Rinoa hesitated slightly, before she finally moved away from Squall's side and stepped out of the car. Not looking at the two men waiting around awkwardly, she averted her teary gaze to retrieve her notebook and pen again, hastily scribbling something on the paper.

"This is my phone number. Keep me posted, okay?" she said, her voice hoarse from crying.

Taking the note, Seifer glanced at it. "You can come up if you want," he said, feeling obliged to make the offer.

"That's okay. I think it's for the best if I don't." Following Seifer's moves as he lifted Squall out of the car, Rinoa let her gaze fall to the unconscious brunet one final time, a sharp pain twisting through her chest, before she steeled herself.

"Goodbye, Seifer. Calder."

With those words, she turned around and walked away.



A/N: This time we've got two amazing betas to thank: Aera and Sway! Thank you both so much!



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