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 Sixteen - Square One ~



[Seifer Almasy's Apartment, Zayin House, Wednesday, 22nd of October, 8:09 am]

Huddled on his side, Squall woke buried under warm, soft fabric. Cold morning light was brushing his face, its brightness piercing through closed eyelids. He would have turned around but his limbs felt far too heavy and sore, so he scrunched his eyes tighter to ward off the incessant play of light.

A banging sound filled the room, oddly distant yet echoing and twisting sharply in his ears. Pain shot through his head in response, and even as the aggravating noise disappeared, a slow throb continued to pulse harshly against his skull. Unable to force himself into full alertness, his pulse quickened. Opening his eyes, he blinked several times before the painful blare of white shrunk into a bright square of light. A window.

He never slept in this long after sunrise. Usually the slightest disturbance snapped him from sleep, yet he felt more disoriented than he had in years. Why hadn't his alarm clock woken him?

Muddled thoughts of when exactly he'd fallen asleep were cut short as renewed banging filled the room, this time accompanied by the sound of someone groaning to his right. He stiffened as he realized all at once that he wasn't alone and that he didn't know where he was. The bed he was lying in was definitely not his.

Pushing himself upright, readying himself to bolt from the bed at the slightest sign of danger, he was given no chance to further take in his surroundings as his stomach instantly lurched at the too sudden shift in gravitation. Breaking out in a cold sweat as the room started to spin violently, he placed a hand on the soft bedding to stabilize himself. Eyes wrenched shut and jaw clenching at the acidic surge fighting its way up his throat, he only barely kept himself propped up, his trembling arm ready to give way any second.

"Fuck," someone cursed to his right, the sound followed by the rushed retreat and return of heavy footsteps.

Not having the luxury of questioning the sudden strong hand supporting him or the plastic container shoved underneath his face, Squall keeled over as his body erupted into convulsions, forcefully expelling what little content there was left in his practically empty stomach. His eyes instantly stung with involuntary tears at the acidic burn.

Dry heaving a final few times in vain, Squall shuddered when his queasiness started to subside. The only thing keeping him from collapsing was the firm grip on his shoulder.

"I'll get you some water," someone said, this time to his right, the voice ringing sharply in his ears. Unable to suppress a slight wince, he fought down his alarm at lacking the strength to resist being guided into a reclined position by the strong hand on his shoulder. He'd probably been drugged and most definitely needed to get the hell out of there. Peeling open heavy eyelids to assess his surroundings, he stilled against the mattress at the sight of the familiar blond.

"... Seifer?" he managed hoarsely after spending long seconds making sure it was Seifer who was studying him closely and not some drug induced mirage.

"Welcome back to the land of the living," Seifer said softly.

Welcome back? Squall wasn't even aware he'd been away. The way Seifer was smiling at him without pretense was unsettling--the man only ever grinned or smirked to try and rile him up. Immediately, contradictory flashes of a gently smiling blond, holding him tight, popped into his aching head along with returned theories of drug induced mirages. He must have hit his head hard. It definitely felt like he'd been down for a long time.

Watching as Squall scrunched his brow and brought up a hand to rub at his temple, Seifer grabbed the bucket from the floor. "I'll be back in a second."

As he entered the living room, a sound drew his eyes to the doorknob of his front door. Someone was trying to get in. Scrunching his brow, he closed the door to the bedroom softly before striding over to open the door. Outside Calder looked up from his cell phone, his hand hovering idly over where the doorknob had been. Seifer raised his eyebrow.

"What?" Calder asked he walked past the blond into the apartment. "I was worried. You didn't answer any of my knocks."

He'd been up until late the night before, twisting and turning in bed as he had considered everything he had been told and had witnessed. In the end he'd decided to check up on Seifer and Squall before heading in for an early workout session at the SCTA. When no one had answered his knocks, he'd been unable to leave without making sure everything was all right. By the looks of it, Seifer was far from okay. He joined the man by the sink, where he was already busy rinsing out a plastic bucket.

"Rough night?"

Seifer met Calder's glance only briefly before he filled a glass with water.

"Wait here," he said, walking past the man to get the pills Squall needed. Grabbing the clean bucket, he returned to the bedroom and set it down next to the bed. Placing the water and pills on the bedside table, he separated the two sedatives from the rest. Squall hadn't looked his way yet, the man's gaze locked on the ceiling.

He wasn't sure what to expect--how much Squall remembered. Those gray-blue eyes were back to their usual look of indifference, even though he knew the mind behind them was probably running a mile a minute. Sitting down at the edge of the bed, he watched the brunet closely as he waited for a reaction.

Squall remained still, ignoring Seifer's presence as he finished puzzling together what he could remember.

He hadn't hit his head... not that he knew anyway. The reality of what had happened was far worse. Rinoa had broken their bond, her absence from his mind glaring and drawing all his thoughts to the void where she used to be. But he couldn't allow himself to dwell on the fact; not now, not when he didn't have a clue about what was going on.

Something had obviously gone wrong at the lab, but he failed to fill in the blanks of exactly how he'd ended up from whatever had happened there to lying incapacitated in Seifer's bed.

Slowly, in order not to worsen his growing migraine, he shifted his head on the pillow and faced Seifer. "I'm at your apartment," he finally managed, his voice gravelly.

Seifer had to suppress a grimace at Squall's words. Of course that was the first thing for Squall to bring up. "Blame Rinoa," he said as he avoided the man's gaze. The decision had been made, and Squall could put two and two together easily enough. "I've got your pills," he added. "Do you think you can manage to keep them down?"

Squall frowned. Like hell he would accept any pills from Seifer again without knowing exactly what they were for, especially when the blond couldn't even be bothered to explain why he'd been tucked into the man's bed. He didn't believe for a minute that this was Rinoa's doing.

Eyes narrowed at Seifer's evasive reply, he rephrased his earlier statement. "Why am I at your apartment?... And where is Shiva?" he asked darkly, suddenly aware that his ice goddess was missing.

Releasing a deep sigh, Seifer returned his gaze to Squall. "How much do you remember?"

Squall frowned at the question, wondering just what Seifer knew. The blond had mentioned Rinoa, so they'd talked over the phone at least. Again. Searching his memory one last time, he suddenly had the unsettling thought that maybe he'd been the one to drive all the way back to Seifer's apartment.

"...I was in my car. I had Shiva junctioned," he answered with a frown. It was all he could remember, the images blurry and distorted. He could still recall the panic of his ice goddess, his own disorientation, but not much more than that. "I was... looking for somewhere to go," he added as a vague impression of Shiva urging him to flee, to go somewhere safe, filtered back into his thoughts. Groaning inwardly, he sincerely hoped his subconscious hadn't chosen Seifer's apartment as said safe haven.

Resigning himself to fill in the blanks for Squall, Seifer's expression hardened. "You went to a hotel close by," he said, his lips sloping downwards as the image of how they'd found the brunet reasserted itself. "You were in a bad state. Rinoa came here. She hadn't heard from you in three days."

"We found you at the hotel. You weren't responding--hadn't taken your pills... Shiva's junction was messing up. You kept sliding in and out of it... Odine said your mind couldn't take it so I drew her from you," he said, recalling just how resistant and uncooperative the ice goddess had been. "She really doesn't like me. I think she's been too spoiled in that head of yours. Too much composure and logic," he added with a smirk.

A weak glare was all Squall could muster in reply. He couldn't decide what was worse: him having been unconscious for three whole days in a hotel room, or Seifer witnessing him in such a sorry state. It was the club all over again--the blond seeing exactly those things he least wanted the man to see.

Annoyed with talking to the blond from his reclined position, he slowly moved into a sitting position. He was spared another attack of crippling nausea, but his head throbbed with a new onslaught of pain, temporarily thwarting his resolve to get answers. Releasing an uneven sigh, he briefly closed his eyes and brought up a hand to massage his forehead when he remembered Seifer's mention of pills.

"... Are those Odine's pills?"

"Mhm," Seifer answered, growing less tense at the change of topic. "The two on the left are sedatives, in case you just want to zonk out," he added, feeling some of his own tiredness returning. He couldn't believe he'd fallen asleep on the floor.

Following Seifer's gaze to the two pills, Squall immediately shot down the suggestion. "I've been unconscious long enough."

Taking the glass of water from the bedside table, he grimaced as he sloshed around a mouthful of water to rid himself of the sour taste lingering on his tongue before spitting it out into the bucket Seifer had placed beside the bed. Downing the pills one by one, he left only the sedatives behind.

He didn't immediately look up from his empty glass as his thoughts returned to the crucial bit of information Seifer was still withholding from him. It didn't make any sense for him to be at the blond's apartment. He'd sooner expect to wake up at Loire's.

"Why am I here?"

Seifer narrowed his eyes at Squall's firm tone. "Get over yourself," he said, getting up from the bed and crossing his arms. He was done listening to Squall's incredulity.

"Rinoa thought it'd be best if I looked after you because of my... experience," he said harshly, spelling it out when the brunet was obviously too slow to make the connection himself. "You're not going anywhere until you're better, so just deal." Squall would either catch up or find his ass relocated to Garden.

Squall cringed as Seifer's incensed voice reverberated loudly through the bedroom, aggravating his headache. Apparently something had gone on to change Rinoa's mind about Seifer for her to agree to something as outrageous as this, let alone suggest it. But what he could understand even less was Seifer going along with it. Maybe Rinoa didn't understand the stupidity of her plan, but Seifer should.

He had left the blond's apartment not because he had wanted to, but because Seifer had needed him to. Seifer was the last person who should have to look after him, the man's experience precisely the reason why this was a terrible idea. Anybody else would have found his situation ironically fitting, would have wished it on him even, not take him in.

"After last time... I didn't think you'd--" Discomforted by his inability to find the right words, his features turned expressionless. "Never mind."

"No, Squall, go on. Finish your sentence," Seifer said as he scrutinized the brunet, his voice tempered only in consideration for the man's apparent sensitivity to sound. "You didn't think I'd what?"

Only a small twitch interrupted his composed mask as Squall kept his eyes lowered, his gaze traveling the creases and folds of white cotton sheets. He didn't want Seifer to see how affected he was by being back in the blond's apartment. He simply wasn't supposed to be there.

Meeting Seifer's gaze, he kept all inflection out of his voice as he called things as he saw them. "You don't want me here. I don't know what Rinoa said, but... you don't need to do this. I can leave."

"You're not going anywhere," Seifer stated firmly.

An incredulous huff from the other room broke the silence, immediately drawing Seifer's attention to the doorway. When Calder entered the room, Seifer stared at him coldly, making sure his body language conveyed nothing but get the fuck out of here.

Unfazed by Seifer's grim demeanor, Calder looked over to the brunet sitting on the bed. He'd been surprised to hear the man behave just as stubbornly and hare-brained as the blond. It seemed neither would face the obvious or own up to the truth.

"First of all, you're in no condition to leave," he stated plainly. "Second of all, if Seifer could spend the rest of his life pampering your ass, I think he'd die a happy man," he added, annoyed at how Seifer was behaving like he hadn't been worried sick and hadn't done everything in his power to take care of the brunet.

As Seifer returned Calder's stern gaze, his expression grew impossibly dark. He wanted to deck the guy, to punch the living daylights out of the meddling shit.

"I'll find my own way out," Calder said, lingering a moment longer before leaving the two men staring.

Raising an eyebrow at the stranger who was actually stupid enough to turn his back and walk away after pressing almost all of Seifer's buttons, Squall wasn't surprised when Seifer immediately started after the guy, hot on his trail and absolutely seething.

Sounds of metal scraping against wood came from the other room, soon followed by something heavy thudding to the floor. Seifer had clearly caught up with the stranger.

"What the fuck was that about?!" Seifer's voice boomed. An image of the blond roughly pinning the other guy to the wall materialized easily before Squall's mind's eye, a treatment he'd been intimately familiar with during his cadet years.

Renewed sounds of struggling reached the bedroom. "Oh, come on, Seifer, it's obvious you have a th--" The man's words were abruptly cut off and replaced by the gasp of someone having the wind knocked out of him.

For a while the sound of uncoordinated footsteps and labored breathing were the only things Squall could hear, until a door was opened forcibly. "Out!" Seifer yelled hotly.

After a moment of silence he heard quick footsteps retreating and then the front door was slammed shut.

Squall remained in place. Why had the stranger been so intent on starting a fight, and why had he been in Seifer's apartment in the first place? Judging by the way Seifer had reacted, the blond had been angered by the man's words, but not the man's presence in itself. He wasn't sure what to make of that; the fewer people who saw him this weak the better. But more than that, he didn't like the assuming way the stranger had spoken to him.

No one told him what to do--not Seifer and definitely not strangers.

At the image of the blond looking down at him, arms crossed and laying down the law, Squall's mood darkened. It would take more than a little nausea and a few barked orders to keep him from going wherever the hell he pleased. Slowly, he moved to the side of the bed and swung his legs over the edge, planting his feet against a floor that seemed to be shifting for a few moments. White swarmed at the edge of his vision before his sense of balance was restored.

Steadying himself with both arms, he cast a look at the open bedroom door. Seifer hadn't made any sign of returning. At a loss for what to do, his resolve to leave deflated as quickly as his irritation.

It didn't make sense for Seifer to do this. Just a few days ago, the man had practically fled from his presence, and now he was ordering him to stay? He knew Rinoa could be convincing, but this was a stretch too far.

He couldn't bring himself to get up and get out, even though self preservation and common sense dictated that he should.

Realizing staying would be just as wrong, he scoffed at his lack of resolve. Wondering why Seifer still wasn't coming in, the odd thought occurred to him that they were waiting each other out.

That was new. And ridiculous.

He commanded himself to man up, but Seifer beat him to it. Renewed footsteps reached his ears, drawing closer and stopping in the doorway of the bedroom. Green eyes met his as Seifer leaned against the door frame. The blond offered no explanation for the stranger's presence.

Pushing away the sheets bunched up around his waist, Squall shifted on the mattress to better face the blond. "A friend of yours?" he asked, all momentum of their earlier confrontation lost.

"Yeah," Seifer said noncommittally, not feeling much friendship towards the annoying prick he'd just forced out of his apartment.

Watching Squall on the bed, the man's pose rigid, he suppressed a sigh. He didn't know what the brunet had made of Calder's words, but together with his own admissions of not having been able to control himself the night they'd ended up in bed together, the evidence was pretty damning.

"Look..." he started, but immediately fell silent again. He wouldn't deny his attraction to Squall. Not only would it be a complete lie, it would also be far too late to start down that road now. He wasn't ashamed of wanting Squall. He was gay, and the brunet was damned sexy; that was just the reality of their situation. Squall had probably already figured things out before Calder's interference anyway.

"Do you need anything? You shouldn't get out of bed."

Squall frowned at the evasive response. Bristling at the blond's supposed authority but lacking the energy to start another argument, he raised a tired hand to knead at his brow instead. The meds he had taken were starting to drag his eyelids back down again.

Not liking how weak Squall looked, Seifer considered blindsiding him with a Sleep spell, but for all he knew the brunet's uncanny affinity for magic had recovered right along with the man's return to cognizance. "You should lie down."

Brow twitching, Squall took a slow breath and told himself to at least keep his composure intact, even if his pride was already a lost cause. "Stop telling me what to do," he said, pushing up from the bed.

Studying the brunet, Seifer narrowed his eyes. Of course the stubborn prick would interpret his suggestion as an order. "Where are you going?"

Squall sent the blond a withering glare. "To take a piss," he replied dryly. He would never admit he hadn't decided on what to do yet.

Almost chuckling at the harsh delivery that reminded Seifer of their cadet days, he instead held Squall's gaze. At least the brunet didn't seem to be heading for the exit. Maybe things could work out. They'd need to get used to each other, sure, but the brunet wasn't looking at him with disgust or loathing, just that same old stubborn stare he'd fought off a million times before. What they needed was time to regroup, and he sure as hell could do with a nap.

"Suit yourself. I'll be in the other room," he said, straightening up. Turning around to leave, he stopped in the doorway and fixed his gaze on Squall. "But no leaving," he stated firmly, holding Squall's glare for a second longer before taking the final step into the living room. He'd hunt the man's ass down if he woke up to an empty apartment.

Irked by the overly-confident parting shot, Squall listened out for what the bastard was up to. Not thinking the man beyond taking up a guarding post near the bedroom door, he was relieved to hear Seifer's footsteps leading further away, followed by a muted thud and low groan. It sounded like the blond had retired to the couch.

With Seifer out of sight and the need to keep a strong front temporarily gone, his exhaustion came back full force. When no additional sound came from the other room, he decided he might as well accept the ceasefire. He would figure things out later, when he was rested and equipped to deal with the situation. As much as he hated to admit it, Seifer's visitor had hit too close to home when pointing out his weakened state.

Stretching sore back muscles, Squall glanced at the inviting sheets and pillows, but as tempting as the thought of lying back down was, he could smell himself. The grime on his skin and in his hair was impossible to ignore once he'd paid notice, and a sour taste lingered on his tongue in spite of the water he'd downed.

Eyes traveling to his duffel bags, the promise of a toothbrush stirred him into action. Some fresh clothes would be welcome, too. About to get to his feet, he halted mid-movement as his gaze wandered down to take in the faded t-shirt and boxers he was wearing--items that definitely weren't his.

Clenching his jaw, Squall processed the humiliating realization that Seifer had had to undress and clothe him. Praying to Hyne that three days of fevered sweating was the only reason to have prompted such actions, he hated that he couldn't even blame the bastard blond. He'd woken up in Garden's infirmary plenty of times, cut out of his clothes and dressed in nothing but a gown and bandages... but Seifer wasn't Kadowaki.

Releasing the sheets from his white-knuckled grasp, he pushed up from the bed a bit harsher than he should have, his head reeling as he shuffled over to where his bags were placed. Holding out a hand to the dresser for support, he paused and shook his head to dispel the odd sensation of the floor surging upwards, enveloping his feet in darkness.

Hyne, what has the bond done?

Suppressing the flutter of panic that started to squeeze the air from his lungs, he took a deep breath and willed himself to continue with the task he'd set himself. Pulling open the zipper of the largest bag, he stared at its contents far too long before he reluctantly settled on a pair of drawstring pants instead of jeans. He'd leave once he'd gotten some rest.

Grabbing what he needed, he made his way to the bathroom. As he pulled the door closed behind him, he was overcome with a sense of déjà vu. The small room was as messy as the last time he'd been there, and he felt just as overwhelmed by the situation as he had then. His gaze landed on a small pile of sodden towels in the sink. Surmising their purpose, he tried to imagine the blond brute placing a cooling towel on his forehead but failed. Seifer had never had any patience with the ill or injured back at Garden, his bedside manners nonexistent.

With a small frown, he wrung out the small towels and removed them from the sink. Making thorough work of brushing his teeth, he avoided his reflection in the mirror after the first glance he'd caught of the dark circles under his eyes and his sickly complexion. He quickly stripped out of Seifer's boxers and t-shirt and tossed them onto a pile of white bed covers protruding from the hamper.

Too exhausted to muster more than a frustrated sigh at finding himself back where he'd started, he stepped under the hot spray of the shower. His thoughts were distracted with the need for sleep, the hand rubbing at his temples not bringing any clarity. Turning up the temperature to the brink of what was bearable, he focused on how the scalding water washed away three days worth of grime, the heat doing wonders for the aches all over his body.

Eyes shut, he felt around in the billowing clouds of steam for soap, his hand closing around a plastic bottle. Squirting an ample amount of gel into his hand, he started to methodically scrub down his skin.

As his fingers worked the soap into his scalp, a stale scent permeated the air, the odor familiar yet dancing just outside the grasp of his memory. Turning his face into the spray, he rinsed the soap from his eyes and glanced down at the bottle he'd used. Sniffing its contents and his skin, he couldn't pinpoint the source of the old, damp scent that filled the shower stall. A shiver rolled down his spine as he remembered the unnatural cold that had accompanied the smell in the past.

Hastily, he washed away the last of the suds. Pulse thrumming fast, he turned off the water and drew the shower curtain aside. Steam swirled thickly in the air as he stepped onto the cold tiles and looked around the room.

Just as he was about to chalk everything up to the old building's bad plumbing, feeling foolish for his overactive imagination, darkness gathered at the lower edge of his vision and the feeling of the floor moving beneath his feet returned. The steam in the air seemed to be sinking to the floor, gathering in thick wisps of gray fog that curled and swelled as if alive. Looking down, he could no longer see the tiles of the bathroom floor. Large drops of water dripped from his hair and skin into the moving mass, only slightly disturbing the flow of its currents.

Instinctively, he sought out Shiva, only to stumble onto her absence. He quickly pulled Griever into junction instead, but before he could complete the link, the vision of fog was shattered by a sharp jolt of pain that cut straight through his brain. Releasing an involuntary groan, he snapped his eyes open again to the sight of white tiles and a large puddle of water growing at his feet. His nostrils filled with the fresh scent of soap.

His thoughts raced as the rush of adrenaline kicked in belatedly. In the back of his mind, he sensed Griever stir in mild concern, but apparently the protective alpha didn't sense any threat that warranted more than the equivalent of cracking open a heavy-lidded eye to see what the fuss was about.

/There's nothing here?/ Squall asked, not trusting his own instincts. A snorted breath was all the reply he received as the unimpressed lion returned to his slumber.

Only mildly reassured, Squall grabbed a towel and wrapped it around his waist, glancing at the bathroom floor. He didn't like the theory that was forming. If the fog hadn't been real, then that left only one other option.

He knew of this sort of thing: an exhausted subconscious playing tricks. During training at Garden, they'd been warned that sleep deprivation could lead to hallucinations--that they might encounter it in the field as a torturing tactic when captured. His current circumstances were quite different, but the notion wasn't that far a stretch. Three days of unconsciousness didn't exactly amount to restful sleep, and the breaking of the bond couldn't have helped matters.

In spite of his conclusion, Squall couldn't help the urge to quicken his moves and dress quickly. He felt as if the ancient air that had hung over the plains of Time Compression still clung to him, nameless fears threatening to spill back into the present.

He didn't care to scrutinize why his subconscious had dredged them up, but apparently even memories of Time Compression weren't enough to make much of an impression, his eyelids beginning to droop.

Sluggish steps brought him back into the bedroom and after a slight hesitance, to the door leading to the living room. As he stood in the doorway, his gaze fell to where Seifer's large form was sprawled across the too-small couch, the plaid blanket already slipping off to one side after the blond had moved around in his sleep.

In his exhaustion, he didn't ponder the fact that he was far less bothered at the possible prospect of staying with Seifer than he should be; he could only think of getting some much needed rest. He tore away his eyes from the sleeping blond and slowly moved to lie down on the man's bed, leaving the bedroom door ajar.



[Seifer Almasy's Apartment, Zayin House, Wednesday, 22nd of October, 10:24 am]

The loud ring tone and insistent buzzing against Seifer's thigh jerked the blond from his sleep. Letting out a low groan, he tried to force himself awake, his limbs protesting.

"Yeah?" he managed in a hoarse grumble, bringing the phone to his ear.

"Forgot about work?" Arc demanded.

The words successfully jolted Seifer into a sitting position. "I... shit."

"Not coming in today either?" the older man asked, unimpressed.

Seifer knew he couldn't head in to work, not right away at least. Squall might be better, but they still didn't know by how much. "No," he said, resigning himself to letting Arc down. "I--"

"You know I'm relying on you," Arc cut him off. "You were supposed to have the blaster edge ready by today."

"I know," Seifer intoned, clenching his hands. "I'll try and come in tonight. It'll have to wait until then." That was as much as he would concede to. He knew he needed to get further on the weapons, but he had to make sure Squall would be all right first.

"Hn", Arc grumbled in acknowledgment, sounding far from appeased. "You better have the blaster edge ready by tomorrow morning," he said before hanging up.

Closing his cell phone, Seifer cursed. Just yesterday he'd been ready to take a month off or however long it would take for Squall to recover, but already the reality of his situation was sinking in. He couldn't just ignore Arc and his responsibilities, nor did he have much money to spare. Any time spent away from work meant deductions in his wage: money he sorely needed to pay his bills.

Staring at the ceiling, he almost didn't hear the soft shuffle of slow footsteps entering the room. Straightening in his seat, he took in the sight that greeted him; a sleep mussed Squall wearing cozy drawstring pants and a soft cotton shirt. Wild strands of dark hair pointed in every direction apart from where a pillow had flattened them entirely.

He would have enjoyed seeing Squall like that, if the brunet hadn't looked so out of it. The man's unstable gait didn't help matters, nor the hands placed on the kitchen counter in a steadying move. Squall looked spent after the mild relocation.

"Hey..." Seifer said softly. "You really shouldn't be up. If you need anything I'll get it for you."

"I needed a change of scenery," Squall returned curtly, not very endeared by the thought of lying in bed all day. The few hours of sleep he'd caught hadn't been restful at all, and he doubted any more sleep would do the trick when the problem wasn't quantity but quality.

Moving his gaze from the counter to rest on the blond, Squall straightened his posture when he spotted the man's frown. Any remaining vestiges of sleep disappeared as he realized his more than disheveled appearance and the rather unimpressive entrance he'd just made.

Pushing away thoughts of having earned himself Seifer's pity, he moved away from the kitchen, needing to sit down. Carefully he made his way to the couch and lowered himself to sit next to the blond, sighing softly as he relaxed into a reclined position.

His thoughts returned to the already dissipating images he'd woken up from. He recalled the vague impressions of foggy landscapes, always shifting and plunged in silence, and the feeling of old dust grating his lungs with every inhale of stale air. It had been a long time since he'd slept this badly, his rest disturbed by a dream for the first time in over two years. He should have expected it, but more important matters had occupied his thoughts than the possibility that he might start to dream again. With the bond gone, Rinoa could no longer give him undisturbed sleep.

"It's good to see you up," Seifer said as he leaned into the couch as well. His uncomfortable night on the floor had left his body tired and aching. Arching his neck to rest against the back of the couch, he closed his eyes and slowed his breathing.

Pulled from his thoughts, Squall glanced at the weary-looking blond, reminded of the phone call and curses that had woken him in the first place. "Trouble?"

"Just work," Seifer replied, keeping his eyes closed. "I'll probably have to go in tonight," he added reluctantly, turning his gaze to study Squall closely. He wasn't happy to leave the man alone after what he'd witnessed so far.

Scowl in place, Squall supplied dryly, "I'll be fine without a babysitter."

Not convinced the brunet should be left alone so soon, Seifer frowned. "I could stay home."

"No need." Squall didn't have to think before dismissing the offer, already frustrated enough with his less than ideal condition without someone else continuously pointing it out.

"And how do you judge that?" Seifer asked, unable to curb his tongue as he sat up in the couch properly again.

"I'm fine," Squall deadpanned, officially annoyed with the blond. Apparently his having stayed this long was giving Seifer the false impression that he wouldn't just leave the moment he wanted to. He sure as hell wasn't staying because he needed the blond to hold his hand.

"Fine?" Seifer asked back, raising an eyebrow at Squall actually having the audacity to use that line on him. "Unless getting out of breath from walking ten steps is actually normal for you, you are far from fine." He paused as he looked Squall over. "I'll agree to no babysitter on one condition: You call if anything changes. Anything."

All retorts died on Squall's lips as Seifer implied he couldn't even be trusted to walk without falling over. One brief moment of not being perfectly awake, of letting down his guard, and already he was paying for it, the bastard throwing it right back in his face. He couldn't exactly deny his unsteady entrance into the room, but being tired didn't make him a damned invalid.

Eyes narrowing darkly, he turned his gaze away before he felt tempted to land a punch and prove just how little he needed to be looked after.

"Deal?" Seifer asked firmly.

Squall huffed inwardly. Deals were supposed to be mutually beneficial, not enforced.

"I guess I'll be staying home then."

Alarm bells ringing, Squall turned to meet Seifer's eyes, the man seeming completely serious in his threat. He didn't put it beyond the idiot to ditch work for the sole purpose of irritating him all evening instead. Seifer had never been very good at taking no for an answer. Frowning, he briefly closed his eyes. He really couldn't deal with an entire day of this crap.

"Fine. I'll call." It was the lesser of two evils, the one that got Seifer off his back. Besides, nothing would happen to warrant a call for help.

Suppressing a smirk when Squall played right into his hands, Seifer leaned his head back against the couch and closed his eyes. He was still tired as fuck and couldn't think of much else but catching a nap. The prospect of talking to Squall wasn't that appealing with how strained things were between them. Maybe after some sleep he'd actually be able to muster the energy to deal with the brunet.

When no gloating comment came, the blond lounging back contentedly against the couch, Squall inexplicably felt his annoyance rise. Seifer had never been graceful about a victory before, usually more than happy to rub it in whenever he won anything. Being dismissed so easily the moment he'd yielded seemed more insulting somehow.

Scoffing, he reminded himself that he wanted to be left alone when the sound of deepened breathing reached his ears. Incredulous, he looked next to him to find the blond fast asleep, the man's head tilted to the side and his mouth hanging open slightly. The bastard had actually fallen asleep. Unsure whether he should consider that less or more insulting than being disregarded completely, he watched the blond with a growing frown.

Why had he taken such crap from the man in the first place? The moment Seifer had started planning for the evening, he should have told him not to bother, that he wasn't going to stick around--but he hadn't. Seifer had insulted him, had stressed the necessity of a babysitter, and his only response had been "no need." Most incriminating of all, he hadn't said a thing to correct Seifer's assumption that he would be staying.

His mood darkened at the realization. He was rarely this conflicted over anything. He made decisions and stuck to them--never stalled the inevitable. He'd have to leave eventually--if not right away, then the moment Seifer considered his duty done. He shouldn't even want to stay in the first place. Nothing more would come of it than a lot of discomfort and them frustrating each other endlessly. He didn't want to see Seifer lose it again because of his presence.

As he watched the sleeping blond, restless thoughts started to pluck at the edges of his composure, demanding he analyze their situation until it made sense. After everything that had happened, it sure as hell didn't make sense for Seifer to take him in like this. His eyes brushing past angular features and blond strands of hair, he was confounded by the invasion of foreign emotions overlapping and interweaving with the familiar mess of feelings Seifer usually invoked.

Their rivalry had given him the drive to become stronger, to outgrow his childhood weakness. It had given him companionship at a time when he'd told himself he didn't need any; a goal when everything else had seemed pointless or uninteresting. And even though those days had been the simplest, the way he'd felt around the blond had already been conflicted even back then: equal parts admiration and annoyance. The war had layered on darker feelings. Anger. Powerlessness. Regret. He had thought it couldn't get much more messed up than that, but now...

Now he knew the truth and its consequences. Seifer wasn't the cadet he used to know anymore. The man still seemed arrogant and short-tempered, but the war had changed the blond. He'd witnessed Seifer weary and evasive, apologetic even, and that was only what Seifer had allowed him to see. That he was partly to blame was reason enough for him to stay away, but he seemed unable to, even when nothing had happened to make things easier between them since their accidental meeting at the club.

His interactions with Seifer had been schizophrenic to say the least, ranging from attacking the blond to ending up in the man's bed. Around the blond his actions seemed inspired by stupidity, pride, or impulse; rational reasoning was a hard thing to come by when Seifer was pushing his buttons like no one else could. He couldn't decide whether to punch the guy and leave or to try and go back to the way things used to be. Hell, he wasn't even sure whether those two options were mutually exclusive when dealing out punches had been their preferred method of communication as cadets, second only to sparring.

Next to him, Seifer was starting to tilt to one side inelegantly, slumping towards the armrest opposite of where Squall was sitting. Watching the almost humorous display of sleep lulling the big bad blond into an awkward position, the man's features completely unguarded, Squall felt his own tiredness again. He was almost envious of Seifer's apparent ability to fall asleep anytime, anywhere. If he was right in his guess, the idiot had slept on the floor the night previous.

Why the man bothered so much was beyond him. He couldn't even understand Seifer allowing him back into the apartment. The man seemed to have convinced himself that he had to do this. Blame Rinoa. That's the excuse Seifer had chosen to use, but Squall knew better than that. No one could make Seifer do anything unless the blond decided he wanted to himself--which didn't make any sense in this case. There was no reason for Seifer to want to do this.

In fact, he couldn't think of reasons for a lot of things the blond had done--especially the one thing he had tried to avoid thinking about the most, but it was rather difficult to keep that up when the object of his confusion was sitting right next to him.

Seifer had offered him Avalanche. At the time he had reasoned it away as a strange peace offering, but it was hardly a normal way to start things off after years of not having seen each other, after a war. Why accepting the drug had seemed like a good idea eluded him now. He sure as hell was cured of his curiosity now that they were saddled with the aftermath and Seifer could only be feeling the same regret on the matter.

Perhaps neither of them had ever needed actual reasons to do monumentally stupid things when merely the other's presence seemed to suffice. The unexpected effect of those pills had been no one's fault, just an unfortunate freak accident. There was no way Seifer could have known, no way he would have even mentioned the Avalanche if that was the case. At least that much was clear to him now. It had been an accident they simply needed to forget.

It could almost have been that simple too, that easy to shrug off, if it hadn't been for his actual memories of that night. He was afraid to examine them. No good conclusions could come from pondering sex with Seifer when those three words alone sent his sanity running.

Glancing at the blond who was now fully slumped against the armrest, Squall frowned. Of course the experience hadn't been horrible or repulsive. At least if it had been horrible, he could have classified the whole ordeal under the category "unimpressive and unimportant" and moved on, but that description refused to apply to anything to do with the bastard blond. He knew the Avalanche was to blame for all of it, but that didn't make it any easier to deal with--not when he could still remember everything they had done, everywhere Seifer had touched.

Sex with Rinoa hadn't been something he'd really enjoyed. He'd never wanted it in the first place. On the contrary; it had required more intimacy than he cared for, a vulnerability he didn't want to expose himself to. It meant letting go. The problem hadn't been with Rinoa. She had been beautiful and patient, so concerned with what he had needed and what she could do to get him to relax. But in spite of her efforts, the sex had been awkward and unsatisfying for them both. It couldn't have been more different with Seifer.

It made him wonder what kind of effect Avalanche could have had on his inhibition problems with Rinoa. Would it have been just as good? He had difficulty imagining it the way he and Seifer had had sex. The blond had been rough and aggressive, and perhaps the most unsettling memory was how easily he'd succumbed to the passive role, how good it had felt to let Seifer take the lead. No woman could touch him the way Seifer had, dominance and masculinity in everything the blond did. He could still feel the way his thighs had been gripped tightly by large hands, his hips yanked up and heat pressing into--

Seifer chose that moment to stir in his sleep and cradle his head a bit more comfortably against the cushioned armrest with a soft sigh before stilling again. Snapped from his thoughts, Squall tore his eyes away from the downward path they had been following along Seifer's chest and stood up from the couch. Fleeing to the kitchen area, he turned his back to the sleeping man.

...Hyne. Apparently it didn't matter that drugs had made the experience into what it was; he was still affected by it regardless. Avalanche had turned sex with Seifer into the single most sexually satisfying experience he'd ever had.

Frowning at how quickly his thoughts had deteriorated, he realized he'd need to put a stop to this immediately. There was no point in trying to make sense of something that had happened under the influence of chemical substances, no point in reanalyzing his disposition towards sex because of it. So what if it had been good? It had also been wrong and would never happen again. That was the only way to deal with it; to accept it had happened and forget about it, especially if he was to stay.

Pausing mid-thought then, he wasn't exactly surprised at where his train of thought had led him. He could no longer maintain he needed more rest before he'd be able to hit the road. He could've left already.

Reminded of moths and flames, he scowled, but knew his decision was made. No matter how stupid it would be for him to stay, their shared past deserved at least some effort. Maybe they could even return to their spars if he managed to put up with the bastard long enough.

Glancing at the blond, he wondered if even a small part of Seifer's reasons stemmed from the same desire to clear the air between them. The man's orders hadn't been up for creative interpretation--no leaving.

Shaking his head, Squall huffed. Apparently he was still capable of foolishly naive thoughts, in spite of the lessons life had taught him.

No, if anything had motivated the blond into taking him in, it was a misguided attempt at redemption. He hadn't forgotten Seifer's confessions of the war, nor the guilt eating away at the man. If he left, Seifer would never believe otherwise, but if he stayed... maybe things could change.

Drawing resolve from the tentative hope, he had all the more reason to cut short his inappropriate musings. He'd need a level head if he was to deal with his self-appointed guardian without resorting to decking the guy. He wouldn't allow their night together to become a weakness.

Satisfied he'd made the right choice, some of the tension left his shoulders.

Walking over to the kitchen cupboards, he quietly opened and closed several in search of a glass. Filling it with water, he leaned back against the counter and let his eyes roam the small apartment.

The most pressing issue dealt with, there were other matters to consider. What would he tell Garden... his friends? He hadn't foreseen any complications when deciding to keep them in the dark about the bond. There was no telling how quickly he'd recover, and he only had a few days of leave scheduled. Quistis would start asking questions soon.

Finishing his glass, he considered his options. The sooner he made some calls, the sooner he'd be able to keep this incident from spreading through the grapevine. And somehow, he'd need to keep Seifer out of the spotlight. The man might be willing to house him, but he doubted the blond wanted any attention drawn to him as a result.

Setting the glass in the sink, his eyes fell to his leather jacket hanging by the front door--where he'd last left his cell phone. Quietly, he padded over, hating how he needed to place a steadying hand on the counter. Waiting a few seconds for the resulting head rush to disappear, he patted his jacket's left pocket and retrieved his phone. Any missed calls would be the best way to know how obvious his three day absence had been--just who had taken notice.

Flipping open his cell, he raised an eyebrow at the message flickering on the display.

25 missed calls.

Calling up the menu to inspect further, he frowned as he skimmed over the list. Three calls from Odine Laboratories, two from Loire, and not very reassuring, one from Quistis. The headmistress in training rarely disturbed him during his leaves in Esthar, unless it was for official business. He'd have to figure out what to tell her, and fast.

But even as he tried to focus on a game plan, his eyes kept glancing back up to the name at the top of the list.

Rinoa. 19 missed calls.

His chest tight, he quickly pushed away the list, only for another one to pop up, demanding his attention.

4 voice mails.

All from Rinoa.

He stared at his cell, the name displayed on the screen bright and accusing. He swallowed deeply, his thumb lingering idly above the button that would summon her voice.

He couldn't avoid this indefinitely.

Pressing play before he changed his mind, he brought the cell phone to his ear.

The subdued crackle of an open phone line told him the recording had started, but nothing was said for a while. Then there was a soft cough, as if the woman wanted to clear her throat; stall a bit longer.

"...Hi." The greeting sounded as numb as he felt. "I thought, in case you're wondering--I'm back at Cecilia's, but she's out... It's just me and Angelo--" Rinoa's voice cracked on the pet's name. He recognized the sound well enough, having been the cause of most of her crying fits. "Hyne, I know I shouldn't be calling you... It's only been, what, five hours? I just--I hope you're okay. You left so quickly... Call me when you hear this?" The feeble request was followed by a soft sigh, a muted silence, before she spoke again. "Never mind, just--just call me tomorrow, as agreed, okay? ... Take care, Squall."

Another pause fell, but she seemed to think better of adding any parting words and the call was broken off.

Blindsided by the impact of her voice, the frail silences and soft pleas making everything painfully real, Squall snapped his cell phone closed. The brief call, made against Rinoa's better judgment, had bled loneliness.

They were no longer each other's rock.

Stirring from his stupor, Squall glanced at the couch. Seifer still lay oblivious to the world, no longer offering any distractions to keep his mind from going where he didn't want it to go--to where Rinoa had been. The windowless living room seemed too small all of a sudden, claustrophobia sneaking up on him. Normally, he'd already have been out the door, Lion Heart in hand and on his way to the nearest monster population. For a brief moment, he seriously considered doing just that, but the reality of his condition quickly caught up with him as his vision began to swarm with white flecks again.

Fist clenching around his cell phone, he made his way back to the bedroom, the only reprieve within reach. Throwing open the window, he slowly unclenched his hold on the cell phone and placed it on the window sill. The chill of the autumn air flowed into the room, soothing as it hit his skin. The reflex to look for comfort in the open air, in the cold, was an old one, stemming from the day he'd finally yielded to Shiva's promise of comfort and accepted her as more than an alien entity buried in his mind.

She had been his first taste of what it felt like not to be alone; to matter to someone, even if it was only as a host.

Rinoa had been his second taste. The touch of her mind had been much more fulfilling than Shiva's, the girl's love a bright burst of feelings that no ice goddess could emulate. As caring as Shiva was, she wasn't human. She couldn't hold him or care for him the way a lover could.

It had seemed so perfect at first. With Rinoa he hadn't needed to second-guess her feelings for him. They had been there, in his head, free for him to prod at and explore. He'd only been able to hold on to his doubts for so long, when tangible proof had been broadcast into their bond with her every smile and kiss.

But with new realizations came ugly suspicions. He'd needed it so much. He'd used her. If love was selfless, then he'd failed miserably. He'd taken all she had to offer but had given nothing in return.

And now a gaping absence in his mind was all he had to show for a two year long relationship.

His head hurt, and his body felt like it wouldn't hold up in battle longer than a minute, but other than that the consequences seemed inconspicuous. Rinoa was simply gone. It was a dull ache, but with a twinge of guilt he realized it wasn't because he missed her. It was the emptiness she had briefly filled. Frowning, he wondered how much of a bastard that made him.

Overtaken with self-loathing, he tried to purge the thoughts from his mind and closed his eyes to better feel the wind. He'd get used to this. It's how he'd lived for seventeen years before she'd come along. Shiva was all the company he needed.

Leaning against the window sill, he let his mind drift and remembered the trips Shiva used to take him on whenever he'd sought her out in the past--before Rinoa. Half-formed images of a white landscape, crisp and blissfully uncomplicated, took shape. He called to mind the scent of old pines, the cry of forest animals in the distance, all of it infused with an otherworldly sense of peace. The conjured memories were a poor imitation of Shiva's dream weaving, but it would have to be enough. It was the only escape he had left.



A/N: Sorry for the disappearance act - life's been crazy hectic for both of us. We've changed a lot up after this has been in the hands of our lovely betas, so any (and all) mistakes are ours.

During our absence we received this amazing piece of fanart - thank you KDDS!

https (colon slash slash) dropbox (d o t) com (slash) s (slash) 8ruitnd08u8u3nr (slash) IE(d o t)JPG



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