Into Esthar

BY : Chemotaxis
Category: Final Fantasy VIII > Yaoi - Male/Male
Dragon prints: 1011
Disclaimer: We do not own Final Fantasy or any of the characters in this story, nor do we profit from writing this story.

 




~ Chapter Seventeen - Failing Masks ~



[Seifer Almasy's Apartment, Zayin House, Wednesday, 22nd of October, 2:04 pm]

Waking up to the feeling of a cool breeze against his skin, Seifer stretched and stifled a yawn. He wasn't sure how he'd come to lie down, but he'd managed to spread himself across the entire couch. Blearily, he searched the room for any sign of Squall. Spotting the brunet's jacket still hanging at the back of his front door, he let his head fall back to rest against the soft cushions. At least he wouldn't have to hunt the bastard down a second time.

As another cold gust of air flowed against his arms, he glanced over to the bedroom. Muted sounds of the outside world traveled in through the open door. He glanced at his clock.

2:06 pm.

He'd slept for far too long, but at least he felt rested now. Smelling old sweat on himself, it wasn't hard to imagine what he looked like: crumpled clothes, messy hair and morning stubble. Definitely not a winning combination.

Not that Squall had looked any better that morning. In all the years he'd known the brunet, however hard they'd driven each other, he'd never seen the man so worn. Even more disturbing was the fact that Squall hadn't even tried to hide it at first. The moment Squall had caught himself had been plain: the sudden tension and steely eyes. He'd felt sorry for the man.

Was that how Raijin and Fujin had looked at him after the war? With pity even though they knew he hated it?

He shook his head. Crossing the distance to the kitchen to get a glass of water, his eyes were drawn to the bedroom again, but he didn't catch sight of the brunet, nor could he hear any movement. Squall was most likely back in bed.

He'd let Squall rest for a while longer and get cleaned up in the meantime. Afterwards he'd play host and treat the Commander to a meal that would hopefully help get the man back on his feet. Checking his fridge, Seifer tried to recall what Squall had loaded onto his trays back at Garden, but he could only remember the standard blue plastic trays. Useless. He'd have to improvise.

Realizing how he was fussing over what to feed the grumpy icicle, he shook his head at himself and placed his glass in the sink. He should probably worry more about how to keep Squall entertained without them tearing each other's heads off. That, and getting a shower.

As he stepped into the bedroom, his eyes immediately settled on the lone form by the window, his guest not asleep but watching the outside world with vacant eyes. Seifer knew the view well; the far drop to the street below and the rundown skyscraper across the street--a far from special view. Lost in his own head again.

Back at Garden he'd often witnessed the brunet like that--a distant gaze and a near complete lack of movement or expression. Occasionally he'd let the brunet be, but most of the time he'd pulled the brunet right out of his musings and demanded attention instead. This time he'd give Squall until he got back out of the shower.

He huffed. The atmosphere hadn't been top notch so far, but that wasn't all that different from their cadet days. He hadn't given two fucks about whether he'd been a pain in the ass back then and he wouldn't care now either, but it was obvious the Commander needed some downtime.

Ignoring the mess in his bathroom, he reached into the shower to turn on the faucet. Under the hot spray of water, he wondered how the hell one would go about making the ice prince comfortable. For all he knew, the concept didn't even exist in the brunet's world. He couldn't even recall ever seeing the guy happy, until a recent memory emerged. He had witnessed Squall relaxed and happy, and fuck it if it hadn't been the sexiest sight he'd ever seen.

Cursing, he forced that night away from memory and tried to consider Squall happy under any other circumstances--without the aid of drugs. He'd been able to picture it after the war, back when he'd seen Balamb Garden cross Timber's skyline. He'd already heard about Squall and Rinoa by then, and the first stories about the valiant Commander had started to surface. He'd never once felt envious--the brunet deserved a happy ending like that.

But now... Seeing how things had ended between Squall and Rinoa, it seemed the man had a knack for going from one shitty situation to another.

Grabbing the shower gel, Seifer began lathering himself up. He couldn't blame Squall for being the same old ice prick he'd grown up with. Things hadn't gone well for him. Maybe the brunet was just doomed to early frown lines.

With a big dollop of shampoo in his palm, he kneaded the thick gel into his hair, closing his eyes. All this thinking wasn't doing him any good. He'd always been a man of action, not brooding, and the most pressing issue was how to keep from driving one another mad-never mind Squall's comfort.

Maybe weapons were the answer. The night Squall had followed him home, the weapon parts on his work desk had immediately drawn the brunet's attention. Also, the man still kept Revolver close by at all times, even when he had a new and far superior gunblade to wield. They still had their love of gunblades in common.

He arched his head backwards and rinsed the remaining shampoo from his hair. The only times he could remember Squall ever being at ease in his company had been after their training sessions. Sparring had always taken the edge off when the tension between them had become too much, but they could hardly spar with Squall's current condition, and any other ideas on how to improve Squall's mood would probably get his head chopped off. There really wasn't any way Squall would accept Avalanche a second time around.

Smirking slightly at the thought, forgetting the amount of shit that evening had landed him in, Seifer froze and did a double-take. He'd just spent a good five minutes lost to thought--all on how to make Squall feel at home. Snorting out loud, he turned up the stream of water along with the heat and turned his head directly into the spray.

Apparently he cared a great deal about what Squall thought of him and that had to change. If confinement in his apartment or lack of entertainment made the man crabby, tough luck. As Squall had so keenly pointed out, he wasn't the man's babysitter. And hell, if his attraction made Squall uncomfortable, screw that too. He wasn't about to hold back for anyone.

Getting out of the shower, he dried himself off with brisk moves. He'd treat the guy the way he always had--tease him and drive him up the wall. Sending himself the beginnings of a smirk in the mirror, he quickly got dressed and prepared himself for some fun. He left the bathroom in a much better mood than he'd entered it.

Squall was still in the same position by the window, still lost to thought. Seifer would get to honor their old ritual after all. His smirk grew as he walked over to stand near the brunet.

"I must say I miss the belts," he drawled, winking at the brunet. When Squall didn't acknowledge his presence with more than an annoyed twitch of his brow, Seifer turned to look outside as well. The gust of wind that met his arms was cold enough to line his skin with goose bumps in spite of the bright sun outside.

"Watch it, Squall, you might get lost in there," he said, remembering all the times he'd spoken those exact words to the brunet in the past. They had always been a prelude to something more; his way of announcing to Squall that he was getting the brunet's attention whether the man wanted to give it to him or not. This time it earned him the beginnings of a scowl.

"I forgot how much fun it is to talk to you," he continued with a huff. "Come on, gimme a good glare for old times' sake."

Getting exactly what he'd asked for, Seifer smirked. "There's a good boy."

Forcing his reflexive response into submission, Squall smoothed out his expression and reaffixed his gaze on the outside view, but it was pointless. He'd lost his calm, along with his numb state of mind. He hated how the man could do that.

"Fucking hell, it's cold," Seifer cursed, trying desperately to gain back some of the earlier warmth to his skin. Glancing at Squall's bare arms, he narrowed his eyes. He'd only been standing by the open window for a little while and already it felt like his skin was about to fall off--Squall had been there for Hyne knew how long.

Ignoring the man's carelessness, he fixed his eyes on the two gunblade cases at the other end of the room. "Mind if I take a look at your new blade?"

At the first words that weren't aimed to test his patience, Squall shifted his position by the window sill to regard the blond. Wondering what the weapon smith in Seifer would make of his blade, he nodded his permission.

Smiling to himself, Seifer lifted the unfamiliar case onto the bed. He had an idea of what lay inside: the blue blade Squall had wielded in the battles that ended the war. Undoing the latches, he opened the case, a soft blue glow spilling out. Running his fingers across the translucent material, he gently lifted the blade out of its casing. The weight felt good in his hands, definitely on the heavy side, but not as heavy as most two-handers.

"Does it have a name?" he asked, turning the blade in his hands as he studied its curves and edges.

"Lion Heart," Squall replied as he scrutinized Seifer's every move, the sight of his blade in the hands of someone else kindling a reflexive dislike.

Chuckling, Seifer couldn't let the opportunity pass by. "Really, Leonhart?" he asked as he cast a glance over his shoulder to watch Squall's reaction. Already he'd managed to coax a frown from the man. "Ten points for originality."

"The blacksmith named it," Squall supplied dryly, not remembering the old and enthusiastic Shumi with any fondness.

"--after you," Seifer pointed out with a big grin.

Glaring, Squall felt vindictive as he remembered how Seifer had read up on Centran mythology, in pursuit of a sufficiently worthy name for his first weapon. "At least I didn't spend a month deciding which god to name it after." The slight freeze in the blond's expression immediately alerted him. "...What's your new blade called?"

Gritting his teeth, Seifer was just about to supply his answer when Squall raised a pointed eyebrow, the brunet clearly assuming he'd already won.

"Kronos," he answered offhandedly, his mind racing on how to gain the upper hand again, but he was immediately sidetracked when catching sight of the twitch to Squall's lips. It had been years since he'd seen it, but he recognized it well enough.

"Yeah, yeah, laugh it up Princess, try and pretend you're not jealous," he said, nearly smiling as well. "Just listen," he added as he held Squall's gaze, pausing for added effect. "Hyperion," he said, letting the name hang in the air between them. "Kronos," he added in a low voice.

"Sexy, huh?" he said with a playful wag of his eyebrows, when Squall just stared at him as if he'd lost his mind. "Reeks of power just like yours truly."

Rolling his eyes at Seifer's absurdity, Squall fought the quirk of his lips back into submission, but secretly he was relieved. They still tried to one-up each other whichever way possible, and the arrogant bastard still named his blades after gods. It was a foolish thing to draw hope from, but he let the feeling suffuse him as he watched Seifer return his attention to the blade and turn the handle a few times with quick dexterity. Squall's unease at handing over his blade all but disappeared, the man's touch and gaze respectful as he cataloged every detail.

Impressed by the mechanics and materials used, Seifer brought the handle closer to inspect the firing mechanisms. It was a cylinder model just like Revolver--no surprise there. Most fighters kept to upgrades or new versions of weapons they were already familiar with. Returning his attention to the blade itself, he ran a fingertip along the razor sharp edge.

"It looks and feels like Adamantine, but the glow... Pulse Ammo..." he paused, frowning. "The alloy shouldn't be this hard," he spoke lowly, testing the strength of the material. Translucent weapons were generally unheard of.

"Dragon Fangs," Squall provided from the sideline, impressed by the components Seifer already had managed to puzzle out. He could tell the make and smith of most gunblades himself, but alloys and forging crafts were beyond him.

"Dragon Fangs... bitches to get and bitches to meld," Seifer said thoughtfully, lost to the impeccable nature of the blade before him. What he wouldn't give to have a blade like that; a low burning red with cross swords etched deeply into the sides. "Impressive."

Unable to find the blacksmith's mark, he moved his fingers back to fiddle with the cylinder release latch, studying it as he released and closed it a couple of times. "I could upgrade this for you if you want. It'll make it faster."

Snapping out of his study of the blond, Squall considered the offer. He hadn't had Lion Heart remodeled since the war, hadn't even heard of any new upgrades on the market. Moving from his perch by the window, he stepped closer to inspect where Seifer's fingers were fiddling with the cylinder and then he caught up.

"Your own customization?"

"Yeah," Seifer replied, looking back up at Squall. "I've designed it so the wielder doesn't have to reposition their hold on the gun to release the latch. The friction of the latch is slightly better as well. It's a quick fix."

Squall quirked an eyebrow at the explanation. He'd never really considered the small latch move--a small margin for improvement, but in battle even a fraction of a second could make all the difference. He nodded his assent.

Satisfied that Squall trusted him enough to let him upgrade the man's gunblade, Seifer thrust the blade out in front of him, testing its aerodynamics. "I'll do it after work tonight," he said, eager to add his own touch to the weapon. He cut through the air again and stretched his arm out in front of him--his trademark fighting stance.

"As soon as you're better, we're going to have to spar," he said, performing a sideways cut. "Like old times," he added with a smirk.

Not having expected the suggestion, especially so soon after being judged an invalid, Squall found himself nodding. He'd made his peace with never seeing this man on the other end of a friendly spar again, but now... It was exactly what he wanted, offered so easily.

At the prospect of getting to kick Squall's ass, Seifer couldn't contain his excitement. He hadn't felt this eager in ages. Squall had better get back to normal soon so they could get started. Returning Lion Heart to its case, he placed it back on the floor to rest next to Revolver and flopped onto the bed. He propped himself up on his elbows.

"So... what do you want to do?" he prompted. "I'm all yours for a couple of hours," he added with a lazy smile, feeling the all too familiar urge to tease the brunet."You could always give me a striptease. Show off that fine ass of yours," he joked as he let his eyes roam Squall's body in blatant appreciation.

Growing rigid, Squall was too blindsided by the offhand remark to decide on a reaction. Looking away with an involuntary frown, he hated how Seifer had managed to get him this self-conscious with one comment.

"Yeah. Thought not..." Seifer said, feigning disappointment, but immediately failed as a big grin grew on his lips. He loved making Squall uncomfortable, and by the look of things, he'd just hit the jackpot. "Well, I don't really have much stuff around here for entertainment. Like I told you, I'm not really here much. We could talk, I guess, but then again, you've never been much of a conversationalist, have you, Princess?"

Scowling at the immediate change from lewdness to mocking insult, Squall stared at Seifer incredulously. The asshole was toying with him, he knew that, but the man was hitting new lows.

Watching as Squall's expression changed from confusion to annoyance, Seifer almost reconsidered what he was about to say. Almost. "The words not coming to you, Love?" he asked, wearing a shit-eating grin.

"You think this is funny?" Squall demanded harshly, the saccharine pet name leaving a particularly bad taste.

"Kinda, yeah," Seifer supplied easily, having a blast.

"...Kinda," Squall echoed in deadpan, his fingers curling into tight fists. "Don't joke about shit like that. And don't call me Love."

"Sure thing, Sunshine," Seifer said, fighting his grin to adopt a more serious expression. "Whatever you say." His lips twitched in spite of himself. "So about that striptease...?" he asked, breaking into a shameless lopsided smirk.

Squall's heart rate spiked dangerously with the effort to restrain himself. His choices effectively reduced to either punching the bastard or leaving the room, he only barely managed to turn on his heels and stride out of the door.

Rolling his eyes, Seifer threw his head back against the bed. Squall was so fucking sensitive.

After a push up from the bed, he walked over and closed the window. He'd leave for work as soon as possible and leave Squall to his own crappy company. He'd leave right away if it wasn't for the hungry grumbling of his stomach. He'd make some pasta and his favorite sauce--should be enough to keep the grumpy icicle alive for now as well.

Crossing the threshold to the living room, he stole a glance at where Squall was sitting on the couch. The brunet still looked pissy as hell, and he just knew things would get out of hand if they started talking.

Startled from his thoughts, Squall looked up to see Seifer round the kitchen counter. Not acknowledging him even once, the blond opened the fridge and started getting out groceries.

Irked by the silent treatment that had been his plan, Squall followed Seifer's moves from the safety of the couch. He scowled. Already, within the span of a few minutes, the bastard had brought him very close to reconsidering his resolution to stay. He couldn't quite believe the idiot had added what happened between them to his arsenal of insults.

Striptease. His scowl deepened as the hated word kept popping up in his thoughts. Sex with him had been inconsequential enough for the blond to use it as a source of inspiration. Just a joke.

Next time the man joked like that, he'd go for the option he'd foregone--the man only ever seemed to understand punches anyway. It probably wouldn't do much to actually deter the man, but at least it would be more satisfying than quietly seething while the bastard turned his back to him to do something as mundane as cooking.

As he took in the scene that was unfolding before him, his scowl wavered. It seemed like Seifer was indeed actually cooking now that he paid notice; the kind that didn't involve microwaves or instant meals. A pile of diced vegetables already lay stacked on the side--when had that happened?--and now Seifer was setting two pots on the stove, turning the gas valve underneath one of them alight. Soon after a loud sizzling followed as the man poured a liberal amount of oil into the heated pot, the sound joining in with the soft whir of the range hood. His eyebrows climbed higher in spite of himself.

The sounds of clinking kitchenware and the first scents wafting from the kitchen reminded him of watching Matron cook as a child. It was the only other time he could remember having watched anyone preparing food. A life of canteen food hadn't engendered a particularly developed taste palette in him, and after that, his and Rinoa's ineptitude at cooking had led to mostly take-out and restaurants.

And just like that, it was nearly impossible to stay angry. His eyes were glued to the odd scene, following the seemingly random sprinkling of herbs, the adept stirs and test tastes, the fiddling with gas settings. His lips quirked when the illusion was partly interrupted by a curse when the blond burnt his finger on the stove.

When what he assumed to be sauce was gently simmering and a bowl of salad was placed on the kitchen counter, Squall realized Seifer had stopped moving about and was looking his way.

"Hungry?" the blond asked, looking slightly bemused at the close scrutiny.

Squall blinked and answered belatedly, "Somewhat."

"Good," Seifer said, leaning back against the kitchen counter, waiting to see if Squall would make a comment about what had happened in the bedroom. The scowl from earlier was gone from the brunet's brow, but he was never quite sure what went on inside that head.

"Anything you want me to get when I head in for work later? Some magazines or something?" he asked, pushing away from the counter. "I'd go crazy if I had to stay here all day."

"No," Squall replied with a frown, the blond's suggestion reminding him of his predicament. He probably would go crazy.

"Hn. Well, feel free to read any of my books."

When Squall didn't say anything in reply, Seifer returned his attention to the food. The sauce was almost ready. Filling two tall glasses with water, he set them down on the coffee table along with the salad bowls. After one last taste of the sauce--perfect--he ladled out two big servings and joined Squall by the coffee table.

Eyeing the food set in front of him, Squall hesitated only briefly before placing the plate on his lap. Knowing Seifer, the blond wouldn't actually present him with something that might damage the man's inflated ego. Sampling the brightly colored sauce and pasta, he couldn't deny it tasted great.

"Who'd have thought I'd ever be making you lunch?" Seifer mused. His lips curled into the beginnings of a smirk. "Or spoon feed you yogurt for that matter..."

Fork freezing midair, it was a moment before Squall looked Seifer's way. "...What?"

"I'm just saying it's a bit surreal is all," Seifer said, his lips curling upwards.

Realizing this wasn't another of the blond's bad jokes, Squall lowered his fork to his plate and tried to keep his mortification from his face. He dressed you as well, his mind added unhelpfully.

"It was last night. You were really out of it. Probably hadn't eaten in days," Seifer explained, his expression falling at the memory.

At the annoyingly reasonable explanation, Squall poked his fork around in the steaming plate of pasta, the food temporarily forgotten. He couldn't remember any of it.

Seifer took a sip of his water as he took in Squall's unfocused gaze, and then it hit him--he'd forgotten all about Rinoa. He hadn't even as much as messaged her to let her know Squall was awake again. "You should call Rinoa."

Reminded of all the missed calls and the voice mails he couldn't even bring himself to listen to, Squall wanted to ignore Seifer's words, his lips turning down at the corners. He was far from ready to hear her voice again, but he knew he couldn't avoid her forever. Giving a soft hum, he returned his attention to his meal, but his briefly kindled appetite had left him.

Seifer nodded at the reluctant agreement, glad enough to have gotten out of calling her himself. Chewing on the last bit of his meal, he got up from the couch and dumped his empty bowl in the sink. Squall hadn't even made a dent in his food yet. Frowning, Seifer grabbed the keys off the counter. Better to just leave the man to it.

"What's your number?" he asked, flipping open his cell phone.

Distracted, Squall set aside his unfinished plate and exchanged numbers with the blond, not bothering to start their discussion anew. If a simple phone number helped appease the man, then he wasn't about to burst the man's bubble. He needed to be alone.

He watched with impatience as Seifer gathered his things and reminded Squall of the leftovers in the fridge and the spare keys in the kitchen drawer. Halting at the front door, Lion Heart's case in hand, the blond almost looked reluctant. "I'm not sure when I'll be home. Probably late."

Giving the blond an indifferent look, the man cast a last cursory look around the room. "Call me if anything changes."

Seemingly satisfied with Squall's vague hum in reply, or perhaps sensing his mounting annoyance at the coddling attitude, the blond nodded and was out the door.

Now that Seifer was finally gone, taking any chance of distraction with him, Squall's headache made itself known again with ruthless, short stabs. Glancing at the corner of the kitchen counter, where the brown bag of medication sat innocently, he sighed and resigned himself to the aid of the painkillers at least. The silence in the apartment seemed loud as he made his way to the kitchen and fished out the pills that would hopefully dull the sensation.

The fridge hummed, the stream of water into his glass echoed sharply, and somewhere in a neighboring apartment someone had started up what sounded like a vacuum cleaner. All of it seemed to underline a sense of idleness, reminding him he wasn't in the field or on the job, but in the most dull of places.

Snorting at the reappearance of his fickle side, he refused to admit that perhaps having Seifer around to annoy him was better than his darkening thoughts. Quickly, he downed the painkillers with distaste and contemplated for the first time in his life whether another nap would make his day go by faster.



[Seifer Almasy's Apartment, Zayin House, Wednesday, 22nd of October, 7:28 pm]

With a grumbled complaint Squall leaned back from the far too bright screen of his laptop and rubbed at his eyes. He couldn't seem to focus, and his predicament had only worsened since he'd first sat down in the couch with the aim of getting some work done. With a sigh he moved his fingers to knead at the bridge of his nose, the headache that had only been dulled by the painkillers picking up in intensity again.

Useless pills.

By now he could swear a high, almost indiscernible pitch was emanating from his laptop, the sound grating on his nerves and joining in with the gurgling of invisible pipes and the occasional drip and clang of the old radiators.

Fed up, he considered defeat. He'd given up on reading reports almost from the get go and had settled for working through his backlog of emails as best as his short attention span would allow instead. There had been a lot of them, those from Xu and Quistis consistently flagged as urgent. He'd only managed to skim through Quistis's emails. They'd initially discussed the meeting which was... little more than a week ago? It seemed like ages now. But the tone of her mails had quickly changed to suspicious concern. He usually never waited more than a day or two to get back to her, even when on leave.

He should type up a reply, but the moment he opened his eyes and glanced back at the screen, the bright blue light caused another merciless stab of pain behind his eyes. Holding down the power button, he closed the laptop with a quick move and pushed the damned thing off of his lap. The blissful absence of the high pitch whir made him sigh as he reclined further, his neck sore from sitting bent over his work.

With a frown he concluded he'd just have to call Quistis. He doubted it would do his migraine much good, but it needed to be done. He couldn't keep everything that had happened a secret, but maybe there was still a chance of censuring some of the facts. Seifer had been right, though--he needed to call Rinoa first.

Getting up, he groaned as the room started to spin for a few seconds. Low blood pressure, he told himself as he continued on to the bedroom. Finding his cell phone where he'd left it on the window sill, he ignored the alerts of several missed calls from Loire and dialed Rinoa's number before he could change his mind.

Only making it to one ring, the call was immediately picked up by a frantic Rinoa. "Squall! Is that you?!"

"...Yes," he replied evenly, dreading the coming conversation. The fact that she was already this upset to begin with didn't bode well.

"Hyne, I was so worried! Seifer didn't call... I--I didn't think you'd be conscious yet." Pausing her rush of words, she drew a long, tremulous breath. "...How are you feeling? Are you alright?"

"I'm fine. I woke up this morning."

"This morning?" came the incredulous reply. "Squall, I've been worried sick! Why didn't anyone call me sooner?"

When he offered no immediate explanation, she continued angrily, "I specifically asked him to keep me posted! He what--just conveniently forgot about it?"

As Rinoa's heated words washed over him, Squall pinched the bridge of his nose and frowned. "Look, it doesn't matter. I'm calling you now," he stated calmly in an attempt to placate her, not about to confess he had been the one putting off the phone call.

"It doesn't matter?" Rinoa echoed feebly. Falling silent, she released a long sigh. "...In any case... I--I'm happy that you're up again, Squall," she said softly. "I wasn't sure what would happen... When we found you..."

"How did you find me?" Squall asked, having wondered about that very question several times that day.

"Seifer didn't tell?"

"...I didn't ask," he answered evasively. Pretty certain the full account of what happened wasn't going to be pleasant news, he'd decided the last thing he needed was to discuss the embarrassing incident with the blond. Having been spoon fed and dressed by the man was bad enough.

When Rinoa finally answered, her voice failed to mask her emotions. "Well... When you didn't answer any of my calls, I started to worry. I looked for you. When I couldn't find you anywhere, I thought that maybe... you'd be at Seifer's..." The faltering words were followed by an uncomfortable pause. "...I--I was able to find his address and went to see him. When I told him you were missing, he was really worried... You didn't tell him we were breaking the bond."

Not understanding the reason for the odd remark, Squall didn't see why it mattered. Whatever happened between Rinoa and himself was their business and theirs alone. Anything he had let slip to Seifer the night he'd followed the man home was solely because of the Avalanche. In no mood to discuss anything pertaining to Seifer with her, he remained silent, wordlessly urging her to continue.

"... Right," Rinoa muttered. "He offered to help immediately. A friend of his helped out as well. He--" Pausing briefly, she continued hesitantly. "His name is Calder. Apparently he works for the police. He helped us track you down through your cell phone signal. That's how we knew you were at the hotel." Another silence fell, before she asked quietly, "You didn't meet him?"

At the words that implied that he probably should have, Squall frowned. He'd only met one new person since waking up at Seifer's apartment and he hadn't been too impressed. "Briefly," he replied impassively, finally understanding the stranger's presence that morning.

"I see," the young woman stated quietly. "He's trustworthy, I think. Real nice too. He was a big help. If it weren't for him, you might still be in that hotel room," she offered, clearly waiting for a reply.

Immediately alerted by the use of the word "trustworthy," Squall's mood darkened. "He knows my identity?"

A deep sigh sounded in response to his disgruntled statement. "Don't worry about it, Squall. I'm telling you, he's a good guy," she said. "Seifer wouldn't have called him if he didn't trust him."

A disconcerting thought occurred to Squall at Rinoa's reassurance."Was he at the hotel? In the room?"

"That's what you're worried about?" Rinoa blurted out. "We found you unconscious on the bathroom floor, burning up with a fever and Shiva going haywire, but you worry about who saw you?!" The girl's voice cracked under her mounting distress. "Finding you like that... It was awful! Seifer had to carry you out of there... Why did you leave Odine's lab like that? Junctioning Shiva when you were in such a state. You're lucky we found you in time. I can't believe you. You're so... so stupid!"

Grimacing at the angry outburst and the precise details of how he was found, Squall didn't attempt to interject anything, more than accustomed to Rinoa venting her frustration with him. But when quiet sobs started to filter through the connection, he let a tired sigh escape. "...Rinoa."

"No. Don't," she whispered quietly, her voice uneven and thick. "I didn't want this to happen, Squall... Why couldn't you just say you needed help? ...I should have done something. Anything."

"It's not your fault. I just--I had to get out of there."

"If you hadn't run away like that, then maybe this could have been avoided," Rinoa commented.

"I'd feel so much more at ease, if you would just let Odine examine you."

"I'll think about it," Squall supplied evenly. A quiet sigh told him Rinoa had expected the evasive reply.

"So... How are things with Seifer?" Rinoa asked tentatively, her voice small.

"Great," Squall replied darkly, not having forgotten how Seifer had pointed out Rinoa as the mastermind behind his confinement in the blond's apartment.

"I only did it because I think this is for the best, Squall." When he didn't comment, the girl continued in a more pleading tone. "Just... Don't run off on your own again... Promise you'll stay put for now?"

Tired of being told what to do, Squall barely curbed the frank words he wanted to say. Unable to make any promises, he kept quiet.

"You are still at Seifer's, right?"

"I am," he replied, wondering why indeed he still was. His earlier plan didn't quite hold up under scrutiny and seemed far too naive.

"Don't be like that. He cares... And I know you do, too," Rinoa commented soberly, weariness entering her voice. "Hand me Seifer on the phone."

"...Why?" Squall asked, not exactly keen on having the two interact with each other any more than they already had.

"Because I'd like to have a few words with him," she answered levelly.

Well aware of the fact that Rinoa was just as stubborn as she believed him to be, Squall knew he was facing a losing battle. "He's at work," he said, hoping that would deter her.

"You're alone?!" Nearly inaudible mutters traveled across the connection. "For Hyne's sake... He knows you shouldn't be alone right now!" Cutting herself short, the girl took a deep breath and Squall steeled himself. "If I call a cab, I can be there in about--"

"No."

"Squall."

He could easily imagine the hand placed on her hip, the way she usually did when she thought he was being crude or difficult. He sighed.

"I told you, I'm fine. There's no need for you to come over." His tone didn't leave any room for discussion.

"Impossible... the both of you... After this call, text me Seifer's number."

"If that's all," Squall answered tiredly, his patience waning.

"Wait! ...Just wait a second. I still need to tell you some things before you go." Taking his silence as her cue, she continued cautiously--too cautiously. "I visited Laguna. I told him about our breakup and the bond."

Though not at all thrilled, Squall couldn't say the news came as much of a surprise with all the missed calls he'd spotted from the man earlier.

"Did you two talk already?"

"...No." He had been too tired to even consider braving a phone conversation with Loire.

"I know for a fact he must be trying to reach you. You should pick up when he calls you. He's just as worried as the rest of us." Pausing, she continued more hesitantly. "I've contacted B Garden as well, to explain the situation and arrange for sick leave... I told them you'd need some time to recover. Quistis assumed you're at Laguna's... I didn't correct her, but..."

"But what?"

"I didn't have any choice but to tell Laguna where you are. He was adamant about knowing who's taking care of you," she admitted apologetically. "You know he's capable of using all of Esthar's resources to sweep the city in search of you... I made him promise not to show up unannounced. And he'll cover for you if Garden asks anything. I doubted you'd want them to know where you are... Unless you--"

"No," he interrupted immediately. Supposing an informed Loire was better than an informed Balamb Garden, he added more gently, "You made the right call."

"He'd do anything for you... Just pick up next time he calls, okay?" Rinoa replied softly.

"...I will."

"Then I guess all parties have been informed," Rinoa concluded.

A deep sigh escaped Squall at the statement. He would have preferred dealing with it on his own, so he could censure where necessary, but the damage had been done. At least Rinoa's intervention had bought him some time, sparing him from having to try and explain the entire mess to his friends and Loire right away.

"They would've found out eventually anyway..." Rinoa continued feebly, misunderstanding his prolonged silence.

"I know," he reassured. "...Thanks."

She didn't immediately reply and when she finally did, her voice was unsteady. "That's alright... Call me if you need me?"

He gave a soft hum of acknowledgement. "You, too."

"...I will." A quivering breath followed. "I'll keep in touch... Take care, Squall."

Uncomfortable with Rinoa's obvious distress and the heavy atmosphere, he was at a loss for what to say. Needing the conversation to end, he offered a soft "Goodbye" and disconnected the line. With a resigned sigh, he forwarded Seifer's number as she had demanded.

Placing his cell back onto the window sill, he looked down to watch the tremor of his fingers with a sense of detachment. His chest was tight, and the now familiar sensation of spinning rooms and weak legs had returned. He drew a tremulous breath and placed his hand onto the window frame for support, but it did nothing to alleviate the onset of... a panic attack?

He couldn't be sure, never having experienced one before, but it seemed textbook so far. Palpitations, trembling, shortness of breath, chest pain and dizziness. One by one, he ticked off the symptoms he'd once been taught at Garden, with a disconnect from reality that had been described as one of the symptoms as well.

Breathe with the diaphragm, he remembered, to stop hyperventilation, but all he managed was to half-lean, half-drop back against the window sill as bile rose in his throat. Debilitating nausea was all he registered, and any breathing techniques were instantly forgotten. He blinked, and then blinked again, as the room darkened.

Was the sun setting? No... It had done so at least an hour ago. He shook his head and forced himself to move towards the kitchen where his pills were. And water. In front of his every step forward, the floorboards seemed to narrow and widen, dancing out of his way. Had he turned off the light at some point? He couldn't remember.

Slumping against the door frame, he tried to catch his breath as he stared into the living area. Was he asleep? His thoughts seemed too clear, too sharp to belong to a dream. And the threatening aura of the room in front of him seemed very real.

All blood left his face as he watched the wild coiling of a thick layer of fog that occupied the entirety of the floor. It almost looked as if it was boiling--agitated and dangerous. He'd seen it like that before. Above the fog, a canopy of shades was creeping down the ceiling and walls, narrowing his world into stale, cold darkness.

Breathe, he reminded himself, but his breath wouldn't come. He couldn't find Griever, any of them--as if they'd never been there.

He startled when a high pitch rang through his ears. His laptop? No, he'd shut it off. The sound grew sharper and higher, until it drowned out all silence and sounds and pressed against his eardrums with such force that he nearly missed a clearance forming in the fog--a clearance that moved with the shape of footsteps, drawing steadily closer.

It's not real. He wrenched his eyes closed and tried to will the darkness away with sheer strength of mind. Not real. Not real.

In his mind's eye however, he could calculate the speed of those steps and envision how they sought him out. The moment he knew they were upon him, a terrifying cold took hold of him and then... it passed through him.

With a gasp, he slumped to his knees and looked wildly around the spinning room, seeing nothing, nothing at all. The next moment Griever was with him, without him ever having made the conscious decision to call on the lion. A displeased growl was followed by uncertain silence, but he thought better of junctioning in the state he was in. The GF didn't like it one bit.

"Stay... For now, stay."

Griever obeyed and immediately took up a protecting presence in his mind. The lion was reassuring in his immovable quality, and Squall allowed himself to drop his guard enough to calm down and catch his breath. Not real, he repeated to himself.

Sliding into a seated position, he leaned his head back against the door frame and pressed his hands together. His head felt like bursting, the migraine sharp and relentless, but at least it was better than what had just happened. Looking up at the plain, white ceiling, the dark shades gone now, he drew in a long breath through his nose and let the safe feel of reality sink in. He wasn't alone.

Griever gave his mind a gentle nudge as if to confirm the stray thought. That made Squall frown--he had to be in a bad state for the usually brutish GF to resort to kindness. It was hard to shake the feeling Time Compression stirred in him, however loathe he was to admit how it affected him. Beneath the stark fear, there was something far worse that had haunted his every lost step whilst trapped there--utter and complete loneliness.

Snorting at himself, the sound coming out more shakily than intended, he steered away from the pointless psychoanalysis and instead considered what was happening to him. Somehow it had to be a consequence of the broken bond and it had happened twice now--though the episode in the shower had been far milder.

Hallucinations, then. Griever seemed concerned but not particularly alarmed at any real possible threat. It all had to be in his head. Also, whenever it happened he seemed to be unable to reach his GFs and junction them, which was probably the most worrisome part of all.

When a ring tone cut through the silence, he slowly pushed himself upright. He peered into the bedroom, discouraged by the distance to his phone, but Seifer had said he might call. He groaned--the blond couldn't have picked a worse time.

Raising himself the rest of the way, he unsteadily moved to his cell and picked up just in time.

"...Seifer," he answered, forgetting for a crucial second he hadn't actually checked the display. Holding his breath, he prayed it wasn't Quistis on the other end.

"You okay?" the blond demanded.

Thanking Hyne, he let out a long sigh. "I'm fine," he replied, not even trying to sound like his usual self. He wouldn't pull it off.

"You sound tired."

At the obvious observation, Squall let out a noncommittal hum.

The line went silent as his non-reply was mulled over."...I'll leave you to rest then. I'll phone again later," the man said with more concern than Squall liked to hear. "Have you taken your meds?"

"...Not yet," he answered, realizing he might need those pills more than he thought. "I will after this."

"Okay," Seifer agreed, sounding frustrated. "I'll talk to you later."

When the line went dead, Squall cursed inwardly. That hadn't gone well. Hopefully Seifer hadn't read too much into his meek replies. About to set his phone aside, he spotted another missed call alert.

Seifer. 7:49pm.

Only minutes ago. And then he realized--the high pitch that had assaulted his ears. Ever since coming to, he'd been sensitive to sound, mostly when tired. All the little sounds that had been too sharp, too distorted and aggravating, were shed into a new light. Another symptom.

Pocketing the phone, he straightened and walked back into the living area, listening out for anything out of the ordinary. His footsteps echoed dully, and he tried to remember if small things had always been this loud. In the back of his mind, he could sense Griever's concern mounting. "It's fine," he said and glanced at the bag of medication, indicating them to the lion. "Those will help."

Steered to the kitchen by the GF's adamancy, he pulled the bag open and lifted out the jars with meaningless labels. Sticking to the guidelines for once, he quickly downed far too many pills.

Dragging a hand over his eyes, he shuffled to the couch and lay down on his back. When he closed them, the world danced with a maddening spin, tugging harshly at nausea. When he opened them, the ceiling became a living thing, the many spots and imperfections migrating and warping.

He should be more panicked he realized, but he was too... exhausted. The push and pull of his headache made it near impossible to manage sleep, but eventually he was carried along a restless tapestry of moving images and fog, moments of wakefulness never far off--as if he was being pushed under dark water. He'd briefly emerge from time to time and stare at the bland ceiling again. At least the pills seemed to do their work as the edge was taken off his migraine, lights and sounds less harsh than before.

But his attempt at rest didn't last long, interrupted by a loud banging that startled him upright. He blinked, willing his spiking heart rate to settle down. A second bang sounded, which he finally recognized as a knock on the front door.

Shaking his head, he tried to collect himself and slowly pushed himself to his legs. He stared at the door and wondered whether he'd imagined the knocks. More than anything, he just wanted to ignore them and lie back down, but he grew uneasy, not knowing what was real and what wasn't.

With a frown he unsteadily walked up to the door. His hand lingered in indecision over the door handle and for a moment he feared there'd be no one there--just the emptiness that had assaulted him in the hallucination.

Quickly, he pulled the door open and stared at the man in the hallway, his brow wrinkling into a frown as he realized who it was.

"Hey, erm... Sorry if I woke you," the tall man said, looking uncomfortable. Squall almost considered just closing the door then and there. He was not in the mood to deal with Seifer's friends--let alone this one.

"I'm Calder," the man introduced himself, holding out his hand in greeting. "I thought Seifer would be in."

Not releasing his support on the door frame to shake the man's hand, Squall hoped he didn't look as bad as he felt and fought to keep his expression impassive. He couldn't care less about the slight narrowing to the man's eyes when he didn't follow proper social cues.

"He won't be back until late."

That brought a surprised look to the man's face. "Did he go to work?"

"Yes," Squall replied curtly, needing to be rid of the man. A new tremor had started in the hand he had placed behind the door, out of sight. An upward tug appeared at the corner of Calder's lips, the man seemingly amused for reasons that eluded him.

"Arc must've really been on his case then."

When the man paused, perhaps expecting elaboration, Squall just waited for him to continue speaking or leave.

"...I'm sorry about earlier. It really wasn't my place," the man said as Squall found himself scrutinized. He only half paid attention to what the man was saying, when simply maintaining his composure was demanding all of his energy.

"He's just so dense sometimes," Calder continued, unaware. "He tends to come across like an asshole, but he means well."

Blinking, Squall realized Calder was talking about Seifer, and judging by his expectant gaze, the man was waiting for some kind of feedback. Squall just made his silence louder, his posture rigid as he tried not to betray the tremor now moving onto his legs as well.

"Hey, are you okay?" Calder asked, furrowing his brow.

"I'm fine," Squall dissuaded quickly. The fact that a stranger could see through his façade was alarming.

"No offense... but you don't look it," Calder said. "Maybe I should come inside?"

Having had enough babysitting for one day, Squall bristled. "No," he bit out evenly. "Like I said, Seifer won't be back until late." Unable to feign composure any longer, he shut the door in the man's face.

"Hey... I only wanted to help," Calder's voice sounded through the door.

Squall ignored the man and waited until he could hear footsteps disappearing down the hallway. Leaning back against the door, his mask shattered. Raising his hands in front of him, he watched the mild but persistent tremble and finally started to feel the panic he'd been waiting for. The pills had already stopped working and he'd only just taken them. Hyne, he didn't want Seifer to see him like this.

Needing to know how long he had before the blond might return, he fumbled for his cell and glanced at the screen to check the time. His brow furrowed.

...That couldn't be right. He couldn't have been resting for more than half an hour, but the display announced brightly and impossibly that somehow it was already 11:04 pm. He had not been lying on that couch for over three hours.

Snapping his phone closed, he stared ahead, his trembling arms dropping to his side.

What was happening to him?



[Outside Arc Balios' Weapon Shop, Wednesday, 22nd of October, 11:32 pm]

The dull thud of the car door resounded in the quiet night. The sun had disappeared hours ago and there weren't many lights in this part of town. Walking down the gravelly path that led to the courtyard attached to Arc's workshop, Calder steeled himself. Seifer still hadn't replied to any of his texts, four so far since that morning, even though Calder had apologized and pretty much begged for a call. He'd been lucky to have escaped the blond's apartment with only a few bruises and a split lip.

Nolan had wanted all the details--had asked about the scab the moment he'd stepped into their parents' home. He'd made the mistake of avoiding an answer, and not a minute after they'd sat down for dinner, Nolan had repeated his question. He'd lied in the end, making up a story of interrupting a robbery on the streets earlier that day. His parents didn't need to know about his friend's temper issue.

And still... here he was, groveling for forgiveness.

At some point during the afternoon he'd realized that maybe he'd overstepped his boundaries--however well-meant. Seifer had told him about Squall and Seifer's past, but nothing in-depth, and it was obvious there was a lot of history there. Maybe it hadn't been his place to interfere after all. He just didn't understand why Seifer didn't want Squall to know how much he meant to the blond. Their behavior around each other had been ridiculous. Almost as ridiculous as Seifer leaving Squall on his own when the brunet still looked like he might collapse at any given moment.

He shook his head. He still had trouble connecting the name "Squall Leonhart" and the title of SeeD Commander to the slight man in Seifer's apartment. The brunet looked nothing like he'd come to expect from the stories, nor did the man behave like he'd imagined, so he'd ended up just referring to him as "Squall" in his thoughts--one of Seifer's friends. That made things easier.

The door creaked as Calder let himself in through Arc's back door, the old floorboards joining in on the complaint as he made his way through the kitchen. The light in the room was already turned off, the old weapon smith most likely in bed. Bright, yellow light had spilled out into the courtyard from the workshop though, along with the sounds of someone working at the anvil.

Pushing the door open, he was greeted by the heat of the workshop. Seifer's gaze lifted only briefly from the dagger he was working on. The smell was strong: smoke, metal, and grease. He'd never quite gotten used to it--not even after the number of nights Seifer had come over for some fun with the same smells still clinging to his skin.

The blond's focus had returned to where sparks sprang from heated metal upon impact with the hammer. His expression hadn't' changed. Calder was being thoroughly ignored, which meant no forgiveness yet.

"Oh come on, Seifer, it wasn't that bad." Calder said, suppressing an eyeroll at the glare Seifer sent his way. "You were both behaving like idiots."

"You were the asshole as far as I remember," Seifer said with a sour expression.

"I was an idiot too, yeah," Calder admitted with a shrug. "That's why I came here to apologize and why I sent those messages."

Seifer huffed. "Great fucking start."

"It was wrong of me, all right?" Calder said contritely. Maybe his opening line hadn't been the greatest, but he just hadn't been able to help himself with Seifer so childishly giving him the cold shoulder. "Even though I still think you're both idiots for the way you were behaving, it wasn't my place to say anything. I knowthat."

Narrowing his eyes, Seifer didn't give Calder the satisfaction of a comment.

"I already apologized to Squall."

That immediately caught Seifer's attention. He didn't like the thought of Calder interacting with Squall at all. "...Just what the hell did you say to him?"

"Don't worry, it didn't last more than a couple of seconds--he shut the door in my face."

Seifer didn't bother hiding his vindictive amusement, a slight twitch curling his lips. At least Squall appeared to be getting back to his old self.

Catching the budding smirk, Calder almost regretted having to break the rest of the news about his visit. "He didn't look well." Seifer looked at him but didn't say anything, the smirk already gone. "I was going to stay there for a while to help him out and make sure he was okay, but he wouldn't even let me in."

"Good," Seifer said, but he looked none too happy. "I don't want to imagine what other stupid ass things you could've said."

Calder sighed. "I just wanted to get to know him a bit and help him out. He looked like shit."

That brought a frown to Seifer's brow. "... But he was standing up?"

"Barely."

"Hmph," Seifer let out. Squall had looked like shit when he'd left earlier that day as well and had barely been able to walk. Hopefully the brunet hadn't changed for the worse. "He didn't say anything?"

"Only that you'd gone to work and that you'd be home late."

Apparently satisfied by the answer, Seifer returned his attention to his work. Calder walked a bit closer, feeling like things had finally settled a bit between them.

"How much have you got left?" he asked, watching as Seifer heated the dagger and returned to the anvil.

"Just have to finish this fucking dagger," Seifer said, eyeing the blade in contempt. "And make an adjustment to his blade." He indicated Lion Heart's case on the worktable. "I'm fixing the release latch. Like I did on yours."

Calder nodded. "Can I take a look at it?"

"Not if you want to keep your head."

After what little he'd experienced of the Commander, Calder no longer doubted the statement. "You know... how can someone who doesn't even shake hands end up a Commander?" he asked with a raised eyebrow. "I thought you'd have to have certain ways with diplomacy to get that far."

That brought the smirk back on Seifer's lips. "You've never seen him with a blade."

"That good?" Calder asked, taking a step closer.

"The best fucking fighter on the planet."

Surprised to hear the words leaving Seifer's mouth, Calder realized his brother wasn't the only one with a hero worship complex. "You really think so?"

"I've never seen anyone handle a blade like him or use magic like him. A million times quicker than anyone else and absolutely relentless. During the war he could go on for hours when others gave up within minutes. He doesn't have to play nice."

Still half in shock from hearing Seifer speak with such clear admiration for anyone other than himself, Calder finally caught up with what exactly the blond had said. "...Which war?" he asked, unable to imagine Seifer having fought in one. When Seifer didn't answer, he thought back to rumors about the Commander and could only reach one conclusion. "The Galbadian Civil War?"

The blonde didn't answer and instead looked down to the blade he was working on. The man looked serious, his posture alerting Calder that something was up. "It wasn't the Civil War?"

"No," Seifer said in a low voice.

Racking his brain as he tried to remember other wars, Calder couldn't think of any. The only disturbances he remembered around that time was when monsters had fallen from the sky and later, Timber's liberation--nothing even close to resembling a war. "I don't know of any other wars."

Recalling the grim and foreboding expression Seifer had worn the night before when he had talked about leaving Garden and being a knight, Calder frowned. "Was a sorceress involved?"

This time he didn't even get a reply and the tension between them got thicker by the second. He'd definitely hit a sore topic, but it was also too big for him to just look past and leave alone. In the span of two days he'd realized just how much the public had been misled and misinformed. Or perhaps just not informed at all. How could a war have gone on--with a sorceress no less--without the citizens of Esthar even being aware of it?

Briefly, Seifer's gaze met his, making it clear to leave the topic alone. Clenching his jaw, wanting to demand answers to make sense of it all and to understand just how far the conspiracy went, he curbed all his questions. He had the means of looking into it himself. Being a member of the Estharian police force had its perks. If any of what Seifer had told him was true, then there would be trails to follow. There'd be mistakes he could pick up on and information he could piece together. He wanted the truth, most of all about what had happened to Seifer.

He'd thought he'd known all there was to know about the man, but what he'd seen these past couple of days had shocked him. He'd rarely seen such care and devotion displayed by anyone, let alone Seifer. The way the blond's attention had singled in on one person, without even straying once, had seriously caught him off guard. When he'd been lying in bed the night before, considering it all, the realization had hit him hard: if Seifer had ever focused that kind of attention on him, he might actually have considered a relationship with the man. But Calder had never felt even a hint of what he'd seen Seifer do for Squall in the time they'd known each other. That was one of the main reasons why he'd interfered that morning. He didn't want Squall to only see Seifer's harsh, uncaring front, when in reality the blond was ready to do anything to make sure the brunet was okay.

Lifting his gaze from where it had dropped to a rifle, he took in the Seifer's grim expression and remembered why he'd come there in the first place. He needed to set things right.

"Look. I really am sorry about this morning," he said softly. "I just thought he deserved to know that you care about him and that you don't mind him staying at your apartment... If it was me, I would've liked to know."

Seifer frowned, annoyed Calder was returning to that topic. "Why? What the fuck difference does it make?"

With a sigh of exasperation, Calder underlined his explanation with heavy gestures. "It makes all the difference. If you'd treated me like you've treated him... things could've been different. It wouldn't just have been about sex."

Seifer met his stare head on. "Who said I wanted anything else?"

"You don't," Calder immediately agreed. "Not from me."

"What the hell's that supposed to mean?" Seifer asked, his voice growing louder.

"You know what it means," Calder replied without much fire himself.

"Fuck, you're getting on my nerves," the blond bit out.

"For speaking the truth?"

Seifer put down the dagger and turned to face Calder fully. "And just what truth is that?"

"That you've got some longstanding unreciprocated feelings for the Commander," he said, finally calling things exactly as he saw them. "That you'd do anything for him."

"You don't know a Hyne-damned thing," Seifer said, dismissing Calder's words and turning his attention back to the weapon he was working on. He hit it hard with his hammer.

"I know you blamed yourself for the two of you ending up in bed together and I know things sounded less than pleasant between the two of you this morning. You were putting on a show for him, trying to protect yourself."

"Fuck off."

Calder took a deep breath to try and calm himself. "I've been there for you these last couple of days and helped you in whatever way I've been able to. But watch it, Seifer. If you keep this up, I'm not going to stick around."

"Because I'm not giving you any cock anymore?" the blond said spitefully.

Calder rolled his eyes at Seifer's crudeness. "I don't care about that. Well, I do, but that's not what's important. What's important is that we're friends." He paused to let the words sink in. "At least I thought so." He tapped his fingers on the worktable as he waited for the blond to respond.

Seifer didn't look at him when he finally spoke, the blond's eyes on the dagger in his hands. "We are."

Feeling some of the tension leaving his shoulders, Calder knew things would turn out all right between them. What Seifer had just said was the closest thing the man would ever come to an apology.

"Look, I'll lay low for a bit. I know you've got your hands full at the moment. And like I said, it isn't my place to interfere." He'd learned his lesson. "I'd still like to get to know him though--he's your friend and I'm yours... We'll see, huh?" When no answer seemed forthcoming, he walked over to the door. "Give me a call if you want a spar. I sure could do with one."

The blond still hadn't looked up, but finally replied. "I'll call."

"Okay then," Calder said and nodded in parting. "I'll see you around."

Glancing over at the now shut door, Seifer wiped the sweat off his brow with the back of his hand. He was still pissed at Calder, especially for that fucking ridiculous line of his. The man had some fucking nerve to pretend he knew anything about his and Squall's relationship. Unreciprocated fucking feelings and wanting more from Squall than just sex? So what if he was fucking treating a guy with a bit more respect and didn't just think about sticking his cock up the man's ass--Squall had earned that respect. Not like anyone else had.

Grumbling, he tried to steer his mind back onto the work in front of him. He needed to get the designs punched into this dagger and then--

Cursing, he remembered another task and strode into the back room of the workshop where they kept another furnace going for melting metal. Arc would hand him his ass if he forgot to cast the gun parts. Grabbing one of the ladles, he filled it with the liquid metal before pouring it into the molds. He'd have to hurry with the dagger in the other room almost prime for punching, but he should have done the gun casts hours ago. The metal would barely have time to harden and set properly for when Arc needed the parts. He grimaced.

Finishing up quickly, he strode back into the main room and put his gloves on before grabbing the dagger with the tongs and placing it on the anvil. He didn't have time for this. Not after what Calder had told him about Squall's condition. The phone call he'd promised the brunet earlier was already way overdue.

With his attention slipping more and more, he placed the dagger on the worktop. Screw proper heating and cooling techniques, he needed to know things were okay with Squall and only then would he be able to deal with his work--or blow everything off instead, depending on how the call went.

Getting out his phone, he quickly navigated to "Pussyheart" and pressed the button. Each ring lasted an eternity. By the time the call was picked up he was already fiddling with his car keys.

"...Hm?" A tired hum sounded from the other end.

"You in bed?" Seifer asked, immediately frowning.

Squall mumbled his reply. "...The couch."

"Go to bed," Seifer ordered.

"I'm fine with the couch," Squall answered, the haze of sleep disappearing little by little from the man's voice.

"Get your ass to bed now--or I'll come put you there myself." He had every intention of following up on his words if Squall decided to be difficult. He might've been too angry to reply to Rinoa's earlier text, chewing him out, but she'd been right--he shouldn't have left Squall on his own just yet.

He heard Squall sigh, but didn't get a reply.

"I'm not hearing you moving yet."

A long silence stretched on, but then Squall muttered a clipped "fine." Soon Seifer could make out the shifting of fabric and a sleepy groan. Then came slow footsteps--far too slow for his liking--followed by the sound of the springs of his bed complaining as Squall sat down. He could hear the blankets being rearranged. Finally, everything went quiet, Squall's soft breathing the only sound remaining.

"Sweet dreams, Princess," he said with a small smile on his lips as the image of Squall nodding off in his bed played in his mind. At least Squall would be all right for now. He hung up and let out a sigh. He still had hours to go, especially if he wanted to fix Squall's blade up as promised and cut down on the time he'd have to come in the next day. Squall was in bed now anyways, there was nothing he could do.

Running a hand through his hair, feeling the ache in his body from the long hours at the anvil, he wanted nothing but sleep. He only briefly closed his eyes, but then took a deep breath and returned to the dagger that hopefully hadn't cracked yet.



[Seifer Almasy's Apartment, Chimera District, Thursday, 23rd of October, 2:53 am]

Seifer could hardly keep his eyes open as he walked down the far too brightly lit corridor, his brain pretty much asleep already. The drive home had taken care of that, the hum of the engine and the empty roads not doing much to fight off his exhaustion. The only thing left to do was to check on Squall and then he'd be able to collapse on the couch. He needed it so fucking badly. Screw showering--the couch would just have to smell of soot for a week.

Unlocking the door to his apartment, it was a moment before his eyes adjusted to the softer lighting inside. One of the lamps had been left on.

Closing the doors behind him, his eyes traveled to the blanket and cushion lying in a mess next to the couch. A cup of water had been knocked over on the coffee table, its content having trickled into a puddle on the floor. He frowned--Squall was too anal to leave the place like that. Hastening his steps, he made a beeline for the bedroom and froze into place when he crossed the threshold.

Squall was lying on his back, the sheets kicked to the side almost completely. The man was moving restlessly in his sleep, cheeks flushed and a deep frown marring his brow. Quickly setting Lion Heart's case on the floor, Seifer crossed the room and leaned in over the bed. He immediately pressed the back of his hand to the brunet's forehead.

Fuck.

Squall was fucking burning up again. Not as badly as before, but there was heat there--just when he'd hoped to come home to a sound asleep brunet already on the mend. Reality was far from that, the brunet's breathing coming in fast and shallow. Beneath closed eyelids the man's eyes were moving wildly, never pausing. Squall looked distressed.

"Squall," he urged, moving his hand to rest on the man's shoulder. He wanted to wake Squall from whatever was affecting him. The man twitched beneath his touch, but didn't wake. He could feel a slight tremor beneath his fingers.

"Squall," he repeated, louder than before.

Squall's eyes scrunched tightly in response and his lips parted to mutter incomprehensible, almost soundless words, but there was no further reaction. Squall wasn't waking up.

Taking hold of the brunet's shoulders, Seifer shook the man roughly. He was yelling Squall's name now. He needed to know if Squall was all right or if the man had reverted to nothing more than a shell. He'd have to call Odine--

Gray-blue eyes snapped open, but didn't focus, Squall's pupils blown wide and his arms still trembling in Seifer's hold. The restless moves ceased as Seifer felt fast puffs of air against his cheek. Squall's chest was falling and rising far too rapidly.

Placing himself within Squall's eyesight, Seifer searched the man's eyes for any hint of recognition.

"Squall?" he asked, repeating the man's name much softer than before. Squall's gaze seemed to focus.

"...Seifer," Squall said with a slightly furrowed brow.

Taking in a deep breath, only now becoming aware of just how strong his grasp on Squall was--crushing--Seifer slowly eased up, still fighting the adrenaline that pumped through his body.

"Sorry," he managed, "It was the only way to wake you." He moved his hand down a couple of inches to rest against Squall's bare arm. The brunet's breathing was slowing down.

"Everything's all right, Squall," he said softly, frowning at the brief grimace the sound brought to the brunet's face. He paused, not wanting to aggravate things further, but he needed to know. "Have you taken your meds?" he whispered, relieved at the nod that followed before Squall closed his eyes again.

He trailed his hand upwards until it rested in brown locks. Squall didn't shy away, probably too exhausted and still halfway lost in his fevered dreams. Seifer let out a soft sigh. At least Squall was much calmer now, reassuring him it was only a temporary relapse. In his experience most illnesses got worse in the evening with a spike in temperature--hopefully this was the same. He'd watch over the brunet and pull the man out of any more restless dreams.

"I hate to see you like this," he murmured, as Squall blinked through heavy-lidded eyes. He slowly let his hand travel down the edge of Squall's neck, feeling the damp skin there. The man's breathing was even and paced now.

"Hey... scoot over," he whispered after a moment, a tired smile tugging at his lips when Squall complied without even opening his eyes.

Grabbing the bunched up sheets, he shook them and then covered the brunet lightly, before quickly undoing his pants and dropping them to the floor along with his shirt. Moving under the sheets himself, he lay on his side to better watch the brunet.

The distressed expression from earlier was gone, the man's features relaxed. He could still see beads of sweat forming on the man's brow however, so he got out of bed again and opened the window to let in a slight breeze. He wet a cloth with cold water and held it to Squall's brow. The brunet didn't even twitch, already fast asleep.

Seifer sat there for ages, just watching, making sure. He cooled down the damp cloth several times, never straying far.

Only when he had trouble keeping his eyes open for longer than a minute at a time, his body sagging with exhaustion, did he lie down again. The last thought he had before falling asleep was that he'd wake up if Squall had another feverish nightmare. He'd feel it. He'd be there.



A/N: Yup, we're still alive and working on the story (however slowly). Real life has been in the way quite a bit and that won't change for the foreseeable future. But we'll still plow on and hopefully get more posted soon. Hope you enjoyed the chapter! And sorry about any mistakes - our betas went through a very early version of this chapter. We've rewritten a lot of it since but didn't want to keep you guys waiting any longer, so decided to post it with whatever (horrible) errors may remain :3 Hope you survived ;) (and sorry to anyone who read this right after posting - we'd forgotten doesn't pick up on our emdashes well - took some time to fix)



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