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 Twenty - New Perspectives ~



[Arc Balios' Weapon Shop, Tiamat District, Friday, 24th of October, 8:17 am]

Squall watched as the increasingly run-down buildings of Esthar's old industrial district sped by the car's window. The high-gloss metal and concrete high-rises had made room for smaller, brick buildings and factories that went all the way back to Esthar's more humble beginnings.

It seemed odd to open a weapon shop so far removed from the city's busiest trade and business districts, but it served their purpose to train their volatile magic in a more remote part of the city. He couldn't afford another incident like the one with Griever in a populated area. The warehouse Seifer had mentioned would hardly be as secure as Odine's lab, but at least there would be minimal collateral damage in case something happened.

Impatient to get started, he focused to keep his poise. In spite of their doubtful chance at success, he wanted to find out whether his future as a commander and a SeeD stood any chance at all. Glancing next to him, he took in Seifer's serious expression, the man's hands tight on the wheel. Conversation had been scarce since they left the apartment, the drive to Seifer's workplace passing in silence.

When the blond finally pulled into a small private road next to an unremarkable storefront, Squall sat up straighter. An old sign that said "Weapons" in peeling paint was all that marked the place as a weapon shop, its windows too dirty to assess the quality of the weapons hidden from view. Squall glanced at Seifer with a raised eyebrow, but the man only seemed amused.

The gravel of the driveway extended all the way to the courtyard, grinding beneath the tires when Seifer brought the car to a stop. Getting out, Squall studied Seifer's second place of employment. The u-shaped building that encompassed most of the yard didn't add any luster to his first impression, but Seifer was already waving him over to the large building to the left.

"It's over here."

Following after the blond, Squall stepped over the wall and craned his neck to take in the large hangar constructed from metal plating. It was far larger than the warehouses they'd driven by on their way there, but it wasn't any newer. As they entered, Squall set down his gunblade case by the large entrance doors and walked farther inside, his footsteps echoing along the concrete floor and high-above ceiling. Behind him, Seifer switched on a series of ceiling lights, some of them dying again after a few flickers.

The debris and rust told him the building was abandoned, sunlight peaking through holes where the roof plates had given way, but the hangar's size was considerable. There were only a few crates stored at the far back, the place otherwise completely empty. It would suit their needs perfectly.

"I used to train here," Seifer said as he followed Squall's gaze around the hangar. "No one ever comes here. We won't have to hold back."

Nodding his approval, Squall turned around to face the blond. "Is your boss in?"

"Probably." Seifer glanced in the direction of the entrance. "He won't hear. And if he does, he won't care." He walked over to Squall, the impatience in the brunet's eyes contagious. From the moment Squall had woken him up, the man had been unable to hide his eagerness at getting started with their training. Squall had even put out coffee and Odine's pills for him back at the apartment just to speed things up. "You ready?"

Squall nodded. "Who goes first?"

"You," Seifer said and moved to stand at the side, but immediately stopped in his path when he felt Shiva stir in his mind. Squall's eyes were glazed over, a faraway expression on the man's features. "You can draw her."

Quirking an eyebrow at Seifer's astute observation, Squall stepped over to the blond. He didn't want to do this with any other GF, but another invasive draw without the blond's consent had been out of the question.

Seeking out the ice goddess, he found her easily. Restless at his first touch, she settled down quickly when he started to draw her. Remaining calm, she let herself be drawn smoothly. The medication dulled most of the discomfort, but he kept a close eye on Seifer's expression regardless.

His eyes closing on reflex, Seifer waited for the usual pain to manifest itself, but it never came. The cold magic around him was already starting to dissipate, Shiva no longer in his head. Opening his eyes to see if Squall was all right too, he smiled broadly when the brunet gave him an acknowledging nod in return.

Taking a steeling breath, Squall stepped farther into the hangar, a safe distance away from Seifer and any load bearing structures. He pushed away the memories of sharp pain and started to pull Shiva into a junction with him. She followed willingly, soft and gentle as she took root in his brain. There was an immediate pressure pushing against the inside of his skull, but it remained dull and bearable.

Opening his eyes, Squall looked Seifer's way to let him see the color of his eyes—reassurance that he'd achieved a stable junction. At the man's nod, he turned to face the interior of the hangar and brought up his left hand in the focusing gesture he'd been taught at day one of magic training. It'd been a long time since he'd needed to resort to such a novice trick.

Blizzard first, he decided, sticking to familiar territory. Projecting the magic's path to collide with a streak of sunlight, he gave Shiva a warning nudge and released the node of energy stored in the recesses of his mind. The pain was instant, but not crippling. When the crystalline shapes of ice materialized right where he'd intended, scattering the dusty beam of light in all directions, he let go of the breath he'd been holding and immediately readied another spell.

The process wasn't without pain, but the medication did its job, allowing him to maintain focus and control. With each new Blizzard that sprang to life, intersecting with different beams of light around the hangar, his head throbbed a bit more insistently, but it wasn't anything he couldn't handle. He relished the unnatural cold that rushed all the way to where he was standing, the air crisp and laden with the crackling atmosphere of magic.

Feeling bold, he aimed for the exact centre of the hangar and released a Blizzara. Though the casting time was delayed, the accuracy was far better than anything he'd managed at Odine's lab. Shiva began to stir in the junction, judging it safe to move around more freely after his initial success.

As he let go of another Blizzara, she breathed some of her own ice into the spell. Inaudible as her laughter would be to bystanders, he could hear it echo clearly in the cracks and chimes of the materializing crystals. This was how it was supposed to be.

Hopeful for the first time in a while, he started into a slow series of Blizzara's, focusing on timing. The building pain was a small price to pay for the elation of falling back into perfect synchronicity with his ice goddess. Setting off one spell after the other, well-timed and evenly spaced, he startled when a burst of Fire erupted against the ice crystals he'd just conjured, creating a hiss of steam.

For an instant his heart dropped at what looked like his magic acting up, but then he remembered Seifer and looked behind him. The bastard just sent him a cocky smirk, the man's eyes glowing a dark amber.

Immediately setting off another Fira to try and best Squall, Seifer tugged at the sluggish mental connection with Bahamut. When the flames lit up close to where Squall had been aiming his spells, but no ice spells manifested, Seifer jutted out his chin. "Think you can beat me?"

He didn't delay before focusing on his next spell, uncaring he only had nine Firas left. The air combusted into flames, soon met by sharp ice crystals. As before, the loud hiss of clashing elements resounded in the hangar, leaving only a thin mist in its wake.

Their timing wasn't perfect. Sometimes the ice appeared first, sometimes the flames. The spells took longer than usual, but the fact they were able to cast them at all was all that mattered. They could retrain like this. Mixing up his spells, Seifer focused on thunder and fire based magic. Those spells had always been his favorite—the louder, the better.

After a while of setting spells off next to each other, Seifer stole a glimpse of the brunet. Squall didn't look half as affected as the previous day—the difference was amazing. It felt incredible being able to cast again after so long.

Next time Arc sent him out he'd be able to collect the materials for the weapons himself instead of just traveling around to buy them. He'd finally get to feel the adrenaline rush of taking on far too many monsters at once without a shred of fear. There'd always be a GF who had his back in case things went south. He'd be able to slay monster after monster without carrying endless potions around.

He couldn't wait to return to the field again, and by the look of things he'd have to hunt down some monsters very soon. Most of his spells were down to single digit stores. Two years of neglecting his supply and selling off potent magic to anyone who'd buy it didn't make for an impressive collection.

Already running low on his favorite low level spells, he decided to tap into another area. He had tons of Cures, some of the only leftovers from his cadet days. He'd used up the more potent healing spells during the war and afterwards he'd downed potions instead.

Waiting for the usual healing tingle to suffuse his body, he watched the blue lights flicker around him. It was a breathtaking experience, just like the first time he'd cast it as a teenager. All aches disappeared, only a very slight headache returning after the spell completed. Looking Squall's way, he smiled.

Distracted from his own casting when Seifer's attack spells had ceased, Squall met the man's gaze and quirked his lips at the dying embers of the Cure spell. The man's elation was understandable after over two years of magical impotence. He'd only gone without magic for little over a week himself, but the time spent cut off from Shiva had felt like forever.

The ice goddess clearly felt the same. Her initial consideration had quickly given way to exuberant participation in every little spell, and although it added a satisfying spice to his magic, it also wore him down all the faster. He sighed and kneaded at his temples. His headache had gained a vicious edge that was difficult to ignore, and he wouldn't push himself as far as blacking out.

Whispering an inward apology to the GF for unjunctioning so soon, he swallowed down his pride and withdrew to the side of the hangar for a break. He didn't miss Seifer's frowning glance at his retreat, but the man refrained from comment and turned his attention back to his own training.

Sitting down, Squall leaned back against the metal plated wall and rested his elbows on raised knees. It was annoying to be temporarily benched while the blond continued on, but all things considered, he couldn't complain. He hadn't even expected to complete a simple set of Blizzards, but he'd managed far more than that.

Seifer was faring even better, time perhaps already having healed the most acute damage while his own neural trauma was still recent. It was encouraging to see the blond like that—his eyes glowing, the occasional smile or grin illuminating his expression after a successful spell.

Settling back to watch the blond train while his migraine slowly receded, Squall felt glad for the easy companionship between them. Just the evening before, he wouldn't have thought it possible. Even just that morning, he'd been doubting his decision to stay in the man's apartment, bed or even vicinity for any length of time.

Squall frowned at the memory of how he'd woken up that morning. The blond had managed to sleep right through the alarm, but Squall'd had no such luxury. Seifer had sidled up to him even closer than the night he'd had his nightmare, the man's arm draped all over him, his entire body pressed far too close. And to think Seifer had grilled him for his hesitance the evening previous—homophobic or not, there was nothing innocent or platonic about waking up to someone else's morning wood.

The few seconds of stunned arousal that had delayed his retreat from the bed had been far worse however. Once his brain had woken enough to realize the inappropriateness of his response, he'd darted out of the bed with self-incriminating urgency, but luckily Seifer hadn't woken. Sighing at his body's betrayal, Squall quickly refocused his gaze from Seifer's form to what the man was actually doing.

His frown grew when he realized Seifer's spells had become increasingly... unimpressive. The timing was still as good as was to be expected, the execution flawless, but he'd grown accustomed to Seifer preferring more flashy shows of magic. The boring repetition of supportive spells was only rarely interrupted with an errant Fira or Thundara.

As he watched the blond Dispel a self-cast layer of Protect and Shell yet again, Squall wondered if something was wrong. By now, he would've expected Seifer to have blown out the plated walls already, or to have singed the concrete floor with fire.

Quickly drawing Shiva into junction, Squall cast a perfectly timed Protect spell to intercept the blond's own identical spell. "Predictable doesn't suit you," he called out when the clashing spells died out.

Cursing inwardly, Seifer avoided Squall's gaze. "Then let's see you do better than this," he said, casting his only Tornado in the middle of the hangar, quickly followed by a Quake. Glancing over his shoulder, he knew he hadn't managed to distract Squall when the brunet got up from the floor with a frown.

Waiting until the last tremor of the Quake spell had dissipated, Squall inwardly scoffed at the poor diversion tactic and readied a Scan spell—Seifer really shouldn't be casting high level spells like Tornado if he was having any kind of trouble. When the magic enveloped the blond and drew its information, Squall raised an eyebrow at the feedback from the spell.

Slightly elevated heartbeat indicating mild exertion, prime physical responses, no injury, elemental favor for Fire and Thunder, addled magic abilities, three GFs—everything was as it should be, except for the man's spell stock.

Glaring at Squall as the Scan came to an end, Seifer squared his shoulders. "Satisfied?"

Not about to apologize for his misinterpretation of the situation, Squall walked up to the blond. "Draw what you need," he said, opening his mind to the exchange. "Fifty fifty."

Seifer scrutinized the man in front of him. He and Squall had been rivals throughout their teenage years, enemies after that, and now Squall was offering him half of his spells, worth countless hours of field time or loads of Gil. Aside from Ultimecia, no one had ever offered him anything of this magnitude. "What do you want in return?"

"Just draw, Seifer."

Not about to risk the man changing his mind, Seifer started the repetitive process. Beginning with his favorites, he soon had a better supply than he'd ever been patient enough to collect himself. Finishing up with some of the more lethal spells, some of them extremely hard to find, he shook his head at the big numbers he still got from the draw.

"Always prepared, huh?" he said when the tendrils of their connection finally died out. "I owe you one."

"You don't owe me anything."

"How about I take you out for dinner in return?" Seifer asked as he drew up the corners of his lips, still at a loss as to why the brunet would go through so much trouble for him.

Casting Seifer a frowning glance, Squall suspected another bad joke. In his experience being taken out for dinners meant forced bonding, usually ending up with him sitting through Rinoa's strained efforts at creating a "romantic" atmosphere or Loire's well-meaning babble for an entire evening.

"I'd rather spar," he shot back, turning his gaze away to cast a Water.

"It's settled then—first a spar and then dinner." Seifer said, grinning. "Look on the bright side: even if you lose, you won't have to pay." Squall's outraged huff and eyeroll in reply only added to his amusement. If the brunet thought he'd be on the winning side of their spar that evening, the man was dead wrong. There was no way in hell he'd let that happen.

Watching as tendrils of water burst forth from thin air, fusing into a twisting mass at the brunet's command, Seifer was eager to go all out with his newly acquired spells. It wouldn't do to start with anything less than a Firaga. As the ball of fire lit up the room and heated his face, he immediately repeated the spell. He'd forgotten the rush that came with magic.

Time disappeared as spell after spell came to life in the hangar. He loved seeing Squall's ice crystals take form just as much as the sound of his own loud blasts. Casting required much more concentration than he remembered, and a lingering ache still grew with each spell, but it wasn't anything that could stop him from enjoying every second of it. Setting off another Thundara, he imagined he was out in the field. It had been years since he'd attempted fighting a high level monster. There was something uniquely satisfying about bringing down a creature that took over an hour to kill.

Moving on to a series of buffs and debuffs, he smiled at just how different his life would be now. With an Esuna and Cure on hand, nights of debauchery would no longer result in feeling crappy. He couldn't wait to try it out.

"It's past ten."

Concentration broken, Seifer's Thundara manifested a couple of feet from where he'd planned it. "By how much?" he asked, not waiting for the reply as he cast another spell.

"Twenty minutes."

Seifer nodded, aware he couldn't put off work for much longer. But there was no way he'd be able to slave away at the forge without knowing for sure if the one thing he'd missed the most was still out of reach. Focusing, he felt Bahamut's impatience keenly. It had been far too long.

As the winged creature appeared amidst fog and thunder, its leathery wings spanning wide, Seifer grinned broadly. The large maroon beast looked just as impressive as he remembered. He'd never seen any other Guardian Force that inspired as much respect. Watching it beat its wings, feeling the shifts in the air, he didn't want the moment to end. If only they were out in the open and surrounded by prey.

Witnessing the summon from the sidelines, Squall tried not to be swayed by Shiva's incessant appeals. Seifer's success was promising, the man completely riveted by the powerful GF as it hovered in the air with powerful strokes of its wings. Squall thought with some relief that the compatibility between the two seemed untarnished by the years spent cut off from each other.

There was something majestic about the creature that commanded awe, and even Seifer's usual cockiness was toned down to a more contained demeanor—anything less than total domination and focus was foolish when in command of a beast like Bahamut.

It was with regret that Squall watched the GF bow its head to Seifer as the man raised his hand to discharge the winged creature. Bahamut beat against the air with its powerful wings, as if to rise through the ceiling, disintegrating into gusts of wind that whipped at Squall's clothes and hair.

Seifer's elation was contagious as the man turned to face him with a beaming smile. "Your turn."

Always having been weak to Seifer's challenges, Squall nodded against his better judgment and stepped into the center. To see his ice goddess in the flesh, not just a specter in his mind, would be a sorely needed relief.

/Be good,/ he warned the playful GF, needing her to compensate for any disorientation he might experience. Drawing her through the junction, he pushed her out into the world. Pain bloomed in his head immediately, but he ignored it and snapped open his eyes to study the large crystal he'd conjured.

Shiva's elegant shape stirred inside, cracking the ice until it gave away in a burst of icy shards. Stepping out from the debris, the ice goddess locked eyes with him and sent him a testing smile.

/I'm fine. Are you?/

Her nod was slow and graceful, her slanted eyes crinkling as her smile broadened. She inclined her head in question, eager to play.

/Next time,/ he promised, sharing the sharpening pain with her. /Need to keep it brief./

Giving another nod in understanding, she walked towards him with beguiling grace, her mere presence an old source of reassurance and comfort. The cold that pierced deeper with each of her approaching steps was pleasantly numbing, his breath frosting in the air by the time she stood before him.

Lifting her arm to place a gentle hand against his cheek, she chased away some of his headache with her chilling touch.

/Thanks./

He could feel his relief mirrored in the connection they shared. As long as they could still be like this, rooted side by side in the real world, they'd be fine. Next time they'd have more time. When the ice goddess lowered her arm, Squall unraveled the summon and watched as she burst into thousands of icy flecks scattering in the air.

Having followed the interaction from the sidelines, Seifer raised an eyebrow. "She always flirt like that?"

Not even finding it endearing when Squall frowned in what looked like confusion, Seifer couldn't just forget the sway to Shiva's hips or the coy smile she'd sent the man as she had sauntered over to him. No wonder the rumors about her and Squall had started.

When the brunet still didn't reply, his eyes glazed over in their usual fashion when Squall was focused inwards—on his GF—Seifer shook his head. "Don't tell me you didn't catch that."

Squall's frown grew as he refocused his gaze on Seifer. He didn't understand what kind of joke the man was playing, Shiva's growing hilarity suggesting it was indeed a joke. Uninvited flirtation had never been one of his problems, least of all from Shiva.

"Do you ever catch it?" Seifer asked, a suspicion starting to form.

"She wasn't flirting," Squall said tersely, feeling ridiculous having to deny it.

"Just answer the question. Do you ever notice it? People flirting with you," Seifer repeated as he walked closer, keeping his budding amusement to himself.

"They don't."

Smiling lopsidedly, Seifer stopped right in front of the brunet. "So...it never occurred to you that I was flirting with you when I asked for a striptease? … Or when I joked about the fun only starting after the uniform comes off?"

Uncertain whether Seifer was trying to flirt, tease or get under his skin just to prove he could, Squall had to consciously keep himself from flinching back from the blond's proximity.

"Stop."

"Stop what, Squall?" Seifer asked, feigning ignorance.

"Being an ass," Squall bit out, glaring at the blond as he inwardly tried to diffuse the part of him that was actually responding to the man.

Seifer leaned in closer, while eyeing Squall up lewdly. "You should try it sometime."

Stepping away from the blond, Squall was done with playing games he didn't understand. "Save your flirting for someone who cares."

"Ouch, Princess," Seifer said, holding a hand over his heart, his smile not faltering. "Now if you don't mind, I think I'll try and mend my broken heart with a bit of physical labor." He nodded towards the courtyard. "You coming?"

Brow twitching at the blond's fickle mood, Squall let out a sigh. He should've gotten used to Seifer toying with him a long time ago, but the man kept catching him off guard. "You need help?" he asked, certain he lacked the necessary skills for any kind of smith work.

"No," Seifer said, shaking his head. "Just thought you might want to check out the place and see a great weapon smith in action," he added with a wink. "Arc's collection of blades is quite the sight too. Some real oddities in there."

"Your boss won't mind?" Squall asked, following the blond out of the hangar.

Seifer shrugged as he crossed the courtyard. "He'll be fine." Arc hadn't cared either way when Seifer had shown Calder around a while back, after the man had kept insisting. Most likely Arc had been too absorbed in his work, and probably would be now too.

The hinges creaked when he pushed open the backdoor to the kitchen, the layer of dust on the floor billowing up into the air with each of his footsteps. He'd never seen Arc clean the damned place and Hyne forbid he'd take on the task himself. Throwing his coat onto the table, he rubbed the stubble on his cheek. If Squall had formed an opinion of the place yet, it didn't show, the man's expression carefully neutral as always.

Walking across the kitchen, he held open the door that led to the workshop. As he waited for the brunet to pass through, he had to curb the urge to smack the man's ass—there were too many lethal weapons within hand's reach.

"Finally decided to turn up?" Arc demanded as Seifer entered the workshop. The old man was standing by the forge, already covered in smudges of soot.

"Hey, no complaining. I stayed up until three last night to finish the dagger," Seifer said, waving off the man.

"After you didn't come in to work all day," Arc muttered under his breath, resuming work on the katar in front of him.

Certain that would be the extent of their interaction, Seifer raised an eyebrow when Arc looked Squall's way.

"Who's this?"

Seifer walked further into the room. "A friend. I'm going to show him the ropes."

The unhurried study of the brunet that followed wasn't entirely reassuring, but then Arc let out a "hmph" and dismissed any further conversation by moving the katar to the anvil.

Seifer shrugged at Squall's quizzical expression. Hell if he knew what was going on in Arc's head—the old smith hadn't shown the slightest bit of interest in Calder.

"This is mine," Seifer said as he gestured at the more messy part of the long counter that lined the entire wall. The wooden surface was covered in random drawings of weapons and old stains, coffee being the worst culprit. The wall behind it was littered with pictures and drawings of gunblades, notes on materials, and welding techniques for different parts. The design for his next blade was among his scribbles. To an outsider it probably looked like a madman's lair.

He reached for the blade lying next to his work area. "One of Arc's latest," he said, handing it over to Squall.

Letting his eyes run along the sharp edge of the exquisite blade, Squall could tell the quality of the forging by the many layers of folded metal that gave the weapon its razor sharp edge. It was an older, elegant design with a classic revolving chamber, the balance perfect when he poised the edge of the hilt on a few fingers.

"I forged the blade."

Glancing up at the blond's statement, Squall raised an eyebrow and turned the blade over in search of Seifer's mark. Each weapon smith wielded their own, and he'd been too distracted by Hyperion to have looked for Seifer's sigil on the other gunblades displayed at the SCTA. When he spotted the familiar but unexpected mark etched into the metal, he looked over at the graying man by the anvil.

"Balios?" he asked, unable to reconcile the humble shop with the mark of the world-renowned smith.

Seifer sent Squall a big smirk. "The one and only," he bragged, nodding at the smith's mark. "He likes to take credit." He spoke the words loud enough for the smith to overhear, but didn't get any reaction.

Impressed, Squall ran his finger over the stylized mark of a falcon with spread wings. Perhaps it was no great wonder to find the famous yet enigmatic smith in a place like this. His work had been published in a multitude of Weapon's Monthly magazines, but there had never been any personal info aside from a phone number and the smith's surname—all no doubt measures intended to filter away curious window shoppers, or broke cadets like he had been at the time.

Sympathetic towards the smith's need for privacy, Squall handed the blade back to Seifer. "What's your mark?" he asked, certain the blond had picked one out already, even if Arc didn't allow him to use it yet.

Seifer pulled up his shirt sleeve enough for Squall to see his tattoo.

Squall let out an amused huff. Seifer's habits when it came to weapons was about the only predictable side to the man, his gunblades named after gods and marked by cross swords. Letting his gaze wander around the cluttered workspace—the controlled chaos very similar to the blond's apartment—Squall was quietly impressed with the sheer amount of weapon parts, sketches, blueprints and tools. He'd seen similar sights in the workshops of FH engineers.

Fingering an oil stain much like the one on Seifer's coffee table, Squall interrupted his study of the blond's workspace when his gaze was caught by sketches of a familiar blade. "Did you make her?" he asked, recognizing Seifer's scrawl on the meticulous drawings.

Following Squall's gaze to sketches of Kronos, Seifer nodded. "Just finished her a couple of months ago."

The blade Squall remembered from their spar had been first-rate—nothing he would've expected from an apprentice who claimed to still have a few years of tutelage to go. But then again, Seifer never did things by halves. As he studied Kronos' different incarnations on paper, he wondered how the same person could have such unsightly handwriting yet produce these kinds of drawings.

"Come on, I'll show you the rest of this place," Seifer said and pushed away from the worktop. "We do our main work in here," he said as he walked past the anvils and furnace.

"This is where we leave the weapons that are ready to be picked up," he said, gesturing at a random selection of weapons laid off to the side. "That's the dagger I worked on last night."

Leaning in over the table, he lifted up a piece of paper tacked onto the pinboard. "This is our list of commissions. Here's the katar Arc is working on," he said, running his finger along a line of text. "We're behind on these ones—some shuriken and a katana." He rifled through a pile of papers on the desk to get to the technical drawings. "I'm on the shuriken for now," he said, handing the drawing to Squall. "I already did the preliminary work, just have to take them to the anvil for the finish."

Not waiting for the brunet to rifle through the drawings, he opened a door into another room. "This is where we do most of the casting. It's also where we keep most of our tools and materials." He walked over to a cabinet and picked up some tools before returning. "In there is the actual shop," he said with a nod at the door at the other end of the room. "If you can even call it that. Most of the weapons in there aren't even for sale… Arc's a hoarder," he added as they walked past the old man.

Following Seifer back to his workspace, Squall felt the older smith's hawk-eyed gaze on his back and wondered if his presence there was not as tolerated after all. Deciding it was the blond's problem, he perched himself on the corner of the large worktable to watch as Seifer laid out his work tools and pinned the necessary technical drawings on the board in front of him. The throwing stars themselves were procured from a shelf and placed in front of the blond.

"I can't remember how many of these I've made before Arc let me in on the bigger stuff," the man said with a huff, starting to make some measurements on the first of the batch and making notes. "Still a bitch to get right, though. See here? The angles and distances need to be just right, or else they won't cut through shit. These will manage skin or leather fine, but nothing sturdier."

Happy enough to let Seifer talk him through the different processes required, Squall paid attention to the man's contagious enthusiasm just as much as to his words. He'd never seen the brute man do such delicate work before, and with such patience. A tiny difference in measurement meant the difference between good and bad aerodynamics, and so the blond cut no corners as he checked each throwing star for balance and symmetry.

Squall had known that handmade weapons required both force and delicacy, yet he was still surprised to see Seifer turn each item over in his hands with care, making swift and minute marks wherever some of the shurikens needed more work. The man's simple, to-the-point explanations further reminded him of why Seifer also made a great teacher.

"When I'm done with this, I'll need to touch them up at the anvil," the blond continued to explain, picking up the next shuriken. "After that I'll be etching on a simple pattern. It's pretty straightforward—put on a layer of wax, scratch in the design and coat it with acid. Got plenty of nasty burns from—"

Falling quiet when he felt Arc's eyes on them, Seifer straightened his back. Usually nothing drew the man's attention away from his work. He frowned when Arc walked over to the wooden cupboard holding the man's booze and got out three shot glasses.

"Here," Arc said as he handed each of them a glass. Taking the bottle of well-aged spiced rum from underneath his arm, he filled each glass to the brim and clinked his glass against Seifer's, waiting for the blond to down his drink. "Now shut up."

Seifer knocked back the alcohol in his glass and chuckled. So that was what had been bugging the old coot. Having said his piece, Arc turned his back to them, about to return to work.

"The blue blade. This is the guy."

Turning back around to eye Squall carefully, Arc didn't immediately comment. "Who made it?" he asked after a pregnant pause.

Meeting the man's gaze, Squall knew the smith must already have a few guesses lined up. Only a few places made weapons that were imbued with magic properties. "A smith from the Shumi tribe."

"...And you are?"

"A SeeD," Seifer quickly answered on Squall's behalf.

After another moment of studying the brunet, Arc let out another "hmph." Filling up Squall's shot glass and his own once more, he held up his glass in an invitation to drink together.

Appreciating the smith's no-nonsense approach, Squall tapped his own glass against Arc's. Somehow it felt like an initiation rite, and he could imagine the older man having put Seifer through the same assessing scrutiny in the past. Though probably unwise considering the amount of meds he was on, he downed the second shot glass of burning liquid.

Turning to fill up Seifer's glass, Arc nodded at the blond. "Maybe we should add Trabia to your next trip out," the smith said as he walked past Seifer with a pat to his shoulder.

Emptying his shot glass once again, Seifer watched as Arc returned to his work. He couldn't remember the man ever getting out alcohol for outsiders, not even clients. Baffled by Arc's antics, certain he'd gotten used to them all by now, he considered the man's suggestion instead. It would be amazing to learn how to forge something like Squall's new blade.

Realizing he'd better get going at the forge, he grabbed one of the shurikens. "You wanna stay for lunch?" he asked, looking at Squall. "I better focus until then, but you can see how it's done—feel free to roam around as well."

"Sure," Squall replied. His plans for the day were rather meager whenever Seifer wasn't available. He wasn't any good at keeping himself occupied, never having had as much free time as he did now.

When the blond nodded and walked towards the furnace and anvil, Squall decided on one of the few surfaces near the wall that wasn't completely covered in tools and weapon parts. Lifting himself onto the oak trestle table, he watched as Seifer started to put on several items of protective gear. The leather apron and gloves were well-worn and blackened with soot, the blond's safety glasses and sound deadening headset ruling out any chance of conversation.

Settling in for the "force" part of forging weapons, Squall tried to shake the oddness of sitting idly by while others did all the work—not that he'd be able to do anything useful. Seifer was already fanning the flames of the furnace with a set of large bellows, the glow of red hot coals spilling out into the workshop and casting the blond's face in fiery hues. As the man worked up the heat in the furnace, Squall could feel the hot air all the way to where he was sitting. He smiled when Shiva interrupted his thoughts with a crystalline huff, the ice goddess retreating further into his mind.

The air became dense with heat, the scent of burning coal, soot and metal quickly filling the room. The old chimney didn't manage to draw away all of the smoke, but Squall didn't mind the smell. It was a heavy scent that had always reminded him of the excitement of saving up for Revolver; of the many walks by the smith shop where the gunblade had been on display. In recent days, he'd started to associate the scent with Seifer.

Watching as Seifer pulled the first heated shuriken out of the furnace with a set of tongs and brought down the hammer with a carefully placed swing, Squall remembered why the man had always been so easy to admire. Seifer was still every bit as ambitious and talented, never one for defeatist attitudes.

As the blond started into a regular rhythm of beats, Squall soon found himself captivated by the display of brute strength and the sheen of sweat that started to form on the man's bared arms. With most of the blond obscured from view by either the anvil or protective gear, Squall's eyes strayed to the sight of bunching muscles that rolled beneath tanned skin with every strike of the blond's hammer. He'd never seen Seifer use his strength in such a controlled, focused manner. Even through the safety glasses, he could see the look of intense concentration in the man's eyes.

Usually Seifer would already have felt his gaze and have looked his way with a cocky remark. The only other time he'd been allowed such an uninterrupted study had been during their night of Avalanche, seated on Seifer's windowsill. The intimacy of the moment felt the same—to be shown a previously unknown side to the man.

Remembering the sight of the prone man tugging at his shirt's collar and baring his chest, Squall let his gaze drop to Seifer's collar bone. The small dip below his Adam's apple glistened with sweat, just above the man's shirt. It clung tightly to his chest, outlining his broad shoulders perfectly each time the man turned to pump the bellows.

The furnace had been brought to a full roar now. One after the other red-hot shuriken was thrown into the dousing tub, releasing a hissing cloud of steam and adding moisture to the heat in the air. The blond worked fast. Inhaling the thick air deeply, Squall leaned back against the wall. He wanted to break Seifer's concentration, to break the tension in himself. He needed to move and spar with the blond—to draw all of that focus to himself.

He imagined picking a fight right then and there—Seifer had never looked more strong and masculine than in that moment. Would he be ordered out of the workshop, or would he be indulged? His pulse quickened when he imagined the blond setting down the hammer and stalking over to him with a predatory gleam to those green eyes. As his gaze dropped to Seifer's lips, he imagined them curling up into a smirk. He was starting to forget how they had tasted—

The sudden sound of his phone's ringtone brought back reality, tearing his attention away from the enticing view and his wildly inappropriate thoughts. Swallowing thickly, he willed his excitement away and fumbled for his phone. Flicking it open, he frowned at the "private number" notice on the display.

"Who is this?" he asked tersely, resentful to whoever had caught him in the act. A soft chuckle sounded from the other side, immediately causing his guard to go up. Quistis rarely called just to catch up.

"It's reassuring to hear you're well enough to still intimidate your callers."

"No caller ID," Squall replied, glancing over to the anvil. Seifer was too engrossed in his work to have noticed his indecent gaze. "Why the secure line?" Looking around the workshop, he was glad to see that Arc had left some time during his... study of the blond. To think the old man's presence hadn't deterred his libido in the slightest...

"I'm at your office right now. It's been my home away from homelately," she replied, laying on the sarcasm.

He cringed inwardly, well aware that part of his workload would have fallen to Quistis in his absence. "I've been getting through my mail. The schedule updates—"

"I was joking!" she cut in quickly. "You know I'm just as bad a workaholic as you. Leave the schedule updates to me."

"I did them last night."

"Squall! Don't you know the meaning of sick leave?" Quistis chided. "You can trust me at the ship's helm. Just focus on getting better."

He sighed and leaned back. "I trust you—"

"Good."

"—but it's paperwork. I can do that much."

"I'll remember you said that when next year's budget meeting comes along," she said, pausing before her voice took on a more serious tone. "But that isn't why I called."

"You got Odine's report."

"I did and it's worrisome, Squall," the woman replied. "Did you start his suggested treatment yet?"

He didn't answer right away, careful not to betray anything that might point to Seifer's involvement. "This morning."

"And?"

"The pills seem to work, but I'm far from my peak. Time will tell."

"You tell me," Quistis implored. "Next time we talk on the phone, it better be you calling me. Rinoa and Laguna haven't been very forthcoming, and I know it's your doing."

"... I'll call if anything changes," Squall replied noncommittally. The woman was far too astute and would pick apart any other reply.

"You do that," she said with a sigh. "I can't say I'm very happy with any of this. I had to hear from Rinoa that you broke up months ago and severed the bond, and the first real information on your medical status came in a mail from Odine."

Squall had no excuses other than confessing to having avoided the woman on purpose, so he kept his mouth shut.

"Great, back to silence then," Quistis huffed. "We could've helped, Squall. You could've come back to Balamb. The two of you going off to Esthar... I never liked it one bit."

"I told you so," he replied, hoping to diffuse her mood in another way.

"What?"

"I know you want to say it, so get it out of your system."

A stunned silence was followed with a breathy laugh. "Alright then. I told you so."

"Better?"

She laughed again. "Much. But don't think you're out of the woods yet, Commander. I did warn you... I just wish I could do more than just cover your paperwork and meetings."

"You could send me a change of clothes," he offered half in jest, remembering the scant few items he'd taken from the old penthouse.

"...You'll be the death of me," she said in mock exasperation. "Alright. Your clothes. Anything else?"

"No."

She chuckled. "I'm sure Laguna's already got all the rest covered. Does he have that cook on stand-by all day again? That poor overworked bastard."

"The food's fine," he replied, treading carefully. Seifer had cooked surprisingly good food so far. When no immediate reply came to his comment, Squall was momentarily afraid she'd somehow picked up on the dishonesty in his voice.

"All joking aside," Quistis finally said. "Are you okay?"

"I'm fine."

"Thanks, but not good enough. I'll have the truth please."

Squall sighed, well aware he could no longer callously dismiss her as he would have in the past. "... I'll be fine," he amended.

"Oh Squall," she said softly. "You will be. Anything you need, you call me, okay? Whether it's someone to listen, clothes, or more paperwork, I'll do it."

"...Thanks." Shooting down her offer would only get him into more trouble.

"Come back to Balamb soon, you hear? I'll have a mission ready for you."

"You know me well," he said, his lips quirking at the corners. Quistis always liked to think she did, and in comparison to most, it was the truth.

She chuckled, but paused then. "...What is that sound I've been hearing in the background? Where are you?"

Amusement grinding to a halt, Squall cringed inwardly. Better to keep the lie as close to the truth as possible. "A weapon shop. You're hearing the smith at the anvil."

"Don't tell me you're commissioning another weapon!"

"No, just looking," he reassured, hating how his guilty gaze flitted back to Seifer's sweating form.

"That bored, huh?" Quistis said. "You should ask Kiros for a spar. He's guard captain; he should still have enough game to challenge you."

"I'll think about it."

"Do it," she chided. "The day my Commander goes window-shopping is the day I throw in the towel!" She sighed, the sound of rustling paper traveling over the connection. "I have to go now. The explosives department demanded a meeting, and it's starting in five."

"Selphie?"

"Don't ask," Quistis said with another suffering sigh. "And don't worry! I'll make sure Balamb Garden is still standing when you return."

"Good luck."

"Appreciate it," the woman replied with a huff. "Talk to you soon, Squall. I'm holding you to that call."

When the line went dead, Squall pocketed his phone and looked back to the blond. The call had gone reasonably well, and Quistis hadn't seemed suspicious. He'd be safe for another few days, but he knew she'd figure out the truth before long.

Deciding a delay of execution was better than nothing, he began to lean back against the wall, but when his gaze was immediately pulled back to Seifer before he could make a conscious decision not to, he quickly hopped off the table.

This was insane—he couldn't even trust himself around the blond anymore when the man was simply doing his job. That morning, Seifer's far too close proximity and morning-wood had hardly been Squall's fault, but this particular lapse into the gutter he couldn't blame on anyone other than himself. Huffing, he walked over to a set of display cases and kept his gaze strictly on the antique pieces the cabinets held.

Figuring Seifer still had a while to go, he wandered towards the area the blond had indicated as the "shop that wasn't an actual shop." The door stood ajar, no noises sounding from within. Wherever Arc had gone, he probably wouldn't mind him perusing the one area of the property that was actually intended for customers.

When solid walls finally separated him from Seifer, Squall released a deep breath and let go of the tight rein he'd held on his wandering gaze. Looking around, he decided that Seifer had been right in his assessment. The shop seemed like it was designed to keep customers at bay rather than invite them in. Having met the enigmatic Balios, he was probably right in that guess. When it came to attracting seasoned fighters, hearsay and recommendations mattered far more than a flashy display.

Running a finger through a thick layer of dust along one of the glass counters, he stirred up even more dust with his every step into the shop. The light that shone through the dirty windows was opaque and yellow, and most of the weapons were old and rusted, creating an almost otherworldly atmosphere. Most items weren't even displayed properly—they were either thrown haphazardly into large crates and boxes or weighed down aged shelves beyond their limit.

It almost felt like one of the make-belief games Seifer used to rope him into back at the orphanage. The neglected shop would've fit one of their favored scenarios perfectly: the discovery of a treasure trove, easily changing from a pirate's lair to a dragon's nest, depending on the blond youth's whims. There had always been treasure to gather and weapons to seize, usually after the defeat of an unfortunate foe.

Flicking on a light, he broke the illusion and wandered from one odd item to the next. Arc had managed to put together a curious collection of both junk and diamonds in the rough. Most familiar with swords and gunblades, Squall bypassed the knock-off, mass-produced blades and singled out the true antiques. Testing their balance and weight, he quickly grew fond of a simple, two-handed broadsword. A hum of fading magic still infused the aged metal, and though the buff charms were nearly gone, the blade's double edge was still razor sharp.

"Good choice."

Turning to where Seifer stood leaning against the doorway, Squall aborted his stance and lowered the blade. When his gaze was drawn to the small streak of soot along the blond's neck, he quickly stopped his gaze from lingering.

Running a hand through his hair, Seifer nodded towards the kitchen. "Ready for lunch?"

When the brunet let out an agreeing hum and carefully set down the blade onto one of the firmer looking, less cluttered shelves, he suppressed a smile. Reverence like that meant love at first sight. He wasn't surprised to have found Squall in the shop, testing a blade he would've known to pick out for the man himself.

Drying off his soot covered fingers, he waved Squall over and led them back to the kitchen. Getting out some bread and spreads, he set about making his sandwich, letting the brunet make his own food. They didn't say anything as they prepared lunch side by side. Plate in hand, he walked outside and sat down on the edge of the old concrete well with a contented sigh.

Digging into his sandwich, he looked up as Squall approached. Back at Garden he would never have imagined them able to keep the peace long enough to have lunch together, let alone share a quiet moment like this. It even seemed like Squall had enjoyed himself so far. He hadn't seemed impatient or curt like usual. Seifer smiled. Despite the rundown buildings and far from pristine interior, it was the closest thing to a home he knew. "I love it here."

Squall looked up from his food at the contemplative tone, and let out an acknowledging hum. "Now I know where you picked up your taste for hard liquor."

Seifer chuckled. "Arc's a good man, his liquor even better," he confessed, having taken a fair share in emptying many of the man's bottles. He took another bite out of his sandwich. "You know... I used to live here. For about a year after the war," he said, wondering what state his old room was in. It had been cluttered as hell back when he'd lived there. "In a crappy little room in there," he added, inclining his head in the direction of the kitchen.

Following the blond's gaze, Squall realized what Seifer was saying. "He took you in."

"Not at first," Seifer said with a shrug. "I came looking for a job—any job. Arc turned me down flat." He'd visited every single weapon shop in the city in the hope of earning some Gil as a helper—he hadn't even considered the option of becoming an apprentice back then. Any menial job would have sufficed, and weapons were the only thing he understood aside from fighting. As he recalled the weeks that followed, his expression hardened. No one wanted to hire a foreigner without permanent residency. He'd had no Gil to spare, not even enough for a room in the slums—just enough to keep starvation at bay.

After over a month of living on the road without having washed, without a bed to sleep in, he'd smelled like a dead Funguar and had looked even worse. Any hope of a job had vanished. When he hadn't eaten in several days, he'd ended up on the roof of a skyscraper for an entire day, Hyperion in his lap.

"When I came back and tried to sell him Hyperion, he just stared at me like I'd lost my mind and didn't say anything for ages. Kind of like how he stared you down earlier. Just when I was about to leave, he told me to get cleaned up and gave me a key to a room in the back." He chuckled lowly. "Who would've thought the renowned Arc Balios is nothing but a great big softie."

In spite of Seifer making light of the story, Squall looked at the blond with mixed feelings. Things had to have been bad for the man to try and sell off Hyperion. At least he seemed to have bounced back from whatever problems he'd had at first. Squall couldn't imagine pulling the same feat. He'd never really had any money to speak of until he was promoted to the rank of commander, but he'd also never lacked for anything. Ousted from the Garden system however, he realized he'd be in trouble. Apart from fighting, he had no skills. Seifer had made it out here however, had adapted; something he wasn't sure he'd be able to do himself.

"...It's a good place," he acknowledged. "The work suits you."

"It's not bad as far as civilian jobs go," Seifer nodded, having made peace with his place in life. Even if their training that morning had shown other avenues were still open to him, he wouldn't want to stop his path to becoming a weapon smith. There was something satisfying about creating exquisite weapons—to help a fighter gain the extra edge that could mean the difference between life or death. "Doesn't hurt that I'm a natural," he added with a smirk. "Did you check out the upgrade yet?"

"This morning," Squall said with a nod. "Looks good. I'll have to test it in the field."

At the mention of actual fights, Seifer glanced in the direction of the southern city border. The Esthar Wall was all that stood between them and one of the world's richest hunting grounds. "We could head out tomorrow—spend a day killing monsters on the plains."

Squall met the blond's gaze with an agreeing hum. If they went into the wild, away from prying eyes, he could finally get Lionheart out. "North?" he asked, aware from reports that those desert plains still held stray packs of Lunar Cry monsters.

"Sure," Seifer said, eager at the prospect. He hadn't been out that way in a while, too many of the monsters charged with potent magic. It would be the perfect place to train their magic and fill up their stores at the same time.

As they ate in companionable silence, a question from the night he'd brought Squall home from the club resurfaced in his mind. "You know, I always had you pegged as someone who loved the small village life—definitely not the big city." It still confused him. For someone who loved to be on his own, Esthar seemed like an absurd place to move to.

Squall let out a soft huff, reminded of Winhill's small-town mentality and love of gossip. "Don't care for either," he said evenly. "It's better not to get attached to any one place." Annoyed as Rinoa had been with him constantly being on the move, he'd needed the escape. Esthar made him feel like he'd drown in all the people.

"How come you moved here then?"

Frowning, Squall didn't immediately look up from his sandwich. If it hadn't been for the past few days and Seifer's own candid words, he would've cut off the conversation right there, but it was far too late to turn the man away anymore.

"... Rinoa... She was having trouble keeping in control. Odine could help, so we moved here."

Seifer didn't like Squall's reluctant tone of voice or the man's averted gaze. "What happened?"

"Her powers—they became too much."

Seifer turned to stare at the gravel beneath his feet. The thought of a Sorceress gone rogue, enough so for Squall to seek Odine's aid, was enough to leave him tense. "In what way?"

"... Just mood shifts at first," Squall replied slowly, disinclined to lie when Seifer had shared in the consequences of his failed bond. "Later she was angry all the time. She started to have blackouts... had trouble reining in her powers."

"How is she now?"

"Better... She wears magic wards most of the time." Setting aside his food, appetite gone, Squall still couldn't shake the bitterness of his failure as her knight. "It's better than the meds Odine had her on at first."

Glancing at Squall's half eaten sandwich, Seifer sighed softly. Taking another bite of his own sandwich, he let silence fall between them. He hadn't expected people from his past to become a part of his life again. He hadn't really missed Rinoa, but part of him cared for her all the same. There was even a part of him that missed the place he'd once called home.

"How are things back at B-Garden?"

Looking up at the change of topic, Squall gave a slight shrug. "Getting rid of the Garden Faculty has been the only good change," he replied. "There's more media exposure, more applicants... It was easier when nobody cared about us."

Seifer couldn't suppress the slight quirk to his lips. Most other people at Garden would view that as a positive. "And Cid? How's he?"

"He's preparing Quistis to take over when he retires."

At the thought of his old, prissy instructor making it as far as headmaster, Seifer snorted. "I bet she's loving that."

"She'll make a good Headmistress. She's got the backbone Cid lacks."

"Big words…" Seifer said, quirking an eyebrow. Squall didn't do flattery, so Quistis must have stepped up and proven more capable and professional than she'd ever been when mooning over a student. "She still crushing on you?" he said and grinned at the unimpressed glade he received in return. "Or did you not notice?" The scowl that followed was priceless.

How anyone had managed to gain the interest of the most introverted guy on the planet was beyond him. "Rinoa must've pulled quite a trick on you," he said with a slight shake of his head, before wiping his hands on his trousers. He took a deep breath of fresh air as his eyes scanned the courtyard.

"I'd better get back to work," he said as he stood up. "We still on for sparring tonight?"

Getting up as well, Squall nodded. "What time?"

"I should be done around seven. I'll give you a call when I leave," Seifer said, grabbing their plates. "Meet you there?"

"Sure."

Seifer nodded and started towards the back entrance. "See you later, Princess."

Scowling at Seifer's parting shot, Squall spared the man's retreating back one last look, before he turned around and left the courtyard with Revolver's case in hand.

Letting out a sigh, he didn't look forward to his afternoon. He'd managed all the administrative work that could be done remotely the night earlier, so until the agreed on spar, all that lay before him was boredom. He might as well start training at the SCTA early. He might risk tiring himself out before Seifer got there, but lingering around the blond's apartment all day would be equally detrimental.

Turning left when he came to the abandoned street, he started the long trek back to the apartment. The sun was out and temperatures were mild for the time of year, so he'd purposefully chosen to walk over taking a second car to Seifer's work. At least he'd kill some time like that, and there was something calming about long walks. Whenever life forced him to a standstill, through injury or stress or people, he liked to just go wherever his feet took him. It was a habit born from his orphanage days.

Taking in all the rundown warehouses and factories, he maintained a leisurely pace. The cityscape was a far cry from any beach, but it facilitated quiet thought just as well. Or at least it had in the past. It was as if spending the past few days with Seifer had rendered him incapable of being alone. Before his stay with the blond, he'd been perfectly fine spending entire days alone or longer—in the field, on a stakeout, in nature… Perhaps only Seifer's demanding nature was enough to distract him from all the dark or inappropriate thoughts running through his head. Or perhaps he just really needed a mission.

Huffing at himself, he knew there was more to it than that. Even self-denial had its limits. Something had changed; not only in the way he regarded Seifer, but in the way they acted around each other as well. The change went beyond the attraction he felt. With every passing day, their interactions extended further and further beyond the original boundaries of their rivalry.

Even if their conversation was strained and often brief, it was more than they had ever managed in the past. His father, his failure as a knight, the blond's past and new life—they'd touched on it all. His concern for Seifer's well-being seemed to be returned as well, even if neither of them could admit it out loud. It was discomfiting to talk honestly about things that mattered, to show parts of himself he'd rather keep hidden, but Seifer hadn't given him a choice.

Seifer seemed to have less trouble being true to his cocky self, unapologetic as always, but it did little to simplify things between them. Even if the blond was teasing when saying he'd been flirting with Squall, he'd been serious when accidentally blurting out the truth in the SCTA showers.

Frowning as he crossed a walkway into a busier district, Squall didn't know what to make of it all. He couldn't tell anymore if Seifer was truly hinting at something, or if he was just projecting his own involuntary attraction onto everything the man did and said, misinterpreting behavior that was only meant to provoke.

Regardless of whether Seifer's regard for him was platonic or not, there was no question they'd outgrown the limited label of "rivals." After a nightmare he'd found comfort in Seifer's presence, something he still found bizarre and embarrassing to think back on. He wasn't sure what was odder—him having allowed it or Seifer having offered it.

If anything, it reminded Squall more of when they'd been kids, before the rivalry. At the orphanage, Seifer had had a strange way of being involved, managing to insult and pester him while at the same time coming up with some plausible excuse to stay indoors with him whenever Squall had been sick. Disguised kindness like that was the reason he had put up with the bully, and he supposed it was why he was staying now as well.

Startling from his musings when someone jostled his shoulder in passing, Squall snorted at himself. Luckily his sense of orientation was good, his feet remembering the way even when he was lost to thought. He'd always been good at running on autopilot, allowing his mind free rein.

This time, however, his train of thought was an exercise in futility. It was impossible to define his relationship with Seifer. They had grown up together, but Squall wouldn't call Seifer his brother the way he used to consider Ellone his sister. They'd once admitted to being rivals only, but the label had never fit, unable to capture the passion they invested in every single spar. Even having been enemies, Squall had come out of that war realizing he cared for the man.

Would they become friends now? Squall frowned at the word, uncertain whether they'd be able to mold their troubled relationship into something like that. They had already been treading into murky territory ever since he'd landed in Seifer's bed. On the other hand, Irvine loved to wax poetic on the merits of friends with benefits...

Squall's scowl grew at the unbidden thought. The plan was to keep things as uncomplicated as possible. He'd just have to deal with the lack of a proper label for them and keep focused on what really mattered—reestablishing some kind of balance after everything they'd been through. A fleeting attraction didn't fit into that picture.

Readjusting his hold on Revolver's case, he wound his way through the idling crowd to reach the Fulcura Street access point. As he got onto the passenger lift, he sent Seifer a silent curse, childishly blaming the man for suddenly having sprouted a sense of work ethic. They could've been sparring already, but instead he would be counting the hours.

Settling in for the fifteen minutes long ride, he directed his gaze outside the shimmering force field as the city whizzed by, already looking forward to the coming evening. Tonight's spar couldn't come soon enough.



[Arc Balios' Weapon Shop, Tiamat District, Friday, 24th of October, 6:42 pm]

Swiping the sweat from his brow, Seifer set down the katana he'd been working on. He wasn't anywhere close to done, and for the last hour, he'd been more focused on checking the time than on the job at hand.

Dropping his work gloves on the wooden counter, he ticked off the shuriken he'd finished earlier on the list of jobs. Arc had disappeared a few hours back without any warning—a usual occurrence. Gathering his things, he walked through the kitchen and down the hall leading to the residential part of the building.

With a knock on the living room door, he opened it and nodded at where Arc was sitting. The man was in his usual spot, only briefly looking up from the technical drawings that covered the worn table in front of him. Despite it still being light out, the room was dark save for a desk lamp aimed at the documents.

"I'm off," Seifer said, unsurprised at the curt hum in reply. When he'd lived there, days could go by without them exchanging more than a handful of sentences.

About to turn around, he was instead pinned into place by Arc's gaze. "Translucent and luminous," the man said slowly—knowingly. "Azure."

Seifer didn't doubt what the old man was implying for even a second. Everyone had heard tales of the SeeD commander's weapon. "And?"

Arc let silence hang between them as he rolled his pen between his fingers and mulled over his words. "Keep your focus," he said, moving a finger to tap against the schematics on the table. "You have a gift, son. Don't waste it."

"I'm not," Seifer said with a shrug, not moving from his position in the doorway. A few days of missed work didn't warrant Arc's concern. "He needed help."

"Unlikely," the old man said with a huff, returning his attention to the papers in front of him. He jotted down a correction before swapping the drawing for another one, his eyes skimming the calculations next to the blueprint.

"Don't worry, old man," Seifer said, straightening his pose. "You're stuck with me." At Arc's nod, he turned and left.

Things had been this way from the start. If anything other than blacksmithing caught Seifer's attention, Arc would always point it out. This time was no different, even if it was the SeeD commander causing the commotion. He trusted Arc completely. Nothing changed with Arc knowing who Squall was. It was one of the things he liked about the old coot—nothing could ruffle the man.

Stepping out into the courtyard, he breathed in the fresh air as he got out his cell to check the time. Ten to seven. Just enough time to get to the SCTA in time for his spar with Squall. He frowned at the missed call he'd received from Rinoa two hours ago. Pressing the call button, he walked over to lean against his pick up.

"Hello? Seifer?" the girl asked as she picked up the phone.

"You called," he replied tersely.

Rinoa let out a huff. "I'm calling about Squall. He won't say how he's doing. He just tells me he's fine, to brush me off…" She paused, her voice easing up. "How is he?"

Seifer opened the door to his pickup and got into the driver's seat. "He's better," he said, well aware what it was like to be on Squall's silent end. "How much do you know?"

"Laguna called me. I know about the tests," Rinoa said candidly after a brief pause. "He was really taken aback. He said Squall was in pain just by casting simple spells."

Seifer grimaced. "It wasn't pretty at the labs..." His lips sloped downwards at the memory. "But he's better. The medicine is helping. He was able to cast for a couple of hours this morning with just a few breaks—he managed to summon Shiva as well. With that much improvement in a day, he'll be back to normal in no time."

"Yeah?" Rinoa asked, sounding hopeful. "...Squall said it was too soon to tell."

Seifer chuckled. "You know him. Always the pessimist. It'd take a miracle for him to think things could actually work out."

The girl let out an agreeing hum, not seeming half as enthusiastic as he'd expected. What he'd told her was good news. Hell, it was amazing news.

"I'm just about to meet him for a spar. We sparred last night as well. Physically, he's in great form, as always. Won't be long before he's out there getting his hero fix again."

Silence fell between them, the girl showing no sign of relief or elation at what he'd just said.

"...You should call Laguna. I'm sure he'd want to hear all this. He's never been this worried and Squall talks to him even less than he does to me. Squall never tells him anything."

Seifer frowned, not having expected this turn to the conversation. "I got a feeling that was the case," he said, remembering the president's concern for Squall and the hopeful invitation to the palace. He sighed, not really wanting to get stuck as the middle man, but Laguna had turned out to be a good guy. "Okay, I'll give him a call." The only thing that bugged him was Rinoa calling the shots. "Anything else?"

"Well... Since we're on the subject, it would mean the world to Laguna if Squall would just once take him up on those dinner invitations. We were going to visit during Squall's leave, but now... I know it's a long shot, but Squall might at least hear you out."

Seifer raised an eyebrow. "You think he'd go if I asked him to?"

"You got him to take you along to the tests," she replied matter-of-factly. "Whatever your methods, they seem to work."

Unable to deny as much, Seifer leaned forwards in his seat. "My methods, huh?" The only thing he'd done was to refuse a no. He sighed. "I guess there'd be some way of making him… But why? I mean, sure, his dad seems like a great guy and all, but if Squall doesn't want him in his life, then what's the point?"

"They're family, Seifer. I know that might be hard for you and him to understand, but Laguna would do anything for Squall. Unconditional love like that is a rare thing to come by... Squall has spent his entire life thinking he's on his own. Friends, relationships; none of that is set in stone, but Laguna will always be his dad... This could be really good for them both."

Seifer considered the truth in her words. He'd never had parents himself, so he had nothing to base any assumptions on. Sure, if he had a kid of his own, he'd be there whether the kid wanted him to or not. Laguna seemed to be the same, but the unfortunate bastard happened to have the Lion of Balamb as his offspring—no easy task. "All right, I'll see what I can do. I guess it won't hurt to have a President owe me one either."

"Don't worry. You already got into his good books," Rinoa said dryly.

Chuckling at the good news, Seifer put his keys into the ignition. "Yeah?"

"Protective tendencies and everything."

He smiled. "Well, you know how Squall is... Someone's gotta look out for his ass."

"... I knew I made the right choice," the girl said with confidence, though he could hear the pinched quality to her words.

He ran a hand through his hair. "How're you holding up?"

"... I'm coping," she replied softly.

Imagining how hard things had to be for her, Seifer felt a rare twinge of compassion. "Squall told me why you moved to Esthar."

"He did?" she asked, her voice abrupt, breathless. "I—I swear I'm not like that anymore. You have to believe me, I didn't mean to..."

"Mean to what?" Seifer asked, his frown deepening. He didn't like the rushed edge to her words. Quick, sharp inhales of air told him that whatever it was, it deeply upset her.

"To hurt him. I never wanted to…" She trailed off, unable to finish the sentence. "I—how much did he tell you?"

"...That you had trouble with your magic. With keeping in control." He tensed up in his seat. "How did you hurt him?" he demanded, all of his protective instincts kicking in.

When he heard nothing but silence, he cursed under his breath. The girl was lucky he wasn't there to force the truth out of her. "Rinoa."

"...My powers were messing with my mind… I—I attacked him, Seifer. I hurt him badly."

Narrowing his eyes, Seifer had to move the phone away in order not to snap at her. He clenched his jaw firmly before bringing the cell back up. "How?" he asked harshly.

"...We were having a fight. He turned his back to me and I just—I cast this... spell. I still don't know exactly what it was—I wasn't thinking straight…" She paused. "He never saw it coming."

Seifer recalled the raw flesh he'd spotted on Squall's back during their night of Avalanche. "...The scar," he said out loud, waiting for Rinoa to deny his assumption. When no objections came, he grew tense in his seat, his shoulders rigid.

"I can't believe you—" his words were cut short when quiet sobs reached him from the other end of the line. He cursed under his breath. He repeated to himself that it had been an accident, however much he wanted to blame her. Something didn't add up though. "It's the scar on his back, right?"

"...You saw," she said, focusing on the wrong part entirely.

"If that's the scar, then how come it looked fresh just a week ago?"

"It won't close up, just keeps festering," she said, her voice shaking.

Seifer frowned, remembering how different it had looked in the SCTA showers. "It's healing now."

"...It is?" the girl asked incredulously, before sharply drawing in her breath. "Hyne... It didn't heal because of me, because of the bond."

Filled with an anger that had no outlet, Seifer grit his teeth. Why the hell did Squall have to have such rotten luck? Of all the girls to fall for, of course Squall had to choose a fucking sorceress who couldn't control her powers.

Seifer wanted to yell at her for hurting Squall and for letting the bond drag on for far longer than had been healthy for either of them, but Rinoa was already reduced to tears.

"At least it's healing now," he said, as much to himself as to her.

She breathed in deeply. "...He never blamed me. Not once. He just brought me to Esthar, and never mentioned it again," she said dejectedly. "...I don't think I'll ever really understand him."

"He knows you'd never do anything like that on purpose," he said honestly. Squall wasn't one to bear grudges—the fact that the brunet was staying with him was proof enough. But more than that, Rinoa had managed to get Squall hooked in a way no one else had.

"He loves you." There was no longer any doubt about it in his mind. The answer lay in how much Squall had done for the girl despite how she'd treated him. Squall had moved to Esthar to help her get treatment after she hadattacked him. Squall had stayed—

"...Yet he's with you."

Seifer straightened in his seat. He couldn't have heard that fucking right.

"You made sure of that," he bit out, before taking a deep breath. "Listen. What happened, happened... and it's fucked up as hell, but that doesn't mean Squall doesn't care about you. After listening to your voice message that morning, he downed a whole fucking bottle of whiskey because he'd hurt you. If that's not love, then I don't know what is."

"...You don't know the first thing about love then," she countered. "Never, not even when I dumped him, did I feel anything that strong from him. That morning had little to do with me."

"Yeah?! Well, enlighten me then!" he spat, his entire body going rigid at her obstinacy.

"You really want me to say it, huh. Rub it in," she said, getting worked up too. "He felt more for you that one night than he could ever muster for me. That enlightening enough for you? And I know you want him, but you're sodense, you'd sooner screw things up again."

Snorting, Seifer had just about had it with her behavior. "We're back at that? I told you. That was fucking Avalanche. If any of that was real on Squall's side, don't you think I'd be busy fucking his brains out back at the apartment right now?" He'd never let the man fucking leave his bed if that was the case. "I can't believe you keep bringing this up. Get over it," he added harshly. "And why the fuck would he want to knock himself out with a bottle of alcohol if he'd wanted any of what happened that night? He could've just come back to bed for round two. Your logic is flawed as hell."

"Try and think with your brain instead of your dick for once, and consider this: Squall drank him himself into oblivion, because it was real for him."

The world around him ground to a halt at her words.

He'd considered how it could've been his own despicable behavior that had led Squall to downing that bottle of whiskey, but after listening to Rinoa's voice message, he'd chalked Squall's reaction up to that... But Rinoa was implying something else. If Squall had felt something, had wanted it... then why would Squall...

Who'd want to have feelings for someone who'd tortured them? For someone you'd fought as an enemy?

But Squall wouldn't be staying with him if that mattered. Hell, they were spending most of their time together, even shared a bed. The brunet had acted protective of him in a way only Raijin and Fujin had done in the past. Just the night before, he'd wondered if there'd been more to their night of Avalanche, the brunet's actions far from innocent. He really fucking needed to know if any of what they'd done that night had been because of Squall.

"Tell me," he urged, remembering how Squall had looked at him like he meant everything to the brunet, how Squall had wanted to feel every fucking inch of him. "Tell me exactly what you felt from him."

'I—" Rinoa started but quickly fell silent. "... I'm not the one you should be talking to about this. I already said too much," she said, trying to take back her words.

"You know he'd never tell me. You know he'd never say a single word about it… This is important, Rinoa." He paused to let his sincerity sink in. "Tell me."

"... Wasn't it obvious?" the girl asked, her voice tight. "You were there. You—" Her words were cut off by a choked sob. "I can't do this. I'm sorry. I really have to go."

"Rinoa—" Seifer said, but the line went dead.

He let his phone fall into the passenger seat. Staring in front of him, her words repeated over and over in his head. He had trouble believing what she'd said, but the tone of her voice put everything into sharp clarity.

She was certain Squall had feelings for him.

Heart pumping fast, Seifer wanted nothing more than to track down the brunet and get the truth out of him—any method necessary. This wasn't fair. Squall knew everything about his sexuality and how hot he thought Squall was, while he had no fucking clue what went on inside the brunet's head. If Squall wanted to fool around, then why the hell hadn't the man even hinted at it. He'd given him plenty of opportunities. He'd fucking stripped in front of the guy the night before just to get a reaction, and had just been promptly ignored.

If Squall had a thing for him, then the man had obviously decided not to act on it. Seifer got back out of the pickup and slammed the door shut behind him. Squall was fucking toying with him.

He took a deep breath, reminding himself the man wasn't capable of it. Squall might be cynical and cold as ice in some respects, but from what he knew the brunet was stupidly naive when it came to relationships. Hell, Squall had been completely baffled at him calling out Shiva's ostentatious flirting.

Why was Squall pretending he wasn't affected? What harm was there in a bit of fooling around?

He leaned back against the cool metal door. Did it even matter what Squall's reasons were? Shouldn't he respect them either way? But fuck… to imagine Squall hadn't been averse to being fucked like that—to have enjoyed being sucked off and fingerfucked at the same time, and to have wanted it fast and rough... He groaned as all blood rushed south, and wished he was back at his apartment. A quick bit of self-gratification wouldn't have gone amiss. Instead he opened the door to his pickup and got back inside, killing any arousal.

Turning the keys in the ignition, he knew there was nothing else to do but see where Squall led him. He couldn't let his imagination run wild or demand things to be exactly how he wanted them. What mattered was Squall getting some respite. By the sound of it, the man's relationship with Rinoa had been a fuck fest extraordinaire—and not the good kind. If Squall was cured of wanting any sort of relationship, even if it was a purely physical one, he couldn't blame the guy.

He'd have to fucking reel in his hormones and let Squall set the pace. He'd show the guy a good time, and if the man showed an interest in more, he'd be more than willing to oblige. Hell, he should be thanking Hyne to just have his sparring partner back and to be able to cast magic again.

Reversing out of the driveway, he sped up as soon as he was on the main road. It was only a matter of minutes before he'd be at the SCTA and then he could scrutinize Squall properly before beating the brunet's ass into the ground when they sparred. If Squall was going to deny himself a taste of Seifer's goods, then he'd make damned sure the man knew exactly what he was missing.



A/N: Thank you for all your reviews of the last chapter - they definitely motivated us to work on this chapter :) Hope you guys enjoy it!

We also wanted to give you a heads up that Wolkje has just begun posting a separate Seifer and Squall story called Tabula Rasa. Hope you enjoy that as well! :)



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