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-One - Gaining Ground ~



[Tiamat SCTA, Friday, 24th of October, 7:04 pm]

"It's him!"

Pulled from bragging about one of his latest stunts, Nolan looked towards the far end of the training hall, the corners of his mouth plummeting at the sight of the last person he'd expected. His friends had been going on all day about the man with mad skills who'd sparred with Seifer in class the previous evening. It couldn't be the guy he'd met at Seifer's. No way that ladyboy was a better fighter than his brother, than Seifer.

"You sure Seifer said he was a SeeD?" he asked with a raised eyebrow.

At his friends' nods, Nolan turned back to study the man his friends had spoken about with respect and awe—the man who'd opened the door to Seifer's apartment wearing nothing but a pair of boxers.

"What was his name?"

"Vargha."

At his friend's reply, Nolan grabbed his gunblade and jumped down the bleachers.

"Hey! Show-off, wait up."

After a beat, the man came to a halt and turned to watch his approach, one eyebrow raised. Squaring his shoulders, Nolan stood tall. The guy seemed even less impressive up close, especially with the few inches he had on him.

"You here to train?" he asked, looking the man over. The slight brunet looked nothing like the strongly built SeeDs he'd seen in the streets just a little over two years ago. The man's gaze traveled to his friends who were gawking at them from the bleachers, before settling back on him.

"Unlike others," the supposed SeeD said dryly.

"Guess some need it more than others. Not everyone can be a natural," Nolan replied with a shrug and curl to his lips.

"And you're a natural?"

"I've taken down monsters," Nolan said with his chin jutted out. "You wanna try me?" he said, twisting his Shear Trigger slightly in preparation for a spar.

Instead of meeting his challenge, the man's eyes traveled the length of his blade. It was new and sharp compared to the man's old excuse for a blade. Scrap metalmore like it. The brunet stood silent, the man's gaze unsettlingly intent as he flexed his hand around the hilt of his gunblade. Nolan held his breath.

"I wouldn't want to put a scratch on that," the brunet finally said, before turning away.

When he started to walk away from him, Nolan firmed the slightly shaky hold he had on his gunblade. "You really a SeeD?"

"I am," the brunet said with hardly a backward glance, striding on with his gunblade hitched high on his shoulder. Biting back a curse, he matched the man's stride. There was no way he would be disregarded like this.

"What, like Rank 2 or 3?" Nolan asked, smirking while nodding to the man's gunblade. "Your weapon kind of gives it away."

The brunet sent him a narrow-eyed gaze. "A weapon's only as good as its wielder."

"Rank 1 then?" Nolan asked, raising his eyebrows in mock surprise. "You know, you don't look like a SeeD."

"And what is a SeeD supposed to look like?"

Nolan shrugged. He had the man's full attention now, but he wasn't quite there yet. "I dunno. Strong. Manly. Not the kind Seifer brings home for a one-night stand."

The brunet's shoulders stiffened, those grey-blue eyes suddenly ice cold. The man stepped closer and lowered the cheap gunblade from his narrow shoulder. When he raised the gunblade to rest against Nolan's bared arm and cocked his head as if in careful study, Nolan tried not to visibly flinch. The outdated gunblade didn't seem so harmless anymore, its sharp edge a nudge away from cutting into his skin. This close, he could easily see several scars that webbed the brunet's pale arms, some faded, some not.

"You're as green as your blade," the man said lowly, lifting his stony gaze.

Knowing there was no way he wouldn't look weak if he let it end there, Nolan took a step back and brought his blade out in front of him. He felt the clash of their blades and a numbing pain jolt through his arm before he'd even registered the man's movement. Stunned, he looked at his outstretched, empty hand, his gunblade having already clattered onto the floor behind him. Cold metal pressed against his neck, its bite threatening to draw blood.

"Some need more training than others," the man said, low enough for only Nolan to hear.

Looking Vargha straight in the eyes, Nolan realized everything the others had said was true. He hadn't even been able to follow the blur of movement, let alone react. Seifer's speed was nothing compared to this. The brunet's strength was on par with Seifer's too.

When the man lowered his gunblade, Nolan brought up a hand to nurse his sprained wrist and scrunched up his eyebrows. "How do you know Seifer?"

"None of your business, Kiddo," a voice Nolan knew all too well spoke from behind him. He managed to turn around just in time to see Seifer pick up his abandoned Shear Trigger, the blond holding it out to him.

Seifer raised an eyebrow as he looked between them. With an amused shake of the head, he met Nolan's gaze. "You really don't want to get on the wrong side of this guy."

"Why?" Nolan asked, taking his gunblade back from Seifer's hands.

"Because he could cut you down to bite sized chunks within a heartbeat."

Nolan huffed. "You mean he's better than you?"

"I'm sure I could do a pretty good job of it too," Seifer said, grinning broadly.

With a snort, Nolan brought his gunblade up to rest on his shoulders. "Who comes out on top then?"

Seeing Squall stiffen, his hand whitening around Revolver's hilt, Seifer beat the man to the punch and stepped right into Nolan's space. "I think it's time for you to scram, Kiddo. Let the grownups talk," he ground out.

"Whatever," Nolan said, his gaze travelling to the narrow-eyed brunet by their side. "You two going to spar?"

"Yes. And no, you're not fucking watching," Seifer said, gesturing exaggeratedly with his gunblade for Nolan to go already.

Not giving any indication of leaving, Nolan narrowed his eyes, his gaze traveling between the two of them. "Why do you have matching scars?"

"Because we're in a fucking league of secret assassins."

"Or you're both just shit at dodging," Nolan said with a raised eyebrow.

"All right, we're fucking going then. Come on," Seifer said, nodding at Squall before striding off.

Rolling his eyes as he heard Nolan's footsteps follow close behind, he turned around and faced the teenager head on. "Beat it."

"Why can't I watch?"

"Because you're a fucking pain in the ass who can't keep his mouth shut."

"... I can stay quiet."

Seifer snorted. "As if."

"I promise."

Quirking an eyebrow at Nolan's unusual compliance, Seifer huffed and looked at Squall. At the intense scowl on the brunet's brow, Seifer chuckled. "Sorry, Sweet-Pea, seems like you outstayed your welcome already."

"Whatever. I've got better things to do anyways," Nolan said with a shake of his head before sparing Squall one last look and heading off in the direction of the bleachers.

Forcefully relaxing his grip on Revolver, Squall suppressed the urge to teach the insolent teen another lesson in humility—one he wouldn't be so quick to shrug off. So far, he'd been more than unimpressed with the company Seifer kept, but his own reactions had left much to be desired as well. One mention of his skewed relationship with Seifer and he'd lost his cool. Turning around, he strode out of the large hall, ready to take his fight with someone who wouldn't drop their blade at the slightest tap.

"Fucking little brat," Seifer spoke under his breath as he followed Squall down the hall that would lead them outside. He had half a mind not to supply Nolan with any more goods from his trips for Arc after the stunts the teenager had pulled this last week. After Rinoa's reluctant admission over the phone he'd been looking forward to meeting up with Squall like a fucking Torama in heat, but the little prick had to go and interfere. "He makes a fucking sport out of riling people up."

Squall snorted at the conveniently oblivious remark. "He takes after his instructor then."

"No way I was ever that obnoxious," Seifer said, shaking his head.

"Close call."

"Is that supposed to be a complaint? Because I know for a fact that you get off on me pestering you."

Refusing to yield, Squall pointed out evenly, "So me telling you to fuck off never struck you as a complaint? That was me getting off on it?"

"It kinda looks that way when you keep coming back for more," Seifer retorted easily. "And hey, you can give as good as you get. It's one of the reasons I let you stick around," he added with a wink.

Squall huffed, not about to admit the kernel of truth to the man's cocky statements. "You're lucky you're good with a gunblade."

"Good? Really, Squall? I'm good with a gunblade?" Seifer asked incredulously. "I'll show you exactly how good I am when your ass hits the ground. I hope you enjoy the taste of dirt."

Pushing open the door to the outside area they'd used the day before, Squall breathed in the evening air and looked Seifer's way. "Well, let me show you why you let me stick around then."

Grinning, Seifer met Squall's gaze. "Go for it, Princess. I'm all yours."

In that moment Squall was caught off guard all over again by how different things were between them, how everything was still changing every moment they spent together. In the past, a spar had always been preceded with barbed remarks, not these good-natured taunts... Even the old, much hated nickname didn't sound the same anymore when it passed Seifer's lips without animosity, his eyes captivated by the blond's easy smile.

Turning his back to Seifer to hide the shift in thoughts that must've been clear on his face, he strode to the middle of the clearing and lowered Revolver from his shoulder. He'd vowed just that afternoon not to waste any more useless thoughts on classifying a man that seemed to defy all labels. Wasted effort. Taking a deep breath to empty his mind, he listened as the blond came to a halt behind him.

A lack of self-control around Seifer wasn't anything new, he told himself. Better to channel all his pent-up energy in beating the man into the ground. Turning around into one of his battle stances, he decided he wasn't in the mood for warm-ups. Hours of boredom, followed by the verbal attacks of a teenager eager to prove himself at his expense, hadn't left him all that patient.

The grin that lit up Seifer's face was exactly as he'd imagined it when he'd been contemplating to disturb the man at his work earlier that day. The blond started to circle around him, Kronos held low with dangerous calculation. It was the sight of great power held in check, advancing on him slowly, all that focus intent on him. It's what he'd been craving all day, his every sense sharpening as the world around them fell away.

As before, Seifer didn't leave himself open, didn't lunge straight into the fight. Not interested in such restraint, Squall darted forward and forced the man into a block, not allowing him to set the pace. He pursued the man with quick steps, landing another attack, this time provoking the blond into a counter. Needing speed, he built up the crescendo, reveling in the quick blows and the sheer strength necessary to keep Kronos at bay. The force of it ran down his arms, down his spine and brought a quirk to his lips to match Seifer's grin.

As if that had been their signal to quit playing, the blond twisted back, feigned a lunge, only to swivel Kronos round in a low arc. It took all Squall's speed to stop it at his side, his arms straining under the force of it and the odd angle of his own blade. Pushing back, he quickly sidestepped and swung Revolver around, picking up his tempo. Relentless pursuit was the only way he would be able to pick holes in the man's defense and land a blow. It was harder now than it had been in the past.

As Seifer met him blow for blow, their breathing growing harsher with each step, Squall was consumed by heady exhilaration. Riding high on instinct, his sensory awareness shrunk down to the blond's every move, the scent of sweat and metal, the heated look in the man's eyes every time one of them came close to victory. He almost regretted ending their first bout when he finally forced Seifer into a stalemate, Revolver's edge held back right before digging into the blond's torso.

Unfazed, Seifer swung to the side and charged right back in, his gaze narrow with intent. No more smirks, no more banter. Kronos glinted in the faint light, shifting minutely, too swiftly. Squall knew it the instant he'd fallen for the feign, too late to stop the blond from drawing first blood. A warm trickle of red ran down his arm as he darted back and countered yet another blow. His pulse soared as the blond pressed the advantage.

This was what he needed—blade against blade, skill against skill, pure adrenaline thrumming harshly in his veins. Only Seifer could make him feel this alive.

It was a struggle after that to turn the fight around, back in his favor. Seifer was in perfect form, and he'd smelled blood. Some of that old recklessness had seeped back into his moves, pressing Squall harder and harder with each counter and lunge. Only sparring partners as well-matched as they could go on this long without a clear victor emerging. They hadn't had the time to push to the very end of their stamina last time, but Squall was counting on it now.

The setting sun had disappeared completely by the time Squall finally managed to place his own cut on the blond, ruining the man's pants with a wide gash. Given no time to gloat, he dodged Seifer's lunges. The man was following his every step, Kronos biting at his thighs and abdomen with a series of low angled strikes. His features cast in stark shadows by the outdoor spotlights, Seifer looked like power incarnate. A mad flurry of strikes and counters followed, and Squall lost count of who had drawn most blood, who had scored the most blows.

They continuously pushed the boundaries of a friendly spar, never growing too sloppy, but no longer restrained. With the safeguard of a simple Cure, there was no need to hold back. Squall was already beyond feeling the sting of the negligible injuries Seifer had inflicted. His breath ragged, he knew one of them would claim victory soon. His arms were getting tired, the protracted rush of adrenaline and endorphins unsustainable in the long run. He needed to make his move now.

Disregarding his body's complaints, he surged forward, deliberately exposing his right side. Seifer could only counter or yield, and he'd never do the latter. Counting on the man's restraint to keep it at a shallow cut, Squall moved along Kronos' length and brought up Revolver against Seifer's neck. Their breaths rang loudly through the chill air when all movement stopped.

Pain bloomed along the skin-deep cut on his upper right leg, but the blond's chuckle in admitted defeat was more than worth the small cost. The man lowered Kronos to the ground and walked backwards, the blade's tip trailing in the dirt, his gaze alight with a look that promised reprisal. Assuming a wider stance to better ground his weight, Squall tried to catch his breath as best as he could and raised Revolver.

There was no time to form a new strategy, only time to react, when Seifer ran towards him with a speed that caught Squall off guard this far into their fight. He clenched his teeth when the impact of their blades nearly wrenched Revolver from his grip. Only through sheer willpower did he manage to sidestep and force Kronos away with a downwards slide of their blades, but already the blond was on him again, another bone shattering blow jolting through his arms as he caught Kronos' fall.

Seifer was going all out, betting everything on the last of his held-back reserves. The man was going to burn up his strength fast this way, but the resulting blows were near impossible to fend off. Recognizing the familiar strategy well enough, Squall had always been ill-equipped to counter such brute force. The only counter strategy was to try and outlast the blond, but they both knew he wouldn't make it this time. The man hounded him, his every strike as powerful as the last.

Not expecting victory anymore, Squall nearly missed his chance when it presented itself. Seifer had left his left side open, no doubt deeming the move safe because he wouldn't be able to bring Revolver around in time. Abandoning standard tactics, Squall shoved his shoulder into the man's side with all his strength, hoping to stun the man from his momentum.

A low grunt sounded close to his ear, followed by a strong arm that wrapped itself around his waist and dragged him to the ground. Forced to throw Revolver aside to avoid piercing himself on his own blade, Squall wasn't surprised when he heard the accompanying clatter of Kronos to the ground. His move had backfired.

All breath rushed from his lungs when he caught the brunt of their fall, the blond having managed to turn them around mid-fall at the last moment. Already Seifer was yanking him up, moving him into a headlock. Sparing a wry thought to the man's underhanded tactic, forcing the spar into hand-to-hand, Squall struggled to get away. Without a gunblade he was stripped of most advantages he had over Seifer, but that didn't mean he'd give the man an easy victory.

Twisting in Seifer's hold, he managed to force an arm free, but the restricted blood flow to his head made coordination difficult. Looking up at the light-polluted sky, he groped behind him, yanking at the blond's shoulder to try and dislodge him. Needing more purchase, he scrambled against the ground with his feet, until finally he broke free long enough to draw in greedy gulps of air. Seifer was in close pursuit, immediately flipping him onto his stomach. His arms pinned beneath him, his left cheek pressed to the dirt, Squall tried to buck the man off, but Seifer pressed him down with the entire length of his body.

The heartbeats he spent focusing on the way Seifer's groin pressed against his backside nearly cost him his chance to break free. Cursing inwardly at himself, he tried to mask his lapse and jammed a hastily freed elbow into the man's side. A gruff release of air ghosted his neck, lining his skin with goose bumps. Ignoring the sensation, he quickly rolled to the side and raised himself up, ready for the next tackle. This time he managed to keep his limbs free when they fell to the ground in a tangle.

Rolling and kicking, they fought for supremacy. When the blond hooked a leg around his and twisted them together, a hand grabbing his inner thigh for purchase, Squall felt a hot rush jolt to his groin. Suppressing a groan, he quickly maneuvered them into a less compromising position and pressed his knee into Seifer's lower back until he was fully released.

He only had a moment to catch his breath before Seifer barreled into him again. He'd barely hit the ground and already he was being yanked up again by strong hands. As they landed on their sides with a harsh thud, he felt those same hands wrap around him as they rolled sideways. Coming to a still, Seifer's lower arm was pressed firmly against his throat. A little more pressure, and he'd be dead.

Acutely aware of their proximity, Squall stilled in defeat and waited for the blond to move off him. Drawing in a greedy breath when Seifer lifted his arm, Squall became all the more aware of their exertion, the rise and fall of their chests. When the blond's gaze traveled to his lips and lingered there, he had to consciously keep from licking them. They suddenly felt dry, his heart nearly leaping from his chest. He hoped that nothing of what he was thinking was showing on his face. As close as Seifer was studying him now, the man would spot the slightest sign something was off.

Scrutinizing Squall's expression as he moved up from the ground, Seifer held out his hand. He had to hide a smirk at his victory. There'd been no reactions to his daring touches during their scuffle, but the way Squall's eyes had widened along with those parted lips was all he needed to know. Squall had been ready for it—maybe even wanted it. Rinoa had been right and fuck it if he didn't feel like he'd just downed a Hero shot.

"Two to one," he said, taking Squall's hand and pulling the brunet to a stand. "Good fight."

Nodding, Squall fought to keep his composure and started to dust off some of the dirt and grime that had caked all over his clothes. To experience his attraction to the blond so suddenly and acutely was unsettling, especially since he didn't know what he would've done if Seifer hadn't moved. It was maddening not to know whether it had all been just a teasing ploy, the blond testing his boundaries, or... more.

"Come on, let's go grab some food," Seifer said with a jerk of his head in the direction of the building. "I still owe you that dinner."

After another distracted nod from the brunet, he set the course and walked towards the exit. His every muscle ached with a pleasant burn and the slight sting of numerous grazes from Revolver nagged at the back of his mind, but he couldn't stop grinning. It had felt so damned good. He didn't even mind that Squall had beat him two to one—nor that Squall might have won the last round too if it hadn't been for the hand-to-hand combat. In fact it only made his grin broader to know he'd have a proper sparring partner around for a while, with a chance for more—hell, if his libido had anything to say about it—much more.

As they got closer to the lockers, the thought of Squall naked in the showers, of him licking Squall's new cuts while sliding his hands over wet skin completely derailed his thoughts. There was no decency to his thoughts, no trace left of his plan to let Squall set the pace. Fuck it, if there was any way he could've gotten away with it, he would have just pushed Squall up against the nearest wall and started the party.

Stopping when they reached the locker room door, he nodded at it and reeled in his hormones. "Go ahead, I'll join you in a bit." When Squall quirked an eyebrow, he shrugged. "Gotta go deal with that little shithead and his brother." That and there was no way he'd be able to share a shower with the brunet at the SCTA ever again without immediately losing his job for an indecency charge.

Squall nodded, not about to voice any reservations when it meant he could shower alone. "Okay."'

Giving Squall's ass one last look-over as the man headed into the locker room, Seifer turned down the hallway with an inward groan and tried to direct his thoughts away from the dangerous ground they'd been treading. Instead he focused on the scene he'd walked in on when arriving at the SCTA. He still wanted to throttle Nolan for being such a little shit. He had no idea what Nolan had done or said to rile Squall up to such an extent, but it didn't matter either way. All the little fucker needed to know was that he had to show Squall some fucking respect or stay the fuck away.

He couldn't find the teen in the main training hall, nor was he hanging out by the entrance. The pool was almost empty and so was the gym, apart from a few stragglers. Spotting Calder on one of the lateral raise machines, Seifer walked over.

"Where's the little shithead?" he asked, stepping into Calder's line of sight. The brunet raised an eyebrow, not immediately replying.

"Hey," Calder said, counting off the last of his reps under his breath. "Left already," he added as he leaned back for a brief pause. He hadn't expected to see the blond around—definitely not without his newly acquired shadow in tow.

Seifer nodded, getting his phone out of his pocket.

- Message to Nolan / 8:50 pm / Show some fucking respect and kiss ass. You want to see a GF don't you? -

"I heard he pissed someone off," Calder said, pretty certain that was Seifer's current beef with his brother. He'd only been at the SCTA for two minutes before someone had told him about the scene Nolan had caused and it wasn't like Squall had needed any more attention drawn to him after the demo during Seifer's class.

"Think he would've been frozen solid if I hadn't arrived when I did."

- Message from Nolan / 8:51 pm / What's a GF? -

- Message to Nolan / 8:52 pm / The huge monsters SeeDs team up with. -

"Where's your friend now?" Calder asked, by now unsurprised by Seifer's lack of attention to his presence. It seemed the only thing that could hold the blond's attention these days was a certain SeeD Commander. No doubt the texts Seifer were engrossed in had to do with the man too.

"The showers," Seifer said, not looking up from his phone.

- Message from Nolan / 8:54 pm / Deal. -

- Message to Nolan / 8:54 pm / Good boy. -

- Message from Nolan / 8:54 pm / Asshole. -

"Got time for another spar?" Calder asked, already guessing the answer.

"We're heading off in a moment," the blond answered, glancing at the exit as he pocketed his phone.

Calder nodded, briefly considering suggesting that he could join, but the prospect of spending his night as a third wheel wasn't as appealing as his other plans: go out, get drunk and get laid. "Feel free to join me at Nexus later."

Seifer chuckled as he imagined Squall's reaction to being taken to a gay club. "Think that'd go down well?" he asked, grinning.

Somewhat impressed with the blond's one-track mind, Calder shrugged instead of pointing out the fact that he hadn't actually mentioned Squall in his invitation. "Would be a way to test the waters."

Seifer shook his head at that piece of disastrous advice and walked to the weight stack to pull out the metal pin. "Twelve more?" he asked, already putting the metal pin back in for the added weight.

With a nod, Calder adjusted his position to start up his training again. "I'll drop by soon," he said, not about to let the blond off that easily. Regardless of the man's newfound obsession, he wasn't going to let him completely neglect their relationship.

"Sure," Seifer said without much of his usual enthusiasm. He'd much rather spend the time with Squall and he could definitely do without either of the Madar brothers running interference. Rapping his knuckles on the lateral raise machine to announce his departure, he turned on his heels and sent a parting shot over his shoulder. "Give that brother of yours a kick in the ass for me when you see him."

"Will do."

Seifer quickened his stride towards the exit when the sound of weights being lifted off the stack resumed behind him. Things had improved between Calder and himself—almost back to normal even. For once there'd been no incessant questions, just a casual back-and-forth. Part of him wished he could join Calder at Nexus and spend his night fucking some innocent into oblivion. It had been way too fucking long since he'd last bust his nuts and it seemed his hormones were kicking in with a vengeance after all of Squall's cock teasing. He'd just have to have a good old fashioned wank at home as soon as the opportunity presented itself. Right now though, he had to see about a guy waiting to be taken out to dinner. He smirked, a spring in his step as he rushed to the showers.



[Tiamat District, Friday, 24th of October, 9:21 pm]

Closing the car door behind him, Squall looked around him, the small street deserted. There wasn't any restaurant he could see, but Seifer had promised a spar and dinner. The man had certainly delivered on the former, so he wouldn't start protesting now, his muscles still exquisitely sore from the workout Seifer had given him. The blond had already adapted to most of his new moves, and Squall knew he wouldn't be able to keep up his winning streak for long. If Seifer had been rusty at first, the man's inferior sparring partner was entirely to blame.

"It's just around the corner," Seifer said, gesturing ahead as he led the way. It seemed the defeats hadn't managed to sour the blond's mood in the slightest, and Squall felt in similarly high spirits. There was nothing like a rough spar to relieve stress.

He suppressed a smile as he followed the blond into a dark alley of his own volition. His past self would've been unimpressed with this easy trust, but he'd been far too bored after he'd left Arc's shop, enough so that being taken out to dinner had started to sound like a good idea. And he certainly wasn't bored anymore. Unwelcome as Seifer's teasing was—or flirting if he was to believe the blond—he'd gladly put up with it for food and company.

As they rounded the corner, Seifer came to a halt. "This is it."

Squall would've overlooked the place if Seifer hadn't led him right to the stairs of the establishment. It was a wonder Seifer had found the place, with only a small inconspicuous sign labelling the place as Obel's Alley. As they stepped inside, they were greeted with all sorts of appealing aromas. The restaurant was small and had an informal feel about it, most of its tables occupied—nothing like the upscale places Rinoa used to drag him to.

Choosing a table off to the side, Seifer sat down and leaned back in his seat. He still couldn't believe he was taking Squall out to dinner. Already the vibe of a date was in the air—a fact the brunet probably wasn't even aware of, while he himself had avoided anything remotely date-like for years. But he'd gladly put up with it if it was Squall. If anything, it made him all the more eager knowing Squall wouldn't normally agree to something like a casual dinner. Hell, to get Squall to enjoy his evening would probably be a real challenge.

Only sparing the menus a half-hearted glance, already knowing what he wanted, he instead indulged in studying the brunet sitting across from him. Squall's hair was still damp from his shower, slight cuts from their spar still visible. Squall hadn't healed them—just like Seifer hadn't healed his own. He'd learned a long time ago that his scars defined him. He remembered what lay behind every single one and his favorite had always been the deep cut between his eyes.

Shaking the more contemplative path his thoughts were trailing down, he put on a smile to get the show running.

"The grilled Balamb steak is the best. Tastiest I've had in Esthar yet. Cheap too. Of course it's not quite as good as when I make it myself," he said with a smirk. "Spares me doing the dishes, though."

Suppressing an eye roll at Seifer's cocky remark, Squall closed his own menu. "I'll have the Balamb steak then."

"Excellent choice," Seifer said, winking, before waving over a waitress and ordering their food. Their dinner would be a walk in the park if Squall was going to be that pliant.

"So, yesterday was your first time at an SCTA?" he asked as soon as the woman left them, curious about Squall's impression of the place.

Meeting Seifer's gaze, Squall nodded. "Very different from Garden."

"It is," Seifer agreed. "Not as great as Garden, but decent enough. At least it means there are gunbladers in Esthar. I hadn't expected that when I first came here. When I found out, I went to all four of the SCTAs and finally settled on the Tiamat one. It seemed like the most advanced one when it comes to gunbladers. Still is. The fighters they train are way inferior to SeeDs though. Don't think a comparison is even appropriate. Laughable really." He paused as he thought of his one-time home.

"Are more gunbladers being trained at Garden now? It's weird to think we were the first at Balamb... Seemed like a rare trade at the time. I bet all the little kids want to follow in your footstep now," he finished with an easy smile. "I'm sure it's why it's so popular over here too."

"A few students are serious about it. The rest moved on to other weapons quickly enough," Squall answered evenly, wishing he could deny the blond's last remark. "But the instructor Quistis hired..." He sighed and trailed off. None of Quistis' gunblade instructors would ever meet his standards. "I don't have the time to teach them myself... At least Peyton still organizes his training camps at Galbadia Garden."

"Still aren't many decent gunbladers around, I guess," Seifer said, glad to hear the name of their old instructor. "So Peyton's still at it?"

"Peyton's the only decent gunblade instructor Garden has. And he knows it." Squall huffed and shook his head. "I've done some demos at his camps."

"And how does he feel about being outdone by his student?" Seifer asked, leaning closer.

"He likes to think it's because of his guidance," Squall replied dryly.

Seifer let out a soft chuckle. "I bet he does," he said, pausing to take a sip of his drink, keeping his eyes on the brunet.

"Shame you can't persuade him to transfer to Balamb Garden if the instructor Quistis got is really that bad..." he trailed off. "They have a crappy instructor at the Tiamat SCTA as well... When I first got there most of the gunbladers were appalling... you should've seen how some of them held their weapons." He frowned at the memory. "Unbelievable," he muttered, shaking his head. "I couldn't help myself from kicking some sense into the little punks... teach them some fucking respect for the blade. Turned out people were paying attention to my... encouragements. Wasn't long before a senior instructor approached me."

He paused, remembering how one thing had just led to another and how quickly the SCTA had become part of his life. "Never saw myself as an instructor... I mean, I love terrorizing the little shits, but I just never saw it coming," he explained with an amused shrug. "Anyways... the other guy still teaches whenever I'm out of town and when I come back it takes fucking forever to get the little shits to fight properly again. I don't know what the hell he does during those lessons, but it sure as hell isn't anything close to useful."

Listening to the blond's lively account, Squall thought back to the class he'd witnessed the day before. Seifer had a way with his students he hadn't seen since Peyton—direct and tough, but loved for it. "You're a good instructor."

"A compliment, huh?" Seifer said with a warm smile. Praise from Squall was one hell of a start to their dinner. "I'm good at it, yeah. So were you. It was good for them to see us spar."

Squall shrugged. Demos were all he'd ever be good for in a class setting. "I wouldn't have the patience for more." He met Seifer's gaze with a slightly raised eyebrow. "I'm surprised you do."

Seifer chuckled. "Beats the hell outta me too." He took another sip of his drink. "A few of the kids have potential, but mostly, they just don't care enough. Not nearly as crazy as we used to be."

Squall silently hummed his concurrence.

"Rinoa told me you mostly train on your own now. I couldn't do that... It gets boring way too quickly." He paused, unable to forget the blame in Rinoa's voice.

"I was doing that at the beginning when I stayed at Arc's—before I learned about the SCTA. After that I sparred with lots of different guys, but none of them were really worth anything." He paused again, remembering when things had changed. "Calder wasn't either. I didn't even know his name until he commissioned a gunblade from Arc. He was persistent though. Kept asking for spars. He showed me a different side to Esthar as well. He's still nowhere close to being a challenge though. Not like you." He looked the brunet straight in the eyes. "You'd better not disappear any time soon, Squall. Sparring with you just feels too damned good."

To have Seifer back as his sparring partner, not temporarily but beyond his stay with the blond, was exactly what Squall wanted. Others simply didn't compare. "I'll be in Esthar a lot," he said. "And you have my number."

Seifer smiled, more than pleased to know Squall wasn't about to disappear from his life anytime soon. "How come you'll be in Esthar?"

Squall considered how much he could say. The plans for Esthar Garden were still in their infancy, and he'd signed the usual gag contract until things were finalized. "…Because of work—talks between Garden and Esthar. There's another meeting on Tuesday."

"What kind of talks?" Seifer asked, furrowing his brow and ignoring the waitress as she served their food.

Deciding he could trust Seifer with the information, Squall waited until the waitress was out of earshot. "We're looking to expand. Esthar Garden."

"Makes sense," Seifer said without pause. He'd been expecting it ever since the Lunar Cry. The Estharian army was way under-equipped for anything beyond its city borders that involved magic. "When will you build it?"

Squall snorted. "Not any time soon. Talks only just started, and there's a lot of resistance." He shook his head, recalling the outcry and paranoia. "The army and SCTA representatives aren't happy."

"I bet," Seifer said, adding a huff. "They should have upped their game then—not spent all their gil on an optical shield to hide behind."

"They're your employers," Squall pointed out, quirking an eyebrow at the blond taking it all in stride. "If we get the go-ahead, the SCTA will be affected."

Seifer shrugged. "There'll always be students to teach," he said, not really sure if it would bother him much even if there weren't. "It's just a bit of money on the side."

Nodding, Squall was glad enough their interests wouldn't clash when it came to the new Garden. And if Seifer ever showed even the slightest hint of wanting a serious teaching job, Quistis would be on his case until the blond reenlisted.

"So you in a meeting, huh? Now there's a sight I'd like to see," Seifer said, grinning at the visual his brain was providing. "I bet you'd be scowling your way through it. Cursing all of the other people there," he said with a low chuckle. "I know I would… And you say you're surprised I have the patience to teach? I wouldn't have the damn patience to sit around listening to people blabber on." He shook his head. "Don't tell me—did those glasses come with the meetings?" he asked, remembering he'd seen them on the coffee table the previous evening.

"With the paperwork," Squall said dryly, cutting a piece of his steak.

"You do a lot of that?"

"It's part of the job."

"...Isn't that what secretaries are for?" Seifer teased, still unable to picture Squall doing any of it—paperwork or meetings. "And besides, aren't you too busy for that anyway? From what I hear, and trust me, I hear a lot from those brats, you pretty much go from one world-saving mission to the next. When the hell do meetings and paperwork fit into that?"

"What you hear is exaggerated," Squall said with a frown. "I'm usually in the field. Xu takes the brunt of the paper mill, but sometimes it's unavoidable."

"Xu's stuck doing paperwork?" Seifer asked, chuckling. She'd always been on his case and to know she was stuck somewhere behind a desk did wonders for his mood. "Now that's what I call good news." He smirked, taking a sip of his water.

"And about your missions…" He held Squall's gaze, deciding to be upfront. "You know, at first I hated it when they talked about you, but after a while… It was good to know you were out there, doing the hero thing, saving the day. Hyne knows I'd be bragging left and right if it was me."

Squall huffed at the implication he was some kind of miracle worker, a one-man show. "There's no such thing as heroes."

"No? You certainly fit the bill."

"People are products of their circumstances," Squall said soberly, not about to take this hero-worship nonsense from Seifer of all people. "I was in a position where I was forced to make decisions, and they haven't all been good ones." He met Seifer's gaze with a quirked eyebrow. "You'd make a better commander."

Seifer swallowed his food and huffed, before moving his lower arms to rest on the table as he regarded Squall carefully. The brunet's expression didn't betray any ill intent, only honesty, yet his offhand comment brought on a myriad of bad memories all the same. He had been a good commander, but on the wrong fucking side of the war. "No thanks. Been there, done that. Trying to take over the world gets a bit old after a while."

Squall stiffened and set down his fork, the man's flippancy far from convincing. "That's not what I meant."

"... I know," Seifer said as he picked up his drink and took a big gulp. "How's the steak?"

Scrutinizing Seifer's bland expression, Squall let the blond's need for avoidance slide and looked down at the well-cooked meat. "It's good," he replied, cutting off another piece.

Seifer shook his head. Only Squall would undersell something that tasted so good. "I might treat you to the real deal—the Almasy version—if you keep up that sweet talk of yours," he said with a sly grin, calling Squall out on his uncharacteristic flattery, even if the man hadn't intended it as such. "You know, now that I think about it, there are a few commands I'd be more than happy to give."

At the far from subtle undertone, Squall met Seifer's lewd gaze blankly, by now more taken aback by his own lack of shock. He really shouldn't get used to this kind of behavior. The man flirted as if it was mere sport, flexing his ego whenever the opportunity presented itself.

"No?" Seifer asked, undeterred at the lack of any real reaction. "Perhaps you've got a command or two for me, then?"

"Eat," Squall replied with a pointed look at Seifer's plate. He'd already cleared half of his own, while the blond had been talking away.

Seifer chuckled before cutting off a large chunk of steak. "So your favorite training grounds in Esthar are up north?"

Swallowing his food, Squall shook his head. "I haven't been out in the desert since the Lunar Cry clean-up."

At the more than unlikely statement, Seifer furrowed his brow. "Where do you go to train then? I mean, if you don't go to any of the SCTAs and don't go to the desert..." Seifer said, trailing off as he remembered how Rinoa had been adamant about Squall not having anywhere particular in Esthar he'd go to.

"I don't take many days off," Squall said with a shrug, not wanting Seifer to get the wrong idea. "Rinoa's plans never left much time for training."

"But you split up five months ago, right?"

Squall frowned at the personal turn the conversation was taking. "…I told you the reason for our move here."

Seifer let out a non-committal hum, remembering his conversation with Rinoa. She'd implied the incident that had caused Squall's scar had been the reason for their move—that she'd hurt Squall. It seemed it hadn't been the only way she'd affected him. Keeping the brunet from training, even for a day, was a bad move. "Okay, so no favorite training spots then. Just means I'll have more to show you," Seifer said, forcing a smile.

"On top of us going out into the desert, I'll have to try and fit in a couple hours of work on a chakram for Fujin over the weekend. I'm going to visit her and Raijin in a couple of weeks time. Every half a year or so, we go on a hunting trip together. Means we actually stay in touch."

"I haven't seen them since the war," Squall said pensively. The two had disappeared along with Seifer, and he'd only recently learned the exact circumstances that had led them to give up their future with SeeD—to get Seifer away from those who meant him harm. "…How are they?"

"They're good. They're in Dollet now. Well, they're still in Dollet—they've lived there since just after the war. They're surviving off any mercenary work they can get their hands on and when the going gets tough, Raijin does a bit of work for the local construction companies... and Fujin—" He paused and smirked as his eyes fell to his drink, his eyes crinkling at the corners. "She becomes a grouch," he said with a chuckle, before looking up again. "So here's to hoping they'll get hired out before I go visit."

"How come you ended up in Esthar?"

"I wanted to go somewhere where I could get lost in the crowd," Seifer replied upfront. "That and I never liked being the third wheel. Listening to those two going at it is not really my idea of fun... Raijin sure knows a trick or two," he mused before cutting off more of his steak.

Smirking as Squall's eyebrows scrunched up at his words, Seifer nodded. "Yeah, I could've done without that too."

"Hn." Squall commiserated wholeheartedly, reminded of the times he'd had to overhear Selphie and Irvine in the room next to his.

"Yeah? Who've you been a naughty boy and listened in on?" Seifer asked, leaning in.

Not having intended this path of inquiry, Squall gave Seifer a weak glare for the blond's phrasing. "Never take a room next to Selphie and Irvine," he replied wryly.

"Don't tell me you've actually been making friends," Seifer joked, having a hard time imagining it. When Squall just frowned, no words forthcoming, Seifer thought back on the names. Flashes of the past came rushing back.Cowboy and Messenger Girl.

He'd read their dossiers, had known everything about them—their pasts and fighting techniques—before he'd evenmet them in battle, but he hadn't known they were Squall's friends. They'd been there all along. At Deling City, Galbadia Garden and Lunatic Pandora. He'd destroyed their homes. He'd wrecked Galbadia Garden in combat and sent missiles to Trabia Garden, completely obliterating the place. While he'd been off starting a war, Squall had actually found friends, and he'd nearly killed them. He'd nearly killed Squall.

Watching all the good humor leave Seifer's expression, Squall slowly realized his mistake. Seifer'd had to think on the names. Selphie and Irvine had become such an integral part of his life, he hadn't even stopped to consider the possibility that Seifer hadn't regained his memories like the rest of them.

They had both stopped eating, the muted conversation around them making their sudden silence seem all the heavier. Seifer's gaze hadn't moved from the table's surface, his thoughts off somewhere Squall couldn't reach.

"Seifer—"

Seifer shook his head, not about to listen to anything Squall had to say. Them having dinner together was a complete fucking farce. He'd seen the man shake in pain because of his order. He clenched his teeth. He needed to get the fuck out of there. Standing from the table, his thoughts a chaotic mess, he didn't meet the brunet's gaze as he left the table and cut past the other customers that blocked his exit. He couldn't fucking breathe.

His heart was hammering in his chest as he walked down the street. He'd only made it ten feet from the exit when he turned and punched his hand into the nearest wall, deep abrasions cutting into his knuckles.

He hated his past. Hated what he'd done. There was no way he should be forgiven for it. Squall was out of his mind to accept him so easily. How Squall could even look at him and not see the man who had tortured him was beyond him.

Hearing the door to the restaurant open, he turned to see Squall exit and step out onto the curb. The instant their eyes met, he knew it was a lost cause. Squall was right there, regardless of all the painful memories. He couldn't leave the man behind, couldn't let him be, even when every rational part of him told him to.

"Come on," he said, his tone of voice brokering no argument as he turned to walk in the opposite direction of the car. The past was consuming him, filling his head with images of blood, scars, electricity and smoke. He needed to move, to suppress the memories the only way he knew how.

Squall frowned. Clearly Seifer was leading him somewhere, but the blond's behavior was outright forbidding. Keeping a fast pace, Seifer didn't look his way as he led them through the streets. Squall followed in silence, fighting the urge to stop the man and demand an explanation. He'd wait Seifer out for now.

At the next large traffic circle, they left ground level, the blond taking them higher at each junction of walkway levels. The higher they climbed the roads meandering amidst high rise buildings, the more confused Squall got. They weren't taking some detour back to the apartment. They weren't heading for a bar to drown their sorrow either—the latest of his theories. Suddenly Seifer came to a stop in the middle of a deserted bridge, nothing within their near surroundings hinting at the purpose of the seemingly random destination.

"When the goods lift appears, you gotta jump," Seifer announced, walking up to the ledge of the bridge. "Immediately."

Squall's stomach lurched uncomfortably at the sight of the blond climbing onto the railing, the man's gaze fixed intently on what lay below, until the words "goods lift" sank in. Walking closer, he spotted the freight tracks below: one of Esthar's many transport lanes for trade and industrial purposes, its lifts weaving between buildings at dizzying speeds.

"You're serious," he said, catching on to Seifer's plan. The man would be that crazy. Apparently so was he.

Joining Seifer on the railing, he waited for the goods lift to appear. A high pitched whine in the distance announced its arrival only seconds before a series of linked goods containers hurdled along the tracks, giving him only a fraction of a second to react.

The moment he landed onto one of the last containers, he was propelled into the Esthar night at dizzying speeds. The noise of the tracks and the wind was overwhelming. Seifer had landed only a few carts ahead of him, waving him over. Squall quickly ran across, before the tracks lurched to the right at an angle definitely not intended for passengers.

Dropping into a crouch, he grabbed hold of some metal wiring and watched in astonishment as Seifer simply leaned into the motion, bending at the knees with his arms outstretched—but still standing. The moment the tracks righted themselves again, the blond jerked his head to the west.

Trusting the man, Squall let go of his only purchase and straightened himself. He didn't know these tracks, but Seifer did. Ahead of them, a tunnel was quickly drawing closer, too narrow to allow them passage. The blond gestured to his left and counted down with his fingers.

Three. Two. One.

"Jump!"

Squall followed after him without hesitance, only seeing their next target once he'd gone over the edge. Before he even had time to think, his feet impacted with another cargo lift that was shooting off to the west. This one moved faster, but steadier.

Pushing himself up, he ran to Seifer's side and let exhilaration take over. They shot between the skyscrapers, winding up higher and dropping lower at speeds that left no time for hesitance. They had to jump tracks every now and then, avoiding obstacles within the nick of time. The city's lights flashed by, the people in the streets below oblivious.

"We're getting off at the next loading point!" Seifer yelled loudly against the wind.

Looking ahead to where Seifer's gaze was directed, Squall's eyebrows climbed a bit higher. A large loading platform loomed ahead, at the top of what was probably the tallest high-rise in the district, a steep ascent preceding it. His muscles tensed in readiness as he mimicked the blond and lowered himself into a squatting position seconds before the transport lift shot upwards, the wind tearing at his unzipped jacket and howling in his ears.

Not scheduled to stop at the loading point, the lift decelerated only slightly, barely enough for its passengers to jump ship. The momentum launched Squall further than he had intended, the metal platform quivering beneath the impact of his heavy boots. Straightening after a precarious moment spent balancing himself, Squall turned round to look at Seifer, the blond having made a much more calculated and graceful landing. The glint of exhilaration in Seifer's eyes mirrored his own feelings of excitement, and he understood. His heart was still racing in his chest, thanks to one of the most potent adrenaline kicks he'd ever experienced outside of battle.

"Good, huh?" Seifer asked, still high from the ride himself.

Squall huffed at the gross understatement, letting his gaze travel the panoramic view stretched out before him. Glancing back at Seifer, he spotted the slight smile on the blond's lips and felt his own mood lift in response. "How long have you been doing this?"

"Since I moved here," Seifer said, breaking his gaze away from Squall to take in the evening skyline instead. "It's a quick and easy way of getting around town when you don't have a car." He walked to the side of the metal platform before sitting down at the edge, letting his feet hang off the edge.

Squall moved to join Seifer on the ledge as he entertained the thought of actually using this method to "get around." It seemed more suited for adrenaline kicks than actual transport—not very practical. But then he was reminded of Seifer's admission earlier that day, how the man had tried to sell Hyperion. Without a car and without money… The passenger lifts weren't free and they didn't cover the entire city, only meant as shortcuts between the business and entertainment hubs in the metropolis.

Sobering from his high, Squall glanced from the view back to Seifer. The man's smile had been short-lived, but at least he didn't seem frantic anymore in his need to get away. How many times had Seifer come here, trying to escape his past?

Seifer remained quiet for a long time as they sat side by side. His thoughts from earlier had returned, but this time he didn't feel the same anger and powerlessness as before. The adrenaline rush had taken the edge off things, the comedown leaving him incapable of returning to that frenzied state of mind. But the guilt still ate away at him. His childhood dream had been to become a valiant knight, not a madman who slaughtered innocents.

Yet it was the faces of the people he knew and had turned against that haunted him the most. The memories of what he'd done to Squall were the worst.

"I hate what I did to you," he said, looking at the horizon. "What I did to everyone." He took a deep breath of cool air. "Things aren't supposed to be just fine. Being around you shouldn't feel so... easy."

Squall considered the words and the dangerous precipice they brought to their conversation. If Seifer wanted to back out, to part ways again… "We could use 'easy' for once."

Reluctant to agree, Seifer kept his gaze averted. "...You definitely deserve it," he said, his eyes growing unfocused as his thoughts returned to his conversation with Rinoa. Even after the war, Squall hadn't been able to catch a break.

Squall frowned at the continued self-flagellating remarks, the man too quick to count himself out. "I don't know what I deserve, but… we're here, now." They so easily could not have been, so he wouldn't waste this opportunity. "The rest doesn't matter."

Letting out a non-committal hum, Seifer refrained from commenting. The rest did matter, but there was nothing to gain from trying to persuade Squall of that; no reason to burden Squall with his darker thoughts. He should just consider himself lucky Squall didn't blame him and wanted to move on. He'd made a promise to himself earlier that evening to do everything he could to show Squall a good time and show the brunet what life could be, and already he had descended into this. He needed to get a grip and figure out how to deal with the past without losing his cool.

"So, never take a room next to Irvine and Selphie, was it?" he said, attempting a smile as he glanced sideways at Squall.

The sight immediately alleviated some of Squall's unease. It wasn't the relaxed smile he had interrupted during dinner, but it was something.

"Or Zell," he replied, trying to match Seifer with a lighter mood. "He took up drums."

Seifer shook his head. "How's Chicken?"

"He's good," Squall replied. "He's our close combat instructor now."

"Don't tell me Chickie has actually learned how to fight," Seifer remarked jokingly, refraining from commenting on just how bad things must've gotten for Garden to resort to hiring a guy like Zell to be one of their instructors.

"How about your other friends? Selphie and Irvine. What do they do?"

Not that long ago, Squall would have frowned at the term "friends," but now it was the non-inclusive "your" that bothered him. Seifer didn't remember them, and somehow it felt like the blond was being cheated out of something. If it hadn't been for those regained memories, Squall would've still been a loner himself.

"They're stationed at Trabia Garden," he replied. "Selphie's the best demolition expert we've got. And Irvine…" The gunslinger was laidback, not one ambitious bone in his body. "He's refused all promotions and instructor assignments so far. He's in it for the missions only."

"Sounds like an interesting couple," Seifer said, remembering the spunky, little girl and tall, brown-haired cowboy that had been present at most of the attacks against Ultimecia. "I'm sure going out with a demolition expert would spice things up in the bedroom," he added with a smirk.

Sending the man an unimpressed look for his casual lewdness, Squall leaned back on his arms and turned his gaze to the starless sky. "Selphie would like your take on easy transport." He knew she'd need only little explanation to let Seifer back into her life, if the man wanted it. But such an offer of friendship would seem strange to someone who couldn't remember that for a few years they'd had something like a little sister.

"My kind of girl then," Seifer commented, still smirking as he enjoyed the cold evening air against his skin.

Falling into a companionable silence, the two of them seated high above the city, Squall was struck by a sense of déjà vu before he remembered. A vision of the two of them, years younger, up high on the lighthouse with their feet dangling over the precarious ledge at the top. Even the emotions he attached to that particular memory resounded with what he felt now.

Set on top of slippery rock formations and encroached by dangerous tides, the lighthouse had been off-limits to the children at the orphanage. It had been one of their favorite places to sneak off to. Matron had usually managed to keep them away from there, but she'd been gone for weeks and strange men had been coming to the orphanage. In retrospect, Squall suspected they were henchmen sent by NORG to supply Garden with its future mercenaries.

At the time, he and Seifer had barely understood what was about to happen. They only knew they would be taken away from the only world they'd ever known. Most of the younger children had already gone, and a tall woman with an insincere smile had urged them to pack their clothes and come down to the common room.

They had climbed out of the window of their shared room instead and made a run for it. Seifer's plan, of course. Their escape couldn't have lasted much longer than a few hours before they were discovered at the top of the lighthouse. The sun had already set. He still remembered the sight of those grown men grumbling as they fought against the strong currents and waded through the freezing water, their struggle lit up by the lighthouse's beam. For a little while, they had eluded them.

Squall could still taste it; that feeling of uncertainty and fear. Fear that they would be separated and would be sent someplace bad. They hadn't been good kids, so they didn't get to have families. Nobody had picked them and now they were at the end of the line. Seifer must have been scared too, but the blond boy of Squall's memories was strong and seemingly invincible, that self-assured grin telling his younger self let's see them try. They had watched as the two men tried to reach them, Seifer cracking up in hilarity and Squall quietly glad to have the blond with him.

Overwhelmed by a melancholy he'd come to associate with his memories of the orphanage, Squall wanted Seifer to remember as well—that there was more to them than rivalry and war. But… mentioning anything to Seifer about the past seemed delicate at best. He had no way of knowing how the blond would react. Part of him even wondered whether he should just let Seifer be. The man had started a whole new life, with new people in it, and he seemed to be doing fine without his memories intact. What good would it do for Seifer to know just who Edea had been?

Glancing sideways, watching Seifer's profile, a question escaped Squall all the same. "Do you remember where you grew up?"

Looking Squall's way briefly, a slight frown emerged on Seifer's brow. He'd never given his childhood much thought, and didn't really careabout his life before Garden. For him to have ended up in such a place... It wasn't the best indication life had been good for him as a child. Back then, Garden had been a place for orphans and unwanteds. It was only in recent years, after their sudden boost in exposure and popularity that kids actually wanted to go there. He knew he hadn't been given the choice himself.

Either his parents had died or they had given him up—a past he didn't want to know about either way. Good riddance too. No president was going to show up and claim him.

"No," he said, his frown deepening as he remembered how Laguna's comment about an orphanage the day before had lead him down a similar train of thought.

"You know, it's funny... If I try really hard, I can imagine exactly what you'd look like as a kid. Kinda like a lost puppy," he said, smirking as he looked at Squall. "I'm seeing eyes red from crying and wet hair clinging to puffy cheeks here." He chuckled, "and that good old sulky pout of yours."

At the unflattering description, Squall blinked in astonishment, before turning his gaze somewhere else. He shouldn't be annoyed at what was essentially a good sign. Seifer seemed to have at least some kind of memory of him, however unfortunately selected, which meant it wasn't too late. But crying? One of the last times he could remember crying was when he'd finally realized Ellone wasn't coming back. It had been pouring rain… Of all the things for Seifer to remember. Squall suppressed a groan.

"I was five then," he said, turning to meet Seifer's gaze.

"Come on," Seifer said in disbelief, the statement too ridiculous to be true.

"You're not imagining anything," Squall explained calmly, remembering his own unwillingness to accept his past. "I remember it too."

"That could've been anyone, or just my imagination," Seifer said dismissively. "Why would it be you?"

"Because we grew up together, at an orphanage."

Frowning, Seifer couldn't make sense of what Squall was saying. Why would Squall have been at an orphanage? "How does your dad fit into this?"

"I already told you. Loire didn't know about me."

Seifer shook his head at all the thoughts swarming his head. "He mentioned an orphanage yesterday. I just thought he'd lost his marbles for a second or two.

Squall scowled at that. For a president, Loire could be remarkably undiplomatic at times. But even with the idiot apparently literally mentioning an orphanage where they'd grown up, Seifer didn't seem to have taken it seriously. And now the blond seemed lost in deep thought, clearly trying to come to grips with the unlikely news. Not wanting to force anything, Squall waited.

Seifer scrunched up his brow. "I can't remember anything apart from that one image of you." It was frustrating as hell. He'd never cared about his past before Garden before… but now…

He'd been abandoned as expected, but he hadn't just been dumped at Garden—he'd been abandoned much earlier than that. At least it meant it was his parents' fault, not his. He sighed as he tried to focus on the image of Squall again, willing himself to remember more, but nothing came. "How come you remember?"

"The memory loss is the price we pay for junctioning GFs," Squall started, unsure of how to continue. The truth was too complicated to tell in one go without seeming outrageous. Too many coincidences and unlikely reunions, too many manipulations through time, to all be taken as fact without proof. He only hoped Seifer wouldn't immediately dismiss what he had to say.

"I didn't remember until Irvine told us," he finally continued. "He only started to junction when the war started. He remembered everything. Remembered us." He studied Seifer closely. "It wasn't just you and me."

"How do you know any of it is real then? If you didn't even remember it by yourself?" Seifer asked.

"I wasn't sure at first either, but once I started to try and remember, I did. One memory at a time."

"So you feel certain about this?"

"I am certain," Squall said in answer to Seifer's continued disbelief. "I know where you got that scar," he said, inclining his head to indicate a faded, old scar on the blond's lower arm. "I know why you hate jellyfish, and I know you're allergic to ragweeds. They make you swell up and break into a rash… Do I need to go on?"

"All that means is that you've got one unhealthy fixation, that's all," Seifer said with an easy grin, before considering Squall's words more seriously. He couldn't deny the truth to what the brunet had said. There was no way Squall could've known about his recent run-in with ragweeds. "...You said Irvine told us. Who else was there?"

This was the part Squall feared Seifer definitely wouldn't accept, but he wouldn't lie or stall once asked. "Selphie, Zell, Quistis and Ellone."

Narrowing his eyes, Seifer tried to figure out if Squall was actually being serious or had suddenly decided to completely and utterly pull his leg. As the brunet held his gaze, not the slightest change to the man's composure, Seifer shook his head. "That's fucked up," he said and looked ahead.

He couldn't really believe it: having grown up with Zell and Quistis. Definitely not Ellone, and he hadn't known Cowboy and Messenger Girl at all before the war. Even if Garden had been rounding up all the orphans in the world, what were the chances they had been at the same orphanage? It didn't make any sense. "You know you're asking a lot here, right?"

"I'm not asking anything," Squall said, frowning. "Do whatever you want with what I've said."

Maybe Squall wasn't asking anything, but if what the brunet was saying was true, it changed a lot. Seifer hadn't just gone against other cadets then—he'd gone against the very people he'd grown up with. "Why are you telling me this?"

"... Because it helped me to know there was more to my past than war and mercenaries," Squall said, realizing he was probably giving away too much. "I've known you for as long as I remember... No one knows me better."

Turning to watch the brunet carefully, Seifer's urge to remember grew exponentially. Maybe it was this past he couldn't even remember that had caused Squall to forgive him for the war—that had made the man weak to him. Squall had already confessed to a string of memories from when they were younger and hinted at many more. "We were friends?"

"It's never been that simple, has it?" Squall said, voicing his thoughts of earlier that day. There'd always been too much competition, too much fear of being left behind, but Seifer had always been there. They hadn't understood anything around them, but they'd understood each other.

Nodding slowly at the words that rang too true, Seifer was struck by how much he wished things had been different. They could have been so much more if they hadn't been caught up in their rivalry. Maybe if they'd been friends, Squall could have stopped him from following Ultimecia. Maybe they could have fought alongside each other.

"We should probably head back," he said, vowing things would be different from now on. Tomorrow he'd show Squall a good time out in the desert. They'd hunt monsters together, side by side.

Squall hummed his agreement. "Back the way we came, or does this place have an exit?"

"The way we came," Seifer said, nodding towards the loading platform. "We'll take a different route, get off at a dropoff point close to where we left the car." He smirked, not having missed just how much Squall had enjoyed their ride up there. "You ready for another kick?"

"Ready if you are," Squall said, pushing up and walking up the ledge. Looking down to the city below, Seifer close behind him, Squall stepped up onto the precipice, a sense of thrill already returning. No, he certainly wasn't bored anymore.



 



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