Seifer hated it. More than struggling to fit in, more than Zell telling on them about everything, more than Sis's stupid smile and the way everyone had followed her around like she was perfect and wonderful and–
Seifer hated Sis.
Seifer kicked at a dead stick, sending it arcing across the beach ahead of a cloud of sand. "I'm glad she's gone," he muttered, trying to sound like he meant it.
He found Squall curled up behind a rock a little further up, out of the gusts of wind that carried the scent of the sea and lands far away. "Maybe it was the wind that took her away," Seifer said, because sometimes, if he was lucky, Squall would respond when he came up with a new thief-in-the-night theory.
Squall glanced up at him, eyes red-rimmed and lips chapped. His hair was an absolute wreck, sand dotting it with too-light shades against his natural brown. "The wind can't do that, Seifer," he said, voice quiet and tired.
Seifer glanced towards where the sun was trying to rise above the morning's clouds. "Matron's gonna be mad," he warned, because Squall hadn't been in bed when he'd woken up. Hadn't been asleep when Seifer had finally crashed, either, which meant he hadn't slept at all.
"Please watch him," Matron had said almost a week ago, looking past Seifer to where Squall had been sitting against another rock closer to the orphanage than the one he was sitting against this time. And maybe she'd been talking to one of the bigger boys, or maybe she'd been talking to Hyne's lost half, but Seifer had heard, and he'd thought, 'Maybe, if I'm there, I can be Squally's new Sis.'
Squall, now, here, so tired and so alone, curled a little tighter around his knees and didn't look at Seifer. His shoulders shook, like every time he stared out at the ocean and cried for someone who didn't care.
Seifer hated Sis.
He grabbed Squall's arm and tugged. "Come on. I'm hungry."
Squall let himself be dragged to his feet without a complaint. Once up, though, he swayed and mumbled, "Not hungry."
Seifer tightened his grip on Squall's arm and shook his head. "You will be," he swore, because how could Squall not be hungry when he smelt Matron's food? How could anyone be not hungry when they smelt Matron's food?
Squall let himself be led back towards the orphanage, and when Seifer was certain Squally was coming, he sped up a bit, because he was hungry, and if they got back before Matron went to wake them, maybe they wouldn't get–
Squall let out a startled noise and his arm slipped from Seifer's hold. Seifer spun around, angry at being held up, but felt it all fly away when he saw the shock of red against Squall's sand-coloured skin.
Squall was staring down at the bloody skin like he didn't believe it was attached to himself, just sort of blank and tired and–
Seifer hated Sis.
Seifer felt lost, uncertain how to handle this, because Squall wasn't wailing like Selphie or Zell or Irvine would have, and he wasn't getting back to his feet like Quisty or Seifer himself would have, biting back tears and pretending it didn't hurt. It was all wrong, and Seifer stared at Squall's blood staining the sand, not knowing what to do.
"Can you get up?" he thought he heard himself ask, but it sounded so far away, and he wasn't even sure he'd said it until Squall shook his head, shoulders slumping.
He didn't even try.
Seifer had only the vaguest memory of his mother, gentle green eyes over a smile as she leaned down and kissed his chin. It had hurt, he thought, but then it didn't, because mothers had that power.
"I can kiss it better," Seifer heard himself say, and his words sounded a little closer, a little more real.
Squall looked up at him, then, blinking in surprise, and it was the first real sign of life Seifer had seen from him since Sis had left. "What?" he whispered, blinking some more, like he was trying not to cry.
"That's what you do when someone gets hurt," Seifer insisted, trying to sound like it was a fact and not just something he'd made up. "You kiss it better and the pain goes away."
Squall seemed to consider that for a moment, looking less and less lost, even though he kept blinking. Then he shifted, moved his knee up so it was out of the sand and said, "Okay."
Seifer gave himself a moment, surprised, then knelt down in front of Squall, sand digging into his own knees, and leaned forward to kiss the offered knee.
Squall let out a quiet sound, somewhere between a sob and a laugh, and Seifer looked up to see tears spilling out of his eyes.
He almost ran away, back to the orphanage and Matron and everyone bigger, who knew what to do when someone skinned a knee.
"Thank you," Squall whispered, and he sounded so grateful, so adoring, like he'd always sounded with Sis, and it was aimed at Seifer.
Seifer leaned forward and hugged Squall, because that's what Sis had always done, and he was going to be Squally's new Sis. He was.
And Matron was angry when they got back, then worried when she saw Squall's knee, but Squall just shook his head and said, "Seifer kissed it better," and neither of them got in trouble.
They weren't supposed to be out of bed, certainly not with the training swords Seifer had snuck out of the training rooms under his towel, but Seifer was tired of being the weak one in all their classes, and he was certain Squally felt the same, even if he never said anything.
Squall stared at the sword Seifer had shoved at him when he opened his dorm room door. He'd been staring at it the whole time, not looking up to see where Seifer dragged him through the darkened hallways, as though he couldn't quite figure out where it had come from. But he trusted Seifer to lead him.
Seifer grinned at that thought – Squally trusted him – and gently knocked his training sword against Squall's. "Come on. Wake up."
Squall seemed to consider that for a moment before he moved stiffly, taking up the ready position that they'd all had drilled into them over the past couple months. "We're gonna get in trouble," he warned, voice quiet and eyes darting around, taking in the shadowy classroom, chairs shoved out of the way because it was never used for anything but the bigger kids practising, getting stronger and stronger, while Seifer and Squall struggled along at the very bottom of the barrel, trying to lift dulled swords in children's hands that had never needed to be strong.
"It'll be worth it," Seifer insisted, because it would. Because he was tired of only ever fighting against Squall, because how could he watch Squally when they were only as strong as each other?
Squall sighed, but he didn't refuse, just held his sword a little bit tighter and let it tip forward, nudging against Seifer's.
Seifer grinned and clicked his sword back, gentle enough that he wouldn't hurt Squally, because he wasn't here to hurt Squall.
Squall frowned, the expression too old for his young face, too much a reminder of a little boy staring out at the ocean and waiting for someone who didn't care.
Seifer would always hate Sis.
Squall swung his blade around, harder and faster than Seifer was expecting, and he struggled to block the hit, narrowing his eyes. "Squally," he warned.
Squall narrowed his eyes right back. "Mean it," he ordered.
Seifer swallowed, teetering between common sense and the need to just let go. He was so tired of being coddled. Of being weak.
Squall struck again, and Seifer was beginning to realise he wasn't the only one who was tired of being the baby.
Seifer finally let go, hitting just as hard as Squall was, the room ringing with their blades striking, dulled edges sliding against each other harmlessly.
It was fun, Seifer discovered, seeing the light of life in Squall's eyes. Moving too fast to be careful, hitting hard enough that even these swords would hurt if they hit flesh.
Squall grunted, face twisting with silent agony as his sword fell to the ground. He grabbed for his upper arm with his free hand, clutching around his pyjama shirt. He was blinking too fast, like two years ago on a beach, trying to keep from crying while blood stained the sand.
Seifer dropped his sword and stepped forward, heart thudding in his ears. "Squally?" he whispered, reaching out but not touching.
Squall shook his head, still blinking, fingers tightening over where Seifer had hit him. Silent, pretending it didn't hurt, because that's what they were supposed to do.
Seifer grabbed his sleeve, gently pushing it up. "Let me see," he ordered, because it was only fair he knew how much trouble he was going to get into.
Squall let him after a moment, expression tightening as Seifer touched where a bruise was already forming, dark against skin that didn't get enough sunlight, both of them trapped indoors too often because they were little and there wasn't anyone with the time to protect them.
Seifer leaned in and pressed his lips to the bruise. "Better?" he asked, glancing up at Squally.
"That doesn't really work," Squall said, but he was relaxing, was blinking slower. He wasn't going to cry, not this time.
"We should go back to our rooms," Seifer decided.
"I can still–" Squall started, moving like he was going to pick his sword back up, then cutting himself off with a wince.
Seifer shook his head and faked a yawn. "I'm tired," he announced. Because he was, a bit, and it was his job to look out for Squall.
Squall sniffed and gave a nod and didn't complain when Seifer grabbed both their fallen swords.
Outside their doors, staring across the hall at each other, Squall ducked his head and caught the fingers of his good side on Seifer's sleeve and whispered, "Thank you."
Seifer couldn't tell if he was grateful or tired or angry or anything, but he nodded and they separated.
And they kept meeting up each night, Seifer handing over one dull sword and leading the way while Squall stared at it like it held the secrets of the world, trusting Seifer to lead him safely, and they would strike their blade together, refusing to be careful, and someone would always get hurt, but that was okay.
Becoming strong was supposed to hurt.
Fujin and Raijin changed everything, because, for the first time in ever, there was someone – two someones, in fact – who didn't let Seifer snarl them into disliking him on principle. Fujin thought he was amusing – at least, that's what he figured from the way her eye glinted every time he snapped at her for following him – and Raijin was a puppy who seemed perfectly happy to let Seifer verbally abuse him, so long as he didn't have to sit alone in the cafeteria and got some help with his class work.
Seifer tried for about two weeks to include Squall, and while Fujin and Raijin didn't seem to mind the quiet boy, Squall found Raijin too loud and Fujin too... Well, Squall said she was too blinding, and Seifer couldn't decide if he was making a remark about the eye patch she wore, or complaining about how her hair tended to reflect the lights of Garden in a manner that sometimes made Seifer's eyes hurt. Either way, he was having none of it, and Seifer eventually gave up on trying to get Squall to loosen up.
Which was why Seifer started leaving for the holidays, while Squall stayed at Garden and did whatever Squall did when he managed to avoid Seifer.
One summer, when he came back from visiting with Fujin's family in Dollet, he spent two hours trying to find Squall, because he'd picked up a necklace he knew the younger boy would like – it matched that ring he'd had for longer than Seifer'd known him – and he wanted to give it to him, because it was the best apology he could think of for leaving Squall alone for a whole month. (Even though he'd asked if Squall had wanted to come with three times until Squall had just started ignoring him entirely, turning to walk the other way every time he saw Seifer, which had hurt, a bit, and Seifer'd been mad when he left. But then he felt sad, because he missed having Squally to spar with and he felt a little lonely, even with Fujin, so he'd bought the necklace with his cadet allowance and where the hell was Squally?)
He finally grabbed one of the older kids who always stayed the holidays and asked (mostly) politely if they knew where Squall was.
"Training Centre, probably," she replied, shaking Seifer's hand off her sleeve. "Like always. Hyne, Almasy. How out of it have you been?"
Seifer blinked after her, confused. "What is that supposed to mean?" he snapped.
She shot him an unimpressed glance and walked away, giving him no response.
" 'How out of it'," Seifer muttered to himself as he turned towards the Training Centre. "I haven't even been here."
Though, when he thought about it, this wasn't the first time since term began that he'd had trouble finding Squall between classes. He'd thought it was just Squally avoiding him because of Raijin being too loud or Fujin's...whatever. Or because Seifer was pestering him to come with to Dollet.
Seifer swallowed and grabbed one of the swords in the locker by the entrance, then started into the Training Centre. Technically, he was too young to come in here by himself, but he wasn't going to go hunt down Fujin or Raijin to find Squall, 'cause then he'd just run away again.
"Squally?" he called, eyeing the gates into the Training Centre proper. If he was lucky, Squall was out here, hiding behind a rock or something, like he used to do when they were kids.
There was no response and Seifer gave in to the inevitable, slipping through the nearest gate and starting through the heavy vegetation.
In the end, it wasn't a surprise to find Squall near the stream. It also wasn't a surprise to find him surrounded by grats, even if the sight threw Seifer's heart into his throat.
"Leave him alone!" he shouted, hurrying forward and almost slipping into the stream when he scrambled across the slick rocks, because the bridges would have taken too long.
A couple of the grats spooked, giving Seifer the chance to reach where Squall was standing, his own borrowed sword held out in front of him, blood speckling the front of his white t-shirt. Seifer forced himself to pay attention to the enemy surrounding them; Squall was still standing, so it mustn't have been that bad. If it was even his blood.
It felt like they'd fought every grat in the Training Centre, by the time they stopped coming.
"Hyne, Squally," Seifer complained, resisting the urge to rub at the grat blood he could feel drying against his cheek. He dropped his sword and tugged on the younger's shirt, because now that he could stop and look, he could see the cut in the shirt in the middle of one of the blood stains. "Let me see."
"It's nothing," Squall insisted, trying to shove Seifer's hands away. "And I didn't need your help."
"Yes, you did," Seifer snapped, catching Squall's wrist in one hand and yanking his shirt up.
The cut was minor, bleeding only sluggishly, and it wasn't the only one like it on Squall's torso. How many times had Squall come into the Training Centre by himself? How many times had he needed to take care of his own wounds, because Seifer had found other friends?
Seifer swallowed with difficulty, regret blocking his throat, and leaned in to kiss the wound.
Squall jerked and yanked against Seifer's hold on his wrist. "Let me go!"
"You're supposed to come to the Training Centre with a friend, Squall," Seifer said, voice harsh to his own ears, refusing to let go of the younger boy.
"Yeah, well, I don't have any friends!" Squall shouted.
Seifer felt inexplicably cold and let go of Squall's wrist, tasting blood on his lips. "What am I, then?" he asked, and he was sure he sounded lost, hated that moment's weakness, but this was Squall.
Squall stared at him for a moment, freed arm held tight over the wound Seifer had kissed. His eyes darted between Seifer's eyes and mouth a couple times before falling down, landing on the sword at Seifer's feet. "My rival," he decided, and his hand tightened around the sword Seifer had forgotten he was holding. He lifted it, holding it between them with only the slightest shake to show how tired he was from the fight they'd just finished, and met Seifer's gaze, his own eyes hardening. "You're just my rival, Seifer."
Seifer looked away, leaning down to grab his fallen sword to hide how much that hurt. "Fine," he said, trying to match Squall's firm tone. He tightened his jaw and looked up, met Squall's stare, and tried to remember how to be cruel to the one person he'd tried to be nice to for so long. "Move, Leonhart. You're in my way."
Something like hurt flickered through Squall's eyes, even as he shifted out of the way.
Seifer brushed past him and started across the bridge of islands. Halfway across, he remembered the necklace he'd bought and pulled it out to stare at it. The lion's head roared silently up at him and his eyes burned. "Fine," he whispered to himself before dropping the necklace into the stream beneath him and keeping on.
Two days later, light reflected against Squall's chest in the cafeteria. When Seifer squinted, he could just make out the familiar shape of the lion's head. A part of him felt lighter at the sight, even as he caught Squall's gaze and sneered.
Squall snarled and shook away the aftershock from Seifer's handful of fire. "Cheat!"
Seifer smirked and finished his swing, expecting Squall to block it, like he usually did, but he didn't, and it struck him across the face.
Seifer felt himself freeze, something buried beneath Ifrit's presence in his mind screaming at him, because...
Revolver caught against the skin at the top of Seifer's nose and dragged a sharp line of agony upwards before disengaging, Squall stumbling as his balance shifted.
Blood loss, Seifer thought as he dropped Hyperion and stepped forward to catch Squall before he fell, feeling a little like he was in a dream.
"Let go," Squall hissed, shoving weakly at Seifer's chest.
"Not this time," Seifer said, uncertain where the words came from, but sure they meant something. "Can you walk back to Garden, or do I need to carry you?" He'd meant the words to sound mocking, but the tone was all wrong, too concerned, and he scrunched up his nose, letting the burn of pain serve as its own punishment.
"I can walk," Squall snarled and finally managed to shove away from Seifer. He slammed Revolver back into its sheath and swiped at his cheek with his jacket sleeve, wiping at the trail of blood.
Seifer grabbed Hyperion and sheathed it before falling in next to Squall as the younger gunblader started back towards Garden, blinking blood out of his eyes and trying not to notice the way Squall wasn't completely steady on his feet. An insult was on the tip of his tongue – something about baby chocobos, or maybe delicate princesses, he hadn't quite decided which one would get the better reaction – when Squall just... collapsed.
Seifer managed to catch Squall before he completely crumpled and turned him so he could see the younger's closed eyes. "Oh, give it up, Leonhart. No one is fooled by your dainty steps."
Squall didn't move, beyond the barely-there rise and fall of his chest.
Seifer swallowed and carefully moved Squall so he could pick him up. "You're not the only hurt one, you big baby," he muttered as he stood. Squall was...surprisingly light, despite the weight of Revolver knocking against Seifer's waist. "What are you, on a diet?" Seifer complained, trying to pretend he wasn't worried, that he didn't care how ridiculously light his rival was, how he'd barely managed ten steps before he'd collapsed. "You're a mess, Leonhart," he decided and pressed his lips to the top of the cut he'd left.
Seifer paused, balanced carefully on the rough-cut path that connected the open space they sparred in when they wanted to get away from Garden to the grassy plains below. Had he just–?
A faded memory came to him, then, of looking down at a little kid in an orange shirt and saying, "I can kiss it better."
Seifer grimaced, the pain reminding him that he'd been hurt too. Head wounds were weird, clearly, if they made him kiss Leonhart of all people.
"Then again," he said to the unconscious brunet in his arms as he continued making his way down the path, his words tasting of Squall's blood, "you're pretty enough to be worthy of a kiss, I suppose." He snorted. "You know, Squally, if you're lucky, that'll scar and make you look less like a girl in need of rescue."
The silence was heavy, dripping with all the words Squall wasn't saying, all the anger that wasn't lining his face.
Seifer sighed and jumped down to the plain, Garden tall above them. "Let's get you to Kadowaki," he said a bit lamely.
It was strange, the things he remembered without Ifrit hiding them from him. Things like the scent of the ocean air at the orphanage, how much he hated Sis Ellone, and Squall...
Squall telling him they weren't friends.
Seifer clenched his fist and glared down at the cell they were bringing up. He was angry, angry at the reminder that they hadn't always been rivals, that it had been Squall who'd pushed him away. (Angry because he couldn't be hurt, Sorceress Knights weren't hurt, couldn't be hurt. He was too strong for his chest to ache, so he was angry.)
He stepped into the cell as it stopped, slamming the door against the wall and looking over the cell for its occupant, only to snort when he found Squall in a heap on the floor. "Squall," he said as he leaned down and grabbed the back of his rival's leather coat and hauled him up onto the metal 'bed', tossing him hard against the wall, "you're pitiful."
Squall just stared at him, eyes tired and resigned.
Seifer looked down, towards where Griever rested against Squall's chest, and wrapped his hand around the pendant. "No mythical GFs are coming to save you, Squally. You really are a terrible princess."
Squall gave a faint shake of his head before letting it droop, chin catching against Griever's chain.
Seifer glanced to Squall's right shoulder, where there was a hole through his jacket and shirt, showing unblemished skin. He hadn't seen the actual damage – had been suffering Matron's displeasure for his weakness while Squall was being healed – but he'd seen the icicle hit, seen Squall fall, as limp as that day on the mountain, bleeding from a gash Seifer had given him.
He touched the showing skin, felt Squall jerk back at the contact and smirked at the way blue-grey eyes looked up at him, wide and showing what he thought was fear? 'Good,' Seifer told himself. 'It's no fun to break what's already broken.'
"Should I kiss it better?" he murmured, eyes mocking.
Recognition was slow to come to Squall, but come it did, and he reached up with a hand that shook to brace against Seifer's shoulder, trying to push him away.
Seifer laughed in his face and leaned forward to brush his lips against Squall's shoulder. Gentle, as if he actually cared what his rival's fate was to be.
Squall shuddered and his hand fell away, resting limply in his lap. He blinked, three times in quick succession, and rasped, "Fuck you, Almasy."
Seifer grinned. "Don't start crying yet, Squally. The real fun has yet to begin," he whispered before pulling back and snapping his fingers. "Take him away!"
Two moombas came in and grabbed Squall's unresisting form, dragging him from the cell and toward the electricity wall. Seifer cracked his fingers and followed them, pretending he didn't taste the ghost of blood on his lips.