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Kissing It Better

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The last thing Squall had expected, was for Rinoa to walk in to his office one week after they'd finished cleaning up the Ultimecia mess and Balamb Garden was back where it belonged, and tell him, "I'm a little ashamed."

Squall blinked a few times, confused, and carefully slid the paper he'd been reading to one side, showing he was paying attention to her. (One only needed Selphie threatening to sit in his lap so she knew he was paying attention to her once to learn that people actually expected him to focus on them when they were speaking to him.) "Ashamed?" he repeated, because he was pretty sure that was the important part of the sentence.

Rinoa nodded a bit absently as she picked up the miniature Ragnarok one of the cadets had made, which had then found its way onto his desk. "This is cute."

Squall sighed and rubbed at his scar. "Rinoa." She and Selphie both did this to him, getting constantly side-tracked by whatever interesting thing caught their eye. And people wondered why he hated having conversations.

Rinoa let out a helpless little laugh and set the miniature back on his desk. Something on one of the claws glinted, catching the sun, and Squall squinted at it. Before he could figure out what it was, Rinoa explained, "I realised I sort of, just a little bit, forced this on you." She wiggled a finger between them.

Squall blinked. "You didn't force me to be your Knight, Rinoa," he pointed out.

Rinoa glanced up and let out a loud sigh. "That's not–" She shook her head and shot him a fond smile. "Are we dating?" she asked instead.

Squall blinked again, thinking that over and trying to decide what the right answer was. "Yes?"

Rinoa laughed, and it didn't sound angry or anything, but Squall still felt like he'd given the wrong answer. "Squall, I never see you unless I hunt you down in your office."

This, Squall knew the answer to: "I'm sorry," he offered, managing something like sincerity. "I don't mean to be ignoring you, there's just so much work–"

Rinoa held up a hand, her smile a little sad. "Squall, the point is, you should want to spend time with me."

Squall couldn't help but look towards the pile of paper at his elbow, waiting for him to read it through. Possible missions to send SeeDs on, legal documents about the status of everyone that had been obviously involved in Matron's brief reign while under Ultimecia's control, requests from Trabia and Galbadia for students looking to transfer to Balamb while those Gardens got sorted out...

There was just...too much to do. And Squall had always been more comfortable with busy work than he was with people. Rinoa wasn't the exception to that rule, no one was. ('Seifer had been,' a traitorous part of his brain supplied, and he kicked it into a box and slammed the lid.)

"You're really bad at this," Rinoa commented and Squall winced. She sighed and shook her head, hair catching a ray of the early morning sun and setting the paler streaks alight. "But, then again, so am I."

"I don't...understand," Squall admitted, forcing the words out.

"I know you don't," Rinoa replied, which helped absolutely nothing. "But that's okay. I just came to let you know I'm going to Timber for a bit. Check up on Zone and Watts and the others."

Squall nodded. "Do you want me to send someone with you?"

She smiled again, but it was sad. "Selphie offered to come, if you don't need her?"

Squall shrugged. "I shouldn't, no. Have–" what was he supposed to say here? "–fun."

Rinoa laughed and shook her head. "We will!" she promised before skipping from his office.

Once the doors had fallen shut behind her, Squall reached out and caught the thing hanging from Ragnarok's claw. It was his Griever ring, and he stared at it for a good five minutes before realising what it meant.

He knew, intellectually, that he was supposed to run after her, tell her to stay and that he loved her and he was sorry for every time that he'd put his work above her.

But he couldn't. He couldn't lie to her, because his work was important, and he didn't feel the need to be with her every hour of the day, like he was apparently supposed to. And, while he certainly cared for her and wanted her safe – would fight off anyone who thought it a smart idea to take on the Sorceress he'd sworn to protect – he wasn't sure it was 'love'.

Sometimes, late at night, when he was trying to fall asleep and not think about the papers on his desk or the memories of every time he'd screwed up and someone had got hurt during the war, he wondered about emotions. About love, mostly, because it was the one everyone seemed to expect of him, yet they never knew how to explain what it was.

Emotions were hard work. Squall missed the days when no one expected him to have any.

'Not true,' that misbehaving part of his brain whispered from within its box. 'Seifer expected emotions. Got them all the time.'

"Anger doesn't count," Squall muttered to himself as he tugged off his glove and slipped his ring back into place.

'Anger wasn't the only thing he made you feel.'

Squall closed his eyes against the faint memories he had unburied from his time at the orphanage, of Seifer chasing after him when he ran to look for Ellone, of Seifer kissing his hurt knee.

He shook his head and pulled back over the paper he'd been reading over when Rinoa had interrupted him. He didn't want to think about Seifer, and he especially didn't want to remember when 'I'll kiss it better' meant someone actually cared about him.

-0-

"You look like you need some fresh air," Irvine commented from where he was draped over one of Squall's guest chairs. Squall had never considered them comfortable, had seen more than enough cadets and SeeDs squirming in them, but Irvine had the ability to appear comfortable in any chair he sat in. (It was an ability he shared with a certain blond gunblader, irritatingly enough.)

"This high up, cracking a window will just send my paperwork everywhere," Squall replied absently as he signed the paper he'd just finished looking over. (He didn't mind Irvine visiting, because the Galbadian was one of the few who wouldn't get upset when Squall kept working while they talked.)

Irvine sighed, and Squall could envision the way the sharpshooter would roll his eyes. "You should go to Timber. Save Rinoa from her own pile of paperwork."

Squall snorted, because he knew his Sorceress delegated most of her work. (Hyne knew she told him he needed to try it, often enough, in her messages. He didn't bother trying to explain why, as Timber's president-elect, it wasn't as necessary for her to read over the original of every paper that crossed her desk herself, as it was for SeeD's Commander; if Squall tried that, he could very well miss a turn of phrase in a SeeD contract that could mean life or death for the team he sent out.)

Irvine's feet hit the floor with enough weight to make Squall look up, one eyebrow raised in inquiry. "Squall, your ass is starting to adhere itself to the seat."

Squall very pointedly stood up, because that seemed the sort of response that would finish this conversation the fastest.

Irvine groaned and covered a smile with one hand. "You know what I meant."

Squall sighed and sat back down. "I do," he admitted, because he wasn't immune to moments of claustrophobia. He fought them back by setting aside an hour each night to run through the Training Centre, letting him stretch his legs and keep in shape. "There's nothing for it. I'm busy."

Irvine sighed and drooped back against the chair, long arms hanging down to either side. "Squall..." He brought one hand up to flick the brim of his hat, pushing it back just enough that he could pin Squall with serious blue eyes. "You know, even Martine took a damn break every month. Usually just to run into Deling, but still. He got out of Garden. Got some sunlight."

"I am not Martine," Squall snapped, disgusted at the thought of being compared to the ex-Headmaster who had fled his Garden, rather than try standing up for it and his students.

Irvine touched the brim of his hat, letting it fall back over his eyes. "No," he agreed, words muffled, "but you are overworked. If you don't take a break on your own, I can't promise the others won't drag you out for a week-long holiday."

"I'm not overworked," Squall muttered, grabbing for the next paper in the stack.

"You need some sunlight, Squall," Irvine muttered right back.

Squall stared down at the name typed across the top of the paper in front of him: Seifer Almasy. It was a report of his movements, sent by some Galbadian aide with too much time on their hands. Squall had warned them off setting a tail on his rival back when he was deigned 'not at fault for his actions' during the Sorceress Trials – Hyne, but Squall hated that name, had hated the necessity – but had been told, in no uncertain terms, where to stick his nose. He was pretty sure they were sending him their reports just to prove they could keep an eye on him.

Squall couldn't help but let his eyes fall to the line that had his location as of the date the report was filed, and felt a spark of surprise to see it was just south of Winhill. He traced back up Seifer's path and sighed, unsurprised to find it looked very much like his rival was heading towards Centra.

Towards the orphanage.

Without even thinking about it, Squall pushed back from his desk enough to pull out the folder with the expected weather patterns for the current season from the bottom drawer. (He had it, officially, so he knew what to tell any teams he was sending out to pack in the way of survival gear, but he'd been pestered into leaking the information to the students last month for the winter holiday, and he expected he'd give in and do it again for the spring holiday in a few months.) Dropping it onto his desk, half covering the report on Seifer, he flipped to the stats on the southern Winhill Bluffs and Humphrey Archipelago areas.

"Mission?" Irvine asked, sitting up and looking curious.

Squall shook his head, half in response to Irvine's question, half at the hopelessness in sailing down to Centra at this time of year with the sorts of boats Seifer would be able to find in that area; the ex-Knight was going to wind up dead.

'You can save him,' that traitorous part of his mind that seemed determined to make him care about Seifer pointed out.

"What is it, then?" Irvine asked, leaning forward and tilting his head to try and get a look at the report hidden under the open folder.

Squall held himself still, at war with himself over a decision that, he realised after a moment, he'd already made. "Is Ragnarok here?" he asked, slipping the report off his desk and into a pocket without letting Irvine see.

Irvine grinned. "Yeah, actually. Want me to hunt down Selphie?"

Squall shook his head and pushed himself out of his chair. "No. I'm going by myself."

Irvine grumbled to himself for a moment before peeking up at Squall from under the brim of his hat. "Where are you going? In case we need to get a hold of you," he added, expecting Squall's immediate response.

Squall considered that for a moment before shrugging. "I'm going to Winhill, and then to see Matron."

Irvine jumped to his feet and pinned Squall with a glare. "And you don't think any of us would want to come with?"

Squall stared at him for a long minute, waiting for Irvine's anger to wilt before he calmly pointed out, "Term starts back up tomorrow. You, Selphie, and Zell have classes to teach, and I need Quistis here to pick up my slack." He turned away and waved a negligent hand. "Anyway, you visited Matron two days ago." Because Squall did, contrary to the Garden rumour mill, keep track of where his closest friends went when they left for a holiday. (He kept track of where all the SeeDs and Garden staff went, actually, in case he needed them recalled, but those he faced Ultimecia with were the ones that he never had to write down to know where they were and for how long they'd be gone.)

Irvine had nothing to say to that, and Squall left to track down Quistis and pack a bag in silence.

-0-

He found Seifer at Shennard Beach, staring out over the thrashing waves of the sea and hugging himself against the chill in the air. He suspected Seifer knew he was nearby – it was hard not to notice Ragnarok setting down less than thirty metres from oneself – but he hadn't looked back since Squall had stepped out of the ship, seemingly distracted by the endless water in front of him.

"Seifer," Squall commented as he stopped next to where his rival was sitting.

Seifer glanced up at him, surprise flashing in his eyes for a moment before he snorted and turned back to the sea. "I shouldn't be surprised it was you who finally hunted me down."

Squall considered that for a moment before shrugging. "No," he agreed, "you probably shouldn't be."

Seifer nodded and remained silent for a long while. Squall didn't make a sound at his side, enjoying the rare silence and the sharp chill cutting through the winter jacket he'd pulled out of storage to keep Matron from yelling at him for being careless with his health. (Never mind that junctioning Shiva meant he didn't, actually, notice the chill.)

"I'm surprised it took you so long," Seifer finally commented.

Squall shrugged again and glanced down at his rival to judge his response when he said, "I was waiting for you to kill your Galbadian tail."

Seifer let out a laugh, half surprised, half amused. He looked up at Squall, eyes sparkling with something mean and very much familiar. "Now, why would I do that when it's so much more fun to fuck her and then lose her?"

Ah. Squall hadn't realised they'd sent a woman after Seifer; that explained why they were still managing to keep tabs on him.

Seifer looked away, his humour fading. "How cruel do you think I am, Squall?"

Squall sighed. "I know exactly how cruel you can be," he pointed out calmly, and Seifer flinched. Squall looked away from the huddled form of the man who had been with him his whole life. "I missed your birthday," he realised.

Seifer pushed himself to his feet and turned to face Squall, his expression hard. "Is that your way of telling me I won't be having another one?"

Squall frowned. "How cruel do you think I am?"

Seifer opened his mouth, anger flashing in his eyes, before he slammed it and turned away, expression twisted with something that looked like hurt. "That's the thing about you, Leonhart, you don't even realise when you're being cruel."

Squall closed his eyes, remembering Rinoa leaving because he couldn't put her first like he should have. "I'm discovering that." He opened his eyes again to find green eyes staring at him, disbelief shining in them. "What?"

Seifer turned around and stepped away, putting some space between them. "Why are you here, Squall?"

Squall resisted the urge to sigh again. "I thought I'd offer you a ride before you tried crossing to Centra in a boat that wouldn't make it half way."

Seifer spun, shooting him an honestly surprised look, which turned helplessly wry after a moment. "Am I so easy to read?"

"Not particularly." Squall shrugged and turned back towards the Ragnarok, motioning for Seifer to follow him. "But that's where I would go if I didn't feel welcome in Balamb."

Squall waited on the boarding ramp for Seifer to make up his mind, then hit the door control as soon as the older gunblader stepped aboard. "Bridge is this way," he announced as he turned towards the door to the hanger. The heavy tread of worn-through Garden-issue boots, just slightly out of sync with his own steps, told him Seifer was following.

Seifer whistled once they reached the cockpit, staring over the panels, but very obviously not touching anything. "Who'd you have to kill to get this out of Esthar?"

Squall snorted. "No one. Officially, it was a gift in the 'Spirit of the Goodwill and Friendship between Garden and Esthar'."

Seifer mirrored his snort and dropped easily into the co-pilot's seat, Hyperion held, sheathed, in his lap. "Yeah. How'd you really get it?"

Squall grimaced. "It's Laguna's attempt to apologise for missing seventeen birthdays, among other 'important events' in my life." He glanced over to see Seifer's disbelieving eyebrow. "He's my father."

"Ah." Seifer fingered Hyperion's handle, and Squall was mildly surprised to realise he didn't feel even passingly nervous about his rival having easier access to his weapon than Squall had to his own. "So little Squally finally got a family. How quaint."

"Don't be an ass."

Seifer snorted and very obviously rolled his head towards Squall. "Really."

Squall turned to raise an eyebrow at Seifer, certain his rival could read his amusement in his eyes and, judging by the way Seifer grinned, he got the message. Far better than any of the others, who always seemed to think he wasn't amused unless he was smiling or – Hyne forbid – laughing.

"Oh, I know that look," Seifer commented comfortably. "Is Quistis hounding you to talk about your feelings again?"

Squall snorted and looked back at the controls, as though he could do anything when he'd already set their course into the auto-pilot. "The problem with letting people think you're friends," Squall heard himself saying, tone somewhere between resigned and tired, "is that they expect you to tell them your every thought."

"I never did that," Seifer complained.

Squall glanced back over, confused, and took in the expression on Seifer's face that said he hadn't meant to say that out loud. "No," Squall agreed carefully, wondering what he'd said or done that had Seifer responding that way, "you never have. But we've never been frie–"

"No, Squall," Seifer agreed, sounding tired and so very hurt, "you're right. We've never been friends. I'm 'just your rival'."

It sounded like a quote, like Seifer was repeating something that Squall might have thrown in his face because–

Faded from time and GF-use, Squall remembered walking into the cafeteria one afternoon, excited about some accomplishment or another in one of his classes, and seeing Seifer sitting with two new people, talking animatedly. He'd felt...hurt, and lonely. Refused to be dragged along with Seifer's new friends because then he wouldn't be special any more.

Squall closed his eyes and rubbed at them roughly. "I'm sorry," he whispered honestly, chest heavy with the reminder that he did, in fact, push everyone away, even when he didn't mean to. Seifer had been the only...anything he'd had, back then, and Squall had let his own selfish insecurities screw it up.

Seifer was quiet, and Squall couldn't bring himself to look over at the blond.

Finally, as the lighthouse came into view in the distance, Seifer commented, "I would have expected to see Rinoa hanging off you. If only so she could shove it in my face that I dumped her and it was the best thing I could have done for her because–"

"Seifer," Squall interrupted, suspecting he knew where this was going. "First, Rinoa isn't that bad."

Seifer snorted.

"Second, she left me almost six months ago."

Squall glanced over to see how Seifer took that announcement and had to bite back an impossible bark of laughter at the absolutely flummoxed expression the blond wore.

Seifer caught his amusement. "Oh, fuck you, Leonhart. Where is she? Really."

Squall shook his head and turned back to the controls. "She's president of Timber. She got tired of me putting my work above her."

Squall's chair jerked and he looked down to see Seifer's foot retreating from where he'd kicked the side. "You're supposed to go after her when she complains about that, Squally."

Squall shook his head. "Why? So she'll complain again in a couple weeks?"

Seifer sighed. "Did you even try?"

Squall considered that for a moment, then shrugged.

Seifer sighed again. "Did you at least make sure she had a Knight before you left her to rule an already unstable country?"

Squall eyed the other. "I'm still her Knight."

Seifer raised both eyebrows at him.

Squall narrowed his eyes in return. "I don't need to be dating her to be her Knight, Almasy. You know that." Out of everyone, Seifer was best able to understand the bonds between a Knight and his Sorceress.

"What's she doing right now?" Seifer snapped, clearly not about to just take Squall's word that he was still their resident Sorceress's Knight.

Squall closed his eyes and felt for the glimmer of light in the back of his mind that connected him with Rinoa. When he found it – a little duller than it had been when she'd left, but still very much there – he reached along it curiously, trying to find out what she was up to.

Rinoa helpfully sent him an image of Angelo, tongue hanging out of his mouth as he chased after the stick she threw for him. It was followed by a sense of curiosity of her own, a sort of, 'why are you asking?'

Squall resisted the urge to grimace – he never bothered her, beyond the occasional phone call and their monthly written correspondence – and offered an image of a curious Seifer, hoping that would explain his interest sufficiently.

Squall's chair gave a jerk. "Hey, Princess, if you're not her Knight any more–"

"She's playing fetch with Angelo," Squall reported, mind filling with Rinoa's concern for the danger he was in, spending time around Seifer. "She's also confused about why I care."

Seifer laughed, the sound mean. "Oh, you royally fucked that one up, Squally."

"Shut up, Seifer," Squall muttered as he sent back a promise that he was fine, then focussed his attention on landing Ragnarok, because they were there.

Seifer didn't respond to that, falling worryingly silent as Squall shut the systems down and led the elder gunblader back to the boarding ramp. He held back there, just out of view, as Squall hit the control to open the ship, leaving Squall alone to greet a smiling Edea.

"Squall," she breathed as Squall stepped down to meet her, accepting the hug she pulled him into with a sort of resigned good humour. "It's been ages."

"It's only been five months, Matron," Squall insisted, frowning.

Matron just gave him a look, and it was none-too-kind to his absence.

Squall shifted, feeling very much like a child caught misbehaving, and glanced back towards Ragnarok. "I brought a guest," he offered, finding no sorrow in using Seifer as a shield against their foster mother's disapproval.

"You did?" Matron replied, looking towards the ship herself. When Seifer stepped out, shoulders hunched uncertainly, Matron let out a broken sound and hurried forward to hug him, calling, "Seifer!" in a voice choked with too many emotions for Squall to figure out.

Judging by the deer-in-the-headlights expression that took over Seifer's face, that was the last response he'd expected. But then he curled forward, wrapping his arms around her, shoulders shaking, and Squall had to look away.

Cid was standing in the doorway of the orphanage, a faint smile on his lips, and he nodded to Squall as he approached. "How did you get him to come?" he asked when Squall was in range to hear over the wind.

Squall shook his head. "He was already on his way," he admitted. "I just shortened the trip."

"You're a good boy, Squall," Cid told him, and Squall rolled his eyes. Cid chuckled and motioned him in. "You have excellent timing, actually; Edea just finished a batch of brownies."

Squall, familiar with his foster mother's habit to make far too many sweets from the stories the others told, expected he'd have to spend a good hour working off the excess food Matron was going to try stuffing him full of. Which, with Seifer around to spar with, wasn't as terrible a fate as if he'd been stuck with only the local monsters to fight off.

Seifer and Matron finally followed them in shortly after Squall let himself be pushed into one of the chairs at the kitchen table, a plate piled with brownies and a glass of milk in front of him. He must have sent Seifer a particularly helpless look, for he burst out laughing and took two quick strides forward to ruffle his hair. Squall hit him lightly in response.

"Boys!" Matron snapped, frowning at them until Seifer sank into the chair next to Squall, both doing their best to look contrite.

Matron got milk, while Cid served out three more plates of brownies, and they joined Squall and Seifer at the table. Everyone made the appropriate appreciative noises after tasting the brownies, and Matron glowed at the praise.

"So, Squall, how is Garden?" Cid asked around a swallow of milk.

Squall shrugged. "Fine. I left Quistis in charge."

Cid considered that for a moment before letting out an understanding noise. "Oh. Right. The new term is starting, isn't it?"

Seifer frowned at that and glanced up at Squall. "Is it?"

Squall shrugged again, trying not to be bothered at the show that Seifer had no idea what the date was. "Today, yes."

"You could have come last week, with everyone else," Matron pointed out, giving Squall another one of her looks.

Squall struggled with that for a moment, trying to find an excuse that wasn't 'I was enjoying not having anyone pestering me while I tried to get work done', because he knew Matron wouldn't accept that.

"Ah," Seifer said, saving the day, "but then Squally wouldn't have picked me up, and I'd still be trying to figure out how to get off Galbadia." Then he turned to Squall, eyes glinting with a promise that Squall was about to regret whatever came out of the blond's mouth. "Which reminds me, Squall, what will your Galbadian allies say when they find out you flew away with me and completely lost my tail?"

Squall raised an eyebrow and deadpanned, "I don't care. I told them months ago that putting a tail on you was a waste of resources."

Seifer tensed. "Why? Because I'll kill them all?" he snapped and Matron shifted like she was about to speak up, but Cid touched her wrist.

Squall met Seifer's angry stare and said, "No. Because you're not a danger to anyone so long as they leave you alone."

Seifer smiled, but it wasn't a nice smile. "And how many lives are you willing to bet on that, Commander?" he returned, spitting out Squall's title like it was poison.

"My own," Squall said quietly before holding his arms out to either side, clearly away from where Lion Heart was trapped between his back and the chair, and giving anyone with a grudge unobstructed access to his vitals. "Prove me wrong."

Seifer looked away. "Don't tempt me, Leonhart," he muttered, but there was no feeling to the words.

Matron reached out and gently touched the back of Seifer's hand before telling them all about the various repairs she and Cid had been making to the orphanage in the months since the war, trying to make it habitable again.

Squall knew most of it from the others – they usually got dragged into helping while they visited – and the rest he'd figured out from the requests for funds that Cid occasionally sent him – Squall had made it quite clear, back when they'd returned Matron and Cid to Centra, that if they needed anything, they should ask him and he would ensure it was provided.

"How long are you two staying?" Matron asked once the brownies and milk were gone and everyone was in a better mood.

Squall shrugged. "I'd rather not stay away from Garden for more than a week, but I don't have any real time constraints other than that." He grimaced. "Unless something comes up."

"We'll just have to hope the world can survive you taking a holiday," Cid teased.

Squall resisted the urge to roll his eyes.

"And you, Seifer?" Matron asked, touching his arm.

Seifer offered her a smile that looked, to Squall, pasted on. "I have neither people waiting for me, nor things that need doing. I'm here until you get sick of me."

Matron looked at Squall and said, very seriously, "We're going to need to double our grocery budget for a few years."

Squall snorted and glanced over at Seifer quick enough to catch the spark of surprise in his eyes before he hid it. "I'll arrange it when I get back." He sighed and fingered his scar. "I'll warn the others, too."

Matron nodded. "Yes. And remind them I want things peaceful in this house." She glanced between Squall and Seifer, both of whom ducked their heads. "Anyone who takes part in a fight has to weed the garden."

Squall had heard about the garden, and while pulling weeds wasn't a horrible punishment, as punishments went, he knew the real punishment would be Matron's disappointed look. "What about sparring?" he asked, remembering his earlier thought that it would be nice to be able to spar with Seifer again.

Matron considered that for a moment, while Seifer frowned at Squall, as though uncertain what to make of the question. "No gunblades," Matron decided.

"But Matron," Squall heard himself complaining in tandem with his rival.

Cid chuckled. "I'm sure you boys can find perfectly serviceable sticks, or cut yourself something from the leftover lumber."

Matron tapped the bridge of her nose and said, "It's bad enough that you gave each other those."

"It was an accident!" Seifer complained before looking at Squall. "You were supposed to block it."

Squall felt a flare of irritation in his chest. "You cheated and hit me with fire, Seifer. In the face."

"Boys!" Matron snapped.

Squall huffed and very determinedly looked away from Seifer, fully intent to simmer in the remembered anger for a while.

Matron stood and pointed towards the door when they looked towards her. "Garden. Both of you. Go."

"But I didn't–!" Seifer started.

"Both of you," Matron repeated.

They both got out and trudged outside. "This is your fault," Seifer muttered as Squall led the way towards the garden.

"What? That's you cheated?" Squall hissed back.

"No more fighting!" Matron called after them.

Squall traded a disgusted look with Seifer and they settled down on opposite sides of the overgrown garden to tug up weeds.

They'd been pulling weeds for probably about ten minutes when Seifer called, "Why would you suggest sparring?"

Squall stared down at his dirty gloves and shrugged. "Why wouldn't I?"

Seifer was silent for long enough that Squall finally looked up at him, blinking at the confused frown he was wearing. "Because the last time we sparred, you spent the night in the infirmary?" Seifer finally suggested, touching his own scar.

Squall shook his head and returned to his weeding. "So? It wasn't the first time one of us hurt the other." He shrugged and admitted, "Anyway, you're my sparring partner."

"What, no one else at Garden good enough to hold up against Commander Leonhart?" Seifer mocked.

Squall looked up and caught Seifer's eyes, keeping his voice firm as he said, "I didn't even care to look."

Seifer blinked and quickly looked away. After a beat, he drily commented, "You know, Squally, if you're trying to make me blush–"

"I'm trying to tell you that I've missed you!" Squall shouted.

Then he realised what he said and quickly looked away, heart thudding too-fast in his chest. He...missed Seifer?

'Yes,' that traitorous part of his brain whispered. That part of him that, despite everything, refused to let him forget that Seifer had always been there. And life without him around felt somehow...wrong. Almost hollow.

Seifer stood in a rush, the motion drawing Squall's eyes. "Come on," he ordered. "Let's spar."

"We're supposed to be weeding," Squall pointed out, even as he stood himself, brushing his hands against his legs to get the dirt off.

"Yeah, and now I'm done weeding. Find a stick."

Squall rolled his eyes, but set off to find himself something that wouldn't be too light and would hold up to some hard hits.

He ended up picking out a piece of excess lumber, and Seifer joined him after a minute, expression disgusted. "We'd be better off fighting with feathers," he complained as he picked through the pile.

Squall snorted and turned away, picking at splinters as he mentally unjunctioned his GFs and magic; it had always been their rule, that they fought unjunctioned, and Squall was almost certain Seifer didn't even have a GF to junction. Anyway, given that they were stuck with wood for weapons, unjunctioning was sort of a necessity.

He couldn't say what made him raise his stick and pivot, but he managed to catch Seifer's first swing with the move, the blond grinning madly behind his own stick.

"If you shoot any fire at me, I will hit you with an Ultima and not regret it for a minute," Squall warned.

"You'll end up weeding the whole garden for it," Seifer pointed out.

"I'd consider it worth it."

Seifer laughed, loud and a little wild, and Squall found himself smiling in response, a little grim, but also...free, he thought.

It was the first time since before he'd made SeeD that Squall felt honestly happy while he was hitting something, and he was using a piece of scrap lumber. The world moved in strange ways.

They sparred for almost twice as long as they'd been weeding, putting all their strength and speed into it, fighting like they meant it, because neither of them could manage anything less than their best against each other. It had made them fighters to be feared, as students, and was at least part of what kept anyone from thinking that Squall was too young to being the SeeD Commander, now.

When they finally stopped, they were both breathing hard enough that Squall's chest, at least, burned in agony. He caught the mad grin on Seifer's face and realised he was wearing a similar grin. He almost wiped it away, but stopped himself before he could; there was no one here to hide his honest pleasure from.

Seifer grunted as he straightened, considering his lumber. "You're getting slow, Squally."

Squall snorted and considered his own lumber, eyeing what looked like a crack near the tip a bit suspiciously. "Your memory's going, Almasy."

"Says the one who's actually junctioning," Seifer shot back.

Squall cautiously pushed against the tip of his lumber with his thumb, checking to see if it was actually a crack. "I can get you a GF again, if you want," he offered, trying to keep his voice casual and ignoring the way Seifer stiffened. "Ifrit, since you've always got on so well with him. Or someone stronger, like Alexander."

"Really," Seifer managed, voice sounding a little strangled. "You think I would deserve Alexander? In case you hadn't noticed, Squally, I failed as a Knight."

Squall's hands tightened around his lumber hard enough that he could feel a splinter poke through his leather gloves, just missing stabbing the skin between his first finger and thumb. He took a moment to pull his glove off the splinter, then looked up and met Seifer's tired stare. "You became Knight to a crazed Sorceress that resided generations into our future. It was a fucked situation to begin with, but you stuck with it anyway. I wouldn't call that a failure."

Seifer snorted. "So you're saying it's perfectly fine that I blew up Trabia Garden, terrorised Galbadia, gave Rinoa to Adel, tried to kill you multiple times–"

"I'm saying it was shit and you did the best that you could."

Seifer was suddenly in Squall's space, one hand wrapped around his bicep hard enough to hurt. "I tortured you, Leonhart," he spat, "because I wanted to make you fucking suffer for getting what I never could, and I enjoyed it."

Squall swallowed, and shook away the memory of Seifer motioning for the wall operator to shock him again. He dropped his lumber and grabbed a fistful of Seifer's coat, the black of his glove stark against worn light grey. "I would have rather you tortured me a thousand times if it meant you left the others alone."

Seifer scoffed and loosened his grip, clearly intending to pull away.

Squall snapped up his other hand and caught his fingers on the chain Seifer had always worn, tight against the hollow of his throat. He tugged on it hard, and Seifer's head almost knocked into his when the action pulled him forward. "Tell me this, Seifer Almasy," he hissed, because he knew how Ultimecia thought, after waging a war against her, and there was no way she'd honestly cared what SeeD's purpose was, "if you hadn't tortured me, would she even have bothered throwing us in D-District? Or would we have been executed as the parade after-party?"

Seifer jerked back, eyes going wide.

Squall nodded and let him go. "Thank you," he said, pouring every drop of honesty he could into his voice, "for saving my life."

Seifer stared at him for a heartbeat before he spun and stalked away, towards the lighthouse.

Squall let himself drop to the ground, cradling his head. Honestly, as distasteful as he found the memories of hanging off that wall, it was the kiss in the cell that would always bother him the most. And he hadn't even really realised why it had seemed so utterly wrong until after Rinoa had left for Timber and the world had finally calmed down enough that he wasn't constantly thinking about the war, had a chance to think about the before.

"Squall?" Matron asked, voice worried.

He sighed and looked up. "Sorry. I..." He waved in the direction Seifer had gone. "We were talking about the war." He scrubbed his hands over his face, feeling too old and too tired for his physical age.

The grass folded under Matron's weight as she knelt next to him, gentle hands soothing through his hair. "Which part?" she questioned.

Squall pressed his eyes tighter together, trying to remember if D-District was one of the things that she remembered with any clarity, because he knew there were holes in her memories of the time when she was being possessed, and all of them – Squall, Irvine, Selphie, Quistis, Zell, and even Cid – had agreed to avoid those topics, because Matron had enough weight on her shoulders from horrible things that hadn't been her fault.

Squall wasn't sure if Matron remembered, so he just went for something general: "I think...he wants me to be angry with him, to hate him for...for everything, but..." Squall looked up into her gentle green eyes, familiar in a different way from Seifer's. "I wanted to," he whispered, as though sharing a secret, "when it was all over. But I couldn't– I wasn't even angry with him, just sort of..."

"It's hard," Matron murmured, when Squall couldn't make himself continue, "to hate someone you've loved for a very long time."

"Love?" Squall repeated, feeling very like a lost child.

Matron sighed and kissed his forehead, the action like a memory of all the times Seifer had 'kissed it better'. "All you two had were each other for the longest time." She smiled sadly, and Squall's chest ached at the sight. "You became so close after Ellone left, and Cid said you were always close, in Balamb."

Until Squall had pushed Seifer away. Squall closed his eyes against the burn of tears that he was too old to let fall, dammit. "But...love?" he questioned, caught on that word for a reason he couldn't explain even to himself.

"There are many kinds of love, Squall," Matron told him, her voice sounding pained. He looked up at her and found that sad smile still on her face. "Do you love me?"

Squall blinked, trying to decide if that was the emotion that filled him each time he saw her again after a long absence. "Yes," he decided.

Matron's smile lightened slightly and she cupped his cheek. "I know you worry about your friends, about Rinoa. You want to keep them safe." Squall nodded. "That's a form of love, too."

Squall blinked, still feeling confused.

Matron let out a quiet noise that was somewhere between a sigh and what might have been a sob. "Love is whenever you want to put someone else above yourself. It's when you find yourself wondering after them in quiet moments."

Squall shook his head. "That was never enough for Rinoa," he admitted.

Matron considered that for a moment, her fingers playing with a strand of Squall's hair. "It's not easy," she said, each word careful, "to love someone. Especially if you are so very different. And that's okay. It doesn't make your love any less real, even if it might feel like it." She shook her head. "It can be hard, though, to stay close to someone who loves so much, that they don't always have room for you." She touched Squall's chest, directly over the spot where his heart was thudding away. "I think, that Rinoa wanted to have the largest spot in your heart, but she felt crowded out because you can't help but love everyone." She gave a quiet laugh when Squall made a face. "You're just too strong, my child, and you want to protect everyone who's weaker than you. That's not a bad thing, but it makes it hard, sometimes, to catch your attention."

Squall looked away, down at where his Griever pendant had caught a ray of the late afternoon sunlight. "Seifer's not weaker than me," he murmured, even as that traitorous voice in the back of his head helpfully pointed out, 'He's the only one that can make you drop everything for him, though.'

"That doesn't mean he doesn't need you," Matron replied, voice quiet. When Squall looked up at her, chest aching with something he thought he might, finally, have a name for, she smiled and got to her feet before reaching down a hand to help him up. "Go on," she told him.

Squall didn't need to be told a second time, taking off at an easy jog towards the lighthouse, eyes scanning for any sign of a familiar light grey coat or blond hair.

He found Seifer leaning against the far side of the lighthouse, where the foundation was so worn by the constant movements of the ocean, it looked like a careless push would send it toppling over. Green eyes glanced over at him as he approached, a thick wall standing strong behind them to keep Squall from even being able to guess what Seifer was thinking. "I'm not good company right now, Leonhart," he warned, emotion carefully bleached from his voice.

"You're never good company," Squall replied absently as he carefully leaned back against the crumbling wall next to Seifer.

Seifer's arms flexed and he very obviously pulled them up to his chest and grabbed his biceps, as if to keep himself from grabbing something else. "Go away, Squall," he ordered tightly.

Squall shook his head. "No."

Seifer pushed off against the wall, moving like he was going to leave.

Squall snapped his hand out and caught Seifer's arm, holding tight enough that even the larger gunblader would have trouble shaking him off. "Do you want me to hate you, Seifer?" he asked, keeping his voice gentle, even as his grip was bruising.

Seifer didn't try pulling away, just bowed his head, shoulders hunching.

"I do, you know, for one little thing. One stupid, pointless little moment. It should have meant nothing – I thought it meant nothing – but it meant everything."

He shook Seifer's arm, trying to get the blond man to look back at him, and Seifer did, eyes still guarded. "Why did you kiss me, in that cell?" Squall got out, and it sounded angry – he knew it sounded angry – but he needed anger right now. He suspected they both did.

Seifer flinched, then narrowed his eyes and yanked his arm from Squall's grip. "Why?" he breathed, stepping forward and cornering Squall against the tower. "Because you told me I didn't matter!"

Squall blinked, honestly thrown. "I... What?"

Seifer pressed closer, breath hot against Squall's face, and he snarled, "You told me I was 'just your rival'. I came to fucking apologise for leaving you behind, and you fucking pushed me away!" He wrapped the fingers of one hand in Squall's Griever pendant and tugged against it hard enough that Squall felt the ache of the chain digging into the back of his neck. "I'd made myself forget that, and then I got stuck without Ifrit and I hated you."

Squall reached up and cupped Seifer's face, watched the way green eyes went wide, flickering with confusion. "I hurt you," he whispered. "I can't go back in time, but, maybe..." He swallowed. "Someone told me, once, that when you're hurt, someone just needs to kiss it better."

He pushed up, closing that difference in height that Seifer had already mostly shortened for him, and pressed his lips against Seifer's.

Seifer let out a broken noise and the hand not tangled in Griever's chain grabbed his shoulder.

"You have always," Squall breathed against Seifer's lips, watching the walls break to nothing behind Seifer's eyes, "been the most important person in my life."

Seifer shook his head, eyes broken. "You pushed me away," he insisted, the words shattering against Squall's mouth like broken glass.

Squall closed his eyes. "No," he whispered. "I wanted to be as important to you as you were to me. I– You had friends, two of them, and I thought– I thought that, if we were friends, I wouldn't–"

"You idiot," Seifer breathed, and Squall had the chance to open his eyes for a beat of his heart, before Seifer's hand was threading through his hair and smashing their mouths together, using his grip on Squall's hair to angle his head whichever way he wanted.

Squall let out a whimper, melting against Seifer and grabbing for handholds in his coat. His heart thudded too-quick against his ribs, as though it thought it could break out past them and join Seifer's heart if it just strained a little bit more. And it all felt...strangely right, in a way that the handful of kisses he'd shared with Rinoa never had.

"Stop thinking," Seifer growled against his lips.

"Make me," Squall hissed back.

Seifer responded by shoving his tongue into Squall's mouth, and he had about half a second to think that was a really strange way to make him stop thinking, before Seifer's tongue was licking over the roof of his mouth and his teeth and everything, effectively distracting Squall from anything but trying to track it.

Seifer pulled back without warning, leaving Squall feeling dizzy with want. Teeth caught on a patch of skin near the hinge of his jaw and worried at it roughly enough that it ached, but not in a...bad way. If that made any sense.

(Squall wasn't completely certain it did.)

"You need to tell me no," Seifer breathed against Squall's ear, the words warm and sending a thrill down his spine.

"Why?" Squall gasped out before pressing a kiss against Seifer's jaw.

Seifer let out a sharp sound and tightened his grip in Squall's hair. "Because if you don't, I am going to fuck you, right here, against the lighthouse."

Squall shuddered, his whole body crying out for Seifer to go right ahead, but his thoughts were managing to reorder themselves enough to come up with two very good reasons why this was a bad plan: Matron and Cid.

"No," he whispered, dropping his head forward against Seifer's chest.

Seifer's hand gentled in his hair, soothing through the tufts he'd pulled, and he groaned, "Dammit, Squall."

Squall breathed out what might have been a laugh, and pointed out, "You're the one who told me to tell you no."

"Why couldn't you have gone through puberty before the war?" Seifer complained.

Squall hit him, then shoved against Seifer's chest, trying to get him to back off. "Shut up, Seifer."

Seifer laughed and ducked his head to brush his lips against Squall's before stepping back, giving them both some space. Which Squall, at least, appreciated, closing his eyes and relaxing back against the wall behind him, trying to get his brain back into some semblance of working order.

"Am I more important than Sis?" Seifer asked, and Squall peeked his eyes open to consider the very open and impossibly young expression the blond wore.

"Yes," Squall replied simply. Then, when that didn't seem to be enough, offered, "I know where she is, now. I hunted you down instead."

Seifer smirked at that, looking more like himself, and smoothed a hand back through his own hair. "Well, of course."

"Don't be an ass," Squall ordered as he let his eyes fall shut again. He felt...strangely at peace, compared to how he usually felt around Seifer. But, then again, he was usually fighting with Seifer, so perhaps the change wasn't so strange.

A hand brushed his chest before a familiar weight eased, and Squall looked down to find Griever in Seifer's hand. He glanced up at green eyes, trying to judge what Seifer was thinking about, and coming up empty. "What?" he murmured.

"I got this for you."

Squall swallowed against the answer to a question he hadn't even realised he'd still had; Seifer dropping Griever into the stream in the Training Centre was one of the few memories Squall had never lost to his GFs. It had made him angry, without the context of the conversation that had come before, but he'd never forgotten that Griever had been Seifer's first. "I spent four hours trying to get it," he admitted. "I wanted to know what you'd dropped."

Seifer's throat bobbed and he looked up at Squall. "It matched your stupid ring."

Squall looked down at the faint bump under his glove where his ring rested, comfortable even when he was gripping his gunblade with that hand. He reached back and touched the handle of Lion Heart, hearing the familiar sound of the charm he'd transferred each time he bought a better gunblade. "I wasn't going to get a gunblade, but the Balamb shop had that special edition version of Revolver with Griever on it, and I..."

Seifer snorted. "So you weren't trying to copy me?"

Squall rolled his eyes, remembering well the way Seifer had mocked him when he'd returned to Garden with Revolver. "No. But it was still your fault."

Seifer grinned at that, clearly pleased. "Did I ever tell you why I picked the gunblade?" he asked, tone superior.

"Probably."

Seifer tugged lightly on Griever. "It was that film that came out when we were kids, The Sorceress's Knight."

Squall blinked. "Sir Zefer?" he murmured, remembering fighting the ruby dragon as Laguna on set.

"That was his name!" Seifer said, as though he could never remember it. Squall must have made some sort of face, because Seifer tugged on Griever again and grumbled, "You don't get to laugh at my spotty memory, Squally."

Squall shook his head. "No, it's just... Zefer was played by Laguna. My father."

Seifer stared at him for a moment before he let out a snort. "Of course. You know, that film's the reason I wanted to become a Sorceress's Knight, too."

Squall grimaced, nearly certain he could guess what Laguna's response to that fact would be. "We're never going to tell him that."

Seifer's fingers disentangled from Griever's chain and his hand smoothed up Squall's chest, coming to a stop just over his heart. " 'We', Squally?"

Squall swallowed, heart thudding against Seifer's hand, and forced his voice to be casual as he said, "I assumed you might want to meet your idol at least once."

Seifer smirked. "You mean you're not asking me to come meet your parents?" he teased.

Squall shoved at him, gentle enough that he knew it wouldn't actually make Seifer move. "Don't be an ass. You've already met my parents."

Seifer's eyes flickered to one side, in the general direction of the orphanage, and his expression eased. "The ones that actually matter," he agreed in a voice that was the exact opposite of innocent before leaning in and brushing his lips against Squall's.

"Do I need to tell you no again?" Squall murmured even as he reached up to grip Seifer's coat and pull him closer.

"Probably," Seifer decided before pressing his mouth to Squall's firmly, keeping him from doing so.

"Boys!" Cid called from back by the house, saving them from themselves.

Seifer let out a regretful breath against Squall's lips before pulling back far enough that Squall had to let go of his coat. He very obviously tugged it straight and brushed it down.

Squall snorted and pushed away from the lighthouse. He gave himself a minute to run his hands through his hair and ensure Griever fell straight against his chest, then nodded at Seifer. Seifer nodded back and they turned to walk back to the stone house, easily finding their stride to keep side-by-side.

"Are you coming back to Balamb?" Squall heard himself ask as Cid waved at them and started into the house.

"Will I be welcome?" Seifer replied, sounding almost...hopeful.

Squall remembered what he'd said when he'd found Seifer, about how he'd return to the orphanage if he didn't feel welcome at Balamb; Garden would always be home, more than this crumbling cape with faded childhood memories. "We're always looking for non-SeeD building security who aren't afraid of being surrounded by armed and capable students," he offered.

Seifer grabbed his arm, stopping him, and gave him a look. "That's not what I meant, Squall."

Squall sighed; he knew. "I don't know," he admitted quietly. "We don't... You never come up." Or, at least, no one ever mentioned Seifer where Squall could hear. Considering their shared history and Seifer's part in the war, Squall would be surprised if his friends didn't talk about Seifer from time to time. He shook his head and eyed Seifer's frown. "Can you trust me to handle any issues that arise?"

Seifer snorted. "What are you going to do, order them to be nice?"

Squall considered that. "I could," he mused.

Seifer let out a rough laugh. "Leonhart, you can't order your friends to be nice to me," he insisted, voice amused.

"You mean I shouldn't," Squall guessed, and Seifer snorted again. Squall rolled his eyes and reached up to smooth his hand down Seifer's waistcoat. "Can you trust me to handle them?" he asked again seriously.

Seifer stared at him for a long moment, thoughts flashing behind his eyes rapidly enough that Squall didn't even bother trying to read them.

"Yes," Seifer decided at least, before making a face and admitting, "I'll try to keep from making things worse."

Squall snorted. "Don't bother. I have no interest in handling heart attacks on top of your return." He gently extracted his arm from Seifer's grasp while the blond laughed, and shoved him towards the open door of the house. "Come on. We're making Matron and Cid wait."

Inside, Matron had put together an early dinner. Or, well, it was early for Squall, who had a bad habit of not eating dinner until nearly 2100, after taking a run through the Training Centre. But, between sparring with Seifer and the emotional seesaw he'd been on since he'd found Seifer on the beach, he found he was more than capable of surrounding a serving.

After they'd finished eating, Squall and Seifer let themselves be directed to wash the dishes, which they managed with limited snarking (for the most part), before everyone retired to the sitting room and Matron asked after Seifer's travels.

Matron and Cid made for bed first, Matron warning them, "Don't stay up too much longer, boys. You're helping with the house, tomorrow."

Seifer made a face, and Squall rolled his eyes and called back, "Yes, Matron."

"Suck-up," Seifer mocked as he got up.

Squall snorted and got up himself. "Come on. We're in our old room." He led the way down the hall from the sitting room, in the opposite direction from Matron and Cid's room, to the room they'd slept in as boys. There were only three beds, which Squall knew Zell and Irvine had been the ones to build. "We'll have to make another bed," he mused.

"Which one belongs to who?" Seifer asked, considering the options. They all looked very sparse, unlike how it would have been easy to tell whose bed was who's when they were children.

"I have no idea," Squall admitted. At Seifer disapproving look, Squall pointed at the ceiling. "The last time I was here, this room didn't have a roof."

"You need to get out of Balamb more often," Seifer muttered as he stepped forward and shoved one of the beds towards the next closest. "Give me a couple of your belts."

"Why?"

"So I can lash these beds together."

Squall blinked at that, then shrugged and easily unbuckled the belts around his thigh, figuring those would work best for this project.

Once he was apparently pleased with the outcome, Seifer unbuckled Hyperion and hung it on one of the bed posts, tilted so he could easily draw it if he needed to. His coat was dropped over the weapon, carefully arranged out of the way of drawing, but hiding most of the sheath from view.

On the other side of the paired beds, Squall was doing something similar with Lion Heart and his own jacket, the motions as familiar as breathing. "If you have a dagger," he commented, certain that Seifer did, "they built in spots for them." He tapped the back of the headboard with his hand, even as he slipped one of his two daggers into the slot carefully hidden under the lip of the bed, the other one into the holder between the headboard and the wall.

Seifer snorted and wasted no time in pulling out his own two daggers to hide away. "Beds built by mercenaries, for mercenaries," he commented drily.

"In an orphanage," Squall added, because that was the part of the situation that would always amuse him the most.

Seifer snorted again and turned towards the door. "I'll be back."

Squall nodded absently, recalling his bag of clothing and necessities, which he'd left in Ragnarok. He considered grabbing Lion Heart to bring with him, but shook off the urge and just junctioned Shiva to protect him from the cold and any monsters thinking he was easy prey, before heading down the hall and slipping through the kitchen door.

His bag was still in one of the lockers just inside the boarding ramp, where he'd stuffed it when he'd first snuck on board the evening before, after everyone had gone to bed. (Because the others had talked him into a sending off party that was pointless and obnoxious and kept him far later than he'd wanted. And the last thing he'd wanted was to be stuck trying to leave in the middle of the first day of second term.)

The bag that he vaguely recalled Seifer picking up when he joined Squall at the beach was shoved in a shadowy corner not far from the lockers, and Squall made a mental note, as he picked it up, to assign the other gunblader a locker the next time they were both on the ship.

With both bags, Squall returned to the house, feeling a little like he had to sneak back down to the bedroom or he'd get in trouble for being out of bed. Which was...ridiculous, though he did take care to make as little noise as possible.

Seifer was waiting for him in the bedroom, boots dropped carelessly next to his side of the bed. His hand was on Hyperion when Squall stepped in, but he relaxed almost immediately, expression softening with gratitude when Squall held out his bag. "Oh, good. I wasn't sure how you get back inside your dragon."

Squall snorted. "Remind me to show you tomorrow." He dropped his bag next to his side and took a moment to pull out a pair of bottoms to sleep in before leaving the room for the toilet.

Seifer had clearly changed while he was gone, because Squall returned to the room to find him laid out on top of the blankets, wearing nothing more than ripped pyjama bottoms, eyes closed. Squall paused for a moment after closeting the bedroom door, looking him over, eyes marking each small scar dotting Seifer's torso. There were a fair few of them that Squall knew were from him – either from sparring or the war – while others were unfamiliar.

One, in particular, stood out to him, and Squall couldn't stop himself from stopping next to the bed and hovering his fingers over the ugly gash just under Seifer's ribcage; it had been the last strike Squall had landed on him in the Lunatic Pandora, before Gilgamesh had shown up and finished the battle for them.

Squall jerked in surprise when a hand encircled his wrist and pushed his hand down, against the scar. He looked up at where Seifer was watching him, the blond's eyes dark with memories. "That's one nasty gunblade you've got there, Leonhart," he murmured, voice low.

Squall swallowed. "I had a nasty opponent."

Seifer closed his eyes again. "Me?"

"You're difficult," Squall corrected him before tossing his handful of clothing and boots towards where he could see his bag over the far edge of the bed, "Ultimecia was nasty."

Seifer snorted. "Good to know I still come in under the uber bitch."

Squall bit back a laugh, because that was the same thing Irvine called Ultimecia when he was trying to pretend she hadn't been a big deal. "In terms of strong opponents, yes," he said once he was sure his amusement wouldn't be obvious in his voice, "but you're the only opponent I've ever faced that I'd happily fight again."

Seifer peeked up at him, eyes glinting. "You're so romantic," he said. And, before Squall fully processed Seifer was moving, he found himself laid out across the beds, the blond straddling his waist.

Squall let out a surprised gasp, painfully belated, and clenched the hand Seifer was still holding to the scar on his side, nails catching against the newer skin and making Seifer hiss. "Don't do that."

Seifer grinned, the expression just a little mean, and said, "You're the one who removed all your weapons."

Squall let Shiva's presence rise in his mind, knowing it would show in his eyes, and warned, "Not all of them."

Seifer paused at that warning, then let go of Squall's wrist. "Unjunction," he ordered.

Squall pushed against Seifer with his newly freed hand, making him rock backwards and proving he had the upper hand at the moment. "Now, why would I do that?" he asked, voice icy from Shiva's presence.

Seifer leaned in, pushing back against Squall's hand hard enough that it had to ache, and whispered against his face, breath too-hot, "I don't want to fuck Shiva, Squally, I want to fuck you."

Squall shivered and closed his eyes to do as Seifer ordered.

As soon as his magically-boosted strength faded, Seifer pushed forward the rest of the way, forcing his way into Squall's mouth. Fingers traced up Squall's sides and ribs, nearly burning after the sudden absence of Shiva under his skin. The hands turned into claws at his chest, raking over old scars from grats and his nipples.

Squall knew enough about sex – no matter what Seifer liked to say – to know that was supposed to feel good, but it honestly felt the same as if Seifer'd run his nails along Squall's arm.

Seifer growled against his mouth. "Must you always be difficult?" he complained.

Squall was pretty sure that didn't deserve a response beyond reaching up and pinching Seifer's side.

Seifer huffed a startled breath against his mouth, then retaliated by ducking his head and sucking hard against Squall's jugular.

Squall gasped, surprised at the pulse of pleasure that went straight down, and tilted his chin to the side, giving Seifer silent permission to keep right on fucking–

In an easy move, Seifer pushed Squall's legs apart and slipped down between them, hips grinding down against Squall's genitals, and very much reminding him where this was going. He grabbed for Seifer's arms, feeling inexplicably dizzy, and Seifer huffed a laugh against his throat.

"By the time we return to Balamb," Seifer breathed in his ear, his low voice sending a shiver down his spine, "I will have mapped out every part of you, Squall. I'll know every scar, every spot that makes your breath hitch, and I will get the one thing no one else has ever had."

Squall tilted his head down and forced himself to meet Seifer's heated stare, fingers clenching against the larger man's solid biceps. "And what's that?" he whispered, voice rough to his own ears.

"I will have seen you come apart," Seifer promised, his eyes gleaming. He ground down against Squall again, and Squall couldn't help the way his hips jerked up at the contact. "I am going to melt you, Ice Prince."

Squall swallowed an embarrassing noise and bit out, "I thought I was a princess."

Seifer drew up and away just enough that he could slip a hand between them to cup Squall's penis through his bottoms, tearing a strangled moan from Squall's lips. "This rather proves otherwise," Seifer murmured, smug.

"Fuck you," Squall managed before slipping his own hand between their bodies to grab Seifer's own package. Seifer groaned and pressed into his hand, eyes slipping shut, and Squall let loose a vicious smile.

Then Seifer's hand caught Squall's wrist and pulled it out from between their bodies, trapping it against the blankets to the side. "Are you going to fight me the whole time?" Seifer asked, his voice rough and amused.

"I don't do complacent," Squall returned, slipping his free hand up Seifer's shoulder and nape to catch against his short-cut hair.

"Thank fuck for that," Seifer decided before letting Squall pull him down for another kiss, easing the angle so their teeth didn't hit together. Squall showed his gratitude by biting the tongue that invaded his mouth, then following its retreat back into Seifer's mouth, swiping over the roof of his mouth and along his teeth in the same way that Seifer kept doing to him. Mapping out the blond's mouth with intent.

Seifer groaned and tugged free, lips wet and cheeks flushed. "Dammit, Leonhart. How do I always forget how quickly you pick shit up?"

"Selective memory," Squall shot back, secretly pleased.

Seifer snorted and shifted out of the way as he tugged on Squall's bottoms. When Squall reached down to help remove them, however, Seifer caught his hands and held them tight against his waist. He leant down until their noses were brushing, eyes gone serious, in spite of the way his pupils had nearly decimated his irises. "Tell me you want this," he ordered. "Tell me I'm not pushing you."

Squall was reminded, inexplicably, of a young Seifer getting angry because he'd found an equally young Squall fighting off a pack of grats. Squall had remembered feeling terrified, the flash of relief when Seifer had shown up and saved him.

Seifer had always tried to protect him, even when Squall pushed him away.

Squall tugged his hands from Seifer's and brought them up to cup Seifer's face, letting his own expression relax in a way that felt...almost unnatural, but didn't leave his stomach turning in quite the same way as it had the one time he'd tried to do so for Rinoa. "I want nothing more," he whispered, "than to get as close to you as humanly possible."

Seifer's swallow was loud, his pupils, impossibly, seeming to widen further. "Off," he rasped, shoving at Squall's bottoms, and Squall wasted no time in helping him divest both of them of their last cloth barriers.

Once their bottoms had been shoved out of the way, Seifer sat back, his knees slipping under Squall's thighs and raising his bottom half in a manner that was, frankly, a little embarrassing. More so when he realised Seifer was staring at him, eyes hungry.

"Seifer," he whispered, pleading just a little.

Seifer folded down slightly and pressed a kiss to the inside of Squall's right thigh. The simple action sent a shock of heat through him, and Squall let out a whimper, fisting the blankets under him so he had something to hold on to.

Seifer hummed and licked a wet stripe along Squall's thigh, dragging a moan past Squall's clenched teeth. "Difficult," Seifer murmured against the sensitive skin before teeth nipped at Squall.

"Ahn~!" Squall cried out, jerking at the hint of danger that just went straight to his penis. He reached down with one hand to dig his nails into Seifer's knee. "St-stop!"

Seifer chuckled. "What's the magic word, Squally?" he teased before pressing his lips gently over the spot he'd nipped.

Squall let out a stuttered breath and tightened his grip on Seifer's knee enough that he could feel the skin breaking under his nails. "Seifer," he ground out, disgusted with how breathy his voice sounded.

Seifer winced and straightened, leaving Squall's thigh alone. "Close enough," he conceded before leaning over and pulling a familiar container out from under his pillow.

"Is that–?" Squall started.

"Yes," Seifer interrupted, glancing guiltily towards the closed door of the bedroom. "I didn't have many options. Unless you happen to be carrying lubricant with you?" He raised an eyebrow at Squall as he calmly screwed off the lid of Matron's kitchen oil.

Squall thought of the oil for the gun part of their gunblades, but he knew it gave Seifer a rash if he didn't wash it off right away. "No," he admitted.

"Don't tell her," Seifer warned as he set the jar aside.

Squall shot him an unimpressed stare, only to jerk in surprise when a finger pressed into his anus. It felt...strange, but not really...bad. He let his eyes fall closed, focussing on the intrusion, and so completely missed any visual warning about Seifer's teeth catching at the skin of his thigh again.

He let out a cry, jerking in surprise, and dug his nails into Seifer's knee again.

"Loud," Seifer murmured, his breath fanning against Squall's thigh.

Squall pinned him with a glare. "Stop. Biting. Me. There."

Seifer smirked. "I haven't bitten you yet. Technically."

Squall shifted his grip on Seifer's knee, pressing his nails against unbroken skin, blood sticky on his fingers. "Do you want to be able to bend this in the morning?" he threatened.

Seifer obediently moved away from Squall's thigh again, shifting forwards and dislodging Squall's hand from his knee. "Come here," he ordered once he was close enough that they could kiss if Squall leaned up, Seifer's arm braced against the bed next to Squall's shoulder.

Squall took a moment to pretend he was debating listening, then leaned up and into Seifer's kiss, threading his blood-covered fingers through blond hair and tugging on it even as he let Seifer trace the inside of his mouth.

Pleasure shocked through him without warning, originating from where Seifer's fingers – when had he got two more into Squall? – were stroking his insides in time with his tongue. Squall gasped into Seifer's mouth and tightened his grip in Seifer's hair, tugging hard enough he felt the blond wince into the kiss.

Seifer pulled back and breathed out, "Are you ready?"

Squall nodded, nose brushing against Seifer's. "Do it."

"It might hurt," Seifer warned as he withdrew his fingers.

Squall gritted his teeth against an ache of emptiness. "I can take a little pain, Almasy," he bit out. "I'm not fucking glass."

Seifer leaned up and pressed his lips against the top of the scar he'd given Squall, gentle and impossibly sweet.

Squall swallowed against an ache in his heart, blinking back unexpected tears. What–?

When Seifer started pushing in, far thicker than his fingers had been, there was definitely pain, but it was minor. Just enough that Squall could use it to steady himself.

Seifer grunted when he bottomed out, expression a complicated mix of lust and resignation and a couple other emotions Squall couldn't quite read before Seifer leaned down and brushed their lips together. "You are a literal tight-ass," he breathed against Squall's mouth.

Squall remember he had a hand in Seifer's hair and tugged on the blond locks hard enough to earn a wince. "Shut up."

"Yes, sir," Seifer whispered, and Squall felt a strange thrill shoot through him in advance of Seifer pulling out, dragging along his inner walls before he pushed back in, slow and unforgiving.

There would be no quarter given here, only complete and utter defeat would be accepted.

Squall held out until Seifer angled just right to strike his prostate dead on, shooting hot pleasure through him, before he let go of the tight reins he'd always held on himself, whimpering pleas for more of everything against Seifer's mouth, rocking down onto his slow, dragging thrusts.

And when Seifer reached down and grabbed Squall's legs to brace himself, nails digging in to Squall's over-sensitive thighs, Squall didn't have the strength to bite back the cry that crawled out of his throat, two parts pain and eight parts euphoria.

Seifer choked at the noise, digging his nails in even more before he started fucking in to Squall harder, carving himself a place within Squall's passage, owning him in every way possible.

Squall gasped out Seifer's name as his nerves lit with unbearable pleasure, whispering it over and over like a mantra, like he was hanging onto the edge of an abyss and Seifer was the only one who could possibly save him.

"Squall," Seifer whispered as a hand left his thigh for his aching erection, beseeching and praising and goading him on all at once.

Squall let go, secure in the knowledge that, if nothing else, he wasn't falling down this rabbit hole alone.

-0-

"Are you going to tell me, now, why we're leaving early?" Squall demanded as they both settled down in the cockpit. It had been a relaxing visit, between the physical labour during the day, spars with Seifer before dinner, and letting the elder gunblader take him to pieces in the dark of night. (Which, Squall had never thought that losing control would be relaxing, but Seifer seemed intent on proving him wrong. It was a bad habit of his.)

Still. They could have spent another night, but Seifer had decided he wanted to leave early. Squall had originally thought it was because his – rival? lover? he really had no idea what to call them any more – wanted to get back to Balamb, but Seifer wasn't anywhere near nervous enough for returning to Garden and the welcoming party that wasn't expecting him.

"How do you input destinations on here?" Seifer said by way of response.

Squall leaned back in his chair and crossed his arms over his chest, pinning the blond with an unmoved stare.

Seifer rolled his eyes, unbothered, and finally explained, "We're going to Timber."

Squall frowned and took a moment to try and figure out why Seifer, of all people, would want to visit Timber. When a reason came to him, he had to fight back the urge to grab for his gunblade, unexpected fury roaring through him. "If you think, for one second," he bit out icily, "that I am going to let you dangle this–" he jerked a finger back and forth between the two of them "–in front of my Sorceress, you can get off my ship right now."

Seifer didn't move, expression impassive. "Are you done?" he asked after a beat of silence.

Squall was out of his chair and had his hand on Lion Heart's hilt before he even realised he was going to react that way.

Seifer didn't seem even a little surprised, calmly getting to his feet and catching the wrist of Squall's dominate hand, using it to pull him forward. His other arm wrapped around Squall's back and held him him tightly against Seifer's chest. "You are a complete mess, Squally," he commented drily, humour glinting in his eyes.

Squall slammed his eyes shut and forced himself to just breathe for a moment, letting the now-familiar scent of Seifer calm him down, for all that Seifer was the one who set him off. "You have a death wish," he bit out, because that was the only reason he could think of for why Seifer thought it was a good idea to suggest they go to Timber.

Seifer sighed, chest moving in a great rush against Squall before the expelled air stirred his hair. "I'm sleeping with my sparring partner; one might assume we both have death wishes," he pointed out before squeezing the arm around Squall's waist. "If I let you go, can you promise to keep a lid on your protective urges?"

Squall grabbed the front of Seifer's coat with his free hand, because that suggested that, yes, this was about Rinoa. "No," he bit out, because he couldn't, honestly, promise he wouldn't react with violence again. (Wasn't even sure why he'd reacted with violence in the first place.)

Seifer shifted his grip on Squall's trapped wrist and brought it up to kiss the fist that Squall couldn't actually remember making. "Fine. Two facts: First, you can't, actually, effectively be Knight for someone you don't have regular contact with–"

"We write–" Squall started, finally opening his eyes to glare up at Seifer.

"Don't interrupt me, Leonhart," Seifer snapped, tone unbending, and Squall fell silent, surprised. Seifer gave a sharp nod and continued, "Physical contact is necessary, which is why most Knights end up becoming their Sorceress's lover. Half of your job is helping her keep her magic under control, and that resides, physically, with her.

"Second, I am not your enemy." He pressed another kiss to Squall's fist, expression gentling. "I don't have any interest in harming Rinoa, especially not if it's going to hurt you. Until you can convince yourself that I'm not a threat to her, I will stay in Ragnarok or – if you can't sort everything out before then – in Balamb, the next time you go visit her."

Squall swallowed and closed his eyes, trying to figure out why he felt like Seifer was a threat. Intellectually, he understood that Seifer was his enemy when he'd sworn to protect Rinoa, and that may well have influenced his reaction. However, he also knew that Seifer was no longer working for Ultimecia, so he wasn't, technically, a threat any more. An asshole, certainly, but not anywhere near deserving of the sort of reaction Squall had at the thought of Seifer going near Rinoa.

"It's not just you, Squally," Seifer murmured, letting go of Squall's wrist and smoothing a gloved hand over Squall's forehead. When Squall glanced up at him, Seifer shrugged. "I'm willing to bet Hyperion that Rinoa doesn't trust me anywhere near her. That's bound to influence you."

Squall grit his teeth. "Even when she isn't pestering me, Rinoa's trying to get me to act like I have actual emotions," he complained.

Seifer chuckled and leaned down to press a light kiss to Squall's mouth. "Come on, Squally. You need to do your Knightly duties so we can go back to Balamb and face the firing squad."

"I'll put Irvine on probation if he shoots you," Squall muttered as he tugged away, and Seifer laughed. "Sit down."

Squall input the coordinates for Timber, then rested back in his chair as Ragnarok's auto-pilot took over. "When we get to Balamb," he said, forcing his mind to skip over the current mess and look at the next one, "it's probably best if you stay back, out of sight, until I've told everyone you're back."

"To lessen the chance of Kinneas shooting me?" Seifer suggested, amused.

"Largely," Squall decided. "But also because I don't need the first thing any of them hears when the boarding ramp opens being you calling Zell names." He shot Seifer an icy look.

Seifer very firmly looked away, cheek twitching in that way that meant he was suppressing a smile.

"I will put you on probation," Squall threatened.

"When has that stopped me?" Seifer wondered, glancing back at Squall with eyes that glinted meanly.

"Almasy, if you expect to continue sleeping with me, you will behave." Because that was a threat that Squall was pretty sure would hit home.

Seifer winced and looked away. "Fuck," he muttered. "There is something utterly wrong about you actually having a punishment for me."

Squall snorted and turned his gaze towards the landscape rapidly passing beneath them. "Consider it repayment for every time you called me 'princess'."

"Don't forget 'Puberty Boy' and 'copy-kitten'," Seifer helpfully offered.

Squall shot him a disgusted look. "Are you trying to piss me off?"

Seifer leaned back in his chair and rubbed at his forehead. "Fuck. No. That was reflex." He grimaced. "I'm...sorry."

Squall sighed. "And you were calling me a mess," he muttered, winning a strained laugh from Seifer.

They were quiet for the rest of the trip.

-0-

Rinoa was waiting for him when he opened the ship, though her welcoming smile turned surprised when she actually saw him. "Squall?" she asked as he walked down the ramp towards her, almost certainly having expected someone else.

Squall sighed. "Rinoa."

She frowned, concern making her seem to pale. "Are you okay? Did something happen at Garden?"

"Can we–" Squall grimaced and motioned towards Timber's main gate a little behind Rinoa, irritatingly uncomfortable with remaining so close to Ragnarok and Seifer "–walk and talk?"

"Okay," Rinoa agreed, still pale and worried. But she let him guide her back towards the city with a gentle hand on her back.

As they passed through the gate, the guards standing to either side, dressed in Timber's new uniform of aqua and brown, waved and grinned at their president, not even pretending at decorum. When Rinoa managed a smile back, honest despite her lingering concern, they both relaxed slightly, and Squall felt an unexpected wave of relief at the very obvious proof that his Sorceress was loved by her adopted home.

"Seifer had some choice words for me when he found out I hadn't visited you," Squall admitted once they were in the city proper, eyeing the unfamiliar bustle of people with some surprise.

Rinoa's shoulder relaxed marginally under his hand. "Oh," she said before letting out an irritated sound and lightly smacking his stomach. "Don't worry me like that!"

"Sorry."

Rinoa sighed and shook her head before peeking up at him from behind the gentle curl of her hair. "What had you talking with Seifer, anyway? I thought you'd sooner kill him."

Squall clenched his jaw, reminded of his reaction on Ragnarok, and shook his head. "Why should I? He's not a threat."

Rinoa froze and gave him a disbelieving look. " 'Not a threat', Squall? He gave me to Adel!"

Voices quieted around them, people turning to stare at the altercation.

Squall rubbed tiredly at his scar. "Can we talk about this in your office?"

Rinoa looked, for a moment, like she was going to refuse to take the discussion to a more private setting, but then she seemed to remember who she was fighting with and deflated. "Yes, fine," she acquiesced before turning away and leading the way to the cleanest building in town, the walls clearly washed fairly recently. It was far enough removed from the train tracks, that it could probably go a few months before it would fade back into the soot-covered backdrop of the rest of the town, and Squall had to applaud the wisdom of whomever had picked this building for Timber's resident 'Princess'.

Rinoa's office was on the second floor. The furniture was clearly meant for comfort, with the desk shoved back in a corner, while a couch and three chairs arranged around a low table took up most of the room. The desk looked too neat to Squall, as though it wasn't used often for real work, while the couch and chairs were clearly well-used, judging by the disorderly pile of recent magazines on the table, surrounded by rings from a cup that no one had bothered to find a coaster for.

Rinoa dropped into the couch, then looked very pointedly at the other end when Squall eyed the chairs. Squall obeyed the silent order with a sigh, resigned to what was looking to be a difficult discussion.

The door clicked open as Squall settled into the too-plush couch, Lion Heart unbuckled and leaning against the arm next to him, in easy reach. "Did you want any refreshments, Miss Heartilly?" a young woman who was probably about six years older than Rinoa and Squall asked.

"Some juice would be lovely," Rinoa agreed before looking at Squall. "Anything?"

"Water," Squall decided with a shrug.

"Right away," the woman promised before the door closed behind her again.

Rinoa's expression darkened faintly. "Squall."

Squall sighed and resisted the urge to rub at his scar again. "I don't hold his actions during the war against him."

"Any of them?" Rinoa demanded.

Squall eyed her tiredly. "You accepting Adel's powers was part of our original plan," he reminded her. "The way events went wasn't optimal–"

" 'Wasn't optimal'," Rinoa interrupted, tone somewhere between disbelieving and irritated. "Squall, could you, for once, at least pretend you care?"

Squall tensed, but they were interrupted by the return of the young woman who had asked after refreshments before he could figure out how to respond to that.

"Here we are!" the woman chirped as she brought over two glasses and sat them on the table in front of Squall and Rinoa. She had a tin under one arm, which she easily popped open before setting it down between the drinks, revealing chocolate chip biscuits. "I thought you might appreciate a snack," she offered before seeming to notice the tense atmosphere.

Rinoa offered her a tight smile. "Thank you, Rosie. I'll let you know if we need anything else."

The woman eyed Squall's gunblade uncertainly. "If you're sure..."

"I am. Thank you."

Once the door had clicked closed again behind her, Squall quietly said, "Of course I care, Rinoa."

"You have a funny way of showing it!"

Squall leaned forward and rubbed roughly against his eyelids. "I've known Seifer practically my whole life. Excuse me if I find it difficult to hold a grudge about the fact that he let himself be sworn into the service of a madwoman."

Rinoa shifted, the fabric of the couch rustling, and when Squall looked over, he found she'd pulled her knees up to her chest, hugging them and appearing so very small, especially with her boots left on the floor. "I can't do that, just let everything go," she told him quietly.

"I'm not asking you to," Squall pointed out tiredly. "All I said was that he got on my case because he thinks I'm a crap Knight."

"What, is he planning to take your place?" Rinoa muttered peevishly.

Squall snorted. "Hardly. He just wants me to visit you every now and again." He gave a careless wave of his hand. "Something about physical contact being necessary to help calm your magic."

"Oh." Rinoa shifted again, reaching around her knees for her glass. "That was...nice of him."

Squall eyed his own drink for a minute before shaking his head. "Is he right?"

"...yes," she admitted.

Squall rubbed at his eyes, irritated. "And you couldn't have said something?"

She stretched out one of her legs and shoved her foot against the outside of his leg. "Would you have listened?"

"Yes!"

She didn't seem to think that required a response, beyond taking a loud slurp of her juice.

The noise sounded disbelieving to Squall's ears and he groaned, drooping back against the couch. "Probably not," he admitted. "He's right. I fucked everything up."

Rinoa let out a startled laugh and shifted again, her other foot coming to rest against Squall's leg. "Did he really say that?"

"Yes." Squall glanced over to find her resting her head sideways against the back of the couch, glass held between her hands against her stomach. She was watching him with a sort of helpless smile that made him think she was laughing at him. "What?"

She shook her head. "I didn't think anything could get you out of Garden. Turns out all I'd have needed to do was find Seifer and tell him to go knock some sense into you."

Squall shook his head and looked back towards his water. "He wouldn't have come. Not without knowing if he was welcome."

Rinoa shoved at him with her feet. "Squall," she said disbelievingly, "are you saying that you went to him?"

Squall shrugged.

Rinoa shoved at him again. "You owe me an explanation, Squall."

Squall glanced over at her, amusement bubbling in his chest, and raised an eyebrow at her. "Do I?"

"Yes. I've been trying to get you out from behind your desk for months. What did Seifer do that the rest of us never thought of?"

Squall shifted, needing to get up and pace, but certain that wouldn't go over well. "You know Galbadia's been keeping an eye on him?"

Rinoa shrugged. "I figured someone was," she admitted before eyeing him. "Though, I'd have expected it to be something SeeD took up, considering where he was trained."

Squall shrugged. "I didn't think he was enough of a threat to require a nanny."

Rinoa laughed.

Squall leaned forward and picked up his glass, if only to save the table's finish from further liquid damage. "I told Governor Chen that it was a waste of resources, and he responded by making sure I got a copy of the report every month." Squall sighed. "I realised where Seifer was headed and Irvine was in my office pestering me to get out again, so I thought I'd...shorten his trip."

"Really?" Rinoa complained.

He grimaced and shrugged. "He was heading for the orphanage. This time of year, he wouldn't have made it to Poccahari Island, never mind the cape."

"You were worried about him," Rinoa murmured, sounding surprised.

Squall sent her a tired look.

Rinoa sighed and shook her head. "I don't understand you sometimes, Squall. He was your rival, and then our enemy."

Squall shrugged. "It's complicated."

Rinoa sighed again. "It always is, with you."

Squall gritted his teeth against a flare of irritation. This argument was familiar, and while he would usually just change the subject, he realised that he actually wanted her to understand what Seifer meant to him. Because Seifer wasn't going to go away, and he didn't enjoy feeling like he needed to pick between his...lover and his Sorceress.

"When I was a kid," he got out, the words harsh to his own ears, but he wasn't sure how to modulate his voice; he didn't share things, "after Sis left, Seifer was the one who kept following me around, trying to get me to do anything but wait for her to come back." He glanced towards Rinoa, taking in her openly surprised expression. "Seifer and I were the only ones who never got adopted; we went to Garden together. We always got stuck training together, because we were the littlest."

"He was your friend," Rinoa realised, voice breaking.

Squall looked down at his water and moved his shoulder in a jerky shrug. "We were all each other had. Until he met Fujin and Raijin."

"He pushed you away," Rinoa guessed.

Squall closed his eyes and shook his head, shame choking his throat when he admitted, "No. He tried to include me. I–"

"Oh, Squall..." Rinoa whispered. Her glass clinking against the table and the shifting of the couch was the only warning he got before she was wrapping her arms around him, letting out a heavy breath against his neck.

Squall felt stiff, ever uncertain how to react to Rinoa's tactile nature. Matron he was resigned to (and she seemed to know just how much touching she could get away with), and Selphie didn't mind if he pulled away when she decided to tug on him, but Rinoa would be hurt if he tried brushing her off, and she didn't seem to have whatever sixth sense Matron employed to know when she was forcing him out of his comfort zone.

Rinoa sighed after a moment and returned to her side of the couch, feet pressing comfortably against the side of Squall's leg again. "If you missed him so much, why didn't you go after him sooner?" She shoved him with her feet. "You knew where he was."

Squall shifted, resigned to the continued shoving and trying to find a more comfortable position, to lessen the ache of his inner thighs from Seifer's nightly abuse. "I was busy," he muttered.

"You're always busy," Rinoa complained, withdrawing her feet so he could get comfortable, then returning them to pressing against the side of his leg. "I'd even guess you were busy when you decided he needed a ride, so what changed? The fact that he might have been in trouble?"

"It doesn't matter," he informed her before taking a sip of his water.

She huffed. "Fine. Don't tell me." She shoved him with her feet again, and it was a relief when his new position kept it from aching. "How did Edea taking you two visiting?"

"She stuffed us full of brownies and then sent us out to weed the garden when we started arguing," Squall replied, deadpan.

Rinoa laughed. "I am going to treasure that mental image."

Squall snorted.

"You'll have to warn everyone else he's staying with her," she commented. "Unless..."

Squall glanced over and felt his stomach drop at the way her eyes had narrowed. "He's coming back to Balamb with me."

"Is he in the Ragnarok?"

"Yes."

"And you couldn't have told me that sooner?"

Squall rubbed at his scar. "To what end? He's promised to stay on the ship."

"And you really believe him?" Rinoa demanded, incredulous.

"Yes."

Something in Squall's tone must have caught Rinoa's attention, for she fell very still for a moment, eyes narrowed, before she asked, quietly, "What aren't you telling me, Squall?"

"Noth–"

"Don't start lying to me now," Rinoa interrupted, irritated. "I dated Seifer for three months; as soon as you tell him he needs to do something, he does the exact opposite."

Squall shifted, strangely uncomfortable at the reminder that Seifer and Rinoa had dated at one point. "I didn't tell him to stay on board, that was his choice. He knows he's not welcome."

"And when has that ever stopped him?" Rinoa muttered.

Squall gave her a tired look. "Even the Timber citizens who aren't part of the city guard know how to manage some form of weapon; he's not suicidal."

She considered that for a moment, then pulled her feet away from him and dropped them to the floor. "I want to talk to him," she decided as she reached for her boots.

"No," he replied immediately, torn between feeling over-protective and afraid of what Seifer would say.

Rinoa shoved her feet into her boots and stood before saying, "You said he's not a threat."

"He isn't," Squall agreed, standing himself, "but that doesn't mean–"

Rinoa shoved her finger against the centre of his chest, just above Griever's head. "If he isn't a threat, then it's fine if I talk to him." She walked around the couch towards the door.

"He's going to be an asshole," Squall tried, grabbing Lion Heart and strapping his weapon on as he hurried after her.

"I'm a big girl, Squall," Rinoa chided, not even slowing down.

Squall ground his teeth together and caught up to her, giving in to the inevitable.

Seifer was in the cockpit still, his chair tilted back and his coat draped over his face, as though blocking out the sun so he could get a little sleep. His hand, though, was curled tightly around Hyperion's hilt, the gunblade resting innocently in his lap, and Squall held up a hand to block Rinoa before she could move forward. "Seifer," he called.

Seifer's hand relaxed. "You haven't been gone nearly long enough, Leonhart," he informed Squall, voice muffled by his coat. "Go back to your Sorceress."

"I'm right here," Rinoa interrupted.

Seifer went tense and slowly reached up to tug his coat off his face. He blinked towards the lift, where Squall and Rinoa were standing, and licked his lips before offering, "Hello, Rinoa. Long time no irritate."

Squall bit back a groan and rubbed at his scar.

Rinoa huffed. "Seifer. I'm surprised to see you walking around free. Did someone blow up D-District?"

Seifer narrowed his eyes. "I was acquitted."

"You wouldn't have been, if I'd had a say."

Seifer smiled at her in a way that made Squall warn, "Seifer."

Seifer glanced at him, blinked at his disapproving stare, then snorted and leaned back in his chair. "Sorry, Princess, but your Knight says I need to play nice."

Rinoa glanced up at Squall, then back over at Seifer, before throwing up her hands. "No, I still don't get it. What's he hanging over your head?" she demanded of Seifer.

Squall groaned; so that's what this was about.

Seifer laughed. "Sorry, Rinoa, but I'm not allowed to divulge that information."

"But you admit he's holding something over your head," Rinoa checked.

"I don't know that I'd say it's over my head. It's more at chest-level, right–"

"Seifer," Squall bit out. "Enough."

Seifer flashed him a smile that was somewhere between 'I'm going to fuck you so hard tonight' and 'You're going to have to kill me to shut me up'.

"Oh," Rinoa said, surprised.

They both looked at her, Squall frowning, Seifer smirking.

Rinoa reached back, to the lift controls behind her, and activated the panel she and Squall were standing on. As they dropped down, Seifer called out, "Hey!"

Once they'd stopped on the top deck, Rinoa turned to look at the controls. After a moment, the panel let out the angry sound that told Squall she'd locked the lift in place. He rubbed tiredly at his face and commented, "You realise he can unlock the lift from up there."

"Are you sleeping with him?" Rinoa asked, tone mild.

Squall tried very hard not to tense. "Does it matter?" he asked, hoping he could just brush the whole conversation off, but certain she wasn't going to let him. Not this time.

She frowned at him. "Is it consensual?"

Squall blinked, thrown. "I– What?" 'What does that have to do with anything?'

Rinoa placed a gentle hand on his chest, palm covering Griever. "Did he force you at all?"

"No!"

She sighed and stepped forward, bringing both hands up to tug his jacket straight. "I should be more surprised," she murmured before glancing up at him, brown eyes sad over a helpless sort of smile. "He's been important to you for a long time, hasn't he?"

"Yes," Squall admitted, heart in his throat.

She nodded and stepped back. "I'd like to come back to Garden with you. Get a chance to see everyone again, maybe help soothe some ruffled feathers." She smiled at him in that way that she did when she'd made a joke and wanted to make sure he'd caught it.

The lift jerked into movement and Squall reached out to steady her. "And who's going to soothe your feathers?" he asked.

Rinoa glanced towards where Seifer was coming into view, relaxing back against the control panel he'd used to bring them back up and wearing a ridiculously smug expression. "Not who," she corrected thoughtfully, "but what."

Squall frowned. "What?"

Rinoa patted his arm before turning fully to Seifer. "Now you can send us back down so I can get a few things and warn people I'm going to Balamb for a few days."

Surprise wiped the smugness from Seifer's face and he looked at Squall. Squall shrugged in response, already resigned to Rinoa's decision.

Seifer rolled his eyes and turned away to activate the lift again.

-0-

Rinoa packing an overnight bag and saying goodbye to her staff didn't take long, and they were quickly back on the Ragnarok. Squall left her to fight with her locker – she insisted it always got stuck, but Squall had never had trouble with it, and she'd told him months ago that he wasn't allowed to help her with it if he refused to at least pretend he had sympathy for her suffering – and headed up to start up the ship.

Seifer was back in the co-pilot's chair, coat on and Hyperion set very obviously off to one side, where he wouldn't be able to reach it without some effort. Squall appreciated the gesture, even if he refused to react to it. "Where's Rinoa?" the blond asked.

"Putting her things away," Squall replied as he started across the cockpit, the lift whirring quietly behind him as it returned to the top deck to wait for Rinoa.

Seifer nodded as Squall stopped next to him to input their auto-pilot destination and tell the system to lift off. "I didn't dangle anything in front of her," he pointed out, sounding a little hopeful.

Squall sighed and turned around to look at Seifer, leaning his hip against the front edge of the console. "And?"

"A little less cold shoulder might be nice," Seifer commented.

Squall scowled. "I'm not giving you the cold shoulder, Seifer."

"You're giving the world the cold shoulder," Seifer returned without bite, then stood, catching Squall around the waist so he couldn't move away.

"Let go."

Seifer shook his head. "I don't do well with secret relationships, Squall," he pointed out, voice quietly serious. "People are going to find out, especially people who know me. Get over it."

Squall snorted and looked out the windscreen, watching as they reached altitude and Mandy Beach began to pass by under them.

Seifer sighed, breath fanning out over Squall's throat. "Difficult," he whispered before pressing a kiss against Squall's jugular.

Squall closed his eyes and relaxed against the blond, signalling his defeat. "Ass," he muttered in response.

Seifer chuckled and threaded a hand into Squall's hair, turning his head back for a brief kiss. "You do have a fine one."

Squall hit him hard enough to earn him a surprised exhale against his mouth, then brought up both his hands to trap Seifer's head so he could steal the blond's breath with a hard kiss.

Seifer pulled back with a gasp after a long moment, cheeks brushed with pink and pupils unnaturally wide.

"Damn," Rinoa commented, and Squall jumped as much as Seifer's hold would let him and looked over towards the lift, only to find it empty. He found her sitting comfortably in the navigation chair, at the perfect angle to see every nuance of his and Seifer's interactions; clearly, she'd been there for a while. "My feathers have been soothed, but don't stop on my account," she teased, eyes glinting.

Squall groaned and dropped his head onto Seifer's shoulder while the blond let out a loud laugh. "I never took you for a voyeur, Rinoa," Seifer commented before pressing a kiss to Squall's neck.

Rinoa let out a loud sniff. "There's a lot you don't know about me, Seifer."

"Stop it," Squall ordered when he felt Seifer breathing a little too deeply in preparation to insult the Sorceress.

"Is this your way of picking her over me?" Seifer asked in a wounded tone. His fingers were gently combing through Squall's hair, however, which served as proof that he wasn't actually bothered.

"Rinoa doesn't need me to ensure her safe passage back into Garden," he deadpanned, pulling back to give Seifer an unamused stare. "Let go."

"Squall!" Rinoa called, disapproving.

But Seifer just chuckled and pressed a quick kiss to Squall's mouth before letting go. "Your Sorceress takes you far too seriously."

Squall rolled his eyes and shoved Seifer back into to co-pilot chair, which the larger gunblader allowed with a loud 'oomph!' "Most people tend to take me seriously," he commented as he stepped over to his own chair. Before he sat, he caught Rinoa's frown and shrugged. "You do."

Rinoa huffed. "If you had more expressions than 'blank stare', it might help the rest of us."

"He's also got 'irritated glare'," Seifer helpfully pointed out.

"Oh, and that one stare, the one that says 'you're so stupid, I don't know how you're still alive'!"

Squall rubbed his hands over his face while the two laughed, torn between relief that they seemed to be getting along, and irritation that he was their current target.

"Thank you, I suppose, Seifer," Rinoa said once the laughter had died down.

"Oh? What have I maybe, possibly done right this time, and how can I screw it up quickly?"

Squall snorted and shot Seifer an amused glance, earning him an eye roll.

"You got Squall to come see me," Rinoa explained, wisely ignoring Seifer. "The others have been trying for months; you managed it in a week."

Seifer shrugged, the motion stiff with nerves, though Squall expected Rinoa wouldn't notice that; Seifer was exceedingly good at pretending he was perfectly at ease when he was the exact opposite. "I don't respond well to being told 'no'."

"I had noticed that fault."

"Hey, don't knock my faults! They're getting you what you want." Seifer grinned, wide and overly toothy.

Squall reached over and shoved the blond's chair, using junctioned strength to make it rock slightly.

Seifer, in response, turned his toothy grin on Squall and reached over to mess up his hair, which Squall allowed with a roll of his eyes.

"Squall," Rinoa complained, "stop telling Seifer off when he responds to my taunts. It's not fair to him."

Squall groaned and rubbed at his scar. "That's not it, Rinoa."

"It's fine," Seifer promised, moving his hand from Squall's hair to trace the side of his face. Squall closed his eyes and leaned in to the touch, certain it was as reassuring for Seifer as it was intended to be for him. "You're just going to have to trust that Squall and I know each other's boundaries, Princess."

Squall opened his eyes as the ship slowed, warning that they were approaching their destination. "Stay out of sight," he ordered Seifer as he turned off the auto-pilot and took the controls to ease the ship into the non-mobile dock built in next to Garden. There was talk of building something more permanent and build onto Garden's frame, so Ragnarok could dock even when Garden was mobile, but Squall had insisted that any such extensive work would have to wait until the next summer holiday, so the construction wouldn't disrupt the students. Much to, apparently, everyone's sorrow.

Seifer got up and leaned over to press a kiss against the top of Squall's scar. "Yes, sir," he whispered against Squall's forehead before stepping away to get Hyperion and go below.

"I mean it, Almasy!" Squall called after him, suspicious of the 'sir'.

Rinoa dropped into the recently vacated co-pilot chair. "You're intended to warn everyone first?" she guessed.

Squall nodded.

"Do you expect trouble?"

Squall sighed and shrugged. "I don't know," he admitted quietly. "They don't talk about Seifer where I can hear them, assuming they talk about him at all." He glanced at her. "Do you know anything?"

She let out her own sigh. "No. No one talks about the war with me. When they visit, we talk about Timber or Garden students."

Squall squinted against the sudden gloom of the docking bay, eyes trying to adjust to the change in light quality fast enough to actually be able to see the buttons he was hitting to land Ragnarok and shut down the systems. "We're about to find out," he commented neutrally as he stood up and turned to head for the lift.

Rinoa fell in to step next to him, and he shortened his stride so she could easily keep pace. She flashed him a grateful smile and brushed a hand over the arm of his jacket, as though she wanted to take his arm, but wasn't sure he would respond well.

Maybe she was learning to read him, at least a little.

Seifer was leaning against the wall of the hanger near the door to the lower level, hands shoved casually into his pockets. He flashed them a smile as they walked past, and Squall offered him a warning glare in response, which only made the blond's smile widen. With luck, Seifer was just screwing with him and would actually behave.

Squall was not a big believer in luck.

All of his friends were waiting for them in the docking bay, wearing welcoming smiles.

"Rinoa?" Quistis called as Rinoa and Squall walked easily down the ramp. She glanced towards Squall. "I thought you were going to visit Matron."

"I did," Squall returned.

Rinoa let out a put-upon sigh. "He stopped by Timber after getting told off for not visiting me," she explained to their audience.

"By Matron?" Zell asked.

"No," Seifer called from inside the ship, "by me."

"Seifer," Squall growled, throwing a glare over his shoulder at where his fellow gunblader was leaning casually against one side of the opening into the ship. "What. Did. I. Say?"

Seifer flashed him a grin that was all asshole and said, "I got bored." His eyes moved beyond Squall, looking over the welcoming party. "Have to admit, I'm a little impressed by the turn-out; I was pretty sure all of Leonhart's fan club traded their membership cards in for Trepie badges three years ago."

Rinoa let out a nervous giggle at Squall's side while he rubbed at his scar.

"Well," Quistis said wryly, "I suppose this explains why the Galbadians are angry with you."

The welcoming party tensed as Seifer's steps sounded on the boarding ramp, Quistis and Irvine's hands drifting towards their weapons, while Zell balled his fists; but no one actually moved to attack the blond gunblader, letting him stop at Squall's side and ruffle his hair unmolested.

Irvine let out a startled laugh and hurriedly looked away, while Selphie put on a wide grin and Quistis' eyes crinkled in that way that meant she was trying very hard not to smile. Zell, for his part, looked torn between irritation and confusion.

Squall grabbed Seifer's wrist and pulled it down to hold it captive at his side. "Don't even think about it," he ordered when Seifer started turning, as though intending to reach over with his other hand and continue messing with Squall's hair. "Have I missed anything important? Other than Galbadia," he asked Quistis as he worked one thumb under the sleeve of Seifer's coat and glove to rub it soothingly against his wrist.

"Some minor training accidents," Quistis reported. "There's two missions waiting on your desk for you to approve, and our Head of Security quit."

"Another one?" Rinoa asked, surprised.

"To be fair, he ended up in the infirmary first," Selphie piped up.

"Oh no," Rinoa whispered.

"What happened?" Squall requested tiredly; it was the seventh time since refilling the security ranks after the war that they'd lost a member, and the second time they'd lost the head of the squad.

"Take a guess," Irvine drawled, eyes flicking up towards Seifer. "Word is someone idolises you, Sir Almasy."

Seifer sneered, but held his tongue when Squall squeezed his wrist.

"Wickham and his crew again, then," Squall guessed before glancing up at Seifer. When Seifer glanced down, one eyebrow raised, Squall said, "If you can handle the problem in two days, without sending anyone to Kadowaki, I'll make you Head of Security. Otherwise, you're scraping the barrel. Clear?"

"You're hiring Seifer?" Quistis asked, startled, while Zell moaned, "Aw, man, Squall, no."

Seifer considered the offer for a minute. "What do I get if I do it in one day?" he asked before very obviously leering at Squall.

Squall bit back a sigh. "Just get it done."

"Hey, it's about dinner time here, right?" Rinoa realised.

"It's a little early still," Quistis replied, shaking her head.

"The staff would be willing to serve us early, though, I bet," Rinoa pointed out.

Zell perked up. "Oh, yeah, they would! Just gotta tell 'em Squall's back!"

Squall closed his eyes. "I'm not hungry," he announced. "And I have wor–"

"Nope!" Seifer interrupted, turning and covering Squall's mouth with the hand that Squall didn't have a grip on. "You are, officially, still on holiday."

Squall ripped the hand away from his mouth, turning to glare at Seifer. "According to whom, Almasy?"

Seifer put on a mock thoughtful air. "It's funny, but I seem to recall someone saying they had intended to stay another day at the orphanage. Which means...? Wait for it..."

"You made me leave a day early," Squall replied, irritated. "It's your fault we're back early, and if I'm here, I intend to–"

"Get some real sparring in?" Seifer suggested, eyes glinting with victory.

Squall paused, the suggestion an extremely attractive one; sparring with Seifer in Centra had hardly been a disappointment, but it had lacked the rush of using real weapons. But without Matron around, telling them they couldn't use their gunblades...

Squall let out an irritated breath, realising Seifer had won this round. "I hate you so much."

Seifer smirked and glanced over at their audience, which Squall only now realised had taken a couple of steps back, as though afraid the two gunbladers would come to blows right there. "We'll meet everyone in the cafeteria in an hour for dinner. And someone can show me this kid while we're eating."

"Ooh! I want to watch!" Selphie called, bouncing and waving her hand in the air.

"I second that," Rinoa added, smiling faintly.

Seifer glanced at Squall and he sighed before announcing, "We're going outside."

Seifer raised an eyebrow at that, but didn't refuse, so Squall let go of him and turned to lead the way towards the door hidden against one side of the docking bay, which would let them out at the back of Garden, not far from the path up into the mountains that led to their preferred sparring space.

Judging by the sound of the footsteps behind him, everyone was coming to watch.

It was chilly up in the mountains, and Squall glanced back at the line of his friends once he had reached the largely flat area. Rinoa was hugging her arms, while Selphie was bouncing more than usual, trying to keep her blood flowing to keep herself warm.

He shot Seifer a pointed look as he tugged his own jacket off, and the blond gave a short nod before slipping out of his coat and holding out his hand for Squall's, which he handed over without fuss. "Who's going to watch these for us?" Seifer called out while Squall saw to his junctions.

When Seifer walked back over, lazily drawing Hyperion, Squall glanced towards the two women and nodded to see Selphie wrapped in Seifer's too-big coat, while Rinoa hugged Squall's jacket around herself.

"Call?" Seifer murmured, pitched so their audience wouldn't hear.

Squall considered that for a moment, debating the wisdom in saying first blood, given their audience, then shrugged; it was no secret to this group that Seifer and Squall weren't afraid to get rough with each other. "Blood."

Seifer's eyes glinted with something dangerous and hungry, and he stepped back, bringing his gunblade around to a ready position. "Are you still holding an Ultima over my head?" he called, loud enough that the others would hear.

Squall narrowed his eyes. "Would you like to find out the hard way?" he returned before swinging his blade up and gently tapping it against Seifer's.

Seifer laughed. "You need to mean it, Squally," he taunted before jumping into motion, his blade reflecting the dying rays of the sun and the inner glow of Lion Heart at every turn.

Squall stared past the blinding blade, only vaguely aware of it as he parried Seifer's blows. His gaze was held by Seifer's face and upper body, watching his muscles move to know where he was going next, and his eyes to know when the move was going to be a feint, years of sparring letting him read his partner like a book.

Squall didn't let himself think, just reacted, letting his mind fall back into a mental space that was calming in a way that little was. Sparring with Seifer like this, blades moving so fast they were truly deadly, was the truest form of freedom he'd found.

Seifer let out a grunt, just the right tone to snap Squall out of his quiet space, and he immediately stepped back, letting his blade drop to the side as he searched for–

There, small enough to be barely noticeable, red welled up against the pale skin of Seifer's bared forearm. It was his left arm, so it wouldn't have troubled him if they kept going, but they'd agreed on first blood, not 'first maiming', so...

Squall gave an absent flick of Lion Heart, ingrained in his after-battle care after too many fights against opponents who he'd fought to kill, and sheathed it as he stepped forward. "Let me see," he ordered.

Seifer rolled his eyes, giving his own weapon an absent flick before sliding Hyperion back into its sheath. "It's just a scratch, Leonhart."

Squall just stared at him and waited, a cure spell tingling against his lips.

Seifer sighed and held his arm out, giving in.

Squall very pointedly held Seifer's gaze as he leaned his head down and pressed his lips to the cut, letting the cure spell flow out and over it.

Seifer's eyes went wide, and then he laughed, loud and delighted. "Where did you learn that trick?" he asked as Squall straightened, fingers absently brushing against Seifer's arm, which the blond continued to let him hold.

"Just now," Squall admitted, shrugging.

Seifer chuckled, eyes appreciative, and leaned in to kiss Squall, licking at the hint of blood tainting his lips before diving into his mouth.

Squall didn't remember about their audience until Selphie and Rinoa let out catcalls. "Dammit, Seifer," he muttered against the blond's mouth before letting himself be drawn back into the kiss, refusing to care.

Seifer was right: The others would have figured it out quickly enough anyway.

..