By Darksquall and Race Ulfson

Disclaimer: The characters contained herein belong to SquareEnix and we aren't making any money from this.
Warnings: Eventual Yaoi, teenage boys being teenage boys. This is our epic, guys.
Rating: PG for now. We’ll get it to a mature rating eventuall

Summary: Seventeen, lost and alone, Squall Leonhart is on the run from his father and Esthar - he never expected to run straight into the arms of Seifer Almasy. This chance meeting gives them a chance to bury the hatchet (Seifer/Squall eventual).

Chapter Two.

“Friendship is born at that moment when one person says to another, 'What! You too? I thought I was the only one.”
C. S. Lewis

March 18th.

Trying to shield himself from the eyeball piercing thread of light that determinedly made its way through the infinitesimally small gap between the dingy grey-brown curtains, Seifer scowled to himself. With his free arm lifted to block the light and source of pain, he took a moment to gather his wits and tried to will his head to move.

It came to him very slowly that to have a free arm, he had to therefore have a pinned arm. Now that the light was no longer stabbing him in the corneas, Seifer turned his head a little and realised there was a Leonhart sleeping on his other arm.

This in itself was not an every day occurrence, naturally. It had been once, when they’d been so small they’d had to share one of the tiny orphanage beds that always seemed to have a spring determined to poke unsuspecting children in the arm or back or leg. Not to mention back when Squall had been young enough to admit to the nightmares that had plagued him night after night, despite his age, and crawl into the bed with Seifer in an effort to ward them off. Those days, however, were long passed and like most good times, they weren’t coming back.

Squall was dead to the world for the moment, curled quite happily against Seifer’s side as he slumbered on serenely. The nightmares must have faded like most of his childhood memories long since – or somehow in the years of being caught up in the farce of garden had pushed the awful dreams aside and left Squall some manner of peace in their stead.

However, none of this was explaining why Squall was in bed with him, leaning on his shoulder. There had to be a reason somewhere…

Damned if Seifer could think of one, though.

He didn’t have long to wait for to satisfy his curiosity. After only a matter of minutes, Squall made a soft noise of waking, rubbing a hand over his face.

“Before we pull our weapons and all that…,” Seifer started. To his surprise, Leonhart did not tense at the sound of his voice, thereby confirming his suspicions that this was somehow some cosmic joke and in fact, not a drunken hallucination. Nor even an after drunken hallucination. “Do you have any idea where we are?”

Squall nodded, stretching as he tried to find the energy to sit up and crawl out of bed. “Room 102 of the Westguard hotel. Somewhere in the Galbadian desert.”

For a moment, Seifer considered what would lend itself to be the best response to this revelation. Not only that but the fact that Squall was awake, and still leaning against him caused him some concern in and of itself alone – Squall was not supposed to be leaning against him, not supposed to be pressed up to his side in a cheap motel bed. It didn’t make sense, but Seifer’s head was pounding too much for him to really care.

“If you say we eloped, I am taking this place apart looking for the camera,” Seifer grumbled at last. He closed his eyes again, squeezing them tight shut in the hope that he would somehow be able to ward away the worst of the pain, however impossible he knew it to be.

“You were drunk and being a wuss,” Squall explained helpfully.

Even though the voice was soft, it was loud enough for every word to jab right into Seifer’s alcohol addled brain and make him want to hide his head under the pillow from the words. He didn’t particularly care what they were, as long as they stopped. At least at first he didn’t care what they were. As Seifer began to comprehend them despite the pain they invoked, he couldn’t quite believe what he was hearing. The outright lies – they had to be lies.

“I saved your ass from three Trabians and bought you here,” Squall finished, pulling himself away from Seifer’s loosening grip and sitting up. His hair was even more dishevelled than it usually was when he decided he was fit for human company, but a few quick strokes of his fingers smoothed it back into its normal style.

Seifer was beginning to wonder if Squall had ever seen a comb.

“Highly unlikely,” he sniffed haughtily. He would have said ‘impossible’ but considering the morning thus far, Seifer was willing to allow more leeway in probabilities.

There was also the fact that being so close to Squall after all that had happened, after all that had passed between them was quite disconcerting. Squall was supposed to be his enemy and rival, Squall was not supposed save him from anything and he certainly shouldn’t wind up sleeping with him – even if it was in the completely innocent manner that Seifer was hoping it had been.

Stretching again, just for a moment, Squall made a soft sound of satisfaction. His eyes closed as he held it, his head tipped up and the tiny but evil shaft of light that had found its way into the room for the express purpose of torturing Seifer lit up Squall’s familiar profile. He looked sleepy, content, and sweet as a child, which was disproved as soon as he turned to poke the wound on Seifer’s arm - none too gently- in an attempt to prove his point. “Sorry to disappoint you.”

“Little fuck,” Seifer cursed, curling around his arm defensively, glowering up at Squall.

“Not unless you got adventurous after I went to sleep,” Squall returned absently. He crawled to the edge of the bed, rubbing his shoulder thoughtfully as he eyed the bags on the floor. Squall seemed typically lost in thought; at least it gave Seifer time to gather his wits and try to regroup. Since when had Squall functioned so damn well without caffeine?

The faintest thought wiggled through Seifer’s hangover, the memory of spending the previous night wondering how Squall had become so thin in such a comparatively short time. He was not the feral, lean creature that he’d been at the end of the war and even less so the strong little warrior who had fought with him that morning before it had all begun, just growing out of the last of his baby fat.

Squall was indeed thinner than he’d remembered. Of course he’d always been a pretty guy, and the time he’d been away from garden had only served to intensify that - his hair was longer, he looked somehow softer than he’d been when he’d been the leather bound little thorn in Seifer’s side. He almost looked… girlish.

However, when Seifer allowed his eyes to travel below Squall’s throat, to the scarred skin of his torso, he was reminded that Squall was still dangerous, even if his ribs were more prominent than was probably right – his chest still bore the scar from their matron’s icicle, though the mark was a lot smaller than he had ever expected it to be after seeing that wound. He’d lifted Squall’s body, seen the blood streaming from the black leathers he’d been wearing…

“Not into little kids, Leonhart,” he growled, eyeing the few faint scars on Squall’s body beside the one on his forehead that Seifer himself had inflicted. There were fewer than he’d expected, and he was half sure that Squall had avoided healing the wounds in time to prevent the scar tissue on purpose, to make him look more manly. He certainly needed the help looking as he did.

Squall always seemed to know just how to piss him off. It was why Seifer was so determined to make pissing Squall off in kind part of his day.

“How’s your head?” Squall smirked at him as he picked up his jacket. It was different to the one he’d worn at garden, still leather but no fur collar – he looked odd without if after all these years. The leather itself was battered and worn along the cuffs and elbows – it couldn’t have been his own, it was a size too big and it just didn’t look right. It didn’t look Squall somehow. “Should I open the curtains?”

“Only if you want me to bleed to death through my eyes.”

“That’s a yes, then?”

“Fucker,” Seifer cursed, throwing a hand over his eyes in an effort to protect himself from the glare of the light. However, Squall didn’t open the curtain; there was no hiss of brass rings on the aged pole. “Do whatever you want, I’m taking a shower.”

Saying he would take a shower and actually finding the strength and urge to do so were two different things. His legs refused to listen to his commands to move, his back was determined to remain set in the position it had been all night and Seifer was sure if he mentioned that to Squall he’d be laughed out of the bedroom.

Seifer Almasy was not a morning person, even without a hangover. He especially did not like waking up with a smug brunet when he had a terminal headache, though he was sure Squall would annoy him even if he had been sober the night before.

Something dropped at Seifer’s side with a rattle, whatever it was bouncing on the ratty covers of the bed and rolling to bump against him gently. Cautiously, he opened one jade green eye to peer through his fingers at Squall before looking down at the item that had landed.

It was simply a small bottle of painkillers but it was enough to make Seifer debate kissing Squall with relief. Of course, he didn’t doubt for a moment that Squall would take that the wrong way. “Okay. You’re adopted.”

“Sorry, I already have one dead beat father,” Squall shrugged the comment away; he was scowling again, his free hand curled into a fist on his hip as he dug through his bag for something.

“You do?” Seifer asked absently. After a moment, the faintest flicker of recollection slid through his brain. The words Squall had spoken the previous night, about Esthar, about his father, though they’d only been brief and the awareness of them was fuzzy at best, Seifer still remembered the anger and bitterness in Squall’s voice when he’d spoken of the country he was on the run from, as well as the man who led it. Not to mention newspaper articles, but they were hazy and distant before coffee. “Wait, you found your dad… And he was some officious prick. You ran away, right?”

Squall made a soft, irritated sound as he returned his attention to Seifer. He looked reluctant to speak for a moment, his hand fisting in the collar of his leather jacket until the already worn surface threatened to crack or tear at his touch. “Laguna Loire.”

Having nothing to say to that, Seifer twisted the cap off the bottle of painkillers and tapped a few out onto his palm. He took them with no preamble, grimacing at the bitter taste. His stomach didn’t appreciate the sudden influx of medicine and rolled threateningly.

“Are you trying to kill yourself again?” Squall asked huffily, straightening to head for the bathroom. A sigh of frustration floated back and if his target had been within reach, Seifer would have smacked Squall just for that. Just to remind him of his place.

“I never tried to kill myself! I’m very fond of me,” Seifer scowled. Swallowing as though he could somehow dismiss the disgusting flavor from his mouth, Seifer shuddered. It wasn’t the most pleasant of tastes all by itself but with the post drink coating on his tongue, it was somehow even worse. “Gah, need water.”

Squall disappeared into the bathroom, calling back over his shoulder “Stay there, for Hyne’s sake.”

Deigning to do so, just because moving was not one of his best options at that particular moment, Seifer glowered at the ceiling. He had a vague memory of eyeing the water stain he found there the previous night; though he wasn’t particularly sure he wanted to examine it too closely because, in faint eyeball killing morning light, it didn’t look like a water stain.

Returning with a glass of water, Squall crossed to the bed and folded the glass in Seifer’s hand, wrapping his fingers around the cool vessel. The water seemed clear enough, as Seifer eyed it, and he had no choice but to take the offer - so he drank deeply.

Fortunately after a few weeks of Raijin’s cooking he was sure his stomach could take just about anything.
The water was a million miles away from what he really needed – a cup of coffee – but it was cool, wet and managed to take away some of the lingering tang of the medicine. Enough to make Seifer feel a little more human, and a little more aware of his surroundings at least.

“Squall,” he began, eyeing the younger man cautiously. Squall was thinner, Seifer could see it in his face, see the shadows under his eyes and it just wasn’t right. “You look like something the cat dragged in.”

“Thanks, it’s nice to see you alive too.”

“Yeah, okay, but the hero is supposed to live happily…” Seifer’s train of thought was interrupted as Squall folded a small cloth and laid it on Seifer’s forehead. He’d soaked it when he was in the bathroom, and the cool touch did help soothe his aching head just a little. “Thanks – happily ever after.”

Squall scoffed softly, rolling his eyes. He straightened, leaning against the wall beside the bed and folded his arms over his chest. Defensive and petulant, he looked like the seventeen year old he was for perhaps the first time in his life. “I wish someone had told Loire that before he’d had me frogmarched out of Balamb and onto a transport to Esthar.”

“Hyne on a cracker, they edited that out of the news.”

“Not good PR material I suppose,” Squall mused.

“On the other hand, only you would rather stay at Garden than be the Prince,” Seifer tucked one arm beneath his head and edged the cloth down over his eyes. The aspirin was beginning, albeit slowly, to work. After Squall had so graciously made him aware of the wound in his arm, he’d realised just how much it ached. The dull throb was sickeningly constant, but he wouldn’t give Leonhart the satisfaction of seeing him wince any more than absolutely necessary.

Seifer hated mornings.

The bed dipped as Squall sat beside him, his cool fingers gently touching Seifer’s wounded arm. Even though he was gentle, Seifer found himself bracing for the possibility of torture, of Squall using the obvious injury to further harm him.

“I like being in control of my own life, that’s all,” the soft voice was faintly distant, and Seifer found himself lifting one corner of the cloth to peek at Squall. His lips were set in a thoughtful frown as he turned and teased the open wound carefully. “I’m going to clean this up, alright?”

“Sure, thanks,” Seifer nodded. “And I guess I know where you are coming from, the control thing, I mean.”
Oh Hyne how he knew. He felt that like an icicle to the chest, and it made him feel a little more kindly towards the kid. Nothing could really make up for the previous months of fighting and bullying, let alone the number of times they’d tried to kill each other during the days of the war, but that single statement had made him feel closer to Squall again, like when they were kids. “So what did he do? Kidnap you? I guess he did, what an idiot.”

Squall moved off the bed, digging through one of the saddlebags. “Pretty much,” he shrugged as he pulled a backpack out of one and set it on the end of the bed.

“Hyne on a cracker. He should have just sent you a letter. ‘Dear Leonhart, bet you can’t break into Esthar a second time. By the way, we have a huge leather goods store, and if your girlfriend gets on your nerves you can seal her up and send her to the moon, no extra charge’.”

Squall drew a small medikit from the bag, then set on the bed and sat beside it to pop it open. A couple of bottles followed it, a potion, antiseptic… Seifer frowned. He should have just cast a cure but it was a waste, and he wasn’t sure how many he had left stocked without checking. His head was still pounding too hard for him to concentrate long enough to find out.

“Ex. On the girlfriend thing, I mean.”

“It’s always over when you mail them to the moon,” Seifer shrugged and instantly regretted it as his arm welled with fresh blood. Apparently Squall’s examination had been a little less gingerly carried out than Seifer had thought. The wound hurt more when he actually stared at it. “Anyway, I don’t get the high handed treatment. I mean, you guys were on the same side in the war.”

Squall disappeared into the bathroom, returning with another cloth. “I don’t get it either,” he admitted as he poured something from one of the bottles – Seifer couldn’t see which – onto the wet cloth he held before sitting beside him again.

The look of concentration on Squall’s face as he turned Seifer’s arm and cleaned up the worst of the dried blood from the cut was almost comical. In fact it was all Seifer could do to keep from laughing.

Until, that is, the antiseptic the dark haired pretty boy of pure evil had poured so generously onto the rag he held seeped into the open cut and Seifer very nearly jumped out of his skin at the sudden pain. “Ow, fuck! What is that, acid?”

Hauling the offending arm back to him and trapping it under his own arm so Seifer could not escape again, Squall glowered at him. His eyes were dark, gathering storm clouds as he permitted just a little of his anger to show. It was nothing, Seifer had seen his eyes so dark they looked black, seen them so pale they seemed like frozen pools of silver. “Keep still, Almasy.”

Rolling his eyes, Seifer submitted to Squall’s whims to act like a field medic. It was probably his attempt at a peace offering, that was the only way Seifer could rationalise the predominantly tender touches. “I can guess why, actually. Xu has the whole ball of wax now, doesn’t she?”

“She’s headmistress,” Squall nodded, still concentrating. “Has Shiva and all my magic.”

“And still couldn’t get laid in a Galbadian Barracks.”

“Whatever,” Squall murmured, barely paying attention.

“I’m sorry, Leonhart. I…,” sighing, Seifer shrugged his good arm and eased closer to Squall carefully, so his arm wouldn’t be held at quite such an awkward angle. “I should have warned you about her.”

“Xu?” Squall looked up. Apparently he was paying more attention than Seifer had given him credit for. The quiet boy was frowning faintly, his ‘I’m muddling through things’ expression that usually he couldn’t resist teasing and coaxing Squall out of. “Laguna would have forced me back to Esthar no matter what happened.”

“Maybe, but he wouldn’t know about your GF’s,” the older man turned his head to watch Squall still cleaning the wound. The jagged edge of the weapon had dragged fibres into the flesh and Squall was working on removing them. Seifer watched the deceptively small fingers working with only a distant awareness that it was his own arm. He remembered those slender fingers when they were still the short, stubby fingers of a child he’d led over the beach, when Squall had still looked up to him and accepted, eventually, that maybe his Sister wasn’t the be all and end all of people who cared for him. “So you made it this far with no magic? I’m impressed. And I see they couldn’t keep the ‘blade.”

“I told them they could pry it from my hands and her corpse.”

Seifer felt suddenly proud of Squall. He’d been the first one to pick up a blade, the first one to decide that the incredibly difficult weapon was the one for him, and Squall had followed in his footsteps the whole time. Always just half a step behind him, like the little brother he’d never asked for. “That’s my boy.”

He resisted the urge to ruffle Squall’s hair in congratulations but only just – if Squall hadn’t been so close to a source of pain for Seifer he would have enjoyed rubbing in that Squall was still the younger brother, the one doomed to follow. So long as Squall didn’t follow him into the control of sorceresses, Seifer would be reasonably happy.

“Besides,” Squall glanced at the hyper sheath where it hung, as though checking if it was still there to reassure himself. “I’ve upgraded so much there’s barely anything left of the revolver.”

“Really? Why? You lost your range then,” Seifer grumbled. He’d helped Squall configure his blade the first night he’d got it, when Squall had been afraid of screwing up the blade. Somehow, any changes made without his knowledge or aid seemed like a betrayal worse than finding themselves on opposing sides in the war.

Squall almost smiled. “Lionheart is a more reliable blade.”

His headache long forgotten, Seifer huffed indignantly. “More reliable than what?” he growled, angry at the perceived and implied insult – whether it was meant in jest or not. Squall knew better than to insult his rival’s blade. That was possibly the only thing Seifer would not stand for. “Nothing wrong with Hyperion’s blade configuration!”

The younger man glowered right back at Seifer. “Are you really that desperate for more antiseptic?”

“You suck as a torturer.”

“I’m the hero, remember?” Squall said, wiping Seifer’s arm particularly violently. His slender lips were turned down in the deepest scowl he’d worn all day – Seifer had managed to bug him enough to crack the mask and force him to reveal his anger and he’d hardly even tried, something was wrong. “Though you filled out that role very well.”

Seifer flinched.

It was a low blow, and they both knew it. Squall hesitated for only a moment before he mumbled “sorry”, his voice taking on a sullen tone.

“Me too.”

Looking up at Seifer through his bangs as he reached for a dressing from the bag, Squall frowned thoughtfully. Seifer could almost see the cogs turning in Squall’s head again. “For D-district?”

“For a lot of things, but yeah, for that, you think I’m proud of that or something?” he snapped, pulling away and scrambling to the edge of the bed. Seifer jumped to his feet; his heart was pounding against his ribs suddenly, and he found himself looking around for Hyperion’s hyper sheath.

Squall remained seated, having finally found the bandage he was looking for. He squeezed the white gauze in his fist, his knuckles turning almost as pale as the item he held, waiting for yet another battle. “What?!”

“What do you want? To fight me? Kill me?” Seifer asked, backing up a few steps. He turned and began pacing back and forth across the room, his feet making soft sounds on the stained carpet – Squall had to want something but he’d proved that Seifer’s death was not it the previous night after all. “No, you helped me last night. What is it then? Closure? Explanations? Apologies?”

As he paced, Seifer saw Squall’s eyes flicker from himself to the Lionheart’s hyper sheath, hooked on the headboard. However, he didn’t move, his body just tensing in readiness in case he needed to. “All I want is to avoid getting picked up by Esthar until I turn eighteen. I just happened to see you being an idiot last night and I didn’t want to see you getting killed by a few piss poor students.”

Seifer stopped and turned to stare at Squall. He wasn’t sure whether Squall was telling the truth at first, but his little brother had never really been able to lie to him – maybe that was why Ultimecia had forced him to torture the guy in the prison. She’d seen that in his mind and used it against the kid. Squall had lied for him, but he just couldn’t lie to him and be believed.

And it would have been a terrible death: stuck in an alley with a few amateurs; it just wasn’t him. “Yeah,” Seifer grinned suddenly, the irony and humour of it all hitting him. “That would have been embarrassing. Like dying on the can taking a shit.”

Squall looked relieved, the preparatory tension leaving his body in a rush. “I’ll make sure you have a decent death.”

“Yeah, at least lie to make it sound good.”

Squall stood – he might have even been a little taller than Seifer remembered. Though the tension had departed, the movements he made were still slow and precise, caution threading through every step and gentle gesture. “Saving orphans from a fire, or kittens from a flood?” he asked, choosing a dressing from the kit and tearing it from its sterile packaging. He didn’t look at his hands as he unwrapped it, nor did he take his eyes off Seifer for a moment.

Squall was right not to trust him, but it still hurt.

“Oh I was thinking in a pile of gil, surrounded by beautiful hookers. But the saintly angle works – how about a flood of kittens from flaming orphans?”

“Anything for you,” Squall said with mock reassurance. He paused suddenly, the frown catching his lips. Squall would thank him for that scar between his eyes some day, Seifer had long since decided, because if it hadn’t been for that he would still look like a girl. Those pouting lips and long lashes made him seem anything but manly. “Is this a truce?”

“Why not?” Seifer shrugged. He couldn’t see a reason against it: the problems that had occurred between them were all Ultimecia’s fault and nothing personal really, when all was said and done. Those events were long since passed and he had no reason to keep hating Squall, if indeed Seifer had ever actually hated him of his own accord. It was still difficult to remember which parts had been the sorceress and which parts had been himself. “Neither of us have much left to fight over – or with, for all that.”

A faint smile caught on Squall’s lips. It was strange to see the curl of amusement on those pale lips after so many years of it being missing. Perhaps the little fan party Squall had been travelling with had been good for him after all. “Fine. Sit down so I can tie that off before I go.”

The sudden announcement left Seifer a little taken aback; so much so in fact that he sat down without any argument. “Go where?”

“Wherever, I don’t have an aim yet.”

“Plans are overrated, but I have one. Breakfast.” Seifer nodded. He watched as Squall wound the bandage around his arm carefully and tied it off. He winced faintly as Squall pulled it tight, though he couldn’t really complain – he’d certainly had worse and given worse to Squall.

Squall arched the dark smudge of his eyebrow as he stepped back to examine his work. Seifer felt those storm cloud eyes on him more keenly than anything – like ice on his bare arm. “Can your stomach take it yet?” he asked.

That was a very good question. In his current condition Seifer seriously doubted it – his stomach rolled restlessly and his mouth felt as though a battalion of SeeDs had marched over his tongue, stabbed him in the throat a few times then marched right back out. However, he was planning on sneaking an Esuana in the bathroom to rid himself of the worst of the alcohol’s effects. “I’ll let you know after some coffee. Get dressed – why thrill the villagers? And I’ll shave my tongue.”

Seifer ducked into the bathroom while Squall dressed. He let the taps run in the basin, the first spurt from both running dark with rust or mud or something that Seifer really didn’t want to think about too much. He rinsed his mouth when it finally ran clear in the hope of clearing the taste of the doormat he’d obviously licked at sometime during the previous evening’s proceedings and cast the spell on himself.

The magic glittered and reflected in the mirror. In only a matter of seconds he felt twice as human as before. Although that really wasn't saying all that much.

After washing up and slicking his hair back with water, he was almost back to his normal self. Only the headache remained and the painkillers were working on that.

Swaggering back out of the bathroom, he pulled some cleaner clothes from his saddlebag to tug on – of course he could make absolutely anything look like a million gil even if he was feeling like death warmed over – and eyed Squall again critically. At least he seemed a little more with it in the light of morning and a fading hangover.

“What happened to Fujin and Rajin?” Squall asked, stuffing his things back into his backpack with as much care and attention as he had afforded Seifer’s arm. He was careful not to break the bottles, particularly the potion – potions were still expensive for someone out on the road, thousands of miles from home. Especially if you were on the run.

The fact that Squall had managed to fit his life into one backpack and a gunblade junction was incredibly sad to Seifer. The guy was a hero, the kind of man who would be worshipped wherever he went and here he was – travelling between backwater towns and living in motel room after motel room with so very little to call his own. His father must have been shitting bricks when he’d disappeared. Seifer shook his head to dismiss the smug smirk that caught on his lips at the thought that no one could keep his little brother, his lion down or trapped for very long. Even Seifer himself had been unable to keep Squall captive for more than a matter of days.

Damn Moombas. He’d lay good money that Squall could charm ruby dragons with a ‘Whatever’ and one of those long suffering sighs and his damned near adorable little pouts. The pretty boys got all the breaks.

“They got married,” Seifer shrugged at last. “They have a place near Rai’s folks down on Centra. He works on a fishing boat; she runs the local potion shop.”

Squall buckled the backpack slowly. His fingers were bare for the moment, pale and slender and looking almost too weak and thin to be able to lift that massive hulk of a gunblade that he’d been swinging around the previous night as though it had been as light as air. His gloves had been shoved unceremoniously into the back pocket of his dusty blue denim jeans and peeked out like a lurking pervert. “It’s…. nice to know they’re doing okay,” he murmured softly, after a minute to consider what his reply should be.

“Now that I’m not around, yeah,” Seifer grumbled. He couldn’t prevent a little bitterness from entering his voice, even if he was pretty pleased for the two of them. In fact, one of his wedding presents to Rajin had been shin guards.

Squall glowered at him, scowling as he narrowed his eyes. “You’re doing that thing again.”

“What thing?”

“Feeling sorry for yourself,” Squall replied. The scowl faded into a less than pleased frown but lost none of its intensity.

Seifer paused for a moment. He wasn’t really feeling sorry for himself; he just missed his old posse. Being without them was still alien, they’d even been with him through the majority of the war and deep down Seifer was still a somewhat social creature. He wanted some human company; it just had to be to his high standards. “It’s lack of coffee. And I’m not, you know. I fucking hate fish.”

Regarding him, Squall seemed to struggle inwardly. As though there were something he really wanted to say but just couldn’t. With a brief shrug, he pulled his backpack onto one shoulder and headed for the door. “Let’s get some coffee in you before I’m forced to kick your ass.”

He shrugged into his jacket, picking up the shoulder bags to stroll after Squall as nonchalantly and quickly as he could manage. Seifer had to keep up the façade, the pretence that he was in control even if it killed him. “Leonhart, I’ve known you your whole life. You can’t kick my ass until you’ve had coffee. And not even then.”

“I’m not the one with a hang over.”

“That’s why you might have a smidgen of a chance,” Seifer grinned at him as they reached the too bright sunshine of the parking lot again. Somehow, even though they were both so very much older, and perhaps even wiser, it still felt like walking out into the sunshine with his little brother, just as it had at the orphanage.


After paying the bill and dumping the saddle bags on his bike, Seifer led the way to the ubiquitous local diner. It was straight out of one of the old movies or comic books – gingham table cloths, maroon vinyl booth seats and plastic panelling made to look like wood but failing miserably. On every table a bright red tomato shaped ketchup dispenser sat between cracked and battered salt and pepper shakers.

Seifer didn’t look back to make sure Squall was following him. After all, Squall had already proved that he trusted Seifer by not leaving, or worse, in the night. Seifer half suspected that Squall was latching onto his company as the only worthwhile cohort in the locale as much as he was latching onto Squall. The other half of him suspected that Squall was slipping into the old habits of a childhood of trailing after the older, bigger Seifer.

Seifer strolled to a booth, scooting into the red vinyl prison of kitsch. Squall followed, slipping into the opposite seat. He was lost in thought again, well. Either that or he was being hypnotised by the gingham table cloth.

He only looked up when the waitress bought two cups of coffee and matching menus.

Flashing her one of his brilliant smiles as she turned away, Seifer picked up the menu and unfolded it. Laminated in plastic but still managing to remain slightly sticky, it was a symphony dedicated to the consumption of grease. Seifer could feel his arteries hardening just from looking at it. “No porridge or fish, thank Hyne.”

“Makes a change.”

After ten years of living in Balamb, the only thing Seifer would tolerate to do with fish was in fact fishing. Fish had been served at every meal at Balamb garden for the majority of his stay and even the sight of it on the menu was almost enough to turn his stomach. “Yeah, I might be able to eat.”

Squall sipped the black, bitter coffee with only the briefest of shudders. “Breakfast is the most important meal of the day,” he murmured absently as he finally spread the menu on the table before him.

If it could make Squall flinch, it was obviously in desperate need of milk and sugar. Seifer added as much as he could stand. “Yes, mother.”

“Kadowaki never gave you that lecture?”

Considering the question as he stirred his coffee, the spoon whining against the thick ceramic of the mug, Seifer shrugged. “Most of the ones I remember involved condoms,” he admitted, lifting the mug to his lips but not taking a sip just yet. He was still trying to work out if he’d regret it.

At least Squall hadn’t keeled over from the taste. He took that as good sign and drank. The bitter tone of the coffee wasn’t as bad as he’d first estimated and he downed a good half of the mug’s contents before setting it aside again.

“Your reputation preceded you,” Squall shrugged. He peered up through his bangs, looking so small and young in the booth seat that Seifer felt like they’d snuck out of the Garden somehow. If it hadn’t been for that scar…

Seifer couldn’t imagine where the obsession about contraceptives had come from. He’d never even gone further than kissing a girl. Shaking his head, he smirked at his breakfast companion. “That’s me,” he replied with a long suffering sigh. “School slut.”

A smile, small but still shockingly pretty, curled Squall’s lips. “I knew there was a reason you got those grades.”

“Yeah, I was banging the whole staff. Even Cid, he kept the sweater vest on.”

The smile disappeared abruptly, and Squall’s already pale cheeks turned impossibly paler. “I did not need a mental image on the last one.”

Seifer paused, right there with Squall in his moment of nausea. Pulling a face that reflected some of his disgust, he took another sip of his coffee to steady his nerves. “I may have gone too far on that one, yeah.”

“I think I lost my appetite.”

“Have some pancakes,” Seifer ordered.

To his surprise, the stubborn little ass went along with his suggestion when the waitress appeared, requesting more coffee to go along with it. Seifer himself ordered French toast and strawberries. Then the waitress bustled off, swinging her hips in the slightly over the top way only a waitress with a pot of coffee in one hand and a notepad in the other could manage.

Seifer took the time to look over Squall. There had to be some reason why he looked, well... bad and yet more attractive than Seifer remembered. Maybe it was being out of the field too long that caused his muscles to lose their definition. Hyne knew the weight Squall had lost was a curse. It had taken the delicate edge of his looks and turned it into something less masculine; the fact his hair was getting longer didn’t help.

He’d once joked that Squall could pass for a woman in a dress, now he wasn’t sure it would even take that much. Feeling the need to break the silence, Seifer said, “You need a hair cut.”

He was prepared for a scowl but as astonished when Squall flashed him a quick smirk. “Now I know you are the real Seifer Almasy – you used to tell me that nearly every day back at Garden.”

The waitress interrupted Seifer’s indignant protests that he was the one and only original by bringing their meals. Seifer’s was piled high with a mound of whipped cream which he instantly dumped on the low stack of Squall’s pancakes.

“You’d have done that no matter what I’d ordered, wouldn’t you?”

“Maybe not a cheeseburger,” Seifer mused, stroking his chin thoughtfully before he finally tucked in. The food was less palatable than the coffee had been, but he had long years of practice forcing himself to eat what was available. The fact that his headache finally faded helped, too.

Squall’s mouth slipped into the old, familiar scowl. It was a reassuring expression, and it was almost enough to make Seifer forget that Squall was looking thinner and thinner the more Seifer looked at him. He couldn’t be wasting away right there in front of Seifer’s eyes, it was a physical impossibility, but every time he looked at Squall he seemed a little more fragile. “I suddenly wish I’d ordered something greasier,” Squall muttered to his forkful of pancake.

Seifer nodded at the plate before his breakfast companion. “The pancakes have enough butter on them to lube a sissy convention,” he pointed out. The whipped cream seemed to be melting into the oily pool that had formed at the bottom of the stack and somehow he felt guilty for forcing it onto Squall. Especially with how carefully the brunet was picking at his food. “Have some strawberries.”

“No thanks,” Squall lifted his refilled mug of coffee and took a long drink as though trying to prove that what he had was perfectly fine. “I have plenty of coffee.”

“No wonder you’re a twig, you eat like a girl.”

Seifer expected the whatever that Squall murmured, his familiar apathetic mantra as much of a reassurance as Seifer’s blade at his side. Watching Squall pick at the food before him with his sullen expression that meant he was either pissed off or thinking – and since Seifer hadn’t gone out of his way to piss Squall off that meant he had to be thinking. He sighed. So much for intelligent conversation. “So, any plans? Other than just vanishing into the great Galbadian wastes?”

“I was going to get a bus last night,” Squall looked up at last. His dark eyes had lost their old silver, Shiva given frosty edge, but none of their allure. Seifer never had been able to look away from Squall's eyes when he'd been caught in them. “Saving your ass nixed that.”

“No bus terminal in this dink town. No reason to stop – I guess I owe you a lift to the next burg.”

“I can get a ride with…,” his voice suddenly trailed off and his storm cloud eyes flickered to the counter and the several truckers who sat at it, throwing surreptitious glances their way at every opportunity.

Seifer looked over at the truckers Squall had glanced towards so pointedly and his big brother instincts kicked into overdrive. He didn’t trust them. He didn’t trust them because they weren’t looking at Squall or himself in the way that said they’d been recognised and that there was some money to be made from their capture. They were looking at Squall alright, but their leers were…

Seifer hadn’t seen someone look like that since Rajin had disappeared off on his honeymoon, looking down at Fujin. Behind her back of course, if he’d given her a look like that to her face, she’d have kicked off the bits she could sell and finished the rest off with Pandemona.

Even if he and Squall had been bitter rivals still, Seifer would have insisted on getting Squall close enough to civilization to avoid dealing with the those perverts. Scowling, he half turned to the waiting truckers, slightly slouched and lazy looking, but his posture, the blade junction at his hip and the look on his face all screaming ‘try it.’ “Lots of ways to vanish in this desert,” Seifer drawled, “But most of them? They pick your teeth out of fewmets later to identify you.”

Several of the men caught Seifer eyeing them and stared back.

“Loire would still insist on a state funeral,” Squall murmured, cradling his coffee cup in both hands.

“So sad, everyone in black, weeping… standing around a big fancy box, covered with flowers. Underneath, the glass coffin they always have, and inside on a little blue velvet pillow, three incisors, a molar and two cups of Geezard crap,” Seifer clutched at his chest as though he were heart sick, wounded to the very core of his being. “He looks very natural.”

Squall tilted his head, eyeing his breakfast companion thoughtfully. “Is that a round about way of telling me I look like shit?”

One of the guys at the counter made kissy faces in the mirror, knowing they both could see him.

“I do the art,” Seifer grinned. “I leave the interpretation to others. If you are just going to glare at the pancakes let’s blow. Otherwise there’s going to be a fist fight in about 30 seconds.”

“Don’t mess with the locals, Seifer.” Keeping his gaze on Seifer, not glancing back at the people sitting at the counter on their vinyl and chrome plated steel stools, Squall kept his voice soft and even. It wasn’t the monotone of boredom, or the soft hiss of anger that he could achieve at times but still Seifer knew that he didn’t like that tone. It was dangerous in one of the less fun ways that came with dealing with Squall.

“They aren’t any more local than I am, but they can be painted right into the landscape easy if they don’t start minding their own fucking business,” Seifer said, his voice rising and ending rather loudly.
All but one of the men turned away, realising that a claim had been made and the pretty brunet had the somewhat beefier man’s protection. The final man, a large gentleman with perpetually red cheeks, a flannel shirt that only a blind and deaf man would have chosen willingly and a thick, curly black beard that looked as real as the waitress’ breasts, openly sneered.

Seifer felt an old smile curl his lips. The kind of smile that made Squall sit up and take notice. The kind of smile that made Squall kick his leg underneath the table.

“Time to go,” Squall ordered, his voice still soft. There was a harder edge to it this time, the kind of edge he must have used in ordering his SeeDs around. Even Seifer had to pay attention to that voice, even if he was able to resist most of it.

“Aw, and the wildlife was just looking interesting.”

Funnily enough, the waitress seemed to agree that it was time for them to go, as she reappeared with two cups of coffee ‘to go’ and handed Squall the check. He paid with a decent tip for her troubles.

“You get the coffee, I’ll follow you,” Seifer said, pushing his jacket back to show the junction point for his blade. He didn’t bother to wait with his hand on it – there was no need. Anyone with half a mind would recognise that junction point, recognise what it really was.

To his surprise, Squall obeyed. Twice in one morning, must be some sort of record. He picked up the Styrofoam cups of coffee and headed for the door; glancing back to make sure Seifer was following him.
Seifer had grown up enough to resist pushing past the men who were leering at his ‘little brother’. He paused when the guy who hadn’t turned his head away watched Squall pass, his eyes on the point where Squall’s belts should have been crossing if he’d been wearing the set of three and Seifer felt something inside him snap. “The neat thing about staying out of other people’s business,” he said, in the mildest tone possible as he let a fire spell form in his hand, the deep red and brilliant orange hues a haunting dance of dangerous light. “Is that it gives you more time to mind your own.”

The man, more like a bear than a man really – it would have been like a t-rexaur putting the moves on a Grat to let him get close to Squall – turned back to the counter with a snort.

“Thought so.”

Following Squall, Seifer waited until he got outside to let the spell fade, harmlessly, into nothingness.

“What part of me laying low so causing scenes is a bad idea don’t you get?” Squall hissed, scowling. He thrust one cup of coffee into Seifer’s hands, the hot liquid splashing dangerously high up the side of the cup and even crashing into the thin plastic lid that covered the top of it.

“Who will they remember now, you or me?” Seifer snatched the cup from Squall, glowering to match his companion. “And anyway, he never looked at your face.”

Seifer watched the expression on Squall’s face grow even darker. He’d noticed, for once in his Hyne damned life that someone had been leering at his ass. There had been others, of course, Squall was pretty and in a place as cloistered and intense as garden that prettiness hardly went unnoticed. However, Squall had never noticed any of them staring at him.

“Just… get on the bike,” he growled, climbing on himself.

Seifer took some measure of comfort in the fact that Squall’s dusty blue jeans did not quite cling to his ass in the way his leathers had. If Squall had been wearing those, they might not have gotten out of the diner so easily. He didn’t make a habit of staring at Squall’s ass even when he was wearing the leather but it had always seemed that everyone else had. “Drink up, no way you can ride and drink coffee from that.”

“You’re going to wind up getting your ass kicked all over if you don’t learn to keep your head,” Squall replied offhandedly. He sipped at the coffee, the expression on his face fading into his old mask of indifference quickly.

The temptation to rise to the offhand little challenge that Squall had offered in that one comment was strong. He almost looked too weak to even lift that damnable gunblade of his, so Seifer decided to hold off on the urge to fight, at least until he worked out why Squall looked so sick. “Ye of little faith. I’m not so easy to beat up sober.”

Squall scoffed, screwing up the now empty cup in his hand and tossing it into an already overflowing bin near the diner’s door. “I’d offer to test that, but I don’t want to drag an unconscious man on the motorbike.”

Hyperion’s junction had never felt so heavy at Seifer’s hip as it did at that moment. They both lived for battle, both lived for the fight but now was not the time, so Seifer restrained himself. “Let’s not be ugly about this, Squall,” he said taking a long drink of coffee and poking Squall in the ribs. He winced at the touch, but it proved Seifer’s point – Squall was much thinner and worse, weaker, than he had been. “But, you have no magic and no GF. Right now, you look like Cid’s cat could take you.”

“Don’t underestimate me.”

“No,” Seifer shook his head. He’d never underestimate Squall Leonhart again, not after the defeats he’d suffered at Squall’s hand’s already despite Ultimecia’s promises of power. The blows that glittering blue blade of Squall’s had rained down on him were still fresh in his memory. “I’ve learned to plan for you pulling a miracle out of your ass.”

Looking back at the door of the diner, the sign declaring ‘yes, we’re open!’ cheerfully in primary colours from the large glass window decked out in gingham curtains to match the tables, Squall sighed. “Maybe that’s what he was waiting for. Miracles to fly from my ass.”

“Dayum, anodder flyin’ monkey!” Seifer exclaimed in the closest approximation of the local accent that he could manage.

“No, darn it, just another miracle.”

“Allass wanted ta see a flyin’ monkey.”

Squall didn’t smile this time, but the corners of his mouth twitched upwards briefly as though he was very tempted. He looked away for just a moment to regain his composure. “You ready to go, monkey boy?”

With his own smile firmly in place, Seifer tossed the keys for the bike to Squall again. “Sure, I’ll even let you drive,” he offered graciously. Really he wanted a hand free at all times in case one of the leering idiots got ideas above his station and decided to follow them after all. With one hand free he could cast spells; he couldn’t do that without putting them both at risk if he was driving.

Catching the keys in one hand, Squall climbed onto the bike without further comment. He started the engine up, waiting for it to settle into a pleasant burble before inclining his head in invitation to Seifer. “No blowing the place up as we leave.”

“I didn’t even consider it, he lied.” Laughing, Seifer climbed onto the bike, wrapping an arm around Squall as he sipped at his coffee. Most of it was gone, but he didn’t want to waste it just yet. It wasn’t that good, but it had been a while since he’d had coffee as even drinkable as this and he feared that it would be a while before he’d have it as good again.

“You forget I grew up with you.”

Seifer translated that as ‘I’d do it in a heartbeat’ and he grinned at the back of Squall’s head. “It’s still an option. Anyway, head west – I think the towns get bigger that way. We’ll be in a metropolis of 20 or 30 people before you know it.”

Squall’s gloved hand curled around the throttle, revving the engine to a roar as he tucked the stand back up under the bike with the heel of one booted foot. “Promise?” he called over the snarling, easing the motorbike to the edge of the road with careful paces.

“Well, no. I’ve never been this way, for all I know the road is just painted to look like it winds off and actually behind that ridge is a large ditched filled with broken bike parts.”

“And knight parts,” Squall added. “You ready?”

“Naw, the Geezards eat those. Hit it.”

Revving the engine one last time, Squall pulled out onto the otherwise empty road. With nothing ahead of them, and everything behind them, Squall simply opened her up and let her fly, chuckling when Seifer cursed at losing his coffee cup.


Seifer hung onto me, almost too tightly. He didn't appreciate speed the way I did - he didn't feel the adrenaline rush that I felt as we flew over the black tarmac. The engine roared as I took the long sweeping bends, accelerating out of them and down the gentle slope that led towards the next town. It made me feel alive, real, to fly like that with the wind in my hair and the heat haze already beginning to rise from the road before us to make the horizon shimmer faintly; Seifer clung to me as though he was afraid.

I felt myself smile at the thought of Seifer being afraid. Whether it was the actual speed or just the fact that he wasn't in control and that wasn't right to him I wasn't entirely sure, but he'd never admit it to me. Not his rival, not one of the few people in the world who had a hope of beating him. Bitch about it, sure, but not admit I had the ability to scare him with his own bike.

It took barely more than an hour to make the next town at the speed I maintained. There was indeed a bus station, which I half regretted seeing even as I was pulling up to the side of the road in front of it.

Just why I felt so reluctant to pull over was all too clear to me. Without Shiva’s presence I remembered more of my childhood. Perhaps entirely too much of my childhood. The games I'd played with Seifer, the trouble we'd been in together when he'd managed to get me to forget Ellone for a little while. I'd never disliked Seifer, especially not at first when we were still at the orphanage. It wasn't until the years of training at garden that we'd found our real rivalry and our reason to fight.

I liked fighting with him. I liked to see him come alive just as much as I did with my gunblade. It made me feel a little more human to know that someone else was like me – that I wasn't all that weird even if I certainly felt it.

Even if he did have the ability to drive me insane with his constant questions and poking and prodding, I liked being around him. It made Balamb, at least the good parts of Balamb, seem a little less distant.

Being on my own had always come easily to me, even if Rinoa's coaxing had bought me to accept a few select people. However I'd always had Shiva's presence to keep me company, her soft sweet voice to keep me from being truly alone at those most desperate of moments. .

Now I didn't even have that, thanks to the meddling of Xu and President Loire.

That was the thing that hurt most. Losing Shiva. I could have given my position up much more easily if only they hadn't taken her away from me.

"Better check the schedule, if the bus only stops at Yule..." Seifer's voice trailed off over my shoulder. He sounded just as reluctant as I felt.

It took another minute for me to climb off the bike and check the schedule at the door. I was disappointed to find that a coach with the eventual destination of Deling would be along shortly.

"There'll be one along in twenty minutes, hold on," I told him, disappearing into the station just long enough to buy a last minute ticket for the trip. Still that took ten minutes and by the time I got back to the bike to collect my bag, Seifer was leaning forward, stretching out to grab the handlebars and ease the knots of tension from sitting in the same position for has long as he had, out of his back. "Thanks for the lift."

"I owed you," he sat up suddenly, the bike tipping by a few heart stopping degrees that were enough to make me lay a hand on the tank to steady it, even though he had the situation well under control. "I owe you for breakfast too."

He was reaching for his wallet already but I stopped him with a shake of my head. "I don't want any money from you," I told him. I knew I didn't have too much left from what I'd bought with me but at least when I reached Deling I could risk accessing my accounts before disappearing into the crowd. Besides, I liked knowing that Seifer owed me something. Made him less likely to attack first and ask questions later the next time we met up.

He rolled his eyes, a gesture he'd undoubtedly picked up from me over the years. "Tickets are expensive."

"So is fuel. And oil," I nodded to the slow but steady leak from his machine. Knowing Seifer's talent with the mechanical, it likely needed a five gil seal and a little care and he had no idea of either. He'd always been the creative one, the showman.

Everything that I wasn't.

"Yeah, well... Can't exactly say don't forget to write."

I wasn't sure if that was supposed to be a dig at my memory or whether he was just attempting a stab at polite conversation. Though this was Seifer and he was to polite conversation what I was to conversation at all. "Are you heading off now?"

"I'll hang, I guess. Make sure you aren't stranded," he shrugged, smiling again. I blamed the lack of Shiva in my head for thinking he was handsome when he smiled. Usually she'd be there to tease me about anything like that, even the slightest attraction. He was attractive. Old feelings that I’d tried to choke down and wish away flared up in me briefly. Yeah I’d had a thing for him. I’d probably had a thing for him for too long. It should have been gone after what had happened with the war but seeing him again...

"Thanks. Where will you go?" I pushed the thoughts away and dropped my bag on the floor to dig out a baseball cap. At least it kept anyone from looking at me too closely. Really I should have cut or dyed my hair, maybe invested in something to hide my scar but I didn't want to have to change just because of some idiot who thought he could force me into his custody to make up for seventeen years of being away. I liked my hair as it was - though it was getting a little too long now even for me - and the baseball cap usually kept people from looking too closely at my face. At least the scar was fainter than it had been once.

Seifer thought on that for a moment, his green eyes turned towards the road and whatever lay at the end of it. "Wherever the mood strikes. Freedom. You?"

Freedom suited him. Out of Garden he seemed so much better. Maybe not openly happier, but perhaps more at peace.

I found myself shrugging. Freedom sounded good after the time I'd spent cooped up in Loire's Palace. Seifer was probably right; anyone else would look on that place as a blessing. I thought it was a curse and a cage - I wanted my real life of gunblades and battles. I wanted to live as I chose, not as someone tried to mould me to be. I'd never even wanted to command Balamb, why would the life of a prince be any better? "Deling for now but then I don't know. Maybe WinHill for a while, but not Balamb or Esthar. I can't risk it yet."

He gestured in the direction his bike was pointed which I guessed was approximately south east. A string of minuscule towns and villages lay that way, then beyond ,the ocean and Centra. "The lighthouse is still there."

"Might be nice to go back."

"Maybe we'll meet up," he said hesitantly.

I admit I half wondered if he'd have even offered if he knew me as well as he thought he did. Everyone pretended to know me, some in more annoying ways than others, but no one did. Sure a few had come close to it, but none of them really had even the faintest clue what I really felt, nor that I liked it that way. Letting people in took a lot out of me. Even the people I'd fought with in the war, even if I trusted them with my life, were still on the outside looking in.

"Maybe," I said at last. "Be nice to see a familiar face once in a while."

We fell silent, running out of things to talk about. It was just as well really as the bus finally appeared, lumbering down the road and into its stop with a rush of diesel fumes, hot air and dust. It looked somewhat less battered than the last one I'd been on and at least it wasn't pissing oil like someone's motorcycle.

"Guess this is my ride."

"Yeah," Seifer said. It could have been my ears playing tricks on me but I could have sworn he sighed. "It looks like it will get you some place decent. Sit with an old lady if you can, they usually have candy and won't want a feelie for it."

Seifer Almasy had little or no sense of decorum. I'd grown used to comments like that over the years and I wasn't sure I wanted to know more, particularly after his reaction in the diner. "Sounds like the voice of experience."

He gave me that look that told me there was a very long and most likely sordid story behind that. Usually it was one he’d made up, or heard and altered to suit his needs. Very occasionally it was true. The true ones were the worst. “They will talk your ears off though. Just smile and nod, you should be okay.”

I cast my eye over the bus. It was only half full and Seifer knew that I didn’t smile if I could help it. “I’ll try for a seat on my own first,” I said, shouldering my bag. It was definately feeling too light, as I’d thought, but at least there would be stops along the way where I could find food and drink to last me a while longer.

“Well… good luck,” he offered me his hand like he’d only just remembered he was supposed to shake.

Since he’d made the effort, I decided to match his offering. I peeled off my leather glove to shake his hand. He was still strong, maybe even stronger than me without his junctions. Hyperion was a master blade too and her weight was incredible. Lionheart’s adamantine blade made my blade a little lighter but no less powerful.

I wanted to fight him on equal terms again. A sparring session, but there was no time. “Thanks. You too, Seifer.”

“See ya around, Squirt,” he laughed when I visibly flinched at the old nickname. Hyne I hated it when he called me that. Of course he knew that and it was the only reason he continued to call me it any time he could. “Don’t let the nice man in the men’s room touch your peepee.”

I meant it when I said Seifer Almasy has no sense of decorum. Or taste. “I won’t so long as you stop getting drunk and throwing yourself at gangs of SeeDs and soldiers in the hope of killing yourself.

“Naw, too hard to find anyone good enough to do it,” he said it lightly and I was relieved to know he wasn’t planning a repeat. “I’ll even lay off the sauce, just for you.”

I was still holding his hand. I don’t know why, but it took real effort to let him go and back up a step. Well I suspected why, but I was trying not to think about that. I needed more practice at the not thinking thing. “See you later, Almasy.”

Seifer gave me a look that made me think he would have ruffled my hair if he could have reached me. He finally slid into the driving position of his motorcycle, tapping the oil gauge once to see if it was reading correctly. With a smile, he nodded. “Not if I see you first.”

I knew it was only a joke. Somewhere during breakfast we’d made our peace. Maybe when he’d tried to out glower the truckers who’d sat at the counter. Maybe it had just taken being around each other without trying to kill each other. That was kind of novel for us, come to think about it. “Whatever,” I said, and headed for the bus.

Just for a moment, before I climbed the stairs into my ride to Deling, I looked back at him. He was sitting up straight still and he saluted me. A SeeD salute, not the one he used to favour Xu with that involved two fingers from each hand and was usually performed to the back of her head with an expression that could really only be termed manic.

He never saluted anyone. Usually, I did but today I just offered him a smile and went to find a seat.

I’d been right, and I found a seat to myself, dumping my bag beside me as I sat at the window. Seifer was leaning down on his handlebars, waiting. As nice as it was to have someone to say goodbye to me, I wanted him to stop me. I wanted him to ask me to travel with him a little further and give me a chance to follow him like I had when we were kids.

Mostly I wanted a chance to not be alone for another day or so. Imagine, the ice prince not wanting to be alone. Hyne, maybe Xu and Esthar had fucked me over more than I'd suspected.

The bus rumbled into life again and started to pull away slowly. I nodded to him and settled back into my seat. Watching the landscape roll past the window held no attraction after hearing and feeling it so intently on Seifer’s motorcycle so I closed my eyes with the intention of getting some sleep.

I hadn’t felt rested since long before I’d left Esthar, I hadn’t been sleeping well. If I slept now I’d be able to wait to get some rest in Deling.

Behind me somewhere a female voice, husky and cracked discussed the missing Estharian prince. Me. News had reached further than I’d hoped. It also meant I couldn’t risk sleeping there – so I pulled my cap down over my eyes and shrank in my seat.

The best laid plans…

I don’t know how long we’d been on the road when I heard the driver cursing at something. I lifted my head just in time to catch Seifer tearing hell for leather up the road, maybe even as fast and hard as I’d pushed the bike that morning. He passed us in the blink of an eye and disappeared from view before I could mutter anything more than “idiot.”

I was following him again, after all.
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