|Comes the Tide
Author: BlackRose PM
Another day, another gil. This is life outside the Garden. Seifer and Zell, post game, meet up again in Fisherman's Horizon. *minor shounen-ai*Rated: Fiction T - English - Seifer A. & Zell D. - Words: 6,875 - Reviews: 5 - Favs: 12 - Follows: 1 - Published: 02-20-11 - Status: Complete - id: 6761195
|A+ A- Full 3/4 1/2 Expand Tighten|
At the entrance to the station platform she paused and the idiots who claim she's nothing but cold, sharp edges have never seen her like that or heard the feeling under the shortness of her words. "Come?" she asked, and I knew she was going to, but it was sweet to hear it all the same.
And I'm sorry, I truly am... but no.
Do you know that it's never quiet here? The sounds we all grew up with, the rush and whistle of the winds coming down from the Gaulg peaks or the faint, distant sound of the ocean shore echoing across the Alcauld when it was still and the wind was blowing just right... they're nothing but whispers, things we didn't even know we were hearing until they weren't there any more. Because in the dead of night, when all good children are supposed to be asleep - and when were we ever good? - the Garden was still and quiet, hushed as the tomb.
Not here. Not now. The entirety of Fisherman's Horizon has one pulse, beat out in the break and crash of the waves, and when you lay down at night you can hear it through the pillow, through the mattress, through the floor, until the whole world pulses with that one constant sound. Breath in, breath out, ebb and flow, the endless motion of the ocean as it forever batters against this little impudent man made intruder afloat in the midst of it.
Everyone knows who's going to win in the long run, of course, but here we all are anyways, scrabbling futile against the inevitable. I think that's why I stay here. (That, and the fact that they simply don't care. They've been cut off for so long it doesn't matter. I'm no one to them, just one more new face in the aftermath of the war, another pair of hands willing to work, and there's always work.)
That, and that it's never quiet. It's not a replacement, really, that voiceless, mindless pulse of wave and water and gravity. Whatever it's whispering I can't make out the words. But it's better than the alternative. It's better than nothing at all.
So I gave her a smile - a good one, only the best for my very best girl - and she sees sharper with one eye then most people do with two but that's alright, because we've never been the sort to call out each other's wounds and make too much of them. We're old soldiers, her and I. "I'll be fine, here," I told her, and it wasn't even a lie because I never lied to her - here, where the sun is bright and the people don't care, where there's work to put my body to during the day and anything but silence at night... I could make do with that. And making do is just another word for fine when the optimistic day dreams that people trick themselves with are stripped away.
The ocean winds made clouds and feather seed pods out of her hair and, together with the sun, had stained her skin with a gloss tint of rose gold across her cheeks and the back of the hand that reached out to brush my wrist. I turned my palm up, let our fingers brush as she drew away. Around us people poured into and out of the newly renovated station - isolated no more, the rails fresh and fast, and the train for Timber would leave soon.
Her hand dropped and that was that; she turned away to grab her bag. "We'll see ya in three months, yeah?" Raijin said, and he was earth to her wind, his fingers overlapped easily around my forearm with a grip like granite when we clasp hands.
"I'll be here," I tell him and it might as well be a promise - I've no other plans and nowhere to go. In the station the conductor called passengers aboard and I half raised my hand in farewell as I watched them both go, no looking back, no tearful good byes. After they boarded I turned away; the train leaves on schedule whether I'm watching it or not. No point waiting and there's always more work to be done.
Another day, another gil. This is life outside the Garden.
Days can pass in a blurred rush when you're not counting them down for a purpose. We always had a purpose in Garden. Classes to pass, papers to write, exams to study for. Training hours, class hours, meal hours, study hours. Every hour of every day, scheduled, regimented, always for a purpose. We always knew what day it was, always aware of the time. Now... I find I lose track. Get up, eat, work, sleep. One day is more or less exactly like the rest and there's no purpose to it, really, beyond making enough to continue doing more of the same. One day is just like every other day, just like the same days the week before, and it all blends together. Familiar faces had made me count them again but without them I don't and it could have been two week or two months before something pulled me out of the comforting monotony of work and sleep and making do.
I wasn't expecting to hear a familiar voice. I wasn't expecting to hear that voice, and I wasn't expecting to hear it raised in a bark of crisp orders over the cacophony of sound on the loading deck as one of the supply trains pulled in.
It pulled me back into my skin, back into the here and now and I was myself again, not the nameless worker it was so easy to slip into. It pulled me all the way back, into the Garden, familiar sound, familiar tone, some teacher or upperclassman riding herd on a bunch of junior cadets tasked to do chores.
Which was exactly what it was, and I would have known it if I'd remembered what day it was. Inbound supply train, Timber to Esthar, and before that it had been Balamb to Dollet to Timber and everyone knew Esthar was contracting work and supplies from all of those places, but Balamb Garden in particular, to help with the rebuilding after the Lunar Cry. Crates and supply pallets marked with Garden emblems passed through Fisherman's Horizon on a regular basis, sometimes accompanied by uniformed cadets in charge of the transporting. In the end it didn't much matter - I was just another face, after all, bleached white on one end and burned red brown on the other and even scars fade with enough time and sun.
SeeD, though, SeeD officers were rarer, rare enough that I'd stopped watching my back. No one there to blame but myself. Complacency. It'll nail your ass every time. And now there I was, broad daylight, plain sight, on the Fisherman's Horizon loading deck while one of the handful of people who knew me more than well enough on sight to pick me up out of a lineup no matter how sunburnt I was shouted orders over the rabble to try and kick a group of cadets into line as they unloaded pallets from the train.
Who knew Zell Dincht had those kind of drill-instructor lungs on him if you shoved him into an officer's uniform?
It wasn't the uniform doing it, though, even if he'd been wearing it - which he wasn't, really, epaulets and jacket shucked off in the heat of midday, nothing but a plain black undershirt and trousers and only the boots marked him as any different than his junior charges, most of whom still had their jackets on. Once upon a time I'd wondered what we'd all be like in uniform - doesn't everyone? - and there's those that wear it proud and those that hide behind its authority and if you'd asked me back then I'd have said that Ma Dincht's boy would be one of the later.
I was wrong. Maybe in his case I'd never been more wrong, because somewhere along the way, in the years we'd shared, I'd fixed the image of the weak, whiny little boy in my head and hadn't expected him to grow into anything else. He'd showed me up. He'd showed up the whole damned world. They're heroes now, all of them. Big deeds make big names, and Zell Dincht had been right there with them all the way through to the end.
Outsiders might expect something better for their heroes, but I grew up in Garden. Saving the world may net you a raise in pay, but in the end you're still on the rotation list for crap missions and taking your turn shepherding cadets. It made sense, through that lens, to find him out there on the deck in the middle of it all, and it didn't mean the shipment was any more or less critical than any of the others - it just meant he was on the roster and my luck had fallen off at last. That's the way it goes.
It figured, too, that he wouldn't be the kind to bark out orders and then go sit in the shade and oversee from the deck manager's air conditioned office. No, he was right down in the thick of it, hauling boxes with the rest of them, and somewhere between then and now he'd grown up - really grown, inside and out, grown until he fit himself, maybe, comfortable in his own skin and confident in it. If it wasn't for the shock of spiked gold hair over that swirl of black tattoo and the grin that was just the same as when we were kids, I'm not sure I would have recognized him. The boy I'd once mocked was long gone.
There was half a loading deck between us and if I kept my head down and my mouth closed... I hunched my back and shifted my load to my other shoulder, obscuring the line of sight between us. And because of that, I almost missed it.
It was an accident, pure and simple, the kind that happen because shit happens and anything material can and will give out eventually. They'd just hooked one of the pallets up to the crane lift and given the all clear on it when one of the lines gave out - just split, worn through in some weak spot, and the sharp steel echo of the snap got into your ears and under your skin with a twang that was halfway like lightning, making everyone flinch.
It would have been worse, but they wrap the pallets to keep them secure. The wrap held but the pallet itself tipped, wholesale, only held on two wobbling sides and in another moment it was going to come down. Someone yelled and people scattered - it was barely five feet off the ground but it was going to come down heavy and the wrap might break yet - when he was there. Right there, fearless, because he'd faced down everything this world could throw at him and what's one heavy loaded pallet beside all that?
Nothing, that's what. He caught it, bare handed, and it might have been a small, medium weight box instead of a fully loaded pallet for all that you could tell - oh, the signs were there if you know where to look; he had his heels braced because weight is still weight, no matter how strong you are, and you could see the muscles leap out across his arms and back as he set his shoulders into it, but it wasn't a strain. He just caught it, smooth and easy, and held it steady as everyone around him stared. "Got it! Bring it down!"
Someone with more brains than not broke out of their shock and took up the call, relaying it - "lower it down easy!" and then it was all anti-climatic; accident averted, and the deck workers and cadets alike buzzing with no little bit of awe as they watched him stabilize the load until it was solid on the ground once more. And that, boys and girls, is our lesson demonstration of the day, because no mere human flesh and bone could have done that so effortlessly.
Junctioned strength. Which meant one or more junctions, nestled behind his bright blue eyes, somewhere inside his head and in his blood.
I was standing in the middle of a crowded loading deck in the middle of the day, in a place that's never quiet, never soundless, filled with voices and bodies and the perpetual heartbeat of the whole damned ocean, and the empty ringing silence in my head was going to make me sick.
I put down the box I was carrying; dropped it on the deck grate and stumbled away. It was midday and I had shift for at least five more hours but I couldn't do it. Not then, not there, not with him. The sun was hot overhead and I was cold inside, stone cold frozen and shivering with it. There was safety in anonymity, safety in monotony and drudgery and being the nameless, faceless hired help. There was nothing of the sort inside my own skin and I had to get away.
It shouldn't have mattered - whether I worked or not mattered only to me and where my next meal was coming from, ultimately - and if it'd been anyone else it wouldn't have. I could have slunk off, licked my wounds and called it a sick day and that would have been the end of it. But he'd always carried his heart on his sleeve and it'd been a bleeding one - rescuer of strays, carer for kicked puppies, and it's strange how growing up to be able to snap a man's neck with bare hands doesn't necessarily negate that earlier pattern.
He caught me before I could reach the edge of the dock - nothing but a clap of his hand against my shoulder, coming from behind when I wasn't looking and oh, sweet Hyne, I could feel the electricity in his bare palm. "Hey! You okay?"
It was offhand, it was nothing, and if I'd been one step more with it I would have known - he was just circulating, dutiful herd dog, chivvying the masses back into motion with a word here, a grin there, everything back to normal and a-okay. I wasn't, though, and all it took was that one quick tap, skin to skin, to throw it all to hell; I could feel it in his skin, beneath his touch, and it threw the empty silence into stark, painful relief. We're creatures of instinct, all of us, and SeeD maybe more than most; we're taught, from early on, to use pain to our advantage. His touch hurt and everything after that was instinct - both my pivot and strike and his easy deflection and it could have been any training bout it was so easy and simple and automatic... Except it wasn't. I'd thrown a punch at one of the world heroes and he'd caught me, one fist wrapped easy around mine with a grip I couldn't break and that could just as easily crush me and he was looking at me, really looking, and I saw the moment his eyes went wide in recognition. "...Seifer."
Nowhere to go and nothing to do. Maybe it had always been meant to end like that. "Zell."
I wasn't sure what I was expecting. A hue and outcry, maybe. A fight. Some sort of violent reaction of rejection. Somewhere, in the depths, I couldn't quite shake the image of the boy he had been, the boy who'd run screaming to tell every wrongdoing to the nearest authority. Surely he still was that boy, somewhere down beneath, and I was, after all, a wanted criminal in more than one part of the world, and that included Balamb.
He was looking at me, brows drawn down and the corners of his eyes pinched and it wasn't an expression I could ever recall on him before. It didn't fit the fragile boy or the easy going open hearted teen. It was something new, something different, and maybe that's what saving the world looks like, in the aftermath. I wondered what he saw in me.
"Hyne," he said at last, low and quiet. "Of all the people... Didn't think I'd run into you here."
I felt my mouth twist, something sharp and bitter in my throat, ill-fitting semblance of the man I had been. Irony, I thought numbly. Irony, that I didn't fit in my own skin or my own name any more, and he'd grown until he filled his own and then some, larger than life and bleeding out through his skin into the charged air around him. "Sorry to disappoint."
His brows drew down a little more, at my tone or my expression. My fist was still caught in his; I gave it a tug, not twisting or trying to escape, just a request for motion. He let me go, looking almost startled, as though he'd forgotten he held me, but I hadn't even taken a step back before he caught my arm above the elbow. "Hold on," he said, and even though I knew how it was going to go it still brought a fission of chill down my spine.
It wasn't the ugly mess I imagined, though. He didn't denounce me, or publicly arrest me, or throw me to the mercy of his charges. He just half turned, raising his voice once more in that strange and new bark of command. "Falan! Killik! Stay here and keep these guys on track! Go through the list twice, I want everything checked and solid and the loading secured tight. If there's time after give the group leave, but we're out of here at sixteen hundred on the dot!"
Two of the senior cadets saluted him and then he turned back to me and somewhere along the way they'd taught him briskness, efficiency, and how to drop and change topics on a gil. "Come on. There somewhere good to eat around here?"
It took me two beats to catch up to what he had said, and more, what he hadn't. "...Aren't you arresting me?"
His grin showed teeth and made the corners of his eyes tilt up, crinkling the edge of his tattoo. "Why? You want me to?"
It was like a bubble popped, pressure leveling in my ears, and suddenly there was more than just the two of us on the deck. There were people all around us, some surreptitious glances but not staring, all the noise and hustle of boxes being carried and pallets being pushed. I found I could draw breath deep enough to fill my lungs and did so, letting my spine uncurl until I was a full head over him again. He just cocked his head back to look at me, and they must have taught him patience or some way to rein in that sparkfire temper as well. Maybe he'd just finally gotten used to the fact that most people are going to be taller than him.
"Sandfin," I said at last, and he lifted one sun bleached brow. "Food," I clarified. "The Sandfin's just down the way. They do a decent lunch. Not as good as the Pale Sands, but..." I shrugged, hands spread, but Dincht was Balamb, same as I had been, and there were few places that did grilled fish and brews the way the Pale Sands brewery did. His grin widened, all teeth, and then he was off and with my arm still in his grasp I didn't have much choice but to follow.
That grip, I thought, spoke louder than what he wasn't saying - lunch was well and good, but I was caught and caught I'd stay. It was surreal to be following after him, down off the deck and into the street proper. His grip on me was surreal; it hurt, still, but I'd had a chance to catch my breath and swallow it down and it was bright electricity that raised the hairs of my arm and some sharp bitter tang and a darker cool. I wanted to shake it away, to scratch and scrape the sensation out of my skin, and I wanted to breathe it in and let it burn me all at once.
It was a little past the lunch hour and with a supply train in there wasn't much of a crowd at the Sandfin. Dincht grabbed a table on the tiny patio that edged out into the street, sunny but sitting in the breath of a breeze, and all but shoved me at a seat as he flagged down a waiter for a pair of menus. I took the chair heavier than I meant to and couldn't help rubbing at the burning tingle left in the wake of his grip. He saw me do it and frowned, mouth pulling down in a grimace. "Sorry, didn't mean to be rough."
"It's fine," I told him shortly, because I had lied to him so much over the years that it was the next best thing to habit. He looked at me sharply and I could see the disbelief in his eyes, followed a beat later by something else that I couldn't name.
He reached across the little table, thumb brushing my jaw to tilt my head towards the light, and I caught my tongue between my teeth. "...What?"
He tilted me the other way, touch light and impersonal, and then sat back, frowning. "You look like shit," he told me bluntly.
I stared at him, caught too much by surprise as a waiter brushed past us, dumping napkin wrapped packets of silverware and laminated menus in front of us before bustling away again. Then, because I couldn't help it, because it was just too perfectly him, and me, and everything that had ever been between us, I laughed.
It was bitter and refreshing all at once, hot and cold in my throat, but it felt good to get it out. I laughed until it hurt, my ribs aching, and he sat and stared, nonplussed, where once he would have been certain I was laughing at him. He waited until I wound down, elbow on the table and chin pillowed in one fist. "I didn't know insanity went hand in hand with looking like shit," he said at length, dryly, and it was almost enough to start me off again.
"Well," I managed at last, sucking air in around the ache of my ribs, "that's what losing a war will get you, isn't it?"
He shot me another look - disbelief and some sort of irritation - but the waiter came back with the daily spiel of the specials and Dincht ordered almost at random, whatever must have sounded good, appetizer and entree both and I didn't doubt he could find room for dessert afterwards with the electric tingle of energy racing through him. When the girl turned to me I passed over the menu and ordered a drink, one of the local brews, and nothing else. Dincht's brows shot up and I shrugged. "Not hungry."
The brows came back down again, communicating whole volumes as he reached for my wrist, wrapping thumb and forefinger around it. "I'm not going anywhere," I pointed out. He just snorted, thumb digging sharp but not painfully against the bone of my wrist. I knew I had lost weight in some places, gained muscle in others, but Dincht, I remembered, had taken electives in medical. I didn't know what he found there, in skin and bone, but whatever it was didn't ease the line of his brow.
"He'll have what I'm having," he told the bemused waiter, and I opened my mouth to protest - what did he think he was doing, who did he think he was, and "I can't..." afford that, but I would bite through my own tongue before admitting it to him.
He shot me a look that was more knowing than I liked and let go of me to reach back and dig a slim wallet out of his back pocket. "On me," he clarified, and hell, yes, it would be, on that shiny black Garden issue card with the blue and gold emblem, good anywhere in the world, that he slapped down onto the table between us. "And anything you don't finish I will, so no arguing."
Pride was negotiable, really, in the end. "Should have told me it was a date. I would have cleaned up first," I drawled. Dincht just snorted.
"I take you on a date," he shot back, "and you'd know it. And it wouldn't be on a card Squall could trace. Now what the fuck are you doing out here?"
Moment of truth, down to business. I took a breath, then another, just feeling the sun on my face and the whistle of the breeze, heavy with the salt scent that was everywhere pervasive in Fisherman's Horizon. "Surviving." So much, summed up in one small word. When Raijin asked I had laughed and said I needed a vacation. When Fuujin asked I said it was safer. Slivers of truth, but none of them summed up the whole the way the word I offered Dincht did. "Just surviving."
I braced myself for pity, or scoffing, the mighty laid low and all that shit. Whatever was on his face, though, I couldn't read. "She dumped you," he said, and there was anger simmering under his tone, just waiting to reach out and claw me.
"We lost," I corrected. "We - I lost. And everything that's left after is just surviving."
They came with our drinks and he sat back, waiting, as the glasses were placed on the table - real glass, heavy bottomed and thin on top, and I could think of an easy dozen number of ways to use it as a weapon and not one of them wouldn't end with me on the floor or over the table or anywhere else he wanted me, in a world of hurt, at the mercy of junctioned strength and speed that I couldn't hope to match. The thought brought the emptiness back, and the silence, and I grabbed my glass and took a long drink before my stomach could decide if it wanted to be sick again or not.
"She dumped you," Dincht repeated at length, reaching for his own glass. "She tossed you out like yesterday's trash, and I'm not talking about Matron. And now you're out here in the back end of nowhere, working yourself to the bone. That about sum it up?"
"Does it really matter?" It was a rhetorical question; it didn't, not really.
He half shrugged. "Depends."
"On whether you're taking me back in handcuffs or not?" I asked, reckless.
He blinked at me, then swore, putting his glass back down as he shook his head. "No! Look. Alright, yes, I probably should. Or tell someone or... I dunno. Something. But that's neither here or there, alright? Assume I won't, okay? Just... work with me on that."
There was condensation dripping down the length of my glass, spilling wet and cool over my thumb. "That's... A lot of faith."
He flashed teeth in something that was neither grin or grimace. "Pretend," he suggested, and then they were sliding food onto the table and I was saved the chore of talking when his eyes lit up at the array of breaded and deep fried things.
He had worked his way through two skewers of shrimp before he noticed I was mostly picking at mine. The frown came back, accompanied by a quick jab that skewered one of the things and flicked it through one of the assorted sauces before presenting it sharply in front of me. "Eat it," he told me, all gruff officer voice, and I had to bite back another laugh.
"Is this something pathological with you that you learned from your Ma?"
Dincht snorted. "Leave her out of it and just eat it." He glared until I did, and then I picked up my own fork before he could come back with another, which seemed to satisfy him.
"Alright," he said, inbetween bites, talking with his hands as much as his mouth. "Look. I'm not saying there's not some folk that want your head on a pike, you know? Maybe yes, maybe no, but that's a moot point. It's not like I answer to any of them."
"You answer to Leonhart," I pointed out. He waved a hand sharply, slashing in denial as he quickly swallowed.
"Like I said," he replied, "I don't answer to any of them."
I shut my mouth. My chest hurt, like I'd drawn the air in wrong somehow. It didn't... He couldn't mean that. Of anyone that had any reason to hate me, Balamb Garden had more than most and Squall Leonhart was Balamb Garden. But he was watching me, eyes sharp and bright, even as he went through the motions of eating with the hurried, methodical thoroughness of a soldier on the field. I dropped my eyes but I could still feel that gaze on me.
There was a salad, something green and frond-like, from the ocean the way everything was, salty and tangy sharp. I picked up a forkful and ate it, just to have something - anything - to do that didn't require answering him. I still hadn't found a reply when he took my silence as agreement and carried on.
"We looked for you," he told me, and I wished I hadn't tried to swallow anything because it would feel less like choking. He shoved my glass at me and glared until I drank part of it. "What, that surprises you? I mean, it wasn't a search and rescue, sure, but everyone has orders to keep an eye out. Well... Had orders. Back at the start. Been long enough now that they're talking about dropping your name onto the MIA list." He shook his head. "And here you are, in Fisherman's fucking Horizon! Right under our damned noses. You been here the whole time?"
Too much. It was all too much, and not worth denying. "Mostly."
He swore, tightly, and if he kept it under his breath it at least didn't sound like he was expecting his Ma to cuff him one for it at any moment. Another relic of the boy he had been, washed away like sand under waves. "Right here this whole time," he repeated, sounding equal parts bemused and impressed.
"Why?" My voice sounded thin to my own ears; I cleared my throat and tried again. "Why bother? After everything I did..."
"You're still ours," he said firmly, cutting me off. "Garden's. Your name's on the books, same as mine."
The laugh in my throat was bitter and came out sharp and ugly sounding. "So, what? I should just trot on home so that the Garden can try me instead of the Galbadia courts?"
"We'd do better by you than they would," he replied seriously. "And probably better than you've done for yourself." He waved a dismissive hand at me. "Look at you! Seriously - look, here, you want the list?" He dropped his fork with a clatter, leveling a finger at me sharply. "You're underweight and you didn't have circles like that under your eyes even when you were sweating finals week, so you're not sleeping right. You're doing manual labor and you're not eating, you're sunburnt which means you're dehydrated, your pulse is too fast and you flinch every time I've touched you or come near you, even though we both know you could take a hit and come up swinging, which means it's got nothing to do with that," he concluded, "and I bet it's got everything to do with you're running on empty." He tapped a finger against his temple, right over the tattoo, and I couldn't breathe. "How'm I doing so far?"
My mouth was so dry I had to swallow twice. "What does it matter?"
There was pity in his eyes now, but it was just one more thing in a heaping pile of too many. "She stripped you, didn't she? Used you up and spat you out and stripped everything out of your head when she dumped you." He reached out before I could jerk away, fingers wrapping loose around my wrist and I couldn't bite back the shiver. "Hollow inside," he said quietly. "Hyne... What's it like? I can't even imagine. No colors, no brightness..."
"No sound," I croaked hoarsely. "There's no sound. It's... quiet."
"God." His thumb slid over my knuckles, softer than Raijin's clasp, harder than Fuujin's, and I could count those touches on one hand since the end of the war. "Seifer... Look, I can't promise you there won't be some kind of hell to pay somewhere along the way. But we've seen this before at the Garden. Rip all the junctions out of someone whose used them long enough... Well, there's a reason we all kept ours. It's bad, but it's not unfixable. You can come back."
"No," I managed, "I really can't." But my hand was still in his and when he looked at me - just looked, not saying a word, his eyes fierce and bright and shot through with an electricity I could have cried for want of - and then looked pointedly at the barely touched plate in front of me I found myself picking up my fork, awkward in my off hand, and eating a few more bites just to prove him wrong.
He sighed and let me go. "I'm not arresting you," he told me quietly. "I won't force you. I won't even tell Squall if you'd rather I didn't, because he'd be down here himself like a shot and we both know it. But what the fuck is keeping you here?"
I made myself swallow. "It's safe," I said. "No one wants anything from me here. That suits me fine. And..." No. Didn't matter.
"And what?" he prodded.
I closed my eyes - sun on my face even while I was cold inside - and tipped my head back. "Listen," I told him. It was there, all around us, echoing, through air and breeze and the deck plates under our feet, through the table and chairs and into our very bones.
When I opened my eyes again he was watching me, something unnameable in his eyes. "No sound," he repeated softly, and then, "I won't force you."
I made my lips lift, something too wry to be a real smile. "I'd appreciate it."
"Fair enough," he said, sharper, and stole a shrimp from my plate.
There was little to be said after that. He ate - I watched him eat - and when I didn't talk he did. Gossip, mostly, faces and names we shared in common and where they were now. Old home week at Balamb Garden, condensed into the tidbits he thought I might like best, and all I had to do was listen. The shadows were stretching longer by the time we wrapped up, neat and tidy on the Garden's expense tab.
"I'd better get back," he told me on the street outside the Sandfin. "Make sure they haven't wrecked the place. You'll be alright?"
"I'll be fine," I replied woodenly. He just snorted and then, because he'd told me about Leonhart, about Heartilly and Trepe, about the Kramers - Matron, oh Hyne - because he'd offered but hadn't insisted or forced, I added, "Fuujin and Raijin will be through next month. I'm waiting for them."
He looked startled only for a second. "Yeah, I guess that would be the one thing that could nail your ass down." He reached up - I flinched, I couldn't help it - and his hand was too hot on the skin of my neck. "Try to eat, will you? You're too much of a beanpole already."
"Yes, Mother," I sighed. His mouth twitched, not quite a smile, and then he shook his head shortly.
"One month?" he asked, and I nodded. His tug, palm pressed to the back of my neck, caught me off guard and even if I had braced against it I couldn't have kept him from pulling me down. "I'll be back through here in twenty-eight days," he told me, short and sharp and breathed into the bare space between us. "You'd better still be here, you bastard, because if I have to hunt your scrawny ass down then all bets are off."
I opened my mouth - yes, mother, no, mother, are we done with the awkward threats? - but the words never made it to my tongue before he yanked me one last inch off balance and crushed his mouth to mine.
It was hard and bruising, all teeth and the copper taste of blood where he split my lip and oh Hyne it was sweeter than candy, than drugs, it was an electric spark and the taste of earth buried deep in caves and summer rainstorms with thunder arcing and the heartbeat of the ocean, wave after endless wave, salty, wet, warm and thick, sliding down my throat like syrup to burn hot through my belly.
He let me go with a last lick, swipe of a tongue across my lip, and the breath I took afterwards tasted of him. "You'd better," he told me, jabbing a finger into my chest, "still be here."
I nodded - I couldn't do anything else, just nod and nod, head bobbing like a puppet on a string - and he fixed me with a look for a long moment before satisfied. "Twenty-eight days," he told me again. "I'll see you then."
I couldn't speak. I couldn't speak or breathe or move, caught like a bug in amber, and he gave my shoulder one last quick grip and turned away. No goodbyes, no looking back. I watched him stride away, watched until he was out of sight around the curve. The train would be leaving soon.
I could still taste him on my mouth and the warmth was still there, flooding through me, bright and sparkling and alive. I swallowed, gingerly, and stumbled out of the way, out to the side streets where you can see the ocean only a stone's throw away, covering the entire horizon. The sun was still bright in the late afternoon, the air warm, and for the first time in months I could feel the warmth in my bones. In my blood. In my head.
Who would have thought?
I closed my eyes but I could still see the ever-shifting reflections of the waves painted across the inside of my eyelids and below my feet the waves were rolling and swelling, pounding, endless and ancient and murmuring their constant song, and in all of the empty places in my head and inside of me she - quiet, gentle, the least of all of his arsenal, carried like an afterthought, given away just as easily in the rough taste of a kiss - unfurled multi-colored wings... and sang.
Glorious, beautiful, blessed sound, filling all of the places where the whispers and the fires used to be. I leaned against a wall, more than half drunk on the bliss of it, and laughed.
Twenty-eight days. A very precise number, and too precious to waste in the haze of just making do. I pushed myself upright and for the first time in what felt like forever I was Seifer Almasy again, in my own skin, my own life, and in my chest the pulse of the sun-warmed ocean waves beat with an endless strength that whispered a sweet, sweet siren song of belonging.
Time to start living again.
~ Fin ~