I would like to thank Squaresoft for creating the characters and my fellow writer, Arashi Kishu, for inspiring me with her lovely piece. Without her, "Afterglow" would not have the resolution it deserves. Further thanks to Sheryl Crow for her stirring lyrics. Just what I needed to get my behind in gear.
I have a
face I cannot show
I make the rules up as I go
It's try and love me if you can
Are you strong enough to be my man?
There she was. He stood, tall and arrogant, inside the small entrance of the café. By all outward appearances, he was a man in total control. There was no chance a man who carried himself with such power and contained strength could be anything but. He told himself that as he looked across the trendy black tables of the coffee shop. His eyes had caught her slight form immediately. His eyes and his heart.
She had yet to see him. He titled his head and enjoyed the opportunity to take her in. The woman who had walked out of his bedroom six months ago with cool eyes and a cooler heart. The woman he was sure he had fallen in love with.
He did not know how it had happened. If it had been a slow evolution over the course of his life, or if it had come all at once, when he had watched her board the train that would take her out of his life forever. But it was there. No matter what he did, there was no getting rid of it. He would be damned if he was going to take it without a fight, however.
Still, he had thought he was over it, his apparent unrequited adoration. He had thought he had finally learned to live without her, to live with the vacancy in his soul. The space had begun to close.
Then she had called him up and successfully ripped down all the defences he had erected. There was no way to fight her, not now, not ever. He knew it. And it pissed him off. He saw no use in revealing that information to her. Not yet.
As he let his gaze wash over her, he was forced to admit how amazing she appeared. There was an ease about her, a repose that had not existed before, that could be detected even from across the room. Any one, man or woman, could tell she was satisfied. As much as he hated admitting it, he was relieved for at least that.
Sensitive to his intense stare, she turned her head from the window to join her eyes to his. Confirmation. Completion. Contentment.
She smiled, then, a lovely action that softened her whole face. Something inside him twisted painfully. He had never seen her smile in quite that way before. His gaze darkened but he allowed the smirk to traverse his smooth features.
His gait was even as he strolled across the café. His long jacket shifted familiarly against his torso and arms. He was grateful for the comfort.
Everything inside his system was shattering with each step. His head throbbed and his retinas burned. Whoever said love was blind was full of shit. It seemed every sense was on full alert. His ears, his nose, his fingers all tingled with new awareness. And though it ached, his eyes devoured her in big greedy gulps. From the slight knitting of her brows to the curling of her sandaled toes, they did not miss a thing.
When he stood at her chair, same formidable expression in place, he did not speak a word. It was not his turn. He owed her nothing for he had already given her everything.
She smiled again before gesturing for him to take a seat. He did so without speaking. His first impression had been brutally accurate. Something about her manner had changed. It was evident in her posture, her smile, the tip of her forehead, and the curl of her fingers against the glass of the table. She was no longer the woman who had broken his heart when she told him she was leaving.
A new one, confident and poised, had replaced that woman. She was breathtaking. He felt his heart begin to crack all over again.
"I'm glad you came." Her voice was the same, he thought. Still a soft feminine alto with just a hint of sex underneath her tongue. The same voice that had whispered his name by the light of the stars. But the tone had changed. It was no longer touched with an edge of insecurity.
"You're probably wondering why I called so suddenly," she continued when his face remained impassive. She knew she would get nothing out of him until she finished. She knew she did not deserve anything, not after the selfishness of her past behaviour. Instead, she would take heart in the mere fact of his presence. That alone spoke volumes.
"I'd like to explain a few things, if you will let me." A finger traced out a design on the corbelled glass and an ankle flexed under the table. She took a risk and slid forward in her chair. "I would really like you to understand."
He sighed, a long, heavy sound, and leaned back against the metal rung. "I did."
Those two syllables rocked into her mind and she savoured the sound of his voice for the first time. She had discovered many things about herself over the flow of the past six months. Many surprising and wonderful things. One of them being that she was in love with him.
At first, she had been distraught, not knowing what to do about the sudden rise of emotions. She had just left him in the dust; it was not possible to even consider the idea that he might take her back. But she had eventually realized that she would not let him go without a fight. What they had together was the most incredible feeling that had ever come over her. It burst through her veins and spilled from her pores. She wanted to hang on to it forever. And unless he could tell her straight to her face that he wanted nothing more to do with her, she was not giving it up. She was willing to grasp at whatever he threw her.
"I love you."
His head jerked and his chin tightened. That damn-it-all chin that she had dreamt about brushing her lips over. His brows lowered and he grunted, ran both gloveless hands shortly through his hair. She had to use all her willpower not to reach over and mimic his actions. Lord, he was gorgeous.
"Look, I didn't come here to—."
"Please." She intercepted his rebuttal with that gentle entreaty. His words died away when she smiled once more. "Just listen."
She had not meant to broach the subject that way. Had not meant to say the words with such little finesse. But they had tumbled out without her permission anyway. There was no taking them back. She took a deep breath. When his eyes met hers again all of her well-prepared speeches flew from her thoughts.
He had always been able to tear everything away with that look. It was as if he could see past her façade and into her very core. It had once given her reason to fear, but no more. She no longer had any use for masks.
"When I left I did it for myself. I won't lie to you and tell you otherwise. Garden was my life." She uncrossed her legs and sat back, lifting a hand. "It was all I had. If one day I could no longer be part of SeeD, if suddenly it was all taken away from me, what would I have left? Who would I be?" Her lips curved now in a wistful smile. "When I found out the answer I didn't like it very much.
So, that's why I had to leave, right then. If I had waited, I would have suffocated. The only other option was an early grave."
I've shown you that I just don't care
When I'm throwing punches in the air
When I'm broken down and I can't stand
Will you be strong enough to be my man?
"I knew that." He said it with a twist of his lips. "I know all this." I know you; he spoke to her with his mind. I've always known you.
He did not want to hear her pretty explanations, her tidy clarifications. He wanted to take her in his arms, bury his face in her coiling hair, and pretend the last six months never happened. That this distance between them did not exist. But that was impossible. Without thinking, he leaned forward.
"It was difficult, at first," she went on. "I moved to Dollet, got an apartment, looked for a job. Can you imagine that?" She grinned now, eyes sparkling with humour. "Me, with a job? I had virtually no valid skills but a local paper took a chance on me anyway. I'm a reporter with the Dollet Tribune." This time she shook her head, but the grin did not falter. "It's like a dream."
"You're happy." It was a statement. His flat tone belied the relaxation of his tensed muscles. For that fact alone, he could feel gratitude.
"Yes, Seifer." She relished the feel of his name on her lips. "I'm good at what I do and I actually like it. For once, I'm not looking over my shoulder and expecting failure to be dogging my heels. Maybe interviewing the Minister of Transportation isn't as important as saving the world from ultimate destruction, but I can look at myself at the end of the day and not wonder who I am. That's important."
Her warm smile engaged him. Against his resolve, his own started to threaten about his mouth. Happiness like hers was fatally contagious.
"You know what Zell called me when I left?" Her hand slid across the table to grip his and a million synapses crackled in his head. He could not force himself to pull away. From her light hand or her bottomless gaze. He wondered why he even thought of trying.
"Instructor." Now that time had passed, she could say it without the pangs that normally accompanied such reflection. "After all we had been through together, he still thought of me as his instructor." Her fingers squeezed his larger ones.
He marvelled over the feel of her hand against his. The calluses had faded, and her fingers were supple now, silky. It was the hand of a female who did not fight monsters for a living. That only wore gloves if it was cold. A hand that did not pour vicious spells of magic from its palm or call otherworldly beasts to the fray. It was the hand of a civilian. And for the first time in his life, his body yearned to know what that could be like.
"You know what they call me here?" She laughed then, bedazzled by the notion. "Quistis. Just Quistis. Because to them that's all I am, that's all I have to be." Her eyes quieted as they latched on his. "That's also important."
"I'm glad." He managed to say it without his voice betraying his bleeding soul. "You've earned it."
She nodded. "Yes, I have."
They sat in silence, both deep in thought. Separate, but linked through their hands in a way they had only begun to discover.
She nibbled at her inner cheek, debated, and decided to go for it. Nothing to lose but my heart, she told herself. And that had not belonged to her for quite a while.
"But with all that I've gained, with all I've accomplished, I've also lost something. A piece of my soul that I left in Balamb. I've come back to claim it." She slanted her frame over the partition so that her mouth hovered scant millimetres from his. "That's vital."
Their breath intermingled, twined in a seductive dance, until all they could see was each other, all they could hear were their rhythmic pulses, and all they could feel was the magnetic power dragging them forward to close the gap.
The kiss was lazy, her mouth moved over his as if she had all the time in the world to explore. His blood thickened and heartbeat slowed. His head filled with images of summer afternoons, picnics on the beach, rainy nights spent by the fire. Her lips were just as he remembered, just as warm and full, just as irresistible. He was helpless alongside the desire that simple touching of mouth to mouth caused to mount within him.
Yes, her body confirmed when the kiss grew more heated. This is what you have been missing. This is what you need. Her fingers flexed then constricted when his hand turned over to thread his fingers through hers. She sighed and parted her lips, helpless against the onslaught of emotion, not even trying to regain control.
When he pulled away from the passion, she did not let him pull away from the warmth.
"Just as I expected."
"Quistis…" He stopped. There was nothing he could add. That kiss had said it all.
She loved the sound of her name off his tongue. It was intimate, and just a little rough. Small thrills pranced up her spine. No one said it like he did. That was basic.
She smiled again, tipped her head to the side, and ran a finger along the side of his cheek.
"I'm not promising you bliss, I'm not swearing I'll be perfect or that we'll always get along." Her finger trailed over to his mouth. "But I'll always love you. And when you need me, I'll be there." She touched her lips to the corner of his, very lightly, tantalising them both.
"The only question is, are you strong enough to be my man?"
He gave into temptation, took her mouth again. This time he was ruthless, the fire roared in his blood, drowned his ears. He almost forgot they were in a public building as the heat took him under. Almost.
"Does that answer your question?"
The curve of her brow was the only affirmation he required.
And show me your face tonight
I know it's true
No one heals me like you
And you hold the key
And show me your face tonight
I know it's true
No one heals me like you
And you hold the key
Well, I feel a heck of a lot better now! There is nothing worse than an unhappy ending weighing on your mind. Now maybe I can get some sleep. The lyrics were taken from two different songs: "Strong Enough" and "I Shall Believe", both written by Sheryl Crow. Slainte!