Squall dragged the back of his hand across his mouth, leaving a smear of mingled blood and spit on the worn black leather of his glove.
Across the pavement of Balamb Town's main drag, Seifer was grinning at him and showing a lot of teeth. "S'matter, Squall?" he taunted. "Still feeling that last knock?"
Squall was feeling it; Seifer had surprised him by getting through his guard with a punch hard enough to leave him seeing stars, and it was a good thing this fight hadn't escalated to weapons - yet - or he'd be bleeding more than just a slow oozing where the inside of his lip had split against his teeth.
There were a lot of things that had changed in Squall's life in the year since Ultimecia's defeat, but he and Seifer in the same place for any length of time still seemed to be a recipe for a fight.
He'd never really understood why Seifer had singled him out as his appointed rival. As a kid, he'd tried to keep his head down, to avoid Seifer's notice when he could, and he'd worked to grow stronger for those times when avoidance failed. Because eventually, inevitably, avoidance had always failed. Sooner or later, Seifer had always seemed to realize that Squall was going out of his way to keep their paths from crossing - and then he'd track Squall down, or lie in wait, and then he'd pick a fight. If Squall avoided or confronted him, if he fought back or if he didn't fight back, the result was always the same: a beating.
Squall had hated him for it. There'd been times when that hate had been the only emotion he'd had that he could identify, unable to understand why Seifer seemed so bent on beating him down regardless of what he did.
That much, at least, had changed since Ultimecia. Not the fights, because they still fought - but the understanding.
Seifer was moving, gathering himself for a fresh assault, and Squall tightened his guard stance and prepared to counter--
"I got our tickets!" a voice sang out, changing the direction of Squall's thoughts entirely. "We're - oh, geez." A quick flurry of footsteps and a flash of blue and white brought Rinoa swiftly between Squall and Seifer before either could take advantage of the other's distraction. "Can't I leave you two alone for five minutes?"
"Pff," Seifer scoffed, rising up to his full height out of his combat stance. "Come on, this is nothing. I've gotta make sure your knight isn't going soft, don't I?"
"In the middle of the street, scaring people?" Rinoa marched over to Seifer to check him over, up and down. "I can't believe I thought you guys would fight less when you started getting along better, like normal people."
Seifer just grinned that same toothy grin, and turned his head to present the place where his jaw was reddened with an impact that hadn't yet begun darkening into the bruise it promised to sport soon. "Kiss it better?" he invited.
She swatted him harmlessly with the flat of a hand instead and turned away with a princess's hauteur - which promptly fell away when she hurried to Squall. "I thought we had a deal," she complained, bringing her hand up to touch her fingertips lightly to the side of his mouth.
Squall stood still and allowed the contact. This was another change, and by far the more dramatic one, but he really hadn't had much choice in the matter. He'd spent his whole life up to that point doing everything he could to cut himself off from human contact, convinced he was saving himself pain... but when Rinoa had come into his life, the only options left to him had been to let her in, or to spend the rest of his life doing nothing but dying slowly.
It had scared him almost to paralysis - it still scared him - but there was no help for it now. He could cut his own arm off if she demanded it, but cutting Rinoa out of his life would kill him.
And that, in a way, was how he and Seifer had reached their understanding, because it was in Rinoa's determined and repeated efforts to draw responses out of him with smiles and teasing and gentle touches that he'd finally gotten an idea of what Seifer - in his warped and violent way - had been about all that time when they were kids.
It was the same either way. It was two sides of the same thing. The shivering warmth of Rinoa's lips against his skin, and the dull ache of the bruises that a bout with Seifer left behind - all of it just served to remind him that he was still alive.
Rinoa's fingers were shimmering with the cool blue-green light of healing magic; Squall caught her wrist and, gently and carefully, drew her hand away from his face before she could repair the damage with another touch.
"It's fine," he said quietly.
She watched his face for a moment, brows drawn together a little, before a smile smoothed the concern from her face and she rose up to kiss him instead, leaving a smudge of lip gloss that she'd be offended if he wiped away too quickly.
"If you say so," she said when she pulled back, and looked between him and Seifer with her hand resting lightly on his arm. "So are you two done?" she asked. "Can we go?"
Seifer made a great show of sweeping a courtly bow in her direction, Squall rolled his eyes, and Rinoa giggled.
It was still an uphill road, but it wasn't so bad to feel alive.