Author's Notes: Not mine, yaddah yaddah, quack quack. Beware of potty mouth and a paltry, transitional chapter.
Chapter Five - See a Different Side
By Race Ulfson
"Would you believe... I'm cursed?"
Squall looked into Seifer's eyes, beyond the first and faded scar, past his naughty-boy grin, and saw... laughter? A challenge? Hope? He wasn't going to ask and he knew Seifer wasn't going to explain. Irritated, Squall focused on examining Seifer's arm. Long practice at hiding his emotions helped him mask the horror he felt at the multitude of scars.
Seifer tolerated the scrutiny for a few seconds, then jerked his arm roughly free. Their eyes met and Squall flushed and looked away.
"Does it hurt?"
"What do you think?" Seifer tugged on his shirt and brushed past Squall.
Feeling lost, Squall tagged along like a leather clad afterthought. He was unusually grateful when a rapid tattoo announced Laguna and dinner.
Since Seifer was quiet and Squall his typical introspective self, it was left to Laguna to make the dinner conversation. Being Laguna, he did an excellent job of talking for three, but even he could not sustain his monologue indefinitely. He glanced over at Seifer picking toppings off his pizza before shifting his attention to Squall, who was not even pretending to eat. Laguna knew both boys were sulking and if he said anything about it, they'd turn stubborn and he'd simply have stubborn sulky boys. Amazing how much they resembled senators, really.
The security camera had picked up the cutting, but Squall was there and it hadn't gotten out of hand. Laguna hadn't listened to the argument that followed; he'd had enough with Seifer since the kid can come to stay in the palace that he had a good idea of how it went. What struck him was how different Seifer was acting. He lacked both the smug air of accomplishment that usually came with the thwarting their attempts to prevent the cutting and the sense of despondent urgency Seifer typically had when he wanted to cut and couldn't.
Laguna sipped his soda and fingered the pillbox in his pocket. It was early yet, but Seifer tired easily. Even magical healing could not replace enough of the blood he was determined to spill. Best give the kid his drugs and tuck him in. Give Squall time to work up a good old pout. Honestly, he didn't get that from Laguna's side of the family...
Squall's cell phone chirped, startling in the temporary silence. He murmured an apology and moved to the other end of the room, growling quietly into the receiver. Seifer's eyes followed him, then fastened resignedly on Laguna.
"So," Laguna said brightly, changing his mind, "You want to try to reclaim Leviathan?"
Squall listened absently to Xu reporting in his ear, his mind on Seifer and the cutting. The smell of blood was nothing new to him, but Squall had never liked it and now he couldn't seem to get it out of his nose. The dinner may as well have been raw meat. He barely remembered to agree with Xu that yes, calling Irvine, Nida, and Quistis back from Dollet was the only thing to do under the circumstances. She fretted on a while about how all the A levels were out of the field and how it was going to effect revenue, yaddah yaddah quack quack quack. Xu's comments were important just often enough to interrupt his trains of thought without being interesting. Squall found himself standing hipshot and huffing through his bangs, his eyes drifting to the triple triad game he was missing. At long last Xu took the hint and signed off.
By the time he made it back to the gaming table, Seifer was losing his ass and reacting appropriately.
"Fuck you and everyone who looks like you, " Seifer snarled, as Laguna took his only decent card, Red Giant.
"Seifer, those cards suck." Squall sat on the arm of Seifer's chair to kibitz.
"Random rules," Laguna sang sweetly, batting his lashes. Seifer grumbled something about Laguna's parentage and personal habits and Squall wondered if he should be offended. Laguna certainly wasn't. He played Iguion and beamed.
Squall felt a surge of panic when Seifer fell back in his chair, clutching his chest. He hid it quickly when Seifer moaned theatrically, "Hyne! Right to the heart!"
"Read 'em and weep," Laguna chortled.
Seifer writhed and whimpered in a completely uncharacteristic show of pain. Squall thought they were playing Triple Triad, but it seemed there were unvoiced rules about reacting to cards. He watched, puzzled, while Seifer and his father argued without rancor and Laguna easily relieved Seifer of Creeps, Fastitocalon, and Chimera. He knew Seifer's temper and how he hated to lose, and yet, for all of that, Seifer's continuous griping was clearly faked.
Squall moved to a side chair when he nearly got an elbow in the eye while Seifer pretended to throttle Laguna. His public fights with Seifer had been similar. A lot of people were surprised that Squall considered Seifer his friend. Was that what was going on? In the short time that Seifer had been in Esther, sick as he was, he and Laguna had become friends?
"You can't strangle me, I'm the President," Laguna said cheerfully. "I don't need any oxygen to my brain."
Squall didn't think it was that funny. He looked up when Seifer abruptly stopped laughing, wondering if they'd suddenly been reminded he was there.
No, Laguna still held center stage as usual. He was smiling sheepishly and offering Seifer a handful of pills.
His meds. There had been no pill bottles in the bathroom, but then, if Seifer was on suicide watch, it stood to reason that his medications would be dispensed. There seemed to be a lot of pills in Laguna's palm, though. Squall raised his eyes to look over at Seifer, who was getting a well remembered mulish glint.
"Fuck, no, not the blue one. You know what that does to me."
"You know the routine, Son." Laguna sighed. "You were cutting again-"
"And that's my punishment? To be made into a zombie? Dammit, I can barely think now and-"
"It's not a punish-" Laguna began. They'd had this argument so many times before.
This time, however, Squall cut across both their voices with a cool, "Take the pills, Seifer." It was not a request.
Seifer glared at Squall but then backed down, grabbing the pills from Laguna's hand and swallowing them dry. He looked flushed, but Squall couldn't tell if it was anger or embarrassment.
Laguna offered gently, "Let's get you into bed." Seifer stood at his urging, but his attitude was listless, defeated.
Squall hated Seifer like that. "Don't give up," he heard himself saying. "We can fix this."
He was rewarded by a pale shadow of Seifer's rascal grin.
Zell waited as the seconds and then another minute ticked by. Limited patience exhausted, he said in his most helpful tone, "When you call someone, you're supposed to talk, Baby."
Squall fell back against the dark blue satin sheets and sighed. He adjusted his cell phone. "He says he's cursed." There was no question who he was.
"Cursed?" Zell said, "By what? Who? Or should that be whom?" He contemplated grammar for a moment and then continued, "That sounds weird, coming from Seifer. He's not an excuse giving kind of guy."
"I know. You should have seen him; he's covered with scars. It doesn't make sense."
"Er, like... he'd have to be crazy to do it?"
Squall rolled his eyes and traced the stitching on the satin comforter with his finger, mildly annoyed at a short line of threads that were out of sync with the others. It, too, was dark blue, although faintly spangled with stars in realistic patterns. "Seifer is too vain to mark himself up like that for no reason."
"Maybe," Zell hedged, "he has a reason?"
"Other than being cursed?" Squall's voice dropped to a whisper. "Could it be about his face?"
Zell resisted the urge to knock his head against the wall, settling instead to chew his lip until self control was re-established. Squall only got the guilts rarely and always over the strangest things. Not that he had anything to feel guilty about, especially not Seifer, who was not only a consummate prick but also had ruined Squall's beautiful face first. A calming breath, a swipe of fist against shadows, and Zell managed to sound only faintly angry. "He does have a history of leaving scars. You have the same one, right? How do you feel about it?"
"I never think about it." Squall looked out at the Estherian night, colored by the city lights outside his palace bedroom window, and took a moment to do just that. He shrugged, nearly dislodging the phone again. "I don't feel anything about it. It doesn't matter."
"I bet Seifer never felt a bit guilty about doing it to you, either," Zell said after a short pause.
"Why should he?" Squall was genuinely surprised. "It was an accident."
"Yeah... sure. Well, if Seifer doesn't feel guilty about scarring you, why should you feel guilty about scarring him?"
Squall let loose his feral little smile, since there was no one around to see it. "It wasn't an accident when I cut him."
There was a pause, and Squall could hear Zell shifting around. The faintly tinny non-sounds in the background abruptly stopped, and Squall knew Zell had taken the phone off speaker. "Okay," Zell said, enough clearer so that Squall could hear him picking his words. "So Seifer doesn't cut because you showed him the joys of bleeding and scarring. What does that leave?"
"He's not crazy," Squall said firmly. Internally, after seeing Seifer actually cutting, Squall was beginning to acknowledge the faint possibility his rival had lost touch with reality. But not out loud, not yet. Honesty compelled him to add reluctantly, "Laguna says the shrink told him feeling of persecution is one of the symptoms, like the cutting, of stress and paranoid schizophrenia."
Zell pondered a moment. "You aren't crazy if people really are out to get you."
"Do you blame him for... the war and ...all that?"
"I blame him for being a shithead." Zell barked a laugh. "The war didn't happen because of Seifer... though I can imagine he might think it did. He's arrogant enough. But we all know what was going on, the politics and stuff."
Squall's voice sounded more determined; he'd decided on a course of action. "I know you aren't on assignment. Feel like taking some leave and coming to Esther? Helping me out?" The blue satin cosmos folded beneath him as Squall sat up and added softly, "Helping Seifer?"
"...Anything you want, Baby. If you think it will help. Anything."
"I'm sorry this has to be on your own time, but it's not a SeeD matter, really."
"Hey, hanging out with you at the Presidential Palace isn't exactly a hardship. I'll put in my request in the morning and take the afternoon train." Zell laughed. "And if Seifer doesn't call me names, we'll know something's wrong." He threw a few punches at a shadow, happy about the thought of taking action. "What's the plan, anyway?"
"Esther is the place to study magic, right?" Squall smiled grimly at the arcs of light recessed against the surfaced ceiling, "I thought we would do a little research on curses."
((Now it is my turn to give the apology and sing the song of computer failures. Thank you so much all who have reviewed; I hope the next chapters will be better worth your long wait.))
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