Lucky for Squall, the shock stayed Raijin’s usually rampant tongue. Kes beamed between them, apparently still unaware of the sudden tension.
“Storm, dear, this is Raijin, the young man I’d like you to board. Raijin, this is Storm Leonhart,” she said amiably, gesturing during introductions as appropriate.
Raijin only distantly heard her, the words swallowed up in the sudden deafening white noise crowding his ears. He felt himself nod and automatically hold out his hand, gaze still locked on the other man’s. Squall stared at the proffered hand before hesitantly taking it. He centred himself abruptly, looking the taller man in the eye and warning him with a look not to say anything. For Raijin the shock was quickly giving way to confusion and curiosity. What was Squall doing in a backwater like Winhill, much less assuming a female persona and a different name? Still, if he wasn’t meant to say anything to rock the boat…
“Pleasure,” he replied cordially, like he’s seen Seifer do so many times, gaze still fixed on the younger man. Squall only nodded once, expression quickly taking on a guarded look. The exchange seemed to reassure Kes who ushered Squall into a seat across from Raijin. The other three quickly took the other empty seats, Sven stretching out his longs legs in front of him, both he and Lan keeping a watchful eye on Raijin.
“Did the boys explain the circumstances?”
Squall turned his attention distractedly to the older woman. “No.”
Different name, different place, but still short on words it seemed. Kes didn’t seem to mind.
“Well, unfortunately, what with the weather lately, the inn’s either full or not suitable for human habitation,” Kes smiled in amusement, while Squall still regarded her with thinly disguised annoyance. “So… I was hoping he could stay with you.”
Squall glanced at him out of the corner of his eye before turning a glare back on his host. She didn’t even blink which impressed Raijin. He’d seen greater men quail under that gaze.
“Kes…” he trailed off, one hand going to his brow in that gesture Raijin knew meant he was either exasperated or annoyed. “Isn’t there anywhere in town?”
“You know how most people are about strangers, dear. And I thought – what with your condition –“
Squall cut her off abruptly. “No.”
Kes looked at him in disappointment. “It’s only until the weather clears up –“
“No. I’m sorry, but it’s - inconvenient.” Squall looked at her tight lipped, while Raijin tried to look like he was anywhere but in that room. This was incredibly embarrassing, asking the guy who’d practically single handedly saved the world from his megalomaniacal boss for lodging.
Kes sighed, frowning at Squall’s stubbornness. Lady, you ain’t seen nothing… “Well, where do you want him to stay, then? There’s nowhere else in town. You wouldn’t even notice him there, I’ll have Tex bring some food around so you won’t have to cook extra.”
Tex looked at her faintly as if to say ‘you will?’.
Squall shook his head, “It’s not that…”
“I don’t wanna be a burden…” Raijin interjected, trying to remain as unobtrusive as possible. Squall looked at him, making him shift uncomfortably. He really hated the scrutiny. Squall had the same penetrating cold stare he’d always had in Garden. Used to drive Seifer crazy.
“You see, dear? It’s just for a little while…” Kes pleaded, holding one of Squall’s hands between her own and looking imploringly at him. Squall sighed, looking away from those warm brown eyes. He never could say no.
“… There’re no rooms set up…”
“I can sleep on the floor,” Raijin offered. Squall shook his head, sighing heavily again.
“I – can give you some sheets to set up one of the guest rooms… Or you can use the couch…” he admitted, grudgingly, carefully extracting his hand from Kes’ grateful grip. The two SeeDs looked on in amusement; they knew how much Squall valued his privacy just as well as Tex and his grandmother surely did.
“Well, now that that’s all sorted, are you looking after yourself, dear?” she questioned Squall closely, who blushed slightly under the attention, glancing quickly at Raijin.
“Good.” She fixed him with a probing look, “Be hard to get up to the doctor in this weather. Don’t know why she lives such aways from the town.”
Squall shrugged, still not meeting her gaze while he pushed himself to his feet using the table to steady himself. Raijin thought it odd that the usually poised and graceful youth across from him needed the support, but didn’t say anything as that grey gaze fixed on him.
“Do you have your things?”
Squall nodded, clearly wanting to leave.
“Do you guys need help getting back?” Lan asked, looking at Squall.
Squall glanced back at Raijin, questioningly. “Do you have your staff?” At the affirming nod, Squall shook his head ‘no’ in answer to Lan’s question. “We can manage.”
Sven raised one brow. “If you say so.”
Squall fixed him with a glare before edging back towards the door, waiting impatiently for Raijin to gather his sack from its damp spot in the corner and shrug on his coat.
“If there’s anything you need, dear, just send Raijin up to get us,” Kes told him, giving him a parting hug which Squall quickly broke away from. Squall shrugged, poking dejectedly at the small vase of flowers next to him as he waited, Kes watching him in amusement.
“I know we need fresh flowers, but this is hardly weather to go flower picking – you’re not picking flowers in this foul weather, are you dear?” she asked, sounding alarmed. Squall studiously looked at anything but her. “Storm!” she clucked her tongue in disapproval. Raijin thought idly that all women who had children seemed automatically gifted with that particular gift. “Really, in your state! You should know better!”
“Ready?” Squall almost pleaded, umbrella already in hand. Raijin nodded in amusement while nodding farewell to the still outraged woman – she hadn’t quite stopped clucking yet – and joined Squall as he pulled up his hood again and stepped outside with the open umbrella.
Squall waited for Raijin to join him and then awkwardly held the umbrella over both their heads – Raijin was quite a bit taller than him - fixing Raijin with a hard look.
“What are you doing here?” he demanded as soon as the heavy door closed, sealing them in the rain. Luckily, it seemed the downpour was lightening up, Raijin could see the homes on the opposite side of the road.
Raijin blinked. “I’m looking for work, ya know?”
Squall glared at him a bit longer before beginning the trek back. “No, I don’t know. Are the others with you?”
“No, I’m on my own.”
Squall seemed to relax just a fraction. “Why Winhill?”
Raijin shrugged. He had to duck his head to keep under the umbrella and he’d have a heckuva crick in his neck later, but for now it was better than being blinded by the rain. “Dunno. Just ended up here… wasn’t really in the game plan. You?”
Squall was silent before answering hesitantly, “I decided to come here.”
Raijin raised one brow. “On your own?”
Squall frowned at him. “Decided to come on my own, or the only one here?”
“The first.” Raijin couldn’t help noticing how edgy Squall was from the norm. But then, it had been months since they’d last seen each other.
“They let you?”
Squall looked at him with narrowed eyes. “It’s my life.”
“Hey, hey, don’t mean nothing by it, honest,” Raijin attempted to placate this unusually volatile young man, eyeing the wet landscape around them. The buildings had thinned out and they’d come to a field of flowers and crops. “This the town limits?”
“No, the town hall and my house are on the other side of this field,” Squall replied.
“Town’s split in two?”
They walked on in silence until they reached a chocobo crossing. This entire thing was still nagging at the naturally curious Raijin who couldn’t help asking, “So what’s all this business about ‘Storm’?”
Squall’s lips pressed into a thin line, although he knew Raijin would start asking questions eventually. Why not start with the one million Gil question while he was at it?
“The older people around here think I’m a girl,” he answered, shortly.
“’N why’d they think that?” Raijin asked, slyly. Squall glared at him.
Raijin scoffed. “Yeah, but come on, Storm?”
Squall shrugged. “They don’t need – or really want – to know who I really am.”
“Does anyone know?”
“Some of the younger people. Tex, Sven, Lan… there aren’t many people under forty around,” Squall explained.
“Yeah, they mentioned that.” They walked on a bit further. “I still don’t get it.”
“You don’t have to,” Squall replied, coolly.
“I suppose… But why would Kes think you’d go flower picking, though?” Her last comment had completely confused Raijin who’d been too busy catching up with Squall to ask anyone about it.
Squall was quiet quite a bit longer before he answered. “I sort of run the local florist,” he answered, his glare daring Raijin to comment. He managed to keep his quiet for another few minutes, wide grin attesting his amusement at Squall’s discomfort while Squall turned up a small unpaved path on their left after they crossed the bridge.
“So…” Raijin said finally in amusement “You? A florist?” He looked at the shorter man out of the corner of his eye.
Squall glared up at him. “Shut up.” He kept a tight grip on the umbrella as the rain pattered down around them, avoiding as many puddles as possible. “My mother owned the town florist shop,” he mumbled.
“Oh,” Raijin replied softly, embarrassed for treading on what was obviously a very touchy subject. “I’m sorry.”
Squall glanced up at him, expression still closed and slightly annoyed. “Why? It’s not like you killed her.” He turned his attention stonily on the muddy footpath before them. Raijin decided he better not say anything for awhile.
The rain had eased to a light drizzle by the time they reached their destination a small distance from the town square and tucked among the large ancient trees edging the forest near the town, and dusk well underway. The opposite side of town was all meadow and farmland as far Raijin could tell from what he had seen on his way in. The greater concentration of houses tended to that side; seemed like Squall had opted for the relative isolation offered by the dense forest – not that that was surprising in any way. This was Squall Leonhart, Ice Prince (or Princess as Seifer’d always quipped), you were talking about.
Raijin supposed what with monsters venturing right into the middle of the town square (he’d never been in a town so poorly defended. Usually, the monsters instinctively stayed away from places humans inhabited), and most heading that way from the direction of the forest, that the townsfolk’d tried to put as much distance between them and the forest. There’d only been a handful of houses on the walk up to the stone house, and they’d passed the closest neighbour quite a while back. No wonder Kes was worried, especially if she thought Squall was a woman. Raijin would’ve been at least little concerned if Fuu had holed herself up in a house on her own as far away as possible she could possibly get from the rest of the towns-people without actually being outside the town limits. Not that Seifer’d let her of course. He wouldn’t have let her alone, and since he rather liked being in the thick of things…
What Raijin didn’t understand was why Squall had let Kes bully him into taking on a border. Raijin knew that Squall was more than capable of taking care of himself. As if taking down an as-yet unborn majorly powerful Sorceress from the future wasn’t proof enough, and if those two SeeDs knew who Squall was like Squall’d said, then why’d they bother asking if they needed an escort back? It couldn’t have been for show, they didn’t seem the type to waste their breath on anything so trivial, so he was stuck for answers. As usual. Just going with the flow.
Raijin glanced at the younger man out of the corner of his eye, a sudden thought occurring to him. Where’s his gunblade? He would’ve thought it standard procedure to head out the front door – especially in this town, with all the monsters about – armed and ready for combat.
“Where’s your ‘blade?” he asked, curiously.
Squall blinked up at him, surprised out of another deep inner discussion. He’d forgotten for a moment the larger man was with him. “It’s in the house.” He didn’t say anything further and Raijin decided he’d better drop the subject.
The front yard was well kept, if a little soggy at the moment, a grey cobble-stone path leading to the wide front porch and door. A small bench was set under the large bay window at the front of the cottage. Squall lead the way without preamble, setting the umbrella down beside the door to drip dry before unlocking the door and stepping inside, Raijin following close behind. His host flicked on warm yellow lights before disappearing up the flight of stairs beside the door, leaving Raijin alone in the entry hall.
The taller man looked around as he removed his coat, hanging it on an empty peg on the coat rack beside the door as Squall re-appeared at the top of the stairs, a bundle of linen and towels folded over his arms.
“The guest room’s up here,” Squall indicated the shadowed secondary landing behind him. “You said you were tired?”
Raijin followed the retreating figure, duffel in hand and too tired for any more catching up. It’d been a long walk after the ‘Bo had abandoned him – he’d only dismounted for a minute to get a drink from the stream, and the blasted thing had taken off like Doomtrain was on its tail.
Squall didn’t say much, only pointed out his room and the main bathroom for his use - apparently the master bedroom came complete with an ensuite – and then retired to his own room, shutting the door firmly behind him. Raijin knew how to take a hint.
His room was nice, not too big, but not small either, simply furnished with dark mirror-bright polished wood – one high drawer set, one bedside table, a bed far beyond the Balamb standard, and a nice view overlooking the darkened front yard. The entire second floor was covered in a thick soft dark-red almost black carpet. The walls were plastered from the ceiling to about chest level with what at first glance appeared to be a simple dark red-peach coloured wallpaper, but on closer inspection turned out to be tiny intricate ivy vines twining up the wall. Dark wood accents that matched his furniture divided the lower half of the wall with the bare polished stone slabs that reached to the ceiling. Very old-fashioned, but nice, comfortable. It was a different kind of beauty than the pale walls and fixtures of the Garden. If this’d been a B&B he would have expected to pay quite a bit of Gil per night. The bathroom was just as nice and well-kept when he went in to take a quick shower and wash away the day’s grime and sweat.
After he’d haphazardly made the bed – house keeping wasn’t exactly a subject they taught to all SeeDs, and it wasn’t like the instructors had ever thought that Raijin would blend in with the housekeeping staff of any family or hotel, so why bother teaching him something as time-consuming as how to make a bed? – he collapsed on top, flat on his stomach, feet still dangling over the edge only bothering to pull the top heavy duvet cover half-way over him before succumbing to the first good night’s rest he’d had in months.
Bright streaks of light spilling warm over his face woke Raijin next morning. It took him a minute to remember that the soft clean surface under him was a bed before his brain automatically tried to process how the hell he’d managed to find a bed, how he’d managed to pay for the bed, and exactly where the hell he was.
Blinking sleep and sunlight from his eyes, he dragged one large hand over his face, grunting in slight discomfort as he shifted into a more natural shape on the bed, pressing deep into the corners of his eyes while he debated whether to catch another hour’s sleep or get up and some food into his stomach.
Food won as it always did, and he slowly dragged himself out of the warm nest he’d made in his sleep. Somehow he couldn’t imagine Leonhart as the accommodating type, so he’d probably have to make his own breakfast. Still, the kid was letting him stay for free so that was something. If he was paying for board, maybe he’d dare demand better service. Maybe. This was Squall Leonhart he was talking about.
He didn’t bother changing, only splashing his face with cold water from the bathroom tap before heading downstairs in the shorts and short sleeved shirt he’d pulled on before falling asleep. After a bit of exploring he’d located what he figured was the living room off the main entry hall, large and spacious with comfortable looking sofas and armchairs with lots of small cushions pilled on them. A large and silent fireplace was set in the long wall outer wall, the hearth area clear of debris. It looked more like a decoration than a functional part of the house. The living room took up most of the downstairs area, the theme he’d seen upstairs echoed down here – or was it the other way around? – the modest kitchen at the end of the entry hall. The dining room easily fit the wooden table that would have easily sat six, and connected the living area with the kitchen.
He found Leonhart in the living room, leaning against the armrests of one of the sofas with his longs legs tucked up under him, staring listlessly out the large bay window with the view of the front yard. Outside the weather had cleared, the water beaded on the front gardens reflecting bright morning sun like tiny gems. In the light of day it was even clearer just how far from the main village they were; the nearest house was only a line of tall narrow trees marking the boundary of the neighbour’s land in the distance.
The younger man hadn’t heard Raijin when he entered – odd. Leonhart had always been hyper aware of what was going on around him in Garden, even if he didn’t appear to. Now, Leonhart remained motionless on the sofa, expression distant as he stared without really seeing. Raijin knew that look; meant Leonhart was having another one of those deep discussions with himself. Raijin had never been good at those, personally.
Raijin coughed politely to get his host’s attention, trying to keep from hopping from foot to foot in embarrassment. Leonhart blinked once, awareness seeping back into those grey eyes as though the boy was only just waking. He looked at Raijin staring abashed at his feet, hands clasped behind his back like a little kid caught red-handed with his hand in the cookie jar.
Squall raised one eyebrow in question, but had to resort to vocal measures when the larger man still wouldn’t look at him.
Hurriedly squashing the whiny ‘I’m hungry’ that tried to escape, Raijin decided on a safe and more mature sounding, “Is there any food?” Much better. He hoped. Chancing a glance at Leonhart’s face, he ducked his head down again, not wanting to see the exasperation on the other man’s face. No mean feat when Leonhart was seated and he, who stood a good deal taller than the brunette, was still standing. But he managed.
“There’s food in the kitchen – help yourself.” Leonhart turned back to his window and thoughts, Raijin retreating with the clear dismissal to get his breakfast. A bit more exploration in the kitchen and he’d learned the layout pretty well; pots, pans, plates – check. The clock over the stove said it was still early, early enough that he would’ve made it to his morning classes on time. Munching his stack of toast with a large mug of steaming tea beside him, Raijin decided to ask Leonhart if he knew where he could get a job in this town when he was done. But first – the dishes. He had no idea how the kid reacted to dishes left in the sink.
Raijin headed back to the front of the house, still wiping his hands on a wash cloth, opened his mouth to ask his question – and stopped. Leonhart didn’t look too happy at the moment. Gone was the introspective silence, replaced by cold annoyance. Raijin edged around the room until he could make out who Leonhart was glaring at and followed Leonhart’s line of sight to Sven sheepishly rubbing the back of his head with one hand.
“Common, Squall –”
“It wasn’t our idea!”
“I don’t care.” The grey eyes narrowed until only a sliver of cold silver could be seen. He’d also crossed his arms as best he could while still seated and with the sofa back in the way.
“Can’t you open the door?” Sven requested, plaintively.
“You can communicate just fine from the porch,” Leonhart snapped.
Sven noticed Raijin peering over the brunette’s shoulder and waved in greeting. “Hey, just wondering if you were still alive, staying with the ice queen here.” Sven sent a reproachful look at the obstinate brunette.
“I’m fine,” Raijin assured him, looking back and forth between the other two. He’d never really seen Leonhart so snappy with anyone. Usually, the younger man just shrugged conversation off, like water off a duck’s back.
“That’s good. Well, the weather’s finally cleared, Kes was wondering if you wanted to help them fix that room at the inn? You’ll get paid, of course,” Sven assured him. “And if you want to stay there instead when you’re done…”
Leonhart was looking at Raijin, expression unreadable, but with something in his eyes, some strong emotion his guest couldn’t quite identify.
“I think… I’ll just stay here – if it’s alright with Leonhart,” Raijin replied slowly, choosing his words carefully against Leonhart’s expression. The younger man wasn’t glaring at him so Raijin didn’t think he was intruding, and was that a bit of relief in those grey eyes - ?
“Oh.” Sven looked surprise. “Oh, well then, that’s great! Kes’ll be pleased.” He grinned at Raijin, clearly ‘pleased’ as well. Only then did he seem to realize that another’s opinion might just be needed. “Alright with you, Squall?”
“Whatever.” And that was the Leonhart Raijin knew. He was ignoring them both now, staring pointedly away from the man on his porch, no longer acknowledging that he was there. Sven didn’t seem put off though, completely taking his dismissal in stride. He grinned at Raijin, nodding toward the garden path leading through the front yard.
“Shall we go, then?”
They settled into a loose routine over the next week. Raijin would find his own breakfast and sometimes Leonhart would join him before the larger man would head out and do whatever ‘fixing’ the town needed. With all the work he had, he could tell the town needed a lot of that ‘fixing’. The two ‘SeeDs’ were too busy keeping the monster population down and the town safe; Raijin helped out if he had the time. Sven and Lan were both Garden dropouts like him, so they related well and sometimes they’d join him and Leonhart for dinner. Raijin wasn’t entirely sure where all the great home cooked food was coming from, because he never saw Squall toiling at the stove even when he did make it home early. The third day in Winhill, Leonhart had insisted rather grumpily that his houseguest call him by his first name. Being called by his last name seemed to unsettle the youth.
Raijin had become pretty close to the ‘younger people’ as Leonhart called them, and after news spread that a border was staying with ‘that Leonhart girl’ the older people had taken to spying on him, making no attempt at discretion while they were at it. They had been openly hostile before Kes had a stern word with a number of them, and now tended to ignore him when he went around with the tools Squall had loaned him from the shed at the back of the house. They only seemed to notice him when they wanted to know how the younger man was (the very first question out of most peoples’ mouths, usually) or had some sweet or trinket they wanted him to pass on to Squall. Since the Squall hardly seemed to leave the house, even in good weather, Raijin was more than happy to do the simple favour; gave him and his host something to talk about over dinner.
It had taken him awhile to draw the younger man into conversation, taken even longer before Squall seemed completely comfortable with his presence in his home. He’d noticed that Squall was unusually listless and temperamental at times, and learned to steer clear of him when one of his ‘moods’ as Raijin called them, struck. It just seemed safer that way. That first morning wasn’t the only time he found Squall staring out that window, watching the road leading to the cottage.
Raijin had noticed the kid had no problems asking him questions, though.
“Does anyone know you’re here?” Squall had asked one night over some sort of pie. When Raijin had asked what was in it, Squall had just shrugged.
“Nah, like I said, coming here wasn’t exactly a plan of mine,” Raijin told him through a mouth full of pie. Squall had frowned at the display, but let the subject drop.
The furthest Squall seemed to get from the house were the flower gardens in the large yard. He’d pick them and the little old lady that lived in the house where all the main roads in Winhill met would come up once a day and collect them, usually long after Raijin had left for the day. Again, not a topic that usually came up, except for one day when Raijin had opted for a day off after about a week and watched from the porch seat while Squall tended the gardens. Raijin had mentioned, offhand, that Squall should get a greenhouse, y’know, for when it got frosty out. Squall had stopped his weeding and just stared at him until Raijin decided prudently that the knitting group in town was far more interesting to talk about.
He never asked why Squall had come to Winhill, why he’d left Garden, or why he didn’t seem to have any contact with his buddies. They had a phone, the only computer in Winhill as far as he knew that was connected to the outside world even though it was always off, and all the amenities he’d become accustomed to at Garden. Here in Winhill, far away from anything Raijin had grown up with, it was easy to forget about the outside world and enjoy this simple life. He had a roof over his head, good food, good company, and didn’t have to worry about if what he was doing was right. Being known as the town’s new handy-man had its perks.
If he stayed still enough, if he didn’t think and everything around him was still and silent, he could almost forget what had happened over the last few months.
He still didn’t know why Sven had brought him back where, why he’d bothered. It would have been easier if the dark haired man had just left him out in that storm. Then whatever happened would be nature’s fault, not his own. He wouldn’t have to deal with the guilt of deciding what to do next – the decision would already be made for him, with no help on his part. Impartial. No one would ever be able to accuse him.
Of course, that hadn’t happened. Nothing ever went his way.
Raijin was out again, doing god knows what in the town proper. The former DC member seemed to have integrated well with the rest of the town, much better than he had. Again, no surprise there.
He didn’t think the larger man suspected anything, probably attributing the sporadic outbursts to left over stress from the war. Squall had no idea how he’d react to the truth. It wasn’t as though he was actively hiding it; Raijin was just never there when the nausea become too much, or when things were so bad he was a mess of tears and self-pity. And even if he was, Squall was just naturally very quiet and his bed was a far more comfortable place to mope. He wore larger clothes because they were just more – comfortable and less constricting. Not any other reason.
He knew though, and he could admit it sometimes, only to himself, he didn’t want Raijin to leave. It was just… it felt oddly safe with the other man there. Someone who had a strong connection to Garden and everything in it; someone who’d known him in something like a positive light. Similar to why he’d needed Rinoa there, but stronger.
Still, he’d take what he could for as long as it was offered. Hyne knew Raijin would never stay if – when – he found out.
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