The rest of the boat ride, Seifer decided, was greatly improved with the addition of Squall nestled against his side. He shifted to rise, both sorry and selfishly grateful when blue eyes opened to watch him.
"I didn't mean to wake you."
He could feel a tension he didn't expect dissolve, when Squall smiled easily, didn't seem at all worried to be where he was and who he was with. Finally.
"S'ok, rather be awake. How long?"
Seifer shrugged. "Couple of hours, might be near dawn by now. I think Fuu kicked on the door a while ago, to check in."
"Mm." The smile faded, Squall's gaze turning to the side and fading inward. The set of his jaw growing grim and weary - until he was kissed, Seifer catching more chin than lip. Squall turned helpfully into the second kiss.
No great task, to tell that Squall was upset, not this close up and... of course he was upset, who wouldn't be? Seifer was happy to handle upset, as long as it didn't involve any sort of leaving. His hand sliding over Squall's shoulder was a quiet emphasis on the sentiment.
"I lied to you, about her."
The blonde knight shrugged.
"... know it. 'S alright."
Seifer knew Squall had never liked his ability to give in so unexpectedly, to forgive him without some great sacrifice made. He could see the incredulity in the blue eyes that snapped up to stare at him.
"You understand what I mean?"
"You're saying if it comes down to me or her, you're not sure what you'll do. You're saying she still has a hold on you, because she's the sorceress or because she's Rinoa or both. You love me but you love her too and it's a complicated world, so things like this happen. Is that about all?" Seifer ruffled the man's silky hair, surprised to find the half-smile on his face. "I remember being there, with Edea. I know what it was like. I'd like to think that's all you're going through now, but that wouldn't be fair to you."
He was trying not to think, trying not to let any of the darker emotions into his face or his voice but Squall saw it anyway, and the kiss that came because of it was completely unexpected, one long-fingered hand resting a while against the back of his head.
"I wasn't lying... what I said about this. About us." He was always so serious, so damn earnest. Seifer always wondered how he kept it up without pulling a muscle.
"I know. It's not a simple problem, that's all right."
Squall frowned, and Seifer laughingly pushed his hand away when it came up to check for a fever.
"I did mature a little bit, in twenty years. Believe it or not." Seifer tweaked the edge of an ear, peeking beneath the russet hair, and forced himself to roll over, sitting up at the edge of the bed. Several muscles protested the movement, but he'd learned to move faster than his aches just for that reason, on his feet before he was wincing at the spikes of sharp pain that shot up through his legs and back.
"Old goat." The aches weren't enough to save Squall a pillow to the face.
"My hearing's fine." Slowly, he dragged his clothes on, heard Squall puttering behind him at a slightly faster pace. Damned overachiever.
"Man, this takes me back." Seifer grimaced as the floor swayed, boat creaking a little bit. "Not that I really wanted to go back."
He should have gotten used to it by now, but the jolt was still there, when Squall looked at him with those blank eyes, not sharing in many of the jokes and memories that were all but a second language by now.
"Nothing. It's been years since we did any ocean missions, that's all."
//It's getting better. He'll be back to normal.// If he could keep everything else away long enough for that to happen. Damned White SeeD, now was not the time to be plotting revenge but...
A sharper creak, the boat seemed to be turning, but before Seifer could wonder why there was a loud knock on the door.
"No, Uncle Seifer, it's me." A sharper turn, and any polite distance she was trying for disappeared, as Jayne plunged through the door with a wail, landing face down on the floor.
"What the hell is going on up there?" Worried as he was, Seifer still grinned as turned, and was presented his gunblade, hilt first. Squall tossed him a small grin. Always ready, always reading each other, this sort of help had become second nature.
//He'll be all right. Congratulations, Seifer, you didn't fuck it up this time.//
"SeeD. White SeeD." Jayne sat up, rubbing at her nose with the flat of her palm. "They've gotten back to chasing our asses across the ocean, hardcore. I told you we should have just sunk them."
"You've got my blessing, if they keep up with this." Seifer slammed a hand against the wall as the ship nearly went out from under him, heard Squall fighting to keep his own balance. Jayne watched, dug in safely to the doorframe. "What time is it, and why the hell haven't we gotten to ground?"
"Sun's just breaking. Aunt Fuujin can't shake them, and they've been pushing us away from any safe spots we try to reach. We didn't even see them until now. I didn't think they could catch up that fast with-"
Even a death grip in the trim wasn't enough to keep the sharpshooter on her feet as the entire boat suddenly lurched, tipped right and then jerked hard to the left. Jayne was on the floor again, and Seifer crashed backward into Squall, somehow missing the bed entirely and ending up with a wonderful view of the dust bunnies underneath.
A few curse words - Jayne had picked up some new ones even since the last he'd seen of her - but they were drowned out by a sudden blast of ear-splitting sound, part shriek and part roar that shook through flesh and bone and boat in a splintering wave.
Seifer was left choking on the start of a surprised breath, and Squall was looking up with a combination of worry and knowing dread that made things only that much worse.
"I don't think that was the SeeD."
Kiros was glad his reflexes had remained sharp - always easy, following after Laguna and whatever the latest blunder was provided constant honing. Maybe it had left him a little too prepared for disaster, paranoid, but he certainly wasn't complaining now. Within moments, he'd grabbed for Laguna's arm, dragging them both behind the table he'd pushed up as a shield.
The advisors had both gone to cover, the woman was yelling for backup while the man landed precise but ineffectual shots at their attackers. Two of them, Kiros had just enough of a glance to see wings and claws, blazing iridescent shades that left his eyes aching and no question they were Guardian Forces, though unlike any he had ever seen before.
//I hope to Hyne they've got Squall somewhere safe.//
Laguna muttered something softly, stirring, and Kiros grimaced, wiping blood off of his forehead. A bit of shrapnel from the explosion had left its mark. An inch lower and it would have been his eye, and at their age even lucky wounds weren't anything to laugh at. He let his eyes trail down, there wasn't time for more of a check than that, no blood, no limbs at wrong angles.
"I did not get you all this way just so you could break a damn hip."
"I heard that." Laguna blinked, wincing in pain as he struggled up, though Kiros kept a hand on his shoulder before he could peer over the edge of their makeshift blockade.
"They're trying to kill you."
A sharp cry, though from the angle Kiros couldn't tell if the female advisor had been only injured, or something worse.
Laguna nodded. "The Sorceress?"
"If she didn't try - out of spite, if nothing else - I would have been surprised."
"I think they'll find us soon." Gunfire had stopped from the corner, the only remaining sound that of thudding feet and shrill cries of the Guardian Forces as they swept across the balcony. "I think we're in some trouble, then."
"We're fine." Laguna gave him a look he really should have learned to keep to himself, after the first few dozen times Kiros had saved his skinny butt. Too bad Ward wasn't here, this really would have been nostalgic, though he wouldn't have fit well behind the table. Kiros put a finger to the other man's lips as Laguna prepared to protest, pulling a communicator from his pocket.
"Anytime would be fine." Amazing they hadn't attacked already, even if his orders had been to wait for his word. After all the years he'd spent as a grunt, it was still strangely unexpected when the Esthari soldiers did as he asked them.
Kiros turned back, nearly planting himself face-first in Laguna's butt, the other man apparently deciding that a full minute was all he'd really meant by 'stay down,' now peering over the edge of the table.
It wasn't the first time Kiros had pleaded with Hyne for special favors.
Laguna saw the Guardian Forces. The Guardian Forces saw Laguna. Kiros latched his hand back around the man's collar and wondered if he could actually make the dash to the inner door before they were torn apart. Or possibly incinerated. With any luck, he could at least get Laguna in front of him, block that first attack and give him a chance -
Between the technology and the training, there really wasn't much beating the Esthari peacekeepers. Kiros never even heard them, two soldiers in some new kind of military craft hovering in the air beyond the balcony, launching missiles with a careful precision at the attacking beasts.
The Guardian Forces had been caught by surprise as well, one of them let out a weak cry before collapsing in a pile of smoldering feathers. The other was wounded but enraged, taking its attention off of them to swipe at the soldiers, following them as they dropped down beneath the balcony.
"Sir! President Loire!"
Kiros let the hands of some unknown assistant drag him and Laguna along, heard the other man ask about the condition of the two assistants, but didn't hear the reply. The next touch at his shoulder came from a much larger hand. Ward, hovering in an impossible way for someone so large, waiting for Kiros' slight nod that, bruised and banged as they might be, they were still alive.
"Sorry about the, uh, I just wanted to see..." Kiros waved away Laguna's apology, the man batting ineffectually at the several medics trying to fuss over him.
"If I cared about that, I would have let those things eat you." Kiros glanced down at the piece of paper shoved into his hand - preliminary orders, enhanced security procedures, everything they'd been setting up since Squall's 'accident,' though some of the older plans for dealing with the Sorceress were still having the cobwebs dusted off.
Laguna's expression darkened. "She'll go after my boy, Kiros."
An aide sucked in a slight breath, an unnoticeable gesture made sharp and violent by the tension already in the air. Kiros saw Laguna flinch, and for his own part he shut his eyes, taking any solace, however brief, from what he was sure he wouldn't want to hear.
Adrenaline did what balance couldn't, and even though the second jolt was just as strong as the first Seifer was able to keep his footing, though his entire arm ached where he had slammed it into the wall. He reached down, yanking up on Jayne's proffered arm, pulling her to her feet and charging down the hall. He reached the bottom of the stairs before he remembered who else was behind him.
Damn the door for not having a lock. Seifer was startled when Squall actually listened to him, rocking back on his feet. Startled. Scared.
He hadn't felt that same rush of anger for two decades, since he'd stood across from a terrified, frightened Squall pressed against the wall of an elevator car, and even then he hadn't known who to blame. It felt like molten metal, burning so deep it felt like ice, just beneath his skin.
//You're doing this to him, Rinoa. You do it and you hurt him and you think somehow you're loving him and you have some /right/.//
She was not as pure as Squall needed to believe, as good as any other person but certainly no saint. Seifer could still remember arguments with accusations flung about like knives, one summer only, and Rinoa had never hesitated to wound him when she was angry. It had been as much her choice to leave Squall as it had been his to be Edea's knight, and if he still felt the shame of that she would damn well share in that Sorceress' responsibility.
//I'll kill you for this. I won't let you hurt him again.//
It was a good mood to rush the deck in, better than some of the other battles he'd fought. He needed every bit of confidence, certainly, as he slammed up the last flight of stairs and straight into the maw of a monster.
The beast easily dwarfed the ship, a nautilus on a grand scale, antennae swinging above as pincers dug into the hull, long tentacles sweeping the deck - pulling back as Fuujin leapt out, firing Aeros in a dedicated frenzy.
He didn't catch the end of what was sure to be a colorful curse, Jayne leaping one way as he dove in the other, a huge arm slamming down where they had been, splintering the stairs and a good portion of the deck. By the time he had fired half a round the violent flash had come from where the sharpshooter had dodged, Quetzacoatal rising up high, letting loose with a cry more challenging than anything he had heard before.
//Matron said they were Guardian Forces, the things Rinoa wanted to control. Wild ones, and if they ever got out they would fight each other.// Seifer let out a breath he didn't realize he'd been holding. //Go, slugbird, go.//
He felt something tighten in his chest, blinking away at the bright afterimage of Quetzacoatal's first attack to find the kraken seemingly undamaged by the assault. Certainly it should have had a better chance, electricity against water. Fuujin was still firing Aeros, though they seemed to be having as little effect as the Guardian Force.
Seifer grimaced, watching as the massive sea beast leaned back, readying its own assault, the lightning bird's wings sweeping forward to block, Fuujin diving for cover.
The wave of water seemed like much more than just water - it must have been, instantly soaking him to the skin but hitting the Guardian Force in a brilliant spasm of light. Quetzacoatal let out a wild scream and disappeared in a brilliant flash, as Jayne crumpled to the deck without a sound. Knocking out their only GF had also lost him a third of his team, and this thing didn't seem at all impressed by their efforts.
The boat creaked and shivered ominously - he was surprised the monster hadn't figured out yet how easy it was to sink them. Fuujin was running for the unconscious sharpshooter, and he took a step out to do the same, readying his gunblade for cover fire when a blast hit the monster from behind instead. Seifer could see the edge of the boat's broadside, just beyond the dark curve of the Guardian Force's shell.
The White SeeD, finally deciding to be useful. Seifer just hoped it wouldn't be too late.
Fuujin's shout. The SeeD's weapons were no more than a momentary distraction, incapable of penetrating the thick shell, and she was under heavy attack. Pinned , using her weapon as a shield against the tentacles slamming down on her, protecting the girl sprawled beneath her feet. Seifer was poised to move when a blur of brown sprinted past him, and he felt his heart sink.
Squall hadn't listened. He'd just needed Seifer to believe he had long enough to have a chance to fight. He was now dutifully hacking his way toward Fuujin, slicing limb after limb before it could reach her. Behind him, he heard a section of the ship's deck crumple and break, though he didn't bother to look, assuming the enormous beast was more holding them up now.
//It won't let us sink... not until it gets what it wants.//
Seifer could see the monster's attention shift, pincers adjusting their hold on the hull, following Squall's movement even though he could see nothing that looked like eyes.
Of course he'd still come up, knowing all the time that it was after him, that if Rinoa was controlling it she wouldn't just have it attack them. Of course Squall would put himself in danger, rather than see them get hurt.
//Shit, no. Shit shit shit...//
He was still amazing to watch, Seifer could tick off on his fingers and quickly lose count of the lazy afternoons he'd spent watching the man practice with his gunblade. Squall had never given it up, claiming the need for exercise, though Seifer had always teased it was because he knew he looked so damn good doing it. He was breathtaking, even now, the blade a flashing trail, never pausing between a deflection and a strike. Single-handedly pushing the Guardian Force away from Fuujin and Jayne, driving it back across the deck.
//Pushing it closer to the water... closer...//
Seifer swallowed the cry that would have broken Squall's concentration, diving forward instead, lifting his gunblade to pound a solid round of ammunition into the beast - eyes, where were the goddamn /eyes/?!
Squall looked so beautiful, even in the moment when he realized he wasn't going to win.
Seifer didn't even see what changed, only the knowledge in Squall's eyes that he had made a misstep. The first strike was deflected, but the managed to land a heavy blow, though, shattering force against his knee. Squall let out a cry of pain, fell, but never hit the ground.
The creature's long limb looped around his chest and waist like a snake, and Squall's eyes widened as it constricted with a violent spasm around him, cutting off breath before he ever had the chance to cry out. He went limp, sword falling from his hand to clatter against the deck. The monster swept it up too, moving back, retreating as swiftly as it had come. Seifer had stopped firing, the moment Squall was in its grasp, a few more volleys from the SeeD ship providing the final shots instead.
//No! No no no NO!//
Seifer heard Fuujin yell at him but it didn't matter, nothing mattered except losing sight of Squall, knowing how much he could not let that happen. Would not let him go, not after all he'd promised to the both of them. His boots slammed hard against the deck and that was all the sound he could hear, until even that was gone as the kraken slid back into the ocean and Seifer didn't think, just lunged over the deck and into the sea.
He was conscious, just barely, hand reaching out to him, and just for a moment Seifer had him, hand in his own. Saw the despair and fear, and then they hit the water and everything dissolved into foam and water, leaving him with nothing. Seifer kicked down madly, reaching out for what should have still been right in front of him, but all that pushed back was water, tumbling him like a stone. He broke the surface, and Squall and the monster were gone.
Seifer roared, slamming one fist against the helpless sea, amazed he dragged in air instead of saltwater, for how it felt like he was drowning.
//It took his sword.//
The thought clamped down hard around his mind, much more important than the battle or the debris or the identity of the approaching ships. It had taken his sword, and Seifer knew already how this would end, how Rinoa thought she could force the ending. He was grinning fiercely, let the anger pull him up and out of any sense of doubt.
//You bitch... you stupid /bitch/, who do you think you're fucking with?//
"Seifer!" The ship was down, it wouldn't have surprised him if the monster had snapped it in half on its way out. Fuujin had attached herself to the biggest piece of the wreckage, one arm around a still unconscious Jayne. The SeeD ship was moving cautiously closer, no doubt to pick them up. No reason for them to be enemies now that both their purposes had been so ruthlessly smashed.
//Doesn't matter. They don't matter.// He couldn't... no, if he thought about it at all, he would have to think about what Rinoa would do, now that Squall was in her grasp. What she would do to him, every moment that they hadn't saved him yet - and he couldn't... wouldn't.
It was only the beginning. He hadn't lost anything yet.
//I'm not going to let you keep him. You may be all-powerful, Rinoa, but you've still got it in you to be dumber than a sack of hammers, and I won't lose to you.//
Seifer wrapped an arm around the rope that was lowered to him, pressing his boots against the hull, wondering just how long it would take the White SeeD to get back to the Garden.
//You made your last mistake when you took him away from me.//
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