Redemption

By Koumori

Everybody is so polite to me now.

So fucking polite.

Used to be, people stared at me in the halls because they were in awe of me. Now, itís because theyíre afraid of me. Itís completely different.

Fujin told me so many times not to come back to Garden. I wouldnít listen to her. I never do listen to her when sheís right. She and Raijin wouldnít come back with me; theyíre down in Balamb proper, waiting for me to come to my senses. I donít think she really thought I would leave them there; she tried not to look hurt when I did, but I could feel how deeply it wounded her. She wouldnít speak to me. She wouldnít say goodbye. I know where she was coming from. Sheís been so loyal to me, even when no one else was; she scraped up the pieces of me when Squall was done with me and healed my broken body. She loves me, but sheíll never say so.

I canít explain to her why I had to come back. I guess itís been my form of penance. I truly am sorry for the things I did, especially the things I did to Rinoa. I had to really grovel before they would let me back, too. I had to say, again and again, how sorry I was, that Garden was the only home I knew, that I was free of the sorceress, that Fujin and Raijin werenít with me, that I wanted to make some kind of amends. Squall made the final decision to let me in, just a few months ago. Iíve been in some kind of unofficial chancery ever since then. Nobody speaks to me unless they have to. Iím not allowed to carry weapons in the halls. I have to sign in and out if I want to leave Garden, or if I want to leave my room after 10:00. Itís a hell of a comedown. Yet I put up with this. I do it because itís the right thing to do.

I donít know if I could explain it to Rinoa, either, if I had the chance. Itís because of her that Iím here. Iím so ashamed of the things I did to her. I betrayed her so badly, and she meant so much to me. For such a short time, she was my princess, my lady, my reason to keep going despite the oppression of Garden. Iíd hoped that if I knuckled under and followed the rules and became a SeeD, I could truly serve her. Truly be her knight.

I do see her sometimes, and thatís what tears me up the most. She smiles at me, but she doesnít see me. Itís like her eyes go right through me, like sheís smiling at something somewhere on the other side of me that I canít see. I try hard to forget, but all I can think of sometimes is the way she once clasped my hand in both of hersÖ

"Take off your gloves," she said, smiling up at me, stroking my hand.

I chuckled. "What for?"

Rinoa rolled her eyes and said "So I can touch your fingers, silly. Off with them."

I lifted her fingers to my lips and kissed them. "But of course, my princess." I was teasing when I called her that, but it always made her smile. After a while it wasnít teasing anymore. She was a princess, as much as anyone can be in Deling. And I was her devoted knight, in a world where my love for her lent me strength and courage, a world where my love for her could drive me to conquer all. Some people would probably call me delusional. No. My dreams gave me a reason to continue. She gave me a reason to continue.

So I pulled off my gloves and tucked them into my pocket. "Thatís better," she said, and slid her hand into mine, smiling up at me and leading me out onto the sidewalk, where we became just one of dozens of couples and small groups meandering the shopping plazas of Balamb. "Now I can hold your hand properly, and everybody can see that youíre with me."

"You want me to show you off?"

Rinoa shook her head, her hair shining. "Nope Ė I want to show you off. I want everybody to see Iím with the best-looking guy in town."

That was the first time I could ever remember blushing.

She was sixteen, brimming with energy, full of idealism, more worldly than she would let on. She was a lot like me. She was beautiful. What I felt for her was pure. We never did make love, though we did just about everything but. She was different from all of the other girls, and I wouldn't treat her like one; I had to be on her level for that, and I wasn't, not yet, not worthy of a princess yet. Even so, she was such a mix of sweet and wild, unrestrained and natural, so much herself, so secure and happy with herself and with me. I was as entranced by her as I ever was by Adel. Once a sorceressí knight, always a sorceressí knight, I guess.

But I had to go back to classes sometime, and she had to go back to Deling. I knelt in front of her at the train station as she was getting ready to go, and as she watched me, I removed my gloves, one after the other, to take her hands in mine. "You remembered," she said happily.

I kissed each of her small hands. "Itís the proper way," I teased gently.

Her hands tightened on mine, her eyes growing anxious. "Seifer.. when can I see you again?"

I pressed her hand to my cheek. "When Iím a SeeD.. when I can come and help you properly." When I could come and serve her properly, when I was worthy of her. "Youíll know when."

She tugged at my hands, drawing me to my feet, looking up at me with those believing eyes. "Seifer.."

"Shh." I let my fingers linger on her cheek as I leaned down to kiss her, soft and gentle as I could. "My princess." I wanted so badly to tell her I loved her, that she didnít have anything to fear while I could protect her.

Instead, I let her go. She watched me from the window, her fingertips pressed to the glass, until the train started to pull away. Iíd read somewhere that it was bad luck to watch your sweetheart out of sight, so I turned away from the platform and went back to my prison at Garden. For her, Iíd stick it out. For her, Iíd become a SeeD. For her, Iíd become a true knight.

It didnít work out that way, of course. I returned to Garden determined to follow the rules, knuckle under, just deal with it, suck it up until I could get into a SeeD uniform and return to Rinoa. But I just couldnít do it. A week, maybe, I managed before it just got too much for me. So I failed the SeeD test the next time I took it. And again I swore to straighten up until I could pass the test, and again I lasted about a week.

And Squall... there was Squall. Always, the yang to my yin. Always there on the fringes of my life. We grew up almost as brothers. Not brothers on great terms, but brothers nonetheless, and the rivalry between us was always such that where one of us was, the other would follow. We started gunblade at the same time. I shouldnít have been so surprised that it was he who was there to pick up the pieces with Rinoa, or at what happened that afternoon....

We watched each other, wary and silent except for the sound of our breathing, rough and heavy, blood staining the stones, his and mine. The air was thick and dark with a gathering storm, and lay heavy around us, the smell of ozone rising from the earth. I felt a silvery trickle of sweat between my shoulders. He angrily wiped the blood from his eyes, and in the middle of that dark smear of red, bright and fierce, they had never been so blue.

It was Squall whoíd challenged me to this fight. I think in some way he might have been trying to help me get ready for the next SeeD exam, which was right around the corner. We had been talking more than usual, and over a flask of bootleg cherry brandy which Raijin had gotten from somewhere, I had told Squall about my dreams, about how important this test was going to be for me. I hadnít expected him to be so sympathetic. Sometimes he was. Sometimes we surprised each other that way.

It was a beautiful fight. We were matched so perfectly. Squall and I never used training weapons with each other; though it was against the rules to use real blades, we always did. You canít make a harmless gunblade; you canít duplicate the weight of it and the way it recoils. Today, though, with the air so dense and the sky so black, I was confident, rejoicing in the fight, loving every moment. I did cheat, a little, by using a spell to knock him down. It hurt him more than Iíd planned, but weíd been trained so well to take advantages when they came to us. My blade flashed down, his flashed up, blood splashed on the stone, and we circled one another, slow and cautious, wounded but neither of us about to concede.

Blood stung my eyes, trickled sticky and warm down my face. The gunblade was heavy in my hands, my eyes locked with Squallís. Even with that wound, even with his clothes singed with the fire spell Iíd thrown at him, his face was so intense, his eyes so focused. A mirror of mine. I donít know when I stopped caring about winning this round. I let the gunblade slip from my fingers and stepped toward Squall before he could protest, before he could question.

I seized his bloody face in my hands and forced my mouth down on his.

I kissed him so hard it hurt, my face wet with blood, sucking the iron tang of it from his mouth. The world could have collapsed around me and I would not have noticed. Squall didnít make the slightest protest, his gunblade falling to the ground, his gloved hands at the nape of my neck, pulling me to him, as hard and hungry as I, feeling what I felt, needing what I needed. The weight of the air, the smell of sweat and blood and leather, his mouth soft-hard beneath mine. A single exquisite moment that would become my most vivid memory, his possession of me as complete as mine of him.

Then he fainted.

His mouth slid from mine, his body going slack in my arms; I saw only a flash of his blurred blue eyes and they fluttered closed. I stared at him for a minute, at the blood smeared on his mouth and still trickling down from the wound on his forehead. It was then, as I gathered him up to carry him to the infirmary, that I first really knew, deep in my soul, how inseparable we had always been, and wondered why.

We were two sides of the same coin. He was the bright side, I the dark; or perhaps it was the other way. From then on, looking at him was like looking in a mirror, like looking at a piece of myself I hadn't known was missing, like his scar and mine would cancel each other out.

I tried hard to put as much distance between Squall and myself as I could from then on. Looking at him, looking at his scar, brought me back to that place and that moment every time, and I ached to touch him, talk to him, find out what it was that drew our paths side by side. Instead I was cruel to him and his friends, and I let him think I was more arrogant than ever. Neither of us ever spoke about what had happened. In fact, after that we didnít speak much at all.

Then Rinoa came back into my life, and then the sorceress found me, and I guess itís pretty much common knowledge what happened after that. How I tried to help destroy the world, and how Squall and the rest of them saved it. Saved me, too, without realizing it; spared my life and let me come back to my senses. It was a noble thing Squall did, letting me live.

My name's become a synonym for betrayal now. 'What are you, some kind of Seifer Almasy?' An insult.

The dream isnít gone. I still believe in love. I believe in truth and beauty, and love and honor. In my dreams, sometimes, I still see Rinoa, feel her hands clasped around mine and see her sweet smile, the way she looked at me as if I were the only man in the world. It hurts to see her look at Squall like that. Even now, even with all thatís happened, I would still be her knight if she would let me. Even if she didnít want me as a lover, even if she would just let me protect her. If her eyes would just see me again.

I had been at Garden for maybe three months when Squall summoned me. He called me to his own room, rather than his office. I guess he didnít want to be seen meeting with me in public. I could appreciate that position. In his place, I imagine Iíd have done the same. After all, I was a traitor not just to Garden but to the whole world.

I hadnít really spoken to Squall since Iíd returned to the Garden. He was always surrounded by his friends, and the way they looked at me, as though they could kill me with their eyes, normally deterred me. Iíd seen him looking at me as though heíd like to talk to me, sometimes, but it never happened. Now, in private, I hardly seemed to know what to say. Now, my eyes were drawn for a moment to the scar between his brows. "Squall."

"Seifer," he echoed, a little bit stiffly. He paused a moment. "I wanted to see how you were doing." In his uniform, he looked like a kid playing dress-up. Formality didn't suit him. "I get the sense things are awkward."

"Of course things are awkward. I tried to destroy the world." Iíd gotten used to saying that without inflection.

"Yeah. You really donít have to be here, you know."

"I have my reasons."

"I know."

His eyes were so damnably compassionate. He pitied me. His gaze, his blue eyes divided by the scar I had given him, so damnably soft, like a lover, like a brother, like a father. I felt a sudden rush of anger at his pity. That wasnít what I wanted. That had never been what I wanted. Not from him, not from anyone. "Quit looking at me like that," I said between my teeth.

"I canít," Squall said tautly.

I stepped toward him, to the point where I could use my height as an advantage, where I could look straight down into his eyes. "Youíve never pitied me before. Donít start now."

He rested his hand on his hip, looking up at me without wavering. "Iíve pitied you before," he said tartly. He had changed, so much. The Squall I knew would have had nothing to say, would have shrugged it off and left me with the last word. Authority fit him well, gave him a strength that had always lain dormant in him before. "I pitied you when you sold your soul to the sorceress. I pitied you when I saw how lost you were. I pitied you when you asked to come back to Garden. Do you think I like watching you kill yourself trying to make up for things you just canít fix?"

"Iím not doing this for you."

"You want redemption, Seifer?" Squall held me still with his eyes. Heíd looked just that fierce and determined the day weíd last fought, when he had left me broken on the ground, and before that, the day we disfigured each other. "You want forgiveness? You think thatís something you can get here?"

"Thatís not for you to decide. Itís not for you to give me."

"I donít like watching you torture yourself."

"Squall, you run Garden and Iíll run my life, all right?"

He narrowed his eyes slightly. "Itís your safety Iím worried for. One of these days Iím afraid somebodyís going to attack you, because of who you are, what you've done."

"I can take care of myself."

"Iíd still feel better if you werenít at Garden."

"Then why did you let me back here?"

"Because you wanted it so much," Squall said. He was silent a moment, then went on. "Because you wanted it so much. I just hoped it wasn't a mistake. I know youíve got stuff to prove. Iím just concerned about you trying to prove it here."

"Donít worry, Squall," I said, and I could not help reaching up toward him, smoothing back a stray strand of his hair, brushing the back of my fingers against his smooth cheek. He didnít resist, didnít even flinch. "If I think Iím too much trouble for you, Iíll leave."

"Iím going to hold you to that." He paused a moment, his eyes shifting away from my face and back again. "Itís been a while. Youíve healed all right?"

"Well enough," I said. "Iíll never be as quick as I once was. But Iím alive and Iím walking." I didn't need the cane anymore, and I would never tell him that I had needed it to begin with. So much of me broken, and the spells they'd thrown at me had torn me from the inside. Fujin was afraid, those first days when I couldn't speak or hear her, that my back was broken, that I would never walk again. I doubt I'll ever be completely free of the pain. But that's all as it should be.

Squall nodded, slowly. "Good," was all he said. He hadn't really wanted to kill me. I had offered him no choice.

The stillness was deafening. His eyes held mine, and I was reminded of nothing so much as the way his eyes held mine that one afternoon, stained with blood. Then, gorgeous, inevitable, replaying a perfect fragment from a perfect memory, my hands curved to his face; my mouth came down hard on his and his rose to mine, yearning, rough and powerful and intense. Instinct and adrenalin, as if we picked up the threads of that kiss we'd dropped a year ago. It was as if it had been ordained from the beginning, from the moment Iíd accepted his summons, from the moment I returned to Garden, from the moment we scarred one another.

It was like before, like the first time, except that the salt I tasted on his lips was not blood but tears; my own, yes, and maybe Squallís too. Such a rush of bittersweet emotion, welling up inside me so hard and fast I hardly knew where it came from. It was the same passion, the same despair, the same intensity, as if I could make him part of me, disappear inside him, join these two sundered souls and make one whole and complete.

He wasnít wounded this time. When he melted against me, it wasnít because he was about to faint. Squallís fingers caught in the fabric of my coat, and I gasped for a breath against the heat of his mouth, burying my hands in the thick softness of his hair and holding him to me. His name caught on my lips, but I couldnít speak more than the rush of consonants, shorthand for need. I wasnít weeping, exactly, not sobbing, not hard for breath in that way, but the tears kept coming, sliding warm down my cheeks, flavoring our kisses with salt.

Squall in my arms. This had been so long coming. Too long. Now that we were no longer ranged against one another, perhaps this was the way. The way to mend all that had gone wrong between us. I had needed to kiss him for so long, and I hadn't even known it. He didnít make any protest, barely a sound, as I eased him to his bed, his hands in my hair as he wordlessly begged my tongue deep into his sweet mouth. He wanted this as I did. He felt the same rush of conflicting emotions, and the same tangle of sensation. Gods. Oh, gods. I wanted so desperately to make love to him. As if that would heal me. As if that would make our scars disappear. As if that would make things the way they were supposed to be.

Squall eased any fears I might have had about his willingness when he pulled my coat off my shoulders; I worked my arms out of it and let it fall, burying my lips in the warm soft skin of his throat. His hands slid up over my bare arms, over my shoulders, and he let his head fall back, baring the arch of his throat to my lips, his eyes closed, whispering my name, telling me heíd missed me. Iíd missed him. Oh, Iíd missed him. Light and shadow need each other.

His jacket came off easily. Beneath, he wore what was probably that same ill-fitting t-shirt he'd always had on when I knew him, and that same heavy silver necklace, the pendant sliding now to the pillow beside Squall's neck. I traced the shell of his ear with my tongue, breathing the scent of his hair, so grateful at the soft catch of his breath, his fingertips digging into my shoulders. I wanted to make this perfect. I didn't really know what I was doing, but I knew I wanted to make this something we would both remember and be glad. His mouth beneath mine again, soft and sweet, my fingers slipping into his hair. "Squall..." So much I had to say.

"Squall?"

I looked up from the neckline of Squallís shirt to see her. Rinoa. Beautiful, sweet Rinoa, standing in the doorway, her smile faltering on her lips as she saw us. As she saw me.

She stood there in silence, looking at us, looking at me. Her name sprang to my lips, a thousand desperate apologies to her, for it was she I had come back for, and now it was she I had hurt, my princess, my sorceress. Hurt her again. Hurt her as Iíd hurt her so many times under the influence of the sorceress; set myself in opposition to her, attacked her with my own blade, junctioned her to Adel. It wasnít supposed to be like this. It wasnít ever supposed to be like this. And yet I couldnít say a word. And I hated myself for it.

The silence lasted perhaps ten seconds, which is a very long time. "Excuse me," Rinoa said very quietly, and closed the door behind her.

Squall was already on his feet before I could even react, as if to chase after her, but he stopped at the door, just short of opening it, looking down at the floor, collecting his thoughts.

"Squall, go after her." He couldnít lose her. He couldnít lose her as I had. She was too precious for that. He was too precious.

Squall stood there, his hand on the doorframe, his back to me, and I knew he was about to break my heart. I couldnít do a thing but watch and listen to it happen. "You should leave, Seifer."

I straightened my shoulders slightly and kept my voice clear and cool. "Where should I go?"

"I donít care. But you should leave Garden. You being here isnít doing anybody any good. You're too much trouble for me."

I stood, carefully, picking up my coat from the floor, but I did not touch him. "Then Iíll go." It would bring the saga to a close for him, if I went, and maybe he would find the way to heal my wounded princess. "What will you say to Rinoa?"

He didnít look at me. "That Iím sorry."

I was silent for a moment. "Iím sorry too," I said softly. "I never wanted to hurt her."

"I know."

"I didnít mean to hurt you, either."

"I know."

"Take care of her," I said to his back. "Sheíll.. I think sheíll forgive you. Itís all right if she doesnít forgive me."

He looked at me, sidelong, his lips still reddened from my kisses. "Iím sorry for you, too."

I straightened up as tall as I could and ran my fingers through my hair. My pride was all I had now. "Donít be. Iíll be fine."

"I know," he said again.

I love you. Thatís something Iíve never said to anyone, not even to Rinoa. I didnít say it to him now, though Iíve loved him my whole life, as a brother, a friend, a rival, something I canít even put a name to. I slid into my coat. "Maybe.. someday.. you can look me up."

"Maybe someday, Seifer."

I laid my hand on his shoulder, just for a moment, long enough to make him look at me again. "Please," I said softly, and kissed him. He let me; just once, softly. "Go after her, Squall."

He looked at me for another moment, and then he left. He didnít say goodbye. I took that as a good sign.

Everybodyís so polite to me.

But Iím leaving now. I canít come back. I donít belong here; I never did. Some things are beyond repair. Maybe Fujin and Raijin will still be waiting for me. I guess it would just about serve me right if they arenít.

Squall. Rinoa. A different turn of fate and I could have followed Squallís path, or he mine. Not so surprising really that Rinoa should love him as she once loved me. I hope, I truly hope, that he can make it right for her. That sheíll forgive him, maybe even understand, and that heíll make her happy.

I love them both. Thatís why I canít stay here.

I made a mess out of a lot of things. Iím lucky I didnít make a mess out of the whole world. It feels, right now, packing up my things, like I did.

I still believe. I still believe in love and honor. I still believe thereís a place for me. I believe maybe someday Iíll earn forgiveness, not just from Squall and Rinoa but from the world. I think Iíll change my name for a while, find someplace where my face isnít so well known, grow my hair to hide this scar. I can do this.

Iíll be waiting. Heíll find me, or she will. Itís not the right time yet. When they need me, Iíll be there for them.

Once a knight, always a knight.

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