The Birthday Present

By Luna Manar

[Note from the author: This takes place approximately five years -before- Final Fantasy VIII]


"You first, loser. Don't waste my time."

Squall ignored Seifer's snide remark, adjusted the collar of his Garden uniform and checked his weapon once again to be certain the safety latch was on. He tested the balance of the gunblade, flicked its razor-edge to one side, then the other, before finally bending his right arm enough to let the only dull part of the weapon, the top of the base of the sword, rest lightly on his shoulder.

Seifer stuck the tip of his black gunblade in the gravelly dirt of the sparring field, and leaned his weight into it, placing his other fist on his hip. He yawned impatiently. "C'mon. I don't have all day."

This comment was ignored as well, or at least gained no verbal response. Wordlessly Squall stepped over to a position directly in front of Seifer, ten or so feet from his training opponent. Though it was their first time sparring against each other, the two acted as though they'd been doing this for years, moving to a ready position, matching the other's stare. Squall righted his stance and held his weapon at ready, to one side and almost level with his eyes. He stared narrowly at Seifer, who leisurely yanked the his gunblade from the ground, held it horizontally straight out in front of him. Seifer grinned wickedly, aiming his line of vision down the edge of the weapon at his target.

"Your move, 'Pussycat.'"

A scowl-poisoned shadow darkened Squall's ever-solemn blue stare. Fire blazed to life in the icy gaze as he advanced on Seifer, brought his weapon back and swung it forward again, using his momentum and the sword's weight to bring it flashing toward Seifer's throat as he neared.

Hardly two feet from colliding, the two opponents met blade-to-blade, the metal singing echoes that bounced off the grey stone outcroppings surrounding them. Three times the swords clashed, then a pause as the two combatants backed away from each other to square off. The retreating thunder of the first three sword strikes had not completely faded when the next metallic crashes were heard.

The first disadvantage for Squall was that, while Seifer used but one arm to throw out slash after slash with his lightweight weapon, Squall found himself having to scramble to block the blows. He was only a couple inches over five and a half feet, smaller than Seifer, who was nearing six feet, and had a larger weapon to wield. At first his movements seemed, comparatively, clumsy and awkward against Seifer's lightning-quick, fluid motions.

Fine then. He'd just move faster.

Seifer's weakness became apparent in the next few moments. Squall put his entire body into his attack; when one part of him could not work fast enough to block one of Seifer's strikes, he'd simply move out of the way, duck or turn to the side to narrowly avoid being hit, and in the same motion attack, striking back with his weapon rather than defending with it. Seifer was used to pushing his opponent back, attacking too fast to be countered. He did not expect his enemy to turn what should have a series of defensive moves into offensive ones. This forced Seifer into a defensive position of his own, blocking one slash, then another as Squall "danced" around him to keep him in a constant state of having to turn to his left, where his sword arm-his right-could not reach as far. Squall kept coming, letting the intensity of the fight fuel him, shouted sharply as he advanced a particularly fast, particularly powerful strike. Seifer got lucky, managed to move fast enough to knock away the blow and jump backward to avoid the return stroke. One Squall did not execute.

The two faced off again, breathing hard, never taking their eyes away from the other for a moment.

"Kind of funny how you got me as your sparring partner today, isn't it, Squall?" Seifer taunted, a mocking sneer cutting one side of his mouth.

"What about it?" It was first time Squall had spoken to Seifer today.

"Interesting thirteenth birthday present, don't you think?"

"Whatever." Squall wasn't in the mood for talk. He rarely was.

Seifer attacked this time, keeping his moves tentative and jumping back quickly after each strike, testing Squall's reactions. Squall didn't fall for feints, and seemed to be a wall at a distance such as this. Seifer decided to let the boy come in close again. He feigned retreat, stopped as Squall came toward him for a high-cut and lunged under the stroke. Squall twisted away from the under-handed blow that flashed toward him, but the very ends of Seifer's double-tipped gunblade cut a clean slice in the left side of his grey Garden uniform.

Like two snakes, they whirled once they'd passed each other. Seifer made a signal with his left hand, and simultaneously they lowered their weapons, stood staring at one another. Seifer smiled malevolently and waited.

Indeed, after a few moments, Squall visibly fought back a wince, and for the first time looked down at his side to see the uniform and the light grey shirt beneath it had been cut. As had he, he noted by the stinging pain and thin rivulets of blood that began to trickle from the slash. It was a shallow, minor wound and he paid it little more attention, simply glared hatefully at Seifer.

"If I'd really been your enemy, I would have killed you. You really need to be more careful, Squall. Your recklessness gets the better of you." Seifer eyed Squall with a superior, almost disappointed expression.

Squall bit back a savage retort and contented himself with standing ready once again. He knew Seifer was just trying to get a rise out of him, and refused to be bullied into losing his temper. Scowling, he motioned for the time-out to end.

The contest continued. Time and again the two rivals clashed and stepped back, advanced and retreated, struck and countered. Twice they stopped themselves in the middle of moves that would have simultaneously killed both of them. Squall had the satisfaction of knocking Seifer's sword from his hand once, but never did he let this minor victory get to his head.

Seifer was the larger of the two boys, his weapon was lighter, and after "training" for over an hour, Squall was beginning to tire. The only thing that kept him from slowing down was an internal refusal to show his fatigue. If he allowed Seifer to know he was losing strength, no doubt his rival would use this state as an advantage. Instead Squall simply--or not so simply--changed his style of fighting, striking and backing away as Seifer had done earlier, pretending to test his opponent's defenses, while in reality using the numerous brief pauses to catch his breath and prepare himself to attack again.

During one of his "test" slashes, Squall suddenly launched into an assault, his strikes coming with renewed ferocity. He came in low, slashing upward early to force Seifer to back up, then brought the gunblade down in a forward arch that could have split his opponent in two.

Seifer wasn't ready for the attack, but nor was he startled by it. He managed to block the blow, but because of Squall's superior position was forced into a crouch to stop the over-handed strike. He attempted to stand but Squall wouldn't let him up, slowly forcing the edge of his blade toward Seifer's face. Though Squall was smaller than Seifer, he was nearly as strong, and gravity aided him.

Seifer was buckling. The blade was coming too close, and for a moment, Seifer feared Squall would actually force him down. But the close proximity brought another option within his reach. Seifer took his chance.

Unlike Seifer, Squall had to use both hands to wield his weapon. Therefore he had nothing with which to block the shoulder that plowed into his gut. The breath was knocked from him. He let up and his guard failed. Seifer was standing before him and had sent an elbow to Squall's chin before he could take a step back. Squall faltered and Seifer's foot tripped him onto his back. He hadn't even the time to gasp for breath before he found the end of Seifer's black weapon hovering over his chest.

Squall stared at the weapon dazedly for a moment, trying not to take a breath, so close was the razor-sharp blade. To up the level of Squall's discomfort a little, Seifer used the end of the gunblade to push aside the edge of the grey uniform jacket, aiming the needle-sharp tips directly at Squall's heart. Finally the burning in Squall's lungs forced him to breathe, and the very tip of the wicked sword dug painfully into his chest. He swallowed a curse and scowled lividly up the length of the black weapon at Seifer, who stood over him. One of Seifer's be-damned-and-go-to-hell smiles was widening on his lips.

"Looks like I win this one, Pussycat," he declared in a quiet, mockingly friendly voice. "Better luck next time."

But Seifer didn't let Squall up. Instead, the double-tip of the gunblade drew across the grey of the shirt, and Squall tilted his head back a little as the points came closer to his head, watching the sword warily. The sword's two ends came to hang menacingly close to his exposed throat, not quite touching him. He continued to glower at Seifer, barely contained anger smoldering in his icy scowl.

"You know the difference between you and me," Seifer mused aloud, keeping his weapon leveled at Squall's neck, "is that you're too concerned about discipline and rules to think creatively. You're always sticking to protocol, and you're too stiff to think past what you already know. I'm looser. I'm not afraid to think outside The Box. That's why I win so much." He leaned forward, then, and pressed his weapon up against Squall's neck, trapping the airway in the narrow gap between the black sword's two tips, cutting into the flesh only enough to cause traces of red to seep out from beneath where metal touched skin. Squall didn't react, just kept scowling angrily at Seifer through narrowed eyes. "But, I suppose I should expect something like that from a prude like you." Seifer took another step forward, enjoying tormenting the younger student.

Who locked his boot around the ankle that Seifer had just put within his reach, and with a growling shout hauled Seifer's feet out from under him, sending him over backward and to the ground. As Seifer fell, Squall leapt to his feet, taking up his sword--which he had not lost his hold on. Lowering it at Seifer's chest, Squall planted his foot on his former conqueror's stomach, being careful to keep an eye on Seifer's limbs in case he decided to try and use Squall's own trick against him. His eyes narrowed to slits, he snarled vehemently to his downed rival, "Wanna know another difference?"

Just as Seifer had done to him, Squall brought the end of the blade up from the chest, only he aimed it such that Seifer was staring straight into the inconspicuous opening near the sword's curved tip, one which a bullet would fly from at the pull of a trigger.

Squall did not smirk. His face didn't change at all. "I don't give up when I lose. I don't assume I'm dead."

Seifer's heart nearly stopped when Squall switched the safety latch of his gunblade to OFF. And his eyebrows shot up to show it.

"I may not be able to think 'outside' The Box," the end of Squall's weapon edged closer to Seifer's face. His voice became very quiet. "But I'm a hell of a lot better than you are at working with what's in it." Almost absently, Squall spun the barrel of the gunblade with a sharp flick of his hand. The barrel buzzed as it whirled, and the buzz transitioned to a staccato ticking that slowed and finally came to a stop. "And unlike some people..."

Squall pulled back the hammer. "I'm always thinking."

His finger closed over the trigger.

The hammer fell forward with a hollow click.

Seifer shuddered and cringed, and it took a few moments for him to realize that the gunblade had not gone off. He opened his eyes, stared dumbly at Squall. Squall stared mutely back. His only response to Seifer's incredulous look was a slight, brief tilt of his head to one side, after which he took his weight off his unusually speechless rival, backed up a step and lowered the gunblade to the ground as Seifer slowly sat up. Seeming to ignore Seifer for a moment, Squall opened the barrel of his weapon, and carefully removed the ammunition from it. He set the barrel back in place again, slung the weapon onto his shoulder with practiced ease. He walked over to Seifer, who was still sitting on the ground, and stood over the older boy for a short while. Seifer watched him uncertainly. Squall held out the hand that still held the ammunition, and promptly dropped the bullets to the ground beside Seifer.

Seifer counted them unconsciously. Five. Five bullets.

The faintest hint of a very rare smile pulled at Squall's mouth.

Seifer glared up at him, wounded pride showing as anger on his face. He opened his mouth to say something in his own defense, but found himself unable to come up with a suitable argument to the amusement in Squall's normally expressionless eyes. Squall didn't have to speak. His thoughts were all too clear: If I'd really been your enemy, I would have killed you.

Having no other point to make, Squall turned around and started to leave, before one more thing did come to mind. He stopped and glanced over his shoulder. "Thanks for the birthday present." This said, he headed back to Balamb Garden, leaving Seifer on the ground with the five bullets laying harmlessly beside him.

Seifer watched Squall until the boy was out of sight. Sneering, he stood up, bending to gather up the unusually large ammunition in one hand, and stared at them for a moment. Five. Five goddamn bullets.

Six bullets to a barrel.

Then his anger rose, his hand balled into a fist around the ammunition. "That son of a g-RRRGH!" With all his might, he chucked the five bullets as far away from him as he could possibly throw them.

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