Once a Princess...
My cubicle has grown tinsel.
In most instances, this would be a worrying affair, but Christmas is less than two weeks away, and given the holiday-loving nature of a specific coworker, I suppose it was inevitable that this would happen. It doesn't mean I'm happy with the strings of metallic garlands, the strange reindeer mug stuffed with packets of hot chocolate mix, and the random ornaments hanging on colorful tacks, but I'm not surprised that Christmas has bled over into my cubicle. At least I don't have to endure the blinking lights that were used last year.
"A-a-aw, you don't like it, do you?"
I glance up at the woman practically hanging on the dividing wall between our cubes, her chin resting on folded hands and her forearms spread over the top of the fake wall. I've known Selphie Tilmitt since the day I started here over two years ago, and when our introduction included her presenting me with a food basket as if she was welcoming someone to the neighborhood, I can't say my impression of her has changed over the years. She's a good person, a motivating editor, and a domineering friend. My life probably would've been easier without meeting Selphie, but surely not as colorful.
"If you really hate it, I suppose I can take everything down."
At her skillfully pathetic look, I sigh and remove my heavy coat. "I'll work around it."
Selphie's expression promptly changes to one of delight. "Just you wait, Leonhart - I'll break you down eventually. One day, you'll admit that you love this stuff as much as the rest of us."
"Not likely," I mutter under my breath while taking a seat in front of my laptop, thankfully untouched during Selphie's decorating.
She laughs at my tone, and then leans even further over the fake wall. "So, that was a long lunch for you. Did you go somewhere nice?"
Perfectly aware of the fishing nature of her question, I inform her, "I met with Dianne to discuss her new book."
"Darn, that's not interesting, not in the least. Don't you realize that it's Christmas? I hate the idea of you being all alone again this year."
"You're not with anyone," I dutifully remind her.
Selphie pouts and argues, "At least I'm trying, you jerk. It's not my fault all of the good men are taken, or else are inconveniently gay like you."
I bite my lower lip, preventing the thoughtless suggestion that she should purchase a boyfriend and see where it leads her.
Almost four months ago, Selphie had done just that for me, along with several others of my other traitorous friends. Supposedly, Selphie was the one to come up with the insane scheme, but Irvine Kinneas was the mastermind who put everything into action and personally watched it play out. Only Irvine has any clue about the unexpected outcome of my trip back home with Seifer Almasy, an escort and fake boyfriend who somehow wormed his way into my head and heart. But anxious about tempting Fate, I convinced Irvine before we returned to New York that I'm not ready to be open about this relationship. It's too new for me, having a man who actually cares about my future, and I can't risk scaring him off. Not when I've gotten this far.
Selphie sighs in frustration and rests her head on top of a bent arm. "I know, I know, you hate it when we worry about you. But seriously, Squall, you should be with someone who treats you right. You always help everyone else, but what about yourself? I mean, I know you say there's a reason you don't date, but that also means you think you should be punished with a lonely life. No one deserves that."
"You've let those romance novels get to you," I say, referring to the recent workload assigned to her.
"Meanie," Selphie complains childishly. "Just for that, I'm not going to be your date at the holiday party."
"Oh no, don't play stupid with me, Squall Leonhart. I know that you have every deadline for the next year memorized in that head of yours, so there's no way you forgot about the date of the office holiday party. We may have fallen for your excuses last year, but not this time." Pointing a finger at me, Selphie warns, "You're going, mister, whether you like it or not."
I cringe at the implied threat that if I don't show up, Selphie is going to make my life a living Hell. With the holidays and my planned trip back to California next week, the last thing I need is her interference, which could include anything from her convincing our boss that I need more work, to enrolling me in some charity function that she's directing, or Heaven forbid, even more Christmas decorations covering my otherwise organized walls. And so, with great reluctance, I nod in an unspoken promise that I'll be there.
Grinning at my surrender, Selphie decides to add, "You know, since I'm not going to be your date, Danny in marketing--"
"Don't push your luck."
"Bah, you're no fun. At least promise me that you'll try to enjoy yourself at the party. There'll be an open bar, you know."
I shake my head, dumbfounded how free alcohol is somehow a suitable exchange for dealing with idiots from work. I cope with these people all day long - it's near torture to think I have to waste a part of my free time in the name of socializing. While it'd be dangerous to admit it to Seifer, I'd rather spend the night with him.
Thinking of the man, I glance at the calendar and realize that Seifer is supposed to be late, anyway, on the night of the party, which means I can probably get away without telling him anything. He'll probably be mad at me afterward for not taking him along, but introducing him to coworkers and my superiors is the last thing I want. I'm not embarrassed of Seifer, not in the least, but I can't say the same of the more immature people around here. Hell, off the top of my head, I can name three women who would flirt shamelessly with the handsome blond and make certain to so directly in front of me. Given Seifer's sharp tongue and protective nature, I don't imagine him letting them down easily, and frankly, I can't afford to alienate the human resources department like that.
"What are you thinking about?"
At the singsong voice, I glance over at Selphie and silently question what business she has to ask about my thoughts.
"You don't have to say anything, but for a moment there, you looked..." She taps her bottom lip before deciding with a shrewd smile, "Lost in love, I guess."
I scoff at her ridiculousness. "Don't you have work to finish?" I ask while returning to my laptop screen.
Selphie sighs at being forced to do her job. "Seriously, Squall, hurry up and find a guy. Maybe it'll loosen you up for once in your life."
The energetic woman drops to her chair behind the barrier of the fake wall, and assured of my momentary privacy, I lightly smirk at her clueless comment. I've been hiding Seifer for months and I obviously haven't changed enough for her to suspect anything. Ironically enough, Seifer mentioned something similar in the beginning, that I needed a dick up my ass and lose my prudish edge. It's rather satisfying that neither of them know what they are talking about.... though I'll never say that to their faces. I could do without the lectures of how love has somehow changed me after all.
Leaning against a pillar at the edge of the wide ballroom, I sip gingerly at the bright red punch Selphie offered me a little too gleefully when I first entered this party. Whatever mixture of alcohol was tossed in this thing has been skillfully covered by the punch flavor, making it a very dangerous drink for anyone who isn't prepared. Thankfully, the planners of this gathering are wise to the ways of company holiday parties and decided to hold the event in a hotel, while also providing discounted prices on the available rooms. It's about twenty-five minutes into this thing and I've already spotted a couple people who shouldn't be making it past the front doors tonight.
I'm giving it thirty more minutes and then I'm out of here.
"Squaaaaall! Have you been hiding here all night?"
"Obviously not that well," I mutter under my breath, a comment most likely unheard given a pair of women starting into a karaoke version of 'Feliz Navidad', in other words a very loud and not quite accurate version of a horribly infectious Christmas song.
Selphie hurries close and tilts a little bit too far to the left when she stops. Someone has apparently been dipping into her own punch. "Oh Squall, I'm glad I found you. Guess who I ran into?"
Not interested in guessing games, I look behind the tipsy woman and set eyes on a thirty-something man with messy brown hair, pale blue eyes, and light stubble along his jawline, the end effect creating a rugged appearance that would make anyone else look like they had crawled out of bed after a two-day drunken stupor. At first glance, most people wouldn't guess that the man writes award-winning novels for young adults. At second glance, they would say it was a lie.
"Jayce," I offer in a type of greeting.
Startled at my correct 'guess', Selphie turns and scowls at the author behind her. "Darn, you spoiled it. You were supposed to wait until I waved you over."
His grin unrepentant, Jayce Ryans claims, "Sorry, I couldn't hear you over the music."
Already won over by his excuse, Selphie smiles and tells me, "I found him wandering around like a lost puppy. Since the two of you used to work together, I thought you could entertain him for awhile. You know, until the president gives his speech and all of that."
"Now that my task is done, I need to watch over the punch." And with that, the conniving woman pats Jayce's shoulder in an encouraging manner and hurries off toward her abandoned position at the drink table.
"She's a terrible actress," Jayce comments, his smile amused as he watches Selphie's retreat.
I hum in a noncommittal tone, wondering if Selphie is a better actress than she appears.
"It's been almost year," he begins, trying to lure me into a conversation. "You look good."
I decide to sip at my drink instead of saying anything in response. The facts are simple: we worked as author and editor on a single book, he eventually figured out that I was gay, and then he asked me out to dinner. Several times, in fact. For whatever reason, I eventually agreed to a date, which was a stupid mistake. While the author has some interesting stories for his books, the man has a mean side when he doesn't get what he wants. It came to the point that I told my boss that I couldn't work with Jayce again, but Selphie never knew of my reasons to avoid him. My boss asked me to show discretion about the matter and reminded me that Jayce's books were growing in popularity and starting to bring in good revenue. In other words, shut up and don't do anything to embarrass the company.
"Squall," Jayce says softly while inching closer, an action that earns him a sharp glare from me. "Will you hear me out?"
"There's nothing to say."
"But I have plenty to tell you," the author insists. "I was... impulsive the last time we were together. I know it's my fault that I scared you off, but the feelings were honest. They still are. And I swear, if you give me the chance--"
Stealing away my attention at that moment, a faint melody comes from the back pocket of my pants, and though muffled, I clearly recognize it as the song "Someday, My Prince Will Come" from Disney's version of Snow White. A couple months ago, Seifer programmed my cell phone with the ringtone and assigned it to his number, all without my knowledge until the first time he called me. I suppose I could have deleted the ringtone in the weeks since then, but it's easier to leave it be. God knows what ringtone he'll find to replace it.
I pull out the phone, and ignoring Jayce's offended and impatient look, I answer with a simple, "Yeah."
<"Hey princess, just wanted to let you know that I'm going to be earlier than I thought and I was... wondering... Whoa, wait a minute... Do I hear... 'Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer'? And badly sung, I might add.">
I sigh at him catching on too quickly. "My company is holding its holiday party tonight."
Seifer laughs freely over the phone, clearly taking pleasure in my misery. <"If I didn't know how you felt about your coworkers, I'd offer to join you.">
"Give me another twenty minutes. Selphie can't complain after that."
"Twenty minutes?" Jayce repeats with a disappointed frown. "Don't tell me that you're planning to leave me all alone here."
Unimpressed with the complaint, I glare at the interfering man.
<"... Who's that?">
"Nobody," I reply coolly, intending every meaning of the word.
"Is that directed at me?" Jayce questions with a quirk of a smile. "Honestly, we both know that I'm more than 'nobody'."
Barely registering Seifer's concerned and somewhat dangerous tone, I watch the author purposefully when I say, "I've changed my mind. I'm at the Hilton on 44th. Don't drink the punch when you get here." And without allowing an answer from the blond, I switch off my phone and return it to my back pocket.
Jayce eyes me with an odd expression. "Since when do you rely on friends to fight your battles?"
"That wasn't a friend," I reply, unable to stop my vague smile.
"Don't give me that," Jayce argues within a disbelieving laugh. "Selphie made certain to tell me that you aren't seeing anyone."
That stumps the pale-eyed man and the humor slowly fades from his expression. "If you think you're going to chase me away with a pretend boyfriend, you're wrong. I've been thinking about you since we parted ways and I'm not going to give up that easily."
'And that's why I told Seifer to get over here,' I think to myself while sipping from my spiked punch. I know Jayce's type, regrettably a dinner too late, and I understand that he won't listen to a damned word I say. He will, however, back down when confronted with another idiot alpha male.
I don't quite understand why I seem to have the fate to attract people who become obsessed and stupid about me. In some ways, Rinoa ruined my life with her decision that we were meant to be together. I didn't want to leave my father and childhood home behind, but staying in California would have led to Rinoa preserving her bothersome delusions about our nonexistent future. There were a couple of idiots back in college, too, but nothing as damaging as when Jayce entered my life. He reminded me of Piet in many ways with his strong personality, his seductive methods when he tried, and pale eyes that saw through my shields and walls. Unfortunately, the fact Jayce also shared Piet's desire to control me wasn't obvious until I refused a second date with him.
And then a year later, Seifer appeared, another obsessive bastard who would love to chain me to his bed and keep me for himself... But he would never do that. As much as Seifer wants to dominate me, he also hungers for our inconsequential fights and my reluctant decisions to stay at his side. Seifer wants me to be free, and with that determination, he has helped to break the chains that tied me to a hopeless future. While Seifer will never know the truth, he is the first person I've known who has given me life instead of stealing it away, and for that, I'll always be grateful to him.
Breaking me out of shifting thoughts, a heavy hand grabs my upper arm and nearly causes me to spill my drink.
"Are you listening to me?" Jayce demands in a soft voice that doesn't match the harsh gleam to his eye.
Though aware of the monster lurking inside, I reply bluntly, "I'll listen when you have something worthwhile to say."
His hold tightens, but it's hard to feel threatened when someone is singing a very incorrect version of 'Let it Snow' on the stage and others are dancing a few yards away while wearing reindeer headbands. All in all, I'm not afraid of this man. I got rid of him the first time, but it obviously wasn't enough to keep him away. Seifer, however, is good at chasing away the unwanted people in my life. I just hope that he still has that magic touch.
Slowing my steps to a fast walk through the hotel lobby, I rake my fingers back through my hair and hope that it won't look like I had sprinted three New York blocks to get here. The voice of the supposed "nobody" still rings in my ear, the tone both seductive and sharp when claiming that he means something to my stubborn lover. And then there's Squall demand for my presence, something that has never happened before. While I've always supported the dark-haired beauty, I've made certain that he's allowed to fight his own battles without my interference. That long sprint aside, it makes my heart race to think that Squall finally trusts me enough to take a more active role in his life.
It takes too long to reach the double doors that are assigned with the name of Squall's company, and to frustrate me further, I discover that the publishing house has a lot more employees than I assumed. Standing near the entrance, I glance over the crowd of at least three hundred people in search of the familiar head of dark chestnut hair, but of course, the recluse man must be in a part of the room where he won't be easily noticed. Why didn't the idiot spare a few more words and tell me specifically where he'd be standing in this massive room?
"Can I help you?"
I glance to my side and discover a young woman with bright green eyes and shoulder-length hair styled with the ends flipped in an upward curl. Of some amusement is her dress which bears a strong resemblance to a naughty Santa outfit, right down to the shiny red go-go boots, but something about her smile and the way she carries herself suggests she simply loves Christmas that much and doesn't see anything wrong with the dress. Of course, the drink in her hand and the slight tilt to her stance may have something to do with it, too.
I muster a respectable smile and tell her, "I'm looking for Squall Leonhart. Have you seen him?"
Her expression completely changes at the request, and with a pleading tone, she asks, "Oh no, is there any chance you can wait? I'm trying to get him together with someone who is really interested in him, and you know, Squall has been alone for so long, and Jayce is sooooo cute--"
I lift a hand to stop her ramblings, and though I probably should be annoyed at her scheming, it's almost a relief to know that there are other people out there who are looking out for Squall's well-being. Managing a truer smile, I consider Squall's complaints about meddlesome friends and make the guess, "You wouldn't happen to be Selphie, would you?"
Looking a bit owlish, the woman says in surprise, "Yeah, Selphie Tilmitt. Do I know you?"
"No, not directly, but Squall and Kinneas have mentioned you several times. The name is Seifer Almasy."
"Seifer? Where have I heard..." Her eyes widening even further, Selphie lifts a hand to her mouth. "You're not... are you... the escort?" she asks in a conspiring whisper.
I bow my head in reply, trying my hardest to not laugh at her somewhat drunken reaction.
"But wait, Irvy said you canceled the contract... and now you're here... and you're looking for Squall..." With a shocked gasp promptly followed by an angry growl, Selphie says more to herself, "Mo-oh, I'm going to kill Squall for keeping something like this from me. And he even pointed out that I don't have anyone for Christmas..."
Clearing my throat, I remind her, "Is Squall still here?"
She blinks once, and then with a flash of realization, she says in a rush, "Oh no, no, no, I almost ruined everything, didn't I? I have to get you to Squall and right now!"
With her declaration, she grabs my arm and jerks me into the crowd, somewhat in the direction of the stage currently dominated by a group of women who were laughing more than singing. Selphie doesn't exactly navigate her way through the crowd, but as if anticipating her approach, people give plenty of room for her passage. By my best guess, they have all learned to step out of the way or else be bowled over by the overly energetic woman.
By the time we reach the other side of the expansive room, I feel almost more winded than from my original sprint here, but then my eyes set on Squall and the lanky man looming over him. It takes only a few seconds to take in the situation - the way the man blocks Squall from the rest of the room and how his large hand crinkles Squall's shirt with the force of his hold. There is also the matter of Squall's fisted hand, prepared for violence, but restrained given the public setting. I imagine instigating a brawl would be frowned upon by the higher-ups, even if the guy deserved every hit.
"Squall...?" Selphie questions, sensing that something is wrong, but unable to see how the man she choose for the brunet would cause any amount of harm to her beloved friend.
I place a hand on the woman's shoulder, and after an assuring smile to make certain she doesn't interfere, I step toward the pair of men who had turned our way at Selphie's questioning voice. "You may want to release his arm... Jayce, was it?"
While Squall maintains his neutral expression, the pale-eyed man smirks at my interruption. "Why, are you going to do something?"
"No, but Squall is ready to punch you."
As if touched by electricity, the man immediately releases his hold on Squall and steps back a pace. I can't decide whether to laugh or growl at his reaction which suggests he's been on the wrong side of the beauty's punch before. I ultimately decide that action would be best while his attention was focused on Squall, and with two quick strides, I stand in front of the bastard and place my hand around his throat in a strangle hold that isn't quite life-threatening, but it could be with a slight adjustment of my hold.
"Now, I'm going to make this real clear," I say in a quiet voice meant between us. "You ever touch Squall again, and I do mean ever again, I'll grab your nuts and twist them until they fall off, and then I'm going to shove them up your ass until they're lodged in your intestines. Understood?"
His gray eyes wide, the man nods as best he can with my hand at his throat.
With a satisfied grin, I release my hold and watch as the man stumbles backward. Despite my threat, he dares to glance in Squall's direction in a ballsy move to gain some sympathy from the brunet. Stormy eyes unforgiving, Squall walks with a purposeful step and moves directly to my side, his hip touching mine. My smile must be absolutely stupid when I wrap my arm around his inviting waist.
Understanding darkens the man's eyes, and with a coward's way out, he comments resentfully, "I guess I was wrong to think you were worth the trouble," and then hurries off into the crowd of oblivious office workers. While it's satisfying to see him run off with his tail between his legs, I also find it disappointing that someone so pathetic thought he deserved the attention of this princess.
"You were rather melodramatic," Squall points out dryly.
"What can I say - you bring out the worst in me," I comment, amused that the beauty hasn't tried to escape my hold yet. "At least he was an easy target. He seemed rather jumpy around you."
Squall snorts at my implied question. "He once slapped me, and I punched him in return. I won the argument."
From behind us, Selphie demands in horror, "He slapped you?" I step back such that we can both see the woman, her eyes bright with anger. "Squall, why didn't you say anything to me? I would have never, never left you alone with him."
With an indifferent shrug, Squall says, "It was nothing I wanted to revisit."
"But I had no clue," Selphie continues with a pathetic look. "Jayce has always been nice to me and he seemed to really like you..."
"That's the type he is," I continue so that Squall doesn't have to. "I've seen more than a few abusive relationships that started with a sweet-talking man and a partner who didn't want to see the truth. It's a lucky thing our princess is smarter than that."
Squall huffs into his punch glass. "I had already learned my lesson with Piet."
I stare down at the brunet, uncertain about the meaning behind his words. He could very well be referring to the incident that led to Squall's belief that he had contracted HIV, but there could be more about their relationship that I haven't heard about. Knowing Squall, he probably deems it unimportant since the bastard is dead and gone. It's an unlikely chance he'll volunteer any worthwhile information, and respecting his choice, I can only stand by his side and show him that there is more than regret when he chooses to love a person.
Her expression brightening some, Selphie comments, "But how wonderful that you two ended up together! Was it love at first sight?"
I grin at the question that nearly makes Squall choke on his drink. "Not quite, but it's not my fault he's stubborn," I offer and endure Squall's glare for the answer.
Selphie laughs with a beautiful ring to the sound. "Anyone who can withstand Squall's anger is a prince in my book. A handsome prince at that," she adds with a wink.
"He's no prince," Squall insists in a low tone.
I try to look offended, but judging by the beauty's unimpressed stare, I'm failing horribly.
With a heartfelt sigh, Selphie comments, "I was right, you know. You needed someone."
Squall frowns at the claim. "Seifer's been around for months and you never noticed a difference."
"Yes, but now that you're standing with him, that burdensome weight on your chest has vanished," she says while poking him in the center of said chest. "Therefore, I'm right and you're wrong, even if you refuse to acknowledge it."
Though his scowl deepens, Squall can't seem to form a decent argument to save himself.
With a laughing smile, Selphie concedes, "Well, I should probably leave you two alone, but first..." In a fast move, she plants a kiss against Squall's cheek and says, "I'm happy for you, sweetie. No one else deserves this more."
Though faint, Squall seems to mutter a 'thanks' to the woman before she hurries off to the refreshments table and the abundance of glasses filled with bright red punch. It's with some curiosity that I notice how she isn't tilting like she was when I first arrived.
Sadly, Squall decides at that moment to pull away from my side. "I'm done here."
"Are you that embarrassed of me?"
He snorts at the suggestion, and then nods his head toward the dance floor. "Rene already spotted you and I'm not in the mood to watch some woman try to steal you away."
It takes a moment for his answer to seep in, but when it does, I can't stop my broad smile. "You want me to yourself."
"Was that a question?" Squall asks over his shoulder, already walking in the direction of the entrance.
Hurrying to keep pace with the unpredictable brunet, I wrap my arm around his waist and hang on tightly. "Don't worry, princess. I don't want to share you with the world, either."
He hums in consideration of the statement, and then informs me, "I can feel the box, you know."
I almost trip on my own two feet at the claim, a complete lack of grace that makes my play of innocence harder to believe. "Box? What box?"
With a roll of blue-gray eyes, Squall explains, "You got here too fast. That along with the lump in your jacket pocket suggests you were shopping."
"Circumstantial evidence," I try to maintain.
"I also haven't forgotten about your vague Christmas plans."
"... You remembered?"
Squall gives me an annoyed glance, but doesn't comment further on him remembering my prediction that I'd be proposing to him by Christmas. It's funny that, while I purchased the ring less than an hour ago, I couldn't exactly imagine going through with the proposal. The design was perfect, and thus my decision to buy the ring, but I was fully prepared to wait until Squall was ready to accept my pledge, even if it meant years of waiting for that right moment. And then Squall had to go and say that he had remembered...
"It's too soon," the dark-haired beauty comments with a sigh.
"Maybe, but you're going to say 'yes' anyway."
"... You don't know that."
I grin at his uncertain tone. "But I thought the prince is supposed to marry the princess after he defeats the evil warlock."
Squall glares at me for the comment, denying both that he's a princess and that I'm anything close to a prince.
"Alright, maybe not that scenario exactly, but I think I understand how those 'Prince Charming' guys feel, that if I don't hurry up and collar you now, someone else may steal you away from me."
With a light frown, Squall insists, "There isn't anyone else."
"Yeah, not at this moment, but what about next year?" I prod, unafraid to show my deeper worries to the brunet. He already knows about my deserting father and questionable mother, so there isn't much to hide about my irrational fears about being abandoned by someone I dare to love. Hell, it's why the difficult man has allowed me greater freedom to hold onto him in public when the need arises, though Squall hasn't brought up the subject otherwise.
Perhaps with those thoughts in mind, Squall says nothing for a time before deciding, "It's a stupid idea."
"Of course it is, but when has that stopped me?" I reply with a broad smile, sensing the glimmer of acceptance from the beauty.
Squall sighs almost painfully, and then relents, "You can ask me, but I'm not promising anything."
"I think that's reasonable," I agree with barely constrained eagerness. "But wait until you see the ring, princess. You won't be able to say 'no'."
"Right, because I'd subject myself to a lifetime with you for a ring."
I laugh at his dry tone, and before I get the urge to fall onto one knee and propose to him here and now, I stop in place and jerk Squall close for a deep kiss that speaks more than words about my desire for him. Despite the public settling and his coworkers down the hall, the dark-haired beauty surrenders to my lead without much hesitation, the rare event drawing a hungry groan from me. A vague thought comes to mind that this building is a hotel with plenty of useable rooms, but I shrug aside the notion for something that sounds so much more appealing.
"Let's go home," I murmur against his lips, reluctant to break the demanding kiss.
Squall blinks at the suggestion, and then smiles an interesting smile. "I've been waiting all night for you to say that."
Author's Whining -- And there's the request Nowaki wanted of Seifer swooping in to save Squall from someone interested in him. Funny enough, the Christmas party aspect was introduced when people at work decided to sing 'Feliz Navidad' in the middle of October. Granted, the same two people decided that July 1 was the perfect starting point for Christmas carols. This was just a continuation. :)