"You can no more win a war than you can win an earthquake." ~ Jeannette Rankin

25 or 6 to 4

Waiting for the break of day
Searching for something to say
Flashing lights against the sky
Giving up I close my eyes
Sitting cross-legged on the floor
25 or 6 to 4

One and a half hours later, Irvine, Selphie, and Zell were lingering over dessert, using the high back seat of the booth to hide them from view. The targets of their pseudo-stakeout sat across the hotel restaurant at the bar. Several other military types had come and gone after engaging in brief conversations with the two men, along with quite a few suits. They were too far away to pick up on what was said though dared not move closer for fear of being recognised.

"This is useless." Zell craned his head back surreptitiously to glance over the side of the booth. "Nothing's even going on. For all we know they're yakking' about baseball stats."

Selphie gave her spoon one last satisfying lick before dropping it into the crystal bowl. Her smile was bright as she rubbed her stomach. "That was yummy," she declared. Then let out a loud, most unfeminine sound that was a shock to both her companions. Briefly, Irvine lifted his eyebrows and shot her a glance, shaking his head in disbelief. Across the table, Zell's forehead crinkled and he made a noise of disgust.

"Geez, Selphie. We're tryin' to keep a low profile here. Ya think they could here that in Winhill?" He stared at her as if he'd never seen her before. She just stuck out her tongue and went back to scraping the last of the pudding from the sides of the bowl. If he'd belched like that she'd have freaked out and called him a pig, he thought. Women, he wasn't sure he even wanted to understand them.

"You've got cake in your teeth, Zell." Finally finished, Selphie pushed the bowl away and sat back, deciding to be helpful. Immediately, he ran his tongue over the aforementioned objects, a slight frown causing his brow to furrow.

"I didn't even have any afters!" He proclaimed on a sudden realisation.

"Made ya look." Her corresponding grin was impish.

Infuriated, Zell was about to retaliate when Irvine cut them both off. "Cool it, guys." With his chin, the other man indicated the recipients of their surveillance. "Looks like Murphy's on the move."

Without more ado, his words spurred the other two back into action. Zell made a show of dropping his knife and as he bent to pick it off the polished floor he took the moment to peer over. Sure enough, Esthar's Defence Minister was sliding from his seat while sharing a hearty laugh with Keating and the bartender. Standing fully, he slapped the Galbadian General on the back in a friendly move. They watched carefully as he lowered his head to murmur something to the seated man.

"I'm dying to know what they're saying!" Selphie wriggled in her seat. "I bet they're planning something really cool. Like an international festival or something." Accustomed to her foibles, neither male dignified that with a response. Irvine's eyes, shadowed by his hat, remained intent.

Both men now stood and shook hands professionally. Zell squinted and was pretty sure he saw something slip between their palms. It was hard to discern what though. From the quick sound Irvine made as he sucked in a breath, he knew his comrade had noticed the same thing. After sharing one more laugh, Waylon Murphy stepped away.

Luckily, Zell caught the movement of his keen gaze in their direction in enough time to pop back up and hide his face in a menu. Once he'd moved past their table, all three SeeDs lowered their menus and followed him to the wide doorway with narrowed eyes. As the man reached the stairs he was accosted by a uniformed member of the staff who subsequently shook his hand and passed him an envelope. Murphy nodded, slipped the item into his uniform jacket, and slid his hands easily, almost merrily into his trouser pockets. His step as he ascended the curing flight was purposeful.

In unison, three pairs of eyes met around the table. "I'm gonna follow him," decided Selphie. Irvine was already shaking his head.

"Let Zell do it. We should go say hello to General Keating, it'd look less like a confrontation that way." She wrinkled her nose and pouted over it a bit but kept silent.

Meanwhile, Zell was already standing. "Gotcha. Rendezvous back in our room?" The other male nodded his agreement and he moved away, mind already focussed on the goal. Murphy couldn't have gotten too far yet.

"See if you can knock him out." Expression flushed with the excitement that normally came with a lead in an otherwise dead mission, Selphie tipped her head. "Tie him up and make him spill all his secrets."

Zell's grin was self-assured. He gave her a thumbs-up. "I'll see what I can do." With that, he was off and jogging up the stairway.

In the main lobby, he managed to catch sight of the pale blue wool of the Esthar officer's dress uniform disappearing through the doors of an elevator. On an oath he rushed over, causing the concierge to look up in alarm as his sneakers squeaked hideously along the marble floor. His efforts were in vain, however, as the gated lift shut two seconds ahead.

He tried to calm his breath and sort his thoughts logically. Impatient, he jammed the button over and over, his vision on the blinking numbers ahead. Five, six, seven. At eight the light paused and Zell stored the number in his memory. His finger continued to press the button in an agitated fashion. Already unimpressed with the teenager's behaviour the man at the desk called over to him, but he merely flashed him a cheeky grin and a thumbs-up as the elevator opened with a little tinkle.

He wasted precious seconds on the journey upward, his hands and feet squirming at the loss. At this point he knew it was unlikely he'd be able to find his target in the mess of hallways that were the Deling City Hotel. It pinged to a halt and he practically leapt off, pushing the gates aside himself. Hesitating in the red-and-gold decorated corridor, he darted looks left and right. On a whim, he chose right and set off once more. Damn, it felt good to have a solid objective, even if it proved fruitless. His fists clenched and released in rhythm with the quick movements of his feet. Maybe he would give the guy a taste of his skills after all. That is, if he found him.

Rounding a corner, he nearly rammed into a member of the housekeeping staff who'd been pushing a laundry cart. Apologising profusely, he didn't let the delay alter his concentration. His eyes stayed alert, moving back and forth for signs of anyone remotely matching Murphy's description. He turned one more corner, wondering idly how deep into the maze he'd travelled, when he spotted him.

Jumping back round to the other side, he flattened himself against the wall and spied around the edge. His mind raced, not believing his luck. Instinct had served him well. Zell took in the view of his man sliding a card into the lock above the knob and stepping through the brocaded entrance. Not missing a beat, he unplastered his frame, ignoring the funny look a hotel guest directed toward him, and moseyed back down the hall to check out the room number. Eighty-nine.

He wasn't quite sure now what to do next. Strategy wasn't his strong suit. Should he barge in and demand answers? Or would taking up a vigil outside the door be the better option? Maybe he should just leave and discuss it with the others. What would Squall do? He pondered over it, staring at the gold swirls of the wallpaper. An image flitted through his mind of the staff member he'd more or less trampled in his haste. An idea formed and his lips curved. If he could pull this off, he definitely deserved a rank increase. He took another look at the door, doing his best to memorise its appearance. Setting back out again, he chuckled and imagined what type of T-board he'd buy with his new raise.

Back at the bar Selphie was doing her best to chat up the Galbadian. "Don't you just love this place?" Starry-eyed she gazed around the room, raking in the whole scene with visible relish. "It's so romantic. Don't you think so Irvy?" She spun back round on her stool, eyes transmitting an elfin twinkle. "We should have our wedding party here." Her companion nearly spat out his drink. If his life had been an animated feature his eyes would have bugged several yards from his head and his jaw would've smacked plumb on the bar.

"Oh, you are engaged? Congratulations." Keating's tone was dry, clearly bored with the conversation. Silver hair slicked back, impeccably dressed in full uniform, golden buttons, gleaming medals and all, he was the depiction of a tough-as-nails, no-nonsense military man. No fuss, no frills. He'd entered the Galbadian Army from a sense of youthful discipline, moved swiftly up the ranks from an even stronger sense of ambition. His shoulders broad, his face firmly lined, he was a man who'd bided his time, accepting each assignment knowing the more experience he gained, the better. Shooting a glance at his heavy watch as he reached for his bourbon, he continued to bide his time.

"Thanks!" With a sidelong glance, Selphie patted Irvine's knee. "We're trying to keep it hush-hush for now. So if you don't mind…" She winked foolishly, one finger near her lips. Wondered if it would be overdoing it to toss in a giggle or two. The general barely flickered his eyes in their direction, however.

"Uh, yeah, that's right." Not quite sure where the female was going with this but having no choice but to play along, Irvine slung an arm around her shoulders and squeezed her closer. Might as well entertain himself. "Once this here mission's over, we'll announce it to everyone. It's been hard, hidin' all our mad passion." Selphie nearly fell from her perch on the stool into his lap as his grip tightened. He ignored her subsequent glare and muffled squeal. "But my Sefie insisted, not until we're no longer working together. She's so professional." He said this fondly, and nudged her back into her seat, ruffling her hair in a way he knew she disliked. "What can a man do? You married, General?"

"No, that I'm not." For his part, Keating seemed unmindful of their games. He finished off his drink and gestured to the discreet bartender for a final round. Five more minutes and he'd be ready to leave.

"It's difficult, ain't it? The military life?" Irvine shook his head and pushed his glass across the bar as well with a loud slide against the glossed panels. "I'm thinkin' in a year or so, when we've got enough money, we'll settle down, get me a job in town. Garden just ain't a place to raise children."

"I wouldn't know." The general's golden eyes slid to the entranceway. To the other side of him, Selphie let out a quiet breath of frustration. They weren't getting anything out of him this way.

"Don't you think, sir, that family values are totally gone these days?" She placed her hands in her lap and her fervent gaze on his profile. "It's impossible to feel safe anymore, with all these sorceresses popping up outta nowhere. How are you supposed to bring kids into a world like this? If you ask me, I say we stick 'em all in space and blow 'em up." Finishing her spiel with a light tap on the bar, she bit her lip and prayed he took the bait.

The grooves on his face deepened. He lowered his empty glass once more and lifted a dark, heavy brow. "There are many who agree with you, young lady."

"It's too bad General Caraway doesn't seem to," she prodded him further. If they were going to prove him guilty of conspiring against the other Galbadian with Murphy, he had to give them some kind of ammunition.

"Hmmm. The general has his own motivations." Another look at his timepiece told him it was safe to depart the hotel. He had some phone calls to make.

"He's not running for president, is he?" Selphie exchanged horrified glances with Irvine. "I mean, no offence, but he's not exactly objective about the sorceress thing, if you know what I mean. I know I don't trust him, no matter what he says."

"You are certainly entitled to your opinion. If you'll excuse me." If he was surprised at her bashing of an important client he didn't reveal any such emotion. Taking his raincoat from where he'd laid it on the bar, Keating stood, briefcase in hand. "I will have to take my leave of you both. Enjoy the rest of your evening in Deling." With a formal nod and without granting them a chance to respond, he turned heel and strode from the restaurant. The Galbadian soldiers present stood straight and saluted as he passed. He nodded to each, more automatically than out of any real graciousness.

"Well!" Hands on hips, Selphie watched him ascend the staircase. "That was a complete bust, eh Irvy?"

"That depends." Irvine tipped back his hat and pursed his lips, giving her an arch look. "I'm not even sure what you were tryin' to get at."

Brows lowered, Selphie huffed. "What I was trying to do was to get him to admit something. Anything! Do you think I was being too subtle?"

"Subtle?" He rubbed his chin and considered, a smile forming on his lips. "Ah, no. Not subtle, more like confusing. I couldn't figure if you wanted him to help pick out wedding cakes or sign a petition to lynch Caraway." At that she let out a sound of pure exasperation.

"Oh, what do you know? The man's not gonna give himself up is all. I betcha right now he's calling all his cronies to let them know we're on to them," she declared. "He was merely shocked into fear by my mega brilliant skills of deduction."

"If you say so." Both hands on the bar, Irvine pushed himself back, stretching out his arms. He was too curious not to ask. "What was that bit about the engagement? You telling me something, darlin'?"

She banished his hopes with a succinct "ew" and a delicate wrinkle of her nose. "I was going for yuppie, but half-witted, SeeD. It's all about the image. Don't you know anything?"

Apparently not. Amused more than insulted he let it go at that while his ego was only slightly battered. He hoped Zell was getting more out of Murphy as the night seemed be a complete wash on all levels.

"From what I've read," she was saying, drumming her hands on the panel. "Keating's leading in the presidential race. How a stiff like that could win over the people is beyond me. His platform is like way out there."

"Whoa," Irvine held up a hand. "He and Caraway are running?"

"Nuh uh, I made that up. Caraway's got no political goals at all. I hear he's supporting the other guy, some business guru. Keating's military all the way. Definitely antidisestablishmentarianism." She said all this with a distracted frown. "Which is crappy if he wins."

"Antidisestablish…." Shaking his head, Irvine cut himself off. There was a reason he'd chosen the mercenary life. "How do you know all this?" He doubted she knew what that meant any more than he did.

"It's in the mission report. Duh!"

Ah, the mission report. Good thing she'd brought it up. "Right. About that. You haven't seen it lately, have you?"

"What do you mean?" She looked at him, puzzled. "I gave it to you on the train this morning, remember? You put it in your coat."

"See, that's what I thought as well, but it's not there." Swinging himself around so he could manoeuvre, he opened his jacket and showed her the empty inside pocket. "I reckon that kid must've taken it."

Her eyes widened. "Should we go look for him?" She could imagine the lecture now. A vision of Cid's disappointed frown flitted through her mind.

"Nah, no point. Let's just head back upstairs. I doubt he'd do anything with it anyway. As long as it doesn't get into the wrong hands, we're safe."

Zell readjusted the white cap he'd nabbed from housekeeping employee. It covered his hair well enough and the low brim made sure his face couldn't be recognised from a distance. He felt bad about leaving the poor guy unconscious in the closet with his own clothes but he hadn't had much choice. At least he wouldn't be force to roam in his underwear. Decked out in a pressed white uniform, he pushed the laundry cart down the corridor, the few guests that passed barely blinked an eyelid in his direction. The perfect disguise. Patting himself on the back once more, he rolled to a stop outside room number eighty-nine. So far, so good.

Clearing his throat, he lifted his hand to knock. "Uh, housekeeping!" After waiting a few pulses he rapped his knuckles again and called out, louder this time. When he met with silence, he pulled the master key card out of his pocket. He congratulated himself for having the wits to look for one. Something else that would come in very handy during their stay here. With a casual glance both ways down the hall, he was he was alone, and slipped the card into the receiver above the handle, magnetic strip down. It took him a few tries before the green light blinked to life. A twist of the knob, a gentle tapping of the door, and presto! He was in.

The cart moved almost soundlessly over the plush carpet. Moving all the way inside, he closed the door at his back and looked around, nearly whistling. The Deling Hotel certainly knew how to indulge its top clients. The suite was nothing like the cramped room he and the others shared several floors down. It offered a fully furnished living area with deep-seated couches and finely-crafted end-tables. The electronics were streamlined and clearly new, and there was a mini-kitchen, featuring a small round table, a mini-refrigerator and a microwave oven. The curtains by the far balcony were wide open so he was able to take in the view of the city lights from where he stood. Pretty pricey, he guessed. Even his decent salary wouldn't cover spacious digs like these.

Keeping up appearances, he walked further into the room. He caught sight of a computer and several stacks of files laid out on a roll-top desk against the wall. He made a note to check it out after he made sure all was clear. Zell opened a random door and found the closet. Nothing of interest there, really. A couple coats, one looking distinctly feminine with its rounded collar and large buttons. He thought nothing of it, though. He wondered if in the ten minutes he'd been preoccupied, Murphy had come and gone.

Wheeling further he opened the next door in line and realised his mistake.

His neck flushed crimson and he did an about-face and smacked into the cart. It was amazing he hadn't been able to hear them until now. Pretty sure he was traumatised for life, he sped out of the room, shutting the door with a light click. Prayed the occupants were too engaged to notice his sudden, and mortifying, intrusion. Well, that answered more than a few questions.

Flustered now and anxious to be far, far away he rushed to the desk across the room and snatched as many folders as he could. From the sounds of things, his presence hadn't disrupted their rhythm so he didn't worry about making too much noise. Lids squeezed tight, he tried to expel such thoughts and sights from his mind's-eye.

He chucked the papers into the cart - momentarily considered taking the laptop as well but figured that'd be too obvious - gripped the handle, and made for the exit at top speed.

He kept up his pace all the way to the lifts. Reached his own room in less than three minutes. Impervious to his companions' inquiring looks once he'd unlocked the door, he rushed inside, laundry cart and all, plonked down on the nearest bed, and covered his face with a pillow. Only now did he give into the inclination to shudder.

Irvine and Selphie had just begun to search their bags for the missing report when Zell had burst in upon them. Sharing dazed looks, they rose from their crouched positions and went over to the unstable male. Selphie plopped next to him and pocked his shoulder. "What's with the get-up?"

Releasing the pillow, his complexion returned to its normal colour as he quickly related to story. However, when he got to the end, his cheeks began to flame. "I left as fast as I could, just threw it all in there," he motioned toward the handcart, scandalised.

"Grossness. I mean, he must be at least sixty," Selphie tilted her head and squinted. "Blech. Poor Zell."

"Darn right! I'll never be able to sleep again!" He fell back on the mattress and covered his eyes with his arms before realising he still wore the cap.

Tongue in cheek, Irvine rocked back on his heels. "Did you get a good look at her?"

"Irvine!" Now it was Selphie's turn to be scandalised. Her head immediately swung over in his direction. "What's the matter with you? You're such a pig!"

"Hey!" Surrendering to her heated onslaught, he did his best to defend himself. "I was wondering if he recognised her is all. As far as I know, Murphy ain't married either."

Zell sighed and sat up. "No, I didn't. But I'm not up on my Galbadian prostitutes." He tossed the hat aside and ran both hands through his flattened hair. Rubbed his scalp.

This time Zell faced Selphie's wrath. "And how did you know she was a prostitute? Maybe she's his girlfriend, ever think of that? Maybe they're in love. Quiet, you," she ordered Irvine when he chuckled. She made a disgusted sound. "Boys are so perverted."

"No, I'm positive she was," Zell affirmed with a vehement nod. "No doubt about it."

"Why's that?" Irvine lifted a brow, his eyes laughing. "I didn't know you were such an expert on the subject." His tone dripped with innuendo. If it were possible, the other male's neck now scorched in a full-body flush. He hadn't meant for it to sound like that. Irvine always knew just where to tease.

"I'm not! Really, really…Not! You know I don't go in for that kinda…stuff. I swear! It's just…" he hesitated, feeling incredibly awkward. "She had this really fake blonde hair, like really fake, and she was way younger, and she kept calling him mister…" Humiliated, he dropped his eyes to the floor and trailed off. "Never mind."

"Sorry, Zell. Why don't we forget the whole thing for now and start going through these files?" Grin broad, Irvine decided to give the guy a break. "It's gonna take us long enough as it is." He cast a longing look toward his bed and allowed himself one sigh. "Looks like none of us'll be sleeping tonight."

Rinoa didn't give Squall a chance to get comfortable before she began her piece. This time he was going to listen and take her seriously. She was through with playing the understanding and agreeable girlfriend. Like Xu said, it was only getting her trampled on. If he still refused to change his attitude, she was going to act on some of the woman's other advice and find a large stick to beat him with. Repeatedly. No more Rinoa the Doormat.

"Where've you been? You didn't meet me for breakfast this morning." Okay, what was that? She asked herself and cringed. Ultra-needy and mournful had not been the angle she was going for. "Come to think of it, I haven't seen you since the last time I came to your office. If I didn't know better, I'd say you're avoiding me." Much better, she congratulated herself. Her voice had been firmer, more confident. She crossed her arms and directed him a pointed look.

A few feet away Squall was also doing his best to maintain his objectivity. He couldn't look her in the eye. If he did he'd crack and he couldn't risk it. Not when so much was on the line. All he had to do was get through this, he'd known it was coming hadn't he? If he could just keep his emotions from getting the best of him for the next few minutes. If he could ignore the razor edge that blazed through him every time he heard her speak, every time he smelled her hair, every time he looked into her liquid brown eyes. He'd survive and she would be safe.

The office felt hot and cold at once, the air thick with pressure and then as void as a vacuum at opposite intervals. He focussed on the sailboat.

"I'm not avoiding you Rinoa, I've been busy. My job takes up a lot of time." He didn't apologise this time, didn't even add a touch of regret to his tone. Kept it cold, devoid of feeling.

"Your job?" She didn't sound upset or teary as he'd been expecting. Instead her voice rang of anger, and sarcasm. Stunned, he darted a glance toward her face. The creamy porcelain skin of her cheeks glowed pink, her eyes narrowed and sparked with a hard edge. It had been a long time since she'd looked at him like that. "It won't work this time, Squall. The truth is you have no excuse, and you know it. Why don't you just 'fess up and get it over with? I'm a big girl, I can take it."

"There's nothing to confess, Rinoa. We've all been working double overtime to make up for the lost agents. By the time I get off I'm not in the mood for company." There, that should just about do it, he expected. Ice in his veins, the instructor didn't know the half of it. Over the years he'd perfected the art of being an asshole. He supposed he had Almasy to thank. Or not, as the case may be, considering the damage it was currently doing to his system.

"And I'm company? I'd thought I was your girlfriend." This new sarcastic side of her nearly ripped him in long shreds. Had he really driven her this far? "Y'know, I think I've been pretty patient this whole time. I've kept quiet, dealt with that I'd only see you in between missions. But I can't deal with not seeing you at all. I thought we had something, Squall. But if I was wrong, the least you could do is tell me. I'm not going to stay where I'm not wanted." Her eyes remained dry, her voice clear and strong, ringing through his eardrums. She gestured with her hands animatedly as she spoke, chin held high. Then she threw in the clincher. "There are other places I could go." Rinoa left it open-ended, allowing him to fill in the blanks. All he had to do was say the word and she'd be out of Garden forever. Our of his life. And out of harm's way.

"Like I said before," he began, shifting his weight and turning back to the picture. It was his only salvation. Even he couldn't believe what he was about to say. "I don't have time for your ultimatums right now. Why don't you go shopping in Balamb? I'll see if I have a spot open in my schedule for tomorrow and we'll talk then."

Now her eyes did fill. But not with tears of grief or misery. With rage. Hands fisted at her sides so that her nails dug painful trenches in her palms. She concentrated on that, the physical anguish, better that than the emotional helix wracking her body. Her voice shook dangerously when she spoke and she didn't bother to hold herself in check. "You know what Squall? One of these days you're going to wake up and realise how lucky you had it. I know somewhere deep down inside that miserable heart of yours you love me. Somehow you forgot that. I don't know what's wrong with you or why you're doing this but I'm not going to cling to the past like a damsel in distress. I'm worth way more than this. I hope you're happy, I really do. Because pretty soon you're going to find out how awful it is to be truly alone. And when you do," she had to pause to take a breath before she collapse. "When you do, I'll be in Timber. Enjoy the rest of your life." Saying this she whirled around, unseeing, and dived for the door.

Squall stood in one spot for a full minute. His mind was blank, like the synapses couldn't quite translate what had just transpired. When they did, the distress was too much to endure. The last picture he had of her whizzed over his vision. Rinoa, hollering at him in passion, unbelievably hurt. He'd done that. And if he let her go, he'd never forgive himself. Everything came tumbling forward in a moment's burst.

"I can't do it like this!" He reached out, his hand connecting with a rounded paperweight. On a rush of violence and red-hazed anger, he threw back his arm and hurled the ornament against the wall. It crashed dead-centre on the painting of the sailboat, shattering glass, crushing canvas and knocking the frame to the floor. Breathing heavily, he stared at it on the carpet. The acrylic mast torn and the blue ocean covered in debris.

On an oath, he ran to the door, pushed his way through. All he could think of was going after her, falling on his knees and begging her forgiveness for everything he'd ever said. It was all too much.

"It's because of the letters, isn't it?" Xu's strident tone managed to get through the echo in his brain from where she stood near the elevator. He brushed her off.

"Out of my way." Wait a minute, letters? His gaze swiftly pierced the woman's. "What are you talking about?"

"I saw them on your desk last night, it's why you've been checking the mission requests lately before I could." Arms folded, expression solemn, she met his look. "Someone's threatening Garden, and you, personally. That's why you've been trying to scare Rinoa away. Why didn't you tell me? You think this just effects you?" It was an accusation. An unfriendly one.

"Yes, I do." Squall pressed the heels of his hands to his eyes and tried to think. "Just get out of my way, Xu. I mean it."

Immediately she stepped back, hands in the air and brows raised. "Knock yourself out." Xu strolled passed him and back over to her desk. She heard the gears of the lift lower as the male made his descent. "Good luck, ace."

Xu sat back in her chair and decided to submerge her fury in work. She could bank it for a few hours until Cid returned from Esthar. Leaning forward, she snatched up the Almasy file - something else she'd found conveniently lying around where it didn't belong - and paged through it. Speculated how Quistis was doing keeping the arrogant bastard under wraps. As if on cue, the telephone jangled.

She let the folder slide to her lap and reached for the receiver. Cradling it to her ear, she sat back and kicked her feet up on the desk. "Balamb Garden, Xu speaking."

Beneath her feet, the desk swayed and buckled. The crash it made as its legs gave out and plunged successfully blocked out the greeting of the caller. Xu shut her eyes to the disaster she was sure lay out in front of her.

"How quaint."

Seifer exited the hotel bathroom to find Quistis sat on the edge of a bed, swinging her legs back and forth while she spoke on the telephone and watched a late-night talk show on television. His hair still wet from his shower, he rubbed a towel over it as he observed her from the doorway. She had yet to notice him so he was granted free reign.

She was smiling. And laughing. Not the hysterical kind of laughter she had broken out into that night in Timber, born of strain and anxiety. This was different. She actually sounded happy. Normal. As far back as he could remember Quistis Trepe never acted like an ordinary human being. Stuck-up, bossy, and puritanical, yes, but having a normal conversation and actually enjoying it? It was interesting. At least, that's the reason he gave himself for being so captivated. Easier than admitting it was the smooth, toned legs bared by a skimpy white robe that had caused other interesting ideas to enter his mind. Very dangerous ground.

Quistis laughed again before sensing his presence in the small room. Steam swirled out the bathroom door behind him. She batted an eye in his direction and altered her easy demeanour. "Maybe you can get Nida to help you clean up." There was a pause as she listened then let an appreciative chuckle. "No doubt. But I'd better let you go. I'll call when I reach Balamb tomorrow, I'll be expecting a car." Quistis creased her forehead. "Uh huh, right. I'll be on the lookout. You too." The receiver clicked softly as she hung up, removing Seifer from his daze. "Enjoy your shower?"

It took him a second to realise she was speaking to him. He shrugged. "I guess. You know hotels, all mist."

"You were certainly in there long enough," she commented. Quistis rose to shut off the television then remained standing in one spot, watching him carefully.

"What? Can't a guy clean himself without getting the third degree?" He didn't trust the look in her eyes nor her lack of any real expression. It was unnerving. "You weren't exactly super water efficient yourself. Twenty minutes you were in there, at least."

"You timed me?" She blinked and smiled. "Miss me, Almasy?"

"No, you handcuffed me to the bed, what else was I gonna do?" He would have moved past her, would have ignored that smug little grin, but she was in the way. "I thought Balamb had laws against cruel and unusual punishment."

Quistis snorted and rolled her eyes. She slid her hands into the deep pockets of the terrycloth and leaned a hip against the rickety set of drawers the television balanced on. "And give you prime opportunity to escape? I think not."

"How many times do I have to tell you?" Twisting the towel in his hands he imagined snapping her with it. Just once, for fun. That would change her attitude. "I was going to come back. You saw how they drugged me up. Didn't exactly give me a choice."

"Probably several more before I'll believe you. Don't waste your breath, it's not happening."

It was awhile before anything else was said. They continued to stay in their spots, not really looking at each other but not looking away either. It was a test, to see who would crack first. Seifer wasn't giving in.

"That was Xu on the phone," Quistis was the first to break the silence, air casual. Lifting a hand, she ran her fingers unconsciously through her hair, working out the tangles that resulted from letting it air-dry. "All the preparations are being made for your arrival tomorrow afternoon. We should get there round four or five if we make the ship first thing."

"Whoop-de-do." Was he supposed to care or something. Yay, he was going back to Garden. Let's all throw a fucking party. That was the last thing he wanted to think about right now.

"Seifer." His name came out on a sigh. Her eyes were softer now, compassionate. "Cid and Edea, they're doing this to help you. Nothing has to be as bad as you make it seem. Give them a chance." She sighed again, searching his face and coming up empty. It was obvious he didn't want to discuss anything with her, but she couldn't help but feel that she had to try one last time. It wasn't just the Kramers. She wanted to help as well. To give him a second chance. "Give me a chance. I'm not your enemy."

The emotions that ran through him now were too complex, too jumbled to decipher. He didn't know what to feel, how to respond. Anger, guilt, fear, relief, pain. He latched on to the most recognisable one and clung. "You think I care about them, about you? What you're not getting is that I'm an asshole, duchess. That's the way I like it. I don't give a damn if they're feeling sorry for me, if you're feeling guilty about something you had nothing to do with. It ain't my problem. If it don't effect me, I keep out. I handle things my way, or no way. Got that?"

"No, I don't. I don't understand how your way can be defeat." Quistis pushed herself from the dresser. She was yelling back at him without thinking. "You're not a quitter, Almasy. Never once have I seen you just give up, just leave your fate in someone else's hands. I don't get why you're starting now. It's not like you and it pisses me off!"

"Giving up?" He snapped the towel at the wall before throwing it viciously toward the nearest bed. "I'm not giving up. I just don't choose to do things your way, to bullshit and kiss the bloody feet of Garden brass. Why the hell should I? I did nothing wrong!" His voice had risen to match hers, his eyes on fire and his fists white-knuckled. "And I'm glad you're pissed off! Because you piss me off, Quistis! I don't get you at all. I would have killed you! And you can tell yourself I didn't know what I was doing but we both know it's shit. I would have sliced your throat if I could have. But you stand there looking at me like some freaking child you want to make all better. Why? Are you that stupid?"

"Why? Why? I don't know why, Seifer!" She gestured wildly with her hands, tossing her hair over her shoulder. "Maybe because you were my student, maybe because we grew up together, maybe because I once saw something inside you I'm not ready to give up on yet! Whatever it is, I can't just sit back and let you do this to yourself." Her hands slapped against his chest. Her voice had calmed slightly with the movement and she took a breath to let some of the anger die. Then took another when she didn't feel immediate results.

"You don't have a choice. By tomorrow, mission's over. You'll go back to your perfect little life and I'll go deal with mine. End of story."

Angling her neck back, she studied his expression. And was stonewalled. Misery pricked at her insides. "Not a chance, I don't give up that easy either you'll find. Perhaps we can find a way that works for both of us."

"I doubt it. I don't like you any more than you like me." Instantly regretting it, he returned her gaze. When had she gotten so close? His eyes travelled from hers to her curved neckline, then over to her shoulder where her robe had slipped, leaving it bare. Logic rallied against it, but he couldn't stop himself.

Quistis couldn't figure out how or why the air had changed between them, she only knew that it had. She had a sudden need to lighten it. Nervous, she flexed her hands and discovered they still lay on his chest. Yes, lightening would be essential. Dropping them to her sides, she then raised one again but this time to his cheek. She gave it a pat in a way she knew annoyed him. "I don't dislike you, Almasy. It's more of an honest distaste," she teased, shrugging one shoulder. "You can't blame me."

Before she could remove her hand and step aside, he was gripping her wrist in his own. Her eyes narrowed. "Watch it."

"I have been, that's the problem." Confused, her brows met above the bridge of her nose, but he didn't give her a chance to speak. He couldn't say why he did it, it'd certainly never been part of his plans on any scale. Sure she was appealing as all get-out but had so many irritating traits that he'd always managed to resist whatever temptation she might have provided. Not this time. Blame it on the heat of the moment, the tension that demanded release, the scent of her skin, that damned robe, her hair, the way she'd looked at him…Any number of reasons could have made this time different. It didn't stop if from being wrong. Looking at it later, that may have just been an added bonus.

Seifer pulled her against him. She was too stunned, too shaken herself, to provide much of a resistance. Or any at all. Running her tongue over her lips, she said his name. And before she grasped his intent, his mouth was on hers.

It was like a fist-to-the-gut, breath swiping blow that sent both their minds reeling. There was no softness to be found here, only violence. But she found herself responding in kind, parting her lips and dragging him closer. She stopped thinking completely when he dove deeper, nipping her tongue. The novelty of that experience was a thrill unto itself. Always she'd been able to separate her intellect to direct and control any event. But now every lapping sensation crashed over her like a tidal wave, and it was all she could do to remain afloat.

What was he doing to her? Her mind raced trying to catch up to her soaring body. She'd kill him for this. Crush him. Destroy him. She bit back only part of a moan. It felt too wicked to be real.

His mouth was hot and hungry, constantly seeking new tastes. His body was hard and unforgiving as his hands that gripped and released her arms in a syncopated rhythm she couldn't quiet adjust to. Strong and impatient, brutal and ruthless was the kiss. The words he muttered were incomprehensible against her mouth. They didn't ring of endearments or compliments. More like threats.

For the first time she could recall she felt truly delicate. As if he could snap her in two at whim. He was a man who would take what he wanted, where and when it suited him. It should have been frightening, it should have made her tear away and scream at him, but for some reason she found it unbearably arousing. Her head tipped back limply and opened herself for absolute, unquestioning surrender.

He was drowning in her. The ice had melted around her and he was over his head, too mad to know if he should continue downward or fight for land. The scent, the taste, the texture imprinted themselves in his head. Everything a man could want to touch, to take, to claim as his own. A flash fire exploded around him when her throaty hum pulsed into his blood. He devoured as much as he could as fast as he could in a vicious assault. Perhaps it was her ultimate surrender, her complete relinquishing of control into his half-crazed hands that had him surfacing. On an oath he forced himself back, pushing her away as far as he could.

Reality had crept its way back in and there was no ignoring it.

Nearly insane herself, Quistis shoved at her hair, stumbling at bit at the sensation of being away from the heat. Her lungs burned with lack of air. Under his mind-numbing attack somewhere along the way she must have forgotten to breathe. She had no clue as to why she'd reacted the way she had. It was disconcerting, horrifying even. But that didn't stop the irrational part of her brain from desperately wanting to give it another shot. She ordered her body back into control. Cool it, Trepe. Just because it's been millennia since someone has touched you that way doesn't mean you should go berserk the next time someone does. He may be undeniably sexy, but he is Seifer Almasy. You hate him. Loathe him. No one disgusts you more. Sweaty palms pressed to her cheeks she waited until her pulse had returned to normal levels before she risked looking at him.

For the first time, his eyes were open. And they were just as distraught, just as dazed as she knew hers must be. Well, at least they now had one thing in common. Neither had any clue where all that had come from. Quistis decided it would be wiser not to find out just yet.


"Don't, Trepe. Don't say anything right now." His eyes had closed again, though he had yet to blink. "I could kill you for that."

"What?" That had been the last thing she'd expected to hear. Taken aback, she gaped at him. "You're-you're blaming what just happened, on me?" The impudence of the man! To suggest she would initiate such an….an…Oh, who was she kidding? He'd had her panting within seconds. Hopeless.

"Who else could be responsible? I didn't ask for this!" He wanted to hurt her, wanted to bruise her, wanted to bring her down to his level for once.

"And I did?" She was furious. "Let me tell you exactly what went on since you appear to have forgotten in a manner of seconds. You wanted me, you wanted all this, and the very idea of that ticks you off. So you're trying to tell yourself I tricked you somehow into showing your weakness. You're pathetic." The insult was uttered on a growl.

"You know, Quistis, you're not as desirable as you seem to think." He threw it at her, disgusted with himself. She was right and he hated her for it. He turned away before recognising there was no where else to go.

"Neither are you, Seifer." For some bizarre reason, she felt hurt burnishing through the rage and wanted to punish him, just as he was punishing her. "Now I have first-hand knowledge."

He raised his hands and gripped both her wrists. Fear snapped, edgy and cold, into her eyes and he shook her. "Of all people you can't tell me you didn't want that. I could've taken you all the way. Don't fool yourself."

"The only fool here is you. Touch me again and you won't have to worry about Balamb." Her voice was quiet but the lines of her face were drawn and her body stiff. She tugged away and he made no effort to hold her further. They stared at each other, sharing looks of mutual loathing before he swore and stepped forward.

"Excuse me, duchess. I dare not offend thy precious honour. Move," he said. "I'm going to bed."

Quistis shifted aside and let him pass, jaw tight. She wasn't going to give him the satisfaction of knowing he'd gotten to her. Forcing herself to gather up whatever traces of dignity she could find, she calmly walked over to their light bags.

Seifer laid himself out on the bed near the farthest wall. It was old and sagged slightly in the middle but it would do. The quilt beneath him was warmer than the temperature of the room.

"Are you going to sleep like that? In your clothes?" He opened his eyes to see her standing over him, arms crossed, and schoolmarm attitude back in operation. How he'd ever found her attractive was mystifying.

"Got a problem with that?"

"No, you're just going to be plenty uncomfortable by morning." She sent him a sunny smile, eyes mocking. "I didn't realise you were so modest. Scared?"

"Hardly." He rolled away so he didn't have to look at her. Not about to fall into the old trap. "It's freezing in here. And not everyone likes to prance around half-naked."

"Suit yourself." If his comment had gotten to her she didn't let it show. Bending over, she snapped one part of the handcuffs to his wrist and then pulled his arm closer to the bed post to latch the other tight. He groaned.

"For Hyne's sake, Trepe. I'm not going anywhere. Fuck."

"Of course you're not. How could you? Unless you take the bed with you." Quistis righted herself then turned to her own bed, sitting and swinging her legs over the side. She crawled under the covers and leaned back against the pillows before she darted a glance back in his direction. His back was still to her but she figured that would change quickly. He couldn't be comfortable with his arm twisted behind him like that. She shrugged. Not her problem.

"Goodnight, Almasy," she offered out of politeness. He grumbled a reply that she was positive was incredibly uncomplimentary toward herself. Shaking her head, she snapped off the lamp and snuggled down. If she was going to spend hours on a ship with him the next day, she was going to need her sleep.