"You show your pain like it really hurts, And I can't even start to feel mine.. You're laughing out loud, At just the thought of being alive.. And I was wondering, Could I just be you tonight?"

--Matchbox 20, "Could I Be You"

When I walk into a room, there is an instant in which conversations cease and eyes grow wide, an instant that rushes outwards from where I stand and sucks life and motion from the air, pulling every attention towards me as it contracts, fluidly, in the space of a heartbeat. I feel from all directions a gathered lukewarm miasma of fear, hate, and pity, blurring the sea of still pale faces that surround me. There is silence, breathless silence, and utter awareness of my presence.. And then someone drops a fork. The natural noise of the cafeteria spills into the opening made by the clatter of thin metal on tiled floor, and voices pick up with growing enthusiasm, resuming conversations paused to acknowledge just how much I don't belong here.

I've never belonged, but before I sold my soul to the devil herself I at least cared enough to get angry in my own defense and make sure that if people were going to hate me, they were damn well going to do it respectfully. I was feared and loathed back then, and I can recall craving those moments of tense silence when I passed by, craving the attentions of everyone I came into contact with, wanting their eyes fixed on me and me alone. In admiration, in disgust, in secret seething rage disguised under a coward's smile.. It didn't matter, as long as I was the center of attention. Now there's no respect to speak of and I'm not about to demand it. I'm here on the condition that I behave properly, and am currently being watched very closely by both Cid and several faculty members. I can't bring myself to care enough to chafe at the restrictions that entangle me under the lens of their microscope. I have no intention of causing trouble to begin with, especially after I was able to pass the SeeD exam and am finally a ranked, qualified mercenary licensed to kill for money. Seeing as I still haven't received a single assignment, I take it that no one really trusts me with that kind of employment yet. Either that or every SeeD member has refused to take me on as a part of their mission team. It's most likely a case of all of the above. Not that it matters. At least the powers that be are letting me stay.

At Garden, I have food, shelter, access to an excellent training area, and enough books in the library to keep me busy for quite some time. Since I've left the point of wanting death behind, I really can't complain about life as it's now shaping up for me. Garden's not a bad place to live, and even if I am headed for a basement desk working on budget sheets, that's a future I can live with. Because, if I could remember what fear felt like, I'm sure it would come close to the hollow, dulled ache that prods at the edges of my consciousness when I think of dying. I haven't yet found a way to correct my mistakes. But more importantly, I haven't yet come back to life. I'm.. if not afraid, then apprehensive, about letting myself be killed before I feel something real one more time. If I could have one day, one swift passage of sun and moon in which I felt something, pain or joy or anger or sweet wrenching sorrow, I think I'd either find the courage to stop or the courage to move on. I can't recall if I've recently become a coward or if I always felt this way, stalling death for just one more day, just one more flare of passion, just one more dream. The word "coward" doesn't even taste bitter anymore.

At the cafeteria counter I order the Daily Special, managing a thin smile for the overworked, tired woman behind the cash register. The tray she slides me doesn't look special at all, in actuality, but it's cheap and all the fuel I need to get me through my afternoon training session. Just because I'm being ignored for active duty missions doesn't mean I'm going to let myself start to look like Cid.

That thought almost makes me laugh, of all things, and I head for the mostly-empty rear of the room, a smirk of real amusement on my face as I decide that looking like Cid would definitely be the point at which I'd consider my life officially not worth living.

Just as I sit down at a small table, loud cheering erupts from the direction of the lunch line. Tilting my head, I take in the ridiculous, familiar sight of Zell Dincht bouncing up and down and punching the air enthusiastically, shouting in elation as the cashier slides him a tray that is piled high with hotdogs.

"Booya, baby!" he cries, making his way into the tables with an energetic step. "Guess who was on time today!"

Several people offer him a seat, and he stops to chat and laugh with all of them before making it to his apparent destination, a tiny table where Instructor Trepe is sitting and watching him as he jumps over and drops his tray dramatically onto the tabletop, crowing over his success. He is so alive that he nearly glows with it, and his infectious laughter has left in his wake several groups of smiling cadets. He seems so capable of feeling everything intensely, and as I shovel colorless food into my mouth I have to pause and admit that somewhere inside I am jealous of that capacity. The jealousy is fine, and tender, but still a sort of sickly-sweet presence prickling under the surface of my skin and making the tiny hairs of my forearms stand on end. It makes me want to feel more.

Even by sifting through my thin trickling envy I can't find it in myself to hate him for his ability to live, though I want to. I haven't been able to hate him for our entire lives.. Or any of them, for that matter. The burning coldness behind my childhood insults was fueled by pure jealousy, not malice, and the blinding hatred that consumed my mind while Ultimecia clutched it, trembling and naked, in her taloned skeletal hands was a wildfire of her own creation.

..At least I'd like to think so, anyways. It helps a little to convince myself that I alone could never spawn such a cruel, hungry loathing as the one the Sorceress fed to me through cloying hissed words and piercing, harsh caresses. It was strange and terrifying and stung like ice, but she whispered to me unceasingly that I would love it, love it, love her, love her dreams, love the sweet pain she dealt out like a drug that mauled everything I'd believed until all I could feel was her crushing, fierce presence filling my broken mind and leaking though the cracks. I remember that I didn't even flinch when I lost myself, and the tears that welled up in my eyes were not my own tears of sorrow but her black crystalline tears of savage joy. Tears of triumph at having made one more step towards her dreams, while I was unable to even numbly mourn the loss of mine.

Knight, Knight.. Sorceress' Knight.. Sir Almasy, Sir Seifer, Seifer, seifer, seifer, child, boy, you must know by now, boy, that there's no going back, you silly child, lost child, not yet a man.. Why be a man when you can be something greater, boy? When you can be a part of me, share my dreams, no more being lost, boy, no more shattered dreams, Seifer, no more bowing to others, Knight, no more clapping in the face of their arrogance, Sir Knight, instead they'll fall before you in adoration, Sir Almasy.. My Knight, my vessel, glorious, empty, mine.

I wish I could feel pain at the memories but I only feel hollow.

When my eyes focus again, I realize that I am staring at Zell and Quistis' table and that they are both looking back at me. My gaze slides back to my plate in acceptance of their silent rebuke, and it's only as I take the last heaping bite of my food that I realize it tastes like absolutely nothing.

(0_/0) x (^_^})

"You know sometimes I think Cid's just keeping him around out of pity."


Zell blinked at Quistis, his face radiating confusion as the blond Instructor abruptly changed the topic of their conversation. The bespectacled woman moved her gaze from over Zell's left shoulder back to his eyes, nudging her glasses upwards with her index finger and allowing the frown to melt off her face in amusement at the younger man's inability to follow along.

"Seifer, Zell, I'm talking about Seifer," Sighing, Quistis inclined her head lightly at the wall behind Zell, and as the small man twisted about to look she rolled her eyes and rapped him on the hand with her spoon.

"Well don't stare at the man! Oh, look, now he's seen you. I hope he doesn't come over here."

Puzzled and a bit startled to see that Seifer was indeed eating quietly at a small table in the back of the cafeteria, Zell turned back around and wrinkled his brow in annoyance.

"Yeah, me neither. Can't say I value his company. Whaddaya mean, though, that Cid's only keeping him around out of pity? 'Cause he did make SeeD after all, which surprised the hell outta me, that's for sure."

"He's been here for almost two years, Zell. And he's been a SeeD for nearly ten months of that time. Have you seen him getting sent on any missions? Has his name even come up in the proposed team lists that are discussed at SeeD meetings?"

Zell shook his head slowly, comprehension dawning in his eyes along with a confused sort of disgruntlement as Quistis continued.

"I think Cid took him back because he has nowhere else to go. He's wanted in Galbadia, hated in Esthar, and probably at the mercy of common hired assassins anywhere else he goes. Except at Garden. I don't know what Cid plans on doing with him, but have you noticed? He's not the same man at all. He's like a ghost. I doubt he would object if Cid's final decision was to stick him in an office somewhere filling out paperwork."

"Can't say that I've noticed him acting any different," the tattooed man admitted reluctantly, shrugging his shoulders. "He hasn't been bugging me lately, sure, but I've been doing my best to avoid him as it is. I'm not gonna start taking the crap he deals out again. But, man, not giving him any missions? Would Cid really do that to him? I mean, on a permanent basis."

Quistis scooped up the last of her stew and swallowed before wiping her mouth neatly with a napkin and taking a sip of water.

"Maybe that's in his best interest. He doesn't seem to me like he's all there anymore."

Zell regarded his friend incredulously, sneaking another quick look at Seifer, who was standing slowly and gathering his used plates onto his tray.

"Are you saying you think he's crazy?"

"Crazy is definitely not the word I would use myself, but I think that, yes, he might possibly be suffering from some sort of.. I don't know, trauma?" Quistis waved her hand in front of her face vaguely, trying to chase down the point she was making and put it into the right words. "Then again, maybe he's acting just as he did before, and I'm seeing things. But without Fuujin and Raijin he seems so alone.. I can't imagine what it's like, in fact, to be so utterly friendless."

Zell felt his face flush as a small voice in the back of his mind told him that he ought to feel guilty. It didn't specify why he ought to feel guilty about the man who'd made his younger years miserable getting a taste of his own medicine, but his conscience wriggled uncomfortably all the same at the knowledge that the older man was so painfully isolated. He was, after all, one of them now, a SeeD, and Zell realized as Quistis pointed it out that it was true how, after Seifer's return to Garden, not one of the old orphanage gang who knew Seifer had bothered to give him the time of day. It somehow only made things worse that Garden itself was so lively, because now that he was being forced to look, Zell saw just how sharply the tall, lonely figure of his former antagonist stood out among the crowds of laughing students, aloof, adrift, and as cold and silent as a snowfall.

"D'ya think I should talk to him?" Zell found himself asking, his tone resigned even as his mind registered what he'd just said with a measure of surprise.

"What?" Wide-eyed, Quistis covered her mouth and giggled girlishly, her amusement making Zell frown again in annoyance.

"What's so damn funny?" he muttered sourly, picking up the last cold hotdog on his plate and shoving it into his mouth, polishing it off without interrupting the glare he was directing at the other SeeD.

"Oh, Zell, you go talk to him? Really, I don't think that you'd be the best choice to help Seifer out with his issues, whatever they may be. I'm pretty sure we'd discover one or both of you dead before anything resembling a civilized conversation had the chance to start up between you."

"Ha, ha, ha," Zell returned sarcastically, not entirely amused by Quistis' continued laughter. "I was just offering since it seems like nobody else is gonna do shit to try and help the guy. I mean, for chrissakes, he is a SeeD now. He deserves a little respect, if only for that."

Hearing the displeased undertone in Zell's voice, Quistis stopped giggling and shook her head in apology.

"You know what, Zell, you're right. Somebody ought to make a move to try to befriend him. I thought you hated the man, but I think what you just said is the most decent comment anyone's made about him since his return."

"Yeah, well that's just sad." Zell stood, tossing back the last of his iced tea and grabbing his tray. He smiled down at Quistis, his customary easy grin suddenly back in place, and winked at her. "But you know how I love to surprise people with my occasionally intelligent insights. And you know how I love challenges. In fact, I'm gonna go try to talk to Almasy right now."

Quistis narrowed her eyes, an authoritative warning on her lips that she reigned in at the last moment. She settled for sighing, and offering up a half-hearted admonition.

"Just don't pick a fight with him, Zell. You'd probably come out just fine, but he'd most likely get kicked out of Garden, even if he is a SeeD. Cid's still keeping a close eye on him."

Zell raised his palms in innocent protest, giving the seated woman a wide- eyed puppy-dog look that was, in fact, disgustingly convincing on his youthful face.

"What do you take me for? I've got manners," Zell protested, his eyes sparkling. "Why don't you just trust me, and figure out what your brilliant strategy for, what was that you said? Oh, right, 'making a move' on Seifer is gonna be."

Quistis blushed and waved Zell away.

"Can it, kid. I'm still the Instructor here."

"OK, Quisty, if that's what you've gotta tell yourself." Zell ducked a wadded napkin and headed towards the exit after Seifer, waving cheerfully.

Quistis stood up to retrieve the trash she'd thrown, and stood next to the table clutching the crumpled paper as she watched Zell saunter out of the room, whistling. Somehow she didn't have the feeling that his plan would go over very well.

(0_/0) x (^_^})

"Yo Seifer, man, wait up!"

Zell bounded up to the tall man's side in a blur of nervous energy, bouncing lightly on the pads of his feet as he walked and trying not to swing his arms. Too much.

Seifer eyed the other SeeD with cool indifference, feeling the ghost of a smirk flit over his lips as he took in the frenetic, contained way that Zell's fists clenched spasmodically while the tattooed man attempted to not explode from the conflicting impulses bubbling up inside himself. He wanted to leave, he wanted to help, he wanted to tell Seifer that he thought the guy was an absolute jerk who'd nearly killed them all in his arrogance but Zell would still try to forgive him for it. That was a hard thing to say, however, and the placid, distant reserve in Seifer's eyes didn't make Zell any less nervous. The other man's silence wasn't promising any sort of conversational icebreaker either.

"So.. uh, got any missions coming up?" Zell questioned, his brow knitting in distress as he realized that he'd just asked what was possibly the worst question to confront Seifer with, following "Why'd you betray us and then come crawling back, asshole?"

Slapping a hand to his forehead, he hurried to keep up with the tall blond, who hadn't stopped walking as the smirk disappeared from his face.

"I mean, I guess the thing to do would be to congratulate you on making SeeD.. I.. Didn't really get a chance to tell you that before, after your test."

Seifer finally paused, turning to fix an expressionless stare on Zell's flustered face.

"Can I do something for you, Dincht?"

The question was cold and, contrary to what it was offering, completely unhelpful in tone. Zell blinked as he stared up into Seifer's eyes, then frowned as he realized that he was being forced to look up in the first place. When he found his voice again, his words spilled out in an unthinking rush, laced with an anger he'd long ago discovered to be a familiar component of his interactions with the older man.

"Jesus, I was just trying to talk to you, Seifer. Not like anyone else has been making much of an attempt at it lately, but I can see why if you're this rude to everyone."

Seifer snorted, waving a gloved hand in Zell's face lazily and turning away, heading for the dormitories once more.

"While I appreciate you coming after me just to tell me that I lack social skills, I have better things to be doing than getting lectured by a Chickenwuss. Why don't you run along and find a cadet to spar with - you might just find one who's still your height."

Feeling his cheeks flush red with outrage, Zell took a deep breath, counted to five, and tried again.

"I'll just forget you said that, and, as a matter of fact, we can start this conversation all over again, on a better note, ok? So, right," he stepped quickly in front of Seifer, sticking out his hand and grinning. "Yo, man, congrats on making SeeD. You deserve it."

Seifer eyed him silently for a moment before brushing Zell's hand aside and stepping past him.

"Remind me to thank you for that comment ten months after the fact. Now don't you have something better to do than annoy me, because I need to make it to the training center before it gets crowded after classes let out."

Zell dropped his hand slowly, shaking his head at the sheer audacity of the scarred man's discourtesy. Only a residual wave of guilt over never having acknowledged either Seifer's return to Garden or his SeeD inauguration kept him from walking away. One more time, he thought, and took a deep breath.

"Actually, I haven't trained yet today either. Wanna spar? I haven't had a good match in a few weeks."

Seifer stopped walking again and faced Zell, something close to annoyance churning restlessly in his dark eyes.

"I don't know how to make this any more obvious, but it would really make my day if you'd leave me the fuck alone."

He turned and headed for the dorms with long strides, feeling the agitation aroused by Zell's charitable attentions crawling under his skin with dark potential that made his heart beat faster, tempted by the seduction of the assorted feelings that Dincht managed to prod to life. He left Zell behind him, gaping, and not quite sure of how he would respond to Seifer's insult. While the statement had been delivered without inflection, it managed to convey a fair deal of contempt regardless, and Zell suddenly found himself on the other side of his boundaries, seething with rage and completely unaware of his original intentions to try to make peace.

"What the hell is wrong with you, you asshole?!"

Seifer stopped walking abruptly, something stirring and waking in his chest that he hadn't felt in what seemed like forever. Before he could name it, own it, and stifle it, it had risen in hot shooting tension to his fingertips and he was whirling around, grabbing Zell by the collar of his jacket and dragging him forward. For once, the small man was still, his toes barely scraping the ground and his blue eyes wide with speechless shock.

"Don't mess with me, Dincht," Seifer snarled, his voice a grating warning as he thrust his face within an inch of the stunned SeeD's. "Don't push me one step further because I have nothing left to lose."

That was it; that was the feeling, the first wispy warming tendrils of real anger, his own real anger, working their way out of the pit of his stomach and firing his blood with a forgotten ecstasy of emotion that crowed for freedom by way of his clenched fists. When he smashed his knuckles into Zell's paled, tattooed cheek he would feel something inside for the first time in recent memory, a wavering fury that would strengthen into a gorgeous blaze and beneath it something deeper, something more intriguing in that he almost believed he'd never felt it before. Something bittersweet and aching that he could almost define as.. Regret.

Seifer wanted to taste his own heart; taste the pulsing redness, and the writhing rage, and the exotic, delicate sourness of his regret. He wanted so badly that he started to tremble, and with shaking fingers he released Zell and shoved him away, drawing a quivering hand over his eyes and clenching his teeth against the want.

It had been so long since he had been consumed by desire.

Zell stood unsteadily where he had been pushed, several feet from the taller man, watching with astonished disbelief as Seifer gained control of himself one muscle at a time. Zell's first impulse was to throw himself at the other man and beat his face in for daring to threaten him, but he'd never given in to that impulse before with Seifer and the hungry, wild gleam that had burned in Seifer's blue-green eyes was something that Zell decided to file away as unsettling because he didn't want to admit that he was scared by it. Scared by how hard Seifer was having to fight to regain his control.

Swallowing with difficulty, Seifer raised dizzy eyes to meet Zell's, something in the slant of his eyebrows giving his expression a tinge of agony.

"I want to hurt you," Seifer whispered unsteadily, his nostrils flaring as he took in a shallow, shaky breath. He was silent after that, and watched with the greedy light fading from his eyes as Zell started to back away, slowly, bringing his gloved fists up in a defensive challenge.

"Ok, you're freaking me out, man. I dunno what that hell's gotten into you but you're freaking the shit outta me, Seifer."

Zell's voice was too loud in the deserted silent hallway, and it seemed to jostle Seifer out of the daze that clouded his vision and made his breath come faster. He shook his head, once, and blinked at the shorter man owlishly before what he'd said dawned on him and he bit his lower lip in consternation.

"..I..I'm sorry, Zell, I.."

And the anger was gone, along with its swift searing excitement, taking with it all of Seifer's sureness and a good deal of his ability to speak. He settled for one final muttered apology and spun around in a swirl of gray and silver, stalking towards the dormitories with desperation in his stride.

This time Zell, his fisted hands dropping limply to his sides, made not a single move to try and stop him.

(0_/0) x (^_^})

"I want to hurt you" Seifer breathed, feeling his whole body pulse with the need.

He reached out and ran trembling fingers down the side of Zell's flushed face, barely touching skin that was lightly sheened with sweat and glowing in the dim light. Zell bit his lower lip and closed his eyes, moving forward to press his body against Seifer's own slowly, shivering as his naked flesh met with an aching want that matched his own.

"Seifer.." His voice barely a moan, Zell opened his eyes and let himself fall willingly into the dark, hungry depths of Seifer's intense gaze, tilting his head up to brush his lips against the taller man's teasingly, agonizingly close to the edges of his restraint as he whispered brokenly in response.

"..Hurt me.."

..And he was shoved roughly to the ground, Seifer's body a punishing, delicious weight as the older man threw himself onto Zell, his mouth everywhere, hot tongue and sharp teeth wringing a pleading whine from the tattooed blond. Crying out in pleasure, Zell barely registered the movement as Seifer grabbed him by the shoulder and flipped him over with such force that the smaller man's chin struck the carpet with a sunburst flare of pain. And it was beyond beautiful, then, how the throbbing ache of his jaw melted into the ache of his arousal, and the heat of Seifer's body behind him matched the stinging of his scalp as his head was wrenched back by the hair, hard, and his lips were caught in a kiss that burned away the last of his control and muffled the desperate, wild noises rising from his throat as he felt his body tremble in a release as fierce and necessary as the gasps of a drowning man and he was drowning, then, in Seifer's eyes..


"..-eifer, ah.."

Panting hard, Zell sat up stiffly, the sheets falling off of his upper body to pool around his waist in tepid, damp folds. Still not free of his dream, he flexed his hips one final time and moaned softly as the last tense pleasure of climax left his body in a warm rush, leaving him spent and drowsy and confused. Seeing not Seifer's face before him but the closed door of his dorm room, he blinked in slow bewilderment and tried to remember why the world felt sticky and was glowing green.


The light would be his digital clock, currently reading 3:12 in clear luminous numbers. And the cooling mess around his groin would be the remnants of the first wet dream he'd had since he was about sixteen, a dream that involved not the usual faceless men of his fantasies but one very frightening, very predatory, very sexy Seifer Almasy.

"Oh, goddammit," Zell groaned, leaning forward to rest his elbows on his knees and bury his face in his hands. The last thing he needed at the moment was a developing attraction to the man who had practically threatened his life the previous afternoon.

Developing? I thought I'd gotten over this years..

He shook his head and stuffed the aborted thought into the depths of his brain, where it hopefully wouldn't escape from to bother him for quite some time. The tactic didn't quite work as well as he'd hoped; it was effective for about ten seconds.

Peeling off his soiled sheets and crumpling them into a ball, Zell tossed the dirty laundry into a corner and swung himself out of bed, muttering a curse at how shaky his legs were when he stood. Fine, so he hadn't had any sort of sex, even with himself, in a long while. Fine, so he had never really gotten over his ridiculous attraction to Seifer, even during the past two years when he had been trying really hard to avoid the man. Fine, so it had sort of turned him on in a strange sick way when Seifer grabbed him like that in the hallway, and fine! The guy smelled really damn good, ok!?

Growling in frustration, Zell walked to the bathroom and wet a washcloth to clean himself up with. How embarrassing, he thought, a twenty year-old man having a fricken wet dream. Zell didn't usually have problems of this sort. Hell, it wasn't like Garden was an environment that encouraged any kind of sexual activity, what with its busy schedule and its 'No Promiscuity' rule and its ever present admonitions about caution in relationships. Then again, Selphie was always saying that working out a lot makes a person really horny, and having an extremely close encounter with the object of one's lust didn't do much to help the situation.

"Fricken hell! I am not attracted to Seifer!"

Zell flung the washcloth against the mirror and blanched when the very proof of his attraction left a pale streak as the cloth slid down the glass.

"Oh, now that's just disgusting.." Muttering to himself, he cleaned the mirror with violent swipes of a fresh towel and decided that he wasn't really doing a very good job of convincing himself of his lack of interest. In fact, he'd never done a good job of denying Seifer's appeal in the first place, but it was more than a little galling that his attention had been recaptured by Seifer threatening to beat him up. Not exactly a romantic overture, that.

Throwing a new sheet over the mattress, Zell inadvertently shivered as he recalled the violence seething in Seifer's eyes and shaking under the restrained grip of his fists. His mind flashed to an instant from his dream, when he had begged Seifer to hurt him, and he flopped back into bed dejectedly as his body tingled anew at the thought.

"At this rate we'd make a perfect couple," Zell mumbled sourly. "We could be perfectly deranged together, complete with whips and straitjackets."

He buried his head under a pillow and whimpered at the unsavory fact that his libido was stirring once again at the mention of whips.

(0_/0) x (^_^})

I wake up with a start, shaking and covered in a cold sweat. Curling tendrils of terror wreath around me with stubborn perseverance, and all I can do is blink rapidly, clearing tears from my eyes and losing myself in the warm summer sunlight filtering in through the window. The buttery light is an antidote to the chilled waves of blood that still drip from my fingertips, and I gulp in the clean air, too, tasting bile and my heartbeat thundering in my throat. I think I'll make it without vomiting, today.

Morning.. It's finally morning. That means I've made it through one more night of endless assaults by all the people whose lives I've stolen, and now at last their blood is washing away and their pain is leaving me as the blessed noise that woke me blares through the Garden's loudspeakers.

"..-quired to report to the Headmaster's office for classroom reassignment by 0830. I repeat, there is a SeeD meeting at 0900 hours in the Headmaster's office. All SeeDs level 10 and above are required to attend. SeeDs level 9 and below are required to report to the Headmaster's office for classroom reassignment by 0830. That is all."

Glancing at the bedside clock, I realize that I've got less than twenty minutes to shower and make myself presentable enough to report to Cid. No time for breakfast, and no time to worry about yesterday's strange encounter with the Chickenwuss. It was easy enough to forget about it as I wreaked havoc in the training center for several hours, and easy enough to forget about it when I skipped dinner to go for a run, and easy enough to forget about it when I had nowhere left to go and finally came home to my dark, silent room.

All right, maybe it wasn't so easy to forget about it then.

I feel like an idiot. I don't know what the hell got into me, but he kept pushing and persisting and when I finally pushed back it was beautiful, like something had shattered inside of me and I was being stabbed a thousand times with the sharp ecstasy of that internal explosion. There was a moment when I pictured killing him, and that was the most exquisite of all, because my heart clenched painfully at the image of his lifeless, bloodied face. The agony and regret that filled me then was so swift and overpowering that I had to shove him away or risk breaking him beyond repair, and god damn it all but he made me feel something, and the taste of my own unborn sorrow was so sweet.

I didn't mean to tell him so, though. I didn't mean to threaten him out loud. I could see it in his eyes, then, that he was terrified of me. Which is unfortunate for any number of reasons, the foremost of which being that now that I've been burned anew with my own raging lifeblood, I've decided that once is not enough. I want to feel it again, my own anger and pain and delicious loosening control. And of all the people wandering around in this small floating colony of a school, he's the only one who's dared to approach me, and rouse me, and pull away my restraint. I don't care if it gets me kicked out; I want him to break me open.

Even if that means he is going to be broken, too.

(0_/0) x (^_^})

"What's this all about?"

Zell shrugged in response to Selphie's question as he walked alongside her and Irvine into Cid's office.

"I'm as clueless as you, Selph," he muttered quietly, mindful for once of the full room and the fact that they were five minutes late for their meeting.

"The announcement said 0900 hours," Quistis reprimanded crisply from her spot at the side of Cid's large desk. She normally took control of meetings when Cid proved too dithering or when Squall simply wasn't up to the task of giving a long explanation. That seemed to be the case today, seeing as the commander was slumped in a chair on the other side of Cid's desk, looking even paler than usual and rubbing his scar in a pained manner.

"Uh, our apologies, ma'am," Irvine tried, flashing the blond Instructor a charming smile that lost some of its wattage when she glared in response.

"Next time you'll be docked a rank, Mr. Kinneas. This is offense number three for you, I believe. And number two for you, Zell, in case you'd care to take note."

Both men nodded deferentially and took up spots by the door and behind the last seat, which Selphie had slipped into. She turned around and mouthed "Busted!" before sticking out her tongue and winking at both men. Irvine poked her between the shoulder blades, making her jump, and Zell just growled playfully, flashing her his sharp canines in his typically manic grin.

"Now that we can begin," Quistis said primly after clearing her throat, "I'll be conducting the meeting today since Commander Leonhart is currently suffering from a case of the flu."

No excuses were given explaining Cid's beaming silence from behind his desk, but all the highly ranked SeeDs knew who really gave orders around Garden, and it certainly wasn't the plump, bespectacled man smiling up at Quistis as he smoothed down the fuzzy wool of his vest.

"This meeting has been called to discuss two issues: firstly, a mission involving a team of missing SeeDs in western Centra, and secondly, the general opinion of the elite SeeDs on the status of Seifer Almasy."

At the mention of Seifer's name, Zell felt his mouth go dry as alarm bells went off in his head and a hot flush rose to his cheeks. Had someone seen and reported what had happened in the hallway the day before? Was Zell going to be called on to corroborate the reports and effectively remove from Garden the one man who he wanted desperately to get rid of? Or was Seifer the one man he wanted desperately to stay? And what exactly had happened yesterday? Could it be defined as assault? Could he state that he thought Seifer was in need of counseling based on one freak occurrence? What would happen if..

Zell's frantic inner monologue was interrupted when he heard his name, and as he struggled to listen he tried even harder not to panic.

"..-ell Dincht, why don't we start with you? What is your opinion on taking Seifer off of probationary status and assigning him to a mission?"

"Uhh.." Zell looked at Quistis helplessly, and she blinked back, looking a bit confused.

"I was under the impression that you intended to talk to him yesterday; did you not get a chance to speak with Seifer?"

They don't know they don't know but I don't know what the hell I'm supposed to be saying..

"Uhh, no. I mean, yeah, right! I did get a chance to talk to him, actually, yes, not for long, but we spoke."

Quistis looked positively baffled as she attempted to come to the rescue of the stammering, flustered SeeD.

"Well, let me share this with all of you, before we gather comments, then; it's been quite recently decided that Mr. Almasy has been behaving acceptably for the period of time in which he has been back at Garden, and we believe that he is ready for the responsibilities entailed in active duty. As you all know, our elite ranking is quite small, and every new member is both a blessing and a necessity."

"He's doing great!" Zell blurted out, not even aware of what he'd said until it had settled loudly into the silence of the room. At this point, Quistis raised and eyebrow at him and started to look a bit displeased.

"Would you, ah, care to elaborate on that, Zell?"

Back in the center of attention, Zell found himself wishing that he could just walk around all day with his mouth securely closed with duct tape. Except at meal times.

"Well.." oh shit oh shit oh shit, "I talked with Seifer about," sex "..uh, missions, I mean the possibility of him, ah," '..hurt me..', skin sliding wetly, coming "going! Going on missions, and he seemed to be not, opposed, uh, to the idea." Now that was just a lie. "But I agree, that he's been behaving well and doing good getting along in Garden and it would be nice if he could finally get the payoff for passing the SeeD exam and start rising in the ranks. Earn a little respect, and, yeah, that's all." Well, that last part wasn't so bad, Zell's mind consoled. Despite the reassurance, he still found himself darting glances around the room in search of any possible sort of suicide device.

Quistis made a mental note to corner Zell after the meeting and ask him what the hell he'd had for breakfast that morning, but before that she had one last question to direct at him in the context of the day's meeting.

"Do you think Seifer's mentally prepared to be assigned to missions, Zell? Can he handle that sort of stress?"

Zell wrenched his longing gaze away from an ornamental sword on the wall and found himself telling the biggest lie of all.

"Oh, yeah, he's fine. I don't think he'll have any problems."

"Well thank you, Mr. Dincht, for your input." Quistis gave him one last probing glance before turning her attention to Nida, who was sitting quietly at the front of the room.

"Nida, you've been supervising Seifer's substitute lectures. Has he been performing well? How do you rate his interactions with the cadets?"

As Nida launched into a quiet, detailed explanation of Seifer's attempts at teaching the physics of weaponry, Zell squeezed his eyes shut and prayed for death by mortification. None of his GFs seemed up to the task, however, and all he got was an elbow in the side from Irvine and a cheeky grin from Selphie as she twirled her finger next to her temple and rolled her eyes.

Zell wasn't about to disagree with Selphie calling him crazy after what he'd just said and done. Lied about Seifer's sanity, which was questionable at best; been distracted by his hormones like a fifteen year- old during an official meeting while he was making an official statement; and oh not to mention really badly lied about Seifer being sane enough to take a mission. If anyone got killed or maimed, Zell would have to take full responsibility. That is, if Seifer didn't target him first.

As Quistis collected various opinions from other SeeDs on Seifer's progress and behavior, Zell hung his head and hoped forlornly that his hasty endorsement of the former Knight wouldn't come back to bite him in the ass.

(0_/0) x (^_^})

In accordance with the laws of the universe, Zell's unthinking support of Seifer's readiness for active duty rebounded on him with amazing speed and accuracy.

Barely twenty-four hours after his appallingly bad performance at the elite SeeD meeting, Zell found himself standing by the front gates of Garden, dressed for a mission and trying not to look as gut-wrenchingly apprehensive as he felt.

The bouncing, shadowboxing, and muttered curses, he decided, were probably not helping his attempt at projecting an outer sense of calm.

Lying next to him was a small knapsack containing communications devices, electronic tags, maps, and a briefing on current conditions in Centra that he was to share with his team on the way to their drop-off point. He'd so far refrained from kicking the bag in disgust, but he had to avoid looking at it all the same because as soon as he let himself stop to think about the mission his mind wandered glumly back to the conversation he'd had with Quistis after the meeting the day before.

"Zell, can I have a word with you?" she'd called, right after she gave the order to disperse.

The tattooed SeeD had been backing furtively towards the door in the hopes of a fast and painless escape, but his Ma had always told him that no good comes to liars and dammit but karma was dealing his punishment out quick.

"What on earth was that about?" Quistis asked him as he approached the desk, trying not to shuffle his feet. Her eyebrows were nearly at her hairline in disbelief. "I thought you were going to talk to Seifer, and since no one reported any disturbances I assumed things had gone well enough."

"Ah, excuse me," Cid interjected cheerily, standing and clasping his hands in front of his round belly. "Squall and I were just leaving to discuss next year's budget, so feel free to use the office, you two."

Zell and Quistis both watched the Headmaster and the Commander leave before Zell spoke up, scratching the back of his head abashedly.

"Sorry 'bout that," he mumbled. "I didn't think you were gonna call on me to give my opinion on Seifer the day after we talked for the first time in two years."

Quistis sighed, adjusting her glasses tiredly and shaking her head.

"I'm sorry, then," she apologized, massaging her temple lightly. "I was actually informed by Squall last night that he and Cid had conferred and wanted to initiate Seifer into active duty as soon as possible. The few other SeeDs who have had contact with Seifer have all approached him in a purely professional manner, so I assumed that it would make the most sense to start the meeting with you since you seemed to be approaching him as a friend. I didn't mean to put you on the spot like that, though. Also.."

Zell was just letting his shoulders slump in relief when Quistis continued.

"We already made the team listing for the Centra mission we discussed today, and I assigned you as team leader. You'll be working with Seifer and a new SeeD, Devon Barrett. This file," she picked up a slim manila folder from the desk and proffered it to Zell, "contains further details on the mission and also reviews both Barrett and Seifer's tactical strong points and weaponry. The mission is very straightforward and a good starting point for both Barrett and Sei-.. Zell, are you listening to me?"

Zell jerked his stunned gaze up from the manila folder in his hands and nodded weakly, his mouth dry.

"Look, can you handle this assignment? I don't know what is the matter with you but you have been acting very strangely all morning. What exactly happened with Seifer?"

"I'm fine!" Zell blurted out defensively, pulling the mission file against his chest and forcing himself to calm down. If anyone had to take a mission with Seifer, he would do it, since he had been the only one at the meeting to give sure and unhesitant backing to the older man's full instatement. "Nothing happened with him, we just talked a bit, like I said, and he was a little angry but that's only to be expected after he's been overlooked for so long."

He didn't like how it was getting easier to lie in Seifer's defense with every time he did it.

After a moment's careful scrutiny, Quistis stepped back and put her hands on her hips, nodding at the file Zell was clutching in his arms.

"Well, review that today in preparation for departure tomorrow morning. You're to meet Seifer and Mr. Barrett at the front gates at 1000 hours for transport. I know this is only your second mission as team leader but I have full confidence in your abilities. Dismissed."

Zell blinked at Quistis, unmoving, and she laughed suddenly, bringing a hand up to cover her smile.

"Sorry, Zell, I fell a little to deeply into Instructor mode there. Go rest up, and I'll see you when you get back. Ok?"

"Yep!" He'd forced a smile, saluted, and walked out of the room in a daze.

And now here he was, waiting for Seifer and the kid, Barrett, who according to his file was only sixteen and fresh from passing the SeeD exam not two days before. Zell wasn't at all worried about the young SeeD's abilities, however he was just a bit preoccupied with the fact that one-third of his team was a loose cannon who would in most circles not be considered fit for any sort of active duty. Who Zell himself had recommended for said active duty in what could only be termed a state of temporary insanity.

Yes, the unfortunate irony of the situation just did not bear thinking about.

At least, Zell consoled himself, Seifer was if nothing else a professional and would behave as such during the course of a mission.. Or so he hoped.

"Good morning, sir! It's an honor to be on your team, sir!"

Zell looked up with a start to take in a stiffly saluting young man, looking nervous and eager to please in his neatly pressed SeeD uniform. Devon Barrett, Zell's mind helpfully supplied, rank 2 SeeD on his first mission; weapon of choice revolvers; and highest marks in demolitions, machinery, and combat psychology.

"Morning, Barrett," Zell replied, feeling a friendly, reassuring smile that was mostly for the kid's benefit surface through his own restless tension. "You're a little bit early," Zell continued, checking his watch. "We still have about five minutes, and knowing Almasy he's gonna sho-.."

"I'm gonna what?"

Spinning around in an entirely undignified manner, Zell stared at Seifer as he pushed himself languidly off a pillar, stepping forward and running a gloved hand through his hair.

"I believe all we have to wait for is the transport, sir," Seifer said coolly, allowing only the tiniest bit of emphasis to enter his tone as he addressed Zell formally. Zell kicked himself mentally for getting caught off guard by the tall man's arrival, and refrained from rolling his eyes at Seifer. This mission was not any sort of arena in which to be juvenile.

"All right, so we're just waiting for the transport, then," Zell conceded gruffly, picking up his knapsack and slinging it over one shoulder. "I'll brief you on the nature of the mission while we're en route, but let's just start this off friendly and use a last-name basis. There's no need to call me sir."

Barrett shifted his feet uncomfortably and shot a shy glance at Seifer, who, after his initial comment, had been blithely ignoring his team members and watching the horizon for the approaching transport ship.

"Morning, Almasy," the boy finally ventured, and Seifer turned his eyes from the bright morning ocean to give the young soldier a quick-once over. "I, uh, really enjoyed your lectures on the physics of artillery.. uh, sir."

A thin smirk touched Seifer's lips and he nodded in acknowledgment of the compliment, apparently amused by the wide-eyed looks of awe that Barrett was directing at both of the older SeeDs.

"You nervous, kid?" Seifer finally asked, actually cracking a smile. Zell gaped at both the scarred man's unprecedented show of good humor and at the easy, affable way he was interacting with the young SeeD.

"No, sir! I'm ready for some action!"

Zell had to smile genuinely himself as the lanky young man's posture snapped into a straight, formal stance that was at once brave and anxious. He reached over and patted Barrett's shoulder lightly, flashing him another grin of his own.

"Well I hate to disappoint you, in that case, but this mission's gonna be a cakewalk. We're only to find some SeeDs that have gone M.I.A. within a four-mile radius. Hopefully they're waiting for us with nothing wrong other than some broken communications equipment, but if there have been casualties, our job is just to confirm their IDs and tag them for collection. I don't think we'll be seeing much action this trip."


Seifer's wry contribution earned him another appraising glance from Zell, who was trying without much success to reconcile the fierce, disturbing Seifer he'd encountered in the hallway two days before with this morning's Seifer, who was amazingly at ease and talkative. Seifer caught the bewilderment in Zell's eyes and shook his head.

"Don't think too hard, Dincht, you might hurt yourself."

Instead of getting angry at the comment, Zell found himself laughing, an action he was sure did not fit well with the look of absolute surprise written clearly across his face. Barrett just watched the two older men silently, his stiff bearing relaxing slowly in the presence of their familiar banter.

Zell was about to comment on Seifer's apparently newfound decency when the approaching hum of their transport vessel made all three men turn their heads to the west, going silent while they tracked the movements of the small armored ship as it cut through the waves. It came neatly to a halt at the edge of Garden, and Zell nodded to the others in readiness.

"Let's go."

The three SeeDs jogged down to the ship and entered quickly, filing into the tiny inner cabin as the doors locked shut and the boat revved its engine, veering to the southwest and picking up speed. Zell walked to the low table that was attached to the wall opposite the door, pulling the maps out of his bag and spreading them out, then withdrawing and unrolling an inked transparency and laying that over the largest map of Centra. Seifer and Barrett flanked him on either side, and Zell tamped down a shiver that threatened to crawl up his spine as his nose picked up the warm scent of Seifer's body. Now was not the time.

"This," he pointed, running his index finger along a thick red line, "Is the area from which the missing team's last transmission was received. According to emergency procedure, the team is required to find shelter within four miles of their last communication, and our objective is to comb the area on foot and locate our lost SeeDs. We each get a radio transmitter," Zell withdrew the three small black units from the bag and handed one to both of his teammates, clipping his own to his belt, "That we can utilize in case we deem conditions safe enough to split up and search. Like I said before, this is a low-risk mission and I'm planning on being as efficient as possible."

"We'll be dropped off at the coast closest to the point of last contact," he indicated a bright yellow dot on the transparency. "It's apparently in the middle of some hilly terrain, but we should arrive at Centra no later than 1100 hours, giving us plenty of daylight to work with. Weather conditions are clear and cool, but there is a storm working its way over from the east. The transport will make a pass by the drop-off point at 1600 hours and another at 1800 hours, and if we don't show for either it will return for pickup in the morning. With any luck, we'll avoid both the storm and having to spend the night outside and be back to Garden before lights out. Any questions?"

Seifer picked up one of the small electronic transmitters that had fallen out of the knapsack as Zell removed the communicators and held it up to the light.

"Is this one of the tagging devices?"

"Oh, right," Zell shook out the rest of the bag's contents, sweeping the weather charts aside and gathering up the transmitters into a neat pile. "In case there are no survivors, we're to tag the bodies with these so that they can be picked up by Garden for proper burial. The signal is picked up by our communicators, and we can confirm successful tagging and even track the devices ourselves if necessary. If a tag is activated, a directional readout illuminates on this panel, acting like a compass." The tattooed SeeD unclipped his communicator and pointed at a panel on the back. "In the case that we split up and we do have to tag bodies, we can locate each other the same way."

"Why are there so many transmitters?" Seifer asked, flicking open the top of the device and pressing the small button on the inside. The tagger started beeping quietly, a bright yellow light flashing on the underside until he pressed the button again and placed the deactivated device he'd picked up back onto the pile.

"I guess they gave us extras in case we lost some; I mean, they are pretty small."

Seifer nodded in understanding, and Barrett divided the transmitters into three even piles, pocketing his share after Zell offered his approval.

"All right, then, that's it. At ease until arrival, and don't mind me if I start to jump around; I've never been able to sit still before a mission."

Barrett sat down heavily and inspected his communicator with a serious expression while Zell refolded the maps and Seifer sauntered over to another bench, rolling his share of the small heavy tagging devices in one gloved palm.

"Do you think the other team's really dead?" Barrett asked suddenly, lifting anxious brown eyes to Zell's face. Zell finished shoving the maps into his knapsack before re-clipping his communicator to his belt and putting his transmitters into an inner pocket, rolling up his sleeves as he gave the seated young man a careful shrug.

"I can't say for sure. All I know is that they went missing less than forty-eight hours ago, and that I wasn't given the impression that this was anything more than a search-and-rescue mission. I think Cid expects them to still be alive, yeah."

"..Oh." And the young man lapsed once again into a pensive silence. Seifer was staring blankly at the devices clicking together metallically in his palm, and Zell took up a spot in an open corner, stretching and giving a few experimental punches. He was dying to talk to Seifer and have the older man reassure him that their bizarre encounter had been some sort of a joke, and that this was the way Seifer normally acted, now, and that Zell hadn't been as wrong as he feared when he recommended Seifer for active duty. But he couldn't say anything he wanted to when Barrett was sitting there, still as a statue yet looking painfully alert and aware of his company.

Poor kid, Zell thought, he looks so intimidated.

One moment Seifer was playing with the taggers, and the next he was abruptly standing next to Zell, his expression unreadable and his eyes narrowed.

"Pretty professional today, aren't we, Dincht."

The statement was flat and delivered in a dark undertone that made Zell pause in his vicious assault on the close air of the cabin. He eyed the taller man suspiciously, not liking how close Seifer was standing but not wanting to move away, either. Not wanting to back down from a challenge. Yeah, that was it.

"I hope you'll do us the favor of being professional yourself, Almasy," he finally replied, after failing to come up with a suitably witty reply. In the silence that followed Zell's remark, the sharp clicking of the metal taggers in the leather-covered cradle of Seifer's palm was the sole accompaniment to the hum of the ship's engines. Darting a glance at Barrett, who had taken out his revolvers and was inspecting them closely, Zell lowered his voice even further and inclined his head towards Seifer, holding the older man's gaze with as much seriousness as he was physically capable of mustering.

"Look, I dunno what happened a couple of nights ago, but you're acting pretty.." Zell stammered for a minute as Seifer raised an eyebrow and smirked. "Uh, pretty normal now, and this mission's important for all three of us so don't.. get weird, all right?"

"Yes, sir," Seifer replied, the grin sliding off his face as his eyes went cold and he stepped away from Zell, stopping to lean against the wall by the sole small window. He stared silently out over the shifting waves, and Zell stood watching his back for several long moments until his surprise wore off. Shaking his head, the tattooed SeeD turned away from Seifer and threw a hard punch, gritting his teeth against the frustrated confusion that was sloshing about in his stomach along with nervousness over the mission and threatening to make him sick. All he needed was Seifer's cooperation for the next twelve hours. Then he could he decide whether or not he was brave enough to confront the older man about what had happened to make him act so strangely, and about what he had said to Zell in that quiet, deserted hallway.

"I want to hurt you.."

Zell had already decided that he didn't think he'd be brave enough to tell Seifer how much he'd liked it.

(0_/0) x (^_^})

If this is what most SeeD missions are like, I think I'll take the basement office job.

I've been wandering around these damn hills for over three hours, and there's not been one bit of action to be had: no monsters to kill, no corpses to ID, and certainly no signs of life, which would be ever so refreshing on this rocky, barren excuse for a continent. The area we're supposed to be searching isn't anywhere near to the old orphanage and, in fact, doesn't seem to be anywhere near to anything. It's a sorry state when I've actually started looking forward to the intermittent crackling transmissions over my communicator from Dincht and Barrett, who have had nothing to say but "just checking in, over." Those at least have provided some staticky sound to break the silence that blankets everything. Even my boots are strangely muffled as they scrape over the rocky terrain.

After we'd landed and established two rendezvous points, Zell gave the order to split up and assigned us each a different directional quadrant. He gave me the western section of our search area, and I quickly discovered that, even though the territory was marked as four miles on the map, in practice it was actually much more due to the unending hills that rose and fell all around us in a rocky sea. Scaling and descending endless crumbling cliffs and jagged valleys would have been mind-numbing enough, but now the sun is at its highest point and I've already made the motions to shrug off my trench several times, annoyed anew every time I realize that I'm not wearing it. My dark uniform is starting to stick unpleasantly to my sweaty skin, and I'm sure that I could find it somewhere in me to be grateful if fate tossed me a dragon or two to kill right now.

Instead I get another transmission from the Chickenwuss.

"It's Dincht; nothing to report. Almasy, how you doin'? Over."

How touching. He could almost sound concerned.

"Other than getting a really ugly sunburn, I'm just fine, over."

After a minute I decide to play along and make some attempt at.. cooperation, and bring my radio back up to my mouth, suddenly recalling as I do so his admonishment aboard the transport. "Don't act weird, Seifer." The little bastard. I know the difference between work and play, and I know this mission's important for all of us; especially for him, so he can prove he's a fan-fucking-tastic leader, just like our fearless Commander himself. Dammit, the Chicken didn't take my bait; why am I taking his? My urge to cooperate has abruptly fizzled into stubborn nonexistence.

"I've seen nothing but rocks and more rocks, Dincht. Are you sure we're searching the right area? Over."

There is a pause, and I stop at the crest of the low hill I've climbed to catch my breath and lick my dry lips. I finished the contents of my standard issue water canteen over an hour and a half ago, and am just now realizing how very stupid it was of me to assume that I would be at my thirstiest only an hour into this mission. In front of me rises one of the largest hills I've had to scale yet, and I squint down into the deep shifting shadows at it's base, calculating if I can get away with walking around it instead of over.

"Barrett here," the communicator chirps. "Nothing to report, over."

Starting to sidestep down the hill, a charge of adrenaline shoots through my blood as I slip and lose my balance, flailing wildly for control and shouting a curse. After a few breathless seconds, I manage to stumble to a stop and twist around to grab hold of a rocky ledge, panting and gritting my teeth against the loud, sharp protests of my right ankle. Dammit. Way to be an idiot, Seifer. Why don't you just break your leg climbing down a little pansy-ass hill on your first mission, that's great.

I test the aching joint, but it feels shaky and the best thing to do would probably be to use a Curaga. Summoning the magic to my fingertips, I cast it and breathe through clenched teeth as the strange tickling sensation of torn tendons knitting back together sends shivers up the nerves of my calf. While I wait for the spell to finish, I glance again at the base of the hill that I almost became a messy decoration for. The fall from here is at least twenty feet, complete with sharp outcroppings along the way and some deadly looking rock formations to cushion one's landing. Beyond the floor of the valley, there're some darker shadows at the very foot of the next hill, and as I lean forward to stare my radio crackles to life again. This time Zell sounds shaken, and I stand up quickly, dusting myself off.

"It's Dincht. I found their camp, but there's no one here. Everything's intact, but.." The transmission dissolves into static before he speaks up again, his voice radiating confusion. "They've got a helluva lot of equipment here; explosives, extra ammunitions.. And.."

Pushing off of the cliff face, I start down towards the deep shadows in the valley, watching every foothold with a renewed sense of caution.

"Guys, we've got a real problem. All their communications equipment is intact. Finish up with your immediate area and meet up with me at camp asap; I'm tripping one tagger so you can locate me. Watch your backs, over."

"Copy that, over," comes Barrett's response, echoing oddly over the radio waves. The kid seems to be quite smart and efficient, although I can't say that I remember him from any of the classes I taught. I think I was too busy learning the information myself to worry about whether or not my pupils were absorbing it.

Reaching the bottom of the hill, I snap the communicator off of my belt and check it to make sure Dincht's tagger is working. Sure enough, a single yellow light is blinking on the display, indicating a position to the northeast. Flicking on the 'talk' switch, I relay my message while stopping to let my eyes adjust to the intense shadows of the valley. Damn, it's dark down here.

"Just checking one more thing, be there in ten, over."

As my sun-dazzled eyes finally start to pick up shapes in the dimness, I realize with a start that the deep pools of blackness are actually caves; shallow or deep, I can't tell from where I'm standing. Moving cautiously over the uneven valley floor, I step up to the first one, spreading one hand over the low entrance and poking my head inside. It smells like cool dirt, and the rock is cold to the touch even through the thick leather of my gloves. Backing away, I walk towards the mouth of the next cave, but even from a distance my nose picks up another scent that make the hair on my forearms prickle. I know this smell. It flashes through my mind, dredging up assorted sensory associations; pain, and the memory of fear, and the grating screams of my victims as their lungs expanded onto the sharp edge of my gunblade and were torn into useless bloody bags of flesh.


It's disgustingly easy for me to swallow down the nausea and step forward, pulling out Hyperion even as I fish a small flashlight out of a pocket in my pants.

Oh, god. I swallow again, tasting bile, but godammit give me credit, it's been over two years since I last saw something this grotesque. While I was awake, anyways. Somehow the smell of rotting flesh is never quite as gut wrenching when it's part of a dream.

Pulling my radio off my belt, I force myself to not look away as I clear my throat and speak.

"Almasy here. I found one of the bodies. It's not pretty, kids. Over."

Trying not to breathe too deeply, I approach the messy pile of mangled limbs and pull a tagger out of another pocket, flipping open the thin metal cap and pressing the activation button. Slipping the softly beeping device into the blood-stiffened front pocket of the dead SeeD's uniform, it strikes me suddenly that I long ago got over my childhood fear that corpses could move and attack the living. I've seen enough death to realize its finality, and this pitiful lump of flayed skin and crushed bones does not even resemble a human any more. There aren't even eyes left to close.

I almost feel sorry for the poor bastards in Garden forensics who'll most likely have to determine a cause of death. This looks like no monster attack I've ever seen.

"..-ound a body?" Dincht's voice is strained but he's keeping his cool. Maybe the Chicken has grown up a bit since the last time I knew him, surprise, surprise. "Tag it and regroup, over."

"Already done, on my way, over."

I try not to notice how good it feels to walk away from the corpse and back into sunlit, fresh air. I'm not running. I just want to make sure I get back before Dincht finishes all of his water to make sure he saves some for me.

(0_/0) x (^_^})

Zell was pacing nervously around the perimeter of the deserted camp when Seifer came over the crest of a nearby hill at a jog, his features set in a glowering frown. Despite the forbidding expression on the other man's face, Zell felt a jolt of relief at the presence of another person, and he grinned at Seifer tightly, worry written clearly in his eyes.

"Did you see Barrett on your way over? He hasn't made it back yet and he wasn't delayed like you."

Seifer shook his head, pulling his communicator off of his belt and speaking sharply into it.

"Barrett, come in. Where the hell are you? Over."

"I already radioed him twice," Zell pointed out, chewing his lower lip anxiously.

"I know; I heard the calls," Seifer replied, starting to pace himself as Zell wrung his gloved hands before balling them into fists and bouncing up and down, taking short jabs at the air.

"He might have found another body," Seifer finally suggested, walking over to Zell and stilling his fierce movements with a restraining hand on his forearm. "The one I tagged was pretty nasty; maybe he's just taking a second to recover."

The short blond tilted his head, shaking Seifer's hand off his arm and peering up at him with narrowed eyes.

"What do you mean, 'pretty nasty'," he asked quietly, his skin looking pale under the dark ink of his tattoo.

"'Pretty nasty', as in they might not even be able to use dental records to ID him."

Zell blanched despite himself, swallowing mechanically and smacking his right fist into his left palm, hard enough to sting and distract himself from the queasiness roiling in his stomach.

"Hyne almighty, what the hell d'ya think could've done something like that? I don't know if you've noticed, but the total population of monsters in this sector is less than zero."

Seifer shrugged, his mind flashing back to a vision of smeared entrails and dismembered fingers clutching at empty air.

"Well, whatever it was, it didn't bother eating once it killed him; most everything was still there, in some form. That tells me it was human or a monster that's smarter than your average T-Rexaur."

"Dammit. This was supposed to be a simple search and rescue, damn it all. And where the hell is Barrett?"

Noticing the edge in Zell's voice, Seifer raised his communicator to his mouth again, clicking the 'talk' button and doing his best to keep his own voice steady. He hoped that the kid had found both other bodies, because spending the night camping between three piles of ground meat and whatever pulverized them into that condition was not registering on his radar as an appealing idea.

"Barrett. Report. Over."

Seifer was lowering the communicator when his gaze was caught by the blinking yellow display on the back.

"Zell, you only tripped one tagger, right?"

Zell looked up from where he was digging through a box of abandoned equipment, his face confused for a split second before comprehension dawned in his eyes. He yanked the radio off of his belt and stared at his own display; stared at the three yellow lights that were flashing silently on the readout.

"Fuck! Let's go!"

"He's not far; he's actually back in the direction I came from," Seifer offered, jogging alongside Zell as they alternated watching the rough ground and checking their progress on the radio displays. The scarred SeeD cursed as he slipped going down an incline, and Zell turned quickly to catch him, levering the tall man back into a balanced position with a surprising amount of strength. When Seifer shot him a startled look, Zell nimbly descended the rest of the hill and flashed him a wan grin.

"You big people just weren't made to climb hills," he chuckled, already scaling the next cliff face. "No balance; too far from the ground."

"Yeah, whatever," Seifer replied, slightly breathless. His ankle was throbbing in protest despite the Curaga and his heart was still racing from almost having a face-full of gravel. When he glanced ahead, the hill where he had found the first body was looming in the distance, casting a long shadow over the rocky terrain.

Ahead of Seifer on a small plateau, Zell stopped abruptly, looking puzzled. When Seifer caught up to him, he showed the older man his communicator, tapping it lightly and, when the display stayed the same, shaking it with more force.

"This says he's here. But there's nothing up here, man. Does yours have the same readout?"

Seifer frowned down at his radio, but one of the yellow lights was blinking green intermittently, signaling the presence of the tagger within ten yards.

"Well, is it on the ground somewhere?" Zell questioned rhetorically, stooping over to inspect the rocky dust. "Aw, man, we're never gonna find it if it's just lying around on th-.."

"Zell," Seifer interrupted, a sinking feeling in the pit of stomach. He stared suspiciously at the huge cave-riddled hill rising before them, afraid that he might be right.

"What? Didja find it?"

"I don't think it's up here at all." Seifer ignored Zell's puzzled glare and nodded towards the hill before them. "That's the hill with caves at the bottom where I found the body."

Zell was silent for a moment before looking at Seifer blankly, his eyebrows raised.

"Yeah, so what?"

"So I don't think the tagger's up here at all; I think Barrett's down below us."

"Belo-.. What? You think he's underground?!"

The tall man nodded again, already looking for the easiest way to descend from the plateau and scrabbling over the edge once he found a passably easy route. Zell gaped over the edge at him as Seifer shouted upwards, clutching at the rocky cliff face and refusing to look down into the shadowed, treacherous valley below.

"There're caves! That probably means there are tunnels! I'll bet you ten hotdogs he's under that plateau!"

"Now's not the time to be making stupid bets!" Zell hollered as he swung himself over the lip of the cliff. "And I'd never bet food, you idiot," he muttered to himself as he clambered down the rock wall. Reaching the bottom, he jumped the last few feet and dusted his gloves off, glowering at Seifer.

"When'd you grow a sense of humor?" Zell questioned sourly as they took off running for the base of the hill.

Seifer leaped over a tall boulder and grit his teeth when the impact of landing jarred his ankle unpleasantly.

"I've always made jokes when I'm worried," he muttered, ignoring the sharp, anxious glance Zell shot his way. An uneasy silence fell between them as they reached the first cave entrances and slowed to a walk.

"How the hell're we supposed to know which one he got in there with?" Zell snapped irritably, kicking a rock and sticking his hands in his pockets.

Seifer pulled out his flashlight and waved it in Zell's face, rolling his eyes.

"Well, we're just gonna have do it by trial and error. And you might want to get out your flashlight, unless you've been blessed by excellent night vision."

"Shut up, Seifer," Zell growled, fishing around in the numerous pockets in his uniform pants for the flashlight. His questing fingers came up empty, but when he looked down with a curse his eyes went wide and he stilled, gasping.

"What now?" Seifer demanded, walking back out of the cave he'd entered. He peered over Zell's shoulder and muttered a string of curses himself. The readout on the communicator in Zell's left hand was going crazy; at least six different yellow lights were flashing in a chaotic convergence around the tagger they had identified as Barrett's.

"Crap," Zell breathed finally. "What the hell is he doing?"

The two SeeDs took in twin sharp breaths as a tight group of three of the clustered lights separated from the rest and started moving sluggishly in their direction.

"Barrett! Do you copy? Barrett!" Seifer's urgent voice was answered by nothing but radio silence and the continued slow progress of the three taggers on the display.

"Have you found your flashlight yet, you idiot?" Seifer finally cried, giving Zell a shove on the shoulder as the tattooed SeeD stood, unmoving, transfixed by his communicator readout. Shaking his head, Zell blinked at Seifer before sticking his hand back into his pockets and finally grabbing the slender light.

"Let's go, already," he replied, his heart pounding. He didn't like the radio silence, or the fact that Barrett was inside the caves where Seifer had found the first SeeD corpse. And he didn't at all like the sharp cloying smell of death that flooded his nose as they ducked into the looming cave.

"Sweet Hyne, what the hell is in here?" Zell gasped, burying his nose and mouth in the crook of his elbow as he and Seifer ran through the pitch- black cave, their flashlights tracing hectic patterns of light along the sandy floor and smooth, damp walls. They skidded to a stop as Zell's question was answered by a sudden flash of red and ivory on the right of the narrow cave that caught the beam of Seifer's flashlight.

Approaching the crumpled form slowly, Zell gagged and had to look away as the light brought into sharp relief a gutted, torn human frame, the skull crushed and spilling thick gore onto a tangled fall of dark hair. Seifer paused momentarily to force down the vomit burning his trachea before activating a tagger and slipping it under the corpse's ripped shirt, carefully avoiding the trailing looped intestines as he drew his shaking hand away. He never had been able to cope well with female victims.

"Oh, fuck," Zell panted, giving in to the urge and spilling the contents of his stomach onto the sandy floor of the cave, coughing desperately to clear his throat. Seifer drew away from the corpse, taking his light with him, and shined it on Zell's pale face instead.

"You ok?" he offered solemnly, pulling Zell's water canteen off his belt and uncapping it before proffering it to the trembling man. Zell accepted the bottle and straightened slowly, rising out his mouth and spitting to the side.

"We've gotta find Barrett. We've gotta find him now."

Seifer nodded in agreement, moving his light off of Zell and directing it down the tunnel before checking his communicator.

"Well, the good news is that he should be just ahead, but the bad news is that he's stopped moving."

"Oh no," Zell whispered, breaking into a run and wheezing over his nausea. They ran on for several minutes until a strangled, voiceless choking sound echoed out of the shadows and made them both freeze, then take the next corner at a sprint. Their lights fell onto a collapsed, slowly writhing form, surrounded by a scattering of shining metallic taggers.

"Barrett!" Zell shouted, racing up to the fallen SeeD and throwing himself to his knees beside him. The boy was still breathing, but that in itself was a miracle; Zell reached out with trembling fingers to hover over the gaping hole in Barrett's chest, calling up a Curaga even as he stared in horror at the weak fluttering pulses of the boy's exposed lungs against his shattered ribcage.

Barrett was staring blindly at the ceiling, his feeble struggling slowing as he showed no sign of being aware of Seifer or Zell as the two men crouched over his body, calling up every cure they had stocked. They had only had time to cast one each when the young SeeD took in a strained, sucking breath and then stilled, his eyes going wide and glassy.

Zell stuffed his knuckles into his mouth and bit down on the leather, choking back a cry. Frowning, Seifer cast scan on the body, and his expression registered utter shock as he took in the huge amount of magic that had been cast upon the fallen soldier. Poison, Blind, Silence, Confuse and even Berserk showed up on the scan, and there were several bullets in the boy's body, concentrated in his lower legs and feet. Almost as if he'd shot himself. There was something else ..strange.. but the scan faded out before Seifer could pinpoint the anomaly.

"What the hell?.." Seifer breathed, sitting back on his haunches. He stared at the body and at Zell's frantic attempts to keep casting Curagas, and it was only when he reached down to wipe sweaty palms on his pants that he noticed that the lights on his communicator, which he'd dropped to the floor, were moving again.


The tattooed SeeD was nearly crying in frustration as none of the Curagas he kept raining down onto Barrett seemed to be having any effect. He didn't even look up at Seifer's sharp voice.

"Zell! Goddammit, Dincht!"

Seifer grabbed Zell's arm as he was preparing to cast another Curaga, shaking him and shoving his face into Zell's.

"The lights." Seifer held up his communicator display, checking to make sure that Zell did indeed see that a few taggers were on the move again. And headed straight for them.

"We've got to get the hell out of here," Seifer continued, feeling for Barrett's pulse and, as expected, finding nothing. "Whatever the hell is down here killed four SeeDs and mauled them beyond recognition, not to mention took Barrett out with a heavy dose of status ailments after it ripped a hole in his chest. The two of us alone is not going to be good enough. Let's go."

"What about Barrett?" Zell questioned stonily, staying stubbornly in place over the fallen SeeD.

"Leave him," Seifer offered simply.

"What?!? Are you saying you don't care if he lives or dies?!"

"He's already dead, Zell," Seifer replied, standing and drawing his fingers away from the fallen SeeD's blood-smeared throat. His mind was elsewhere as he watched the lights on the communicator readout draw closer with disturbing speed.

"Aw, shit.." Zell moaned despairingly, looking at Barrett's unmoving body with pained, horrified eyes. "You don't have any Phoenix on you? Tent? Nothing?"

"Whatever the hell is in here, Dincht, it's getting to us fast," Seifer stated, ignoring the desperation written clearly on his partner's face. "Let's get out of these goddamn caves and back to shore for the transport."

"Seifer! What the hell's wrong with you?! We've gotta save him!"

"He's already dead, Zell, so calm down. Now let's go."

Seifer kept his light away from the tunnel Barrett had run down and felt a thin thread of apprehension trail through his veins as the hollow, loping sound of feet approaching echoed out of the darkness. It was too bad about Barrett, but he and Zell were still alive and that was a condition he felt worth preserving. He was about to draw Hyperion and run when a strong hand grabbed him roughly by the shoulder and he was spun around to meet Zell's furious gaze.

"We can't leave him here! There must be something.." Zell's eyes widened in complete disbelief as he took in the stern, uninterested expression on Seifer's face. "Don't you even care?!"

"He's dead. We're not. I don't remember how to care about things that don't matter." Seifer replied, shrugging off Zell's hand easily as the smaller man let his grip slacken in pure astonishment. The tall man took off, sprinting down the narrow cave towards the exit and leaving Zell behind to stare vacantly between his departing team member and his wounded comrade. No, not wounded, dead, his mind corrected him, and he knelt to gently close the young man's staring eyes before the sound of swiftly approaching footsteps hit his ears and made his hair stand on end.


Zell stood shakily and cast one terrified look at the echoing darkness before taking off after Seifer, his heart in his throat and hot adrenaline pumping through his legs with every swift movement. He was too busy remembering how to breathe to give much thought to Seifer's words, but they rang in his mind all the same.

"I don't remember how to care about things that don't matter."

Zell let out a horrified yelp as he took a corner too swiftly and ended up slipping on the slippery, rotting innards of the brutalized corpse, sliding to his hands and knees and dropping his flashlight, which skittered across the sandy floor to hit the opposite wall with a tiny crunch and flicker out.


Blinded, Zell scrambled out of the reeking mess he'd fallen into and stuck a hand out, finding the damp wall of the cave and running alongside it. He could feel the skin tearing off his fingertips but gave the sharp little pains no thought as the sound of ragged breaths drifted out of the cave behind him. Then up ahead was blessed light and Seifer's tall form filling the cave mouth and he was suddenly breathing fresh air and finding new strength as Seifer cast Haste on him and they flung themselves desperately into climbing the cliff face.

Zell didn't have time to think or breathe again until he and Seifer were standing on the rocky shore, exhausted and dripping sweat and watching the blessedly familiar form of their transport ship approaching on the horizon.

(0_/0) x (^_^})

The only sound inside the transport was the mechanical humming of the ship's engine. Seifer was reclining on one of the benches that lined the walls, while Zell paced back and forth at the rear of the small cabin, clenching and unclenching his bloodied fists, clenching and unclenching his jaw, and straining every muscle in his body in an attempt to contain the emotions boiling in his blood. He was nervous, angry, frustrated, exhausted, and guilty to the point of being physically ill. He'd never been on a mission where a team member was lost, and on one of the rare occasions where he was team leader, they'd lost a SeeD, a new SeeD at that, barely sixteen and heart-wrenchingly young as he stared up glassily at the dark, dripping ceiling of those terrifying caves, taking in his last pained breaths, his blood staining his mission uniform, worn for the first time, staining the sandy floor around his body, staining Zell's hands, his trembling hands, his goddamn worthless hands that hadn't been able to save the boy. Barrett was dead.


Seifer cracked open his eyes at the broken sob, tilting his head covertly just in time to see Zell collapse to his knees against the metal wall of the transport, biting his lip so hard that a thin trickle of blood slid down his chin to mingle in thready crimson streams with the tears running down his cheeks. The tattooed SeeD's eyes were screwed shut, and he threw his head back violently, not even wincing when his skull struck the wall with a clang. Breathing hard, Zell blindly tore at the fastenings of his gloves and hurled them against the opposite wall, bringing his bared hands up to his face and cradling his head with trembling fingers.

Seifer sat up slowly, his body aching with exertion and something stirring in the pit of his stomach, awakened by stress and danger and the hot pumping of his own blood. Overlaying the dark seething sensation was an unpleasant sort of discomfort that tugged at his mind at the sight of Zell curled up and weeping. He had no idea what to say in the face of the smaller man's flooding grief, and so he sat, silently, watching the painful shudders that wracked Zell's hunched shoulders.

After a few moments, Zell gulped in a shaky breath and visibly started to struggle for composure, wiping roughly at his eyes with the heels of his hands. The gesture was touchingly childlike, but Seifer only waited, unmoved, until Zell blinked and raised reddened, puffy eyes to meet Seifer's own in a defiant glare that didn't fully mask the lost look underneath.

"Well, go on and say it," Zell finally managed, his voice hoarse and sharp. "Go on and give your best insult about this, 'cause you couldn't possibly make me feel any worse right now."

Seifer returned Zell's gaze mildly, finding it easier to watch Zell's anger than his pain.

"We tagged two of three bodies and ID'd where the threat is located. We completed our mission to the best of our ability. You did your job, Zell; that's what's important."

Tear-stained eyes stared back at Seifer as Zell tried unsuccessfully to digest the utter lack of emotion in Seifer's voice.

"We lost a SeeD. I was team leader and Barrett got killed. I don't give one fuck about the mission right now. That kid," He stopped, drawing in a deep breath and swallowing the rising bile in his throat. "That kid was.. My responsibility. And I.. You.."

Zell's face twisted into a snarl at Seifer's unfazed expression.

"..You don't give one fuck about this!! What the hell's the matter with you, you stupid son of a bitch!? How can you not care that we lost a team member, a child, for chrissakes?"

Suddenly Zell was up and in front of Seifer, fisting his hands in the cool stiff leather of Seifer's collar and shaking the seated man with fury sparking in his eyes.

"Say something!! Say anything, damn you! How can you sit there and feel nothing over this? What the hell happened to you? Fuck!"

Wild-eyed and reckless, Zell pulled back his right hand and threw a punch, connecting with Seifer's high cheekbone with a sickening meaty crack. The impact jarred the older man out of his unresponsive cool, and he rebounded from the blow and stood in one fluid, sinuous motion, his arm following the momentum of his body to grip Zell firmly by the throat and slam him against the opposite wall. The lip of the bench hit Zell squarely in the back of the knees and he lost his footing, scrabbling his feet for purchase as Seifer pinned him in a chokehold and thrust his face into Zell's.

"I warned you not to mess with me, Dincht." Seifer's eyes were a turmoil of heat and hunger, the same crazed look that Zell remembered so clearly from their encounter in the hallway.

Zell gasped for breath, his vision going dark red around the edges as Seifer maintained his punishing hold around the struggling man's throat.

"I told you that I wanted to hurt you and when you give me the chance like this I'll have nothing to say but that you asked for it." Seifer licked his lips, wanting to bite hot flesh or tongue the cooling blood off of Zell's chin. Instead he leaned in and sniffed delicately at the skin behind Zell's ear, smelling sweat and heat and fear. It made his stomach clench again, the dark feeling intensifying, but this time the want was tinged with something different. He had no time to consider that difference, however, as Zell's voice gasped weakly in his ear, sounding strained and panicked.

"..can't.. Breathe! Seifer, ..stop.."

Pulling back, Seifer saw the livid purple hue of Zell's face and unclenched his hand, dropping Zell to the ground unceremoniously and turning away. Zell hit the ground hard, panting desperately and groaning through clenched teeth as fresh oxygen burned its way into his starving, throbbing lungs. After a dizzy moment when the world started to tilt dangerously, he regained his balance and pushed himself up onto aching hands and knees, crouching defensively and watching Seifer with suspicious rage glittering in his eyes. Seifer merely sat down in his previous spot and leaned his head back against the wall, breathing deeply and wrestling with the beast that had escaped the pit of his stomach and was howling for blood and tensed muscles and hoarse cries. The light in Zell's eyes dimmed slowly, until he forced his muscles to relax and dropped weakly back to lean against the bench.

"Seifer.." he started, his voice exhausted and full of quiet resignation. "I.. I don't understand what you want. I don't.."

"You make me feel too much," Seifer interrupted, his eyes closed and an indefinable expression on his face. It could have been pain, or it could have been restraint. Zell found it impossible to tear his gaze away.

"I haven't been able to feel anything for so long, but you.. You wake something up inside me, with your anger, and your.. pain, and the way you.." Seifer stopped, taking a deep breath and swallowing thickly. "You can somehow make me angry, and that makes me hungry because the anger's hot and tempting and it's so hard to stop once I get too close to you, and.."

The tall man opened his eyes to see Zell staring at him with an expression of horrified fascination that, in any other circumstance, would have been extremely amusing. As it was, he had to fight off a grin that rose absurdly through his deadly seriousness.

"..And you think I'm crazy."

Zell blinked at that, and nodded in agreement, confused shock mingling with a faint feeling of hope bubbling up in his chest and escaping him in a strangled laugh.

"You are fucking nuts, Seifer. But somehow.. I'm not scared of you anymore." Zell managed a weak smile, rubbing his bruised throat gingerly. "Even if you are a first-class psycho."

He winced as his fingers massaged a particularly deep bruise, and Seifer noticed and sat forward, resting his elbows on his knees and peering closely into Zell's face.

"I meant to do that, you know," he said lowly, nodding at Zell's abused flesh. The tattooed man stopped his ministrations and frowned at Seifer narrowly, feeling the crushing weight of fatigue and the burden of Barrett's death swamp over him again as the crackling tension dissipated from the air and his pulse thundered slowly back to normal.

"What the hell is that supposed to mean." Zell's voice was quiet and subdued, lacking any sort of venom to fuel his words.

"It means that just because you aren't afraid of me doesn't mean that you shouldn't be."

"Seifer.." Utterly drained of the energy he needed to wrap his mind around that statement, Zell levered his aching body slowly onto the bench behind him and lay down, closing his eyes. He sighed gustily and threw an arm over his eyes to block out the harsh glare of the fluorescent lights on the ceiling.

"Could you wake me up before we get there, 'cause I feel like I'm gonna pass out and I don't wanna get docked a rank for sleeping on a mission."

There was silence, and Zell turned his head and lifted his arm away to peer at the other man in annoyance.


"..Yeah, ok," came the distracted agreement. Zell covered his eyes once more and sighed, sleep finding him with blessed speed. On the opposite bench, Seifer watched the gentle rise and fall of the reclining SeeD's chest and wondered at the new thread of wanting that pierced him, sweetly, at the recollection of the scent of Zell's skin.

(0_/0) x (^_^})

Quistis was waiting for them, tight-lipped and pale as she stood at the top of the stairs by the gates. The pair of them made a sorry sight as they labored slowly up the steps; Seifer's uniform was covered in dirt and ripped in several places from the numerous falls he'd had during their panicked flight to the pickup point on the shore, and Zell's hands and much of the front of his clothing were smeared with dried, caking blood and other clotted splotches of filth. The angry bruise on Seifer's cheek did nothing to improve his appearance, and the collar of Zell's uniform was not quite high enough to hide the finger-shaped marks ringing his throat. Her hands on her hips, Quistis gave a quiet sigh as they stopped in front of her and saluted.

"Squall and Cid want a debriefing immediately. I'm afraid you don't have time to clean yourselves up."

She turned and entered Garden, with Zell and Seifer close on her heels. Their walk to the Headmaster's office was silent; Quistis, having received their transmission from the transport, already knew about the situation and refrained from asking any questions.

Squall was leaning on Cid's desk as they entered the room, still looking sickly and over-stressed. Cid stood as they entered, nodding to both of them kindly and running his hands reflexively over the front of his vest before sitting once again.

"Gentlemen," Squall started, pressing his fingers to the scar between his eyes. "We received an abbreviated version of what happened from Quistis, but if you could please elaborate."

Zell glanced at Seifer, who lifted his chin towards the Commander silently. The tattooed blond took the hint and stepped forward, relating in a hoarse, tired voice the events of the day, from the initial search procedures to the discovery of Barrett's corpse and their narrow escape. Seifer only interjected a few times to detail what he had observed. When Zell was done, he stepped back to stand next to Seifer, resisting the urge to hang his head in shame.

"Well, you certainly did the best you could," Cid finally spoke up, breaking the stunned silence that had followed Zell's pained account. "It was the right decision to abort the mission, and I'm sorry to hear about the loss of your teammate."

"I'm glad you decided to leave when you did," Squall said quietly, giving both bedraggled men a steady look of approval. "It would have been a shame to lose any more SeeDs to whatever's down there, especially.. two, of our best."

Seifer caught the uncertain compliment but met Squall's gaze unflinchingly. Zell only stared at the Commander, his blue eyes wide and disbelieving.

"I take full responsibility for Barrett's death, sir," Zell protested, stepping forward once again. "It is inexcusable to have lost a member of my team, sir."

"Oh, Zell, don't be foolish. Every SeeD goes into a mission situation prepared for the worst." Quistis folded her arms over her chest and fixed Zell with a stern look. "Barrett's death is unfortunate, but now we will be better prepared to take on whatever it is that is preying on people down there."

"Why was the original team sent to Centra?" Seifer asked, breaking his silence. "And what were they doing with so much equipment?"

"That's classified information, Seifer," Squall replied evenly, walking up to Zell and patting his shoulder awkwardly. "Quistis is right, Zell. You may have been team leader but one can hardly say Barrett's death was your fault."

Zell stiffened under the touch, not quite able to shake the guilt that battered his mind every time the image of the dying, ravaged young SeeD flashed behind his eyes.

"Classified information?" Seifer's voice was incredulous as he refused to be ignored. "With all due respect, Commander, I think we deserve to know what nearly got us killed down there."

"Seifer, you and Zell look extremely exhausted, and quite rightly," Cid interjected, standing again behind his desk. "Why don't you both get back to your rooms and rest. Due to the strenuous nature of the mission, I'm granting you both exemption from duty for the next three days."

Seifer only hesitated a moment more before nodding in acceptance of Cid's unspoken refusal and turning to leave the room. As the stress of the day faded and the remembrance of Zell's pulse hot and strong under his hand burned slowly out of his mind, he was finding it easier to settle back into the cold complicity that he had displayed for his past two years at Garden. It was easy, almost too easy, then, to walk away and leave the office, heading for the warm oblivion of a long, steamy shower.

Zell, left behind to cringe under three sympathetic gazes, squared his shoulders valiantly and saluted a final time, turning away and exiting the office before any more of their well-meant words could pummel his aching heart.

(0_/0) x (^_^})

Shaking the sweat from his eyes, Zell backed up a step before throwing his body at the punching bag once more, heedless of the screaming want in his lungs for air and relishing each cracking impact of his bruised, bleeding knuckles on the leather.

"This isn't pain," he growled through clenched teeth, executing a perfect roundhouse kick and only staggering a little as he regained his balance. "You gonna wuss out now, 'cause of a little blood? Huh?"

When he struck the bag again, savagely, he felt something snap in his right hand, and he swallowed the high whine of agony that pressed at the back of his tongue.

"Shut up!" Zell yelled at himself, taking a wild swing with his left. "Just shut the hell up, you fucking wimp!"

Kicking out again, he started to unclench his right fist and nearly passed out from the wave of pain that shot through his arm as loose splintered bones ground together. Gasping, he lost his balance entirely and fell forward against the bag, clutching at it with his good hand and burying his face in the familiar smell of worn leather and his own pungent sweat and blood, some old and some fresh. He wasn't sure when his ragged, sobbing breaths turned into real wrenching sobs but suddenly he was crying unstoppably and clinging to the warm leather bag, feeling it swing slightly as his body was wracked with grief. It had been a long time since he had taken on his bag gloveless, needing to prove something to himself; needing to lose part of his restraint; needing a release so pure and total that it was only achievable through intense physical pain.

"God dammit," Zell choked out, feeling anguish and guilt and regret flowing from his body in great burning waves, tasting the salt of his tears and his sweat as they mingled on his tongue. "God dammit."

And then his voice was fading into a whimper and his tears were ebbing and his mind cleared enough to tell him that his broken finger hurt really fucking bad.

Wiping his left hand across his nose, Zell sniffled and summoned up a Curaga, only to find that he had completely emptied his stock out onto the unresponsive body of Devon Barrett. Dammit. Damn it all.

Biting his lip against the stinging pain, the short blond walked across the room to his phone, lifting it clumsily with his left hand and cradling it between his ear and shoulder as he dialed Selphie's room. Before it had even rung once, however, he hit the disconnect button and stood still for a moment, weighing his options. If he called Selphie or Irvine, he'd have to explain why he was so upset in the first place, a task that he was most assuredly not up to at the moment. If he called Squall.. He'd never call the Commander to come fix him up, much less see him red-faced and crying. Quistis was his last choice.. Or he could always bite the bullet and call Seifer. Hell, the man had already seen him break down once that day and refrained from comment. His mind made up, Zell dialed the Garden operator.

"Seifer Almasy's room, please."

There were a few seconds of whirring silence, and then the phone started to ring. And ring. And ring. Zell was just about to hang up when Seifer answered, sounding breathless.

"Almasy speaking."


"Who is this?"

"Seifer, it's Zell. Look, I used up all my Curagas today and I need you to come fix my hand."

"Why don't you just go to the infirmary, Chicken?"

Zell blinked, caught totally off guard by the cold disinterest in Seifer's tone.

"You know what, fuck you, Seifer. Forget I even called, you s-.."

"I was just kidding, Zell. I'll be over in a minute. What's your room number, already."

The insult dying on his lips, Zell blinked again and then found his voice.

"Uh, 86."

"Be there in a sec."

The line went dead, and Zell was still staring in shock at the beeping receiver when there was a knock at the door. He opened it to find Seifer leaning there, freshly showered and looking oddly unthreatening in jeans and a tee shirt, his wet hair gleaming in the bright lights of the hallway.

"Hyne, look at you, Chickenwuss. What the hell did you do to yourself?"

"Don't give me shit, Seifer," Zell snapped back, stepping aside to let the other man into his room and closing the door. "I called you because you already know what happened today and I don't wanna have to justify myself right now."

"Fine," Seifer acquiesced, actually looking mildly offended. "Now what did you say you need a Curaga for? Your hands?"

"Yeah, I think I broke one of my fingers," Zell said, lifting his hand up and holding it out for Seifer's inspection. Now that it had been a few minutes, his bleeding knuckles had begun to swell, and the base of his middle finger was fat with blood and bent stiffly at an odd angle.

"That must hurt like a bitch," Seifer stated blandly, summoning a Curaga and casting it on Zell's abused hand. The tattooed man shivered as the healing magic raced with tingling coolness through his throbbing fingers, setting bones straight and smoothing over the cracks.

As the magic took effect, Seifer glanced behind Zell and took in the still swinging punching bag, his eyes widening.

"You were training without gloves? What the hell were you thinking?"

Zell glanced up sharply, a scathing retort on his lips, but Seifer wasn't finished.

"Your hands are your weapons, you idiot. That's like me taking Hyperion to a bunch of rocks and trying to chip the blade."

"..Shut up, Seifer."

That hadn't been what Zell meant to say, but his angry defensiveness was melting away as the truth in Seifer's words swept through the tired expanse of his mind. Suddenly all he wanted to do was sleep; sleep forever and then some until he could wake up and not feel Barrett's blood coating his hands with a sick, heavy weight.

Seifer stood silently, watching Zell fight fatigue and lose the battle, pain and grief and pure exhaustion clouding the small man's downcast eyes. He fought down the sudden ridiculous urge to take Zell's defeated face in his hands and offer comfort. He hadn't come here to try to engage Zell in his little game, not when they were both so tired and defenseless. Not when Zell's vulnerability was making him feel so soft himself. But Seifer couldn't quite tear himself away, not yet.

"How can you feel everything so strongly?" he finally whispered, denying even as he spoke that his voice was tinged with faint awe.

Zell looked up, startled by the question, and narrowed his eyes at Seifer, trying to figure out what the older man was getting at.


There was a moment's silence before Seifer tried again, wrinkling his brow as he attempted to put into words the question that fluttered elusively in his brain whenever he watched Zell feel all that he himself could not.

"When you laugh, you are actually laughing. When you cry you cry with every fiber of your body strumming with grief. I can't cry," and it was true; even during his confession, there was only the barest hint of pain in Seifer's steady blue-green eyes. "I can't feel anything; not pain or fear or joy. Today, in those caves, I could feel my heart pounding and energy running through me, and I could feel a faint sort of failure when Barrett stopped breathing, and I could feel my breath catch when you weren't right behind me when I made it out. But I didn't actually feel anything until you hit me, and then it was all there, the whole day's worth of belated feeling spilling up out of me and I couldn't see or breathe or think except to know that hurting you would make the feelings last longer. Do you see why I did it?"

He reached hesitant fingers out to lightly trace the purpling bruises ringing Zell's throat, swallowing a thin stream of wanting as the smaller man shivered under the touch.

"I wanted to hurt you, so I could feel your pain."

Breathing shallowly, Zell stared up into Seifer's eyes, searching for what he hoped to find in those endless deep pupils but finding nothing but a distant sort of confessional honesty. After a few long seconds of silence he inhaled deeply and stepped away from Seifer, suddenly acutely aware of the fact that the sweat cooling on his naked torso was making his skin tingle pleasantly. Zell crossed his arms over his chest to conceal his hardened nipples and smiled at Seifer guardedly, feeling a bitter pang of regret as he moved away from the older man's oddly gentle touch.

"I can't tell you that I understand, but like I said before, I'm not scared of you. If you.." and his voice hitched, almost imperceptibly, "..want something, Seifer, you should just ask me."

For a moment Seifer looked confused, but he shook his head and the look was gone, replaced by a placid civility that had Zell doubting he'd ever seen something close to longing in those dark eyes.

"Well, I'm beat. Thanks for the Curaga," Zell said, moving to the door and opening it. "I'll probably see you around tomorrow since we're both off- duty."

Seifer didn't hesitate on his way out, feeling slightly off-balance but concealing it well under the mask of calm reserve he'd grown accustomed to wearing over the past two years. Did he want something from Zell, other than the rushing tide of emotions that the other man managed to let loose? What was Dincht offering, exactly?

He wasn't sure, but as Zell's quiet goodnight echoed in the still air of the hallway, Seifer realized that the offer itself had left something inside of him stirring with impatient hunger, crying to be let out.

(0_/0) x (^_^})

I've been wanting to talk to the Chicken all morning, but he wasn't in any of the places where I expected to find him. I lingered in the cafeteria at breakfast, did four rounds of the training center, and even made it halfway to his dorm room before stopping myself.

Since I left his room last night, the inexplicable urge to find him has been prowling around inside me, nudging me into a state of near-agitation. Last night, I had the first bloodless dream that I can remember since my mind was held by Ultimecia; a dream filled with Zell's blue eyes and his voice murmuring things that fired my blood until I wanted to scratch off my own skin just to touch him more closely.

I don't want to think about this; I don't want to think any more about him.

I don't want to forget the way his hooded eyes made me twist achingly between my sheets.

With no classes to teach and having already trained for over two hours, I decide to have a shower and then head to the library. I finished the last stack of novels I checked out over a week ago, and sometimes the subtle distraction of a book is all that can anchor my mind when it starts to drift into uncomfortable places. Places of memory and the sweet sensory afterimages of pleasure. Damnable places.

I don't want to forget.

Cursing, I unlock my door and strip efficiently, taking a Spartan shower and throwing on clothes before grabbing my borrowed books and escaping from the silence of my room into the bright, crowded hallway. Classes start up again in about ten minutes, and the dorm hallways are crawling with cadets rushing back to their rooms for forgotten texts and homework. It all makes me faintly pleased that I finally graduated to SeeD.

I move through the crush towards the library, stepping through the sliding doors into another kind of quiet. This one is hushed but not voiceless, filled with low whispers that tickle the ears and leave my brain awash with a buzzing, soothing calm; a quiet filled with the soft crisp rustle of countless pages and the comforting scent of cultivated dust. Breathing deeply, I deposit the books into the return bin and turn to the stacks, calculating where I left off.

..I think it was at fiction authors starting with "L".

Decided, I start towards the fiction stacks when a short figure kneeling in the research row catches my eye. Well, well, well. If it's not the little Chickenwuss, being studious. I have to admit I'm surprised.

Walking up behind him, I lift my foot and nudge him in the ribs in an attempt to draw my eyes away from the supple curve of his spine. With a grunt of surprise he topples sideways, and the tremor that runs through me as he sprawls on the floor makes me grit my teeth in frustration. If hitting him will make this strange tension stop, I'll do it, again and again until he can't even open those damnably blue eyes of his.

"Wha-!? Hey, what the hell is your pro-.." His voice trails off as our eyes meet briefly and his mouth closes with an audible snap. When he speaks again it is in a low tone appropriate for the surroundings.

"What's the big idea, man? What are you doing here?"

"Looking for you," I want to say, but instead I crouch down next to him and flip up the cover of the book he's got out.

"What are you reading? I didn't even know you could, Chicken."

"Shut up," he mutters, snatching the book back and pulling it to his chest.

"The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Monsters, huh? Well, at least it's a picture book, Zell. You might get half of it."

"Honestly, don't you have something better to do than bother me? I'm busy." His eyes flash at me in annoyance, and I glance away to see a small stack of books on the other side of him, toppled over from when he fell on top of them.

"What's up with the monster obsession, huh?" Seeing his expression harden, I raise my hands innocently, shrugging. "Humor me, and I'll leave you alone."

He sighs heavily before setting down the Encyclopedia and rubbing his hands over his face tiredly.

"I've been here for five fricken hours, and I've found nothing," he mumbles, his voice muffled by his hands. "I've been going through monster studies, trying to find something that is capable of doing what we saw in Centra, as well as possessing the ability to cast so many status ailments. But so far, all I've done is rule out about fifteen potential candidates."

I can feel my eyebrows rising in surprise; I honestly never knew Dincht had the kind of single-minded capacity needed to concentrate for so long. He always seems so.. scattered.

"Anyways," he sighs gustily, running a hand through his stiff bangs. "I'm gonna take a break soon and get some food; I missed breakfast this morning, and I'm starving."

He looks up at me suddenly and grins, and I batter down the urge to smack him. He looks too appealing, smiling that open, easy smile.

"Wanna go grab lunch?"

But I'm already shaking my head, pushing myself to my feet and turning away from the disappointment that flashes quick as lightning through his eyes, already gone when I look back and smirk.

"Already ate, but if you want to spar, I'll be in the training center tonight after dinner."

He hesitates for a moment, then nods, collecting his thick books and standing as well.

"I'm gonna put these on reserve. I guess I'll see you tonight, then, if I feel like some fighting."

I continue smirking as he walks past me towards the counter, my hands already twitching in anticipation of the feel of his sleek corded muscles against my fists. Finally. He'll finally fight me tonight. Every drop of blood he spills will make me feel more, and in a blinding rushing climax we'll collapse together, him from exhaustion and me from a beautiful overload of sensation, lying panting in tandem on the hard-packed earth..

I can just picture it now.

(0_/0) x (^_^})

"Headmaster Cid! Is Squall in, sir?"

The startled Headmaster raised his head as Zell came flying into his office, breathless and clutching an armful of books and papers to his heaving chest.

"Uh, no, he's in a meeting with some.. Ah, never mind that," Cid trailed off, fiddling with his glasses before setting down the file he was reading and smiling at Zell helpfully. "Perhaps it's something that I can help you with?"

Zell's eager expression faltered a bit, but he only took a deep breath and walked up to Cid's desk, setting down the stack of materials he had been carrying and grinning at the portly Headmaster.

"Well, sir, I've been doing some research on what kind of monster might have been behind the attacks on our SeeDs in Centra, and I've narrowed it down to only one possible type of monster, sir, and yeah, some things don't fit but I think it might be possible that the monster was working for people, yeah, in league together or something!" Zell exclaimed, not even pausing for breath as Cid stared at him, flabbergasted. "Working for people who came in and finished the job, or were behind the boosted status ailment attacks and the positioning of the creature, telling it where to go and what to hit."

Gulping in air, Zell took a second to flip open a large book, finding the page he'd bookmarked and shoving it under Cid's nose.

"It's a Gerogero, sir." Zell finished, his voice heavy with certainty. "The same species as that thing that impersonated former Galbadian President Deling."

Cid just blinked down at the book, then blinked up at Zell, apparently struck dumb by the tattooed SeeD's frenetic speech. Panting lightly, Zell watched Cid with expectant avidness, and the sudden soft clapping from the door caught them both by surprise, making them jump.

Whirling around, Zell's mouth dropped open in shock at the sight of Squall leaning against the doorframe and bringing his gloved hands together in quiet applause. Smiling ever so slightly at Zell's odd expression of stunned panic, the Commander pushed himself off the wall and stepped into the room, closing the door behind him before walking up to stand next to Zell.

"Very excellent job, Zell," Squall finally said, dropping a manila file folder onto Cid's desk and crossing his arms over his chest. He looked a bit healthier than he had the day before and his face had regained some of its color, but the scar between his eyebrows was wrinkled with a frown line and his eyes were steely. Turning to address Cid, Squall indicated the folder he'd dropped on the desk.

"Galbadia Garden confirmed the mission results, Cid." Cid's face abruptly took on an angry scowl, an expression that looked out of place on the normally cheerful man's features.

"And I think since Zell here," Squall continued, gesturing at the still- gaping SeeD, "figured out half of the puzzle on his own, he deserves to know what is going on."

"Well, whatever you think is best, Squall," Cid conceded immediately, opening the folder the Commander had tossed down and flipping through the loose papers within, his mouth set in a grim line.

"Uh, Squall? What the hell's going on?"

The Commander pulled a chair over and indicated that Zell sit down. The tattooed man complied and Squall himself leaned against Cid's desk before starting to speak.

"I just finished a phone conference with the SeeD Commander at Galbadia Garden. The conference was in reference to your mission to Centra, and also the previous mission before yours, whose SeeDs, as you saw, were brutally murdered."

Zell paled, balling his hands into fists and trying unsuccessfully to tamp down the anger that rose hotly behind his eyes.

"Galbadia G? Did they have something to do with what happened in Centra?" He couldn't believe that fellow SeeDs would conspire to do harm to Balamb's soldiers.

The hard, cold light in Squall's eyes intensified, and he ran a hand over his scar irritably.

"Unfortunately, they did. Zell, I'm assuming that you know this is all classified information, but I'm going to remind you again."

"Yes, sir," Zell replied quickly, still seeing red. How could they, he growled to himself, those Galbadian bastards..

"When you guessed, quite rightly, that the monster you nearly encountered in the caves was a Gerogero, you also realized that a Gerogero, by itself, lacks the capacity to inflict part of the damage the SeeD casualties sustained and would need some other kind of support. However, it wasn't, as you suggested, that people were directly controlling the Gerogero; we have information suggesting that the monster you encountered was a genetically altered hybrid designed as a military weapon. A weapon that went wrong."

Zell was glad to be sitting down as he felt much of the strength leave his legs in his absolute shock.

"A genetic hybrid?" The blond man's voice was incredulous. "Galbadia was doing genetic experiments on monsters in order to create military weapons?"

"Apparently their new president is unaware of the Global Sanction against genetic engineering," Cid stated wryly, still flipping through the open folder.

"Had we known that any altered monsters were present in Centra, we never would have sent our original team down there," Squall continued, his eyes stormy. "We are currently on less than civil terms with Galbadia Garden for withholding that information from us; they'll be lucky if I don't report their entire operational staff to the SeeD council and have them all jailed."

Zell swallowed and shifted uncomfortably in his seat, never having seen the normally reserved Commander so incensed. When he looked down at his clenched fists, however, he realized that his own hands were shaking with rage as well.

"Bastards.." Zell breathed, and Cid looked up from the folder again, urging Squall to continue with a nod.

"When we sent our first team, it was by request of the Galbadian government; they reported to us, through the more legally lenient channels of Galbadia Garden, that they had been operating a secret facility in northwestern Centra in which they had been messing about with some minor monster species. That in itself was incriminating enough, but SeeD is a mercenary organization, not a police force, and we took the contract to go in and destroy their labs, which they claimed were deserted. Galbadia Garden issued us a statement in thanks for taking the mission, claiming that they had been offered the job but were currently understaffed. Their elite SeeD core has only seven soldiers, while ours has twenty-one, so their declination of the mission made sense, at the time."

Pausing to rub his forehead once more, Squall took a deep breath before continuing.

"Since our mission was to destroy the labs, the SeeDs went in heavily equipped with explosives, some of which you found at their camp, I believe."

Zell nodded silently.

"Their last transmission came in as they were setting up camp, with nothing unusual to report. Following standard procedures, twenty-four hours after their first failure to check in I gave the order to send a search party. Based on the information the Galbadian government had provided about the location, namely that it was virtually monsterless, I classified the mission as low-risk and decided to assign Seifer and a new SeeD in order for them to gain some active experience. Quistis suggested that I assign you as team leader since you seemed to be making friendly overtures towards Seifer, and that was that."

Still processing all that the Commander had said, Zell stared at his fists numbly.

"I never would have sent you in with two low-level SeeDs if I had know what the hell the Galbadians had down there, Zell," Squall stated quietly, his voice apologetic. "I put you and Seifer at risk with the assignment, and Devon Barrett is the fourth casualty resulting from this situation."

"What exactly is down there?" Zell finally asked, running a hand through his hair and wincing as one of his fingers got caught. He hadn't worked out once that day and his hair gel was unpleasantly stiff.

"A genetically modified Gerogero," Cid said, closing the file folder with a slap. "Designed as a military weapon, it lacks the sentience of a normal creature of its species, operating only on basic survival and attack instincts, almost more machine than monster. However, its lack of intelligence is compensated for by boosted defensive and offensive capabilities; it is immune to damage from curative magic, equipped to deal status ailments that are strong enough to override the shielding of Protect and Shell magic, and apparently has the ability to not only mimic the human form itself, but also invade the human body and partially change its shape."

"Wait, you mean change the invaded body's shape?" Zell clarified, his eyes radiating horrified disgust.

"Yes," Cid confirmed, his thick eyebrows drawn together in faint disgust. "That ability was apparently meant to function by allowing the Gerogero to transform fallen victims into copies of itself, who would then join it in attacking more enemies. The human clones would not possess any of the monster's status ailment abilities, but they would be able to make more clones of themselves; all in all, a deadly, effective method of destruction."

"Now, these are just the projected results that Galbadia Garden sent us," Squall cautioned, pointing at the folder that lay before Cid. "According to the new information they relayed, the monster was never completed. In fact, it was apparently the reason why the lab project was abandoned in the first place: all but three of the staffing scientists were killed when one of their experiments broke loose. None of the other monster prototypes were near enough to completion to achieve operational intelligence; only the Gerogero had the capacity to break free and attack the lab staff. Shortly after the three surviving scientists escaped, the Galbadian government sent in a military unit to eliminate the creature. The entire twenty-five man garrison disappeared."

"We only found two corpses in the tunnels, and they were both in SeeD uniform," Zell pointed out shakily, trying not to remember the appalling condition of those two bodies. "What happened to the Galbadian garrison?"

"They were probably able to penetrate into the main lab complex, which lies at the heart of a network of caves and tunnels." Squall conjectured, reaching over the desk to flip open the file and riffle through, pulling out a glossy map. "After some. persuasion, the Galbadians released this map to me; it's a detailed outline of the cave system, marked with the locations of the various labs and facilities."

Still swallowing bile, Zell blinked slowly as something clicked in his mind in connection to the gruesome images of the dead SeeDs.

"Squall.. You said the monster was unfinished, right? But one of its projected abilities was invading the human body and changing its shape?"

Squall set down the map, looking puzzled but nodding his head. Cid, too, was regarding Zell curiously, his arms folded over his squat chest.

"I think that explains the state the bodies were in," the tattooed man offered, clenching his teeth. "The one I saw looked like it'd been.. turned inside out, before getting crushed."

All three men grimaced and tried to hide it from each other.

"That would make sense," Squall finally said, his voice tense. "Seifer did say that the corpse he found was also brutalized beyond recognition."

"I'm going to make a call to the Garden Council in Esthar in regards to Galbadia Garden's withholding of information," Cid said quietly, standing. He pressed the Garden-wide intercom button on his desk and paged Quistis before starting for the door. "Instructor Trepe will be here shortly; please send her to the conference room. And as for Centra.. Take whatever course of action you feel to be necessary."

"So Galbadia couldn't wipe their own ass and we got called in to do it for them, huh," Zell muttered, angrily bouncing out of his chair and fidgeting as the door closed behind Cid. The longer he stayed still, the harder it was to escape the cold chill of knowing how close he himself had come to being a ripped open victim of Galbadia's sketchy political intrigues.

"We'll deal with them," Squall returned, his voice low and potently threatening as he sifted through the papers scattered over Cid's desk. "But that thing's still down there and even if it is an unfortunate victim of scientific tampering, it's killed four of my SeeDs and I am going to hunt it down."

"Squall." Zell's voice was quiet but forceful enough to make the Commander turn his head in surprise.

"I want the mission, Squall. I've already been down there once and I know how to get into the caves, and I kinda take it personally when something tries to kill me."

The Commander eyed Zell searchingly for a moment before nodding in agreement.

"Fine; you're on the team. I'm assigning you as team leader again, backed by Quistis and Selphie. Quistis has the most scientific knowledge of monsters, and if standard Shell spells don't stop the Gerogero's status ailment attacks Selphie's support magic abilities will be useful. I know Cid gave you leave but this is a pressing problem and you should expect a more detailed briefing tomorrow and departure in two days time."

"Give me Selphie and Seifer," Zell countered, prepared for the look of shock that crossed Squall's face at his request.

"You can't be serious," Squall protested, putting his hands on his hips and frowning. "Seifer's had practically no field experience and he has no special skills to bring to the team. I don't think I need to remind you that this mission is extremely hazardous, and while I admit that I was impressed by Seifer's performance on the first mission, I don't think he's done anything to prove his preparedness for an assignment of this nature."

"I saw his marks on my team stats sheet," the short man said defensively, stung by the condescending disbelief that laced Squall's voice. "He had the highest marks I've ever seen in combat strategy and monster biology. He had the fricken highest marks I've ever seen in several subjects, as a matter of fact."

"Just because the man's a scholastic genius doesn't mean he'll deliver on the field."

"You called him one of your best SeeDs just yesterday; what's the problem?"

Squall sighed, pinching the bridge of his nose and exhaling loudly through his mouth.

"After all that's happened, Zell, I can't say that I trust him enough to assign him to a mission like this. He'll have your life, and Selphie's life, in his hands, and, frankly, he hasn't done enough to show me that he can handle that kind of responsibility."

"He was there!" Zell shouted, starting to lose his temper. Squall wasn't being fair to Seifer, again, and the man's arrogant dismissal of his former rival struck Zell as incredibly petty and unnecessary. "He was there keeping things together when I started to lose it, and he saw those bodies that had been pulverized into grat food and didn't lose his cool, and when I couldn't even breathe 'cause I was so scared he kept us moving and if you don't trust him, I'll damn well vouch that I do!"

Squall blinked, his arms falling limply to his sides before he recovered enough to glare at Zell icily.

"I'm still the Commander around here," Squall reminded Zell coldly, shoving a hand through his hair with an irritable expression on his face.

"Don't give me that crap, Squall, we made it to where we all are together." Zell's voice was hushed, but once he'd spoken he felt both the truth in his statement and guilt at having reprimanded a superior officer spill over his cheeks in a hot blush. "Don't you think it's time you gave Seifer a chance to catch up with the rest of us?"

There was silence for a moment before Zell started bouncing on his toes, unable to keep still any longer.

"I'd feel better with someone else who knows the terrain at my back," Zell finally continued, his tone subdued even as his body fidgeted with overflowing energy. "Selphie will still provide excellent coverage on the support magic front, and Seifer knows a helluva lot more about monsters than I do. We'll find that thing, Squall, and we'll kill it. I think we all have something to prove, here."

"A mission shouldn't be about proving anything," Squall snapped crossly, moving behind Cid's desk and sitting down. "Your lives are at stake."

"I'm always proving something to myself," Zell stated quietly, feeling not a little strange to be making this confession to his stoic, stern Commander. "This time I'm proving that my hands aren't useless; that even if they couldn't save Barrett they can take revenge for his death."

Squall looked up from the papers on the desk, the petulant frown melting off his features in the face of Zell's open honesty. He sighed, once, then pulled off his gloves, running pale naked fingertips over his orbital bones.

"Fine. You've got Seifer and Selphie. Report to this office tomorrow at 1100 hours for a special briefing session, and inform your teammates to do the same. Dismissed."

Feeling strangely unsuccessful after winning the argument with Squall, Zell saluted half-heartedly and turned to leave when Squall's voice stopped him.

"I meant the 'two of my best' comment, Zell. And you watch your back down there, because if anything happens I'll be losing more than soldiers; I'll be losing friends."

Grinning, Zell knocked on the door as he exited, feeling some of the tension lift from his shoulders at Squall's rare attempt at camaraderie.

"We're coming back, all right. Knock on wood, Commander."

Squall stared after him bleakly, then raised his knuckles and rapped on Cid's desktop with a sound almost too soft to be audible.

"You'd better come back, Dincht. That's an order."

(0_/0) x (^_^})

Finding Seifer in the training center that night proved to be a simple task; Zell had only to follow the trail of carnage through the oddly silent tropical greenery to the back of the circuit, where he slowed to a halt just in time to see the tall man give a swift finishing blow to a reeling T- Rexaur. The huge animal fell to the ground with a crash, and Zell stepped carefully around it, calling out Seifer's name as he came into view over one massive red haunch.

"Evening, Chicken," Seifer greeted cordially, wiping thick black blood off of Hyperion's blade. "I was just warming up for our little sparring match."

"Where the hell are all the other monsters?" Zell asked, scratching his head. "I didn't run into a single grat on my way back here."

"Well, I've done the rounds about six times today; between me and the three cadets that ran through earlier, I'd say we've pretty much cleared the place out for the night."

Zell whistled in admiration, crouching down beside the dead T-Rexaur's head and poking the leathery scales around its vacant, staring yellow eye experimentally.

"Brought this puppy down all by yourself, huh?"

"Yeah. But I was only clearing the way for us to have some room to fight. You ready?"

Standing once more, Zell shook his head and stretched, yawning and closing his eyes just in time to miss the scowl that darkened Seifer's face.

"No sparring tonight," Zell finally managed, biting back another yawn. "I was up early this morning and I've gotta get up early again to go back to the library tomorrow. Actually, I came to tell you that we're going back to Centra in two days to take out what's in those caves. You and me and Selphie. There's a briefing meeting scheduled for 1100 hours tomorrow in Cid's office."

His curiosity momentarily piqued, Seifer stopped frowning and tilted his head.

"We're going back to Centra?"

"Yeah, and I shouldn't tell you more because the information's classified and I don't want to discuss it outside of Cid's office."

"Fine," Seifer said after a moment, shrugging casually. "But don't give me that crap about being tired. I've been waiting all day to beat the shit out of you."

Zell's eyebrows knitted in displeasure and he shook his head again.

"Look, man, I just came in here to tell you about tomorrow. I'm too tired to fight, and I feel slow from sitting around reading all day anyways."

Gritting his teeth, Seifer clenched his stomach muscles in an attempt to quiet the circling, snapping hunger that had been driving him to distraction all day long. He needed to battle Zell; he'd been killing monsters nonstop for an hour and all the dark blood on his blade was doing nothing to blot out the burning blue eyes he remembered from his dreams.

"Don't disappoint me now, Chickenwuss," Seifer cautioned, trying one last time for civility.

Zell was already turning away and waving a curt goodnight when the tall blond moved, overtaking the tattooed man in two long strides and stabbing Hyperion into the loose soil inches away from Zell's feet.

"Fight me, Chicken."

Feeling his fists clench reflexively, Zell raised his eyes and stared at Seifer levelly.


The strange gleam in the older SeeD's dark gaze was hard to ignore, but Zell refused to back down or step around the gunblade planted firmly at his feet.

"I just came here to tell you about the meeting tomorrow, and unless you want your team leader to pass out during an official mission briefing, I have to go sleep."

"Don't care," Seifer stated simply, leaning down into Zell's personal space. "You're gonna pass out anyways after I'm through with you. Now hit me. Come on; you get first shot."

"I'm not gonna hit you, Seifer. Get out of my way."

"You can push me out of the way, but I'll get in a fair punch from behind if you do that, I'm warning you."

Zell's features crumpled into a snarl and he lifted his chin so that he was shouting directly into the taller man's face.

"Goddammit, Almasy, back the fuck off! You're doing it again, acting like a fucking psycho. Is this gonna be a problem on the mission? 'Cause I'll have you off my team so fast you won't have a clue what hit you."

The threat hung heavy and serious in the hot humid air until Seifer loosened his stance and straightened up, tearing Hyperion from the ground savagely and stepping aside so that Zell could pass.

"That was a shitty card to pull, Dincht," Seifer muttered coldly as Zell brushed past him on his way out.

"Yeah, well it was the only one I had," Zell stiffly retorted, pausing with his back to Seifer. "All you seem to care about is going on missions and fucking with my head."

"Oh, so you finally noticed?" Seifer quipped sarcastically, sheathing his sword with a careless thrust.

"Goodnight, Seifer."

And Zell walked away, leaving the tall SeeD shaking with the strain of unfinished business and the angry, writhing sting of his thwarted craving for Zell's blood.

(0_/0) x (^_^})

I'm going to kill him.

For over three hours I have lain awake in bed, burning up in the climate- controlled coolness of my room and tormented by small parts of him that slip past my defenses, one by one by one. The curve of his jaw. The faint scent of his skin. The tiny golden hairs on the backs of his fingers, and the way he whimpers when he cries.

I have to end this. He's filling my brain, taking over each nerve and synapse with more stealth and cunning than even Ultimecia, because he's making me think that these thoughts of him are my own. I have to end this.

I'm going to kill him.

Throwing off my tangled sheets, I cast about blindly for a tee shirt in the dark before giving up and thrusting open the door, ignoring the chill of night air on my torso and making my way silently down the halls towards his room.

He opens the door, sleep-mussed and startled, his hair falling messily over his forehead and his eyes flickering with a host of cryptic emotions. When did I stop being able to read his face?

"..Seifer?" He blinks at me, looking exposed and confused, and I am suddenly distracted from my thoughts of murder by the sight of his pulse fluttering beckoningly at the base of his throat. "What are you.. It's two a.m., man. What's going on?"

I can't tear my eyes away from the blood in his neck because I want to taste it so badly, but I force myself to swallow some of my hunger so that I can speak, my own voice emerging breathless and low.

"I want to fight," I murmur, licking my lips. Good. I've managed to keep from saying that I want to kill him out loud. "I want to fight you, now. Let's go."

He drops his hand from the doorframe to cross his arms defensively over his chest and regards me with a troubled frown.

"Seifer. I was sleeping. It's way after hours and there's no way in hell I'm gonna go to the training center now. If you really wanna spar we can do it tomorrow after our meeting, ok, so leave me alone."

"No," I hiss, clear and aggressive, and before I can stop myself I am pushing past him into his room, pulling him along with me and slamming the door closed. "I want to fight you now, and I want you to get angry, Chicken."

He stares at my white-knuckled grip on his bicep and then into my eyes, the first sparkling traces of anger coloring his irises a deeper blue and mingling with something wilder in his gaze. At that moment, something in the air between us changes, and his face shifts almost imperceptibly, too. When he speaks again, his voice has dropped in volume and grates with husky promise over my ears, making me itch. For violence, for his blood, for his mouth spilling other darker sounds.

"I don't think you want to me to get angry," he whispers, the subtle challenge in his tone making me grit my teeth and tighten my grip on his arm. The thought that I'm bruising his smooth flesh sends a jolt through my spine, and the muscles of my stomach tense as he continues.

"..And I don't think you want to hurt me, after all."

"That," and I've shoved him against the wall, hard enough to make him gasp, "Is where you're mistaken." My fingers are pressed hard to the cool surface of the wall on either side of his head, but there is a surprising lack of fear in his steady gaze.

"You don't want to hurt me," he repeats, softly, and reaches up to pull one of my suddenly trembling hands from the wall, clasping it in his own damp fingers, his motions deliberate and slow. He draws my hand down between our bodies, never breaking eye contact, and I have to wonder at my own sudden lack of resistance. The space between our stomachs is hot, and I feel his fingers flex around mine, once, as he speaks again.

"..You want to touch me.."

And then his hand is pressing mine against the hot hard flesh at the juncture of his thighs, and we both suck in a shaky breath and I can hear him swallow, haltingly, as my fingers of their own volition are moving to cup the arousal burning through the thin cotton of his shorts and I am stirring, too, rising aching and full and throbbing against him as our mouths open to each other in a melting, searing kiss.

His solid strong fingers dip inside my pants and I shudder, hungry, knowing at that moment in a sudden sunburst of clarity that he was right and this heat pulsing between us is so much better than a fleeting battle of fists and snarled curses, because his taste is in my mouth and his tongue is driving me to madness and the feel of him hard and wanting in my hands is making the need inside of me howl with agonized glee as it finds a name it can devour whole.

I remember pleasure.

Wrenching his mouth away, he burns me with his eyes before shoving me towards the bed and we fall, entangled, his neck sweet under my lips and his devastating hands plucking his name, strangled, from my throat.


We silence each other into thick groans and I can only hope that feeling something this fierce and uncontrolled will leave us with enough of our sanity to be able to feel it again.

(0_/0) x (^_^})

Zell woke up slowly, feeling separate fragments of his senses coalesce into a drowsy sort of awareness. First to report were his taste buds, tingling as they struggled to define the strange new flavor under his tongue. His left arm was draped over a warm solid.. something, and a deep, muted ache pervaded muscles that he didn't remember having felt before. Despite the odd soreness, however, his entire body was pleasantly weary and relaxed. Curling up against the heated presence at his side, Zell yawned sleepily and buried his face in the soft skin of Seifer's neck, nuzzling his nose into downy hair and sighing contentedly. Mm, Seifer smelled good in the morni-..

His eyes flying open, Zell stared at the blond head pillowed next to his own and blinked rapidly, trying to piece together his dreams with reality. No, not dreams, his mind corrected itself; if Seifer's here, and you're lying all over him, and it's patently obvious that neither of you is clothed, what happened last night was certainly not a dream.

What happened last night..

"Oh, shit," Zell whispered breathlessly, pulling away from the sleeping man gently and flopping onto his back, trying to calm his racing heartbeat. He threw a forearm over his eyes and bit his lower lip, remembering.

Seifer had come barging in, unsettled and seething, and Zell had made a dangerous gamble and decided to read the raging demand in Seifer's eyes the way he wanted to read it; searching and sighting under the murky layer of near-madness a deeper, desperate tumult of lust.

Zell knew he had guessed right when Seifer's mouth collided with his, their tongues seeking blindly the path of pure union where skin ceased to matter and everything was felt from the inside, and after that he didn't know any more because it all felt so sweet that it ached, it burned.

This is Seifer's taste seared into my tongue, Zell thought, and rolled the small notion around in his brain until his thoughts were thoroughly coated with the wonder of it all.

Next to him, Seifer murmured in his sleep, but despite a growing sense of possession Zell did not feel comfortable reaching out for him again. Lifting his arm from his face, the tattooed man tilted his head and studied appreciatively the smooth expanse of the other blond's back, running his eyes in a hungry caress over the long supple curve of his spine and the sleek corded muscles that tapered into sharply peaked shoulder blades. Just looking was making Zell itch to touch, and he gave in impulsively to the urge, running fingers that pulsed with wanting over fine pale skin.

Roused by the tickling, feathery sensation, Seifer stirred awake and felt at once a strange, shifting absence in the hollow space under his ribcage. Searching for what had gone missing, his attention wandered to the feel of warm fingers trailing over his spine and the subtle awareness of another body at his side.


Turning over sinuously, Seifer blinked up at the tattooed man, still sifting through the emptiness inside to find some scrap of what he'd lost.

"G'morning," Zell grinned uncertainly, leaving his hand lying on the sheets between their bodies in a display of acceptant invitation.

At the sound of Zell's voice, Seifer stumbled upon the last of what was gone; the splintered remnants of the mad driving hunger that had been eating away at his insides to wring all the life from the other man and drink it in as his own. There was still violence there, inside him, but a new deeper hunger was banked under the void, a need that whispered its want to taste not Zell's blood but his moonlit skin; the want not to hear him scream his pain but instead whisper darkly in the choked, panting voice that still echoed in Seifer's ears from the night before.

Narrowing his eyes and locking gazes with Zell, Seifer ran his fingers down the tattooed man's outstretched forearm, his touch so light that he barely skimmed the fine pale hair there, stopping at Zell's fingertips and gathering the other's man's hand in his own. Zell stared back, speechless and transfixed, as the scarred blond intertwined their fingers and pulled them to his belly, drawing their linked fingers over his hot skin and under the sheets.

"..Ok," Zell breathed in stunned acquiescence, his eyes widening at the bold demand in Seifer's touch. Inhaling deeply, he moved his hand to cradle his lover's heat, at once shocked and relieved and starving for Seifer's rough caresses on his own skin. In answer to the sudden hunger in Zell's eyes, the taller blond twisted his upper body, curling over the tattooed SeeD in a fierce embrace of clutching fingers and seeking open mouths and strong limbs tangling into desperate closeness.

When they broke apart, fractionally, to breathe deep frantic breaths, Zell ran greedy fingertips over the side of Seifer's face, dipping them teasingly into the wet warmth of his mouth and feeling his body burn with desire.

"Can we just forget defining what the hell we're doing and agree that we'll keep doing it for a while?" Zell questioned, distracted by the play of Seifer's teeth over his fingernails.

"Yes," Seifer agreed instantly, nipping once before dropping his gaze and bending his head to lick at Zell's neck.

And, for then, that was enough to make it right.

(0_/0) x (^_^})

"Genetic experiments? This is so way out in left field! Whoa!"

Selphie bounced up and down in her chair, her large eyes sparkling with excitement as she smiled hugely at Zell and Seifer, who were seated next to her in front of Cid's desk.

"Don't get too excited, Ms. Tilmitt," Cid cautioned kindly, waving a sheaf of papers in the air. "This creature that you three are being sent to eliminate is unlike any monster you've had to fight before, I'm afraid."

"Cid's right," Squall stated, his voice gruff as he gave each seated SeeD an appraising stare. "With that in mind, do you all agree to accept this assignment?"

"Yes, sir," three voices chorused in unison. Cid positively glowed with pride.

"Well! Since that's settled, I wish the three of you the best of luck, not that you'll need it, and I'll see you all upon your return."

He stood and trundled out of the room, leaving Quistis and Squall behind his desk, flanking his empty chair, as stern and serious as granite sentinels. Backlit by sunshine streaming in through the blinds, they were in their element, as intimidating and powerful as the true leaders of Garden ought to be. The tableau was broken, however, when Quistis sneezed loudly.

"Oh, darn it, Squall, you've given me your cold," the blond Instructor chided, pulling out a handkerchief and blowing her nose. Squall rolled his eyes in what was not quite an apology and stepped around the desk, giving each of the three seated soldiers a manila folder.

"At ease, or, whatever," he muttered, and Selphie and Zell bounced to their feet, opening their mission information eagerly and skimming the pages. Seifer rose slowly, flipping through the various stapled sheets in his folder before closing it with a snap.

"I think this information doesn't cover one important detail of the Gerogero's attacks," Seifer said, dropping his folder onto the desk and crossing his arms over his chest.

Selphie and Zell, who were only halfway through their notebooks, glanced up at Seifer in surprise, and Squall frowned questioningly.

"What detail would that be?"

"You're done reading already?" Selphie asked incredulously. "I haven't even gotten to the part on the thingy's attack capacities."

"I read quick," Seifer replied simply, shrugging. "What I'm concerned about," he continued, addressing Squall, "Is the monster's ability to invade the body and start to change its shape. That's number three," he offered helpfully to Zell and Selphie, who flipped to the end of their packets and found the corresponding attack information.

"What about that ability?" Squall prompted, clearly puzzled. "All the information we received from the Galbadians is in the folder; I'm afraid we have no way of knowing anything else."

"The description of the invasive ability only covers how the monster would theoretically alter the DNA of its victim. The projection based on the casualties we saw proposes that the monster at this point is only capable of scrambling the DNA of its victim, hence the state of the bodies we found."

"Damn, he does read fast!" Zell whispered to Selphie, who giggled and stuck out her tongue.

"The description says nothing about how the Gerogero would initiate the invasion process to begin with, however. Surely the Galbadian scientists had a planned method through which the DNA transfer would occur, which might only be present in some half-developed way but will still give us an idea of when and how to protect ourselves from that particular attack."

"I.." Flipping through the pages of his own master copy, Squall knitted his brow and shook his head, finally conceding defeat. "There is no information on that aspect of the attack."

He looked up at Seifer, nodding his head grudgingly.

"I'll call Galbadia Garden immediately," Squall said, his voice curt as he tucked the folder under his arm and headed for the door.

"Nice eyes, Seifer!" Selphie congratulated enthusiastically. She seemed completely unaffected by the fact that she hadn't spoken to the scarred SeeD in over two years, and was as bubbly and friendly as ever.

"What are you, some kind of speed reader?" Zell nudged Seifer in the ribs with an elbow and grinned up at him, and the tall man narrowed his eyes mischievously, starting to reach for Zell when he felt the weight of a stare. He looked up and saw Quistis watching them carefully, her face void of expression as she wiped her reddened nose daintily and sniffed.

"This's is kinda freaky!" Selphie chirped suddenly, breaking the strange silence that had fallen over the room. "I mean, a mutant monster? Bodies turned inside out? Irvy's gonna be so jealous! Hah!"

Zell laughed with her, aware of but not understanding the suddenly hostile set of Quistis' shoulders. He shot a glance back at Seifer, but the older man was already leaning forward to open his discarded folder, this time withdrawing and studying the diagram showing the maze of underground tunnels and the lab complex.

"What do you think this thing eats?" Zell questioned abruptly, more to force Quistis to say something than in expectance of a real answer. She blinked at him, obviously caught off guard, and slowly shook her head.

"I have no idea, Zell."

"Normally Gerogeros feed off human flesh; I don't see why an altered one would behave any differently," Seifer offered distractedly, his eyes fixed on the map.

"Yeah, but those bodies we found, Seif; they weren't eaten."

"Seif?" Selphie repeated, pouncing on the nickname and grinning. "That's cute! I'm gonna call you that, too, ok, Seif?"

Seifer grimaced, shooting the small woman a glare.

"No, not ok. Careful or we'll feed you to the Gerogero."

"Ooh, you wouldn't, would you? ..Seif?"

"The monster might be feeding off of the Galbadian corpses," Quistis suggested, starting to smile at the friendly banter despite the tension still visible in her stance. "Remember, at some point you're most likely going to come across twenty five decaying remains."

"Quisty!" Zell groaned, running a hand through his hair and swallowing as he felt his stomach flop. "You're gonna put me off of hotdogs for days, picturing that."

"Well, this won't be a pretty mission, that's for sure," the blond Instructor commented quietly. "I don't envy you three this assignment."

"We made it out once alive," Seifer muttered, his eyes cold. "We'll make it out again."

Quistis was about to respond when the phone on the desk rang.

"Hello? ..Oh, all right. ..Yes. ..Yes, I'll relay that."

She hung up and adjusted her glasses before speaking.

"That was Squall," she started, a bit unnecessarily. No one else in Garden issued orders to Quistis. "He is still in conference with the Galbadians, but he wants you to use the rest of the day to prepare for the mission, and also be expecting a packet delivered to your rooms detailing the altered Gerogero's attack capacities. Your transport leaves tomorrow morning from the gates at 0800 hours; we want to give you as much daylight as possible to work with."

"Yeah, even though we'll be underground," Zell pointed out cheekily, flashing Quistis a grin when she directed a disapproving frown at him. Selphie laughed and tried to hide it behind her hand as Quistis gave her a look, too.

"Good luck tomorrow," the blond woman said finally, real concern coloring her eyes a deeper blue. "And be careful.. As always."

"Rodger!" Selphie cried, throwing a chipper salute and waving goodbye to Quistis. Zell and Seifer followed her out, Seifer giving a curt nod to the Instructor before closing the door behind him.

When they were alone in the hallway, Selphie spun around and grabbed Zell by the jacket, pulling at him excitedly.

"When you guys were there, did you see it? Was it gross? I've only seen a real live Gerogero once before, when that nasty one pretended to be the President of Galbadia, on the train, remember? They sure are disgusting! Was it really big, or just a little one?"

"Leggo!" Zell hollered, his face turning red with embarrassment. "We didn't see a damn thing, other than the people it did a number on. ..It..sounded big, though." He trailed off, shivering, his eyes going unfocused as he remembered the utter terror that had choked him as he fled blindly down the tunnels, pursued by heavy footsteps and panting, snorted breaths.

Watching Zell abruptly go pale, Selphie dropped his arm, sobering up and turning to Seifer.

"We're gonna be able to beat it, right?"

His face blank, Seifer shrugged. "It's just another monster," he offered noncommittally before reaching out and poking Zell in the forehead with one gloved finger. "Hey, Chicken, snap out of it. There's no point in freaking yourself out ahead of schedule."

"Uh, right," Zell shook himself, then started bouncing on his toes and taking little sharp jabs at the air in front of him. "Look, guys, I dunno about you but I'm starving. I, uh.. Didn't have time for breakfast this morning. Who wants food?"

"I'll go eat," Selphie agreed cheerfully, linking an arm though one of Zell's. "It's past lunchtime, I think, and my stomach was growling for half of that meeting. Geez, it was a long one, wasn't it?"

"I think I'll have to spend enough time with the two of you tomorrow," Seifer said blandly, and would have looked absolutely uninterested if not for the tiny smirk playing about his lips. "I'll go as long as I get to sit by myself."

Zell smiled and socked Seifer playfully on the arm, laughing at the surprise that flashed across the older man's face.

"Jerk. You're sitting with us," Zell stated, already heading towards the cafeteria with a skipping Selphie in tow.

Seifer only heaved a sigh of exaggerated dejection before sauntering after them, and Selphie leaned around Zell to peer up at the tall blond curiously.

"You seem different, Seifer," she commented lightly, somehow smoothing over two years and a whole war's worth of hard feelings with that simple observation.

"..People change." Seifer was looking straight ahead, but his arm brushed Zell's as he spoke and the tattooed man bit back a happy grin.

"Yep, they do," Selphie answered easily, letting go of Zell's arm to jump in front of the two men and bounce backwards as they walked, her hair swinging crazily. "I like the new you. Seif."

Seifer growled and Selphie giggled and Zell just smiled, amazed at how neatly everything was working out.

(0_/0) x (^_^})

I know I should be sleeping, but I've decided that I like his bed better than my own. Especially when he's in it.

So here I am, standing outside his room again, this time properly attired and in full possession of my senses, but the sight of his doorway and the smell of Garden at night are the same as the last time I stood here, and the associations make me shiver. Now that I know what to call it, it's easy to feel my desire for him, acutely, as it crawls up my spine.

I knock and it's only a moment before the door opens to reveal him, fully clothed, to my disappointment, but with an expectant, eager light in his eyes that has the hungry thing inside me up and circling impatiently.

Without a word, he steps aside to let me in, and even before the door has closed completely we are upon each other, biting and licking and growling words of wanting and it's a miracle that we even manage to make it to his couch before we collapse. When I've momentarily sated my need to taste him I lift my mouth from his neck and stare down into his eyes, which have gone unfocussed and dizzy and are unbearably alluring in their defenselessness.

"How did you know that this was what I wanted?" I whisper, my hands busy on his skin. He stares at me blankly for a moment before comprehension dawns in his eyes and he smiles, almost shyly.

"I guessed. Because it's what I wanted."

He leans up to kiss me, then, and the warm soft strength of his tongue in my mouth distracts me enough to let the meaning behind his words settle in with a slow, comfortable certainty.

He wanted me before I even knew what it meant to want anything.

Now I am irredeemably consumed by the need to touch him, and I realize too late that feeling like he does is a terrible weakness, because if for one day I can't feel him the loss will shatter my newfound capacity for sensation.

Yet somehow in all the bright emotions running under the surface of my skin I can't find the ability to care about that.

Suddenly he's tumbling us off of the couch and I let out a high yelp of surprise, landing flat on my back with him astride my hips, an evil grin on his face as he unbuttons my shirt.

"Am I being too rough for you, Almasy?" he taunts, running his short fingernails down the line of my stomach and licking his lips.

"Never," I breathe, and I reach for him, and it is only later, as our bodies cool to lazy equilibrium, that I stare up at him from where my head is resting on his hipbone and we ease back into coherent speech.



"Do you think Quistis noticed something today?" His voice is hushed and tired, but still rings with concern. "Not that it would matter if she did, I guess, but I didn't like the look she was giving us, as if we were doing something wrong."

I turn over halfway, nuzzling my nose into the smooth firm flesh of his stomach and nipping lightly before I respond.

"I saw the way she was watching us. But this is none of her concern."

"I know." He sighs and my head rises and falls with the movement of his belly. I nip him again and he bats lazily at me before continuing. "I just don't want her to think that my support of you has been for other than professional reasons.. Even though it kind of was, at first."

I'm not quite following him and my confusion must show on my face because he hastens to explain further, propping himself up on his elbows so that he's looking directly down into my eyes.

"At the SeeD meeting that was called the day before our mission, Quistis asked me whether or not I thought you were mentally and practically prepared to start serving on active duty. Even though we'd had a pretty ..unfriendly.. encounter the day before that, I found myself recommending you for duty regardless. I was actually, uh, distracted at the time by a dream I'd had about you the night before."

I raise an eyebrow, not sure yet whether I am amused or offended by his confession. Since my brain can't seem to decide the issue, I choose to be amused and sit up to lean over him, biting his shoulder playfully.

"You had a dream about me? I'm flattered."

He yelps as my teeth sink into his flesh, tugging at my hair and scowling sheepishly.

"I bet you've had dreams about me, too, so don't knock it," he says, poking me in the ribs. I only smile against his skin because he's so close to the truth.

"So what if I did," I admit idly, pushing against him until he sinks back onto the sheets.

"I've supported you since then because I know you're an excellent soldier," he continues, his gaze serious, not quite finished with that line of thought.

"Even when I act 'weird'?" I question sarcastically, grinning down at him as he rolls his eyes.

"I won't deny that you act crazy far more often than the average SeeD that I know. ..But I'll feel safest tomorrow with you, despite the sudden cases of psycho you seem to come down with." The quiet laughter in his voice sounds slightly forced, and instead of smiling, a tiny frown wrinkles the skin between his eyebrows.

"Are you nervous?" I ask him, and his eyes flicker away from mine briefly before he answers, soft and honest.

"Yeah. To tell you the truth, that thing scares the shit outta me."

His gaze has gone distant again, but this time his body is tense beneath mine and I can feel the small catch in his breath. I don't want to think about the mission any more because it frightens me, too, that he might get hurt. That he might.. But no, I won't even think it, and I lean down and cover his mouth with my own, settling my body over his and coaxing him back to me with firm deliberate touches.

"You taste different when you're scared," I murmur against his parted wet lips, and he shifts under me in a silent demand for more pleasure, pleasure to distract us from the looming ordeal that awaits us tomorrow.

"Shh," he breathes, and we are moving together, inside of each other where it's warm and safe and echoing with the beating of our hearts. I've remembered fear, but here in his arms it is blessedly easy to forget.

(0_/0) x (^_^})

"Uh, Zell? Could you, like, sit down for just one minute?"

Zell looked over from his corner of the transport at the sound of Selphie's voice, wiping a gloved fist over his sweaty forehead and blinking.


"Chicken. If you're annoying even her, you have to realize that you're being a pain in the ass." Seifer snapped, scowling over at Zell from his bench. After speaking, he leaned forward and rested his elbows on his knees, running his hands through his hair in aggravation.

Selphie stood up and walked over to the small window, smiling at Zell disarmingly and bouncing a little on her toes.

"It's just, you've been kicking the crap outta that corner for the past half hour, and it's sort of getting on my nerves."

Zell dropped his fists to his sides and scuffed his shoe on the steel floor of the small cabin.

"Sorry," he mumbled, scratching the back of his head. "I'm just getting really pumped to kick this monster's ass."

"Yeah, me too!" The small woman cheered, bouncing higher and clapping excitedly.

"Especially after what happened to Barrett," Zell muttered, and Selphie stopped jumping around, the eager light in her eyes dimming slightly.

"I heard about that," she murmured, tucking her unruly dark hair behind her ears. "Poor kid. He was in my demolitions class; best student I had. He loved dynamite, just like me!"

Seifer snorted, his face still buried in his hands, and Zell managed a weak grin.

"Yeah, I saw his marks. He was pretty smart all around, but his Demolitions scores were even higher than Seifer's."

"Mr. A student," Selphie laughed, leaning against the window and sticking her tongue out at Seifer. "I thought you had a reputation for ditching class, Seif. How did you manage to pull off those crazy scores I saw in your file?"

"Tests," Seifer said shortly, still hunched over. He wanted to argue, have a fight, anything, to distract him from what he really wanted: to throw Zell onto the floor of the transport and forget about the sick nervous tension pinioning his mind and giving him a splitting headache. He wanted to distract himself with the taste of Zell's skin from the pain in his skull hammering dully against one terrible thought again and again; raw meat, Zell's eyes, raw meat, the eyeless corpse, raw running flesh and wide pale blue eyes staring blind and blood and blue and..

"Fuck!" Slamming his clenched fists against the metal bench, Seifer rose to his feet swiftly and started pacing in tight circles as Selphie and Zell stared at him, the pair of them wide eyed and silent and still, for once.

"Hey, Seif, you ok?" Zell finally ventured, stepping towards the tall man hesitantly and tilting his head.

"Something about the Gerogero's attacks is bothering me," Seifer replied quietly, using words to try and quell the impulse to take the tattooed man's face in his gloved hands and ravish his mouth until he moaned. The longer he was thinking and talking, the easier it was to remind himself that Selphie was in the transport, too, and it would be unacceptable for several reasons to start something in front of her.

"What's that?" Zell questioned, looking puzzled. Selphie walked over too, and Seifer sighed and sat down once again, leaning back against the cold metal wall and closing his eyes. That was a mistake. Raw meat and blue glassy unseeing red.

"Barrett." Seifer spat the name out, his eyes flying open and pinning Zell with an unreadable gaze as the smaller blond flinched.

"What about him?" Selphie asked, twirling a lock of hair around her index finger and cocking her head.

"He wasn't.. torn up, like the other two bodies we found. The Gerogero had clearly gotten to him, but he was only wounded and chock full of status ailments. And there were other strange things about his condition; I remember he had bullets in his feet, which was probably due to the Confuse, but there was something else on the scan, too, and before I could figure out what it was I lost the spell and there was no time to cast another one.. Anyways, Squall's newest data from Galbadia said that the Gerogero was supposed to be designed to use the shape-change attack when its victim was in a near-death state, right?"

Both Selphie and Zell nodded, looking perplexed.

"Well, when we found him Barrett was in a near-death state; the hole in his chest was so big that you could see the kid's lungs."

Zell swallowed hard, and Selphie looked over, patting him on the back lightly before turning her attention back to Seifer.

"So something else must be triggering the shape-change attack; something Barrett didn't do but the other SeeDs did. The Gerogero's abilities weren't fully perfected by the scientists, but it must be something related to low life force that triggers the attack.."

"I always got C's in Monster Biology," Zell joked half-heartedly, shrugging his shoulders and grinning. "Won't pretend to understand it now."

"This isn't biology, it's logic," Seifer started to say, when the intercom system blared to life in a crackle of static.

"Five minutes to arrival. All SeeDs prepare to disembark."

The three of them broke out of their huddle, moving to gather up their mission equipment and check their weaponry.

"That message always bugs me," Selphie commented suddenly, waving a hand at the speakers that were affixed to the four corners of the cabin at the ceiling. "I mean, who else but SeeDs would be in here and having to disembark? This is a mission transport."

"Some questions will go forever unanswered," Zell quipped in response, casually slinging a backpack filled with explosives and detonators over his shoulder.

"All right, here's the plan," he continued, walking over to stand by the door. "We'll go down through the southeast entrance to the complex, which should drop us right into the main labs."

Seifer finished one last check of Hyperion and slid it into its holster, stepping up next to Selphie as Zell issued their orders.

"As we discussed earlier, we'll secure the main lab first, then the two smaller labs. Once those areas are checked out, if we haven't encountered the Gerogero we'll head down the central tunnel to where the cave system converges and rig that up for demolition; when it blows it'll take the whole system west of there with it and bring the huge hill to the northwest down on top of everything. With any luck, the Gerogero will be in some part of that cave system and get crushed; if not, we'll be in the main labs by the same entrance we came in at, setting up more bombs while we wait for it to show."

"Bombs! Whee!" Selphie giggled, coughing apologetically when Seifer smacked her lightly on the back of the head.

"We'll take care of it when it shows up there, but if we manage to finish rigging the explosives in the main labs before it arrives, we'll head up to surface level and just blow the place to smithereens. Sound good, Selph?"

"Ohh, yeah," the short woman agreed enthusiastically, bouncing up and down.

"Don't forget mandatory radio checks every two minutes if we lose visual contact," Zell instructed, checking the communicator on his belt one last time. "And everyone's tagged already, so we'll know where everyone is at all times. The labs are small enough that we should be able to maintain visual contact eighty percent of the time, however, and visual contact is ideal. Are we ready?"

"Yes, sir," the two other SeeDs replied, Selphie grinning manically and Seifer giving a tight smirk. Zell saw the tension in his eyes but didn't pause to let himself think about it.

"Good, 'cause we're here. Move out!"

And the transport door opened onto the bright, cool air of Centra, and then they were jogging, silent, along the still rocky shore, all three sets of eyes fixed on the looming dark hills that rose in a mute warning of danger into the cloudless sky.

(0_/0) x (^_^})

Equipped with new maps and some previous experience, the three SeeDs were able to quickly locate the small, cleverly concealed entrance that dropped directly into the main lab of the underground facility. Pausing at a cave mouth so narrow it looked like no more than a slanted cleft in the hillside, Zell rechecked their position on his map and furrowed his brow.

"This is right in the middle of the southeastern quadrant of the first mission's recovery zone," he said thoughtfully, angling the laminated paper in his hands so that Selphie and Seifer could peer over his shoulder and see it as well.

"..So it's likely Barrett first entered the caves here," Seifer finished, his voice solemn.

"This was his assigned sector," Zell agreed, nodding and turning to survey the barren terrain that spread out behind them in uneven craggy waves of rock. Morning haze that had swept in from the ocean was lingering in the air, blurring the horizon into an opaque grayish nothingness that made his eyes ache, and the air was so still and silent that Zell cleared his throat just to make some noise.

"This place sure is creepy," Selphie commented, playing with the thick straps of her backpack and shifting restlessly. "Whaddaya guys say we set up some dynamite and scram."

"Stay together. We're clearing the main lab first."

So saying, Zell clicked on his flashlight and turned sideways to slip through the cave entrance. Selphie followed him, and Seifer squeezed through last, almost hitting his head on the low ceiling.

"I thought this was an emergency exit?" the tall SeeD muttered, brushing dust off the chest of his uniform distractedly. "If they had any fat scientists one would get stuck there and they'd all die."

"Uh, they all did die," Selphie joked quietly, the muted hush of the cave making her lower her voice as she joined Zell and Seifer in directing the beam of her flashlight towards the inner recesses of the cave. Illuminated by their lights, the sandy floor of the cave stretched onward for about twenty feet before dropping off abruptly into inky blackness. Moving forward towards the darkness, they could taste the difference in the texture of the air; outside the air was dry and faintly salt-scented, but within the caves the temperature was markedly cooler and the air was dense with condensation. Every breath clung fog-like to the insides of their noses and throats and made breathing a slow, laborious chore, and the heavy cold sensation pervading their limbs grew as they approached the point where the ground fell away into oblivion.

Upon direct inspection, the thick darkness revealed a precisely constructed, even staircase that scaled down slowly into the chilled depths of the underground facility.

"This place is something else!" Selphie breathed, running reverent fingertips along one smooth rock wall as the three descended the stairs cautiously, spells and weapons at the ready.

After the small woman spoke there was only echoing silence and the faint, eerie sound of water dripping somewhere, slow and measured and somehow ominous. The stairs went on unceasingly until a doorway loomed up out of the shadows, and Zell pulled his folded map out of his pocket, cross- checking their directional readout on his communicator with where they were supposed to be in the facility.

"Looks like this is it," He murmured after a minute, replacing the map and taking a moment to make eye contact with his team. Both other SeeDs nodded their readiness, and the three soldiers crossed the small landing at the base of the stairs and entered the main laboratory, their boots ringing on the tiled floor and their swinging flashlight beams cutting the enormous room into harsh sudden silhouettes.

"We're not trying to go unnoticed, so let's set up some Fira spells as we go and give this place a little light."

Zell was already calling a Fira to his fingers, and he left the small blue flame hovering by the entrance that led to the staircase.

"Please note the emergency exit sign," Seifer instructed, his voice grim as he lifted his chin towards the blue fire by the doorway. Zell shot him a look, remembering the other man's previous confession about being a comedian in a crisis.

"What a mess!"

Distracted by Selphie's echoing voice, Zell turned away from Seifer to where the short woman had cast another Fira and was standing, hands on her hips as she shook her head. He walked over to her, eyes widening as he took in what the dim blue light revealed; the huge cavernous room stretched away from them into more darkness, with a ceiling so high that it curved up away from the wall into blackness and a wide floor covered in the hectic wreckage of what used to be a maze of desks and counters and bulky scientific equipment. Loose, crumpled paper was scattered over everything like an artificial blanket of snow, and shattered glass from countless destroyed computer terminals and other machinery glittered throughout the debris, crunching with brittle popping sounds under Seifer's boots as he stepped into a narrow aisle between two low desks and walked further into the room.

"Are we securing the perimeter first or working outwards from the center?" Seifer questioned, shining his flashlight into the shadows on the other side of the lab and squinting into the darkness.

"Let's do the perimeter and set up Firas as we go; that should provide enough light to see the center of the room, and we'll be able to move on to the side labs."

Seifer nodded, rejoining the group at Zell's order and calling another Fira to his fingers, casting it against the high wall as they passed by in their circuit of the room's perimeter. They had been walking in the dim half- darkness for less than a minute when Zell felt the hair on the back of his neck stand up slowly as his nose picked up on a familiar, stomach-turning stench hovering in the thick, cool air. Beside him Selphie wrinkled her nose, and Seifer drew Hyperion smoothly from its holster, a deep frown distorting the scar between his eyes.

"How about some Shell, Selphie?" Zell requested quietly, breathing deeply to calm his racing heartbeat and then swallowing with difficulty as the reeking odor lacing the air stung his throat.

Wordlessly, the brunette woman drew out her nunchaku before casting Shell on all three of them, closing her eyes and inhaling steadily as she regained her equilibrium. Unasked, Seifer called up Protect and cast that on the group as well. Properly shielded, the three SeeDs moved ahead in a tight group, Zell and Seifer directing their lights forward along the slightly curving wall while Selphie kept hers trained on the murky bluish shadows of the room to their right.

"That must be the entrance to the tunnel leading to one of the smaller branches," Seifer noted as his light and Zell's threw into sharp relief a tall gaping doorway a few yards ahead on the wall. "And it should lead to the northern side lab.. Which is the location the surviving scientists gave for the Gerogero's testing site."

"OK, change of plan," Zell responded as they drew closer, the smell of death intensifying to the point where it was making their eyes water. "We'll secure this wing first and then move back into the main lab. Judging from the stink, the monster might be in here, so get ready."

Coming up to the edge of the doorway, Zell called up a Fira spell and flung it into the hallway, waiting for a split second before stepping away from the protection of the wall and throwing himself into a defensive stance at the mouth of the corridor. He sighed and loosened his stance a little when the flickering small flame showed nothing but another high-ceilinged passage curving away into blackness, the pale tiled floor amazingly uncluttered in comparison to the disaster in the main lab.

After a few steps into the hallway, however, the close thick air, disturbed by his movements, shifted and brought the cloying stench of decay against him in a wave strong enough to hit him like a punch in the gut. Choking slightly, Zell grimaced and motioned for Selphie and Seifer to walk with him further along the corridor.

"It's way too quiet in here," Selphie murmured, casting another Fira spell as the one set up at the entrance disappeared behind a curve in the wall. "I think all we're gonna find are.."

Her voice trailed off into a gasp as another section of the long arcing hallway came into view, empty except for an ebbing tide of dark liquid that had washed over the tiles and was pooling in the cracks. One single stream of the stuff had broken away from the clotted edge of the spill and, horribly, was inching towards them at a rate almost too slow to perceive with the naked eye.

"Oh my god," Zell whispered, his voice breaking.

"We must be going slightly upward," Selphie observed steadily, her face calm even as she clutched her weapon with white-knuckled hands. "Since whatever that is is still moving towards us."

"I think we found the Galbadian soldiers," Seifer said, stepping forward and shining his flashlight directly onto the thick mess on the floor. Under the harsh light, the dark liquid gleamed a dull crimson, flecked here and there with small pieces of things that none of the SeeDs wanted to try and identify.

"It's in there, then," Zell said, his voice back and under control. "There aren't any footprints leading away, so it must be in this wing."

"If we're lucky we'll catch it while it's asleep," Seifer offered, lifting his foot and taking a first cautious step forward into the clotting gore. His boot sank into the stuff with a sick squelching noise, but he continued on slowly, holding his arms out a little for balance. Selphie and Zell watched with wide eyes as he made it a few feet farther, slipping a bit as he raised his flashlight and peered down the corridor.

"Uh," Was Seifer's first hoarse response, before he turned around and wiped at his mouth absently, a thin sheen of sweat visible on his skin in the glare of Selphie's light. "We're, ah, gonna need some Floats here, kids."

"Got 'em," Zell muttered, calling up the spells and casting them first on Seifer and Selphie, and then himself.

Selphie cast another Fira down the hallway, and they moved around the next gentle corner cautiously, steeled against yet unprepared for the scene of utter carnage that greeted their horrified eyes.

"Just don't look down," Zell gritted out, maneuvering himself carefully over the pile of decaying shredded body parts that rose at its highest point to well over five feet off of the ground.

"Now we know what it's been eating," Selphie said lowly, trying to breathe shallow breaths and avoid inhaling the overpowering smell of the countless corpses. "Some of these guys are nothing but bones."

"That's the lab; heads up."

Having passed over the worst of the butchery, the three soldiers dropped back down onto shaky legs, eyeing the dark doorway ahead with fierce, desperate determination.

"All right. This piece of shit's not gonna be making hamburger out of us," Zell growled, his fists clenched tight enough to make the leather squeak in protest. He cast Protect once more on the group himself, then once again took the lead, throwing a Fira spell through the open entry and hurling himself in after. Seifer and Selphie were right behind him, but all three skidded to a stop as they were greeted with the sight of a small, sparsely furnished room, measuring no more than twenty feet across and largely empty.

Largely empty except for the trailing dragged footprints painted in blood in crisscrossing patterns across the tiled floor, tracing a crooked path from the hallway and around a large metal cage in the center of the room and disappearing under a closed door against the opposite wall.

"What the hell is that other door?" Zell yelled angrily, ripping his diagram of the labs out of his pocket and stabbing at it with his index finger. "Those Galbadian assholes! How're we supposed to kill this thing if they give us incorrect piece of shit maps to work with?!"

Sure enough, there was no second door on the diagrams Galbadia had provided, and no tunnel depicted to show where the unmarked exit might lead. Cursing furiously, Zell closed his eyes and tried to calm down, hearing the laminated map crackle as he crushed it in his gloved fist.

Shooting Zell a concerned look, Selphie walked up to the large steel cage, fingering the shattered lock mechanism curiously before inspecting the entire apparatus. The cage itself was more than fifteen feet tall, and more than half of the steel bars on one of its sides were warped and crushed together to create a gaping hole. Amazed at the sheer amount of brute force it would take to disfigure the thick metal bars, Selphie blinked and turned away, calling out to the two men in a muted stage whisper.

"Guys! How big is this thing supposed to be?"

Seifer, who was carefully inspecting the closed door at the rear of the room, turned away from his investigation of the bloody uneven footprints on the floor and scratched his jaw thoughtfully.

"The Galbadians were aiming for an eight-footer, but there was mention of some uncontrolled growth in the latest stages of documented experimentation."

"Oh, great," Selphie said, rolling her eyes and chewing on her lower lip. "Well I'd say it's over ten, at least. This cage sustained heavy damage from a blunt object that was even used to strike the ceiling."

"Huh?" Zell changed course from walking towards Seifer to instead meet Selphie halfway at the cage, giving it a quick once-over himself and then poking his head inside the broken bars. Muttering a curse as he stared up at the battered metal ceiling overhead, Zell stepped away from the cage and absentmindedly tightened the fastenings on his gloves.

"It's big," he confirmed curtly, raking his hands through his hair in agitation. "But where the hell is it? There're dead bodies everywhere but there's no goddamn monster!"

"I say we seal off this back door and come back here," Seifer suggested, his face pale in the dim blue light. "We can't say we've secured this room completely, but the seal on the door should hold it off for a while and it's a safe bet that the Gerogero's already in another part of the complex. Besides, I'd much rather fight it in the main lab than in the tunnel that's most likely behind that door."

"Fine," Zell agreed, his body tense and his blue eyes glinting with determination. "Let's get back out there, find this thing and let all these poor souls rest in peace."

"I'll seal off the doorway," Selphie volunteered, already calling up a Firaga that would melt the metal doorframe and the door together into a solid steel slab. She knelt and cast the spell, aiming it at the bottom left corner of the door and grinning in satisfaction as the dark metal melded together in slow molten streams.

"Meet us by the entrance; we'll keep setting up Fira spells in the main lab. Since we're separating, start the radio check-ins, and call us immediately if anything starts to go wrong."

"Got it!" Selphie confirmed, a trace of her customary cheerfulness shining in her smile as she saluted to Zell. Calling up another Firaga, she set to work on the next segment of the door, watching the liquid metal dribble in cooling thick streams to cover the smeared crimson footprints on the tiled floor.

Seifer and Zell turned away from the crouching SeeD, casting Float on each other and gliding stiffly over the ruined heap of remains. As they landed in the outer part of the hallway, Zell cast one last look over his shoulder at the pooling gore and bit his lip pensively, the frown that had been hovering over his features since they entered the labs deepening further.

"What the hell d'ya think happened to all the scientists that were down here?" he asked Seifer, taking a deep thankful breath as they stepped out of the corridor and into the fresher, cleaner air of the main lab.

"After seeing those bodies, I don't really want to find out," Seifer admitted, swallowing great gulps of the untainted air himself. He called up a Fira and tossed it against the wall beyond the doorway they had just emerged from, then walked away from the wall into the dim circle of light cast by the spell.

Zell watched him go before casting a Fira over where Seifer was standing and joining him at a high bank of counters that formed part of the outer ring of desks and tables lining the center of the lab.

"Where the hell do you think this thing is hiding?" Zell said quietly, allowing himself to stand close enough to feel Seifer's body heat and using the small comfort to center himself and steady his nerves.

Seifer felt Zell's closeness and shivered slightly, enjoying the fleeting contact and biting his lip to distract himself from demanding more.

"We'll find it, Zell," Seifer started to say, and was turning to face the smaller man when their radios crackled to sudden life, making them both jump.

"Selphie checking in! I'm almost finished; three more Firagas should do it! Be there in a sec!"

Seifer winced as Selphie's cheerful voice echoed shrilly in the dim cavernous space of the main laboratory, pulling his communicator off his belt and turning the volume down a notch. Their fleeting moment of reassurance over, Zell stepped away from the scarred SeeD, moving farther into the tangled ruin of the laboratory and glancing briefly at the various jumbled papers and broken scientific instruments littering the desks and the floor.

As Zell wandered off, Seifer gave the volume button one last half turn, frowning as his fingers lingered on the controls. When he pulled his hand away, his fingers brushed the frequency dial and he froze, staring hard at the communicator before closing his eyes and sighing in exasperation.

The frequency dial.

They could have been accessing the channel used on the previous mission from the start in the hopes that the Gerogero had somehow kept a hold on a few of Barrett's transmitters and tracked the damn thing that way.

"Zell?" Seifer called, fiddling with the small textured knob and trying to remember what channel they had used before.

The tattooed SeeD heard Seifer's low shout, but his attention was already focused on a single object amid the silent ruins of the lab. Just ahead of him, by the leg of a long white table, he stared hard and thought he could make out a pale curled hand. Casting another Firaga into the air above the table, he stepped forward and narrowed his eyes as the hand came into sharp clarity, covered from the wrist by a white lab coat. Several feet to the left of that body, another slumped figure in white was sprawled under a wheeled metal gurney, and Zell wrinkled his nose, calling over his shoulder to Seifer.

"Well, I think I found.."

Seifer cheered under his breath as a new channel locked on the transmitter, revealing two clusters of blinking taggers, one motionless and the other flashing a bright, neon green. The unmoving taggers weren't located in the tunnels where Barrett had fallen, but Seifer didn't have time to question the discrepancy as he realized the green moving taggers were heading straight for them.

Fifteen feet ahead of Seifer, Zell stopped walking entirely, his voice trailing off into a breathless gasp as a fluttering sluggish movement on the other side of the lab caught his eye.


Seifer jerked his head up to see Zell staring across the abandoned lab, his mouth open and his eyes wide and disbelieving. When the tall SeeD followed his teammate's line of vision he felt his own pulse stutter and his mouth go dry.

Walking across the dark recesses of the laboratory was a thin, lanky figure, clad in a tattered Balamb G SeeD uniform, his gait halting and lame.


At the sound of his name, the limping young man paused and turned his head slowly in their direction, awkwardly raising shaking hands to cover his chest.

"Oh, my god," Zell whispered, his voice hoarse and raw in his throat. He took a step forward, dazed, and Seifer shoved his communicator into his pants pocket and withdrew Hyperion, alarm flashing through him in a hot prickling wave.

"Zell," he called, his voice low and full of warning. "Zell, that's it; that's the Gerogero."

"Barrett?" Zell called again, uncertain and shaken. He took another step forward and Seifer glanced over his shoulder, frantically searching for Selphie behind him. The entrance to the secondary lab was dim and motionless; she was still finishing the seal on the other room's back door.

"Barrett's dead, Zell. He died. Now get over here; I only have two Protect spells left and Selphie's not back yet."

The young man in the shadows stopped entirely, watching the two SeeDs closely as he clutched his chest and trembled on weak legs.

"The Gerogero can't successfully invade a body!" Zell hissed, his eyes fixed on Barrett, who started to move, slowly, in their direction. "You saw what happened to the people it got before!"

"Dammit, Zell, get back behind these desks; you've got no cover out there!" Seifer ordered, frustrated anger and concern and rising panic making his voice a harsh growl. Afraid that a sudden move would startle the creature into attacking Zell, the tall SeeD started to move carefully after his teammate when the tattooed blond turned to fix Seifer with a cold glare that froze him in his tracks.

"We left him for dead, once, Seifer; I'm not gonna hurt him again."

Barrett limped ever closer, not saying a word, his eyes large and unfocussed and his feet making soft scraping sounds as they dragged through the loose piles of paper and debris that covered the floor.

"Selphie!" Seifer pulled out his radio and twisted the dial violently back to the proper channel, holding down the 'transmit' button so hard he felt something in the mechanism snap. "Selphie, get in here, and make it two minutes ago. Leave the damn door!"

"On my way," came the efficient, spare response, and all Seifer could do was watch in terrified suspense as the staggering thin figure came out of the shadows into the light of their Fira spells, only twenty or twenty-five feet away from Zell.

The tattooed blond reached out a hand tentatively in a non-threatening gesture, his stomach clenching painfully at the boy's haggard appearance and the broken, frail way he cradled his injured chest.

We left him here, Zell berated himself numbly. We left him here for dead with this creature prowling around and eating people for god's sake and today when we leave he's making it out with us alive, goddammit, and, oh, Hyne, he's just a kid, to have suffered like this.

The hollow circles under Barrett's staring brown eyes made him look like a skeleton with skin, and Zell called his name again, softly, just beginning to wonder at why the soldier wasn't responding at all to his voice.

Seifer called up his last two Protects and cast one on himself, bringing his other hand up to direct the second spell at Zell when his eyes darted to Barrett and were snagged by the thin figure. Distracted from Zell by the light of the spell, the trembling boy turned his gaze on Seifer, and the scarred SeeD was struck by how utterly lifeless those huge vacant eyes were. Lifeless, lifeless.. His mind caught onto the phrase and yelled something incoherent, and Seifer could only grimace in puzzlement and stare harder at Barrett. Lifeless.. Stare at the way he cradled his chest in his hands, the thin fingers shaking violently as they covered pale, papery, healed skin through the large tear in the front of the young soldier's uniform..

Hit with a sudden flash of sick suspicion, Seifer fumbled for his communicator with his free hand and flicked the dial back to the old frequency. The bottom half of the readout looked much the same; it was the previously unmoving cluster of taggers at the top of the screen that was now blinking green and approaching slowly that caught Seifer's eye.

"What the hell..?"

Seifer sucked in a sharp breath after he had spoken, his fingers starting to burn from the Protect spell waiting to be cast on Zell. Deciding they couldn't wait for Selphie, he threw the spell at Zell and stepped forward, Hyperion at the ready. Seifer glared at the lanky man in front of them who was shivering violently before sparing a glance for Zell, who was shaking his head to clear it from the dizziness brought on by the Protect. His eyes flashing angrily, Zell put a hand to his forehead and glared at Seifer in hot accusation.

"Goddammit, Seifer, you trying to give the poor kid a heart attack?" Zell hollered, and they turned back to look at Barrett only to find themselves staring down the barrel of a sleek silvery pistol, the weapon wavering slightly as the soldier clutched it in both hands.

Cursing, Seifer shoved Zell onto the floor and landed on top of him, seeing his radio go skittering past his face and feeling random shards of glass pierce his knees and palms through the material of his pants and gloves. Underneath him Zell yelped in pain as he hit the floor, but the thin high sound was swallowed in the ear-splitting report of Barrett's pistol. In the space of a prolonged, tortured heartbeat, Seifer realized several things at once, and almost forgot to breathe in the face of the sudden relief and renewed terror that flooded his mind.

He hadn't been shot; he was alive. Lifeless; that was Barrett. Selphie was behind them and had grunted in distress. The boy's chest was healed..? Selphie had been shot but she was still standing; he could hear her controlled, even breaths behind him. Barrett was breathing through lungs that by rights should have been nothing more than desiccated papier-mâché on the floor of a dark tunnel. His communicator was blinking with two green reasons to panic a few feet from his face. Zell was moving beneath him, mostly unharmed and trying to stand. The Gerogero couldn't successfully clone itself or others yet, unless it had help. Unless it had a way to enter a body. Barrett was walking around lifeless because they'd fixed him and tried to cure him, even after he'd stopped breathing, pumping him full of..


Seifer rolled off of Zell towards Selphie, ignoring the tiny stabs of agony lancing through his skin as he lodged more glass shards in his side. Selphie was calling up a Curaga, gritting her teeth and lifting the hand that was cradling the glowing spell up to her bleeding shoulder.

"Don't cast the Curaga!" Seifer shouted violently, pushing himself off of the ground and using Hyperion for balance before he swung it in front of him, advancing grimly toward the shaking boy with the gunblade cocked and aimed at Barrett's head. Selphie dropped her hand, startled, and the spell burned itself away with a sizzle that was drowned out by Zell's panted curse as the tattooed blond shoved himself off of the floor and looked past Barrett.

Lumbering out of the tunnels at the rear of the room in a horrific replay of Barrett's entrance, an enormous Gerogero entered the laboratory, it's sulfuric eyes blazing in its bare skull as it swung its head around to take in the four human figures that were staring at it, frozen in place as they hardly dared to breathe. In its good hand it clutched a huge rock club that scraped along behind it when it moved, providing counterpoint to the large deformed arm that swung uselessly at its other side, both the club and its misshapen claws scratching over the tiled floor with echoing shrill sounds as it moved towards the motionless SeeDs.

The click of Barrett's pistol cocking caught the attention of all three SeeDs and the Gerogero, and Zell blinked when the boy unsteadily leveled the gun with the tattooed SeeD's chest and fired.

"ZELL!" Seifer roared, casting Haste on himself and throwing his body at Barrett's. He swung Hyperion in a wicked arc that caught the thin young soldier on the arms, severing one completely at the elbow and slicing deeply into the soft flesh of the other. When Seifer attacked the boy, the Gerogero paused momentarily in its forward advance, its eyes flashing furiously out of the deep shadows at the back of the room. Hissing angrily, the hulking monster cast a cloud of status ailments over Seifer, who coughed thickly as Poison managed to seep through his Shell and Protect spells.

Zell staggered, blinking furiously and trying to breathe despite the fact that his lungs would not cooperate. When his vision started clouding red around the edges, he punched himself sharply in the diaphragm with the side of his fist, forcing air back into his chest and gasping in relief. Barrett had missed him, just barely, and he could still feel the deadly stinging rush of the bullet as it sped past his left ear, the sensation terrifying enough even in recollection to make him dizzy. Suddenly Selphie was at his side, patting him down for injuries and stoically ignoring her own bleeding shoulder. They both looked up at the sound of a crash as the enraged Gerogero lumbered out of the shadows, swinging its club down at Seifer and narrowly missing the tall SeeD, instead smashing an entire counter and sending wood shards and glass everywhere. Seifer stumbled away from the monster's onslaught and cast a desperate glance back at Zell and Selphie, relief flashing through his eyes at the sight of Zell still standing before he lost eye contact to make another panicked dodge from the monster.

"Do not cast Curagas! No Esuna, either!" Seifer shouted, firing another round into the hulking Gerogero and delivering a precise slash with Hyperion's blade. "Selph takes support magic Shell and Protect only and Zell, get your ass over here and help me!"

Lurching into action, Zell shook his head dazedly and cast Haste on himself, rushing towards Seifer only to fall roughly to the ground when something caught at his right ankle. Sent sprawling with a grunt of pain, he heard Selphie cast another Protect onto Seifer and then felt the cool sparkle of Shell encasing his body. Energized, Zell kicked his foot to free it from the impediment, twisting to look down at his ankle and cursing in a breathless rush of fear.

He was lying next to the toppled form of Barrett, and the former SeeD was staring at him blankly, his head unmoving and his eyes horribly unseeing even as the deformed meaty pulp oozing out of the boy's severed arm tightened around Zell's ankle, thick yellow claws identical to the Gerogero's tearing deep rents in the skin of his calf. Letting out a disgusted yelp, Zell kicked fiercely at the misshapen bubbling limb with his free foot, utterly appalled by how the monstrous appendage continued to writhe tortuously and grow even as the rest of the young soldier's body remained motionless. An abrupt, choked-off shout from Seifer momentarily drew Zell's attention away from his captor, and he craned his neck to see Seifer stagger as Poison made it through his defenses again, this time joined by Blind.

"Call Ifrit!" Zell shouted at Selphie, still frantically attempting to disentangle himself from the tightening vise of the hellish limb sprouting from Barrett's severed arm. "You've gotta help Seifer 'cause I'm fucking stuck!"

Selphie nodded quickly, shimmering out of view as the temperature of the room grew noticeably warmer and Zell twisted again to scream at Seifer in warning. The scarred SeeD scrambled blindly backwards, collapsing against a desk and crawling under its shelter as Ifrit materialized and hurled his Hell Fire at the Gerogero. The creature howled, high-pitched and ear splitting, the loose gelatinous flesh of its deformed limbs wobbling hideously as it swayed and absorbed the damage but did not fall.

Inspired by the GF's minor success, Zell tried casting a Firaga on the gnarled oozing limb fastened around his ankle. He cast it again as the tentacle-like extension shrunk in size and finally uncurled, allowing the tattooed SeeD to leap to his feet, panting for breath. Zell saw that Seifer was still down and ran at the Gerogero, feeling strength flood his body as Selphie cast Triple and Shell on him again.

Zell threw a couple of Firagas and some wicked attack combos at the hulking monster, concerned by how Selphie had starting swaying on her feet and Seifer was still slumped on the floor. Desperate and furious, Zell unleashed a devastating limit break and then summoned Quetzacoatl, hoping the GF could finish the job since he and his teammates were fading fast. When the great winged beast had faded out of sight and Zell materialized once again, he breathed deeply of the singed sharp smell of electricity in the air and let out his breath in a deep sigh of relief.

The Gerogero had fallen and was lying unmoving and face down in the charred wreckage that surrounded it, its huge deadly club resting several yards away.

Zell whipped around at a light touch on his arm, but it was only Selphie, grinning weakly and clutching at her wounded shoulder.

"Can we ask Seifer why we can't use Curagas now?" she asked plaintively, her face pale and bloodless. Dark crimson stained the front of her uniform and her hands, standing out starkly against the pale bluish cast of the rest of her exposed skin.

"That's how't transfers into you," Seifer answered thickly from where he was struggling to stand, his speech slurred and sluggish. "We've got to get th' hell outta here an' just.. blow this place up; get back to th' transport.. an' use Curagas.. there.."

"Hey! No passing out," Zell ordered sharply, raw worry and residual souring adrenaline making his voice come out more harshly than he had intended. "Let's get you two back to the pickup point.. But first, give me all your explosives and detonators."

Collecting those items from his teammates, Zell hurriedly set up the timers and then arranged their entire arsenal of explosives around the motionless body of the Gerogero. As he was rigging one of Selphie's bombs by the monster's feet, he paused for a moment, his eye caught by a flickering light that stood out oddly against the whitish underside of the creature's huge stumpy foot. Cautiously leaning in closer, Zell's eyes widened as he identified the source of the strange muted glow; just under the heavily veined, transparent surface of the Gerogero's skin, three tiny round objects were visible, one blinking a steady, rhythmic yellow.

The missing taggers.

"Well, shit," Zell breathed, rising out of his crouch and hurriedly finishing the preparation of the last of the explosives. His mind racing, Zell jogged away from the Gerogero towards Selphie and Seifer, slowing to a stop alongside the ravaged body of Devon Barrett. Dropping the last few clusters of dynamite next to the twisted corpse, Zell swallowed against the cool finality of the gesture and forced himself to turn away quickly; it was time to end the mission in Centra, once and for all. Resolute, Zell headed back towards his two struggling teammates, who were leaning on each other weakly and gulping in air in erratic shallow breaths.

"We're all set," Zell said, smiling at both of his fellow SeeDs with real relief shining through the tiredness in his eyes. "Let's get the hell outta here and fix you guys up by the beach, ok?"

Seifer nodded in silent agreement and Selphie managed a feeble cheer as the small group left the dim, reeking air of the main lab, inhaling deeply of the thick cool air of the stairwell that contained no traces of blood or burnt electricity. Climbing the endless stairs was almost too much for Selphie, but she trudged on, leaning heavily on Zell's shoulder with her good arm and biting her lip. Zell made Seifer walk in front of him so he could keep a guiding hand at the other man's back, his throat constricting in angry concern as he watched the tall man stumble upwards, uncomplaining and stiff-shouldered. When they finally broke out of the cool cave and into the empty, bright hills, Zell denied Selphie's suggestion that they take a rest, wrapping his arm more tightly around the small woman's waist as she sagged against him and grabbing Seifer by the collar as the taller man slumped against a high rock wall.

"Keep moving!" Zell ordered hoarsely, shoving Seifer in front of him again as he directed the party towards the cliffs that would drop them down onto the shore. He was anxious to set off the bombs and cast Curagas on his teammates quickly, before anything else could go wrong.

After a wordless, painful span of thirty minutes, they made it to a wide plateau several miles north of the entire underground system that would be safe from cave-ins. Zell ordered a halt, digging the detonators out of his battered knapsack and setting them off in rapid succession, watching with muted satisfaction as a tall cloud of dust rose into the air when the underground caverns collapsed into rubble.

"Can we use Curagas now, Seifer?" Zell asked wearily, already calling one to his fingers.

Seifer had sunk to the ground, supported by a boulder, his head tilted back against the rock as he stared blankly in the direction of the other two SeeDs through slitted, unfocussed eyes.

"..Yeah.." he muttered indistinctly, squinting ineffectually as he tried to locate Zell by the sound of his grim voice. "Get Selphie first.."

Biting back a snappish remark, Zell reigned in the stinging apprehension that was threatening to spill over into fury and nodded, turning to Selphie and gently covering her torn shoulder with the spell cupped in his hand. She regained a little color but when she murmured her thanks she didn't smile, and Zell called up another Curaga worriedly, letting the cool energy flow out of his fingers into the small SeeD's trembling body. Behind them, Seifer's back slid slightly down the rock, his eyes fluttering closed and his breathing slowing to thin reedy gasps.

"You with us again, Selph?" Zell asked the female soldier, grinning in heartfelt relief as Selphie laughed quietly, the sparkle back in her eyes.

"I'll agree to coming back if you tell Irvy I got to push the button that took out three square miles of Centra."

"Deal," Zell chuckled, standing slowly from his kneeling position and wincing as his gashed calf loudly protested the strain it had endured. Limping slightly, Zell turned around to cast Esuna on Seifer and gasped, his pulse jumping sharply at the sight of the tall man pale and crumpled over and unmoving on the rocky ground.


Selphie straightened up with a shocked look on her face at the sound of Zell's panicked voice, watching in horrified disbelief as the tattooed SeeD cast Esuna on Seifer to no effect. The scarred blond remained still, his skin tinged with an unhealthy greenish cast and his limbs limp and unresponsive as Zell settled him carefully to the ground, frantically up another Esuna and casting it with desperation in his eyes.

"The poison?" Selphie asked breathlessly, rushing over to crouch next to Zell and throwing a Curaga onto Seifer's motionless chest.

"It's been so long; what the hell else was he hit with?" Calling up another Curaga, the tattooed man cast it on Seifer and choked back a cry when the tall soldier's eyelids fluttered weakly. Selphie squeaked happily, and Zell blinked down at Seifer, casting another Esuna for good measure and also to distract himself from the tears of relief that stung at the backs of his eyes. The distraction proved to be useless, however, as Seifer coughed feebly and Zell felt a violent rush of emotion tear through him at the thought that the older man had almost died. Before he realized what he was doing Zell was leaning over the scarred SeeD and almost shouting at him in his intense relief.

"Seifer! Are you ok?! You scared the hell outta me! You scared the hell out of us! Can you breathe ok? Can you sit up?"

Babbling frantically, Zell stared down into Seifer's face with wide, frightened eyes, helping the other man sit up slowly as he groggily regained consciousness.

"How about 'can we go home now'?" Seifer mumbled, his voice hoarse and hopeful.

Zell laughed out loud, and was clutching at the tall man in a desperate embrace before he remembered that they had an audience. Who was making herself quite obvious with loud clapping and whistling cheers.

"Kiss him!" Selphie hollered gleefully, apparently back to full health and not fazed in the least by the glares of death that both men shot in her direction.

"We're not some kind of floor show," Seifer growled, sitting up completely and dusting off his uniform with shaking hands. Zell dropped his arms, pulling away and playing with his gloves in an attempt to hide his blush from both the other SeeDs.

There was silence for a moment until the two men looked over at Selphie again and frowned at the huge smile on her face.

"What?!" They both yelled in unison.

"Nothing!" She chirped, kicking her feet up and down and smiling some more. "But tell me, has this been going on for a while, or what?"

"What do you mean?" Zell muttered stubbornly, still engrossed in the metal fittings on the backs of his gloves.

"What do I mean. Hah! I had you two figured out on the way here this morning! I had you two figured out at lunch yesterday! I knew, I knew!!"

"Do you want us to kill you?" Seifer asked, rubbing his forehead and looking pained. "Or better yet, be a good little SeeD and go play with some Curagas by the caves."

"Just don't tell Quisty, uh-uh," Selphie went on, oblivious to Seifer's glower.

"Quisty?" Zell had complete confusion written all over his face. "Why shouldn't we tell her? Not that we're telling anyone anything, uh, since there's not much to tell, to anybody, 'cause our business is our busin-."

"Quisty's had a crush on you for the longest time, that's why," Selphie said matter-of-factly, ignoring the way Zell's eyes bugged out of his head. Seifer saw the other man's expression and couldn't stop the loud laugh that bubbled out of his chest.

"Qu-Quisty's had a crush? On me? ..But I'm gay!" Zell stammered, the slight color in his cheeks blossoming into a full-blown tomato-red blush of epic proportions. Seifer slapped him on the back when it appeared that he'd stopped breathing in his shock.

"Well she only ate lunch with you like every other day," Selphie pointed out, her tone incredulous. "And maybe me and Irvy knew about you not liking girls but you never told Quisty! I kinda felt sorry for her, but I thought I ought to let you explain things for yourself if she ever tried to make a move."

"I'd like to be there to see that," Seifer chuckled, dodging Zell's swat with only slightly slowed reflexes; the healing spells were still slowly working to cleanse the poison from his system.

"This's so weird," Zell groaned, running his hands through his hair in agitation. "'If she ever tried to make a move'?! Ghaa!"

"Just tell her you're not interested," Seifer suggested quietly, closing his eyes and leaning dizzily against Zell's back.

Zell blinked, then twisted his neck to peer back at Seifer's face. He blinked again, and then started to grin, letting himself lean into Seifer a little, too.

"OK," the tattooed blond conceded softly, feeling Seifer's warmth seep through his clothes, smoothing away some of the tension in his sore muscles and setting his skin to tingling.

"Kiss him!" Selphie shouted again, and Seifer slitted his eyes open, staring over the cliffs and out to sea with a grim set to his mouth.

"I think I see the ship."

"Thank god," Zell sighed, and buried his head in his arms melodramatically. It had been a long day.

(0_/0) x (^_^})

When Zell and his team stepped out of the transport onto the blessedly familiar grounds of Balamb G, both Quistis and Squall were waiting for them at the top of the stairs. The three SeeDs gave a tired salute, and Quistis descended a few steps to meet the returning soldiers, her wan face reflecting concern and relief and glowing pride.

"Instructor," Zell greeted, feeling his face flush and trying to act like he hadn't noticed. "Mission accomplished; we killed that nasty son of a bitch and Selphie here blew it sky high."

Selphie beamed at Quistis proudly, winking at the blond Instructor as she slung an arm over Zell's shoulders.

"Piece of cake, right, Zell?"

"Uh, right.. Hey, that's my line!" the tattooed SeeD protested loudly, growling at Selphie, who only laughed.

Rolling his eyes at their antics, Seifer tried to brush past his two teammates impatiently, but his shoulders slumped in defeat when Selphie caught him by the sleeve and pulled him to stand in front of Quistis.

"Seifer almost died," the small woman stated in a dramatic stage whisper, her eyes wide as Quistis blinked first at her, then at Seifer, who raised his gloved hands in a show of helplessness in the face of Selphie's enthusiastic endorsement. "He passed out, and I got shot! Can you believe it? My first bullet!"

The small group reached the top of the stairs in time for Squall to hear Selphie's last comments, and the Commander raised one eyebrow in subdued surprise, the shadow of a smile flickering over his features.

"I'm glad you three made it back safely," Squall said genuinely, turning towards Garden proper and waving vaguely towards the Headmaster's office. "And despite some serious-sounding injuries, I think you all look well enough to come to my office immediately for debriefing."

"Your office?" Quistis questioned teasingly, clearly in a good mood now that the three SeeDs were back at Balamb G, safe and sound. "That's the third time this week you've made that slip."

"Cid's office, my office.. Whatever," the Commander muttered in exasperation, shooting his companions a cold glare as someone snickered under their breath.

"I heard that."

"Oh, Squall, you need a vacation!" Selphie suggested cheerfully, walking alongside the quiet man with bouncing, energetic strides. Squall shot her a look.

"I thought you'd been shot?"

"Yep! Wanna see the slug when Dr. Kadowaki takes it out?"

As Selphie skipped along with Squall, Quistis fell back to walk next to Zell and Seifer, eyeing the tattooed blond curiously when he flashed her a tight grin.

"Did you get sunburned today, Zell? You're all pink."

"Oh, he's just made that way," Seifer said, his voice deadpan. He grunted softly when Zell elbowed him in the ribs, wincing and pulling his uniform away from his skin. "Ow! Watch the glass, Chicken!"

Distracted by Seifer's comment from her study of Zell's red face, Quistis peered closer at the two SeeDs, her eyes widening.

"You two are covered in glass shards! Why on earth didn't you say something? Shouldn't you go change?"

"We'll be ok for the debriefing, Quisty," Zell assured, scratching the back of his neck in vague embarrassment at her motherly attentions. "We made it all the way back here; we'll make it through another half-hour in these clothes."

"If you're sure.." the blond Instructor trailed off uncertainly, her eyes doubtful behind her round glasses. She lifted a hand to brush off Zell's back, but instead let her arm drop back to her side, clasping her hands in front of her and eyeing the two men worriedly.

Ahead of them Squall pushed open the door to Cid's office, rubbing a hand over his scar and grimacing as Selphie bounced into the room after him, chattering on about the Gerogero and how Seifer and Zell had 'really kicked some ass!'

When all five SeeDs were assembled in the spacious office, with Zell and his teammates standing at attention in front of the large oak desk and Squall and Quistis situated behind it, Cid abruptly opened the door and ambled in, beaming proudly.

"Excellent job today, SeeDs!" He congratulated heartily, clapping Squall on the back as he took his place in the high-backed chair between his two assistants. "Now, if we're all settled, why don't you begin with your mission summary."

Stepping forward, Zell addressed Cid respectfully before launching into an overview of the events of their mission, stoically relating their discovery of the decaying Galbadian corpses and the obviously inhabited yet empty room that housed the Gerogero's cage. When Zell recounted with barely contained anger the presence of the unmarked door in the side lab, Squall frowned deeply and leaned down to scribble something onto a sheet of paper, his silvery eyes flashing with a silent command to continue as he straightened up and gave the short man a curt nod.

At the point in the mission where Barrett appeared, however, Zell paused and swallowed quietly as Quistis gasped in shock and Cid rose halfway out of his chair, his heavy brows drawn together in consternation.

"You mean to tell me that young man was still alive?" Cid questioned in obvious disbelief.

Squall crossed his arms over his chest and pursed his lips, his eyes darting to Seifer in silent accusation before he seemed to realize what he was doing and he returned his gaze to Zell.

Squaring his shoulders under the weight of three stares, Zell nodded in response to the Headmaster's query and then turned to Seifer, giving him a long look that wordlessly asked for his help. Seifer stepped forward immediately, and Zell turned back to the Headmaster.

"At that point, sir, Seifer seemed to figure something out that me and Selphie still don't quite understand, so it might be more appropriate for him to carry on from here."

Cid nodded magnanimously, sinking back into his chair and motioning for Seifer to begin speaking.

"When Barrett appeared, sir, there was some confusion over whether he was our lost SeeD or the target Gerogero in a mutated form. This naturally resulted in hesitation on our part to attack the soldier, and before we took offensive measures, he produced a weapon and fired at us."

Seifer went on to explain the sequence of events leading up to the fight with the Gerogero and finishing with the SeeDs' departure from the caves. After he described Zell's efficient rigging and detonating of the explosives, he paused for breath and was met by three shocked, puzzled gazes and complete silence.

Finally, Squall spoke up.

"So Barrett was a partial clone of the Gerogero? And what did Barrett's appearance have to do with your decision to not use Curagas in battle? You and Selphie could have been seriously and permanently injured from the wounds you received; you know what kind of damage untreated status ailments can cause, Seifer."

"We would have been more than injured if we had used Curagas, Squall," Zell interrupted hotly, his fists clenched. "We would have died. Like Barrett. Seifer figured it out and that's the only reason we're standing here right now; the Curagas were the trigger for the Gerogero's invasive cloning attack."

"What?" The Commander's voice was almost comically high-pitched.

"Look, let me try to explain what I think happened," Seifer interjected plaintively, holding up his hands for attention. "When I saw Barrett, I immediately thought he was the Gerogero in mutated form, but Zell pointed out, quite rightly, that the monster was demonstrably not yet able to successfully clone itself, much less mutate into a different form. As we discussed before, the creature's modified capabilities were never fully perfected due to the abortion of the project, and this partial functioning extended to include the trigger for its genetically invasive attacks. Now, what caught my attention about Barrett was that his chest, which had been irreparably mutilated when we found him, was completely healed. That in itself was an impossibility; he was dead when we left him, and all Zell's Curagas had no effect on his injuries. The healed condition of Barrett's body helped make clear why he was still alive when we found him in the caves on the first mission. It had puzzled me before why Barrett, who was in a near-death state, was not targeted for the Gerogero's invasive attack and immediately killed, as were the other two SeeDs we found. He must have done something different from them to avoid getting attacked."

Seifer stopped speaking for a moment to catch his breath, dimly appreciative of the five distinctly impressed stares of amazement directed at him.

"In actuality, however, Barrett did the exact same thing as the other two SeeDs; he cast Curaga on himself after the Gerogero first injured him. He cast Curaga, and the invasive attack on his body was triggered. Somehow he made it to us before the mutations became enough to kill him, but we were already far too late.."

(0_/0) x (^_^})

..I can't remember how I got down here. It's pitch black and cold and echoing with the sounds of dripping water and my own shallow breathing and the empty faint buzzing of endless silence. The only illumination spills from my flashlight in a thin wavering beam that skips along the walls and floor with wide jittery sweeps as I walk on through the crushing shadows, trying to force my hands to stop shaking. I've never been in a place so dark before. This, this could be death.

I'm not scared.

A SeeD is never scared, and damn it all but I'm on a mission with two of my heroes and there's no way in hell I'm going to radio them for help and tell them I got lost in some stupid caves and please come help me because I'm scared of the dark. There's no way.

There's no way out.

I know it's just my mind playing tricks on me but I feel like I've passed this convergence of tunnels at least twice before. Remember your psychology, Devon, when the mind can't see every detail it fills in the blanks, just like it's telling you that you saw this rock wall before, this very same rock wall. Every wall down here looks like this. I must be getting close to the exit, by now.

"Almost out. Just keep walking."

Talking to myself helps distract me from the nagging feeling that something is following me. I can feel it drawing closer, displacing darkness and the thick silent air as it pads along heavily, watching my back. I know something's there, behind me where I refuse to turn around and look. The creeping certainty is making my skin crawl, and my mouth tastes sour enough to force me to swallow, dryly, against bitter rising bile. I know something's there. Just under the steady stopwatch ticking of water upon rock, just under my forced, unsteady breaths that float with crystalline impermanence past the beam of my flashlight, there is a heavy, distant thudding. For five minutes I was able to convince myself that it was only my heartbeat, but now it's much too slow and measured to correspond with the mad painful pounding in my chest.

My ears strain so hard that I can hear my nerves fraying, snapping ropelike inch by inch until..

"..-rrett! Do you copy? Over."

My communicator crackles to life in a violent burst of static, and I bite back a shaken scream so hard that I can taste the aborted sound in my mouth along with hot blood. Inhaling sharply in distress, some of the thick metallic liquid filling my mouth is sucked into my windpipe and my eyes go wide.

A panicked moment oh god I can't breathe I'll choke to death on my own blood in these fucking endless caves and it hurts so bad to breathe again and suddenly I can't see since I've dropped my flashlight to clutch at my chest, rasping wetly and coughing up more pain, sharp and searing.


"Breathe, dammit! Calm down."

My flashlight has rolled to a stop in the loose sand and casts a single clean-cut beam of visibility through the murky air and against the curving wall ahead of me. I force myself to ignore the pain in my chest and the panting, primal urge to turn around and face the looming darkness and instead focus on the fact that I dropped my communicator sometime during these last frantic seconds. It is easy enough to mutter a muffled curse and lose myself in the normalcy of searching for something, kicking around on the ground blindly before giving up and walking towards my flashlight. In my pants pocket my share of taggers clink heavily and maybe it's time to stop being such a hero all alone and call for help. I feel around, flipping open the cap of one small device and activating it as I stand in front of where my flashlight has fallen. Now I'll be ok, and I breathe a sigh of relief as I bend down to pick the light up, but suddenly there is a cold rush of air behind me as my fingers close around the smooth metal, and I stand and swing the light towards the shifting shadows and oh god there are two huge yellow eyes and a screech and whistling wind and..


I scream out loud, flying backwards to crumple against the opposite wall and oh god it hurts so bad focus Devon ah I can't breathe focus, dammit and please, please make it stop use a Curaga, for god's sake, it's killing me!

Calling the spell to numb throbbing fingers I cast it on my chest and stare down in horror as the blue light of the spell illuminates a bloody crush of dark uniform and pale skin and slick, reddened bone.

Oh god I can see my ribs Devon don't think about it, fuck! The Curaga's working, you can breathe again stand up and fight because this hulking demon is moving toward me and it smells like death and I'm not going to die down here!

I tear my pistols from their holsters and struggle frantically to stand, using the leverage of the wall behind me and taking aim at the fiery approaching eyes. Something is still aching in my chest but I have to fend off this bastard first.. The guns jump in my hands as I let off my first shots, and as the creature pauses and howls in rage I take the opportunity to cast another Curaga, cringing as the strange twisting feeling in my lungs intensifies as I fire off another round.

A dark shimmer clouds the air and why the hell did I forget my Shell magic it's too late now and the world implodes into a hollow darkness that sucks the energy from my spasm-seized muscles.

Status ailments? What the hell is this thing, and what the hell is wrong with my chest?! Something inside me twists abruptly and I let out a strangled sob, falling to my knees as another crackling wave of ailments washes over me. More Poison, a detached part of my brain notes under the screaming agony that is mauling my coherent thought. Poison, Confuse, I've fallen now, Blinded, writhing on the sandy floor and casting another Curaga on my chest and why aren't they working I can't stand it make it stop, please!

Under my wildly clutching fingers there is sand and sand and a smooth cool pebble and sand and another.. Tagger, the taggers, help me, Zell, please, Seifer, someone, and I scrabble jerkily to flip the mechanisms, again and again I can't count anything anymore but when I breathe it burns and I think I put some taggers back in my pockets but the next thing in my trembling fingers is a gun and Berserk! Attack! Shooting crazily at nothing and everything, I feel fire erupt in my shin, my ankle, and the yellow eyes are staring and I try to shoot at the pain in my chest but suddenly the gun in gone and oh, god, how can anything hurt this much, hurt, it hurts help me god I want to scream and I've been Silenced this is torture, oh please help!

Moving blindly screaming no sound but a rushing roar in my ears and yellow eyes and red and slippery coughing blood! ..And it's mine, and there are lights, and weird warping shouts and the thick merciless twisting has moved on to my heart and please kill me, please end it, who are you people, help me it's too much and I can taste my own insides and I want to scream but I can't see, I can't move, and it's fading, finally, the pain and the fire, and the empty scorching universe contracts and flickers into me..

(0_/0) x (^_^})

"My god," Quistis whispered in horror, her face pale as she lifted fluttering fingers to cover her mouth.

Zell and Selphie looked rather ill, and only Squall and Headmaster Cid had managed to stay mostly blank-faced during Seifer's description of what might have happened to the fallen soldier.

"In essence, the large number of Curagas we cast on Barrett affected only the mutating genes of the Gerogero within his body," Seifer concluded, his voice wavering slightly after nearly ten solid minutes of uninterrupted speech. He cleared his throat before continuing, looking largely unaffected by the grim tale he was relating.

"Instead of malfunctioning and destroying the host body, with the help of the Curagas the mutating genes were able to invade their new shell properly. The damage they caused was systematically 'cured' as the Gerogero's physical composition developed inside of Barrett's body, erasing Barrett's life force to make room for the parasite and sealing up the fatal wound to protect that parasitic life form. That's why he had no pulse when we left him; he was already dead, and his body was no more than a functioning habitat for the Gerogero's replicated DNA; a zombie, a walking corpse. And that's the state we encountered him in; it explains why he was able to attack Zell with the regenerated limb that resembled the Gerogero's appendages, and why he ceased to be able to move effectively once the Gerogero became involved in battle with us and could not guide him."

"You're sure that you destroyed these things," was the first comment to break the ensuing shocked silence, directed by Cid at the three SeeDs standing before him.

"Yes, sir," Selphie spoke up, somehow managing an impish grin even after Seifer's chilling monologue. "I watched Zell set up the explosives, and let me tell you, there is nothing left of those labs except a three-mile crater."

"Well, if that's all, I think you three have had more than enough excitement for the day," Cid said, smiling at the tired soldiers dazedly. "Excellent work all around, and why don't you three take a two-day leave to relax."

"Yes, sir!" The SeeDs saluted, and Cid grinned and nodded towards the door before seeming to remember something and glancing up at Squall questioningly. "Was there anything you wanted to add, Squall?"

"No, sir," Squall responded, regarding Seifer coolly with a grudging sort of respect.

"Well then," Cid smiled, adjusting his glasses and smoothing down his vest. "You're dismissed."

(0_/0) x (^_^})

At times like this I wish I were still incapable of feeling.

Leaning against the tiled wall of my shower, boneless and luxuriating in the hot pelting caress of the water, I wish I could turn off the part of my brain that is clamoring for attention and ruining my detachment with mournful pity for Barrett and sweet weakening relief at Zell's safety and impatient keen hunger for his warmth. I'll see him, touch him, soon enough, but the problem is now is not even soon enough and I don't want to have to stop feeling him once I start. I want him in me, on me, wrapping around me all night and all day and promising never to let go.

This has certainly developed into a dangerous addiction.

Unable to relax, I twist off the taps and towel myself dry, padding into the bedroom and just stepping into a pair of boxers when there is a knock at my door.

I know it's him.

I think I'll answer it like this.

When I open the door he's standing there quietly, looking subdued and somehow older in faded jeans and a sweatshirt. He smiles at me, and I can see his fatigue clearly in his eyes. He looks pale, and exhausted, and stubbornly tough as he squares his shoulders against the weariness and leans against my doorframe.

He looks beautiful.

"Wanna go grab dinner? I'm starving and they close soon."

I wave him inside, giving my hair one last brisk toweling and nodding in agreement as I head back to the bathroom.

"Sure. Just let me get dressed."

Sighing, he plops down on my couch, drumming his fingers together idly and tapping his feet.

"You look like shit," I call from the side of my bed as I step into a pair of slacks. "Make sure to get a good night's sleep tonight, Chicken, or you'll start molting from the stress."

He snorts at me when I reenter the small living room, rolling his eyes at the cheeky smirk I know is plastered on my face.

"You don't look so hot yourself," he says, his eyes playful. "Maybe we can help each other out; how about I stay here tonight? I guarantee you'll pass out once I'm done with you."

I can't stop the smile that rises to my mouth, and I turn away from him while I shrug into my trenchcoat, biting my lower lip.

"Why don't we just skip dinner, then?" I offer half-seriously, pausing on my way to turn off the bedroom light with my back to him as I wait for his response.

"What?! No way!"

His indignant squawk is expected and I move to flip off the switch, chuckling softly.

"If you don't let me eat I guarantee I'll pass out before you even get started with me."

"I forgot about having to feed the birds," I laugh, and he stands up with a mock growl, cuffing me lightly on the arm as he walks past me to the door. He slows down, though, suddenly, and the teasing punch rebounds into a soft trailing touch from my bicep to my forearm, ending with him clasping my wrist loosely in his strong fingers. He stares up at me, silent, and something curls tautly in my chest like a tightening spring.

I don't know what he's going to say, but I do know that when the tense coil in my chest snaps loose I'll have to kiss him, long and deep and grateful for surviving the trip through hell we made today.

But he reads my eyes in that unerring way of his and leans up first, wrapping his arms around my neck and then we are pressed together, frantic, seeking whole possession of each other with a need that blossoms fierce and wild every time we touch. I can feel it, then, in the hard tangle of his fingers in my hair and the slow loosening of his shoulder blades, how much he was afraid for me and how badly he needed this reassurance.

I needed it, too, to an extent that scares me, but now he's here and alive in my arms and as we slowly pull apart, reluctant and lingering, I breathe his breath and wonder at the fact that this attraction is so insatiable and strong.

"So I'm staying, I guess," he laughs quietly, running his fingers down my spine.

"Why don't you stay tomorrow, too," I offer, grinning as he leans up and nips once at my lower lip.

"And then we'll switch, and try my place."

"Yeah, ok."

And a warm flash of understanding passes between us.

"So that's how it's gonna be?"

"Yeah; that's how it's gonna be," I answer, serious and not bothering to hide it.

"And what about other people knowing?" He asks carefully, and I know that was a loaded question, but his blue eyes are sincere and guardedly hopeful and it's clear what he's really trying to say.

"I don't care."

And I mean it.

And when he smiles, easily, I know he understands.

(0_/0) x (^_^})