Disclaimer: Esse doesn't own the characters of Final Fantasy VIII. She does own a computer, which came with a nifty-keen ergonomic keyboard, and she makes use of them as she will. Money is never made, only lost. Square is a cruel, cruel overlord.

Notes: I promised Emily a birthday ficcie long, long ago. This is the one I first started working on. There are bits and pieces of several more floating around. One day, I'll finish them as well. I wanted t' give her something much nicer. ::shrugs wearily:: But by now, I'm happy t' have something t' give her at all :D Ficcie is placed, as all these type stories are, in the Guidance Councillor universe. It does exist — just not in any form you can see. A particular segment owes its origins to a long ago conversation. I think I'll leave it at that.

Warnings: Oh, the poor, poor fairytales! This ficcie is limited by the fable it was based on. I tried t' work around it, but failed :\ It shows. ^^;; I don't think I even need language warnings in this one. Ah, a bit of innuendo… but that's only to be expected, right? Right?!?

Thanks: To Emily, for proofing her own gift. She's the best I tell you, the best!

FF Notes: First posted to calicodragon 3/26/2001. Minor formatting changes to comply with FF. Minor corrections. Shounen ai.

Balamb Town Musicians

A certain Garden once had a cadet who for many years made the lives of particular other cadets unfailingly miserable. This cadet was well known about the campus; partly notorious for his arrogant smirk, partly for his prominent scar, and — most recently, for the skeins of yarn he carried about wherever he went. The vast majority of the Garden had no idea what the brightly colored balls of soft fiber were for; there was some speculation that they were used in some of the more obscure punishments handed out by the Disciplinary Committee. Mostly, this assumption was wrong, except for the small portion of it that was entirely correct.

Seifer was knitting a sweater.

Now, by itself, a sweater is a rather innocuous item. It provides welcome warmth during the winter season, a dash of cheer during holidays. People often give them as gifts. Seifer's sweater was no exception. It was warm — it was cheering — it was meant to be a gift. Preferably, a gift for someone nine feet tall, color blind, and possessing an inordinate fondness for smiling petunias. Seeing as how there was no one in the Garden fitting that description, the scarred young man settled upon the next best thing.

"I wonder if the Chicken-wuss would like some nice, fluffy clouds on it?"

It should be pointed out that young Mr. Almasy wasn't deliberately trying to be malicious. Not that he had any moral objection against being malicious, mind you; some of his fondest memories centered around particularly catty pranks he had pulled upon the unsuspecting. No, this time his gift was heartfelt; he wanted to leave the gift's intended recipient with something that would be a constant reminder of someone that would soon be gone.

For leaving he was. He didn't want to go; Balamb Garden was the only home he could remember. But his birthday was a scant week away, and deep within the confines of his trench coat, he shivered. Certainly, there were rumors that the protocols had been changed, but he wasn't willing to take that chance. Since the Garden's inception, it had been standard practice that when a cadet reached the age of 19 without making either SeeD or obtaining a faculty position, they were tossed most unceremoniously out of the academy. This hadn't been too traumatizing while Garden had been a safely stationary school. However, since the Garden had become mobile… The tall blonde trembled again. The last 'Rousting of the Lay-abouts' he'd attended had been several months ago, and at that time, Balamb Garden had been floating serenely off the Esthar coast. Only one of the newly expatriated cadets had known how to swim. The event had cast a pall over the entire student body.

And while Seifer was a SeeD, of sorts, he'd gained the position through trickery, and the forging of key strategic documents. He wasn't sure if his credentials could withstand even the slightest scrutiny, and with the administration's new policy of accepting paying students, they'd jump at the chance of throwing out a scholarship attendee like him. The scarred blonde wasn't going to give them the chance. He was going to depart Balamb Garden while it was safely hovering over solid ground, and he was going to find himself a real job, one that offered security, a pension, and with any luck, hour-long paid lunches.

So, he was spending his few remaining hours finishing up the sweater he planned on giving to Zell as a farewell gift. He knew the younger man wouldn't like the gift; he wasn't a sweater-type person. But Zell would wear it out of some misplaced sense of obligation, making himself an object of ridicule for those more fashionably dressed. It was that which sparked the small, mischievous smile on Seifer's face, and kept him from panicking at the thought of his imminent departure.

It was due to these musings that he completely failed to notice the figure standing quietly in front of his path, back turned, watching a deep-hued pine forest pass underneath the Garden. And, having failed to notice, how could he fail to bump into the man?

Squall lurched, using the tail of his koneko unit to catch his balance before he fell against the wall. He turned, and tried his best to glare at the person who had so rudely interrupted his contemplations. Tried. For even if it had been someone other than Balamb Garden's notoriously stoic commander, attempting to glare while wearing fuzzy white cat ears on one's head and a fuzzy white cat tail on one's rump was a difficult accomplishment. "…Seifer." Shrugging, the brunette casually dismissed his rival, and returned to his previous occupation — staring out the window, looking at nothing in particular.

"Kitten," the taller blonde mocked, his eyebrow arching. "What are you doing with Xu's equipment? Another test?"

Sighing, the hazel-eyed man backed away from the observation window. "Yeah. We've pretty much gone through everything the suits are capable of doing out in the wilderness. Now she wants to see how they stand up in a city environment. Xu seems to think there'll be trouble with the translating system, if it's confronted with too many sources at once."

"So, why are you staring out the window instead of going off on your mission? Don't tell me the Leonhart is playing hooky?"

The snowy tail twitched irritably. "Going out into the middle of nowhere wearing this contraption was one thing. But to walk straight into a city…" Squall's shoulders hunched, and his ears drooped. "I don't know what to do; I hate being laughed at, but Cid says my job's on the line."

The taller blonde was feeling generous. "It so happens that I was on my way to Balamb. Why don't you come with me? If someone starts to laugh, I'll bop them with Hyperion."

"Attacking civilians is against SeeD regulations. You'd be expelled." However, the brunette's right ear had pricked up hopefully.

"Like that would matter." Seifer snorted dismissively. "I'm going into Balamb t' find a job. I turn 19 next week, and I don't want to be around for the 'Rousting of the Lay-abouts.'"

"You do know they've changed that policy, don't you?"

"Yeah, I've heard rumors to that effect. But do ya think I'm gonna hang around and test it?" The blonde wriggled the black-gloved fingers of his left hand. "I'm a good swimmer, but I doubt I'd be able t' make it all the way to FH. Nah, I'll find work in Balamb, and settle down. Become a productive citizen. Maybe become a vegan — I haven't decided on that part yet."

The younger man crossed his arms, confusion showing in his stance. "Don't you already have a job in Galbadia?"

"Don't remind me." He pulled out another ball of yarn and began work along the sweater's collar. "They sent me another priority telegram yesterday. They don't understand; I'm young, I want a little excitement before I commit myself to some mind-numbing, life-sucking career." A trailing vine took form underneath his flashing needles. "I've always like hanging around the junk shops. Think they'd take me on as an apprentice?"

"…" Although he had serious doubts as to his roommate's sanity, Squall was thankful that he'd have company during his venture into town. He gestured at the brightly-colored monstrosity the other man was holding. "Almost finished?"

"Yeah." The scarred blonde held it out; the bottom of the sweater dragged on the floor. "I'm gonna give it to the Chicken before we leave."

Several possible rejoinders flashed across his mind, but the leather-clad youth settled for a non-committal, "…Whatever."

The two walked companionably down the carpeted hallways, Squall caught up in his thoughts, and Seifer almost literally caught up in his knitting. Both were taken by surprise when a door in front of them was flung open, spewing a tall, lanky form directly at their feet. "Pardon," the heap of tanned leather mumbled.

"And next time," a shrill, yet somewhat threatening voice screeched, originating from the small female who stood angrily in the open doorway, "try bringing something better than these pathetic flowers!" Said flowers, the same vibrant yellow as the shrieker's dress, came flying from the blocked room to land soggily on the sprawled man's beaten hat. "If you're going to stand me up, I expect jewelry, you dog! Something with topaz, something with style. Don't bother coming back until you have a decent present to give me." With one final huff, she slammed the door shut.

"Well, that went better than I expected." Picking up his hat, Irvine brushed the crushed flowers from it and firmly placed it on his head.

After completing a particularly difficult knot, Seifer put his knitting needles away and addressed the new arrival. "So what did you do to Selphie this time? She normally doesn't resort to name-calling."

"How am I supposed to know?" The lavender-eyed man shook a few stray petals from his ponytail. "You know how Sefie is; she says I was supposed to meet her for breakfast this morning. As far as I knew, we didn't have anything planned for today. I just thought I'd surprise her with a bouquet." He picked up the scattered daffodils, and stared at them bemusedly. "I'm pretty sure I didn't forget…"

The scarred, chestnut-haired man looked away and whistled under his breath. He knew that missed message would come back to haunt him. Not that he cared. It served Irvine right for leaving him in the room, bored out of his mind, to answer the phone while the others were out. Perhaps now the other two men would give in, and buy an answering machine.

"Tough luck," Seifer commiserated, offering Irvine a hand up. "So, any plans for the rest of your day? Besides thinking of ways t' appease Tilmitt?"

Irvine stilled, his gaze growing blank. "I really have no idea. Maybe go into town, check out the antique shops." He wiped his palms along the sides of his chaps. "Topaz. Does she have any idea how expensive something like that is?"

"Probably." The scarred blonde was becoming impatient; he wasn't used to helping people. "What are ya gonna do with the flowers now?"

Mahogany hair in disarray, the taller man accepted the proffered hand, and got to his feet. "Heck if I know. They're not much use to me at the moment. Why, you want them?"

"Matter a' fact…" The ice-eyed man snatched the bedraggled arrangement from Irvine's grasp, and quickly tied the flowers together with a loose piece of yarn. He surveyed his handiwork with a critical glance. "Good enough."

"Umm…" Squall knew better, he truly did, but some questions demanded to be asked. Questions like, 'Can I have a bite of your sundae?' and 'Was this your favorite pair of pants?' Some questions, when asked, spawned — not answers — but random acts of violence. Yet still, every once in a great while, Squall felt compelled to ask them. "…you're not planning on giving those to Zell, are you?"

"And what if I was?" The tone of voice wasn't defensive — oh no, never that. Haughty, arrogant, and if the situation warranted it, slightly aggrieved, but never, ever defensive. At least, that was the way it was supposed to work, in theory. In practice — that was a different matter. Not that anyone would have the audacity to point it out. Seifer was entirely too collected to ever be defensive. "They're his favorite."

In theory, Seifer also never sulked.

"Well, yeah…" the furry tail twitched, the only movement during a moment caught in time. "…but it hardly seems like something you'd do. Romance isn't your forte."

The metallic ping of knitting needles being tapped together filled the hallway. "What's romance gotta do with it?"

Squall knew he was in trouble. Currently in vogue at the Garden was speculation on what exactly was going on between Almasy and Dincht. More and more often students caught the two together, exchanging insults, mock-blows, and light banter. No one could deny that something was going on beneath the surface of their enmity. Some explained it away as a result of Kinneas' class. Others held firm to their belief that the unusual behavior was but a lull before renewed hostilities. A few knew the truth, and all but one of those knew to keep their yapping traps shut. It was somewhat surprising that a man famed for his complete lack of communication couldn't, for once, bite his tongue.

"…Why else would you give him flowers?"

There followed a spluttering burst of wrath that sounded vindictive, but accomplished little. "Because it's a nice thing to do!" A pause, while he thought his excuse over. He scratched his head sheepishly, and examined the bruised petals of the bouquet. "Damn, now you've made me all self-conscious about giving them." Shrugging, he spun around, planning on tossing the flowers into the nearest trashcan.

And promptly proved to himself, once again, the wisdom of looking where he was going, before he rushed off to get there. Running into people in the Garden's corridors wasn't on his list of favorite ways to spend the morning. He also mentally started another list: Places You Shouldn't Store Your Knitting Needles if You Plan on Falling Down. Seifer was fond of lists. He made Raijin carry around a large black binder that contained them all.

"Ow! Watch where you're going, you jackass!"

"Chicken!" Beaming, Seifer held out his first offering, the limp flowers now most definitely the worse for wear. "Imagine running into you!"

Zell sat up, and rubbed gingerly at his elbow. "I don't need t' imagine, ya just did it." He blinked at the yellow blur hovering scant centimeters from his nose. "And now you're tryin' t' attack me with shrubbery." He pushed the wilted flora away from his face. "What the hell do ya think you're doin' with — those — daffodils…" He brain finally began processing the various stimuli, and he reached out a gentle finger, brushing it against the crushed petals of one bloom.

"They're for you; I thought you'd like them." Narrow ice-chipped eyes turned away wistfully. "But I guess you don't. Nothin' for it, then, but t' throw them away…"

"No, don't!" The tattooed boy grabbed at the bouquet. "Don't you dare. They're beautiful." He got to his feet a trifle unsteadily, still a bit off-balance from the collision. A slight grin passed his lips, as his natural good humor resurfaced. "And totally unlike you. Ya keep doin' stuff like this, Almasy, and I'll begin t' think something's up."

Squall's hazel eyes rolled expressively, while Irvine covered up a laugh. Seifer wouldn't give them the satisfaction of his notice. "Ah, well, about that…"

The younger blonde sniffed at the flowers warily. "Yeah?"

And there it was, the first and foremost reason Seifer didn't want to leave the Garden, staring him directly in the face with an absolutely adorable expression mixed of distrust, friendliness, and impatience. "I'm — going to Balamb."


"I'm not coming back."

The azure-eyed boy tilted his head, lips pursing, as if tasting the answer hovering over his tongue. "As in tonight?"

"As in ever." The older man's hands fumbled with the folds of the sweater. "So… I made you a going-away gift." He all-but-tossed the knitted monstrosity to Zell. "Something t' remember me by."

Zell held the sweater at arm's-length, and studied it. Studied it much the same way he studied other unexplained phenomena, like the witches' ghosts that had taken to haunting the quad, or the bowl of grat porridge that was now teaching First Year Trig to a select group of underclassmen. That is — he stared at it with horrified disbelief, and only the presence of the wall at his back kept him from turning around and running for sanctuary. "It's — ah — lovely, Seif," all the while fervently hoping that he'd never be called upon to wear the thing, "but what do you mean, you aren't coming back?"

Furry ears twitched, and Squall, who'd been listening in (as was his wont, since he'd discovered exactly how much fun eavesdropping could be), deigned to answer. "He's worried about the 'Rousting of the Lay-abouts'. I tried telling him the policy's changed," a minimal shrug, showing his lack of caring one way or the other over the decision, "but he's determined to make a new start of it in Balamb. I'm going with him for the next series of koneko trials, and," his tail pointed, "I suppose Irvine's with us as well for the day."

"You're leaving…" The little blonde thought he should be feeling something — perhaps relief, perhaps regret — instead of the hollow ping of denial that was chasing itself around his heart. He'd often dreamt, daydreamed, fantasized about his childhood tormentor leaving, but he had never actually thought it would happen. He found himself rather queasy over the situation; his psyche announced at the top of its lungs that things Were Not Right, and he entirely agreed with it. "Huh. You're not getting away that easily, Almasy. You leave, and I'll fail Irvine's class. Not gonna happen. If you're going t' Balamb, I'm going too."

"Heh. Your choice." His smirk could be excused its conceitedness. "On one condition…"

The smaller man stuck out his tongue, and began to struggle into the sweater. "You're so predictable." Eventually, he found the neck of the garment, and stuck his head through. The bottom of the pullover puddled about his ankles. "Happy?"

"You have no idea."

And so the four young men left the Garden, all filled with misgivings, and all tortured with the knowledge that they'd not soon be welcomed back. Luckily for them, Balamb town was but a short distance away, located on the other side of a rather picturesque forest, and a pastoral meadow populated by fluffy bunnies, rabid squirrels, and a few lost aliens.

Running his fingers through his long mahogany hair, Irvine waved a friendly hello as they passed by PuPu a third time. "So, what exactly are we going to do when we reach town? I know I'm going to have to earn some money, if I'm to buy something fancy enough to get me back into Sefie's good graces." He shot a pointed look at the man walking to his side. "You're going to need a job as well, Seifer, if you're going to support yourself and your paramour."

Zell reddened. "Shut up Irvine!"


"You too Squall!"

The scarred blonde chuckled. "Hey, it's okay Chicken-wuss. They're just jealous; look at the shrews they got stuck with." He chucked a rock into the surrounding forest, unknowingly knocking a skulking T-Rexaur out cold. "But the question of a job's a good one. There isn't much I have experience with. Oh, I'm great at invading peaceful countries, but I've gotta feeling Balamb's not looking for a dictator."

Fuzzy white tail lashing from side to side, the hazel-eyed man broke his silence. "…We're all going to need employment. But who in their right mind is going to hire us?"

"And isn't that a wonderful mindset for a mercenary to have," Irvine muttered.

"Maybe we're looking at this wrong." Zell pulled at a loose bit of string unraveling from one of the neon petunias. "Who says anyone has t' hire us? We'll just get people t' give us money."

Lavender eyes grew round, and a mobile mouth split into a condescending grin. "That's called 'robbery', and last I heard, it was illegal."

The younger man stomped one foot, tripping himself in the oversized sweater in the process. Only Seifer's quick thinking saved him from a nasty fall. "That wasn't what I meant!" he scolded from the shelter of the taller blonde's arms. "I was thinking we could be street musicians. Nothing ever happens in Balamb; they'd be more than happy t' pay for a little entertainment." He craned his neck upwards, a flush staining his cheeks. "And, ah, you can let me go now, Seif."

"Whatever you say, sweetheart." Contrary to his words, his hold tightened.

The scarred brunette watched the two, his patience running thin. He'd always heard the expression 'lost in your eyes' but had never given it much credence. Now, though, five minutes had passed, and the two blondes were still gaping slack-jawed at each other, their higher brain functions off on vacation in some little, private, tropical paradise where liqueur was served in hollowed-out coconuts with novelty umbrellas sticking out of the top, and where Last Call wasn't announced until 4 in the morning.

Irvine covered his eyes with the brim of his hat. "I never thought two people, fully dressed, could be so indecent." He walked over and smacked the older man on his back, startling him into letting his catch go. "We've still got a few miles until we reach town; I'd like to get there before dark, if you don't mind."

"Hmm?" Zell blinked dazedly, then straightened. "Umm, yeah… Seif…" He licked suddenly dry lips nervously. "Ah… So what d' ya think of my idea?"

"Idea?" The ice-eyed man was too busy glaring at Irvine to be paying much attention. "About gettin' a room and…"

"No!" The tattooed youth waved his hands, flustered. "About us becoming street musicians."

"Sounds fine," Squall said, increasing his stride, wanting to get to Balamb before another incident occurred. He had trouble handling Seifer under the best of circumstances; Seifer infatuated was nearly unbearable. "Except for one small problem: I can't play any instruments."

"Nuh-uh." Zell shook his head, causing his bangs to fly across his face. "Not a problem. I figured you could sing."


"Shut up, Irvine!" The azure-eyed boy fought briefly with his sweater in an attempt to free his legs. "He's got a nice voice; sings in the showers all the time. 'Course, it's always the same verse…"

"Okay, so I'll sing," the scarred brunette cut in hastily, ears flat against his chestnut hair. "What will the rest of you do?"

"I know for a fact that I can't sing." Seifer crossed his arms pointedly. "In the shower, or elsewhere. And I've never played an instrument in my life."

"Doesn't matter." The tall Galbadian's long legs easily kept up with the new pace. "You'll be able to play any instrument you pick up. Freaky, no?"

One bronze eyebrow rose in disbelief. "You expect me t' believe that I can, without any practice, play the flute, or the piano, or a kazoo?"

"Maybe not a kazoo." Zell shrugged his shoulders, causing the embroidered vines to writhe. "But just about everything else… All of us orphans can do it. Well, except Squall, and I think that's 'cause he was brought in under different circumstances." Inside the sweater, he was sweltering, but hadn't yet gathered together the necessary courage to take it off. "When ya think about it — "

"I haven't."

"Seifer…" he shrugged again. "It's just odd, that all of us are musical prodigies. Sometimes, I don't think we're orphans at all."

"Now this I want to hear your reasoning on." Irvine fiddled with the edges of his vest while he walked. "If we're not orphans, what are we? And why were we all at the orphanage?"

"Ah, well… Look, I'm not bad-mouthing Matron, okay?" The tattooed youth clasped his hands together in an attempt to keep them from flying about with worry. "But she came up with the idea for Garden. Soldiers specially trained for defeating witches, right? And who'd care if a buncha orphans got themselves killed in battle? No one, that's who." Defeated, he let his fingers play with his weakly spiked bangs. "However, ya need a super-smart soldier if ya want t' kill a witch. And that's where she ran into trouble. 'Cause the chances of an orphan being a genius is about nil. So, she needed a bunch of proven bright kids in a hurry. That's where we came in."

The group around him was expectantly silent. He resolutely went on. "I figure she hijacked a bus of musical prodigies: Us. Who knows, maybe we were on our way to perform a concert. Don't look at me like that!" He began pouting, teeth nibbling at his lower lip. "It's just a theory. I wanna hear yours, on how we can play any blasted instrument we pick up!"

"You're callin' Matron a kidnapper?" The scarred blonde mulled this over. "Hn. Works for me. I always wondered how in the world people managed t' find her orphanage; it's not exactly centrally located. But it does make sense, if she was tryin' t' hide us."

"I don't believe you're seriously considering this!" Irvine slapped his hat against his thigh for emphasis. "Matron wouldn't, couldn't… She…" Lavender eyes grew darker in thought, verging more towards the edges of a sunset sky. "I'm going to stop thinking about it."

Squall shook his head, the faint vestiges of a smile tugging at his lips. "Yet another unsolved mystery presented to us by Mr. Know-It-All Dincht." The creaking of his tight leather was scaring away the small forest creatures. It was, however, the perfect homing beacon for the newly awakened T-Rexaur, who was stealthily following them, thoughts of revenge, and a late evening snack, foremost on its primitive, reptilian mind.

"It's getting dark." And while it was just after dusk, and could hardly be called late, it was rather shadowy there in the middle of the forest, and so Seifer wasn't quite pointing out the obvious. "I don't think we'll make Balamb tonight."

The chestnut-haired man scratched between his flickering white ears, puzzled. "But I can see it through those trees…"

"I said I don't think we'll make it!" He pulled out Hyperion just in case anyone felt like arguing his point. Understandably, there were no takers. "That's better. We'd better set up camp. Who remembered to bring a tent?"

"Hey, I think I see a light over there," Zell called out. He would have called out even if he hadn't seen a light, because he really wasn't looking forward to roughing it in the woods. At least, not while wearing the Sweater. The Sweater made him too much of a target. He could swear the pearly clouds on it were glowing. Nothing yelled 'Eat me!' louder to predators than clothes that physically incapacitated their wearers. "It could be a house."

"But we're campin'!" Seifer argued.

"You can camp,' the pony-tailed man told him. "I, on the other hand, smell popcorn." He quickly started walking in the direction of the light.

"…Good luck…"

"Yeah, what he said!" The tattooed SeeD was prevented from following, though, by a tight grip on his shoulder. He'd known the sweater would be his doom.

"And where exactly do ya think you're goin'?"

"Ah, c'mon Seif! Popcorn!" He tried wriggling his way free. "It's getting cold out here, and I don't wanna spend the night worrying about something sneaking up on me." His lips quirked, and he flashed a sharp-toothed grin. "Including you."

"I'm hurt."

"You're horny. And nothing's gonna be happening with Irvie and Squall around. So we might as well go up to the house." He felt the chokehold on the neck of his sweater give. "Maybe they'll have some of those rice cakes you like so much."

"Oh joy." Seifer followed the shorter youth up the indistinct trail, paying no attention to the sounds of something incredibly large thrashing through the undergrowth behind him. "And for your information, I am not horny."

"Wanna bet?" Zell turned around, his expression mischievous. Without warning, he jumped forward, catching the older man's mouth with his own. He wasn't sure who gasped, being too busy playing coy games with the other's energetically invading tongue. He nipped, and sucked, and eventually pulled back to take in a ragged breath. "Now what do ya hafta say for yourself?"

Seifer nuzzled at the pale neck below him, his words muffled. "That I'm not the horny one here."

"Yeah mister. Then tell me this: Where are your hands, and what are they doin'?"

The ice-eyed man lifted his head, looking a bit surprised while he did a quick check. ~Well, my hands are…~ his eyes widened, as he squeezed to make certain. ~Oh — my!~

Laughing, Zell pushed the taller man back. "Like I said: horny." He continued up the trail, giggling softly to himself. "What's keeping you?" he asked, while pushing aside an inconvenient limb.

"Eh, I'm coming." The branch snapped back into position, swatting him in the face.

"From one tiny grope? That's sad, Seif."

The sound of Seifer not saying anything filled the forest. He trudged ahead, features fixed into blankness. "They don't believe me, you know," he finally said conversationally. "I tell them what a pervert you are, but they don't ever believe me."

"It's 'cause I'm cute." The azure-eyed boy stumbled across the house's porch; by now, it truly was dark. "For some reason, they can't visualize kawaii with hentaisha. Boggles the mind, don't it?"

Squall was peering in through the front window, and hissed at them to be quiet. "There's people inside…"

"Well, duh, Commander." The longhaired man attempted to keep his voice low. "It's a house. People do tend to live in them."

The scarred brunette tried frowning, but gave it up as a lost cause. It was the fluffy cat ears, he was sure. "Your sarcasm is noted. So is your volunteering to knock on the door. Tell Biggs and Wedge hi for all of us, why don't you?"

"What?" Seifer, having more experience, found it easier to keep his voice low. "Don't tell me those two fools are here!"

"Here, in the house, and eating turkey and mashed turnips by the look of it." Squall settled back on his heels, at a loss as to what to do.

Zell, however, had no such problem. "Yo!" he shouted, banging one fist against the door. "Dudes! Let us in!" His last over-zealous knock broke the door off its hinges, and it fell in majestic slow motion to the ground. (Zell, of course, was used to the Garden doors, which were built much better. Garden doors — triple reinforced, and checked daily by the janitorial staff, who'd long ago gotten sick of repairing doors a certain hyper tow-headed kid kept busting down). "Err, umm, oops!" He rubbed the back of his neck bashfully. "Sorry 'bout that."

"It's you!" Wedge nearly choked on a wing bone. "You're the brat from the communication tower, and the prison! Why, I outta…"

Seifer came to stand behind the shorter youth. "Gentlemen," he inclined his head courteously.

"Sir!" The two ex-Galbadian soldiers stood at attention, the spoonful of mashed turnips held in Biggs' hand splatting messily on the floor and wall.

Irvine walked into the house, shaking his head. "I never understand the respect he gets." Picking up a turkey leg, he began stripping the meat from it, daintily chewing the long slivers. "It's not like we're in Deling, or something. Yet, wherever we go, he's getting saluted, and it's always 'Mr. President' this and 'Mr. President' that…"

"Lay off, Irvie." Zell pulled a plate from the cupboard, and began digging around in a drawer for silverware. "He's tried his best t' be incognito. It's not his fault the Galbadians pick their rulers for life."

Tail weaving lazily, Squall picked up the other drumstick and settled with it next to the fireplace. "As to why a homicidal lunatic is so well beloved… Some things can't be explained."

"Very funny." Seifer glowered at his roommates. "Do you have any idea how many times I've tried turning in my resignation? Do ya?" He ran a hand through his ruddy-blonde hair in agitation. "They just won't take 'no' for an answer. Or 'leave me alone you creeps.' Or 'I'm gonna call the cops!' They just keep bowing at me, and giving me edicts to sign…" He shook his head disgustedly at the men saluting him. "At ease, you two. We're just here t' stay the night."

Wedge lowered his arm, and gulped visibly. "Wonderful, sir. We'll just get out of your way…" Turning smartly on his heel, he fled out the open doorway and into the night beyond. Biggs was right behind him. Both were immediately snapped up by the T-Rexaur, who had been growing impatient hiding out in the bushes.

"Yowch." Zell winced, while handing a laden plate to the bulkier man. "So that's what's been following us all this time. Ain't he a cute little feller?"

The T-Rexaur tried roaring around its mouthful of ex-Galbadian soldiers, but failed dismally. Embarrassed, it trotted off into the woods, where it hoped to eat its snack in peace.

"Imagine, being done in by a dumb lizard." The ice-eyed man stuck his fork into the mashed turnips, then left it there when he was unable to free it.

Irvine had found the popcorn, and was happily munching away. "Guess the house is ours then, right?" He filled a glass from a plastic pitcher, and sipped. "Mmm, orange juice. Anyway, we should be able to stay here for as long as needed. Without," he pointed one long finger for emphasis, "anyone being able to find us. No one from the Garden knows we were heading to Balamb."

"Umm, yeah, about that," Zell twiddled his fingers together, while his keen ears picked up on one truly distinctive sound in the distance. "I happened t' mention it to the gatekeeper." He pushed his plate aside, no longer very hungry. "In case you've forgotten, they don't let us back in unless we sign out properly."

"And where's the harm in that?" The older blonde poured himself a glass of juice as well. "I wasn't planning on going back."

Squall, who'd been busily listening to the sound the tattooed boy had only recently detected, tapped the heels of his boots against the slate facing of the fireplace. "It seems the gatekeeper blabbed. Unless my ears mistake me," and they waggled back and forth in a white-furred frenzy, "Quistis is headed this way in the transport truck. She should be here in a few minutes."

"Lovely." Regretfully, Irvine sat down the depleted bowl of popcorn next to the piece of meat he'd been chewing on earlier. He liked Quistis. Everyone liked Quistis. Only, she had the big-sisterly knack of ruining everyone else's fun by her very presence. Normally by commanding anyone who was close enough to help her find her missing socks. "She's going to haul us back to the Garden for sure, and I still don't have a present for Sefie. Life won't be worth living for the next week."

All four young men shivered at the sound of tires squealing against the rocky path. Headlights blazed through the window and doorway, and a truck door slammed.

"Hi Quistie!" the azure-eyed SeeD called out, pasting a cheerful smile on his face. "Fancy meeting you out here."

"Zell." The pink-dressed woman peered into the house, her blonde hair fluttering in the light breeze. "It took me forever to find you. I finally decided to head in the direction the T-Rexaur was running from." She stepped inside, the length of her whip slapping against her hip. "Commander, Kinneas, I need you to get in the transport. Edea's having a tizzy fit — her little cotillion's tomorrow and the caterer just called to say she's stuck at Shumi Village because of weather conditions. Matron summoned you over an hour ago."

"What does she need us for?" Irvine asked, swinging his legs off the table.

"You're now catering the affair. Cid's crawled underneath his desk. Absolutely refuses to come out. He keeps whimpering, 'Barbecued grat, oh me, oh my,' over and over." She folded her arms neatly, a well-trained gesture of imperativeness. "Seifer, you and Zell aren't needed until tomorrow morning. Just make sure you're back at the Garden by 10:00."

"About that Trepe," Seifer held his posture stiffly, hoping to gain advantage from his height. "I'm not going back t' Garden. There ain't no way I'm letting them toss me overboard next week."

"What?" The blue-eyed woman looked confused. "What are you talking about?"

"His birthday's next week." Squall had obediently begun heading for the truck. "He's afraid of getting rousted."

"Oh, for the love of…" Quistis rubbed the bridge of her nose. "Almasy, even if we still had the Rousting, which we don't, you specifically were excused from it by Edea. She filled out the proper forms and everything. By now, there isn't anyone with enough authority to throw you out of the Garden."

"Really?" The scarred blonde's eyes glimmered suspiciously. "That's — great news. Don't worry, I'll be back in plenty of time tomorrow." He inclined his head at the one-time instructor.

"You'd better be." She nodded absently at both blondes, and grabbed Irvine's arm on the way out, pulling him along after her.

"So, guess you won't be leaving after all." Zell toyed with a spoon, his fingers tracing the curving edges. He let out a deep breath, ruffling his bangs. "It was kinda nice, though, imagining a life of street performance. No fighting monsters for a living, no putting up with Raijin's snores or Nida's thrashing…" Catching his reflection in the bowl of the spoon, he frowned, and tossed the utensil over his shoulder. "No more grat…"

"Hey." Seifer sat down next to the younger man, studying him. "No pressure; if ya still want t' do that, it's fine with me."

"No, it's not what I really want." He stretched out his arms, fingertips almost reaching to the ends of his sleeves. "Sometimes, it's just nice to pretend."

"I'm glad." The scarred blonde leaned back, and settled his feet on the table. "Which brings us to our next subject." He allowed the leer he'd been holding back all evening to show. "I believe your exact words were 'nothing's gonna be happening with Irvie and Squall around.' But as you can see, they're gone now…" He reached out possessively. "And I think you've teased me enough for one night."

"Ah ah ah!" Zell held out his hand warningly, while his eyes twinkled mockingly. "I do believe there's a condition…"

Greedily, Seifer began tearing off the sweater, not mindful in the least that he was destroying his own work. "You're so predictable." When the pullover was no more than scattered, tangled yarn, he picked up the smaller man and carried him over to the fireplace. "Happy?"

"You have no idea!"

Thenceforward that night, no one else intruded upon the house, and the two remaining Balamb musicians were so pleased that they never wished to leave it again.

The End
~*~ and then some ~*~