my life i trade (for your pain)

-irishais-

The first impression that Laguna Loire had of the Balamb Garden athletics center was that it was extraordinarily loud. The second was that it smelled quite a lot like sweat and several other things that he didn't want to think about. He didn't have time to form a third impression about the place before Quistis Trepe walked up to him with a pleased sort of expression on her face and a split lip.

"Mr. President," she said. "It's a surprise to see you here."

"Yeah, I figured I'd use some vacation time to see Squall." Laguna made a gesture toward her face. "You're, uh, bleeding."

Quistis touched her lip gingerly, glanced at the blood that came away on her fingertips, and wiped her hand dismissively on her shorts. "Zell's holding his combat class," she explained. "Squall's back there, but I'm afraid he's in a rather rotten mood, so be on your guard." She smiled faintly at him, then dabbed at her lip again, as if it hadn't even occurred to her that it hurt until Laguna had pointed it out. "Don't say I didn't warn you."

Laguna shoved his hands in his pocket and nodded. "I'll keep that in mind. Hope your face gets better," he said, awkwardly, after a moment, and Quistis walked off with a polite goodbye. He shook his head—he wasn't sure that the idea of a woman getting her face split open and having no problem with it was something that he could be entirely comfortable with. Then again, he still had trouble reconciling with the fact that the son he'd only met three months ago commanded one of the largest military organizations in the world. Hell, Laguna still had trouble reconciling with the fact that he had a son. He hadn't even been sure that the kid was still alive, until Squall had walked into his office looking the spitting image of Raine.

He shrugged and headed back in the direction that Quistis had indicated, slipping through tight rows of exercise machines, most of which were occupied by SeeDs intently focused on their workouts. No one paid him any attention, save for the occasional glance, and as Laguna moved further toward the back of the gym, the noise seemed to fade. He reached the back of the room with no sign of his son, but a set of double doors slightly ajar let out a stream of spontaneous cheering, and so Laguna pushed the door open further.

The instructor hadn't been lying when she said that there was a combat class going on. Laguna ambled to the back of the rows of cadets gathered around the worn sparring ring, and immediately stumbled back as something solid slammed into the ropes. He caught a glimpse of brown hair as the boy who'd been thrown scrambled to his feet and charged his smaller, blond opponent. The other boy grinned, sidestepped, and before Laguna could catch his breath, the brunet somehow ended up flat on his back again with an audible thud. The class broke out into scattered applause—Laguna hadn't even seen what the blond boy had done.

"Give?" the blond asked, holding his hand just out of his opponent's reach.

"Give," Squall grunted, and grasped the outstretched hand, hauling himself to his feet. The blond kid—Zed? Dill? Laguna couldn't remember—grinned, and slapped Squall's back with a friendly, crushing pat that made the young commander wince.

A bell sounded with an insistent chime from speakers cleverly hidden in the walls, and the class dissipated. Laguna waited until most of them had gone before moving closer to the ring.

"Oh, hey, you're Loire, right? The president of Esthar?" the kid (Pickle?) asked, slipping between the ropes and jumping lightly to the floor. "Zell Dincht. I don't know if you remember or not." He held out a sweat-slicked palm, glanced down at it, wiped it off on the front of his faded t-shirt, and held it out again.

"Zell!" Laguna smiled broadly. That was it! He shook the kid's hand. "Good to see you again."

"Zell." Squall's voice neatly cut off any response that Laguna was about to make, his tone absolutely flat. "Don't you have another class to teach?"

Zell grinned and shrugged, sweat running down the thick tattoo lines across his face. "You're such an asshole, I hope you know that," he said good-naturedly, and ambled off toward what Laguna sincerely hoped was the locker room, whistling as he left. The door slammed shut behind him; the sound reverberated in the room.

Squall snatched up a small towel from the edge of the ring and ran it briskly over his hair, very deliberately pretending that Laguna was not standing three feet away. Laguna could see the markings of a rather spectacular bruise blossoming on his son's cheek, and winced a little as Squall pressed his face into the towel, apparently not even noticing.

"Nice fight," Laguna said awkwardly.

Squall shrugged. "Did Xu tell you I was here?" he asked without preamble. Laguna shook his head.

"Quistis did," he offered, and Squall's brow furrowed. For a second, Laguna thought that maybe he had just cost the young woman her professional career, but in the next instant, Squall's face evened out into flat neutrality. That was slightly more worrisome than the scowl.

"What do you want?"

Laguna blinked. "I just thought I'd come visit. I figured maybe we could take some time to catch up or something, y'know? And your email said—"

"I know what it said," Squall interjected. "I said I'd let you know." He draped the towel over his shoulder and glanced at the clock. "I have forty-five minutes."

It wasn't, Go away, and so Laguna took it, trying to ignore the tiny stabs of pain creeping up into his leg as his nerves gathered. "Uh—"

Squall looked at him; god, he looked exactly like his mother, it was terrifying, more so now that the world wasn't at stake. It was probably made worse by the fact that Laguna had just watched Squall get his butt handed to him in a fight, and no son wanted their father to see that, right?

"Do you want to go another round?" he asked, before he realized what he was doing. "If you're, uh, not already beat up—I mean, worn out. I mean—"

Squall arched an eyebrow. "You want to spar," he said, his tone mildly amused. It wasn't put as a question.

"Yeah! I mean, I was a soldier—the mechanics of it can't have changed that much, right?" He jumped up and down in place, throwing a few jabs in the space between them.

Squall snorted, and chucked the towel back onto the table.

Well, it wasn't a "no."

Laguna opened his mouth. "Let's do—"

He was cut off, though, as Squall held up one finger, stopping the flow of words from his mouth. As Laguna watched, Squall pressed his finger to a small silver stud in his ear, and something went wrong in his eyes—they dulled out, went flat, blank.

"...Squall?"

There was no response. Squall stood absolutely still, and Laguna turned halfway, looking for someone to help—

"Sorry," his son said, and he was back, blinking rapidly.

"What happened?" Laguna demanded.

The boy shrugged. "I figured I ought to un-Junction. The paperwork goes through the roof for killing the Esthar President."

A joke—Laguna hadn't been doing this father-to-hero thing very long, but from everything he knew about Squall, he was pretty sure the kid had lost his sense of humor somewhere in the Garden halls. He laughed, suddenly, loudly.

"What?"

He had trouble getting the words out. "You do magic—through your earring? I thought it was just a lousy fashion statement—"

Squall blinked at him, and touched the earring again. "It's got sensors that connect it to my neural pathways," he explained, as if speaking to a particularly slow child. "For the GFs. Most people get them implanted directly in their skin. I thought this was...easier."

The laughter was drying up on his tongue, hearing this boy—he was only eighteen—talk so calmly about things interfering with his brainwaves. Things that ate memories, if all of the reports Laguna had read were right.

"Well," he said, "not killing me's a good thing."

Something almost, almost a smile made its way to the very, very corners of Squall's mouth. "There are spare clothes in the locker room," he said after a moment. "Just ask the cadet at the desk."

xx

Five minutes later, Laguna stood in the left corner of the ring, wearing oversized Garden Athletics Department-issue gear and wondered why he had ever thought this was a good idea. Squall, un-Junctioned or no, stood at the other end, simply waiting, taped, un-gloved hands at his sides. It was like walking voluntarily into a lion's cage.

Laguna shifted his weight from one foot to the other, and fiddled with the wraps on his hands. "Don't we need a referee?" he asked.

"I'm not going to hurt you," Squall said. Much, a small voice in Laguna's brain tacked on. He swallowed, but raised his fists anyway.

Squall waited. Laguna stepped forward, and some part of him said, to hell with it, and he threw a wide-arcing punch that should've at least connected to a shoulder or a lock of hair, or something.

But Squall had moved, faster than he had ever seen anyone move, and Laguna couldn't even process it before he was flat on his back in a parody of the fight he'd walked in on, staring up at the pristine gym ceiling, wondering where the train that had just hit him had come from.

"Oof," he managed.

Squall stood over him, one hand extended. "Sorry," he said. "Reflex."

Laguna reached out for the hand. "It's okay."

"Want to try again?"

"Oh, god, no," he moaned, sitting up. Everything hurt, even places he was pretty sure he hadn't been hit. "You un-whatevered, right? Junctioned?"

Squall nodded, and hauled the president to his feet.

"Do you need the infirmary?" he asked.

Laguna shook his head. "I think I can limp out of here. Just...give me a minute."

Squall pulled the ropes up for him, and Laguna slipped clumsily through them, easing down the short drop to the floor and to one of the benches stationed around the room.

He leaned against the wall, closing his eyes for a moment as the aching subsided, just a tiny bit. "I didn't know you were that good."

"You don't know a lot about me." The response was so automatic that Laguna had to wonder how long Squall had been suppressing that, or how often he used it.

"I know," he apologized. "I don't know anything about you."

Squall shrugged, his arms crossed, his stance military-precise.

There was a long space of silence, and Laguna wasn't sure how to fill it without jokes and inappropriate comments, but he was pretty sure this wasn't the time for that, and so he just sat there.

"I've got to go. Meeting," Squall said finally, abruptly. "You can find your own way out, right?"

Laguna nodded and waved him on. "Go, go. I'll find that pretty blonde Instructor and ask her for directions," he joked, a smile plastering itself onto his face.

Squall rolled his eyes and made a noise that Laguna wasn't sure how to interpret. "See you," he said finally, and spun sharply on his heel, striding for the door without waiting for a reply.

At least it wasn't, get out.

xx

A few days later, he sat at his desk, checking the Triple Triad regional tournament scores, when his email alert pinged.

From: sleonhart (at) balamb. garden. edu

Subject: Re: Rematch? :D :D :D

Tuesday, 1120.

-S. Leonhart

Commander

Balamb Garden

Laguna laughed, so hard he doubled over in his chair with it, so hard that tears welled up in his eyes and that Kiros came into the office in a panic, wondering what, exactly, was going on.

"Laguna?" he said. "You okay?"

The president coughed and wiped at his eyes with the heels of his hands. "Yeah, yeah. I'm fine—say, Kiros, you know anything about boxing?"

Kiros eyed him warily. "Why?"

Laguna tapped his screen. "I'm gonna need some lessons."