six

Xu straight-arms him in the chest before he can make it into the dormitory wing of Garden.

"What?" He can feel Rinoa, just there, just out of his reach, and Xu is stopping him for something pointless. This can wait. Everything can wait, except for her.

"Where the hell have you been?" Xu's tone is deadly level. She is not annoyed. She is far, far beyond annoyed, and he sincerely hopes she isn't junctioned. Her words ring with superiority, with an air of command.

-come and find me-

But she is not in command, he is, and he does not have to explain himself to her. He shoves her hand out of the way. "Xu-"

-i'll be waiting-

She glares at him. "Oh. I'm sorry. Let me rephrase: Where the hell have you been, Commander?"

She looks ridiculous, standing there in the hall with her self-righteous look and her hands on her hips. It angers him, a bright hot knot building in his chest. "I had something to take care of," Squall says, and moves to go past her. Xu is quick, though, cutting off every escape route he attempts. "Xu, seriously."

"No. I won't move and I won't go away until you explain to me just what the hell you thought you were doing."

"Lieutenant," he snaps. "Get out of my way." He doesn't want to say it, but she is the most stubborn person he knows, and he will say whatever it takes to get past her. "That's an order."

"No."

The word, and the force with which she says it, shocks both of them for a second.

Xu is the first to recover. "I'm sorry, sir, but you left an unstable Sorceress in the care of unqualified individuals in Esthar, and took off completely without word or warning. A day? Sure. Two days? Pushing it. A week, completely without communication of any kind, gone completely off the grid except to tell me to dispatch SeeDs to baby sit your wife, and then you show up without warning, expecting me to just look the other way? The Council couldn't even find you. We thought you were dead!"

-promise?-

"Enough!" he roars; his voice is so loud that several cadets walking down the hall toward them actually stop and backtrack a few steps. He doesn't care if he terrifies every cadet in the building. That's it. "I'm in command. You aren't."

She narrows her eyes at him, fury radiating off of her in waves. "Perhaps," she says, biting off every syllable, "you shouldn't be. Sir."

He wants to hit her, worse than he's wanted to hit anyone in his life. "You're confined to quarters," he says, and he has to fight to keep his voice controlled. "Say that again, and it's the brig."

Her eyes are wide for just a half a second, cracks in her hard exterior. Just as quickly, she composes herself. She always was his best undercover operative. "You should know that I've already submitted my report to the ICGI."

At least she has the guts to look me in the eye when she stabs me in the back.

Squall grabs the nearest SeeD- there are an alarming amount of them in the dormitory wing, but he doesn't have time to wonder about that now. "See Lieutenant Chang to her quarters, and ensure she doesn't leave."

She does not give him the satisfaction of turning to look at him as she is led away.

-promise me you'll come find me-

Squall pinches the bridge of his nose, hard, trying to fight the headache throbbing behind his eyes. He can feel the eyes of every cadet in the hall upon him, and he ignores them all as he stalks past them.

-promise me.

xx

She is waiting in the courtyard between the cafeteria and the dorms. The place is nearly empty except for her; it will be at least an hour before the last of the cadet classes let out for the day. For now, she is alone, save for her ever-present guardians, SeeDs assigned by Xu to watch her.

(we just want to keep you safe.)

Rinoa studies her feet, bare against the green, green grass. The polish on her toenails is chipping. She traces the cracked edge of the polish, again and again, losing herself in the rhythmic disorder of it.

"Rinoa-"

She smiles, something she hasn't been able to do in days. "I told Quistis you wouldn't leave me," she says.

Squall holds out his hand. "Come on," he says, his voice weary, gruff. She has missed him so much, but she does not tell him this.

He stops in front of their door and turns around. There are still SeeD officers there, casting curious glances at them, but not moving.

"Xu sent them to watch me," she says quietly, and his lips thin out into a straight line. He turns, and lets go of her hand.

"Dismissed," he orders.

One of the officers steps forward. "Sir, Lieutenant Chang wanted us to-"

He is furious, she realizes. "I don't care what Lieutenant Chang told you. There are to be no security guards in this corridor unless I order them here."

The officer nods, and salutes crisply. "Of course, Commander."

Once the door has closed behind them, Squall sets his bags down and sags bone-weary against the wall. "I'm sorry," he says. "I didn't realize- I tried to come back as soon as I could."

She slips her arms around him, her cheek against his shoulder. He rests a hand on her head, stroking her hair absently. "I wasn't afraid," she whispers.

I was so scared.

When he tilts her chin up to kiss her, the dark spot spreading across her chest thrums with anticipation.

She tries so very hard to ignore it.

xx

They are running along the beach when the sensation hits her in her core, and Quistis stops abruptly, breathing hard. Seifer pulls up alongside her- she has always been the faster of the two, no matter how much longer his legs are or how much more endurance he might have.

-so scared-

"What?" he asks, putting his hands on his knees as he catches his breath.

The wind off the ocean is like fingers against her skin, and Quistis doesn't properly know how to describe the feeling that so overwhelmed her for that half-beat, so she doesn't try. "Nothing," she says, and she is annoyed by how distant her voice sounds. "Just needed a second."

He nods, straightening and wiping sweat off of his brow. "Race you back? Loser buys dinner."

"At Felicia's?" It is her favorite restaurant in Balamb, and it's been a long time since she's had a chance to get off campus for something other than a mission.

"Wherever. Or Wendigo's."

"Beer does not count as food," she informs him, and takes off up toward the road, toward Balamb Garden, its bright blue paramagic ring a beacon in the early evening light.

"Cheater!" Seifer calls from behind her, but she pushes on, pouring her energy into her legs as she runs.

She is the first onto campus, charging up the short flight of steps toward the gate. "I win," she says, flashing her ID at the gate guard. Seifer jogs the last few steps up to her, the front of his shirt soaked through with sweat.

"Only because you're freakishly fast," he gasps, digging into the pocket of his shorts for his Garden identification badge. The guard waves both of them through. "You totally junctioned speed again, didn't you?"

She swats him in the arm and he catches her hand, sliding his fingers through hers as they walk through the lobby. There's a buzz of activity in the air, and Quistis raises an eyebrow as a knot of freshman cadets stop talking upon their approach, only to resume their chat in hushed whispers once they've passed.

Nida is waiting for them in front of their dorm room, pacing anxiously. "There you are!" he exclaims. "I've been looking everywhere for you."

"What's wrong?" Quistis asks, punching in the code for their room. Nida follows both of them inside.

"The commander's back," Nida explains, but just as Quistis opens her mouth to comment on that surprising bit of news, he rushes on. "And he and Xu got into a hell of a row, and he's got her confined to quarters for insubordination."

"Xu?" Quistis blinks. Xu is the most loyal person she knows. There would be no way that she would- "What on earth did she say?"

"I don't know." Nida shakes his head. "I was supposed to meet her for dinner, and when she didn't show, I stopped at her dorm. There's a guard posted there, and that was all he would tell me- that she's basically locked up until Commander Leonhart says otherwise."

Seifer whistles. "Maybe she hit him."

Quistis ignores his comment, but takes the bottle of water he hands her, twisting the cap off, thinking hard. "That doesn't make any sense. Xu's done nothing but keep Garden running while he was gone. Why would he-"

I am recording this in sound mind and body. My lieutenant, Xu Chang, is witnessing this.

She takes off down the hall, hanging a right at the T-junction. Xu is six doors down, on the left, and if Quistis hadn't already known exactly where she was going, she wouldn't have been able to miss it. SeeD Anders is standing there, a member of her most recent graduating class.

"Instructor Trepe," he greets her, snapping into a salute before she can say anything. He looks surprised to see her.

"I need to speak to Lieutenant Chang," she says.

"The lieutenant is confined to quarters until the Commander says-"

"I know," Quistis interrupts him. "And you will let me in." She puts an emphasis on every word- if there is one thing Quistis is good at, it is the look she gives Anders, the one she has given every student of hers at least once. It inspires an immediate obedience, occasionally a great deal of fear, and on one terribly memorable occasion, the formation of a guild of stalkers.

"Ma'am." He steps aside, punching in an override code. "But if Commander Leonhart asks-"

"I'll only be a moment," Quistis assures him. "He doesn't even need to know."

Xu is doing push-ups in the middle of her bedroom, moving at a blistering pace. She's going to end up with rug-burn on her hands if she keeps it up, Quistis knows.

"Did the Commander," and Quistis has never heard her put so much venom in a word unless it was Seifer's name, "send you to harass me, too?"

"Xu, what did you do?"

Xu counts off to three hundred, and rocks back onto her knees. "All I wanted," she says, deliberately choosing her words, "was to know what the hell he was thinking. He didn't take that terribly well. I thought he was compromised, or dead." She moves deftly to her feet. "I had to submit a formal report to the ICGI, Quistis. After three days, I'm obligated. He knows that. Everyone knows that. I can't be expected to just sweep an AWOL command officer under the rug."

"You did what you had to do," Quistis says sympathetically. "But I have to ask you something. Did you tell them about the video he recorded?"

Xu looks at Quistis, long and hard. "She's severely affecting his judgment," she says. "He filed the paperwork himself. He's got an open kill order on her if she loses it or he becomes unfit to control her. What the hell was I supposed to do?"

Burn the witch.