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houses of ill-repute; notes from the deling underground

Chapter Text

"No fucking way."

Seifer had expected Zell to balk, but— "You could let him finish first." He didn't bother looking at Zell from his chair in Squall's office, cramped and dusty and filled with enough multi-colored objects to make a teenager feel at home—Rinoa's taste hadn't improved much in the last few years. Squall pressed the heel of his hand to his forehead, and Seifer thought it was less than he deserved.

"Zell, it's not a request—"

"I'm not going on a mission with him." Zell shook a fist in the air, and then kicked the chair he had launched out of seconds before. "You said you'd never do it when you let him back in."

"Oh, I bet there was a pinky swear, too." Seifer smirked at Squall's flat look. "No need to be shy, Commander. I won't tell anyone about the awesome B-F-F handshake you and Dincht probably have. Secret's safe with me."

Zell kept stomping around in the limited space behind the seating area, muttering under his breath. Seifer leaned forward and pulled the folder off Squall's desk and opened it. "So, Deling City? How's my old stomping ground?"

"Full of criminals and human trafficking." Squall didn't bother with niceties, and Seifer was thankful for it. "The new senate wants to start the clean-up after the last election, but these underground rings keep holding on and slipping through the cracks—never enough evidence."

Seifer flipped through the folder. It was pretty bad stuff, hollow faces of kids used as slaves or worse. Deling City hadn't gotten much better since his days living there, and he remembered plenty of nasty business. "When do we leave?"

"Yo! I said I wasn't doing it." Zell could sound like a whiny brat when he wanted to, Seifer thought, spoiled rotten by fame and fortune.

"And Squall just said it wasn't a request, so shut up and deal." He caved long enough to give Zell a nasty look. "You think I really want to spend an entire mission bailing your ass out of trouble? Suck it up." Seifer tossed the folder down. "Am I going to need contacts for this?"

"No. Quistis is accompanying you and will be monitoring from the hotel room. You're squad leader," Squall said, and then held up a hand at Zell. "He knows the city, so it makes sense for him to take the lead on this one."

Zell huffed, but subsided from the rant he had no doubt been preparing.

"Try to lay low—we don't know how many of your contacts are aligned with these guys." He sighed when Seifer frowned. "I get it, but it's better to assume they're leaks than assume they're safe. You're just going to one gala, so let's hope you don't need them."

"Just one?" Zell came to sit, twitching away from Seifer even as he did it.

"It's re-con, but you'll be on the field, so we can't just send a covert team. You need to draw them out—we think the place where the gala is hosted is smack on top of the series of tunnels they're using to get people around the city." Squall shoved the paperwork across his desk. Zell stared at it with a disgusted look on his face before he signed off, and Seifer followed, not much happier.

"When do we leave?" The sooner it was over and done with the better—too many days listening to Zell complain about having to share air with him would do him in.

"Two days." Zell was halfway out of his chair when Squall continued, "However, you both have prep tomorrow."

"What? Dude, I don't need to prep," Zell said. "Not with him. I know exactly what to expect. Boss, boss, boss, I'm-so-much-better-than-you, stay out of my way. I could write a book on what to expect from this guy."

Seifer smirked. "Shows what you know about me."

"First impressions are a bitch, aren't they?" Zell snapped.

Squall put his face in his hands.

-----

Unfortunately for Seifer, he could never decide whether he hated or loved listening to Zell run his mouth. When it wasn't about how much Seifer's attitude sucked balls, it fell into the latter category, but Seifer only caught those when he eavesdropped, and Zell was hard to sneak up on. The chances of Zell deciding that Seifer wouldn't be that bad to be on a squad with was as about as likely as Quistis taking a voluntary vacation.

"I can't believe I'm saying this," Seifer said, twelve hours away from Squall's mission assignment, half-dressed for suit measurements and only ten minutes into Zell's newest complaint about his person, "but can you talk about anything but me?"

Zell snorted. "You mean you'd actually not tell me to shut up if I talked about something besides you? I thought you liked being the center of attention."

Costuming wasn't exactly roomy, filled with clothes for undercover missions all across the walls, and having Zell in any space was like automatically making it feel three times smaller. Seifer was willing to bet that his entire life in the next week was going to feel like the hours he had spent in this room.

"You need new material." Seifer winced away from a stray pin on his thigh, and figured the girl taking the measurements was suffering just as bad as he was—he'd poke people, too. "You've already outlined all the reasons you think I'm a bad SeeD. It gets tiring hearing them on repeat. I got it, I'm an asshole and I skewer newborn kittens on my gunblade and should be beaten to death—by you. Can you talk about the weather, maybe?"

Zell shut up—for five seconds. "I don't think you should be beaten to death."

Seifer meet Zell's gaze through the mirrors. "Oh, just beaten then and left unconscious on the ground? Thanks for the reprieve."

Zell crossed his arms, and the cadet measuring him squeaked. Seifer just shook his head as Zell looked around his bare legs at the pins he had sent everywhere. "S-Sorry. No moving, right." He glanced back, eyes narrowed.

Seifer couldn't read Zell's expression, but it made the fact he wasn't wearing anything but his underwear a dangerous fucking situation.

"You know, it's really just cause you're still an asshole," Zell said.

"In some reality, I'm sure that even makes sense." Seifer tested the fall of his jacket on his shoulders to distract himself. "So you spend all your time whining about me—to me, I might add—instead of talking to me for the last six months, and you know this for a fact?"

Seifer was surprised when Zell grinned and said, "You'll never not be an asshole. But I guess you're right."

"Oh, call the papers, Zell Dincht just admitted he was wrong." Seifer smirked when the chick in charge of Zell snorted and dropped her measuring tape.

Seifer watched Zell scramble to the floor to help, and definitely did not watch Zell bend over and stick his ass in the air, because that would have been self-destructive as well as mortifying.

Seifer had been excited about three things when returning to Garden. Squall having to suck it up and ask him because of Seifer's seedy connections and street knowledge had been one. The second had been that Fujin and Raijin were already SeeD, and therefore he got many of the benefits before even passing the field exam. The food still sucked, the beds were still too hard, and the third thing he realized he wanted had been out of his reach.

The old days when he and Zell would spar, physically in the training center and verbally in classes and around the halls were gone. Zell was different, aloof and judgmental and not as easy to wind up the way he had before. He was more confident, too, and the ease that he inhabited his body outside of fights now was, unfortunately for Seifer, irresistible. Seifer knew he was different, too, but the old grooves of who they had been before had filled in and couldn't be excavated, leaving him with no way back to even a semblance of a relationship besides Zell's constant, low key disregard. Seifer could count the things he missed about pre-war days on one hand, and it had been a shitty realization when Zell's smart ass mouth had featured in the top spot.

City living had made him too soft and sentimental, which was a trick considering how hard it had been, and Seifer found himself watching Zell flail around half-naked through the mirrors without even masking what he was doing.

He was fucking doomed.

-----

Seven hours later, Seifer had reevaluated his opinion of his future. He wasn't just doomed. There was something worse than doomed—and he was living it.

"Ow!"

Seifer gave up and pushed Zell away from him, and barely resisted throwing the stereo that continued the happy music regardless of the fact that no one in the Quad was happy. "That was your fault."

"My fault? I'm the one that supposed to be leading. I'm trying to teach you, fucker." Zell sat back and the floor and rubbed his bare foot. "Just admit it, you suck at dancing and instead of being upfront with Squall about not being a good choice for the mission, you're going to try to jam an entire term's worth of moves into your brain?" He snorted. "Dude, you're hopeless."

Zell might have had a point if Seifer didn't know that there was a reason Squall had chosen him for this mission, and not just because he cleaned up nice and didn't act like a moron in the middle of high society. Squall had been in Seifer's dance class and knew just as well as Seifer did that when it came to rhythm, Seifer only had it when it meant timing the trigger on his gunblade to do the most damage.

Seifer jabbed at the stereo to restart the music. He was annoyed that Quistis had only come by once to direct them before running off to do something that didn't involve listening to them bicker. He was hot and tired and he hated dancing. "I'm on the mission because I know the underground, smart ass, just like you're on the mission because you don't need a traditional weapon that can be taken away from you." Seifer was pretty sure he was going to get a cramp in his right leg to match the pain in his ass a few feet away.

"Well, whatever, I still think it's stupid if you have no clue how to dance to assign you a mission where dancing is the point." Zell took a drink of his water and wiped his mouth.

Seifer watched him lick his lips out of the corner of his eye, and then cursed himself. He cued up the tape before he started to drool or act like a lovesick teenager on top of everything else. "That's why I'm the brains, genius. You'll look pretty and twirl around, I'll do the talking. Let's do it again."

"Hell no!" Zell flopped backwards. "I am done dancing with you. You're like a weapon, and I need my feet. You know, to walk."

Seifer stalked across the Quad and sent Zell scrambling to his feet, fists out. He grabbed them and yanked Zell forward. "If you make me have to go to Squall and tattle on you like some wet cadet, I swear I will make your life miserable."

Zell glared up at him. "Fine. But watch where you put your feet." He slid his right palm against Seifer's and squeezed, hard enough that Seifer wanted to wince. He wouldn't give Zell the pleasure, though. Dancing was for people that were not Seifer Almasy, and he had no clue how Zell, klutz that he could be, was so fucking good at it. Zell watched him as they stepped into the movements, eyes wary for two rotations.

"There," Seifer said, as he spun and came back to start position, feeling like the biggest moron on the planet. "I've got it, so now you can teach me how to lead."

Zell only glared at him, face red, and ripped his hand out of Seifer's to ram a fist into his shoulder. "Your hand goes on your partner's hip for these dances, pervert. Not on their ass!"

It was nice finding the silver lining, he thought as Zell ranted at him. Seifer only grinned as Zell complained, and completely failed to bat Seifer's offending hand away.

-----

The night before they left, Seifer found Rinoa in the library buried in a book with some language he couldn't even read on the cover.

"I hope the pictures are interesting." He plopped down in a chair beside her, sending her jumping away.

"Geez, Seifer, you scared the crap out of me." She returned to her seat and closed the book, sending dust flying into the air. It had taken Seifer a few years to get used to Rinoa as she was now—sorceress, check, knowledge of dead languages, cultures, and magics in her head, check, in love with Squall—gross but understandable given her history with broken men—check. She hadn't changed in the ways that mattered to him, had been willing to forgive him—which he hadn't really deserved—so the rest was just details.

"Thought I'd say goodbye before I leave. It's me against Quistis and Zell and every sexual pervert in Deling City, and I might not come back whole."

Rinoa smiled and twisted to press her bony knees into his thigh. "Must be sort of exciting, getting to go home. It's been about about six months, right?"

Seifer poked at a piece of paper advertising a book sale for the weekend. "Home's here. That was just a place where I lived for awhile." He wasn't surprised to feel Rinoa's hand on his shoulder, offering silent comfort in the new way she did. Her palm was warm, and not just from her body heat, he knew. There would always be magic between a sorceress and a knight, even if he wasn't hers.

"Quistis is annoyed." Rinoa turned away, tapped her fingers on the book. "She doesn't like being side-lined into monitoring."

"I've got no pity. I have to wear uncomfortable shoes and talk to a bunch of sickos that might be kidnapping kids so they can molest them. She gets to sit and record our conversations and order room service on Garden's gil." Seifer hadn't been facing it, but he had read the mission file and if he wasn't going to tell Rinoa, there was no one he could tell. "You know where they've been getting picked off from?" He sent the paper sliding across the table and didn't wait for an answer. "Burke's."

"That—that's the restaurant you worked at."

"And the guy who took me in, gave me a job, yeah. I've got a feeling Squall knows more than he's telling me. There's a reason he put me on this mission."

Rinoa was quiet for a moment, and above them air came sweeping through the vent, raising goosebumps on his arms.

"Well, it's not because you can dance." And there it was, her understanding, in everything she didn't say.

Seifer raised an eyebrow. "Zell's such a gossip. Here, spread this around—he wears boxers with chocobos on them."

Rinoa only laughed. "I'm pretty sure people know that one, he flipped into one of the pools off his T-board once and lost his pants when he stood up."

"Damn, and I thought I had some dirt." He could have, in fact, but penis rumors were for the prepubescent, and he'd just have to lie, anyway. Seeing Zell uncomfortable was only fun if it didn't end with Zell's fist connecting with any part of his body when he least expected it, and Zell had a habit of abusing that damn Diablos GF as it was.

"Well, whoever is doing it, be safe, okay?" Rinoa's wink was sly. "Take good care of Zell," she said, and left too many words unspoken.

Seifer hated her fucking magical fairy powers of perception sometimes.

Chapter Text

Seifer had gone through worse briefings, ones that included Selphie and the directions for a stakeout—complete with cramped quarters. The next morning with Zell and Quistis was better, but not by much.

"I would rather screw a malboro," Zell said, when Xu finished her spiel of field directions. Much to Seifer's amusement, it included physical disguises and guidelines on how to act like a couple instead of squabbling ten year olds.

Quistis snorted from her chair on Zell's other side. Xu only faltered in her paperwork for a moment, the pen trembling—probably trying not to laugh, Seifer guessed. He bet Xu thought she was making him miserable, but she was so very wrong.

Seifer nudged Zell's leg with his knee, dropping his eyes when Zell jerked away. "You should try out the goods before you start talking them down."

Zell shoved him, making Seifer's chair rock on the floor. "I don't want to be pretend boyfriends and I don't want to fuck you!"

Seifer slid his gave up, and watched Zell's cheeks flush. "How do you really know? Been considering it?"

Zell threw up his hands. "What the hell kind of mission is this? I had to spend hours teaching this moron how to dance, I get to hang out with a bunch of child molesters, and on top of that you're telling me I have to dye my hair and pretend to be fucking Seifer?"

Xu raised an eyebrow. "Perhaps you've forgotten about the war that made your face famous. Everyone knows both of you—you need to be in disguise, and show interest in the merchandise."

"Disguises like you're talking about won't work." Seifer shrugged. "So you can only mean we're supposed to be recognized through them, so they think we're into kiddie porn and trying to slide some in on the side without getting in trouble with SeeD."

"We're going to record all the conversations, so it's important people think you're actually interested—in the kids and in each other—and disguises are the best way to avoid suspicion," Quistis said. "Without the names of the leaders, it's a bust."

Zell put his face in his hands. "This is so messed up. I'm going to barf."

Xu said, "We're looking for names and this is your goal—there is no physical engagement required. Get as many names as possible: names of people who've hired these services, who've purchased a child for use in the home, the people who you see to start the process of applying."

Zell rubbed his hair, which only bounced back up with every pass of his palm. "Ugh."

"We should be getting hazard pay for this," Seifer said to Xu, disgusted.

"Is it too late to back out?" Zell sounded vaguely desperate. He gave Seifer a strange look, expression a mix of anger, nervousness, and vulnerability. It made Seifer want to do things even more ridiculous than fuck him. It made Seifer want to hug him, which was a sign he really needed to start dating again and get this nonsense out of his system.

Anyway, a worried Zell was a quiet Zell was a boring Zell. Seifer held out a hand for the folders in front of Xu. "I think we all understand why Zell has to play catcher the whole mission, so just give us the papers and let us go."

Zell's offended yell made Xu fumble the papers—Xu losing her cool at all was an epic moment—and Quistis laugh out loud. Seifer grinned and took the punch on the arm, but it was definitely worth it.

-----

If anyone had asked Seifer, he would have told them the entire mission plan sucked, and not just because they were sending a SeeD with scribbles all over his face on an undercover job. But no one bothered to question Squall or Xu over anything, much less ask Seifer his opinion, so he kept his mouth shut.

He half-listened to Quistis on the train as they rolled through the Galbadia countryside, watching Zell fidget and shift around in their tiny cabin, and wondered how Squall had figured playing the boyfriends card would make their target any less suspicious. He didn't have a problem with it since there was a chance he was selling Squall short; Seifer didn't actually watch the news or read tabloids, but he knew plenty of people in Garden did. They were useless and full of crap: Rinoa and Irvine having an affair, Squall's latest tear-filled reconciliation with his long-lost father, Zell's enjoyment of Balamb's male escort service—it was all worthless. Balamb wasn't big enough yet to have an escort service. Their latest business was an ice cream shop, and there was nothing more pure than that.

Seifer could pretend—it wouldn't even be pretending, since he'd come to terms with wanting to bang Zell shortly after coming back to Garden. But Zell could negate anything the press had convinced the public of just by glaring at Seifer once where someone important could see.

Seifer pressed his head against the cold glass as Zell knocked a folder over and then bent down to pick up the papers. Maybe, if they were lucky, people would just assume it was tough love—it was a bunch of sexual perverts they were trying to fool, after all.

"Seifer, are you paying attention?" Quistis threw a balled up piece of paper, which hit his arm and bounced to the floor. "None of this is really important, of course, I just like my speaking voice."

"I guess all that talk of going on a date just doesn't sound as exciting as I originally thought," Seifer said.

Zell threw him a nasty glance as he shoved the file folder back at Quistis. "It's not a fucking date!"

He swung his legs down to the floor. "Funny, because I'm sure I read it in the mission notes and just heard Quistis say it was a date. Out of the way bar, table in the back, a few drinks..."

"You're such an ass. It's not a date." Zell turned his back on both of them and started boxing at the air.

Seifer rolled his eyes. "He'll ruin the entire mission with his attitude."

"You'll both ruin the mission—if you wouldn't be such a child," Quistis said. "It's just a few hours in public, surely you can resist fighting that long." She flipped open another folder. "You'll go out in plain clothes for a few hours today to get the feel of the place some of the older teens have gone missing from, then tomorrow we'll dress you up for the gala event. Disguises will come into play then. It's important that you go to the right bar—it's popular on the east side."

The small details of fooling the press and anyone in the ring in the initial report had irked Seifer and he still wasn't happy about it. He didn't like crossing the streams, and not just because Squall was counting on him being recognized. "Burke's isn't just popular on the east side, it's popular everywhere. They're the best."

"So we think people are getting picked off from there because the corpses have their age stamp?" Zell paused his swatting. "I get we need to go so Seifer can do his criminal whispering, but how's it supposed to help us tomorrow?"

"Because when we start making out, people will see us, genius."

Quistis rolled her eyes as Zell spluttered. "You're not required to do anything like that, Zell, and you know it, so don't give him the pleasure of setting you off." She crossed her arms and gave Zell a caustic look. "He does have a point about your temper, though."

Zell threw up his hands. "I'm not going to ruin the damn mission. If you want us to hold hands and cuddle, what the hell ever, I just don't think anyone's going to buy this shit."

Seifer leaned back and grinned. "Then you haven't been reading Boys Next Door often enough, Mr. April."

Zell's mouth fell open, face slack, and Quistis covered her smile with her hand, and barely masked her laughter with a cough. "I think Selphie has that issue. It was...tasteful."

"You're both the worst," Zell complained.

-----

Burke's was buried in the new shopping district. Seifer remembered when it first opened after the war, sprawling through an abandoned warehouse with two floors, the only bar in town that served any sort of meal. Seifer didn't know how Burke did it, bringing in food to feed the people that had piled into in a country where starvation was the biggest killer. Seifer hadn't started working there until four months after its debut, and by that time the bar was golden, with a line every night, winding around the building. Seifer had liked hauling dishes more than hammering nails in construction gigs, liked Burke, and liked everything he had done to revive Deling City.

He didn't like the idea that Squall's suspicions were true, that Burke and his people were involved with the very thing they had fought Deling's remaining cronies for.

"This place serves food?" Zell pressed against Seifer's side as they headed into the bar through the narrow corridor, his voice muffled against the steady beat of music from the other side of the walls. "Rat sandwiches, maybe."

The low lights above washed over the dirty floor and scuff marks on the wall, along with other things Seifer didn't want to identify. He pressed back. "Baby, you know it hurts my feelings when you talk like that."

The people around them snickered.

Zell gave him a disgusted look. He kicked a can, sending it in a off-beat rattle across the concrete floor. It bounced past feet and went out of sight.

Seifer only grinned. He tugged Zell forward with the push of the crowd—they were early enough not to have to wait outside. Seifer caught sight of the bouncer over the crowd before they stepped up to him.

"Hey, Biggs."

Biggs had been the head of security for Burke since the beginning. He didn't lose his cool when their gazes caught. He crossed his arms. "Well, well, if it isn't the prodigal son. Burke know you're coming around here?"

Seifer inched a shoulder up and nodded his head toward Zell, who was getting whispers already as he muttered curses at Seifer. "Surprise trip. Anniversary thing."

Biggs was silent, and annoyed murmurs from the crowd behind them rolled forward at the hold-up. He raised an eyebrow and looked Zell over, eyes sharp and amused. "You're serious."

Seifer didn't bother answering, just tugged Zell in front of him. "Zell, this is Biggs. Remember him?"

Zell started to shove Seifer's hands off his shoulders, but disguised the move as a shrug. "Should I?" Biggs didn't take offense—he wasn't a touchy person—but Seifer suspected Wedge would be getting an earful tonight.

Biggs wrapped a palm around the handle of the door. "Go on in—Burke's manning bar." He pulled the door open and the noise and warmth and scent of fried food draped over them like a sheet. Burke had redecorated, the industrial look wiped away with polished wood paneling and a multitude of mirrors. It looked slick and high class and absolutely different than the squalor outside. The music was a messy electronic noise, a trend out of Esthar, the beat a tickle through the soles of Seifer's boots.

Seifer pushed Zell forward and leaned down closer than necessary, lips brushing the skin behind Zell's ear. "He sent a giant robot after us once." His voice was raised as they pushed into the crowd of people in front, mingling and talking in the glow of yellow lights hanging from the ceiling. "Remember the plan with the script, too."

"I'm not a moron," Zell said, as he followed Seifer's directions through the crowd. "Shut up, Seifer."

Seifer slipped a hand around Zell's midsection. "I hadn't said anything yet. You're too paranoid."

"Yeah, but you were probably thinking it." Seifer hadn't been, distracted by the warmth of Zell's body, but the truth wouldn't save him. Zell aimed an elbow back, fast and sharp, and only missed because Seifer slid around him and pulled him into his side as they angled toward the bar. He weaved a path around groups of people from all different walks. Zell fit under his arm just like Seifer had imagined he would, but he didn't linger on it.

Burke was easy to spot, hefting three empties from the bar to the sink as he grinned at a customer. Seifer saw him catch a glimpse of them in the mirror, his dark eyes sinking to a slit for a second before he tossed off another comment Seifer couldn't catch over the music.

"Dude, people are staring, get off." Zell wiggled against him, but Seifer only pressed him in as they leaned against the curve of the bar, the only open space.

"Let them look, then." Seifer leaned an elbow on the polished wood and leaned in close to Zell's ear. "I know you hate this, but we'll be done soon."

Zell rolled his eyes and stilled. "Fine."

It wasn't the best acting job, but Seifer was relieved Zell wasn't going to ruin the entire plan before it even got going out of disgust over having to do this with Seifer. He tugged him away from the bar, deeper into the throng of people.

"You didn't even talk to him." Zell raised his voice over the music as Seifer slid them past the fringe of dancers, aiming for the stairs that would take them up to the VIP area. "Why not?"

"Not the point. You don't bother Burke when he's pouring." The VIP door was locked without a guard in front of it—too early yet for those guests to come in, but Seifer typed in the long time master code he knew by heart and pulled Zell up the narrow stairs behind him. "He'll find us."

"Whoa, what is this place?"

Seifer led them up, the vibrations of the bass trembling the lights that hung from the ceiling as they topped the stairs. He let Zell go, pulling his arm away to twist around the tables draped with cloths. Zell gaped behind him, but Seifer couldn't get too excited—he had worked here for ages. "What part of the limited access did you miss?"

"But it's empty," Zell muttered. He bumped into a table and dragged the cloth halfway off before he fixed it—badly. "Why come up here?"

He fought a sarcastic remark. Seifer found the booth overlooking the dance floor and the edge of the bar area—Burke was blocked from view by a support beam. "VIP area doesn't open for another hour. If people have the money to buy people, they'll be VIPs."

"Right."

Seifer slid across the cold, smooth leather. "Come here."

Zell flushed. "Listen—"

Seifer sliced the air with his hand and then tapped his ear. "Alone, no one around to see us. Come on, baby."

Zell clawed at his hair. He looked furious, but his voice was smooth. "You know PDA embarasses me." He sat down in the booth and buried his face in his hands. "I've told you not to use those nicknames in public, too."

"But you blush so pretty." Seifer leaned back, wondered if Zell could really manage to keep a lid on it for the next few hours. He didn't doubt Burke had flipped his walkie to the opposite channel as soon as they had left the bar—he knew Seifer hated the crowds when they got drunk and exactly where he would go.

"Is it safe here?" Zell had picked himself up off the table. Could've been an actor—reciting the lines they all gone over earlier in their hotel sounded normal.

"No one's going to bust us for making out." In the old days the room had been peppered with mics. There might be video now, but Seifer didn't think it was likely—audio was one thing, but if it got out Burke was spying on the VIP area, it wouldn't stay the VIP area for long.

"You should be more worried," Zell said, and it sounded convincing. "If anyone sees us and it gets back to Garden..."

Zell hated the idea of breaking Garden codes, so of course it was a perfect fit. Seifer resisted the urge to lay a hand on his neck and squeeze, a reassuring gesture that would be unwanted and actively resented.

For the first time in months, Seifer hated Garden again, and Squall, and the whole shitty business of cleaning up parts of the world because governments couldn't do it themselves. Wearing a suit, trying to keep his hands off Zell and rubbing elbows with perverts was one thing, but betraying the people that had kept him alive by suspecting them of being human traffickers—betraying Burke—Squall was asking a whole hell of a lot these days.

Seifer risked bumping their legs together. Zell didn't move. "You worry too much. Burke's is safe."

"Where'd you meet him?" Curious-bright eyes and off-script—textbook Zell, what had he expected—but Seifer hated that Zell wouldn't have cared otherwise. It was too easy to lie to himself and pretend.

"His brother made a lot of money doing interviews for Occult Fan," Seifer said. "Moved his whole family to Deling City, and then lost it all gambling. Burke came along for the ride and got stuck when the war started."

"Oh. Sorry."

Seifer scratched at the cloth on the table. "No need. Burke made his own way and saved a lot of lives."

The silence stretched on like an afternoon shadow, and broke with a heavy heel cracking against wood as Zell shifted. "In other words, you."

The dim lights overhead that created the mood and magic that sold fruity drinks with little umbrellas wouldn't make him think that Zell had leaned into him or sounded grateful otherwise. "If it had been just me, Burke would be outcast. Can't save the behemoth and leave the cows to fend for themselves."

"Yeah, everyone hated you. I get it."

Seifer wished that were true; he wished anyone truly got it. It pissed him off that so many people didn't hate him because they didn't even know who he was. "You're in good company still. I'm only untouchable here because people watched me bleed for this place and Burke's word."

Zell's eyebrows dipped and pressed his back against the leather. Air escaped like a sigh. Seifer realized what he had said, right in the middle of everything, like an idiot.

Ridiculous mood lighting. One sentence to ruin the entire damn mission and it had come from him. Burke wasn't stupid.

"Give me a break, I wouldn't screw you if I hated you." Zell laughed. He was too quick, Seifer was reeling from the comment before he figured out Zell had taken them back to safe spaces. "Well, maybe I would. You're not too bad to look at." He acted amused, but he was pissed. Seifer could feel it all over him, gentle trembling.

It was official. Seifer had turned into a teenager again, and a pathetic one at that. "Not too bad?" Failure, that's all he was sometimes. "Funny, you were singing a different tune—"

They both heard the unseen door shut across the room, feet on the stairs. Alone and as quiet as it was, Burke couldn't sneak up on them. But it wasn't Burke, and Seifer's breath hung in his throat when the familiar face he had left behind—bloodied and broken by his fist when he had walked away—came into view. Zell shifted closer, braced his hands under the table to flip it. It was almost ridiculous; did he think they were going to be attacked in the middle of a bar?

"Seifer," Martine said. "So nice for you to drop in."

Chapter Text

"Martine," Seifer replied. "Nice nose job. I never got paid for that, by the way."

Martine settled across from them in the booth. His pristine suit, starched to perfection, said he had just come in for the night. Martine probably had abused wage slaves in the bowels of the dungeon Seifer was certain he lived in starch all his shirts. Beaten wage slaves, Seifer thought viciously.

"I see your attitude hasn't improved in your absence."

"My attitude?" Seifer laughed, bitter. "Fuck you. You hated you couldn't make me jump like everyone else. Chief of staff doesn't trump man who helped build the goddamn building." He leaned back and put his arm around Zell, who surprisingly, hadn't opened his mouth yet. "I thought for sure you would've been killed in an alley somewhere, you abusive sonofabitch." He cocked his head when Martine's throat jumped but his face remained blank. "Irvine's told me all the stories, by the way. No need to pretend anymore."

Zell made a noise and Seifer looked down. "Irvine wouldn't tell me the stories," Zell complained. "Why'd he tell you?"

"Because I'm a big boy and can handle it," Seifer said and gritted his teeth when Zell punched him in the leg.

"I see you've adopted a stray," Martine said, snide as he possibly could be which was saying something, given that at his best he was just mildly snide. Seifer decided that a year in poverty and ridicule hadn't been nearly long enough. "Funny choice, isn't he a bit ratty?"

"Ratty? Listen here, you—" Seifer clamped his free hand over Zell's mouth before he could get started.

"You know he duels. Hands and all. Fucking amazing hands." Seifer pictured the scene when they got back to the hotel and added at least an hour of violence before he got to go to bed. "Jealous? Pretty sure the only attention you're getting is from whatever whore you've paid to not gag when they look at you." He let go when Zell bit his palm and took the time to smack him in the head.

Martine rolled his eyes, clearly put out, which was just where Seifer liked him.

"Why are you here pretending to be boyfriends?" Martine asked. "I clearly don't think you're actually having sex with—well, I know you, Seifer, from watching you awkwardly seduce many foolish, drunk but overall attractive children."

Zell looked at him with an expression not unlike a puppy who had been left out in the cold every night for a week. "You told me I was your first!" he said; Seifer was impressed when his lips trembled. "You asshole!" He shoved Seifer's arm off his shoulder. "You!" Zell pointed at Martine. "I fucked Seifer against the wall of the train on the way here and he liked it! So did I! Fuck you!"

Seifer flushed, hot as a summer day. He didn't know where Zell had pulled it from but it was hilarious to watch and also torture. The best dirty talk in the goddamn world and it was fake. He was going to hang himself with his sheets.

Zell shot Seifer another dirty look, probably for making him admit to screwing Seifer out loud when he would probably rather set his dick on fire, but useful subterfuge nonetheless—and then he was gone, stomping through tables and down the stairs. The door slammed so hard it rattled glasses on nearby tables, shaking everything up like he did wherever he went.

Martine looked, for the first time, like he wished he hadn't walked up the stairs to needle Seifer. They both watched Zell leave and sat in silence.

"Or perhaps," Martine said a few moments later, sounding vaguely apologetic, "you have decided to slum."

------

Seifer found Zell ten minutes later at the bar, draped over a stool, back curved into a depressed slouch. Burke was still serving and Zell had two shot glasses in front of him, glistening in the light. Seifer met Burke's eyes, cool and curious and then looked away. He rested his hand on Zell's back.

"Go away," Zell muttered and shrugged him off, face hidden in his curled arms. "I'm dying. Dying."

"It was only a small scene," Seifer said. "No one saw it."

"That guy saw it."

"Martine's not a human, he's a garbage bag with a mouth, so he doesn't count."

Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Burke's lips twitch as he chatted with another customer a few feet away. He focused on Zell, improvising from their script. "Listen, all those other people—I was young."

"Stupid," Zell said, sitting up to glare at him. "Don't forget stupid."

"That, too." Seifer didn't agree with what Zell was actually saying, but he had been stupid back then, drunk on desperation and a need to feel and he had done plenty of things that could have gotten him killed, the least of which was put his dick into some places he wanted to forget and he was certain places he couldn't remember. "Sorry for..."

Zell waved a hand. "It's not like I didn't know you were an asshole."

Seifer took the stool next to Zell as Martine walked by. Seifer barely contained himself at the look of pure loathing Zell shot at Martine as he walked behind the bar, nodding to Burke. It was worse than the looks Zell gave him sometimes, which was saying something. "Am I forgiven?" he asked, and Zell turned back to him. His mouth was drawn and he looked unhappy. Pissed and sad was not a good combination; it made Seifer want to do ridiculous things like hug him, which always made him feel slightly panicked. "Hey," Seifer said, reaching out to touch Zell's shoulder.

Zell stared at him, all wide blue eyes and a pouting mouth and goddamnit, it was all part of this act Zell had suddenly become excellent at, fooling everyone, even him. Seifer curled his hand around Zell's neck, hot against his palm. Seifer went to tug him forward, except Zell moved faster, his hands suddenly all over Seifer's thighs and it would have been perfect, Zell kissing him, but for the fact he went too fast and jammed his forehead into Seifer's nose.

"Ow!" Zell said. "Can't you stay still, you fucker?"

Seifer took a deep breath and touched his lip to make sure he wasn't bleeding. "You should come with insurance," he complained. Zell ignored him and shot a look over his shoulder to Martine, who had turned his back to try and hide his laughter. It was pretty laughable, if only Martine had been laughing over the scenario where Seifer wasn't stupidly attracted to a clumsy loudmouth who hated him and about to make out with the same just to convince the right people of the appropriate lies.

Seifer hated everything about this.

Zell looked back at him. "If you grope me in public I'll break your neck," he said, grabbed Seifer's head between his hands and kissed him, closemouthed and off-center, like every awkward adolescent kiss Seifer had ever suffered through before figuring out how to use his mouth. Then again, Seifer thought, Zell wasn't the type to run around kissing indiscriminately—it was just one of the things Seifer appreciated about him—so he shouldn't be so judgmental.

Seifer had spent hours upon hours thinking of what it would be like to kiss Zell for the first time. None of his daydreams had ever included a crowded bar or the kiss being a lie, though. So fuck it, Seifer thought, he should at least be able to enjoy it—a first kiss, of a kind. He tugged Zell forward into the angle of his thighs and cupped his jaw with his hands.

He pulled back. "Hey," he said, whispered it into the corner of Zell's mouth and squeezed his hips, foolhardy and hard and wanting to recapture some of the quiet intimacy they had almost had before Martine ruined it. "Remember that I mean this."

"Mean what?" Zell asked, his breath hot on Seifer's face. Seifer answered by sucking Zell's lower lip between his and nipping gently. Zell tasted like cheap whiskey when Seifer nudged his mouth open and dived in. It was everything and nothing like he had imagined, because most of the time when he pictured himself doing it Zell responded by breaking his face, but in this time and this place he stood, his hands fisted in Seifer's shirt, still, quiet and as warm as a thousand lazy summer days. Seifer didn't think anyone else thought of Zell as a secret, a man who contained a mystery beyond his verve and volume, but like this Seifer felt like he could almost see it, the whole picture of the hint that Zell sometimes showed the world when he thought no one was watching.

He ran his thumbs over the curve of Zell's jaw and moved back, pressed a soft, slow kiss to the corner of Zell's mouth because he had to draw the line somewhere and that line came before he started grinding on someone in middle of a bar over something that was supposed to be an act.

"Um," Zell murmured, blinking at him, so close Seifer could see the blue of his eyes were flecked with hints of green, unfocused for a moment until he frowned.

"Punch me later," Seifer said. They had acquired an audience and half that audience probably had cameras. Useful, but annoying.

"Almasy, I thought you were done with my bar."

Seifer smiled. "If I'm going on a date I want the best, Burke." He turned his head but didn't let go of Zell. "Are you going to feed us or do we need to find your competition?" Burke was a small man, not much taller than Zell, with weathered skin from a hard life in Timber. Seifer wasn't fooled by his size: Burke had the force of someone twice as big and tough fists to match, but he was good at taking care, especially with people, and wasn't afraid to knock heads to do it. Seifer had left the bar because of Martine, but he had never blamed Burke for it. Seifer had turned down the job Martine had now first, after all.

"Who's your friend?" Burke asked, as he polished mugs and hung them back up.

"Like you have to ask." Seifer risked sneaking his fingers into the hair on the back of Zell's neck, soft and warm like chocobo down. "Zell, this is Burke. Ugly as hell but just as kind-hearted and squishy." Zell only nodded and didn't say anything; it was not the perfect time for him to decide to shut up.

"You want to be fed here or not? Watch your mouth, you'll ruin my reputation." Burke leaned on the counter. "I sent Martine to check on you, not run you out. Go back up through the kitchen, avoid the floor." He grinned. "Got a live band coming in, every goddamn magazine is going to be covering it." He looked out over the crowd. "You blew your profile by sucking face at my bar. Always were a fool."

Seifer laughed and slid off the stool and had the benefit of sliding along Zell as well, who hadn't moved at all. "Happy anniversary to us," he said, and pulled Zell away through the crowds.

---

 

Seifer hustled them through the service doors and into the staff bathroom as fast he could, hoping to avoid Zell exploding on him in the middle of the crowds that had doubled. He wasn't surprised after he shut the bathroom door and clicked the lock when his head bounced off the door, his teeth cracking together. He hated when Zell did that, lightning fast so he never felt the punch, just the shitty aftermath. He bit his tongue and ran his thigh into the doorknob before catching himself on the sink.

"What the hell was that?" Zell shoved him again and Seifer finally pushed him back. "It was supposed to be a kiss, not you mouth fucking me!"

"Where'd you pick up that term? I don't think it means what you think." Seifer swallowed the blood in his mouth. "Anyway, Quistis told you you didn't need to do it." In fact, they shouldn't have done it right there. Seifer realized, too late, that he shouldn't have done it at all.

"Martine saw right through us. Of course I had to fucking do it." Zell slapped the wall so hard the light fixtures shook. "Goddamnit!"

"Well, I'm sorry it was so horrible for you." It wasn't Zell's fault; Seifer had thought the same thing. If they couldn't fool Martine what hope did they have of fooling anyone else? He wished the mission was over now, instead of just beginning, the long, drawn out reality of it enough to make him want to drown himself in the shallow sink. "You're lucky one of us know how to kiss, otherwise we would be screwed."

Martine was greedy as a rule; some reporter would pounce him and get the whole, sordid story. It was going to be all over the tabloids tomorrow; Seifer could already see the magazines spread across Xu's desk. Sexual scandals about SeeD were big deals; Seifer would bill him for half the cut if he thought Martine would share.

"Fuck you. I know how to kiss." Zell rubbed his face and stared at Seifer, expression haunted and horrified.

"Well, then I want a redo," Seifer said stupidly, taking a risk on getting punched again. The expression on Zell's face made him feel sick to his stomach. "Because you didn't give it your all out there."

"Shut the fuck up. I'm thinking." Zell sat on the open toilet seat, the one that was still missing its lid from the time it cracked in half falling over Martine's head as he vomited from spiked punch—one of Seifer's better revenges. "Never mind, I'm too pissed to think. What does this mean?" Zell asked. "For the mission."

"It might help it, give us better deniability." That was extremely optimistic given Zell's level of celebrity. Seifer considered tagging some paparazzi to trail them back to the hotel. If they could be photographed going in and not coming back out, it might get lost in the rest of the tabloids news so they could still suit up tomorrow, finish, and go home. Home was Seifer's motto now, so he could lock himself in the training center for the next forever and beat on shit until he wasn't so frustrated and angry at himself. "Except for how now the entire world will think—"

"Shut up, shut up, I know!" Zell kicked the wall. "I didn't tell Ma about any of this. She's going to see everything and get the wrong idea. I won't even get to tell her the truth. She'll just think I lied to her about you."

Seifer remembered Zell's first and last girlfriend, a local girl from Balamb who hadn't been able to handle the pressure of the press's obsession with who Zell might or might not be screwing. Seifer read every article from their three week relationship, cut short by a public who wanted too much. He remembered the vicious anger he had felt on Zell's behalf that even the breakup was picked over for every sliver of drama, and the equally amounts of horror when he realized that he felt that way and why.

One article from a skeevy Dollet tabloid had run weeks after the breakup, the pictures taken on the sly through a window at a private dinner at Zell's house, to speculate on everything from Zell's salary to his favorite brand of underwear. Seifer remembered the smile on Zell's face as he looked at his mother, wide and bright like an explosion. Seifer spent months after his realization about his fucking feelings chasing that smile before he realized he would never get it. He settled for the random violence, pointed disdain, and caustic remarks, which was fine but not the only fire he wanted; it was a poor substitute.
He watched Zell bury his face in his hands and thought back to the Zell he had kissed at the bar, open and easy—the same person Zell showed his mother and the people he dated, the one Seifer could only bring out with lies. He reached back and clicked the lock. "We can't hide in here forever."

"This is horrible," Zell whined, and Seifer's face burned with shame over the fact he was being so damn stupid over someone who didn't want him—would never want him. "I can't believe this."

"You're such an oblivious brat," Seifer snapped. He wisely decided to leave before he damaged Zell on principle; Quistis probably wouldn't forgive him and Rinoa definitely wouldn't—he'd used up a lifetime of freebies there. He left Zell straddling the toilet, hair mussed , wide-eyed and as innocent looking as a kitten except for how Seifer was too well-acquainted with his claws. Maybe reporters would find him like that and attack, Seifer thought viciously, as he yanked open the door to leave.

Of course, he didn't get far, because Zell reached out and grabbed him as he left, short nails digging into Seifer's arm.

"Hey! What crawled up your ass and died, it's not like—"

"Shut up," Seifer managed, and would have said more if a dozen flashbulbs hadn't gone off at once, lighting up the service hall with an artificial glow, the din of the reporters and the press of bodies around them smothering. Seifer knew they were all shooting questions at Zell, but damn if he could hear anything over the combined volume of all the voices.

He did the only thing he could think of: he grabbed Zell by the wrist and shoved forward, displacing cameras and people so he could slip through and down the hall. "Run," he yelled to Zell, and they escaped back down the hall, Seifer leading the way to the back door and the alley, a wave of paparazzi churning after them.

------

 

"You're both fired," Quistis said. She paced in front of the window, the curtains drawn firmly. Her bare feet didn't make a sound on the plush carpet. "Absolutely fired."

"You've said that six times," Zell pointed out. He sat on the bed with the television on mute, watching himself run down the street, grinning widely. The camera that recorded their dash away from Burke's had been wobbly. Seifer had tired of it after the third repetition; Deling Insider would run a 15 second clip of anything into the ground, and now they had a good two minutes of sporadic footage of he and Zell sprinting away at speed. "We are awesome. Look how easily we out-paced them."

"Until they got in their cars and followed your to the hotel," Quistis said. "They ran over people! There were two different accidents!" Quistis grabbed the remote out of Zell's hand, flipped the television off and then flung it onto the second bed where it bounced and vanished under Zell's pillow. "You were supposed to put in an appearance at the club and see if you could gain some intel on the disappearances. Instead, you're plastered all over every newspaper and magazine in the city and the entirety of Deling City's press is camped out outside our hotel because of the forbidden SeeD romance." She pressed a hand to her forehead.

"So what? It's not like they were going to tell us they were accomplices to kidnapping, anyway." Seifer shrugged. "Martine is still chief of staff, which means it's very likely Burke's could be a stop on this railroad. Now that I know that, we can keep our head's down, disguise up for tomorrow night and ask the hotel staff to sneak us out." Seifer leaned against the headboard. "If anything, isn't this better? As long as we can get out without being followed, no one will even expect us to be anywhere else. They'll think we're holed up in shame."

"Except now that everyone wants you the people we want will be afraid you've been followed by the press and will be sure to not parade kidnap victims they're selling in front of you." Quistis continued her stalk around the room. "Which you would know if you were taking this seriously and not up your ass about this crush on Zell."

Zell made a small noise of protest, but quieted when Quistis glared at him.

"Squall wants us home, but Xu and I worry that if this gala happens without us at least trying we'll lose track of them; they go underground during the fall and winter for the most part."

Seifer hated being humiliated and the way his skin always went patchy red. He ignored it and said, "So what are our options?"

Quistis's mouth set in a hard line. "Xu is looking into other ideas since you both decided to think with your dicks instead of your brains." She raised her hand when Zell opened his mouth again. "I don't want to hear it, because I watched you let Seifer stick his tongue down your throat practically live. Don't start with me, Dincht."

Zell shot Seifer a look, but he couldn't read it. "What's Garden saying about—"

"That we're perfectly happy for the couple, with a few subtle hints to tone it the fuck down, that's what." She pushed her loose hair back from her face. "You know how unpopular that policy is, anyway, it causes so much more drama than just letting people break up would these days."

"Sorry," Zell said softly. "I—I'm sorry."

Seifer said nothing until Zell kicked his leg and nodded toward Quistis, frowning. He didn't owe her anything, but fuck it, Zell's face wasn't mean or angry—it was the soft expression of someone who had a friend who was frustrated and upset, and he was a sucker. "You're right," he said. "We fucked this part up. Sorry."

"Well, that's something." She took a deep breath. "I'm going to bed. Don't open the curtains, leave the room, or charge more than $100 for room service for dinner." She left and closed the connecting door to the bathroom that connected their suite softly. Seifer would have felt a little better if she had slammed it.

Zell glared at him, back to normal. "This is really all your fault."

"I didn't know Martine was working." It was half-hearted, but Seifer was suddenly tired from the travel, the weird emotions being back here caused, and the twin pleasure and misery that kissing Zell—finally, after so long thinking about it—had caused. "But you're right."

"—then none of this would have happened! Wait, what?" Zell stared at him. "I'm right?"

Seifer reached down to take off his boots. "I messed up the script. I let Martine get under my skin, which really pisses me off. I kissed you when it wasn't really a required part of the plan and upset whatever balance we had going." He shrugged. "Some team leader."

"Hey," Zell said, and Seifer looked up at him. "The kiss wasn't bad, okay, I was just...I thought it would all be a little easier to fool people."

"Well, those people know me and my past with Garden." He left everything else unsaid—Zell would get it. Seifer tossed his boots down by the end of the bed. "I should have prepped us better instead of assuming things would be fine. Instead, we got chased away from the place we should have been scoping out by press."

Zell rolled around on the bed and flailed his arms. "One of them groped me when we were trying to get into the elevator. If it hadn't been for the hotel security, I'd be—" He shuddered. "A prisoner of STAR POWER!. Do tabloids have dungeons? Because I bet that's where I'd be."

"I could have done without the running," Seifer admitted. "We missed the great dinner at Burke's, too. Martine sucks, the running sucked, fucking up the script sucked."

"Oh, you're leaving out the kissing, huh? The kissing was fine," Zell grumbled, but there was no heat to it. There was, Seifer noted, a flush to Zell's cheekbones, though.

"What did you call it?" Seifer grinned, unable to resist. "Mouth fucking? I'll have to remember that. Maybe I should never kiss you. Maybe the rule for you and me should be mouth fucking all the time."

"I hate you," Zell said, and threw a pillow at him.

Chapter Text

Seifer figured things would be better in the morning. Xu would whip a plan out from her strategy nerd brain and Quistis would improve the details. He could have some extra painkillers for the no-doubt massively bruised jaw from Zell's fist that Zell had bullied him into putting an ice pack on before going to sleep, which he woke up with plastered, sticky and hot, to his face.

Better was relative, Seifer thought, when he peeled his eyes open to the still-dark room, lit only by patches of morning light through the closed curtains and the TV. Zell, sleep-rumpled and shirtless, was watching reporters talking in front of a long red carpet. The TV was muted, but it was obviously the gala they had come all this way to attend.

"We're not going," Zell said, resigned, "so don't get your hopes up. Also, you snore."

Seifer didn't grace either of these comments with a response. Instead, he dropped the used ice pack on the floor and took the time to look at Zell with his hair free of product. It hung loose and changed his profile dramatically. Seifer knew how soft it was on the edges, but could only imagine how it would feel sliding through his fingers. He also couldn't resist noticing the way Zell's nipples puckered in the chill of the hotel room and his pale chest hair caught the light from the TV screen and how it made something inside him soften.

Quistis had been wrong about the crush, he thought. She'd be deeply disappointed.

"Is there another plan?" Talking made his whole face light up in pain. He squeezed his eyes shut and didn't hear Zell's response. He must have made a noise, because when he opened his eyes again, Zell was above him, all bare, golden, freckled skin and floppy hair.

"Sit up and take these." Zell had him take more painkillers with water, which hurt to swallow, and then blew Seifer's brain by forcing his way into Seifer's bed to press a blissfully cold ice pack to his jaw while the other hand went to Seifer's neck to hold him still. He groaned with the mix of pleasurable pain, and Zell made a little huffing laugh.

"What are you doing?" Seifer managed after a few minutes of cold made the ache fade to the background, leaving all his attention focused on Zell's warm hand on his neck and the press of his bare thigh to Seifer's hip.

"I hurt you," Zell said. "I'm not technically supposed to be punching my mission partner and team leader, so I'm hoping if I'm nice you'll go easy on me in your mission report."

"When have rules ever prevented us from committing violence against the other before?" Seifer asked. "Why stop now?"

"Because I don't think I just hurt your face," Zell said simply. "I think I also hurt your feelings, and I don't like doing that to anyone."

The relative darkness of the room made this feel so private, so fraught. "I'd prefer if you weren't nice to me," he said, opening his eyes to stare into Zell's. "I might get spoiled and expect it all the time."

"You'll get it when you deserve it," Zell said. "Maybe you should work on deserving it more."

"Ah, what wisdom."

"Yeah, already failing." Zell didn't sound or look annoyed, though. Seifer couldn't read whatever expression he was wearing. It only highlighted that there was a lot that Seifer didn't know about this man, couldn't know, and made him feel tired all over again.

He closed his eyes to enjoy the moment, until Zell jiggled him a little, careful of his face. "Don't go to sleep on me. It's time to get up."

Seifer swallowed a teasing comment about cuddling. Maybe it was useless, but something about the moment felt different, and he liked it. Plus, he didn't want to get into any tussles that would end up with his dick anywhere near Zell. That was some humiliation he could save for exactly never.

Instead, he asked, "Did I sleep through the briefing?"

"Nah, I crashed Quistis as soon as I woke up an hour ago. I don't actually know if there is a plan, she just told me the previous course of action was canceled and she'd fill me in soon."

"So we don't have to dye our hair or hang out with molesters. Sounds like a win win."

"Well, when Xu is allowed to get creative things can get...weird." Zell frowned and pulled away, but he only reached down, grabbed Seifer's arm, and placed Seifer's own hand on the ice pack instead. "It's your turn, my hand is tingly."

"Weird how?"

Zell didn't shift away. He stayed close, and it was...nice. Seifer felt like a dolt, but maybe that's how intimacy made people feel. He had always felt like a dolt with Rinoa, too, and the dude he had dated seriously right before he left Deling Center for Garden. Trust, he decided, was inherently embarrassing because rejection was always nipping at the edges.

"Once I had to dress up as a party clown and speak gibberish to create a distraction. Then once Xu was screaming in my ear to do something because two of our agents head been tranqued, so I jumped President Loire and kissed him to both get him out of the way of the sniper and to distract everyone else so they'd block the sniper's view."

Seifer's mouth dropped open. "You laid one on the President of Esthar?"

Zell grimaced. "Yeah...I mean, it wasn't with tongue, like some people I could name." He poked Seifer in the stomach through his tee shirt. "We have a...weird relationship with Laguna. It's a really, really long story."

"This is a story I have to hear one day," Seifer said, seriously. "I'll buy you all the drinks you want."

Zell smiled a little. "See, this is how you ask someone on a date."

Seifer froze, and Zell's smile faltered a little, but before things could devolve Quistis walked in and proceeded to turn on all the lights. "We have a new plan. Get up. Briefing in my room in five." She was out again without commenting on them piled up in Seifer's bed in the dark.

-----

"I like this plan so much more," Zell said, twenty minutes later after Xu outlined a plan to infiltrate the gala as the help instead of attendees. "Why didn't we go with this in the first place?"

Quistis's room was full of communication equipment, and they were all sitting around on the spare bed in front of the screen showing Xu and Squall at Garden.

Seifer suppressed a mean comment; Zell wasn't commenting on him personally, so there was no reason to derail anything. "They left out the hard part."

Squall shook his head. "This was the first plan, but our contact to get you on the gala staff stopped responding. We'll need your help to pull it off, Seifer, because our contact was the regular contact you connected us with last year, and we don't know when she'll reestablish with us. If you don't have any others who can get you onto the staff, we'll have to move to the next plan."

"Vali wouldn't ghost you without a solid reason. It means she's gone to ground because things are too hot."

"Do you know of anyone else you can reach out to?"

Seifer knew several, but he hadn't talked with any of them in months. "Maybe."

"What's the plan after this?" Zell said.

Squall and Xu looked at each other and Xu said, "That wouldn't be you. You'd come home and we'd send an infiltration team."

Seifer wondered why they hadn't sent one of those teams initially. He had some suspicions on why, but since SeeD team members weren't parties to the original contract, he couldn't know for sure.

"How long do I have?"

"Two hours," Squall said. "We need time to get the other team there if it comes to that."

"Okay, I need a way out of the hotel," Seifer said. "Without getting swamped."

"Oh, we took care of that last night," Xu said. "In fact, she should be making her public debut any minute now."

"Oh no," Zell said. "You didn't. She hates doing this stuff."

Squall's mouth almost broke into a smile. "She says she wants more responsibility. Anyway, she volunteered once the news broke about...last night."

Seifer heard everything contained in that and was not looking forward to mission debrief. Beside him, Seifer saw Zell wince. At least they were together in the fuck up.

"Leave the hotel through the service entrance and you should be fine. Rinoa is a bigger draw than any oversexed SeeDs," Xu said, less subtle with her derision than Squall had been. "Check in with Quistis by 0900 so she can check in with us."

After a quick wrap up, Seifer joined Zell in their room to change, with Quistis's command of subtly following behind them.

"I can't believe I stood through all those fittings for nothing," Zell complained as he pulled on the understated gray clothes from his duffle. "Those pins hurt!"

"I don't know," Seifer mused, tugging on what he affectionately called his spy slacks that Garden issued to all SeeDs for missions, as we watched Zell wiggle into his own. "It was pretty enjoyable for me. Plus, I learned to dance."

Zell looked over his shoulder, and he wasn't trying to be coy. He was just looking over his shoulder, clad in subdued gray that hugged the lines of his body and would stop most projectiles under 50 kilometers and small knives. But it didn't stop him from looking like some sort of wet dream. For one, his biceps were ridiculous.

"I guess you really are doing this."

"Doing what?" Seifer popped his head through his own shirt.

"You know, this—whatever this is, with you and me."

"You've made it clear you don't want to fuck me, but you said nothing about flirting." Seifer would miss his trench, but the sleek black jacket that completed this ensemble was nice as he tugged it into place. "If you want me to stop flirting just let me know."

Zell stopped dressing to look at him, intent. Seifer let him without any needling or antagonism, just finished with his socks and boots, trying to remember the people he could reach out to in the city.

"Okay," Zell said, tentatively, as he finished with his own clothes. "I'll let you know when I want you to stop flirting."

Before Seifer could reply, Quistis swept in with their comms equipment and the weird drug patches for their arms that itched like wild, but apparently also kept GF from consuming their brain waves or something. Seifer didn't pay much attention to research and development, except when he was giving them brutal feedback.

She hooked them up with their comms tech quickly and tested it. She crossed her arms. "I hope you're both prepared to take this seriously."

"Yep!" Zell said, back to cheerful and upbeat.

"Two hours," she said. "If you can't find someone to help us get in to the gala at that point, we'll send the infiltration team. Good luck."

Leaving the hotel was easy—they asked a staff member to help them out, and because Garden let them tip well they were on the street in five minutes. The mostly deserted streets, because Rinoa had unleashed herself on Deling City to save their asses, and no one gave them more than a cursory glance.

-----

An hour and thirty minutes and three failed conversations later, Seifer led them down a cramped, close alley and knocked on a metal door twice, paused, and then knocked three more times. Behind him, Zell was quiet, and had been the whole time, letting Seifer take the lead, and waited to ask questions until they were alone.

They stood in the alley for a long minute, waiting. Seifer didn't particularly want to fail this mission due to being assinie over Zell Dincht. He didn't want to ask this person for help, either, but the desire to get the mission done himself outweighed his dislike for the man that finally, after way too long, opened the door.

"Seifer Almasy," said Guery Nanden, who Seifer didn't like and definitely didn't want to owe any favors. He was still tall and spider-thin, and his skin was pale from so much time indoors, but his eyes were sharp. "What do I owe the pleasure?"

"No invite inside?" Seifer asked. "I remember more hospitality last time I was here."

"Ah, ah, ah." Guery smiled at him, dark eyes wide. "Last time you weren't SeeD and you didn't have such...interesting company." He eyed Zell in a way that put Seifer's back up. "I'm here to see if the reason for your visit is...compelling."

"People are kidnapping kids and trafficking them. We need to infiltrate the gala on the staff to see if we can find some of the ringleaders." Seifer sneered. "Or are you okay with child abuse these days?"

"Don't be crass, Seifer. The rescue of innocents is a compelling reason." Guery pulled the door open more. "Please, come in, come in."

It was dark inside the long hallway that Guery led them down, broken only by flickering light bulbs.

"This seems ominous," Zell said into his comms, which Seifer heard as if Zell was speaking into his ear himself and not subvocalizing a few feet behind him.

"Guery's all right as long as you don't piss him off," Seifer said back.

Guery took them to a door that opened on a clean, spacious workspace that looked a lot like a garage with a large table in the middle, but was filled on one wall with screens, almost all the way to the ceiling. Seifer recognized some of the cameras from various Deling streets, and more than a few of the screens showed Rinoa with her father, eating at an outdoor cafe.

"The gala, eh?" Guery said. "What company?"

"Happy Helpers for the catering company and Infinity Consulting Solutions for the servers and attendants." Seifer took a seat at the table facing the screens where Guery had slid into a chair to tap into one of his keyboards at lightning speed. Zell followed him, and sat right next to him so their legs brushed together."

"The best way in is through the servers," Zell added. "We need to move around the venue."

"Little baby spies," Guery rotated a bit in his chair to look at them. "You are moving up in the world to befriend one of these, the Golden SeeDs that saved the world, Seifer."

Zell tensed, and Seifer shrugged. "He's all right. Help us out and he'll even give you his autograph." He paired this with a nudge to Zell's leg, and Zell relaxed again.

Guery was, Seifer knew, one of the best hackers in Deling City. But he was also someone who didn't take money as payment, only personal favors, and those favors weren't always ones that made Seifer feel good about himself. He'd gotten more fingerprints, wallets, and illicit recordings to Guery through Burke's in his old days, and he'd been glad to leave them behind.

"Infinity Consulting hires out of Prostar Staffing," Guery said idly about five minutes later. "Do a switcheroo with Hallon, Jeff and Mendelson, Danah. Replace them with you and all you'll need to do is arrive for their shifts at Infinity Consulting in seven hours with an apology about the last minute replacement." He typed quickly, and then spun around. "You went to Filip first, didn't you?"

"I went to a lot of people before you, Guery. I was running down a list."

"I'm injured," Guery said. "Truly hurt that I wasn't not your first choice."

"You know why," Seifer said flatly. "It's nothing personal."

"Ah, so if I said my price this time would be him, what would you do?" Guery rolled easily away from the wall of screens and desk full of access points and rested his elbows on the table. He looked directly at Zell. "You are very interesting, Golden SeeD of Balamb Garden. Very interesting, indeed."

Zell said, "What, you want a selfie or something?"

"He's so innocent, too!" Guery laughed, and leaned back in his chair. "What interesting people you run with these days, Seifer Almasy."

Zell looked at Seifer, horrified, quickly getting it, and Seifer was not prepared to let Zell imagine he had been traded away for access to the gala by letting a stranger fuck him.

"Don't be a creep." Seifer crossed his arms. "From me, because I asked for this. What do you want?"

"Access to the Balamb mainframe."

Seifer snorted, happy that he had no way to accomplish that trick, anyway, not that he would. "Try again."

"A clip of Rinoa's Heartilly's hair."

"No, and also, ew. I said for you not to be a creep."

Guery sighed, a long, put upon sound. "Fine, be boring. How about a meeting with Xu Cho?"

"She's definitely not going to date you, because she's banging my CO already," Seifer said. "But luckily, she can take care of herself. Deal."

Guery smiled, satisfied. Seifer knew that a lot of his shtick was for show. Not the parts where he'd fuck strangers—Seifer had gone to the same clubs as Guery did when he lived in Deling City, so he knew way more about the man than he needed. He didn't doubt that Guery would fuck Zell or sniff Rinoa's underwear given half the chance, but he wasnt going to get to those things through Seifer.

"It's always a pleasure doing business with you, Seifer. You really do need to come around and ask me for favors more often."

"Maybe if you would charge money like a normal person, you'd be at the top of my list." Seifer braced himself on the table. "You only get the meeting if we're able to get into the venue. Otherwise, deal's off."

"My word, as you know, is my bond." Guery raised his palms. "You'll show up for the evening shift—I do hope you have something to wear—and all will be well."

"Yeah. Thanks." Seifer stood, and Zell stood with him. Guery winked at Zell, who stared, hostile, back. "Xu should be in touch through the regular channels. We can see ourselves out."

Guery waved at them before he spun his chair back to his wall of screens. Seifer and Zell made their way down the long, dim hallway and back into the light before Zell said, "holy shit, what a complete weirdo!"

"Yeah, I know, but he's an effective one," Seifer booked it down the alley. "We need to check in with Quistis and then get back to the hotel, and then I need to be screamed at by Xu for an hour—she's been avoiding him for years and I handed her over on a platter."

"Plus side," Zell said, grinning. "Looks like we're going to get to use those formal clothes after all."