Seifer passes the SeeD exam six days before his twenty-second birthday. The sky is a dreary green-gray, clouds mixing with the ocean mist signaling the incoming storm. Cid announces Seifer success, beaming, hands on hips and elbows sticking out, while Squall stands silently at the headmaster’s side. Small mercy, maybe, that Seifer didn’t have to receive the news from his former classmate and somehow, still his rival.
Distant lightning illuminates Balamb harbor, the horizon jade now, instead of a hazy, muted wool. There won’t be any more ceremony than this, just Cid, Squall, and Seifer, standing together on the pier. The other students who passed today will be welcomed with pomp and cheer, no doubt. There will be a ball, as customary. But Seifer’s name will only be quietly added to the payroll.
He is lucky to be granted this honor at all. Even within the Garden, there are whispers of what he really is. A war criminal, should have hanged him years ago. Made an example of him.
As if Matron doesn’t walk the Garden halls, her long hair loose and turning gray. As if the only known sorceress left in the world doesn’t hang off the Commander’s arm at every social function. SeeDs are grown to protect the world from the power of the sorceresses. To protect the world from Squall’s pretty wife.
But Seifer, he’s the Garden’s dirty secret.
The three men return to the Garden together, Squall driving the ATV. Neither Squall nor Seifer speak, but Cid yaks on to himself more than enough to fill the cab with chatter. Seifer tries to roll his window down, only to find the locks engaged. Squall finally mumbles something, pointing out, “It’s raining.”
Though Squall doesn’t read out Seifer’s name over the intercom in his dreary monotone, there’s a SeeD uniform hung up in Seifer’s dorm room closet, freshly pressed for tonight’s banquet. On his desk are instructions for packing up his things, along with a key for his new single room. It’s a bit of an empty gesture. His last roommate dropped out six weeks ago and he hasn’t been assigned another.
Underneath the form note from building services are more scraps of paper. There are congratulations from both Fuujin and Raijin, welcoming him to SeeD. They’d both passed last year. There’s a note from the other orphanage children, excepting Squall...the heroes of the Second Sorceress War. Most of the message is in Selphie’s looping handwriting. It was clearly her idea to write something for the occasion. The signatures of the others are scribbled in at the bottom of the page. Irvine’s angular scrawl, Quistis’ neat type, and a squiggle that might be an approximation of Zell’s name.
As he goes to toss the notes aside, another flutters off his desk. It must have been stuck between the pages. Given how many times the paper has been folded to make it smaller, it’s no wonder it got lost in among the others. Seifer unfolds it, crease by crease. The handwriting is barely recognizable as Zell’s. His signature at the bottom of this page much neater than the one on the joint letter. Written with more care.
Seifer sits down on the edge of his bed to read the note….He and Zell have been dancing around...something for awhile now. Maybe for years. Seifer isn’t exactly certain anymore. Zell greeted him with a sort of cautious acceptance when he first returned to the Garden. Or, at least, a willingness to play nice. They’d all come back from the war changed. They all had to be willing to forgive.
But after that initial meeting, Chickie had turned icy again, avoiding Seifer at every turn, retreating from view whenever Seifer entered a room. At first, Seifer didn’t think much of it, willing to forgive or not, that didn’t mean that Zell should forget the history between them. They didn’t have to be friends.
Month after month they both kept their distance. It wasn’t difficult. Zell was in high demand as a SeeD. Elite clients are more than happy to pay a premium to have a “Hero” assigned to their mission. Zell must be making bank when it comes to his salary, though he still lives in the dorms and wears the same jeans tattered around the hems and faded tshirts under gaudy jackets. What he spends his money on, Seifer can never figure out.
About three months ago, was it three already? Yeah. It was when Selphie and Irvine started wearing bands around their fingers, quietly going about the process of showing their commitment, that Zell started to thaw a little more.
Irvine, who had always been kinder to Seifer than the others, maybe fewer bad memories regarding their teenage years, invited Seifer to the reception party. Informal, really, since they had only just gone to the headmaster to fill out paperwork for their marriage. Same thing Squall and Rinoa did a year or so earlier. There would be wine and cheap, frozen snacks, conversation and photographs.
Everyone took photographs of everything now. The GFs has battered all their brains beyond recognition. Even what they remembered, having come back from time compression, felt foggy and unreal. Seifer never told anyone what he saw, what tangled snippets and cored-out recollections flooded him as time collapsed. Most people, other than the heroes, experienced a passing headache, a little nausea. And then it was over. Time stuck and unstuck in an instant. But Seifer was too close, tied too closely together with both Ultimecia and the other orphans. He’d gotten sucked along in their memories in a way that was terrifying, dizzying, all too visceral. But no one had called out to him. No one thought to bring him home to the time that he belonged. He still doesn’t know how he made it back….
He didn’t want to look at photographs. He didn’t want to talk. But he went to the party anyway. Because even he didn’t want to be forgotten. Irvine offered him a glass of wine and a smile, before heading back to Selphie’s side.
It was there that Zell came to him, one of those newly invented picture boxes in his hand. Initiating contact for the first time in years, Zell showed Seifer the photographs he’d taken since the War, of places that he’d been on mission, of students and instructors at the Garden, his mother in Balamb. He didn’t say much, until he reached the end. Then, in a quiet voice, telling Seifer, “It’s important we remember. You should get a camera.”
Seifer bit back a laugh at the time. He hadn’t taken to the idea of documenting his life in the same way. He was more than willing to accept that he could forget everything, even if he still wanted to be remembered.
“Next time, you can show me your photographs, okay?” Zell left him with that.
Seifer didn’t start taking pictures. But sitting on the edge of his bed now, Zell’s note in his hand, he realizes he’ll probably get told off about failing to follow a commanding officer’s directive. Because all the letter asks about is wanting to see Seifer’s memories.
The SeeD uniform isn’t quite the perfect fit. Seifer can’t help but think that somehow Squall tampered with his measurements to make sure the pants are just a bit too short, the shoulders, somehow impossibly, too big. After tonight Seifer will see to the tailoring himself to make sure this doesn’t happen again.
No one brings him wine, though after several minutes a server passes with a tray of glittering glasses. The liquid inside is a deep, bloody red. Seifer waves him over, plucking at glass with a gloved hand. He’s careful not to rattle the other glasses as he gently knocks against their stems.
The banquet isn’t really for the newly-minted SeeDs at all. It’s more importantly a fundraising opportunity for the Garden. The renown that the Garden has achieved through the War means that benefactors are all the more likely to open their purses, even when services aren’t rendered. The extra money means more independence. Seifer knows this. They weren’t intended to be mercenaries at all. Still, the whole process leaves a sour taste in his mouth, that Squall and Cid will happily accept something for nothing.
He’s surprised, shocked, really, when Rinoa waves him over. Dressed in lavender, the pastel of her gown and the rich black of her hair makes her skin appear even paler than it should be. That’s on top of the particular pallor she’s taken on since consolidating the Sorceress’ power. They don’t touch often, but when Seifer has brushed against her hand on occasion, he’s noticed how cold they really are.
He loved her once. He really did. In the way that children love. The memory isn’t there anymore. But, somehow, the feeling is. Like a rumor he can’t shake. There’s no helping it, though. Even before she chose Squall, she already decided...not him.
“You should be enjoying yourself more,” she smiles, something softer, more subtle than her brazen enthusiasm of years ago. Seifer thinks that’s something that he remembers. That he was drawn to her because she was loud and beautiful and brave. “Congratulations, I always knew…” Shaking her head, that smile still crosses her lips.
“I wouldn’t have come back, if I didn’t think I would make it,” Seifer tells her truthfully.
“I’m happy that you did. That you came back, that you made it,” she reaches out to squeeze his hand. Her fingers feel like death. Seifer doesn’t know how Squall copes.
He makes idle chatter with the other guests, ones not associated with the Garde, never giving them his name. Some part of him finds it hilarious that even without GFs ravaging their memories, human minds are so shit at holding onto faces. These people must have seen Seifer on television dozens of times during the War. And yet they show no signs of knowing who he is.
It’s late before Zell finally shows his face to Seifer. He emerges from the crowd, hands awkwardly shoved in the pants pockets of his uniform, ruining the line of the cut. His hair is styled back, instead of up, swept to one side of his head, leaving the other nearly bare, the faintest of blond fuzz clipped close to his skull.
“So,” Zell doesn’t allow himself any preamble, “you got those photos?”
Seifer scoffs at him, “No, what makes you think I would listen to you?”
Zell stares at him, dead on. The blue of his eyes strangely golden in the warm light of the banquet hall. “Not for me, for you,” Zell says before shuffling away again.
Three days later he receives a parcel. A camera and a packet of memory cards. Seifer can only assume that they are from Zell.
The next six weeks are what Seifer expects. He draws a salary, trains with his weapon, supervises students around the Garden. But no missions come. He watches as those around him are assigned and deployed. Watches as they come home, battle-weary and sometimes injured. It’s too soon to start contemplating another specialization, something to occupy his time and keep him bound to the Garden more formally. Some small part of him still hopes that Squall will find some contract so petty, so awful, that he’ll take real glee in assigning it to Seifer.
And then, in the seventh week, his name is called. “Almasy, report to the Commander’s office,” Xu’s voice rings over the intercom. No one else’s name is called. So Seifer can only assume the assignment is a dead end.
The door to Squall’s third-floor office is unlocked. Seifer doesn’t bother to knock. After all, he’s expected. What isn’t expected is Zell, draped over one of the two chairs that face Squall’s desk. He’s engaged in easy conversation with the Commander, his animated hands going still when he hears Seifer enter the room.
“Almasy, good, sit down,” Squall’s voice always sounds unused. Like the years he spent keeping to himself has turned it permanently soft and wretched.
Seifer takes the chair next to Zell, surprised that he wasn’t asked to stand at attention during the briefing. Squall inclines his head towards Zell, bidding him to talk.
“You’re coming with me,” Zell starts.
“That’s not useful information, Chickie,” Seifer rolls his eyes, even though inside his chest, his heart rate has picked up. It is an assignment. And mostly he doesn’t care about the details. Doesn’t even care that it’s with Zell. Just that he’s going to be given the opportunity to be useful.
“Not much of nothing,” Zell continues on, “only it’s covert, a little bit. Bodyguard mission, you know? She’s a high-level product developer out of Galbadia. Thinks another firm is trying to kidnap her.”
Squall takes over, outlining more of the specifics, “her employer wants those responsible to be taken in as proof of the conspiracy. Meaning that you and Zell must wait for the attempt to be made and then apprehend the perpetrators. The mission calls for two combat specialists.”
Seifer nods. Really, he’s giddy at the prospect of being offered a mission that might actually have a chance for success. Though, quickly, he realizes, “There must be a catch.”
Hurriedly, Squall looks away, “Zell can explain on the way.”
Seifer scoffs, but doesn’t bother to push Squall further on it.
Zell pulls himself up out of his chair and gestures for Seifer to follow. Once the door closes behind them, he starts up like a wind-up toy.
“So I requested you to accompany me,” Zell blurts out. He tugs on Seifer’s sleeve dragging him quickly to the elevator. “The client is booked into a couples’ retreat for the weekend. And I needed someone who could reasonably play my partner.” He takes a deep breath, but doesn’t really leave Seifer enough time to interject. Instead, Seifer stands mutely at Zell’s side, his lips slightly parted, because, what the absolute fuck.
“It will be a controlled environment, easier to assess and interrupt a threat. At the same time, we’re hoping the perpetrators will have the same idea. Undertaking the mission at the retreat also minimizes the chance for negative publicity. When Squall gave me the assignment, he asked who I thought would be best suited for the mission.”
Seifer finds his voice, “And you picked me.”
“No,” Zell laughs awkwardly, “I picked Nida but that was quickly vetoed. He’s not on the roster for field deployments. Hasn’t been since he took on his role as pilot.”
Snickering, Seifer tries to maintain some semblance of composure, “Went through the whole Garden I bet, before landing on me.”
“No,” Zell hangs his head, “you were my second choice. You fit the mission brief.”
Seifer looks away, unwilling to make eye contact with Zell now. He’s hesitant to give anything away, “Oh.”
“I ain’t gonna pass as straight, had to be a guy. Had to be a combat specialist. So I guess Nida never would have worked out anyway. And you know a lot about me. My childhood and stuff...my personality. Easier for us to work together. And, well, you know.”
“I know what?” The question is a genuine one. He doesn’t know what Zell is playing at.
The elevator arrives and Zell operates on autopilot, sending them down to the first floor dormitory so that they can back their things for the trip out to the Dollet coastline.
“Didn’t want to pick someone not into guys. Figured it would be easier to fake it. If it was someone who had at least been with another guy.”
Zell doesn’t elaborate on the point. He doesn’t have to. Seifer has never denied his interest in other men. Even before the War, it was a point of pride for him, to be so brazen in his desires, taunting anyone who dare breathe a fucking word about it. No one ever did. He doesn’t know really if it’s because the other students were tolerant or terrified. Now he thinks that it might have been the former, and he was just too angry about everything else to have noticed that his peers didn’t much care one way or another.
“Doesn’t matter,” Seifer assures him, “I’ll do the mission.”
Zell scoffs, “you don’t actually have a choice.”
“Sure I do,” Seifer corrects him, “would you honestly make me your play-pretend boyfriend if I said I didn’t want to do it? You that desperate to get into my pants?”
The elevator arrives on the first floor.
“Not boyfriend,” Zell corrects, shoving his hand into his pants pocket. He pulls out his balled up fist. Grabbing Seifer’s wrist with his unoccupied hand, he makes Seifer show him his palm. “Husband,” he confirms, dropping the gold band into Seifer’s gloved hand.
They don’t see each other again until they meet in the parking lot. One of the students on work-duty has already pulled around a car for them to take to the Balamb station. Zell waits for him, arms crossed over his chest and leaning back against the passenger door.
“Took you long enough,” Zell gestures to the open trunk for Seifer to deposit his bag. Seifer catches how Zell checks out his hand, looking for the ring fit around his finger.
“I’m not going to fuck this up, don’t worry,” Seifer tells him.
Zell exhales loudly, “if I thought you couldn’t do it, I wouldn’t have asked.”
Seifer isn’t so sure about that.
With the keys in hand, Zell climbs into the driver’s side. He grabs the bar under the seat to pull it forward and fit his smaller frame. It’s not exactly that Seifer forgets how short Zell actually is compared to him, hard to forget, really. It’s just that it doesn’t come up all that often.
“We’ll take the train from Balamb to Dollet, there’s another car waiting for us there,” Zell explains. “We can talk more about the mission on the train.”
“What is there to talk about?” Seifer smirks, feigning confidence. The truth is, he’s not so sure about this mission. He’s certain that he’ll try his best. That he’ll put every bit of his training into use. It’s just that he’s not sure that will be enough to keep the ruse up for a week. They’re soldiers by training, not spies.
“We have to use different names, different backgrounds, how we met, why we’re at the retreat. All sorts of stuff. Details. There’s a lot to go over.”
Seifer nods, “Chickie...are we making the assumption that not a single person at this retreat knows who you are? Who I am? We’re not exactly...anonymous.”
Huffing, Zell admits, “okay, yeah, I suppose. Fewer people notice than you would think. But you’re right. Straying too far off the truth might blow back in our faces.”
In twenty minutes time they arrive at Balamb station. Their discussion is put on hold while they find and board their train. The SeeD car is prepped for them, Zell’s ticket opening up the compartment door with a quiet whoosh. They won’t need to make use of the bunks. The trip to Dollet is only eight hours. Though, Seifer supposes, there’s not much to do on the train. So maybe a nap wouldn’t be the worst use of his time.
Zell is still chirping on about making plans when Seifer flops down on the bottom bunk. His sounds of protest echo in Seifer’s ears as he starts to drift off, pulling his jacket over his head to muffle Zell’s continued concerned squawking.
It’s nearly midnight before they arrive at the seaside resort. The place is picturesque, with whitewashed buildings butted up against the beach, just where high tide rests. They’re too far north for the weather to ever really get balmy, but the resort is clearly trying to invoke a sort of tropical vibe. Or maybe Seifer is just misreading the decorator’s intentions.
A bellhop meets them at the car, opening the door for Seifer first, and then for Zell. She offers to take their bags directly to their assigned cabin, while they take the time to check in at the front desk and be allocated their keys. Zell sheepishly follows her directives, urging Seifer to follow him.
The discomfort that has been simmering between them since the Garden radiates off of Zell’s skin. Seifer isn’t entirely sure what he should have done differently, what Zell was expecting of him. But Zell looks so uncomfortable that Seifer acts to compensate, throwing his arm over Zell’s shoulders and taking the metaphorical lead.
“You got the reservation number?”
“Yeah,” Zell fishes around in his pocket. When he shifts his weight, he leans into Seifer’s side a little more firmly. He locates the print out with their reservation listing, along with the fake names Seifer never bothered learning: Tyler Russo and Devin Vanagt. He’s not even sure who is supposed to be who.
At the reservations desk, Seifer improvises, handing over the folded up slip of paper and giving the receptionist a noncommittal shrug. Zell’s heat in burning into his side, heavy and solid where he’s tucked in under Seifer’s arm.
The receptionist looks them both up and down, some faint expression of recognition on her face. She can’t quite place them, but knows that she should know who they are.
“There’s supposed to be some discretion, right?” Seifer asks, showing more of his teeth than he really needs to. “You got the money, and we get a room.”
She frowns, but finds their keys, explaining that they’ll be in cabin 3B. “Breakfast starts at eight, and your first session is at 9:30,” she explains. She passes off their itinerary to Seifer, who immediately passes it on to Zell. Giving her a little mock salute, Seifer guides them both away from the desk. He twirls the key ring between his fingers.
“You can’t stop being an ass for ten minutes, can you?” Zell mumbles under his breath.
Seifer doesn’t bother to hide his laughter, “That’s why we’re here, isn’t it? I’m not the knight you expected when you married me?”
“Oh, shut the fuck up,” Zell pulls away, unsticking himself from Seifer’s side.
It’s easy enough to admit that Seifer misses the contact as soon as they part. It’s been….awhile since anyone has touched him with affection. Fuujin isn’t one to show her devotion physically. And other than some friendly slaps on the back, Raijin always seems to have more important things to be doing with his hands.
Right after the War, Seifer would still go pick up in bars. He’d bank on the dark lighting, and vision blurred from a couple drinks, to find someone who didn’t think him repulsive. But after a handful of nights of misdirection, he started feeling guilty. Guilty that those he took to bed would have never agreed if they knew who he was. If he said his name or let them see him in the daylight hours. So, instead, he just accepted his lot, and moved on.
It hasn’t been difficult exactly. He’s not some sort of beast ruled by instinct. Despite what some people may think. Buts he’s also rational enough to realize that humans aren’t meant to be deprived as he has been. And Zell’s mock-affection has been a grim reminder.
“Nice,” Zell comments when Seifer unlocks the room. Presumably the client is paying the expenses for their lodgings. The room is more modern than Seifer expected from the quaint exterior, with a push bed in the center of the room, a handsome sofa pushed against the opposite wall, and a picture window opening to the beach.
Zell disappears into the bathroom with his bag. Seifer is left to his own devices while the water runs behind the closed door, he strips out of his jacket. It’s really too heavy for the weather, even though he wears a shorter style now than he did in his youth. He drapes the jacket over the back of the desk chair, then removes his belt and shirt. The window calls out to him and he heads over to find the latch, only to discover it’s actually a seamlessly constructed sliding door.
The night air feels cooler now without the oppressive weight of too many layers. Idly, Seifer wonders if he should throw on a shirt, lest he offend their neighbors. But fuck it. This is supposed to be a couples retreat, right? A way to re-light the spark that has dimmed with time and bickering. He and Zell are probably the only two not getting any action this week.
The moon is heavy overhead. It’s pale mass fills Seifer with dread, reminding him that every punishment he’s received has been too kind for what he wrought upon this world. The only comfort he can take is that one day, hopefully a long, long time from now, the Lunar Cry will descend upon the world again, even without the Lunatic Pandora. And maybe, Hyne, he doesn’t even know. Maybe his actions, as fucked up as they were, means that the next Cry won’t be for many centuries.
“Hey,” Zell calls softly, somewhere over Seifer’s shoulder, “bathroom’s free, if you need it.”
Turning around, Seifer catches sight of Zell, already dressed for bed. He just showered, but his feet are bare in the sand. He’ll just track it into the bed that they have to share. His hair is down, soft and fluffy against his scalp without the product to hold it up. And Seifer can make out how Zell’s shirt stretches around his biceps but is still too loose around his narrow waist. In the moonlight his skin looks paler than it actually is. The black ink of his tattoo darker.
“Thanks, Chickie,” he reaches out as he passes to ruffle his hand in Zell’s hair, testing out if it’s as soft as it looks. Zell pulls away, tisking at Seifer’s teasing. He reaches up to grab at Seifer’s wrist. At the touch of skin on skin a dozen fractured memories play back at once from a time when they were closer in size.
Zell was still smaller, though not by much. Seifer is only a handful of months older. Not enough to make a difference before they entered puberty. But Zell would still reach out and up, grab hold of Seifer’s arm and try to wrench it away. Seifer’s fist was closed tightly around white-blond hair. Much lighter than his own, that had already started to turn a sort of gold, bordering on brown. Zell would pull and pull, until there were tears in his eyes, ripping out his own hair with Seifer’s hand.
Now Seifer thinks he should have let go. It’s what Zell wanted. He loosens his grip, letting the strands fall between his fingers. He lets Zell guide his hand away.
The eyes staring back at him are so wide, so confused, that Seifer wonders if he was wrong in letting go. Maybe not back then. But maybe now.
Seifer emerges from the shower to find Zell already in bed. The lights are off and the curtains drawn. He doesn’t bother to double check the locks, assuming that Zell already made sure they were bolted in. From what he managed to pick up about the client from Zell’s rambling, she won’t arrive until tomorrow morning. First contact will be before breakfast.
He considers taking the time now to flip through the files on their assignment and get a better idea of who she is and the threat against her. But turning on the light will only disturb Zell. Seifer isn’t tired. But he’s also not so wound up that he won’t be able to sleep.
Part of him thinks that maybe he should sprawl out across the couch as some sort of chivalrous concession to Zell. But for one thing, he’s unlikely to fit. Another, Zell has clearly curled his body on the very edge of the side of the bed closest to the window, leaving the half closest to the door for Seifer. They hadn’t discussed sharing the bed, but it was just sort of assumed. The retreat doesn’t have rooms with separate beds.
They’re adults. This doesn’t have to be weird. In the memories they can’t access, they were surely living out of each other’s pockets as kids. It’s just the way children are.
Seifer crawls into his side of the bed. He listens to Zell breathe. He counts down from 100. He wills himself not to dream.
Seifer changes into dark slacks and a white shirt in the morning, forgoing the jacket, even if it allows him to conceal an additional weapon. He can’t exactly go waltzing into breakfast with his gunblade, but Zell is always armed and it’s not at if Seifer isn’t competent in hand to hand.
If nothing else, he’s decent at grappling and throwing his weight around. Plus both of them are junctioned. Seifer hasn’t seen Zell’s battle metrics lately, but when they were students, Seifer handedly outperformed him in magic proficiency. Hell, he was in the top half-percentile for all male students at the Garden. Trying to compare himself to female students would be an exercise in frustration. Even though the number of Sorceresses at any given time could be counted on one hand, as a group women tended to display higher magic aptitude.
Zell finishes fixing his hair in the mirror, twisting and pulling at the longer strands until they properly stick into place. Seifer considers telling him that he doesn’t need to bother. He looks fine as he is. But pointing that out might only incur Zell’s wrath. Seifer just isn’t ready to deal with that before his first cup of coffee.
“I have her cabin number,” Zell says, pulling out his pocket organizer. So much for coffee then.
Seifer holds the door open for Zell to head through first. He ducks under Seifer’s arm to slip through into the quickly-warming sea air. The smell of salt is stronger now than it was last night. The water is somehow quieter in response.
Zipping along, Zell leads the way to cabin 6A. Seifer trails behind. By the time he catches up, Zell has already knocked on the cabin door. Bouncing on the balls of his feet, Zell doesn’t exactly look inconspicuous, but at least he left his obnoxious jacket in the room.
A man, so not the client, opens the door. He’s tall, but not as tall as Seifer, with dark, close-cut hair and thin fingers. His glasses slip down his nose as he gestures for Zell and Seifer to come in, “Francesca is just finishing getting ready.” He awkwardly sticks out his hand, “Blythe,” he introduces himself. “Ah, Francesca’s boyfriend.”
“Trouble in paradise, then?” Seifer asks, doing away with niceties. They wouldn’t be booked into this week if all was well in the relationship. And they might as well be as suspicious of Blythe as they are of anyone else.
He pushes at the bridge of his glasses to right them on his face. “It doesn’t...it’s not…”
Francesca flutters out of the bathroom. Her hair is still a mess but at least she’s decent. She wears dark framed glasses that match Blythe’s almost exactly. They’re so oversized on her face to be comical. She’s not what anyone might consider pretty, with her small, plain features, but there is a certain manic, bird-like quality to her movements and expressions that Seifer finds immediately compelling. Blythe falls into step with her, mirroring her energy once she enters the room. At first glance a stranger might mistake them for siblings, rather than lovers.
“I’m so sorry,” she throws up her hands, “we arrived late last night, or I suppose, early this morning. I don’t feel prepared at all. And I know SeeDs are meant to be professional. The best! But that doesn’t mean I can just, stop being nervous,” she laughs awkwardly, finally sticking her hand out for Seifer to shake first. Then Zell.
“Wait,” she doubles back to Seifer. This time her eyes are narrowed. “I know you.”
Francesca is anywhere from five to seven years older than them, if Seifer had to guess. Certainly old enough to have been watching the news at the time of the war. And she’s from Galbadia, of all places. Of course she recognizes him.
“Oh,” her mouth forms a little perfect circle. “You’re the one….the Sorceress.” Her attention snaps back to Zell. “And you...the SeeDs who…”
“Yes,” Zell cuts her off before she says anything more. “I’m Zell Dincht And this is Seifer Almasy. So I can assure you, we’re both more than qualified for the task. Your employer takes your safety very seriously. Now if you don’t mind,” Zell gestures to Seifer to get to work setting the microphone and panic buttons.
“We won’t be able to be in visual contact at all times. Doing so will arouse suspicions. But we’re equipping your room, and each of you with a mic and switch. Hit the switch if you need us, any time, day or night. We’ll be attending the group sessions together, and we should spend as much free time together as is appropriate.” After wireless communications resumed with the fall of Abel’s prison, small devices like these have been in high demand.
Seifer is setting the mic into place in one corner of the room when Blythe clears his throat, “Uh, so you’ll hear everything that goes on in the room…”
“We won’t always be listening, if that’s what you’re worried about,” Seifer assures him. “Dincht has the unit. He can show you how it works.”
Zell pulls out the receiver unit to demonstrate how they’ll be able to tell the volume of what is going on in the room. An alert will sound at any loud noise. So shouting or screaming should have the same effect as the button. No one is anticipating a violent, noisy attack. Zell and Seifer hope to apprehend any perpetrator well before they try something as crude as busting into the couple’s cabin. But they should still take precautions.
“Okay then,” Zell claps his hands together, “we should get to breakfast before we’re missed.”
As they leave the cabin, a wave of doubt rushes over Seifer again. He does his best to push it back. But it’s hard to ignore the fact that no one is about to believe that he and Zell would somehow become fast friends with the other couple. They’re going to have to keep their distance.
He throws his arm over Zell’s shoulder. The smaller blond flinches at first, but then leans into him the same way he did last night. Hell, they might have trouble fitting in with Francesca and Blythe, but he’s pretty fucking sure he can decently pretend to be Zell’s husband. He kind of begrudges the fact that Zell was right on that count.
After breakfast, the couples have individual sessions, before the group meets back up at ten-thirty. Seifer watches as Zell tucks the receiver into his pants pocket. They’ll be alerted if anything happens. Still, leaving Francesca alone and vulnerable for so long poses a risk. The alternative of hovering around her isn’t much better. They need to find the balance that will lure the perpetrators out, but doesn’t end up with the client missing or dead.
Their therapist is a trim older man, his dark beard cut through with white. The creases around his eyes are heavy and he generally gives off a professorial aura, if not for the fact he’s dressed in cargo pants and a loose fitting floral T-shirt. The contrast is jarring, to say the least.
“Now that we’re here, and do get comfortable,” the therapist insists, “why don’t you tell me a little bit about yourselves. As individuals and as a couple.”
Time for that backstory they didn’t fucking prepare.
“I, uh,” Zell’s ears start turning pink at the tips. He covers his face in both his hands for a moment, inhaling and exhaling loudly. Improvise. Seifer is about ready to cut in when Zell finally resumes again. “We’re SeeDs...both of us. I um...it’s not important.” Clearly not knowing what to do with his hands, Zell starts playing with the real band around his finger symbolizing their fake marriage. “I’m good at my job. Sometimes, I think it’s the only thing I’m good at….but I wanted. I really wanted this marriage to work. I wanted us to work. But it never….seems like the right time.”
Seifer feels like it’s his turn to say something, offer up some platitude about how important this relationship is. He knows that he’ll be most convincing with something adjacent to the truth. But the problem is, he doesn’t know how sincere Zell is in this moment.
“Time,” Seifer laughs, “it’s always time that fucks us up. Isn’t it? You’re right about that.” Seifer leans forward, resting his elbows on his knees and crowding the therapist’s desk. “You see, doc. Chickie and I have known each other since we were kids. Coming and going, separated and finding each other again. Can’t keep away from him, I guess. Should’ve driven him away years ago. And yet, here we are again.”
“It’s because you keep running away,” Zell interjects, “you were always leaving.”
It’s as if the therapist isn’t even in the room with them. At least, Seifer doesn’t think his reaction would be so sudden, so violent, if he considered there was a witness, “Who got adopted, Chickie? Got his perfect fucking family to whisk him away? Not fucking me,” Seifer shows his teeth. “So don’t talk to me about leaving, when you got everything the rest of us always wanted. Fuck.” He leans back in his chair, glaring daggers at Zell, who won’t even meet his eyes.
“I got to say goodbye to everyone else. But you didn’t come. You didn’t come to say goodbye.”
“Don’t pretend like you remember. You don’t. Maybe Matron told you some tale she thinks that she remembers. But it’s not your memory. It doesn’t belong to you.”
“Seifer,” the therapist’s interruption cracks through Seifer’s rage. “Don’t tell Zell what his memories—“
“You don’t get it do you?” Seifer should feel shame for perpetuating the image so many must have of him. “Our brains are so fucked to shit, I can’t even remember...I can’t remember….”
He can’t remember being Ultimicia’s puppet Knight.
There’s video footage. He’s seen it. There’s a primal part of him that recalls the stench of blood and feel of breaking bones beneath his feet. He knows what he did, but he can’t remember it.
She needed him. He needed the GF. It’s always so simple. It’s why he’s junctioned even now. It’s the right decision despite the consequences.
Maybe that’s why it’s so easy to pretend that he loves, or once loved Zell. Because maybe he did. Maybe tomorrow he does. But it doesn’t fucking matter. They’ll both forget. In the end.
“Seifer...you hurt so many people. You hurt me…” Zell’s voice breaks even if his composure doesn’t. “I just don’t want you to run away again, okay?”
Seifer doesn’t want that either. “Okay.”
The group session is supposed to start promptly at 10:30, but that quickly devolves into 10:41. Unlike the somber, professional mood of the private session, the group activities are lighter. Maybe so the couples aren’t stuck in their own heads or at each other’s throats.
Zell and Seifer are quickly shuffled into a small group with two other couples. One pair is devastatingly good looking, but off-puttingly cold. The other are far more outgoing, though seem relieved they get to interact with people besides each other. Both halves of the pair pointedly ignore each other in favor of introducing themselves to Zell and Seifer.
Seifer keeps his arm over Zell’s shoulder, offering his free hand instead. He worries, if only for a moment, if he and Zell are doing too good a job of playing at being a couple. If people are going to start questioning why they’re at this retreat at all, if they get along so well.
But the concern soon fades, because Zell is decisively uncomfortable under Seifer’s arm. He shifts his weight from foot to foot and Seifer can feel him practically vibrating with nervous energy.
They split their attention between the ice breakers and keeping tabs on Francesca and Blythe. The client is at the other end of the cornered off section of the beach, Francesca’s face partially obscured by a giant straw sun hat.
Seifer mentally takes down details about the two couples grouped with them. A man with light hair, his wife with dark, average build, she’s a little plump. Then an older man with a younger wife. Seifer would place him in his early sixties and her about twenty years younger. He wonders when their romance began, and under what circumstances.
His attention is pulled away by Zell tapping his fingers against the back of his hand. It doesn’t even feel like a conscious gesture. It certainly doesn’t feel like Zell is pushing him away. Zell doesn’t feel calmer, exactly, but maybe a bit less like he’s about to bolt.
Zell was the one who asked him to come on this mission. So Seifer isn’t sure what he’s so upset about now.
The facilitators force them to play Pictionary, couples in competition against each other. Both Seifer and Zell have a little talent drawing, but not enough to overcome their differences in approaching problems. Zell keeps fucking trying to give phonetic clues, while Seifer refuses to move on to the next image before Zell can guess the first one. The only thing that keeps them from actually losing is how atrocious everyone else is too.
By the end of it, the other two couples are laughing, a little more relaxed and open then they were before. So, by all accounts, that worked. Except Zell and Seifer aren’t actually a couple. So the results were void from the start.
The day in general turns out to be a whole lot of nothing, as far as their mission goes. They watch the client interact with a dozen other people during lunch, the afternoon session, and dinner. After dinner there is enough of an excuse for the four of them to sit around an empty table on the deck and play triple triad for a couple of hours.
Zell isn’t very good, though he understands the rules. Both Blythe and Francesca are brutally good, though. At least they’re not playing for keeps. Seifer has built up a decent deck over the years, but he rarely gets to play with other people.
About an hour in Zell disappears for ten minutes while Francesca and Seifer are engaged in a tense match. Seifer doesn’t doubt that Francesca will win in the end, but he’s trying to minimize his losses to protect his pride.
Zell emerges just as the match is ending with two brightly colored drinks in his hands. He puts one down in front of Seifer and keeps a hold of the other one for himself.
Seifer laughs, “doesn’t this break some sort of protocol?”
“You tell me, head of the disciplinary committee.”
Scoffing, Seifer doesn’t even bother to point out that he hasn’t been the head of anything since returning to the Garden. And it’s not as if he can remember what was in the rules. It just logically makes sense that they’re not supposed to be drinking in front of their clients.
Then again, they’re supposed to be blending in.
The drink is more tart than Seifer expected, not sugary-sweet at all. “Thanks, Chickie.”
Zell flops down next to him on the beach chair and Seifer shifts enough that Zell can play the next round against Francesca. The drink is cool going down his throat but settles warm in his stomach. Especially with Zell pressed up against his side. Francesca makes short work of Zell and it’s Blythe’s turn to play the master. At least he’ll put up a fight.
They only get two drinks in a piece before they’re ushered away by a facilitator with rosy cheeks and his ponytail slung over one broad shoulder. Time alone as a couple is important too, he reminds them with a smile. Seifer remembers seeing him earlier, but doesn’t remember the heat in his stomach. He’s exactly the type that Seifer wouldn’t mind bouncing on his dick in a dimmed room, long hair sticking to sweat-slicked shoulders.
Fuck. Zell has got to stop touching him.
Somewhere along the line in their card game, Zell decided to rest his head against Seifer’s arm. He’s not quite tall enough to reach the shoulder. If that weren’t enough, minutes later he decided to rest his hand over top of Seifer’s thigh, rubbing slow, small circles into the meat of Seifer’s leg. He’s been doing the absolute most to rile Seifer up. Whether it’s because his alcohol tolerance is shit or it’s a deliberate plot to mock Seifer, he’s not certain.
The cabin door clicks closed behind them and Seifer plans on getting his answer.
He grabs Zell by the front of his shirt, swinging him around so that his back crashes against the wall and Seifer can box him in with his bigger body. Zell’s frame goes ridgid, his eyes wide. Seifer presses closer until there’s nowhere to go. Until there’s nowhere else to look.
Zell could throw him off, he’s sure of it. Or call forward Ifrit to reduce Seifer to ash. But he doesn’t. He just stares, his head tilted to look Seifer in the eyes. When Seifer doesn’t move, doesn’t press any further, Zell slips his hands around Seifer’s waist, slotting his calloused fingers between the belt loops around his hips. His hands don’t settle though, squeezing down and marking little depressions into Seifer’s skin.
“Did you really ask for Nida first?” Seifer regrets asking the question immediately after it leaves his lips. It’s not like the answer is important. But, somehow, he still cares.
Zell laughs thinly, finally dipping his head down and looking away. “Yeah...because I was...I didn’t trust myself.”
“If you wanted a fuck, you could have just told me,” the inside of Seifer’s mouth feels like cotton, his voice spinning on auto-pilot. Everything he’s saying is just a little off, a diversion from what he thinks he might really want to say. But it’s close enough that the actions, the behaviors might turn out the same. So to hell with the motives.
“It won’t make things weird.” Zell doesn’t ask it as a question. Rather, a statement of fact. They can’t let this make things weird between them. They’re on a mission here. They have to work together. But fooling around a little won’t be a problem.
Seifer doesn’t try to kiss him, instead leaning forward and pressing his lips against the warm expanse of skin between Zell’s shirt collar and his jawline. It almost hurts his back to bend over so much and the sooner they manage to get horizontal the better.
Zell’s breath hitches in response and he starts to grind against Seifer’s body, pushing his weight back against Seifer’s solid frame. Instead of hands, his fingers feel like talons, roughly digging into Seifer’s hips, trying to push and throw him back.
They mock fight against the wall a little longer, each trying to make the other one give in. Seifer is careful not to latch onto Zell’s neck, as much as he wants to bite down, as much as he wants to hear Zell scream for it. He can’t leave marks. Not right now. Maybe if they revisit this topic later, when they’re not on assignment,
Instead he straightens up, focuses his energy on keeping Zell pinned against the wall. The moment Zell tries to readjust his grip, Seifer snatches af his wrist and manages to pin one hand against the wall.
The difference in their heights is enough that Seifer’s cock is somewhere near Zell’s belly button. He’s not fully hard yet, but he’s getting there. There’s some smug satisfaction that Zell feels stiff and full against the inside of Seifer’s thigh, burning through the fabric of his jeans.
“Chickie, Chickie,” it feels safer to fall back into teasing, “why didn’t you say anything earlier?” He manages to get his knee in between Zell’s thighs. Zell has to come up onto his toes and even then he’s pressed heavily against Seifer’s leg, using it to support his weight. “You telling me we could have been doing this all along?”
“Oh fuck off,” Zell tries to laugh, but he’s cut off by his own gasp as Seifer shifts his leg. Zell is heavy, incredibly dense for his size. And honestly Seifer doesn’t know how long he’ll be able to support the other blond’s weight like this. So if he’s going to try and show off, he’s got to make it quick.
Seifer bends at his knees, low enough to hook his arms underneath Zell’s knees and hoist him up off the ground. With the wall behind Zell’s back it’s a little easier to manage the weight. Zell gets the hint, wrapping his legs around Seifer’s waist and using his core strength to help keep himself aloft. Like this, he’s completely at Seifer’s mercy without the leverage to throw him off.
They don’t kiss, and not knowing what to do with their mouths becomes more and more awkward as the seconds pass. Seifer grinds himself into Zell’s body, trying to get him riled up enough that he’ll just tell Seifer what it is he wants. Oh, there are many things that Seifer may want, but revealing any of them first is ceding ground. It’s so much easier to let Zell be vulnerable instead. To make this all out to be Zell’s idea.
“Hyne, Seifer,” with his arms now clutched around Seifer’s neck, Zell starts to dig in with his nails again. Throwing his head back against the wall he starts to lift his hips, rubbing the heat of his cock against Seifer’s abs.
“Tell me what you want, Chickie, what does your little heart desire, hm?”
Zell laughs, rolling his hips again, “Gotta be able to walk tomorrow.”
He’s got a point. Honestly, before Zell even hinted at the possibility of fucking, Seifer wasn’t even really thinking about it. He figured hands or at most mouths. He wouldn’t mind making Zell squirm, taking him down his mouth to the root and listening to Zell scream. But now that fucking is off the table, it’s all Seifer can think about. The hard lines of Zell’s body drawn taut, tense, as Seifer slides into him a little too early and a little too rough. Sweat-slick skin sticking together every time Zell thrusts his hips back, begging for more, harder, faster, give it to me.
Forcing a smile, Seifer promises, “after the mission,” he puts his mouth to Zell’s ear, his voice dropping dark, “when we’re back at the Garden I’ll fuck you hard enough you’ll have to put in for medical leave.”
Zell lets out a groan that at least confirms he’s not opposed to the idea. But in the meantime, Seifer maneuvers Zell back to the floor. His arms are already burning from exertion.
Seifer puts one hand flat against Zell’s stomach, keeping him against the wall. Once the smaller blond gets the idea, Seifer drops down onto his knees. The wood-plank floor isn’t exactly comfortable. But given how riled up Zell already his, face flushed and breathing heavy, Seifer doesn’t expect to be down here long.
His hands make quick work of Zell’s belt and fly, pulling down his jeans and underwear just enough to fish Zell’s cock out of his pants. As Seifer suspected, he’s fully hard and practically leaking already. He has a pretty cock, decently thick and just long enough that maybe, maybe if this happens a couple more times, Seifer might consider letting Zell give it to him.
For now, though, Seifer pitches forward to slide the head past is lips, forming his mouth into a perfect “o.” Zell lets out a moan that is downright filthy, slamming one open palm against the cabin wall and cursing out. Seifer can’t help but smile around his dick. He’s beyond pleased at how vocal Zell is. Not that it’s surprising.
Bobbing his head, Seifer takes a little more on each stroke. He still uses his hand to wrap most of Zell’s length and keep him from bucking forward unexpectedly. It’s been awhile, at least for Seifer, and he doesn’t want to be caught off guard.
One of Zell’s hands comes to fist in Seifer’s hair, but it’s too short at the moment to get a good grip on. Seifer bats his hand away, making sure that he’s still in control of the situation.
“Please, please, fuck, Hyne,” Zell is practically coming up on his toes, trying to get more of his cock in Seifer’s mouth. He’ll get what he wants, eventually. But that doesn’t mean Seifer’s not going to have a little fun with him first. Pulling off, Seifer blows a steady stream of air against the wet head of Zell’s cock, just to hear him squeak again in pitiful frustration.
The receiver in Zell’s pocket screeches. All color drains from the room. There’s a disturbance in Francesca’s room. They have to get in there. Now.
Seifer is on autopilot, jumping to his feet. He barely registers Zell crashing to the floor. Too late Seifer realizes that Zell can’t keep his feet. His face is flushed red and he’s breathing like he’s run a marathon. His jeans are bunched up around his upper thighs with his cock still hard between his legs.
There isn’t time for another course of action. Seifer shouts back that he’ll go for the cabin. Zell can catch up when he can walk.
Outside is dark, no other patrons or staff members to be seen. Seifer runs for the other cabin. He doesn’t have his gunblade. Didn’t have enough time to grab it. If someone is in the cabin with Francesca and Blythe, Seifer has to reach them before they can escape.
He focuses on Thunder, letting the spell pool around his fist.
Standing on the porch of Francesca’s cabin, he gets ready to kick down the door, falling into stance and preparing to strike. But in the breath before he can kick, he hears both Blythe and Francesca screaming at each other. Fuck.
He still has to check it out. But now he knocks instead of forcing his way in. He keeps the spell ready just in case because there’s still no guarantee that Blythe isn’t the one trying to kidnap his own girlfriend.
“Fuck,” Francesca curses behind the door. “The SeeDs, the bugs.”
A moment later Seifer hears the lock disengage. Francesca pops her head out. “I’m sorry. It’s nothing. It’s nothing important.”
As much as Seifer would like to just leave her be he has a job to do, “I need to inspect the room. I hope you understand.”
With an exaggerated sigh Francesca steps aside, letting Seifer into the cabin. She crosses her arms over her chest and stands in the corner furthest from the bed, where Blythe is sitting, his head hung low.
Seifer inspects the bathroom, checks the closets, and the locks on the window. He’s checking under the bed when Zell runs in. His face is still flushed but he looks marginally more composed. His hair flops down to the side of his head.
“False alarm,” Seifer confirms as he gets up off the floor. “Lover’s quarrel.”
“You sure?” Zell looks to the client for confirmation that they can leave.
They walk back to their own cabin in silence. Neither one of them has anything to say.
Whatever fever it was that overcame them has passed. And when Seifer chances a glance into the bathroom waste bin while he’s brushing his teeth, he confirms that Zell took care of himself before rushing over to the other cabin. Good. Lowers the temptation.
Seifer steps into the shower and jerks himself off with cool efficiency, splattering against the wall. He cups his hands to catch the water from the shower head and splash it back against the tiles to make sure all evidence is gone before he turns off the water.
By the time he’s finished getting ready for bed, Zell is fast asleep. Seifer doesn’t wake him up. He can always shower in the morning.
Seifer lays in bed. He starts his ritual of counting down. Somewhere around 34 he realizes that Zell’s eyes are open. His breathing has changed too.
“Go to bed, Chickie. There’s nothing to talk about.”
“Who said anything about talking?” his voice is slightly hoarse. “I was just thinking. You were the one who started talking.”
After that, they’re both silent.
The schedule on the second day is much like the first. Seifer and Zell manage to snag seats next to Francesca and Blythe at breakfast. The couple look like they haven’t slept. Maybe they spent the rest of the night quietly arguing with each other instead of screaming loud enough to trip the alarms.
It’s not like Seifer and Zell are much for conversation either. They’ve barely said a word to each other since last night. At this point Seifer is fully convinced that it would be less awkward if they hadn’t been interrupted last night. If they had just properly gotten their rocks off this would be something they could either put behind them or schedule into their calendars as a regular thing. But right now they’re stuck in some sweltering purgatory.
The trouble is, after breakfast they have another therapy section. Except now instead of having to talk about their completely fabricated childhood-rivals to villain-arc to lovers relationship, Seifer just knows he’s about to be lured into some indirect rehashing of their failed sexual encounter. And Seifer really has no idea how many levels of obfuscation he’s able to juggle at one time, but he’s pretty sure he’s hitting his fucking limit.
“Zell, I’d like to hear from you today,” the therapist starts easing them into talking. It’s fine by Seifer if he never gets a turn. Let Chickie run at the mouth and try and keep their stories straight.
“I think...ever since we were little, I just wanted to keep up it’s the other kids at the orphanage. Squall had Ellone and Selphie and Irvine were joined at the hip. And Quistis was so mature already, and smart. The Matron doted on her. I knew Seifer didn’t like me then. He was always,” Zell stops, frowns, and starts again. “I think he was gone a lot. On his own. You would go down to the beach, wouldn’t you? With sticks or butter knives or whatever. You would try and get Squall to go with you, to playfight. You wouldn’t ask me to play.”
“Maybe,” Seifer responds when he feels the therapist’s eyes boring into him. Forcing him to respond. “Maybe that’s what happened.”
“Even after training with the….even after I forgot you. I think maybe I was still trying to impress you.” He slouches in his chair, letting his legs splay out in front of him and his ass slip off the edge of his seat, practically disappearing behind the therapist’s desk.
Seifer warns, “Don’t make shit like that up,” even though he’s fairly certain the therapist will interject again and tell Seifer that he shouldn’t be telling Zell how to feel. But that’s not it, that’s really not it. Just, after last night, Seifer doesn’t need whatever the fuck it is they’re doing on this mission to fuck with his head. To fuck with his sense of reality now. Because he can’t pinpoint a single thing that Zell has done that could be remotely construed as trying to impress him personally.
You don’t save the world to get laid. Despite what the movies try to make you think. You don’t try to pull the world apart to get laid either. He knows that from experience.
“You’ve impressed the whole fucking world, Z- Chickie. You don’t need to go around showing off for me.”
Zell scoffs, closing back down on any shred of vulnerability he might have been edging towards. Good.
It’s not that Seifer doesn’t think they need to have this conversation. Or something like it. It’s just he can’t keep putting up with this farce.
The therapist tries to urge them into talking about the timeline of their relationship. Maybe in an effort to pinpoint when things went wrong between them. They both give noncommittal answers, then conflicting ones, when pushed harder.
When Seifer has finally had enough he raises his hand, letting icicles form in his palm. He doesn’t mean it as a threat, but as a demonstration. A reminder that they aren’t a normal couple by any means.
After dinner one of the other couples invite Francesca and Blythe to go swimming in the sea. The air is a little warmer than it was yesterday and the evening sun has turned the water blazing red. Seifer and Zell invite themselves to come along.
They hurry back to their cabin to get changed. Zell holds the receiver in his hand. “It’s not waterproof. I know we’ll be with them at first. But I don’t want to leave it behind, in case we get separated.”
“Give it to me,” Seifer holds out his hand, “I’ll figure something out.”
He grabs a roll of medical tape out of their first aid kit and straps the receiver inside his thigh where hopefully the bulk won’t be noticed. Pulling his shirt back on, he plans on making some excuse for not going in the water. “If pressed, tell them ‘privately’ that I’m self conscious about my scars.”
“But you’re not. You don’t even have that many scars.”
“They don’t know that. With this,” he points to his face, “they’ll easily believe I’m torn to shit underneath my clothes. Just don’t get all nervous about it.”
Zell bites his tongue. He opens the door for Seifer then falls into step beside him.
There’s a hazy mist over the water on account of the industrial facilities in Dollet. Makes the air smell a little like ash. But otherwise it contributes to the strange, dreamlike quality that has blanketed over the calm sea.
Francesca waves them over. She’s already knee deep in the water with Blythe at her side. Whatever argument that they had last night, spilling into the morning, seems to have been resolved. Or at least repressed. She smiles brightly at both SeeDs as they approach.
Seifer and Zell part at the edge of the water. Seifer stands just within the edge of the tide, letting the water run over his feet. Zell ventures further into the waves to meet Francesca and Blythe. They’re still within earshot of Seifer on the beach.
Still, Seifer doesn’t bother to listen in. Instead, he lets his thoughts drift. The sound of the sea is strangely quiet, bordering on static, as Seifer lets the words of those around him fade out of his comprehension. He doesn’t have to worry about the receiver when they can see the client.
Without the distraction of listening to idle conversation his vision feels somehow sharper. He watches Zell’s body shift against the setting sun, his skin dyed the same warm hues as the water, save for the black of his tattoo.
Zell laughs at something Blythe says. Seifer can’t tell if it’s sincere. Maybe, because Zell isn’t exactly a seasoned actor. He’s always too nervous about straying from the truth, even if he was the one who wrote them backstories they didn’t use. Seifer spins the ring around his finger, trying to occupy his mind with any mundane task he can latch onto.
They stay in the water until well after the sun has fully set. The oil lamps on the beach provide just enough illumination to mitigate the risk of someone tripping and falling over their own feet. There’s a chill in the air now that the sun has gone down. Zell is shivering by the time he reaches the little plot of sand where Seifer ended up sitting down to watch the others in the waves.
“We should get back,” Zell says, his arms wrapped tightly around his chest. There’s still saltwater clinging to his skin.
Seifer doesn’t have his jacket to offer him. And taking off his shirt would raise questions if Zell ended up telling the others anything about it. So the only course of action is to hurry back to the cabin.
In the artificial light of their room Seifer can make out the faint sunburn around the shell of Zell’s ears. Even in the fading twilight, there was still enough sun to turn them red.
He thinks that maybe he should say something. Not about Zell’s ears. Or maybe about them. That he noticed. That he finds himself caring. That whatever happened between them last night isn’t really over yet. They need to have some sort of resolution if they’re going to continue working together.
But before Seifer can say anything Zell has disappeared into the bathroom, shutting the door behind him. The water running through the shower head ends up lulling Seifer to sleep and instead of saying anything he finds himself waking to a new morning of uncertainty.
After breakfast the facilitators remind everyone in the group that they’ll spend the rest of their morning on a hiking expedition across the beach and into the nearby protected forest. The forest paths are well patrolled and there’s little risk of monsters. But they should all make sure they’re wearing appropriate footwear and they’re reminded to stay alert.
Zell and Seifer are already properly dressed for the hike. Despite the warm air Seifer opted to wear his jacket. If nothing else, it will keep him from scraping himself against the foliage. Zell has his jacket on too, though he already looks like he’s sweltering underneath it.
The couples all crowd into a messy bunch, awaiting instructions from the facilitators. A young woman with wheat colored hair scurries about through the group, counting off couples and checking them off her list. Before they depart she goes around a second time and double checks all their shoes. She asks both Zell and Seifer to show her the bottoms of their boots. They must be satisfactory because she scuttles away without another comment.
The walk along the beach is pleasant enough, though Seifer’s boots keep sinking into the soft sand. Blythe and Francesca are several steps ahead of them with another couple acting as a buffer. The distance gives Seifer and Zell some space to observe threats that might come from any number of directions.
After about twenty minutes walk the group seems to be in high spirits. The path into the forest trail is well-kept, the foliage cut back enough that even a man as tall as Seifer won’t scrape against the lower hanging branches. The trail itself is interspersed with wooden planks to sure up the soil and provide extra stability. As much as it was billed as a wilderness expedition, all available health and safety measures seem to have been properly taken.
Still, Seifer remains alert. He can tell that Zell is tense too; he keeps opening and closing his fists. Seifer drops any pretenses that they’re a couple, not bothering to hold Zell’s hand or loop his arm over his shoulder as he had been doing previously. Now he’s only focused on the task at hand.
The deeper they tread into the forest the less light penetrates the canopy above. The facilitators turn on the flashlights affixed to their vests to light the way. Underneath their feet twigs bend and break. The snapping noises put Seifer on edge. He knows the population of monsters has thinned since the Lunar Cry. Levels are at the lowest they’ve been in almost two hundred years. But even that knowledge doesn’t prevent him from worrying about an ambush.
And then, it happens.
Up ahead Francesca screams as she loses her footing. No, as she’s pulled into the dense dense bushes to the side of the trail that hasn’t been cleared away. Blythe shouts in shock, ready to throw himself after her. But Seifer and Zell are faster.
Seifer sees Zell already dashing into the brush. Instead of following at first, Seifer grabs a hold of Blythe and tells him to stay put. The last thing they need is to have to rescue him as well.
He doesn’t wait any longer, taking off after Zell. Within steps the forest closes up behind him. The interior is dense, with just enough room to maneuver. So much for not hitting his head, though.
“Zell!” Seifer shouts, trying to get a read on what direction Zell took.
He hears Zell call back, “Seifer!” And when Seifer turns in the direction of Zell’s voice he’s able to make out a hastily made path through the trees. Zell has broken branches and left deep footprints in the damp earth. Seifer continues in pursuit as quickly as he can, climbing over fallen logs, squeezing himself through narrow passages, barely avoiding getting his feet tangled in protruding roots. The forest seems to go on forever, in every direction, but he’s confident he still has Zell’s trail.
Zell’s voice cuts through the din of the forest again. Only this time it’s a wordless exclamation. Seifer can hear three other muffled voices as well arguing amongst each other.
Seifer can’t see more than twenty feet ahead at any given time. But as he clears another fallen tree trunk Zell and three assailants come into view. Francesca lies cold and still on the forest floor, partially concealed by the underbrush. Seifer can only hope that she’s just passed out or drugged, and that the attackers wanted her alive.
As Zell and Seifer’s eyes connect, Zell turns away sharply. He launches himself forward, hurling himself at one of the three masked men. Landing a punch squarely in the perpetrator's jaw, Zell shifts his stance once again, trying to get better leverage for his next hit.
Seifer knows there’s no time for hesitation and no room for mistakes. Raising his hand, he calls forward a fire spell into his palm.
One of the attackers sees him, his eyes going wide. He tries to warn his comrades, but it’s too late. Seifer throws the spell, immolating the man closest to him.
The perpetrator engaged with Zell manages to get a hit in, his fist landing hard against Zell’s collarbone with a sharp crack. Following through, he wraps his other arm around Zell’s waist, bringing them both crashing against the ground.
Seifer has to dodge the last attacker, who comes at him with a long, blunt mace. Swinging in a wide arc, he manages to catch Seifer in the side when there’s no more room to back up. The tree behind Seifer has him pinned in. There’s no place to go but forward.
He doesn’t worry too much about catching the trees on fire. The forest is damp and cool. Raising his hand a second time, Seifer lets out another stream of fire against his attacker. This time, he holds the spell for longer, listening too-long to the screams of agony. He knows he should not kill them. The client’s firm needs them alive. They have to figure out who sent them. But something deep and terrifying inside of himself urges Seifer onward to a cruelty he finds terrifying.
Snatching his hand back, Seifer is breathing heavy as he comes to his senses. The second man he hit with fire is dead, burnt up to a crisp. Fuck. But the first is still writhing on the ground and clutching his hand to his face. It’s nothing that a curative won’t fix.
Seifer leaves the other man for the time being. More important at the moment is checking on Zell. He can hear the other SeeD, but can’t see him, so he’s forced to call out again.
“Here,” a lump on the forest floor responds, “I’m fine, check in Francesca.” Zell coughs. It sounds wet.
Seifer hurries back to where he saw Francesca laying limp on the ground. Slotting his hands underneath her frame, he rolls her over onto he back. She’s alive but unmoving. Stopped. Seifer casts Esuna and stays by her side until she wakes up.
Behind his back, Seifer can hear Zell’s boots crunching as he goes to handle the other attacker. The familiar sound of Cure puts an end to the guy’s pained wailing. Surprising that Zell pulled that off. His magic has always been hit or miss. The perpetrator might still be in a good deal of pain, given how weak many of Zell’s spells are.
Francesca starts coming around, shifting her head in Seifer’s lap as her eyes flutter open. Inhaling sharply, she starts to cough as her breathing hasn’t leveled out yet. She reaches out and grabs Seifer’s arm to anchor herself.
“I’ll radio back to the Garden,” Zell tells them, stepping away to make the call.
It takes another few minutes before Francesca feels well enough to stand. By then, Zell has gotten off the transmitter and confirmed that a detachment from Dollet will meet them here within the hour. Their job is done.
Once they’re back in the cabin, Seifer wants nothing more than a cold shower. But they need to talk directly to Squall first. Zell gets him on the line and puts the transmitter on speaker so that they can both talk to the Commander.
“The client’s company will take everything from here,” Squall confirms. His voice is staticky over the transmitter. Since wireless technologies have come back online there have been advances, but it’s too expensive to replace everything at once. Zell was just unlucky to get stuck with a box almost three decades old. “They’ve hired an investigator, I’ve heard.”
“Alright,” Zell confirms.
“Zell, take me off speaker,” Squall says.
Seifer gets the hint, waving Zell off and saying he’ll go get his shower.
Zell is finished with his call by the time Seifer is finished in the bathroom. Sitting on the bed with the corners of his mouth turned downward, he looks like a kicked chicken.
“What?” Seifer asks, not making any assumptions about what’s wrong.
“The cabin is paid for the week. Ah, if we wanted to stay that is. We don’t have. To do the couples sessions, but we can—“
Seifer cuts him off, “No. We’re going back to the Garden.” Even though he’s fresh from the shower, the back of his neck starts to sweat. He fiddles with the ring still around his finger before finally tugging it off and handing it back to Zell.
“If you don’t want to stay-“ he doesn’t take the ring back at first.
“I don’t want us to stay,” Seifer hopes his meaning is clear enough. He doesn’t want Zell to stay here without him either. Both of them need to get the fuck out of here and back to the Garden. This place has been fucking with Seifer’s head since day one. He can’t tell what from Zell is sincere or what is this fucked up fantasy they’ve both been feeding off of. Dancing silhouettes of their actual selves that will disappear once the lights are turned back on.
Zell holds out his hand to accept the ring. “Sure,” he gets up and starts packing his things.
Seifer doesn’t know how to start the conversation that they need to have. The trip back to the Garden is a solemn one. Zell does not speak to him on the train, though they have hours alone together.
An older student that Seifer recognizes but can’t put a name to picks them up from the Balamb station. She and Zell chatter in the front seats about the mission while Seifer sits quietly in the back, his arms spread wide across the backrest.
Squall isn’t there to debrief them, but Xu is. They’ve each moved up a pay rank for the successful completion of the mission. While Francesca is a little worse for wear, she’s safe and alive. And the company now has the evidence that they need to handle the rest with the authorities. Mission well done.
Seifer’s stride is longer, but he slows down to make sure Zell stays close to him as they head back to the dorms. He still can’t find the words that he needs. It’s not like Zell either to stay quiet for this long.
As they reach the dormitory hallway it’s time for them to go their separate ways. Seifer’s room is to the left, Zell’s to the right. Seifer hesitates before turning. Zell doesn’t. And Seifer knows that it has to be now.
Reaching out, he grabs hold of Zell’s wrist before he can slip through his fingers. With a sharp tug he drags Zell back towards him. While Zell might flinch, he doesn’t resist, nearly spinning back towards Seifer to stand at attention in front of him.
“Come back to my room,” Seifer says, not sure what more he has to say. He rubs his thumb against the inside of Zell’s wrist, right wear the leather of his glove gives way to warm skin. “We need to talk.”
Zell’s eyes narrow in response. He looks down at his shoes, shifts his weight. Behind them there are voices. A group of young women chatting as they head back to the dorm.
“Fine,” Zell hisses before they’re found out. “Fine.”
They hurry down the hall to Seifer’s dorm room. His hands shake as he fits the key into the lock. The door slams shut behind them and the echo in the hallway is loud enough they still hear it from the inside.
“What do you want, Seifer?” He still has that resigned expression, something like disappointment. Or maybe just exhaustion. When Seifer really thinks about it, maybe Zell already made his last stand about the whole ordeal. He wanted them to stay. Seifer needed for them to go. And in the end, Seifer got his way, so he needs to take responsibility for this now. At least a little bit.
“To kiss you,” he takes a step towards Zell, raising his hand to cup Zell’s cheek. He doesn’t have his gloves on. Doesn’t need them when he’s not fighting,
Zell laughs, “Fuck off,” but starts coming up onto his toes so that Seifer doesn’t have to bend down quite so far.
When their lips meet it’s more familiar than Seifer expected. The easy way in which they’re able to feel each other out, adjusting for the differences in their size and Zell’s underlying enthusiasm and Seifer’s concealed calculations leaves him as breathless as the contact. He doesn’t want to consider how long it has been since he’s been touched with true affection. But as Zell slides his hands underneath the hem of Seifer’s shirt, Seifer shivers at the heat that spreads across his skin.
“Bed,” he suggests, reaching around to grab a handful of Zell’s ass. Part of him wants to stay like this, kissing slowly in the center of his dormitory single. But as much as Zell is trying to stay up on his toes, it’s not enough to be fully comfortable for either of them.
“You had mentioned something about making sure I needed to put in for med leave,” Zell reminds him, smiling hard and showing teeth. His lips are flushed-pink now, like his cheeks.
Seifer hesitates at that. Because, yeah, of course he said that. And it’s not that he doesn’t think he can deliver. What gives him pause is the terror that he feels at wanting more. At the possibility Zell doesn’t want more than this. A quick fuck is good enough, but Seifer is already horrified that he may want this again, and again, and again.
Rather than saying anything, Seifer pulls them both back towards the bed. He’d changed the sheets before leaving on the mission and the bed is just as pressed-clean as when he left it.
Zell tumbles on top of him, spreading his knees wide on either side of Seifer’s hips. He rocks back against the bulge in Seifer’s pants, smirking when he finds that Seifer is partially hard.
“No interruptions this time, right?” He spreads his fingers wide and plants them on Seifer’s chest. Only when Seifer doesn’t respond immediately does the cocky smile fade from his face, “something is wrong?”
Seifer pats his hip, urging Zell to roll off and to the side. When he starts to climb out of bed, Seifer grabs him around the waist and hauls him back. They’re crowded in, side by side, on the narrow bed. Breathing in each other’s air in a way that is too-hot and too uncomfortable.
“How does this work, after?” Seifer asks.
The bravado that Zell demonstrated in the moment has dissipated fully now. He gently mumbles, “Oh,” and refuses to meet Seifer’s eyes. “If you want, I won’t request you for missions again. If ah, you think this will make it hard to work together.”
“What would make it hard to work together?” Seifer pushes, trying to lead Zell into slipping up first.
“Sleeping together?” Zell offers.
The way the pitch of Zell’s voice rises at the end, turning a statement of fact into a question inviting a different response turns out to be enough of a confession.
“We could start with sleeping together. See how that goes. But it….doesn’t have to be the end of it.” Not terribly direct, but it’s about as vulnerable as Seifer will let himself be. He suspects that Zell is much the same.
They’ve lost and destroyed and rebuilt so much already. Zell has done more good for this world than bad. Seifer more harm than not. But their lives have been bound up with this strange sort of destiny for so long. They’ve denied themselves for so long, set aside what they wanted as people, rather than children turned into relics by strange circumstances.
“Yeah,” Zell exhales loudly, “It doesn’t have to be the end of it.”
Their pace is devastatingly slow, with Zell’s hands sneaking underneath Seifer’s shirt again, pushing it up to expose the flat plane of his abs. Seifer is in good shape, of course he is, a requirement for their line of work. But he isn’t as finely chiseled as he knows Zell to be. He’s not self-conscious, not exactly, but Seifer always wants to be something more than he really is, and this is no exception.
He ends up pushing Zell onto his back, pinning him down underneath his heavier weight. Zell’s breath comes in short spurts even before Seifer strips out of his shirt. Crowding in, Seifer captures his lips again. He’s so distracted by the feeling of Zell’s hands on him that it takes them a long time to move on to something more. There’s sweat sticking to Seifer’s back before they both concede they need to roll out of bed to fully undress.
Zell is more than eager to get onto his back, a pillow shoved underneath his hips while he fingers himself open with the lube Seifer pulles from the bedside drawer. Seifer tries, frantically, not to think about all the men who have seen Zell like this already. It’s a wretched, petty feeling, but one Seifer knows he’s not yet adept enough in his emotions to counteract. All he can hope is that he can do one better as he bats Zell’s hand away and starts to slide in.
Throwing his head back against the mattress, back arching in response, Zell gasps, “Hyne,” as Seifer works his way in. Zell’s body is so warm, feverish. His skin a mottled red where blood comes to the surface. He shivers at every pass of Seifer’s fingers as he strokes along his sides, waiting for the burn to fade.
Three thrusts in and Seifer already knows this won’t be a stellar performance on his part. He can’t stop fucking thinking. Not with the way Zell writhes under him, the constant stream of curses and groans and pleas. Everything is too much after a long stretch of nothing at all, and the only thing Seifer can focus on is making sure he’s enough. That he’s enough of something that he doesn’t fail again.
Zell grabs Seifer’s biceps in both hands as he comes, splashing across both of their stomachs. Seifer pumps once, twice, more before he releases, panting through the exertion with his eyes squeezed tight.
When he opens his eyes Zell is still there, radiating heat and damp to the touch.
Yeah, this doesn’t have to be the end.
Zell, still loose limbed with pleasure, reaches over to the bedside table. Seifer left the camera that Zell sent him there. With sure fingers, he pages through the settings until he’s satisfied. He snaps a picture of Seifer, his hair a mess and face damp with sweat. It’s important to remember.