Actions

Work Header

Of All the Unlikely Things to Happen

Chapter Text

Sometimes, Zell Dincht regretted telling his friends he was gay.

Suddenly, it became all oh-so-convenient to have Zell around. It was like he had become everyone’s favorite, all-purpose gay guy. Need someone to help Selphie with Christmas decorations? Ask Zell. He’s gay, so he’s good with this stuff. Feeling down? Speak to Zell – gay people are great listeners. He’ll know for sure what to say to cheer you up. Wanna go clubbing? Take Zell along – all gay men love dancing so he’s bound to want to spend his Friday night listening to too loud electro music with a bunch of thrashing tipsy girls. Need a Seed to bodyguard some politician’s wife on a shopping frenzy in Deling? Zell’s your man – he’s gay, so he won’t mind. Hell, he’ll probably enjoy himself too. Don’t gay people love shopping?

Gotta send undercover Seeds to a high-class male host club in Esthar? Pick Zell. He’s gay, so he’ll obviously be thrilled to spend the night mooning over fancy men in expensive designer clothes.

Only he was not.

Zell could honestly say he had never, not even in his wildest dreams, imagined he could despise a place as much as he despised the Madarake Club. There was not a single redeeming feature to the establishment. He hated absolutely everything about it, from its snobbish white couches and crystal furniture to its annoying background music and detestable clients – especially its clients, in fact. The Club’s clientele seemed to consist almost exclusively of affected, whiny, spoiled middle-aged women. Cross that: they were drinking affected, whiny, spoiled middle-aged women. And there were. Just. Everywhere. The club was filled to the brim with them, the very air so stuffy with their heavy perfumes and crystalline laughs Zell almost felt like retching.

The hosts were barely any better. As far as Zell could tell, their job was to listen to their clients’ ramblings with complacent smiles, spew compliments when prompted and liberally pour alcohol into their glasses when they were not looking. Nothing to recommend them, really. And they weren’t even all that handsome either. A couple of them were cute, sure, but they were far too sleek for Zell’s tastes. Besides, they were so androgynous-looking that next to them, Squall would have passed for a burly hunk. He got the feeling that if he tried to hold onto one, it would snap in two. Or complain it broke a nail or something.

The martial artist let out a sigh of frustration a toyed nervously with his too-tight collar. No doubts, this mission was rapidly turning into the lousiest assignment he’s even been given. It even beat that one time he had to escort the spoiled four-year old twin daughters of a rich Galbadian Industrial and ended up with puke all over his clothes. And as if things couldn’t get any worse, they had been in there for nearly two hours and their target was still nowhere to be seen.

This was ridiculous. He was looking ridiculous, for a start. For the thousandth time, he wondered what on Earth he was doing there. Why couldn’t Squall have sent some other woman here instead? He couldn’t believe the Garden was so short on women they couldn’t spare another one. And he totally didn’t buy Squall’s bullshit about this being a high-level, top-priority mission, or Xu’s ramble about how the three of them were already a proved team. This fancy bar-thing – this so-called host club or whatnot – was not his thing and he stood out like a sore thumb. At least Selphie and Quistis seemed to be somewhat in their element and they looked the part with their glittering dresses, fancy hairstyles and over-the-top make-up. He was a tattooed man in a gray suit with a pink tie in a sea of women – how could he not stand out?

They could have at least picked up Irvine instead. The man was practically a living host himself, he’d have fit in all right. He wouldn’t have looked ridiculous in a suit, and he would have had no trouble sitting back for hours on in a sea of coy women, drinking expensive alcohol and pretending to be enjoying himself. Hell, the guy would have probably actually enjoyed himself! As things were, Zell had a hard time just staying still and refraining from squirming in his seat. He was a man of action, for Hyne’s sake! But ever since he told his friends he was homosexual, it was like they all assumed he’d suddenly become good at all those things gay guys were supposed to be good at – like saying the right things at the right moment, being patient, picking up clothes, stuff like that. Quistis said it was nothing personal, that he kept on getting those ridiculous missions because the war was over and their clients didn’t need hired muscles as much anymore. Zell thought that was total bullshit, because if it were the case, they would have at least picked up the most competent person to complete this team, which was very obviously Irvine, not him. But nooooo, of course, they didn’t give Irvine the damned mission. They put their service gay guy on the task. Again.

If Zell had known it would come to this, he would have stayed in the damned closet.

“Zell, could you at least try to stop scowling?” Quistis said under her breath as she took a sip of her outrageously expensive red wine glass. “You’re drawing attention on us.”

“We’ve been here forever. Why isn’t she here already?”

“She’s bound to show up pretty soon,” Selphie said, her voice surprisingly mission-like considering the girlish smile she was wearing. “According to the file, she’s one of the regular patrons. She probably has her own assigned host, so we can expect her to turn in shortly before they do, around 11p.m.” Zell blinked.

“Woah, hang on. If hosts show up at eleven o’clock, who are these guys then? Walk-ons?”

Selphie dismissed the comment with a wave of her petite hand. “These are just decorative. They’re sort of the opening act; the real attraction is the senior hosts.” Zell’s blank look got him a genuine smile from the brunette. “They’re the most popular hosts of the moment, really. The ones patrons are ready to spend a fortune on.”

“There she is,” Quistis cut them softly, “seven o’clock, the purple dress.”

Reaching out for his glass, Zell subtly eyed their target, a middle-aged woman flanked by two grim-faced bodyguards. A pedantic groom was already guiding her toward one of the secluded love seats on the left side of the room while her guards awkwardly remained by the entrance. Her gorillas were obviously not allowed to follow their mistress into the patron lounge. At least, that was good news.

Discreetly, the three Seeds watched as one of the junior hosts appeared out of nowhere to entertain her. She rewarded his efforts with a polite smile, but kept on glancing at the massive velvet curtains on the other end of the room. Zell figured she was waiting for her informant, but when the lights suddenly got a little brighter and every patrons’ head turned toward the curtains, he understood she’d been simply waiting for her favorite to show up and felt rather let down.

As on cue, the senior hosts started pouring out of the curtains, the whole room shuddering and buzzing with excitement at the sight of them. Zell eyed them curiously. There were about twenty of them, all of whom were wearing tailored black suits with one single, pearly-white rose in their front pocket. They all had stunning good looks, if you went for that sort of thing – Zell personally found them too spruce and oily for his tastes. He could easily see what these women saw in these pretty men and their disarmingly charming manner, though. Obviously, they were luxury objects. Expensive fantasy material for women who already had everything money could buy. In a way it made sense, but that thought did little to improve the martial artist’s appreciation for the hosting business in general.

The senior hosts quickly started to work their magic and soon enough, alcohol was flowing freely and the room was filled with even more high-pitched laughers and coy giggles. Their target was joined by a tall, long-faced man who chat her into buying an expensive bottle of champagne in no time.

And then strictly nothing happened.

Zell had never been simultaneously this bored and edgy in all his life. For hours, it went on and on; there seemed to be no reason why it would ever stop. Now and then, a senior host would get up and visit another group of patrons, a junior host rapidly filling the void to make sure alcohol kept flowing and the bitching and giggling went on – a bit like a twisted version of the musical chairs game. A junior host would occasionally show up at their table to make sure they had everything they needed, but since they weren’t regulars and hardly drank anything, they never stayed very long. More alcohol to be served and tips to be made elsewhere, Zell assumed. It was sickening.

“I can’t imagine her meeting her contact here,” Quistis whispered after several long hours of watch. “And she doesn’t seem close to be leaving this love seat any time soon.”

“Perhaps she’ll meet her informant in the lady’s room,” Selphie suggested without conviction.

“Yeah, and I bet the host is their middle man,” Zell added as the middle-aged woman let out a very loud drunken giggle. “Look, it’s past 3 a.m. and she’s smashed. Whoever her informant is, obviously she’s not going to be meeting him tonight. Let’s just cut our losses and get out of here already.”

Quistis sighed. “Perhaps. But we have to stay to make sure.” Zell groaned loudly, which earned him a pointed, disapproving look from his ex-instructor.

“Damn it, why can’t Estharian clubs close down at 3 a.m., like everywhere else? They think they’re too good to respect conventions or what?”

“Zell...”

Selphie suddenly gasped. “Oh! It can’t be!”

“What?”

Gaping, the young woman seemed too shocked for words. “I don’t believe it! It’s- it’s...! Look! It’s him! At four o’clock!”

Puzzled, Zell eyed the crowd curiously. “Who? The lanky brunette?”

“Behind them, dummy! The couch on the right!”

Stretching his neck, Zell gazed at the couch in question, which was occupied by three women in their prime and a tall, broad-chested man with short blond hair. Zell was about to ask what was the big deal when the host tilted his head and he got a sight of his face. Right then, his jaw hit the floor.

Twenty feet away from them, in an expensive senior host suit, was sitting the one and only Seifer Almasy.

Beside him, Zell thought he heard Quistis gasp, but he hardly took notice. He was wearing his hair a tad longer than he had the last they had met, but it was Seifer Almasy alright. With his dark blond hair, his ocean-coloured eyes, his chiseled facial features and that exceptionally manly built of his that set him apart most men (even among professional mercenaries and trained soldiers), Seifer Almasy afterall wasn’t the kind of guy that you could easily mistake for somebody else.

Yet, it couldn’t be him. Zell Dincht had known him most of his life and he could feel it in every fiber of his body – this wasn’t Seifer Almasy. This handsome man, with his smooth manners and suave smile simply couldn’t be his rash childhood bully. Zell stared in utter disbelief as a tipsy women bend forward to mutter something in the man’s ear and he started to chuckle –chuckle!- like a high class gentleman. Seifer Almasy, chuckling?! Had they landed in an alternative dimension or what? The martial artist felt it could start raining chocobos any minute – hell, it would make more sense to him than a nice, chuckling Seifer!

It went like those kind of things usually do in sappy movies and chick lit books. As he poured another drink, Seifer happened to look up and saw them. For a fraction of a second, his face went blank and he froze up like a deer in the headlights. Zell could have sworn that, even more briefly, there was a flicker of genuine panic in his eyes. But the next thing he knew, the blonde had regained his charming host persona as if nothing happened at all – and it all happened so fast his clients probably hadn’t even noticed a thing. But Zell had. However briefly, there had been recognition in those sea-green eyes, and the way he was now very carefully avoiding eye contact with them was tale-telling. No doubt about it, it was Seifer Almasy all right.

Still, Zell simply couldn’t wrap his head around the idea that the arrogant, self-centered bully was standing right there, acting like a charming gentleman to the most irritating lot of spoiled women there was. The very idea was so far-fetched it seemed to come right out of a Galbadian burlesque movie. To think they had looked for him everywhere, only to run into him in an Estharian host club, of all places!

Squall was going to have an aneurysm when he heard the news.

“What’s he doing here?” Selphie whispered. “I mean, I figured he was hiding away in an abandoned shack in Centra, or in a grotto in Trabia, or-or living on a boat off Fisherman’s Horizon...! But here...? In Esthar, working in a host club?!”

“In a way, it makes perfect sense,” Quistis murmured back, a pensive frown marring her pretty features. “Esthar is a pretty big city, easy to get lost into. Most people here wouldn’t know him personally. And none of us would have ever thought to look for him here, of all places.”

Zell was almost too shocked for words. Well, almost.

“Whaaat? This is making sense to you? We’re talkin’ about Seifer Almasy here! Seifer, the biggest self-minded, arrogant prick in modern history, flattering rich old hags for a living? How’s that even possible? Nobody changes that much in five years!”

As to prove him wrong, Seifer let out another discreet laugh, looking dazzlingly handsome and suave. Zell frowned, feeling oddly uneasy about the scene unraveling in front of him. It just didn’t seem right. Seifer not constantly acting like a dick was like Selphie refusing to go to a party. Or Squall not wearing leather. Or Irvine being prude. You get the general idea. It was plain weird.

Before Zell could get used to the idea however, lights dimmed down. One after the other, the senior hosts walked back to the curtains they had come out of, smiling flirtingly to the crowd as they disappeared behind the thick velvet walls. The room started buzzing anew with excitement. As music suddenly died down and spotlights lit the curtains, Zell had a feeling he wasn’t going to like what would come next.

“Oh, dear God!” Selphie gasped, “Don’t tell me they’re...!”

The curtains parted to reveal a small stage, on which all senior hosts were lined up, holding a microphone and smiling seductively at the crowd. Overjoyed, the patrons started applauding and cheering on them loudly, nearly drowning the sound of the very cheesy karaoke music that started coming out of the speakers. Seifer was the fourth one from the left, standing out from the rest of the well-groomed men for he was a few inches taller and fairly manlier than most of them – it was truly a wonder they hadn’t spotted him before. The ex-knight was smiling warmly at the room, but even from afar the martial artist could tell his smile wasn’t reaching his eyes. Zell gaped blankly as the horror of what was about to come slowly dawned on him.

That was when the singing began.

They all sang in turn, smiling coyly and flirting shamelessly with the crowd. None of them were very good signers – some of them barely sang on tune, but the patrons didn’t seem to mind. On the contrary, they were drinking in the men’s voices with obvious bliss. By the time Seifer’s surprisingly deep and melodic voice came out of the speakers, Zell was so flabbergasted a mini-van could have fit into his mouth. When he thought it couldn’t get any weirder, music picked up some rhythm and all the hosts started singing in chorus while executing the lamest, gayest choreography he’d ever seen. Thrilled, the captivated audience cheered, asking for more.

Zell Dincht had gone through a great deal of strange things in his short life. He’d fought fearsome monsters, hosted GFs in his head, battled against a crazy sorceress from the future, gone through time compression, let Selphie drive his car and even had a rabid herd of chocobo chase him across Windhill because of Irvine once, but nothing compared to this. Nothing prepared him for this.

But this was not the worse part. The worse part was that despite the bad singing and cheesy choreography and whatnot, Zell could not for the life of him peel his eyes from Seifer.

Chapter Text

Chapter 2

The whole club burst out with enthusiast clapping but instead of retreating behind the curtains, the hosts stood smiling under the spotlights and to Zell’s horror, the singing went on. The second gave way to a third, then a fourth shoddy romantic ballad, each new song cheesier than the one before. Every time Zell thought it couldn’t get any more disturbing, they managed to prove him wrong by adding yet another layer of cheesiness to their performance, bringing bad taste to its purest, most evil glittery form.

At long last, the performers bowed and waved at their admirers and the curtains fell. Lights came back and gradually, the room quieted down as junior hosts and waiters resumed pouring alcohol to their clients. For long minutes, it seemed all of them could do was to stare unseeingly at the curtains in shocked silence.

“Oh my God,” Selphie whispered. “Someone, tell me it’s all a very bad, bad dream.”

“I don’t think any of us could come up with something this messed up, even in dreams,” Quistis answered weakly.

Zell drowned what was left of his drink, the alcohol burning down his throat. He thought of the way his eyes had been glued to Seifer during the whole performance and wholeheartedly agreed with Quistis. No way that was a dream - even his overactive unconscious couldn’t come up with half of this shit.

Before they could gather their wits, a junior host stopped by their couch to attend to them one last time before close-down. Selphie jumped at the chance.

“Oooh, d’you think I could have one of them hosts on the staaaage?” she slurred with fake drunkenness.

“I’m afraid that’s going to be a little difficult, darling. The senior hosts are quite in demand, you see. But if some fine company is what you’re looking for, I’m sure I can accommodate you just as well.”

“Who was the blondie? You know, the suuuper tall one with the scar?”

The host’s smile grew more distant. “Cedrik, you mean? He’s one of our all-time favorites – quite a celebrity in the business, actually. He’s currently the fourth most in demand host of the club,” he informed them, pointing to a board across the room featuring a list of names.

“So he’s been here for a long time?”

“Yes, I believe he’s been working for Madarake for nearly four years now - that’s practically ancient. But I’m sure a fine, sweet thing like you would do better with a fresher, younger sensation.” The man was so strongly hinting at himself Zell was almost embarrassed on his behalf. Selphie ignored him completely.

“D’you think we could get some... alone time with him?” She asked in hushed tones. The host was looking less indulgent and more irked by the second.

“This is a high-class hosting establishment, darling. One can buy one hosts’ company for the evening, but ultimately they are everyone’s. If they were to get intimate with a patron, others would get jealous. Now, if you don’t need anything else.”

The man left with the air of a starlet who got morally offended by a peasant. Selphie muttered “No wonder he’s still a junior host” and eyed sulkily the curtains Seifer had disappeared into. Zell squirmed in his seat. He wished she had handled the host more smoothly; he still so many questions to asks he did not even know where to start and he doubted they would be able to lure another host to their table before close-down.

A middle-aged woman sitting on the couch next to theirs, who obviously must have been listening to the exchange, then bent forward them conspiratorially.

“Don’t listen to him,” she told Selphie. Her breath smelled strongly of wine. “Of course, they wouldn’t advertize the place as a brothel, but it’s common knowledge most hosts get rather intimate with their wealthiest clients behind closed doors. Especially the younger ones – some of them sleep around quite a bit to earn themselves a name. Oh, yes, they do! One rarely becomes one of the top five without bedding a couple of rich old women first, you know. But don’t fool yourself, my dear – no senior host would ever make the mistake of sleeping with small fry like you. Their regular patrons would look down on them for it.”

Zell wasn’t sure what grossed him out more: the thought of Seifer whoring himself to these cougars or the way the patron made it sound like it was no big deal at all. Quistis hiccupped. “You mean Sei- Cedrik slept around to become number four?”

The woman threw back her head and let out a breathy laugh. “Oh, aren’t you the cutest thing!” Sniggering, she got up and walked away, leaving a very stunned group of Seeds behind.

“Well. That was too much information,” Quistis said at last.

“This is insane! We run into Seifer at long last, only to find out he’s a high-class Estharian gigolo!”

“It’s hard to believe he’d.... I mean, sure, he’s always had a pretty high idea of his self-worth, but...” the blonde trailed off and Zell snorted.

“He was an arrogant shithead, you mean.” Still, this made no sense to him either.

“Guys,” Selphie piped in, “I think our bird is leaving.”

Indeed, the purple-dressed woman they had been spying over was being escorted by a junior host back to the entrance, where her bodyguards and the pedantic groom were waiting, holding out her coat for her. And if the way she was walking was any indication, she was beyond tipsy. Completely smashed pretty much covered it.

“Should we follow her?” Zell asked, more out of sense of duty than real conviction.

“She looks toasted,” Quistis commented. “I doubt she’s going to proceed to the exchange tonight.”

“Bummer!” Selphie cursed under her breath, looking indecisive. She glanced at the retreating drunk woman, then at the curtains hiding away the stage. “Oh, screw this! Come on, we’re going backstage.”

Quistis frowned. “What about the mission?”

“You’ve seen her, she’s totally drunk. She won’t meet her informant tonight, you said so yourself. Seifer’s already seen us, so it’s our only chance to corner him before he makes a run for it. We’ve been looking everywhere for him for five years – there’s no way I’m leaving this club without some answers.”

That was something they all could agree on. They got up and headed for the bathroom. Nobody thought much of the two laughing, tipsy young women and their male friend going into the men’s room – which was blissfully desert, as one could have expected. They broke the window’s lock and proceeded to climb out of the bathroom and into the small dark alley – or more like a plateform between two buildings, really. Because of their silly, unpractical dresses, Zell had to haul the two women through the high, tiny window. At least, the martial artist mused as he held Selphie high enough for the petite woman to crawl into the platform, his two teammates were probably very thankful Xu and Squall had decided to send him on this mission rather than Irvine. He had a feeling they would have made quite a fuss about the cowboy, or anyone else for that matter, getting such a clear view of their underwear, mission or not. But since he was notoriously gay, they somehow didn’t seem to give a flying fuck gloriously showing off their fancy undies to him.

What was the point of wearing underwear that covered so little anyway? Those tiny lacy things were probably grotesquely expensive too – he’d gathered that when it came to women panties, the less there was to wear, the more expensive the stuff was. And judging by what he had seen, Quistis and Selphie’s were VERY expensive undies. The martial artist fought back a shudder at the thought.

One more thing to add to the growing list of ‘Things He Never Wanted to Have to Think about Again’ when this mission was over.

Quietly and efficiently, the trio unlocked one of the windows further down the alley and sneaked into an empty lodge. When the path was clear, Selphie motioned them to follow her down the empty hallway backstage of the club. In less than no time, they found what they assumed was the door to Seifer’s lodge, which very conveniently had “Cedrik” written in huge, bold letter on it. Zell had to hand that to Estharians - they were thorough about everything.

For all their professional mercenary efficiency, the three Seeds suddenly found themselves standing in front of the door awkwardly, none of them daring to make a move. Zell assumed the girls were just as anxious about the encounter as he was. He’d always thought he’d have plenty of things to say – none of them very nice – to the blonde when they finally caught him, but now that he was about to face him, he found his mind was strangely blank. He blamed the lousy choreography for it.

Selphie bit her lip. “This is almost too easy...” There was a long, tense silence. “Does anybody else think it could be a trap?”

“I don’t think so. It took us long enough to get here. I wouldn’t be surprised he’s long gone. We shouldn’t stay in the open like that anyway. People could show up any minute,” Quistis whispered, eyeing the hallway warily. Zell fidgeted in his designer suit.

“So what do we do now? Are we supposed to knock, or do we just barge in? Coz I don’t see myself knocking and be, like, ‘Hey Seifer, remember us? We fought against each other during the war, before you started liquoring up rich old hags for a living.’ That’d be kinda awkward.”

Before they could make up their mind, the door burst open and they found themselves face-to-face with a very tall - and very crossed - blonde. Gone was the honeyed and well-groomed gentleman. Air mussed up and tie undone, Seifer glared at them. No doubts about it; it was him alright.

“Just get the fuck in already before someone hears you and comes rushing around,” he said in a scathing whisper.

Much to their surprise, the three Seeds found themselves complying. After giving the corridor a wary eye, Seifer closed the door and locked it. Tension seemed to leave him just then; he suddenly looked a lot more weary than truly angry. It was so uncharacteristic of him the three Seeds just stood and watched in awkward silence as he went to a mini-bar and poured himself a generous serving of whiskey.

The situation was so surrealist Zell even forgot to fidget into his designer clothes. Somehow, he felt rather let down by Seifer’s attitude. While none of them had very fond memories of the blond bully, Seifer was still part of their small orphanage gang. They had all secretly hoped to find out he’d been somehow mind-controlled by Ultimecia during the war to do her biddings, like matron. But whether or not his actions had been his own at the time, everyone expected him to come back to the Garden on his own, because the Seifer they knew was not one to run away and hide in shame. Whatever the consequences, he held his head high and stood by his choices, and he certainly was too proud to lead a fugitive’s life anyhow. Or at least, they liked to think the Seifer they had grown up with hadn’t changed to the point he would suddenly rather take the coward way out of it.

But Seifer never did show up. So when they figured he wouldn’t be coming back on his own, they started looking for him. For five years, they searched all over the world for him. And just when they were starting to lose hope to ever put their hands on the damned asshole, they finally found him. Here. Working in a high-class Estharian male host club, singing cheesy ballads and flirting with spoiled middle-aged women. Probably whoring himself too, it the tipsy client was to be believed. This was just... not how it was supposed to be.

To be honest, the martial artist didn’t know what he had expected to happen when they caught up with him, really. Something more epic than this, he guessed. Like a chase. Or a fight. A row, at the very least. But now that the scarred man was in front of him, he couldn’t seem to find it in himself to confront him anymore. This whole situation was just so... lame. Seifer, whoring himself in an Estharian high-class nightclub? Cornered up in his own goddamned lodge without even putting on a fight? He even let them in, for Hyne’s sake!

Life was so not living up to his expectations right now.

His drink in hand, Seifer sank into the nearest couch with a sigh, stretching his long legs with nonchalant laziness. At last, Quistis managed to pull herself together and put on her best instructor frown.

“Seifer. To find you here, after all these years. It was rather... unexpected.”

“You mean you didn’t come here for me? I must have the shittiest luck ever then.”

“What are you even doing here?” Selphie burst out. “Seriously, a host club?!”

The scarred man raised an eyebrow at her. “Working.”

“I know that, but... why? You could have done anything else. You could have become a fisherman, or a truck driver, or hired muscles! Why... this?”

“Why not? The job’s safe, and the pay is good.”

“So that’s it? You humor spoiled women for coin? You whore yourself for a living?” Quistis asked, disapproval thick in her voice. “And I used to think you couldn’t sink lower than betraying the Garden. Thank you for proving me wrong once again, Seifer.”

Zell prepared himself for an outburst, angling his feet into a defensive position out of reflex, but the blonde simply scorned at her. “Yeah well, in case you haven’t figured it out, the war didn’t exactly offer me shining career perspectives.”

“And whose fault is that exactly? You sided with her, need I remind you?”

Seifer’s jaw tightened, but he remained calm. “Hardly.”

“Are you denying it?”

“No, I’m not.”

“Then why, Seifer?”

“Why what?”

“Don’t play dumb, you know what I’m talking about. Why did you take her side?”

“So this is what’s been eating away at you all this time, isn’t it, dear instructor?”

“Just answer the question already, Seifer. Why did you betray us?”

Seifer shrugged. “I’d just failed the field test for a second time, remember? So it wasn’t like I had much of a future at B-Garden anyway.”

Quistis stared unbelievingly at him. “Is that really all you’ve got to say for yourself?”

“Disappointed? What did you expect me to say? That the evil sorceress forced me to? That I was just another poor victim? Don’t you think that’d be a little too convenient?”

Selphie was indignant. “How can you be so cynical? Betraying us! Kidnapping Rinoa! Destroying Trabia Garden, torturing Squall! Aren’t you at least going to apologize?”

“Why? It’s not like it’s going to change what happened anyway.”

With crystal clarity, it suddenly dawned on Zell that Seifer was being an asshole on purpose. Just like when they were cadets, he was riling Quistis up to avoid being stuck in a tight spot and have to answer awkward questions truthfully. It really shouldn’t surprise him; Seifer had always preferred being a bastard to being honest, but he was deluding himself if he thought all he had to do was to act like a cocky asshole to have them off his back.

“Still acting like an arrogant shit to talk your way out of things, eh Seifer? Zell snarled, crossing his arms. “Seriously, man up dude. You ain’t fifteen anymore and we ain’t putting up with your bullshit, not this time. If you didn’t care, you wouldn’t have waited for us to show up.”

“Maybe I was just hoping you’d get lost in your suit on the way?”

Zell stomped his foot. “This is serious, Seifer! This ain’t no teenage fight about who’s broken the curfew! You betrayed us.”

“What do you expect me to say, then?”

“After all you put us through, the very least you could do is to apologize!” Zell more or less shouted.

“Fine, then, I’m sorry!” Seifer barked back. “I’ve fucked up like no one’s ever fucked up in the whole fucking history of epic failures! There! Does that make you feel better, Dincht? Does it make it all good again? Perhaps you’d like me to put on a show of remorse and shed tears over my sorry villain ass too? Then we could wallow into regret together, make up and be friends again!”

For a moment, tension was so heavy in the air no one dared to speak.

“So you ran away to avoid facing us and having to admit you were wrong all along?” Quistis spat back coolly.

The gunblade user stared at her with contempt. “And what else should have I done? Hand myself back to the Garden to be judged as a war criminal? What a grand idea. No offence, but I’d rather – what was it, again? – oh, yes - liquor up rich old hags for a living. Speaking of which,” Seifer teased with a bitter sneer, “Enjoyed the show, didn’t you, Dincht? Enthralled you, didn’t it? I bet you were on the edge of your seat the whole time.”

Zell felt a surge of anger and queasy uneasiness flare inside of him. With a great deal of self-restrain, he managed a wan grin. “Sure was. I especially liked the part where you danced on the air of ‘My Love Won’t Die’. Nice manly hip moves you’ve got there, Almasy.”

A flicker of amused interest briefly sparkled in Seifer’s eyes. “Oooh, so Chicken-wuss grew a sense of humor after all? That would explain the suit then. Did you really pick it up yourself or did the girls dress you up?”

“Shut up, asshole!” the blonde snapped, flushing.

Ah, that’s more like it.”

“Stop it, both of you! We haven’t come here to argue,” Selphie cut them severely.

“Oh, and what have you come here for then? Congratulate me for the show, perhaps?”

 “You know why we are here,” Quistis answered, her tone grave. The vague smirk on Seifer’s lips vanished, his features hardening once again.

“So I’m getting dragged back to the Garden, then? Or are you planning to dump me straight off in a Galbadian prison on your way home to save time?”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” Quistis said dismissively. “You were only a student at the time and students technically cannot be court-martialed by Garden Authorities. When the war ended, you were simply expelled for insubordination. While the Garden has been looking for you in the past years, it was never our intent to have you trialed. Of course, there is still much light to be shed on your... involvement in the war. It would make things easier for everyone if you chose to cooperate and accepted to follow us back to BGU peacefully.”

Inwardly, Zell admired Quistis for her composure. The martial artist wondered if she’d actually practiced for this moment – afterall, she had been more involved in the Seifer-chase than he ever was. He wouldn’t be surprised she had.

Cooperate?” the tall blonde scoffed. “Seriously, you couldn’t come up with anything better than this? I mean, it’d ALMOST sound threatening if you weren’t parading in that ridiculous designer dress you can barely walk in.”

“Watch it, playboy,” Zell said warningly. “The three of us are fully junctioned, and you’re unjunctioned, unharmed and not exactly sober. And in case you haven’t noticed, I’m not wearing a dress, so if I were you, I wouldn’t give me a reason to pummel your pretty face into a pulp.”

“Oh, thanks for the reminder, Capitan Obvious. Why d’you think I didn’t make a run for it earlier, huh? ‘Cause I felt nostalgic of our little discussions and wanted to reminisce on the ‘Good Old Times’ we spent at BGU together?”

Huffing, Zell crossed his arms. “Just cut the crap already.”

The gunblade user sneered at him. “Fine, then. If I refuse to ‘cooperate’, as you put it, are you planning to take me back forcefully - yes or no?”

“No,” Selphie answered in before anyone else could say anything, and the two other Seeds gaped at her.

“Whaaaaa-t?!”

“Selphie, you may be team leader, but you can’t decide something like that on your own! We have orders to follow,” Quistis stated rather severely.

The petite woman ignored Zell and stared back at Quistis levelly. “Precisely. Our orders did not cover the retrieval of Seifer Almasy and take priority over this for the time being. In case of a run-in with him, the procedure states he is to be apprehended only if he presents a threat to others or to himself, which is not the case right now. In the eventuality that we were found out, we were supposed to petition him to hand himself in, notify BGU of his whereabouts and await further instructions. So, no, we are not taking him back against his will. For now.”

Zell felt himself deflate a little. It stung more than a little to admit so, but Selphie was right. This was why Squall trusted Selphie’s judgment over pretty much everybody else’s when it came to leading missions. She didn’t look like it, but she knew her stuff and could be trusted to stay cool-headed and professional when everybody else got emotional. And judging by the embarrassed, sour expression on her face, Quistis didn’t handle that knowledge as well as he did.

Zell felt his heart drop at the sight. He knew only too well that sort of look. When this mission was over, Quistis would need looking after. And who she would turn to for comfort? Her all-purpose gay friend Zell, of course. Just like Rinoa and Selphie did. Why the girls always came to him when they were falling apart was beyond him - he was totally hopeless at dealing with crying people. He could already tell he would have to listen awkwardly to her cry and rant for hours on how much she failed as a leader. And because he wouldn’t know what to say, he would end up shushing her with lots of choco-mint ice cream and taking her shoe shopping, something he hated doing with a passion. The very thought made him weary already. If only someone had told him this would be part of his “gay friend” obligations before he made his god dammed coming out...

Turning her head toward Seifer, who seemed rather amused, Selphie then asked: “So. Will you come with us?”

“Hell, no.”

“You DO realize that we’ll be back sooner or later with specific orders to take you in, don’t you?” the brunette asked. “We know you’re here in Esthar and you won’t be able to run away from us this time. You should hand yourself in on your own terms while you still-”

Suddenly, there was a loud knocking sound. Everybody froze, staring at the door with surprise. Someone knocked again and spoke up from the hallway.

“Cedrik? Cedrik, sweetheart, it’s me, Cecily.”

With a speed Zell had rarely seen him move with, even back during the war, Seifer was back on his feet, looking alert and slightly panicked. “Shit! It’s my boss! Quick, hide!”

“Why?” Selphie asked, perplexed.

“Are you stupid or what?! If she finds a woman here, she’ll fire me! Some guys here lost their jobs for less than this!”

Knock knock. “Cedrik?”

“Coming, dear!” Seifer shot back loudly. “Quick, hide in there!” He whispered, pushing the confused Seeds them toward a tiny door Zell hadn’t noticed earlier, which turned out to be a closet. Oh, dear god, no.

“Fuck off, I’m not hiding in your wretched closet. I don’t care about your pushy job, you handle this yourself,” Zell shot back crossly.

“Shut up and stay in there,” the ex-knight pushed him into the closet and closed the door, leaving him in the dark in an awkward position, his back to two tangled women and a pole-hanger full of suits. Zell had half a mind to spring out of the closet just to piss him off but held back for some mysterious reason.

The situation, he mused darkly, was not devoid of irony. Back into the closet, he was. Funny thing was, it was precisely because he’d come out of the damned thing he ended up with this lousy mission – and into this particular, less-than-metaphorical closet. Why had he thought it was such a grand idea to make his coming out to his friends anyway? He should have just told Ma and let everyone else believe he wasn’t dating the damned library girl because he sucked with girls. It would have spared him all the stupid gay missions and the ridiculous dates Selphie and Rinoa insisted on forcing upon him, pretending he needed help finding a “nice boyfriend”. Nice boyfriend his ass – they systematically tried to match him up with every single gay guy they knew of because they had a voyeur thing for guys together. Like he couldn’t tell, really.

And now, he was stuck in a small, smelly and literally overcrowded wardrobe, like some shameful, dirty little secret of Seifer Almasy, of all people. All because said dickhead wanted to hide them from his host club boss so he wouldn’t lose a cushy job he’d lose anyway when they came to bring him back to the BGU in a day or two.

This was it. He was going to make both Squall AND Seifer pay for this, he decided. He did not know how yet, but he would think of something.

While Selphie and Quistis moved into a more comfortable position behind him, Zell heard Seifer stomping to the door.

“Cedrik, sweetie, what took you so long?”

“Sorry to have kept you waiting, Cecily dear. I was talking on the phone with a friend. Can I offer you a drink?” Zell frowned again, holding back an incredulous snort. It was strange to hear Seifer sound so suave and mild all of a sudden. He would have never believed the man capable of being nice to start with. Rinoa kept on saying he’d always been very sweet and considerate with her back when they were flirting, so he guessed it shouldn’t really come as a surprise – except he’d always believed this “charming” Seifer was a construction of Rinoa’s love-struck imagination. He wondered if the man was actually making extra efforts to pretend to be nice, or if being nice actually came naturally to him when he stopped being an ass on purpose.

“Cedrik, my boy, are you keeping things from me?”

“I’m not. Where did you get this silly idea?”

“You weren’t talking on the phone, Cedrik. I clearly heard you talk to someone else before I knocked on the door. I’m fairly sure it was a woman’s voice I heard,” Zell heard the woman say through the door, her teasing voice barely masking the accusatory tone of the comment. Stupidly enough, Zell suddenly found himself holding his breath.

“A woman? Nonsense. You know there are no women in my life, Cecily.”

“Then you won’t mind if I check up your wardrobe, won’t you?” Oh, God. Zell didn’t like this situation. He didn’t like it at all. He wished he could say he wasn’t feeling apprehensive right now, but he totally was, which was infuriating. Why should he give a fuck what this rich spoiled woman thought of the situation anyway? It was Seifer’s problem, not his. Damn, he should have listened to himself and left the closet earlier – at least, he would have gotten out of here with his dignity unharmed, which wasn’t an option for him any longer. Now he was going to be treated as some dirty secret of Seifer’s. Urgh.

But more importantly, where were those damned Vanish spells when you really needed them?! A quick glance told him that the girls were as helplessly out of Vanishes as he was. Quietly, they hid behind the pole-hanger, leaving Zell alone in the front of the closet to deal with the upcoming domestic drama. Just. Great. Couldn’t get any better.

“Really, Cecily, don’t go through the trouble. There’s nothing in there.” Obviously, Seifer was hoping against all hope they had some Vanish spells at hand too. Well, tough luck buddy, Zell thought darkly. Try bullshitting yourself out of THAT one.

Irvine would have been soooooooo much more suited for this than he was, Zell mused spitefully. If someone had experience dealing with scandalized, jealous woman, it was the cowboy. But nooooo, of course, they had to pick up their all-purpose gay Seed for the damned mission...!

“Well then, you won’t mind me having a look, won’t you?” The woman’s voice was awfully close, and suddenly, someone opened the closet’s door. “Let’s see what we have here... Oh, my!”

The woman named Cecily stared at him, looking rather dumbfounded to find herself in front of Zell instead of the woman she had been expecting to find. Zell stared blankly back at her. She was a small, curvy thing in her late forties wearing huge golden earrings and large horn-rimmed glasses. Zell fidgeted nervously under her intense gaze, hoping Seifer would come up with a believable lie for this when she overcame her initial surprise and started asking questions. He sure couldn’t think of any.

To his surprise, Seifer’s boss suddenly beamed at him, looking like she’d just run into a friend she hadn’t seen in years. “My, my! What a handsome young man you’ve got there! What a frivolous idea to hide away such a pretty thing in a tiny, smelly closet like that, Cedrik, this isn’t like you at all. But do come out, sweetheart, join us! Don’t be so shy!”

Cautiously, Zell stepped out of the closet, careful to hide away the girls and close the door behind him. The woman named Cecily looked flushed and pleased about something, though Zell couldn’t understand for the life of him what she was so happy about. Obviously, there was something he didn’t quite grasp about this situation, but whatever was going on, the blonde had a feeling he wasn’t going to like it. A quick glance at Seifer did nothing to reassure him: the tall man was gaping at the scene with barely-concealed horror, his large hand cupping his chin and mouth in a vain attempt to hide his quiet distress. This couldn’t be good.

“Oh, I’m so sorry I doubted you, Cedrik dear. I really should have had more faith in you, but I was so sure I had heard a woman – obviously, I was mistaken, of course. I must say,” the woman added without pausing to breathe, “I’m thrilled to finally meet you. I wish I could say Cedrik has told me many things about you, my dear, but he’s always so secretive about his life, you know how he is. He likes to keep a little mystery going on about him, the sly little thing! My, if I had known I would finally meet you tonight, I would have put on something more flattering for the occasion. Oh, I cannot wait to tell Miss Flaunderby that I finally met Cedrik’s famous boyfriend!”

Wait a minute, Seifer’s what?!

 

Chapter Text

These two words hit Zell like a punch in the guts. Seifer’s boyfriend?! Whoa, whoa, whoa! Hang on, she thought he was... w-with Seifer? As in... with Seifer?!

Zell gaped from the woman to the gunblade user, whose attitude somehow made the whole situation even more baffling. He just stood very still, listening to his boss’ tirade with the air of someone watching a train driving full speed toward a wall. And that just wasn’t right. Sure, the idea of the two of them being lovers was disturbing, but come on, shouldn’t he look surprised instead of horrified? His boss just assumed they were a freaking item and the bastard barely batted an eye!

And then, it occurred to Zell. This was Seifer’s boss. Seifer, who was working in a high-class host bar where popular hosts, like himself, were obviously expected to sleep with their rich patrons. And it didn’t take a genius to realize those spoiled women would not favour for very long a host who turned down requests for sex in exchange for their patronage. Unless the host had a very good excuse. An excuse that would both appease their wronged ego and attract him a fair amount of sympathy.

Like being gay and involved in a long-term relationship with another man.

Zell held his breath. Of course, it made perfect sense. Seifer was way too haughty to sell off his body to spoiled middle-aged women. So to keep his pushy job, he made up a crack and bull story about being gay and having a male lover – which, if the martial artist knew one thing about women, was sure to make him very popular without much effort. All he had to do was to act the part right and poof! He’d instantly become these ladies’ personal dream-come-true gay best friend. So when his boss saw a man coming out of the blonde’s wardrobe, she automatically assumed this was the mysterious boyfriend her dear “Cedrik” had been so artfully avoiding talking too much about in the past few years...!

Hence, Cecily’s friendly attitude and the blonde’s silent horror. Right. Not that understanding what was going on did much to make Zell feel any better about it. And judging from the way his jaw was clenched ever so tightly, Seifer’s mind seemed to be reeling just as anxiously as his. From the corner of his eyes, Zell suddenly saw a flash of something daring lighten the man’s eyes and his gusts instantly filled with dread. He’d seen that look before – usually right before the bastard decided to front-charge a T-Rex.

Zell fancied he usually knew what to expect from the gunblade user – after so many years of bullying, one could say anticipating Seifer’s actions had become some kind of a defence mechanism for him. But there was no way he could have possibly envisioned what happened next. Or at least, that what he told himself later when he recalled the way he froze up when Seifer’s arm sneaked its way around his waist. Before he even had the reflex to shove him back, Seifer managed to pull him to his side protectively.

“Now Cecily, give the poor man some space, would you? Can’t you see you’re scaring him off? Why don’t you pour yourself a drink while we make ourselves comfortable? Then we can talk.”

Dumbfounded, Zell stood frozen in the blonde’s embrace and watched as the curly-haired woman turned her back to them and happily chatted her way to the two love seats by the wall. As soon as she was out of earring range, Zell shoved Seifer off him.

“What the fuck d’you think you’re doing?!” he hissed.

“Just play along, Dincht,” Seifer hissed right back.

“No way!”

“Trust me, this is the easiest way out.”

Zell had half a mind to punch him in the face but held back as the small chatty woman then turned around and sat down. Smiling right back at her, Seifer gently but firmly motioned him toward the other couch. Zell had no choice but to play along.

To his dismay, the couch turned out to be so small it was nearly impossible for both men to sit next to one another without their shoulders and tights brushing together. Seifer’s long arm came to rest on the couch over his shoulders to give them both more space, but it did little to make Zell feel more at ease. The gunblade user was too close for comfort, the heady smell of his cologne and his falsely intimate manners making Zell feel awfully self-conscious all of a sudden. The queasy feeling he had felt while watching Seifer earlier in the club came back full force, except now it was accompanied by the same kind of mortified nervousness he had felt last Yule when his Ma had tried to match him with that tall, handsome fellow who was whatsitname’s cousin from Deling. For some reason, that pissed him off more than everything else combined.  

Snap out of it already, Zell! This is Seifer, for Hyne’s sake! He’s a prick and a bastard and a bully and you certainly are NOT attracted to him, wretched cologne or not!

But there was no helping it. There was something about this new Seifer that both grossed him out and fascinated him equal ways. And now he was supposed to pretend to be his lover, of all things. The mere thought sent an uneasy shiver down his spine. How the hell had he managed to land himself in a situation like this? Why, oh why, hadn’t Squall picked up Irvine for the damned mission? Why?!

“... prefer it with a lemon zest, but I like mine without it. Not that I usually drink much to start with - But, silly me! Here I am, talking alcohol with you when we haven’t even been properly introduced yet!” the owner of the club berated herself. “I’m Cecily Hay – I own and manage the Mandrake Club. What would be your name, sweetheart?”

“Um,” Zell stammered awkwardly. What was the name on his fake Estharian ID cards again? It was a fairly common name, like Gart or Dird, or... “Anryl. My name is Anryl.”

“And what is it exactly you do for a living, my dear?”

When Zell failed to come up with a quick answer, Seifer stepped in.

“He’s working as a consultant for the military industry,” he answered easily in his charming host persona, laying down his free hand on top of one of Zell’s fists supportively. The tattooed blonde instinctively tensed up at the touch, feeling increasingly irked with the whole set-up. He mentally cursed the man. Sitting next to one another was one thing, but holding hands? Stupid cover or not, that was going too far!

“Cedrik, I believe the young man here can talk for himself. Can you now, dear?”

Zell tried to ignore the treacherous way his skin tingled warmly under Seifer’s long fingers and regain some sort of composure. “Um, of course, m’dam Hay.”

“Oh, please! Call me Cecily. So, the military industry, is it? That sounds like a pretty exciting job. I bet you can’t talk too much about it, though.”

“Right. It’s... um, very secret. Confidential stuff.” Hyne, he hoped he didn’t look as lame as he sounded.

“So I guess you must spend a lot of time on the road – Cedrik often said you travelled quite a deal.”

“Uh,” Zell stalled, searching frantically his blank mind for inspiration. There was a reason why Zell was never sent on infiltration missions – he was a terrible liar. He liked to think he wasn’t usually so pathetically lame at it, though. But it was hard for him to gather his wits when pressed so close against his childhood bully – especially since Seifer’s cologne happened to smell really, really nice. Damn.

In moments like those, Ma always said saying part of the truth was a better option than outright lying. Somehow Zell doubted that would be a particularly helpful advice given the situation, but it was worth a try anyway. He was out of options anyhow.

“Um, yeah. I travel a lot – never know where the next job is going to take me, what I’ll be doing and how long I’ll be gone.”

“I guess it must be hard to maintain a long-term relationship in these conditions.”

“Well,” the blonde chose his words carefully, “I can’t say I’ve seen much of Sei- Cedrik lately, but whenever we meet, it always feels like we’ve never been apart.” That, in a sense, was true: considering the irritating dick was currently bullying him into pretending to be his lover, he couldn’t say the basic dynamic to their relationship has changed all that much.

“How sweet!” Cecily beamed, and Zell let out a breath he didn’t know he was holding. “I’m really glad Cedrik managed to find such a fine young man as yourself, Anryl. You seem to be an honest lad – I can tell those kinds of things. It’s a relief really to meet you at last, because to be quite frank with you, I have to admit I was starting to doubt your very existence, sweetheart.”

“Cecily!” Seifer made a show of being offended.

“Oh, don’t be so upset, Cedrik, my dear. I never meant to say that I did not trust you, but you have to admit it was starting to look rather odd. You almost never talked about him and we’d never even met him before. I understand that you don’t get to spend much time together because of Anryl’s job, but still! Why the secrecy? When I came here, you were hiding him in your closet! A closet, Cedrik! If I didn’t know any better, I would say you’re ashamed of him.”

“Don’t be ridiculous. We’ve talked about it before. Anryl and I just like our privacy, that’s all. You and I both know what the hosting business is like and this is not what I want for him.”

“Why, now you speak as if working in the hosting business was something to be ashamed of!”

“No, I simply mean that I refuse to let people treat my boyfriend as merchandise. I sincerely love you, Cecily, I do. But I also know you, and I will not have you turn Anryl into ‘a sensation’ as well.”

“Why must you be so rude! I’m hurt, you know. To think you think I would take advantage of your lover for something as trivial as business! Have you no faith in me? Or have you already forgotten that it was *I* who introduced you into the highest spheres of the Estharian society? How ungrateful of you Cedrik to treat me so cruelly after everything I’ve done for you!”

Cecily’s theatrical accusations left the gunblade user largely unaffected. Obviously he’d been on the receiving end of that speech many times before. And by the look of it, the woman was just getting started too. Zell didn’t know what she expected to achieve with this tirade – did she really think she could guilt trip Seifer Almasy, or did she expect him to eventually give in just to shut her up? Because neither were going to happen, he would have told her if she’d bothered to ask. But she probably wouldn’t have listened to him anyway – if she had any common sense, she would have understood by now she was wasting her breath.

Seifer, at least, did not seem to mind waiting for Cecily to tire out. Patience, however, wasn’t exactly Zell’s middle name.

“Actually,” Zell cut in weakly, a little intimidated by the fierce look the petite woman cast on him, “you shouldn’t take it personally, it’s got nothing to do with you. I guess it’s hard to understand for you, Esthar being such a progressive place and all, but what Sei-Cedrik isn’t saying is that the people I work for, they – well – don’t look very keenly on these kind of things. And not just the hosting business thing. The whole... guy dating another guy kind of stuff. They don’t just frown on homosexuality: they simply won’t allow it. If they found out I was gay, I would lose my job for sure. And that’s if I’m lucky – some guys get court-martialed for it. That’s why Cedrik and I have to be... you know, cautious.”

For a moment, the two other stared at Zell in bewilderment – for completely different reasons. Cecily, whose universe clearly revolved around herself and her place in the Estharian society, was obviously dumbstruck by the idea that homophobia was not just an historical concept. Seifer for his part seemed amazed Zell came up with something this cunning – or, knowing how bigoted the bastard was, bemused that Zell had thought of this excuse and he had not.

In the case of Cecily, however, amazement was short-live and quickly gave way to outrage.

“This is scandalous! How could these people be so prejudiced?!”

“Well, the military folks have never been known for their progressiveness, Cecily.”

“How unfair! Anryl, my love, you must simply quit this job! You don’t have to work for such barbarians, sweetheart. I’m sure that I could arrange something for you-”

Or maybe not that cunning, afterall. Clearly, the club owner was a one-track minded person. “That’s- a very nice feeling, M’dam Hay, but I actually like my job quite a lot.”

“Why, but they treat you so unfairly! Surely you deserve better than this!”

Think fast, Zell. “Well, er... You know, the pay is nice and I’m good at it. In fact, it’s the only thing I’m really good at,” the martial artist answered slowly, thinking of his job as a Seed. He looked down at his hands – they were big, rough hands, full of crooked fingers and callouses. A warrior’s hands. “I wouldn’t know what to do with myself if I wasn’t doing this job. Besides, I couldn’t do a people job like Cedrik. I’m horrible at saying the right stuff at the good moment and things like that,” Zell explained lamely, feeling rather uneasy and vulnerable at how close to home it hit to say this. But now was not the moment to think about it – he had more pressing matters at hands. Namely, reorienting this discussion to safer grounds, and fast.

Seifer seemed to have the same idea. “This is something we actually knew at the very beginning, when we first started dating. Of course, we had our doubts. Anryl being in the military industry, we wondered whether or not we had a future together and if it was worth the risk. In the end we decided to give ourselves a chance and we’ve not regretted it so far. Of course it’s not always perfect and having to hide can be frustrating at times, but we don’t mind. We love each other. We have since the very first day and we still do.”

“Oh, how very well spoken of you, Cedrik!” Cecily sounded genuinely moved that Zell was too relieved to remember to feel sickened by Seifer’s cheesiness. “You make your love story sound so forbidden and romantic! Anryl sweetheart, tell me, how did the two of you meet exactly?”

Startled, Zell said the first thing that came to his mind. “We grew up together.”

“Oh, so you two were young sweethearts then?”

“Hell, no. He bullied me through most of my childhood.” The woman burst out laughing and he felt Seifer shift imperceptibly next to him. He guessed the other man wasn’t quite comfortable with the direction the discussion was headed, but he didn’t give a flying fuck. This “partial-truth” tactic was working fine so far so he was sticking to it, and the gunblader could go get eaten by a Malboro if he didn’t like it for all Zell cared. He was the one who’s put him in this situation to start with, so he only had himself to blame for it.

“Somehow, I’m not surprised. But you know what they say about little boys... They bully the ones they like!”

Zell almost choked at the idea and next to him, Seifer chuckled with embarrassment in his lavish host persona.

“To my defense, I was quite young back then.” Their eyes locked, and the palm of the gunblade user’s large hand pressed more firmly against Zell’s. For someone who had known Seifer most of his life, the message couldn’t have been clearer: Keep this going and I’ll make you pay for it.

Zell inwardly huffed. Who did the bastard think he was, threatening him like that? He was in no position to argue. And Zell was no longer a little boy – if Seifer thought he could still bully him into submission with snarky comments and threats of retaliation, he had another thing coming.

The martial artist suddenly had to fight back a mischievous smile. Unwittingly, Seifer had just provided him with the ideal mean to take revenge upon him.

“I bet even back then, Cedrik must have been quite popular with the boys and girls,” Cecily commented obliviously, smiling fondly at her protégé.

“Oh, he was far too wrapped up in himself to notice other people,” Zell answered without hesitation. “The Cedrik I grew up with was no gentleman. He was a real prick. Cocky and vain, and a bully to boot.”

“Really!”

“His sidekicks aside, nobody wanted to hang out much with him because of his lousy attitude. He thought he was too good for the rest of us anyway. Too good for us, too good to follow rules, too good for our school...” Zell trailed off, working hard to keep venom from his voice at the thought of how Seifer betrayed the BGU. “Too good even to wear the regulation school uniform. He used to strut about the whole school like a peacock with that ridiculous big trench coat of his that screamed ‘look at me, I’m a badass’, like he thought he was the coolest thing alive. Everybody thought he was a moron.” Beside him, the blonde smiled uneasily.

“Cedrik, don’t be embarrassed - who could blame you dearie, with such good looks? But he must have noticed you at some point Anryl, or else the two of you wouldn’t be here tonight.”

“Oh, he noticed me alright. When we were seniors, he kept on thinking up new excuses to follow me around and pester me – some of them even involved campus security regulations. How desperate is that, right?”

The middle-aged woman laughed again and Zell relaxed, unclenching his fists. The small movement made Seifer withdraw his hand and to his surprise, Zell found himself half-missing the feeling of the man’s hand on his own and mentally shook himself for it. This was Seifer Almasy for God’s sake! It was so not the time for his libido to start acting up on him.

“How long have you been together, then?” Cecily asked next.

It was Seifer’s turn to answer. “Three years this week, actually. We were planning to meet up tomorrow at the train station, but he decided to take the morning train from Galbadia to surprise me. Imagine my shock when I saw him in the club earlier!” The words were barely out of the blonde’s mouth that Zell could predict Cecily’s reaction.

“Don’t tell me you’ve taken the morning train from Galbadia? Oh, my dear, you must be exhausted! You should have told me right away, Anryl. And here I am, silly me, keeping you from a good night’s rest!”

This situation, as Seifer no doubt intended, offered them a perfect way out of the discussion. Much to his own surprise, Zell found he didn’t want to put an end to it just yet. Afterall, they still had many questions to ask Seifer. And if his previous attitude was any indication, he doubted Seifer would prove to be very cooperative in filling in the blanks still left in his story. But Cecily, on the other hand, wouldn’t mind clueing “dear Anryl” on a couple of things about her beloved Cedrik – information that would surely prove both useful and educative. Very educative.

Or at least, very entertaining.

And besides, Zell still had a revenge to extract from his ex-bully. No way he was letting him off the hook so easily – this was just too juicy to pass.

“I’m fine, really,” Zell protested. “I slept a bit on the train, so it’s not so bad. Don’t leave just yet, we’ve barely met. I mean, um, I’ve heard so much about you from Cedrik...” From the pleased look that crossed the woman’s face, Zell had a feeling she had never really intended to leave in the first place anyway.

“Is that so? Now, that’s very nice of you, Cedrik. Though I’m actually surprised– you see, Cedrik has always been most secretive with us. But I guess he must be less tong-tied around his lover...”

What it that Zell was getting better at this, or was this woman ridiculously easy to interrogate? “Actually, he’s always been really secretive about his job. He’s never even told me how he got the job here, or what he was doing before.” Beside him, he could feel Seifer shift uneasily again.

“He hasn’t? Oh Cedrik, how very much like you! It’s actually a very interesting story, how he got hired here.”

“Now, it’s an awfully old and boring story-”

“I don’t mind,” the tattooed blonde cut in.

“Anryl,” Seifer gave his would-be boyfriend a smile that didn’t quite reach his eyes, which held an untold warning. “It’s getting late – I’m sure you’ll get to ask her some other time-”

“Don’t think that I’m not seeing what you’re trying to do, Cedrik. And I won’t have any of it,” Cecily cut him bossily. “I really don’t see why you’re making such a big deal out of this anyway. It’s a very nice story – nothing to be ashamed of.”

“Cecily dear, I don’t-”

“Tatata! Would you believe,” she added to Zell with utmost seriousness, “that someone as good-looking and charming as your dear Cedrik has issues with people saying good things about him? It’s like the silly boy believes being nice is something to be embarrassed of!”

No doubts that in Seifer’s mind, Zell mused, it was.

“He’s always been a bit of a puzzle.” Struck by a flash of inspiration, the martial artist decided to take this whole “pay back” session to another level and laid his hand squarely on Seifer’s knee. Under his hand, he felt the gunblade user go extremely still and for a moment Zell had half a mind to leave it at that, rather embarrassed by his own boldness. Sure, he owed the bastard a payback for putting him through this shit, for the war and for all those years of bullying, but that wasn’t a reason to start groping Seifer Almasy, of all people. And let’s face it, what he was doing was borderline groping. It felt almost as if he was taking advantage of the situation. Well, he wasn’t taking advantage of the situation per see, as this was pretty mild and could easily pass as a “fake” affectionate touch, but taking any steps further would definitely be crossing that line. And it would also kinda be a dead give-away on his homosexuality, and Zell wasn’t sure he was okay with his childhood bully finding out he was gay so soon - especially finding out that way.

On the other hand, it would totally freak Seifer out. That thought alone was enough to make the blonde toss any guilty, awkward feelings straight out of the window. To hell with it, he was going to make the son of a bitch squirm. He owed him that much, after all the trouble the arrogant dick had given him over the years. And Seifer only had himself to blame for pretending to be gay in the first place. He wanted him to act like his gay boyfriend? Well he would have it.

“Anyway,” the club owner went on, “Here’s how I met with Cedrik. I was at the restaurant – I own the Farradigo downtown, a very nice establishment, if you don’t mind me bragging a little. The evening was going just fine when this- ” she had a grimace of distaste, “nasty man barged in and started making a commotion, scaring the poor clients off. I mean, can’t one just handle one’s wife’s adultery without making such a shameful display of oneself? It wasn’t as if he was the first man to find out his wife was cheating on him. But instead of acting like a dignified gentleman, this man decided to take it out on his wife in my distinguished establishment – with no thoughts to the ill effects this may have on the Farradigo’s reputation, of course. Can you believe the nerve of some people?”

Zell did his best to look contrite over it. “Some people have no manners.” He then slowly let his hand slide down Seifer’s knee, feeling the man’s muscled leg against his fingers. If possible, the gunblade user went even stiller.

“We tried to have him kicked out, of course, but he started fighting with our waiters – he made such a nuisance of himself, it was quite shocking. We were about to call the police when a diver came out of the kitchens and threw the rowdy lout out of the Farradigo like nobody’s business. I’d never seen anything quite like that before – this mysterious, handsome man hauling the angry ruffian off his feet and dragging him out of the restaurant like he was a mere ragdoll! It made a strong impression on everybody. I knew right then I just needed to have that man working in here, in the Club.”

Distracted by the sudden revelation, the martial artist frowned and his hand stilled. “...You mean to say Sei- Cedrik worked for you as a diver?”

“Unbelievable, isn’t it? Such a waste of a handsome young man, locking himself up in an overheated kitchen washing dishes all night.”

“So you hired him as a host because he kicked some jerk out of your restaurant?” Zell asked bemusedly.

“I guess you could put it that way. It’s a very tough business, the hosting business, Anryl. Competition is fierce between hosting establishments. Esthar is a very trendy place, you see, and we are at the mercy of our clients’ ever changing wimps. It’s quite a challenge to adjust in time to the higher society’s sporadic moods, and ever more so to find someone to catch more than the patrons’ fleeting interest...”

Listening to her rant with a distant ear, Zell gently started rubbing his thumb against Seifer’s tight. The blonde shifted uneasily under his hand and Zell had a hard time keeping his eyes on the woman in front of him. Somehow, he could not help but notice how oddly nice the feel of the Seifer’s firm muscles was under his hand, and the effect his ministrations were having on the other man were encouraging him rather than deterring him. Deep down, the wrongness of it all – him molesting his helpless ex-bully in front of an audience and, more importantly, his own lack of aversion – started to make him feel uneasy, but he quelled his doubts down. It was payback, that was all.

“...I knew very well this mysterious, handsome man, with his grumpy allure and silent mystique, would instantly become the talk of all the higher Estharian society, and that he could, with a little grooming of course, become an instant sensation in the business. What I had no way of knowing was that he would turn out to be one of the city’s most seeked-after male host.”

“Sounds like a revisited Cinderella story,” Zell thought out loud, a little disturbed by the mental image that came along with it.

“Oh, but it wasn’t nearly quite that easy, I assure you. You wouldn’t believe how much of a hard time I had getting Cedrik to agree to it – the silly boy didn’t even want to hear about it! It didn’t make any sense – it still doesn’t to me to this day. How can someone who has so much potential end up washing dishes for a living?” the woman said these two words so vindictively it was like the dishes had personally insulted her. “I don’t say if the pay was good, but it wasn’t! The poor dear could barely meet ends with his meager salary and had to work part time in a flimsy convenience store after his shift at the restaurant to pay for his miserable, moldy 2 ½ flat – you know how expensive lodging can be in Esthar. And yet, when I offered him a comfortable, well-paid job in a high-class exclusive establishment like the Mandrake, he turned me down!” Cecily sounded like the memory of it still made her feel indignant. “I was bemused. You have no idea how many people come to me everybday, trying to get a chance to work at the Mandrake. Some men would readily sell their mother and father for a chance to become a fleeting sensation in the underground hosting society, yet this measly, anonymous diver refused to work for me! It was beyond me.”

Well, “anonymous” is a pretty big word for someone who is wanted as a first class war criminal by pretty much every government on the face of Earth, Zell thought. No doubts that becoming a “sensation” in the hosting business hadn’t exactly been a thrilling prospect for someone in Seifer’s situation.

“But I’m a very persistent woman and the silly boy eventually came to his senses,” the owner stated simply, as if the thought of not having her way never quite crossed her mind. “He did good too. He was awkward and gruff at first, but he eventually got over his initial shyness and revealed himself to be deep down the charming, sensitive and caring young man we’ve grown to love here. ”

Zell nearly chocked – there were too many things wrong in that sentence to even start wrapping his head around it.

“I guess you just had to crack a bit his nutshell?” he asked innocently as he slowly ran his hand up the man’s tight, muscles twitching tensely under his touch. Emboldened, the martial artist cupped Seifer’s inner thigh, earning himself an almost inaudible gasp from the other man.

Zell couldn’t resist any longer. Tearing his eyes away from the rambling woman, he glanced up at the gunblade user.

He had to hand it to the guy, he was good. Obviously, catering to rich old women had helped Seifer develop a very impressive pokerface. If it weren’t for the tenseness in his jaw and the way his eyes were oddly fixed on him, nobody would have been able to tell that the blonde man was deeply disturbed. But the martial artist could tell alright. Oh, yes.

Grinning, Zell slip his hand further up Seifer’s tight, brushing his fingers up to his crotch. Seifer shot up like he’d been poked with a cattle-prod.

“I’ll – help myself to a drink. Anyone want something?”

Cecily smiled obliviously at her favourite. “There’s really no need to get worked up over it, Cedrik. It’s a charming story, my dear.”

She went on talking, but Zell was too busy watching the blonde retreat to the minibar to attend to her. As he poured himself another drink, Seifer shot him a look full of promises of painful retribution. The martial artist had to fight back an irresistible urge to snicker. Hyne, who would have thought poking Seifer Almasy could be so much fun? Feeling cheeky, Zell raised a playful eyebrow at him and patted the space next to him invitingly. For a second, Seifer stared at him, blinking, like he was seeing him for the first time. It did not last, however. Quickly, the man pulled himself together and went back to the couch with the same smooth casualness he had used on the Club’s patrons merely half an hour ago. Except this time, he made sure to sit as far away as possible from Zell and crossed his legs to deter him from groping. The martial artist had to stifle a snort as he focused his attention back to Cecily.

“...was actually quite concerned about people finding out back then. In a way it was an endearing sight, such a handsome, confident man being so guarded about his sexuality. To be honest, at first I encouraged him to keep quiet about his preferences – I thought clients wouldn’t see much appeal in a man who couldn’t flirt back with them. I even tried to convince him to make an effort,” Cecily admitted unblushingly, and Zell felt uneasy at the thought of exactly what kind of “effort” the club owner was referring to. “But eventually the word got out, and to my surprise he somehow got even more popular. Pretty faces gain and lose favor quickly in the business, but Cedrik never lost the patrons’ favours, and they always go back to him when they grow tired of the newest sensations. Oh, he’s never been number one, but he’s been in the top five for longer than any other host in the business and I have found that in the long run, durability is far more profitable than short-lived success.”

The woman said the last sentence in the same manner a horse owner would speak of an underdog stallion which turned out to be her best racer, like Seifer was a walking investment of hers.

“But here I am, talking nonstop, I was nearly forgetting you just got out of the train,” Cecily suddenly added with exaggerated guilt. “You must be exhausted, my dear boy. You should head back home and rest now.”

Zell was not very good at reading social clues, but he could tell the difference between a suggestion and an order, and that was clearly the latter. “You’re right, I could do with a hot bath and a warm bed just about now.”

“Good. Then I’ll ask Gerard to drop you both at Cedrik’s on my way home.”

Zell’s mind stopped right on track and started backpedalling. Hang on, drop *them* at Cedrik’s? No way, that was so not what he enrolled for...! Quicker on the uptake, Seifer flashed his boss an embarrassed smile. “Oh, don’t go through that trouble, dear. We’ll find our way back home on our own, really.”

“Don’t be silly, you’re coming back with me in the limo.”

“That’s a very nice offer, m’dam” Zell piped in, “but I don’t want to be a bother...”

“I already told you, call me Cecily. And you don’t bother me at all, sweetheart. It’s on my way home.”

“We appreciate it,” Seifer tried another approach, “we really do, but we had something different in mind for our anniversary-”

“Would you want me to drop you off somewhere else instead?”

“No, what I meant was that, you see, we sort of had planned to have a romantic walk along the Neo-Galbadian district-”

“Nonesense, why walk when you can take a limousine? The Neo-Galbadian district is overrated anyway.”

“But-” Seifer stammed, “But if you drive us home, we’ll have to go get the car tomo-”

“Then I will ask Gerard to pick you up tomorrow and drive you around town. You’ll have dinner at the Farradigo, of course, then Gerard will drive you back to the Club for your shift and you will retrieve your precious car after close down as usual. Consider it a present for your anniversary.” Cecily answered back with decisiveness that left no space for debate. “Now that this is settled, let’s get you back home already, shall we?”

Both men stood frozen and eyed each other helplessly.

Dear Hyne, what had they gotten themselves into?

Chapter Text

 

Zell Dincht was not a superstitious man, but at some point during the limousine ride he started thinking the whole mission was cursed. Considering how things kept getting out of hands all the time, it wasn’t a wholly unreasonable conclusion to come to. Ever since they set foot into the damned host club, they’ve been going from one bad surprise to another. Like this whole Seifer fiasco, for instance. Watching Seifer Almasy do karaoke was one thing, but having to pretend to be his gay lover AND being driven back to his place by his overenthusiastic boss? Even setting the score with his ex-bully wasn’t worth getting dragged into this mess. Neither was the free high-tech limousine ride - Cecily’s chatter rather spoiled it for him anyway. But if wasn’t as if he had much of a choice about it now, was it?

Seifer’s place turned out to be one of those huge, fancy Estharian apartment complexes you see so often in decoration magazines since Esthar reopened its borders to the rest of the world. Zell had heard of these before. Their glassy, bare look was just a pretense of simplicity – more often than not, they were equipped with underground parking lots, indoor swimming pools, gardens, convenience stores and private gyms. Not to mention a security system that could rival your average Galbadian prison’s. The tattooed blonde felt his heart sink at the prospect of all the security cameras and identity control check points ahead of them. Of course, Seifer HAD to be living in a gigantic, 30-floor high-tech glass fortress. Anything less would have been unbecoming of him. Pretentious prick.

Given how things kept spiraling down, Zell wasn’t all that surprised when Seifer’s boss wouldn’t hear about dropping them off at the entrance door and insisted to see them to their flat. They had to keep their act up and put up with her high-pitched chatter all the way to Seifer’s door on the 15th floor, where they awkwardly waited for her to take the clue and leave. But she didn’t seem intent on leaving. She just kept rambling on, not minding in the least that they were in the middle the hallway and that it was past 4 am. Not that Zell hadn’t been expecting it either – it had been such a phenomenally shitty day that he would have been surprised if she hadn’t. And judging by the resigned patience in the blonde’s eyes, so did Seifer.

To be honest, Zell couldn’t say what Cecily’s rant was all about, and if the way his brain was trying to melt out of his ears with boredom was any indication, he obviously didn’t have any future in the hosting business. And people said he was a chatterbox! Compared to that woman, he was the epitome of stoicism. His Ma had taught him not to be rude, but he found it increasingly hard to hold back from yawning into her face. After what seemed like hours, she noticed him stifling back a yawn and started fussing over him, insisting ‘not to mind’ her and that he must go ‘straight to bed’ – while at the same time making it quite obvious she still had no intention to leave. Obviously, it never occurred to her that Seifer might prefer going to bed with his lover to standing in a hallway listening to her insufferable yapping, but at this point, Zell was too relieved to get out of her clutches to care. As the door closed behind him, he thought he saw something hard wash over the Seifer’s face, but the cool silence of the apartment was so welcome he clean forgot about it.

When it became obvious Seifer would be at it for quite a while, Zell ventured somewhat aimlessly into the quiet apartment. To his surprise, it was awfully small and furnished simply, even by Estharian standards. Zell didn’t care for the curvy and glassy look of Estharian furniture, but he had to admit that the place still looked nice, if you went for that sort of purged, mellowed look.

In the living room, the blonde’s eyes were drawn by the sight of oddly-shaped bottle blue couch that looked about as comfortable as a BGU classroom bench. It had been such a long day he found himself drifting towards it nevertheless and had to purposefully focus on the rest of the room to keep away from it – he had a feeling that if he sat down, the day’s events would catch up with him and he didn’t like the idea of Seifer finding him snoring on his couch. There was, he noticed with some amazement, no television or radio set to be found in the tiny living room. The only mean of entertainment was a built-in bookcase filled with a great number of Galbadian detective stories and, oddly enough, a whole shelf of cooking books. He eyed the bookcase musingly. Funny, he would have never thought Seifer was the reading type. Still, he could picture Seifer reading. Cooking? Not so much. Intrigued, Zell picked one of the cooking books from the shelves and skimmed through it, noticing the handmade side notes in the margins with amazement. And those were fancy recipes too – not that the martial artist knew much about cooking, mind you. Growing up in a military university, you pick up a large set of skills, but cooking was not one of them. But then again, Seifer had worked in a restaurant, hadn’t he? Must have picked an interest for cooking there. Yes, it made sense. Or at least, if he repeated it to himself often enough, he hoped it would start to eventually.

As Zell was putting the cooking book back on the shelf, something suddenly brushed against his leg. Looking down, he found a massive cat rubbing against his designer suit and stared. Seifer owned a cat? Seriously? Reading and cooking, he could understand, but a cat? Not a sly, athletic hellthing mind you, or one of those grumpy, haughty things that acted like they owned the place, but an inoffensive and affectionate fat old tabby?

No, no matter from which angle he tried to approach this one, he couldn’t make sense of it.

Upon understanding that the newcomer had no intent to pat him, the cat decided to ignore him and crawled back to the couch. At the sight of the old tabby settling on a patchwork quilt full of cat hair, Zell entertained the idea that the apartment was someone else’s – another front Seifer put up for his boss’ sake, of sorts. He moved on to the next wall, where a dozen picture frames displayed on a low buffet pretty much did that theory in. They all featured Seifer’s two loyal poses Fuujin and Raijin and seemed to have been taken after the war. There was a picture of Seifer and Fuujin showing off a huge catch at Fisherman’s Horizon; on the next one, Seifer’s two poses were standing proudly in front of a snowy country hostel and on another, they were beaming at the camera in full wedding attire. The martial artist wasn’t sure what was more upsetting: these two getting married, Fuujin in a dress, or Fuujin smiling. He settled for the picture in which Raijin was holding with a goofy smile a white tuff of hair sticking out of a bundle of pink blankets - Raijin and Fuujin having children beat everything else, hands down.

It suddenly dawned on Zell that these were stolen glimpses of very private moments and he felt a bit like a voyeur – even more so that the tall blonde smiling so openly in these pictures was a stranger to him. The Seifer he knew didn’t smile as much as he smirked, and his eyes were never shining this warmly. It made him look more approachable. Vulnerable.

Looking away uneasily, Zell moved on to the kitchen, which was small but painted bright green with matching pale yellow furniture. Zell frowned at the forgotten coffee mug on the counter and the grocery list scribbled hastily on the fridge, next to more pictures of Raijin and Fuujin’s little girl and a couple of child drawings. What looked suspiciously like a batch of home-made cinnamon rolls was lying neatly on a china plate on the two-seats kitchen table, and drying in the kitchen sink was a clean metal baking sheet, along with just enough dishes and utensils for a bachelor meal. There was a distinctive homey feel to it, but one edged with loneliness, as if the occupant of the flat was trying to keep high spirits despite the odds.

By then, Zell felt a little baffled. It was definitely not the kind of apartment he had imagined the macho extraordinaire Seifer Almasy living in. Or even Cedrik, the fourth most-in-demand host of the prestigious Mandrake Club, for that matter. He had thought the gunblade user would be living in one of those ugly, pragmatic post-modern apartments, or a lavish princely suite, surrounded by the same expensive décor he had seen in his lodge and that fitted so well his shallow and pretentious persona. Either would have made sense. This, however, made absolutely no sense. It was as if the Seifer living here was a completely different person than the arrogant brat he grew up with and the honeyed host he had met with at the Club. He felt like he’d been given pieces coming from a whole bunch of different puzzles and asked to put them together.

The sound of the door closing shut broke the martial artist’s musings. Zell walked back to the entrance, where Seifer had managed to get rid of his boss and was now slumping against the door wearily. He looked positively worn out. Zell did not blame him. Dealing with Cecily Hay would do that to people.

“Nice flat,” he commented. “Small, but nice. Did you decorate it yourself?”

Seifer looked up so sharply Zell found some of the mist in his head clearing up already. He would have never thought to live to see that day, but there he was, feeling genuinely relieved and more than a little glad to have Seifer Almasy’s eyes blazing at him with murderous intent. That was the Seifer he knew all right. That Seifer, he knew how to deal with.

“You goddamned dirty little piece of shit! What the fuck did you think you were doing back there?!”

“Getting your sorry, ungrateful ass out of trouble? No need to thank me, by the way.”

“Oh, really? Tell me then, what part of you feeling me up was supposed to be helpful exactly?”

Zell shrugged defensively and was more than a little proud to be able to answer that question without the slightest hint of a blush. “Hey, you said to make it convincing.”

“No, I told you to play along.”

“Close enough.”

Seifer looked like he wanted to throttle him, but somehow held back. Taking a long calming breath, he scowled. “Let it not be said that I’m ungrateful, so I suppose I... thank... you for not blowing my cover,” Seifer said with great effort, as if every word pained him.

“Yeah, you damn well should.”

“And since you’re already here, you’ll stay for the night.”

“Wait, thanking me AND offering hospitality? Learned proper manners afterall, didn’t you.”

“I’m not being polite you moron, I’m being sensible. Cecily’s husband owns the stupid place and it wouldn’t do if she saw you leaving on the security cameras so soon, wouldn’t it?” Seifer snapped as he walked past him. “You will sleep on the couch and leave first thing tomorrow morning. I’ll tell Cecily you were called in for a last minute job and had to take the first train for Trabia. Now if you don’t mind, I’ll go take a shower. You will nicely wait for me in the living room. You will not go through my stuff. You will not harass my cat. You will not raid my fridge. Understood?”

“Who d’you take me for, a pre-schooler?” the martial artist huffed.

“You can make macaroni necklaces to spend time if you want,” Seifer sneered. “I’m sure your mother will be pleased you thought to bring her a souvenir from Esthar.”

“Prick,” Zell mumbled under his breath as the blonde disappeared into the bathroom. He waited until he heard the sound of the shower to go back to living room and take out his cell phone. He wasn’t very comfortable with all these new communication devices, but they did have their uses sometimes. He just wished those damned buttons were bigger – it always took him forever to write anything down with these. He was halfway through texting Selphie not to try to take down the whole complex to find him when he received an incoming call. Frowning at the name of the caller, Zell took the call.

“Squall?”

“Zell. I just got a short debriefing with Selphie,” came the commander’s even voice. Always to the point, Zell mused with a dry smirk. “Report on your situation.”

“Well... we’re in Seifer’s flat. He’s taking a shower right now,” Zell explained a bit lamely. Somehow, saying it out loud made it sound even more surreal.

“Have you secured the perimeter?”

“Uh, unless he plans on jumping off from the fifteenth floor through his bathroom window, it’s not really an issue. He didn’t look like he was going to try to make a run for it either. I know it sounds weird, but he’s rather chill ‘bout it all, considering.”

There was small pause. “... Selphie said the same thing.”

“Sorry Squall, but I really should be warning Selphie about this place – the security here is crazy, ‘could probably put to shame the Presidential Pala-”

“There’s no need. I’ve already given her for instruction to carry on with the original mission.”

“You did?” the blonde said, taken aback. “Hum, okay. What about Seifer, then? I mean, he’s been pretty mellow so far, but he doesn’t look that thrilled to go back to B-Garden. I don’t think he’s going to wait around for us to come back and get him.”

“That’s why I’m reassigning you to close surveillance duty until we pick him up.”

Zell froze on the spot. “Whoa, wait! What? You’re asking me to bodyguard Seifer?!”

“Not protection – surveillance. I just want you to follow him around and keep an eye on him.”

“You gotta be kidding me! What about the mission?”

This is your new mission, Zell. Selphie and Quistis are more than capable to carry out the other assignment on their own. They will be reassigned to help you out afterward.”

Zell didn’t like the sound of that. He was starting to have a very bad feeling about this. “Afterward? What’s that supposed to mean? How long am I supposed to stay here exactly?”

There was an awkward pause. “Given the international situation, we can’t really afford to have him traveling by train through Trabian and Galbadian jurisdictions. The Ragnarok is currently undergoing maintenance repairs. Xu said she would be ready to fly off by next Monday.”

Monday?! Squall, that’s, like, six days away!” Zell shouted indignantly. “You can’t ask me to stay here and watch over Seifer for a goddamned week!”

“More like five days, given the time zone difference.”

“I don’t give a shit about the time zone difference! This is about me, and Seifer. Hyne forbid we stay in the same room for more than an hour without killing each other! Ask somebody else.”

“Request denied. The way I understand things, you already have a perfect cover-up story for the mission.”

For a moment, Zell was left speechless. Then, he saw red.

“Are you kidding me?! So, what, I’m to stay here and – and pretend to be Seifer’s gay lover while Quistis and Selphie are out there on the field? You can’t be serious, Squall!”

“Watch your temper-”

“Temper my ass, this is total bullshit! I’m fed up with those stupid missions you give me all the time! Just because I’m gay doesn’t mean I have to always be stuck with all the lame, girly missions! I’m a goddamned A-rank, first class martial artist, not an escort! I didn’t enroll to go clothes-shopping with rich old hags in Deling, or babysit spoiled brats, or - or play Seifer’s fuckbuddy! I’m a Seed for fuck’s sake! ”

“Those are my orders so suck it up. I’ll contact you on Saturday to give you a rendez-vous point. Over.” Squall deadpanned, hanging up the line. Indignant, Zell let out a howl of rage and nearly sent the cell phone flying to the wall.

This was a disaster. He knew Squall was his commanding officer and all, but that just went too far! As if the whole mission hadn’t been shitty enough already, now he was stuck here with Seifer. Worse, he had to pretend to be the gunblader’s lover in front of Cecily and the rest of that goddamned club’s patrons to keep his cover up. For five whole days. Five days! Dear Hyne, how was he supposed to pull that off? Of course he couldn’t pull it off, what was Squall thinking?

Seething, Zell suddenly realized Seifer was staring at him grimly from the doorway. Zell groaned softly. Great. Just Great. Couldn't get any better.   "I take it you've heard that."   "The part about you being gay or the part about me having to cope with you for the rest of the week?" Seifer dead-panned. “Because I kinda had worked the first part out on my own already.”  

"Look, I'm not happy about it either, okay?" Zell shot back crossly. 

“So that should make us friends then? We should, what, bond over it? So glad to know. I feel better already.”   The martial artist groaned and rubbed his eyes. It was close to 5 a.m. and he'd had a spectacularly crappy day. At this point, all he wanted was to get out of these ridiculous clothes, take a long hot shower and collapse on the closest thing to a bed he could find. Picking up a fight with Seifer Almasy was definitely nowhere near the top of that list.   "Listen. This situation already sucks and there's nothing either of us can do 'bout it, so can we, like, agree to be civil to each other until Monday? I'll pretend to be your lover in public and try not to get in the way if you don’t make the next few days a living hell for me. How does that sound?"

Scowling, the gunblade user considered him for a while. Zell stared back at him levelly, waiting for him to make up his mind, whatever this was about – Hyne preserved him from ever finding out what went on in his ex-bully’s head anyway.

“Fine,” Seifer eventually said. “But if you’re going to live here and follow me around, we have to set a few ground rules first.”

“Sounds reasonable,” the martial artist agreed cautiously.

“First, you don’t pull that molesting shit on me. Ever. Again. Got it?”

Zell scoffed. “Didn’t plan to.”

“Secondly, you gotta keep the silent boyfriend act up when we are outside the apartment, at all times – especially in public. Thirdly, you don’t get to follow me when I’m working with clients.”

“Only if I get to monitor you on the floor.”

“From backstage,” Seifer countered.

“No, I’m on the floor or we don’t have a deal.”

“Fine, as long as you don’t tag along too closely.”

“That works for me. Are you done now?”

“One more thing. You don’t go through my stuff behind my back or ask nosy questions. No sneaking around my drawlers, no going through my phone book or computer, no tapping my phone line, no going through my bills. And above all, you stay out of my kitchen. Is that clear?”

“Cristal. Okay then, my turn. If I’m to follow your rules, I get to set a few of my own too.”

Seifer crossed his arms defiantly. “Fair enough.”

“First, you don’t try to give me the slip. Ever.” The gunblade user rolled his eyes.

“If I was planning to make a run for it, I would have done so back at the Club. I thought we’d established that already.”

“Seconds, no stupid nicknames or petnames. No cutie pie, no snookums, no honey buns, no cupcake, no pookie bear, and above all, no chicken-wuss.”

Seifer snorted. “Still upset about whole nickname thing?”

“You got to set your rules, I get to set mine,” Zell countered defiantly. “Besides that goes both way: you don’t get to call me ‘binky kinkie’, and I don’t get to call you ‘snuggle bear’ or ‘snoochie boochie’.”

Seifer grimaced. “Point taken. But if we’re going to pass for a gay couple, we need to pick at least one petname, like it or not.”

“Fine,” Zell sighed. “But let’s agree on something that’s not too embarrassing, like ‘darling’ or ‘sugar’. Selphie is never going to let me live it down if she hears me calling you ‘pudding pie’ or some other stupid girly nickname.”

“I’m not calling you sugar; darling it is. Anything else?”

“We play nice. I won’t make things difficult for you if you don’t make things difficult for me. Agreed?”

“Agreed.”

“Great,” Zell breathed with relief. Maybe this whole mission wouldn’t be so bad, afterall. “I’m glad we got to an understanding.”

“Right. Whatever makes you sleep at night. Speaking of which, you’re not sleeping on that couch.”

Zell paused, considering the other man cautiously. “Oooo-kay. Where would you have me sleep, then? I don’t suppose you have a guest room or something?”

Seifer snorted and lead him into a small bedroom. “Dincht, have you seen the price of Estharian lodging lately? The pay at the Club is good, but not that good. We’ll share the bed.”

Zell froze on the threshold and gaped unbelievingly at the double bed Seifer was pointing. Surely, he couldn’t be serious – it had to be a joke the blonde was pulling on him, a payback of some sort for his previous groping session. When Seifer ignored him and started fumbling through his dresser, the martial artist began to feel a little panic-stricken.

“You’re kidding, right? I mean,” Zell countered with a small nervous laugh, “you can’t be real about, hum, having us both—you know – in that bed. Together. Right?”

Seifer turned around and raised an amused eyebrow at the slightly distressed note in the martial artist’s voice. “What’s the matter, Dincht? Last I remember, you didn’t seem all that averse to a little body contact.”

Oh, wasn’t that just rich. Count on Seifer to turn something like this to his advantage and find a way to tease him about it. “You’re just being a prick on purpose,” he hissed. “I thought we agreed we’d try to be civil.”

“Sorry to disappoint Dincht, but I’m not ‘being a prick’, I’m being practical. You’re not going to get any sleep on that couch. It’s the cat’s, and he doesn’t do sharing well. And before you start imagining things, I’m *not* offering to share my bed with you out of kindness, I’m just saving myself some trouble. If you wouldn’t be staying, I wouldn’t give a rat’s ass. But since I have to put up with you tomorrow, I’d rather you not be grouchy and sleep-deprived.”

“I don’t give a shit, I’m not sleeping in your goddamn bed!”

Rolling his eyes, Seifer focused his attention back to the dresser. “Will you stop making a fuss already? It’s a double bed. If we’re both a little careful, there’ll plenty of room for the two of us. I promise I’ll be a good boy and keep my hands - and other fleshy bits - to myself, if it can make you feel better about it.”

Huffing, Zell crossed his arms. “Shouldn’t you be the one worried about getting molested here?”

The gunblade user turned around and eyed Zell speculatively. “Should I?”

There was something smooth and carnal and undeniably predatory in the way he said those two words. The martial artist stood frozen, gaping like a fish.

Snorting, Seifer gave him a pitying look. “Don’t get your hopes up, Dincht. Here,” he added, dumping a pair of boxers, a T-shirt and jogging pants in the baffled martial artist’s arms, “These are the smallest I’ve got. You know where the bathroom is: towels are on the second shelf on your right. Make sure to close the bedroom door behind you so the cat stays out.”

Pulling himself together with a start, Zell blushed bright red with embarrassment and glared. “You are such a-a-!”

“A charming, handsome and quick-witted fellow?”

“A fuckin’ dickhead!”

“I thought we were supposed to be civil to one another?” The gunblader had the gall to smirk! That bastard was finding it amusing!

“You’re the one who started it, asshole!” Zell bristled. “With your flirting bullshit and stuff!”

“Had I known you would react like a scared virgin, I wouldn’t have teased you in the first place.”

“WHAT!”

“Stop screeching and just go get your shower or come to bed already,” Seifer said as he settled under the covers.

“There’s no way I’m sleeping with you in that bed!”

“Fine, have it your way,” came the muffled reply, and Zell thought he heard him mumble something that sounded awfully like “pig-headed” and “moron”. The martial artist huffed, but still turned off the light and closed the bedroom door behind him, as instructed. His Ma hadn’t raised him to be a bad guest, even if his host was the biggest jerkface on the face of Earth. What a prick.

Now standing alone in the small hallway, Zell eyed the bathroom indecisively. The appeal of a warm shower was very strong, but Seifer had agreed to his terms too quickly to his liking. What if it was a ruse to lure him into a false sense of security? The blonde may just be waiting for the right occasion to slip away. Chances were he wouldn’t notice Seifer escaping while he was taking his shower. Or even more so during the night, if he slept on that couch. Perhaps he should spend the first night up, just in case? Or put his pride aside and accept Seifer’s offer to share his bed-

Oh no, he was *not* going down that path. This was only a surveillance gig – he was there to keep an eye on the man, not to stop him from leaving the city at all costs. Besides, the Ragnarok wouldn’t come to pick them up before Monday, and nobody in their right mind could expect a single-man team to watch over a target for five days non-stop. If the gunblade user somehow managed to get away because Squall did not see fit to allocate enough resources to him to complete the mission, he could hardly be blamed now, could he? Anyhow, Seifer had given him his word, so he would have to trust him. He didn’t like it, but he had little other choice.

Sighing, the martial artist decided to let the matter drop and went to the bathroom. He was immediately pleased with it. Though small, it was very functional and brightly-lit, with a surprisingly large ceramic shower. It made for a nice contrast with his own private bathroom, which looked like a wardrobe into which someone tried to cram a sink, a toilet and a shower. At least, he thought to himself, this mission does have some advantages. Locking the door behind him, the martial artist stepped out of his wretched suit at last and stepped under the shower. The water was deliciously warm, and Zell sighed happily as it poured on him.

He was half-way through washing up when it occurred to him that he was using Seifer’s soap and he came to a halt. He didn’t like the thought of smelling like the ex-bully, but he had to admit it was a very nice, manly smell – like pine tree and cedar wood. Now that he thought about it, he also remembered there had been undertones of pine in the man’s cologne, back when they both had been sitting on that couch in the lounge...

Much to his surprise, he found his groin stirring that the memory and hastily scrubbed the rest of his body to chase the sensation away. Where the hell was that coming from? Was he so desperate to get laid that even Seifer had become appealing to him? He scoffed at the idea, but felt his uneasiness grow nonetheless. He hadn’t felt the least repealed either when he had run his hand along the gunblade user’s tight...

Frowning, he scrubbed harder.

His tiredness finally catching up with him, Zell made short work of washing himself and put on Seifer’s spare clothes, which were predictably a good size too big for him, but were otherwise alright. He took the spare comforter he found in Seifer’s cabinet back with him to the couch, where he eyed the cat blandly. Purring, the tabby gazed at Zell with placid, oily eyes.

“You’re the fattest, ugliest cat I’ve ever seen.”

 

 

Chapter Text

“Why are we doing this again?”

“We’ve been over this before, Dincht,” Seifer’s voice came from the other side of the cabin. Zell did not need to see his face to know that his patience was wearing thin. Considering they had been “together” for barely two hours, it did not bode well for the rest of the mission.

“I still don’t see what’s wrong with the clothes I’ve got.”

“Beside the fact that you only have one set of them? Nothing. Your clothes are fine. *You* in them, is not.”

“Seifer, I’m really not in the mood to put up with your-”

“No, YOU listen to me. Do you really think you can just put on any designer suit and look classy? Cause I’m sorry to break it to you, but only people with no taste whatsoever would make that kind of assumption. You look like you got dressed up by Rinoa, for Hyne’s sake. At this rate, you’ll blow up your cover before we even start.”

Tugging at the cuffs of his shirt, Zell eyed his reflection a little guiltily, because it had indeed been Rinoa who had dressed him up. Still, he failed to see what was wrong with his other suit. Seifer was just being a jerk on purpose.

“For Hyne’s sake, what’s taking you so long in there? Need instructions to put a shirt on or something? I’d have thought even you could manage buttons.”

“Shut it!” Zell snapped. “I’ve told you, you’ve picked a size too small.” Possibly two, if the way his shoulders felt cramped against the fabric was any indication.

For the love of – For the last time, no, they’re not. Just because they don’t make you look like an oversized potato bag doesn’t mean they’re too small, Dincht. Stop making a fuss and get out of the damned cabin already. In case you’ve forgotten, we’ve got to meet with the limo at 6 o’clock to go to the restaurant so hurry up if you don’t wanna miss your carriage, princess.”

“I’ll give you a princess, dumbass,” Zell muttered under his breath mutinously. He felt he had a right to be cranky. The stupid cat had spent the whole night trying to suffocate him by laying on his face every time he fell asleep; he had barely managed to cram in three hours sleep when Seifer woke him up and insisted to go clothes-shopping, of all things. Clothes-shopping!

Even the perspective of free food didn’t manage to cheer him up. No amount of food could make up for having to spend a whole meal with Seifer to his mind. And besides, Zell had never been a fan of big fancy restaurants before; he much preferred the casualness of dine-ins, to be perfectly honest. He did not look forward to a two-hour tête-à-tête with Seifer pretending to know which fork he was supposed to use for every appetizer-size meal brought to him. As far as he was concerned, skipping the whole thing sounded like an excellent idea. Except he had a feeling Cecily would be pretty pissed off if they didn’t turn up for their restaurant outing and he really didn’t want to give the woman a reason to seek them out so soon. Speaking to her once had been enough, thank you very much.

With a frown, the blonde eyed his reflection critically. He was wearing a tight-fitting gray-mauve shirt with off-white pants and if he were to be honest with himself, he looked really nice in them, even if they were far too revealing for his personal liking. The shirt was uncomfortably tight, but it did wonders to his shoulders and torso, he would give it that much. The idea of parading in front of his ex-bully like a piece of steak still made him cringe, though. The jerk was bound to find a smartass comment to make and he really, really wasn’t in the mood to deal with this.

I’m going to make Squall pay for this, even if it’s the last thing that I do, Zell vowed.

“I’m waiting here.”

Huffing, Zell exited the cabin and waited sullenly for the inevitable punch line. To his surprise, Seifer didn’t say a word. Arms crossed, he measured him up with his eyes with a quiet intensity that somehow made the martial artist even more uncomfortable.

“So?” he said tersely. “Will that do or what?”

Seifer frowned. “What do you mean, ‘will that do’? Have you had a look at yourself?”

“What? Don’t look at me like that; you’re the one who picked these up, you know!”

“Yeah, and it shows. How bad are you at clothes-picking exactly? Because I never thought I’d be saying this, but you actually look decent out of the baggy rags you call clothes.”

Zell felt himself flush – from embarrassment or anger, he couldn’t tell. Trust Seifer to make a compliment sound worse than an insult. “Ha ha. Great. Glad you’ve had your fun. Are we done here?”

But Seifer wasn’t listening. Frowning, he kept on staring with the same intensity, as if he was faced with a difficult math problem he couldn’t make head or tails of. Zell started to squirm uneasily under his scrutiny. As he always did when he was flustered, he started babbling. “Um, shouldn’t I wear a tie with this or something? That’s the kind of thing you wear with a tie, isn’t it?”

“Wouldn’t look natural on you. Even this shirt’s too buttoned up.” Two strides – curse the man’s impossibly long legs – and Seifer was suddenly right in front of him, stepping so much into Zell’s personal space that the martial artist had to fight the reflex to take a step back. Tensing up, Zell felt his pulse race up as Seifer carefully unbuttoned his two collar buttons, the feeling of long, nimble fingers brushing against his collarbone combined with the smell of the blonde’s cologne doing weird, unwelcome things to his body. Oblivious to his unease, Seifer stepped back and gave him a long once over, his frown deepening. Zell couldn’t tell if that was supposed to be a good or a bad sign – and quite frankly, he didn’t care; he was just relieved the man had put some distance between them again.

“Any chance I could persuade you to get a haircut?” Seifer finally asked.

“No.”

“Pity. Well, what are you waiting for? Go on already, try the other ones.”

Zell ground his teeth at being ordered around but complied. He figured the sooner they were done, the better. To his credit, Seifer turned out to have an eye for clothing: not only did the things he picked up for him fit, but they also didn’t make him feel too much like a dress up doll. One or two of the outfits were nice enough he could even see himself wearing them again for Yule once the mission was over. Seifer nevertheless made him try on several other suits before he was satisfied with his selection, a thoughtful frown marring his features the whole time. At long last, they were ready to leave and brought everything to the cashier. When the price came in, Zell did a double take.

“Seifer,” he said in an urgent whisper, “I can’t buy this!”

“Will you wait for us a minute? We won’t be long,” Seifer told the disapproving cashier with his most suave voice. He steered Zell a few feet away and glared at him. “What is it now?”

“You seen the price of these things?!”

“Well, no shit. What did you expect? This is Esthar, not Fisherman’s Horizon.”

“That’s nearly three months of Seed salary, I can’t afford this!”

“That’s why there’s this amazing, flat little plastic thing in your wallet called “BGU SEED Credit Card”. You just have to slip it in the slot-”

“I know how to pay for mission expanses!” Zell snapped back.

“Then what’s the big deal? Shut up and do it.” The gunblade user then made a face. “For Hyne’s sake, don’t tell me you’re feeling guilty over it?”

“Well, that’s an awful lot of money, okay?”

“Yeah, and that’s the idea. It’s called “payback”, Dincht. Clearly you’re not familiar with the concept, so let me put your goody two shoes’ conscience at ease: you need to wear these kind of clothes for the mission, so this is an entirely justified expense. And trust me, Leonhart’s used to paying way more outrageous bills than this if he’s dating Rinoa.”

Without warning, Seifer’s hand shot out and grabbed Zell’s wallet from his hands. A disarming smile on his lips, he turned back and handed Zell’s special issue golden SEED credit card to the mollified cashier. Indignantly, Zell went to stop the motion, but at the last minute, he held back. He realized Seifer did have a point, although he’d sooner swallow a live Fastitocalon-F than admit it. And the idea of shoving this huge expense bill down Squall’s throat did sound like a grand idea. He could picture his face when he’d review the mission expenses: he would scowl like he’d just swallowed a whole citrus.

He wished he’d thought of it on his own, though. Now he felt like he owed Seifer for it and it kind of ruined the fun of it.

“How do you know about Squall and Rinoa anyway?” Zell asked sulkily as the cashier handed him back his card and started to pack his clothes smartly into fancy paper bags.

“How would I not know?” the gunblade user sneered. “Don’t you ever watch television or read newspapers? They’re all over the news.”

“Are they?”

Seifer snorted. “Only you could miss something this obvious. He’s the commander of B-Garden, the hero of the Second Sorceress War and the long-lost son of the President of Esthar, and she’s the spoiled daughter of the highest-ranking Galbadian Military Officer and leader to one of the biggest Timber Resistance Movement. Hardly a week passes by without the two of them making it to front news somewhere. Where have you been all these years? On the moon?”

Seifer was so good at pretending to be someone else that he managed to say it quite casually, without any bitterness in his voice, although Zell knew it must have grated him to no end to know Squall was the one who had it all. Still, he held back from making any truly mean comment – Ma hadn’t raised him to be mean on purpose, even to scumbags like Seifer. Besides, he was too cross and tired to find a witty come back.

They went on to buying smart black leather shoes, then a very expensive watch Seifer insisted he “must have” and that Zell found so atrociously ugly he actually kind of liked it. By the time they were done, Zell was so tired he felt like a walking zombie, but it was nearly dinner time, so they went back to Seifer’s apartment to change and meet with the limousine. Gerard then drove them to the Farradigo, where Cecily, true to her words, had booked a table for them. Obviously, the man at the reception had been expecting them; he bowed reverently as soon as he saw them and indicated them to follow him across the restaurant.

As the martial artist had dreaded, with its hushed ambiance and futuristic, expensive look, the Farradigo was every part as out of his comfort zone as the night club had been. People were dressed stiffly and weirdly, the decoration was alien to him and he swore he saw a woman playing the harp – the harp! – as the waiter took them across the airy dining room. Much to his dismay, they found themselves following him out of the main room and into a secluded nook, where one small round table was artistically set for two. It was such an intimate and romantic set up that Zell froze at the sight of it and had to be brought back to reality by Seifer’s hand on his lower back gently but firmly guiding him forward.

They took place at the table and a waiter wasted no time handing them the menu. Zell glanced uneasily at the number of wine glasses in front of him and row of forks lined up on the side of his plate and wondered what on Earth he was supposed to do with so many utensils. The menu puzzled him even more: half of the dishes listed in there were written in Galbadian, and the rest were so extravagant he only had the faintest idea what they were about. A sense of dread filled him once more. Everyone believed he was a hot dog fanatic, but truth being told, Zell cared so much about hot dogs mostly because he was a picky eater and could not stand what passed as food at the BGU cafeteria. To him, this menu was ominous. Worse, the waiter was standing expectantly next to them, so he couldn’t possibly ask questions without looking like a complete moron and blowing up his cover. He could always order something randomly, but he had a feeling that not eating what was in your plate in this kind of restaurant was also a faux-pas. It was a lose-lose, either way.

He glanced at Seifer, who to his utter annoyance looked completely in his element. He closed his menu and handed it back to the waiter with detached casualness. “We’ll have the crampuzzina for starter, then the manzo carpaccio. For main course, I’ll have the crusted lamb and my companion, the faux-filet, rare of course.”

With an air of approval, the waiter noted their order and suggested wine to go with it. They debated quietly about it for some time and then the waiter took the menus and was off. Zell was caught between feeling relieved Seifer had ordered for him and concerned about what was going to end up in his plate. He hoped it would not be anything gross. He wasn’t sure he trusted Seifer not to be a dick and order something truly horrible just for the kicks of watching him squirm in front of his food. He was so busy thinking about it that he nearly jumped out when the waiter appeared out of nowhere and started pouring them wine.

“Relax, for Hyne’s sake,” Seifer told him once the man had disappeared. “You look like you expect a Behemot to crash into the room at any moment. We’re supposed to be having a romantic time together, remember?”

“I’d much rather fight a Behemot,” Zell found himself saying. “I’m not sure I’m okay with that level of fancy, to be honest.” Seifer snorted.

“No shit. Leonhart is either even stupider than I gave him credit for or he has one hell of a fucked-up sense of humor to have picked you for an undercover mission in the Estharian hosting business.”

Zell wanted to be angry at Seifer, but he could not manage it – not when he was thinking pretty much the same thing himself. “I didn’t exactly volunteer for any of this, so don’t rub it in.”

The martial artist was spared Seifer’s retort when the waiter showed up with their first course and for a while, they ate in awkward silence. As it turned out, the food was actually quite good. Seifer either had been lucky or considerate enough to order dishes that were both easy to eat and not too fancy. The crampuzzina turned out to be home-made crackers topped with sweet, chunky mango salsa and melted cheese. Mango had always been Zell’s favourite fruit – he wondered if Seifer remembered this from their childhood or if it was just a lucky guess. Either way, Zell’s picky taste buds did not object to it, neither it did for the carpaccio things – which was just thinly sliced rare steak, really. And then, he had more steak – juicy and thick, just how he liked it. Everything was good, even the wine, though Zell did not drink much. He still had several hours of watching middle-aged women mooning over Seifer ahead of him, alas.

Still, the food put him in a surprisingly good disposition – or perhaps it was just sleep deprivation making him light-headed. Anyhow, soon after they ordered dessert, he found himself smirking at Seifer. The other man raised an elegant eyebrow at him.

“What’s this about now?”

“Nothing. I was just thinking, man, you really have this gay host thing covered, haven't you?”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“You're all... sweet talking and nicey-nicey. Geez, you're even good at clothes-picking.”

“Clothes-picking?” Seifer’s face remained impassive, but something in his voice told Zell he was more amused than annoyed, so the blonde took a chance and went on.

“Yeah, apparently, being gay means you're a fashion maniac or something.”

“I heard the rumor. But then again, you're gay and you've got the fashion sense of a walking baboon, so I guess it doesn’t apply to everyone.”

“Shut up,” the martial artist snipped back. Eyes shining mischievously, Seifer bent forward over the table.

“Since we’re on the subject of clothes-shopping, I'm really curious. Did Leonhart really make you go shopping with some rich old hag in Deling?”

“Shut up.”

“Cause that'd be like asking a wendigo to learn circus tricks. Or an ochu to dance ballet. Except the ochu at least already has the pink tutu – that would be one on you, wouldn’t it?”

“Don’t make me punch you,” Zell growled. Seifer huffed.

“Don’t flatter yourself. The only way you’d manage to punch me is if I let you.”

“You better hope I don’t land a hit on you or you’re going to spend the rest of your sorry life looking like you got hit by a train. Would be an improvement, too.”

The blonde smirked at him, eyes full of dark mischief. “Well, fancy that – little Dincht grew up and learned to answer back. And I thought I’d seen it all.”

Zell did not get a chance to come up with a properly scathing reply as the waiter then appeared to take away their plates. He glared at the smug ex-knight over his wine glass for good measure as the meal went on.

Later on, as he replayed the events of the day in his head, Zell had to admit that the meal had been the nicest part of the day. As soon as it was over, things got plain weird.

It started off with Seifer dismissing the limousine, pretending they had some shopping to do first. As soon as the limo was out of sight, Seifer stopped a cab and shoved them both into it. He asked the driver to drop them off two blocks away from the Club, gave him a large tip and then led them with his polished shoes and Galbadian-style host suit through some of the seediest little alleys Zell had seen in Esthar. It almost looked like the kind of place those cyber-punk movies Squall was so fond of took place. The alleys brought them to a disused door that was most definitely not a VIP backdoor – or even a stage door. It actually opened on to a disaffected fire exit staircase. They climbed all the way to the sixth floor and into a dusty storeroom full of sequined costumes in all imaginable colors. Silently, Seifer made his way through the lurid dresses and into a series of small, filmsy-looking corridors, which eventually led into the part of the building Zell remembered breaking into the previous day. To his puzzlement, Seifer stealthily glanced down the corridor before he motioned Zell to follow him, hurrying quietly to his lodge. Without even turning on the lights, he locked the door behind him, leaving the both of them in total darkness if it wouldn’t have been for all the fancy glowing futuristic Estharian furniture that got so much on Zell’s nerves. By that time, Zell was feeling bad-tempered again, except that this time, he felt like every muscle of him ached with sleep-deprivation. He was not in a mood for games.

“Okay, what’s this about?” Zell snapped.

In the semi-darkness of the room, Seifer seemed nonplussed. “What’s what about?”

“I don’t know, the fact that we fuckin’ sneaked into your work place? Why are we hiding to start with?” He made a move to turn on the lights, but Seifer intercepted his hand.

“Are you nuts? If you turn on the lights, she’ll know for sure we’re here. And lower your voice, for Hyne’s sake. She could hear you.”

The blonde dropped his hand and flopped himself on a nearby couch, slouching.

“So all this is to hide from your boss?” Zell briefly contemplated what it must be like working for Cecily Hay on a daily basis. He could see Seifer’s point, but it seemed like going through a lot of trouble to avoid one of her speeches.

“You really in a hurry to see her again so soon?”

No, I guess not, Zell had to admit, but he didn’t say it out loud. Crossing his hands, he took grumpily place on the couch across of the ex-knight. He fidgeted uneasily.

“And then what? We wait? For, like, the three hours left before your shift starts?”

“That’s the idea.”

“Well, it’s a lousy idea.”

“If you’d rather face Cecily and the zillion rabid women she’s dying to introduce you to, go ahead. Be my guest,” Seifer said as he made himself comfortable on the couch. “In the meanwhile, I’ll stay here and take a nap, if you don’t mind.”

Zell stared incredulously at him. “Really? Like that, in front of me? That’s rude.”

“I’m not here to entertain you, Dincht. Get the fuck out or shut to fuck up and let me nap already.”

Huffing, Zell fell back into the plush loveseat and glared at his charge in the dimness of the room. With nothing to busy himself, he soon grew bored, and in is boredom, he realized the couch was actually quite comfortable. A lot more comfortable than the one he had slept on back at Seifer’s. And that the sight of the man’s large torso breathing evenly in the dark, quiet room was oddly relaxing. Comforting, even.

Zell had no idea of how much time he spent there watching Seifer doze, but eventually, his weariness caught up with him; his eyelids grew heavy and found himself drifting.

He realized he had fallen asleep when he woke up with a jolt. It seemed to him he had only closed his eyes for a moment, but he felt dizzy with drowsiness nevertheless. Rubbing his eyes, he looked up at the other couch and realized with a sense of dread it was empty.

That kicked him awake faster than a dip in a Trabian Lake in January. His senses on alert, Zell got up and searched the room, but of course Seifer was long gone. Cursing under his breath, he rushed to the door. To his horror, it was locked. He tried to kick it open, but the damned thing was unsuspectingly sturdy and wouldn’t budge, even with his functioned strength on. The stupid thing might as well have been a prison door.

Cursing Esthar and its omnipresent security paranoia, Zell banged on the door angrily. Of course, the bastard had this all planned! I bet he was counting on me to fall asleep the whole time so he could give me the slip! I can’t believe I fell for it!

Over the sound of his banging fists, Zell suddenly caught the sound of shoddy music playing not too far off.

So they’re already at the choreography part, the martial artist realised with dismay. He couldn’t have slept that long, could he? Seifer probably already had a four-hour head start on him. In a city like Esthar, it meant he could be anywhere. Hell, he may even have already left the city. Cecily had implied he had a car of his own, if he remembered correctly.

Squall was gonna murder him.

Taking a deep breath, Zell considered his options. The responsible thing to do would have been to call Squall or Quistis to report on the situation, but he had an inkling that conversation wouldn’t go well and would rather postpone it if he could. Banging on the door was pointless, as the karaoke music was blasting so loudly it probably covered any sound coming from backstage. And waiting until the choreography was over to call for help was juts lame.

The blonde turned on the lights and examined the door mechanism. He was good with machinery, but technology wasn’t exactly his cup of tea and this door lock looked very high-tech, even by Estharian standards. Plus he’d have to leave his emergency tool quit back at the hotel with the rest of his belongings; it was not the kind of thing you could hide easily on a close-fitting designer suit. He would have to make-do with what he could find. He went scavenging through Seifer’s lodge and managed to find a sturdy pen, a toothpick and a couple of pennies. Grimly, he set to the task.

He had the cover of the lock pulled off and was about to start fiddling with chips when the door slid open. Quickly, he pulled away only to find Seifer was griping his arm.

“Quick, let’s get outta here!” he hissed as he pulled with him Zell into the hallway. Zell found he was too dumbfounded to do much else than following the blonde as they raced back into the storeroom full of lurid clothes. As soon as the door of the storeroom was closed behind them, Zell grabbed Seifer and slammed him bodily into the wall, his fists balling up the man’s fancy clothes.

“What the hell?!” he growled, his face inches from Seifer’s. “What d’you think you’re playing at, asshole?”

Oddly still, Seifer was observing him with the queerest of expressions on his face. He was doing it again; looking at Zell blankly like he’d never seen him before. Somehow, this only infuriated the martial artist even more.

“I thought we had an understanding! You said you wouldn’t try to give me the slip and the first thing I know-”

At this, Seifer seemed to come back to himself. “I wasn’t giving you the slip. If I intended to give you the slip, I wouldn’t have come back, you stupid oaf!”

“You locked me in yout fuckin’ lodge!”

“Yea, so you wouldn’t come crashing the show and make a spectacle of yourself.”

“You let me fall asleep! You did that on purpose!”

“You looked half dead on your feet, I didn’t have the heart to wake you up.”

“Bullshit!” Zell snarled, “you-”

Oh shut up already,” Seifer snapped at him, baring his teeth. “So you missed the show, big deal. I kept my word, haven’t I? I could have gotten away and I’m still here, so if you plant to hit me, just do it already or back the fuck down.”

Reluctantly, Zell let him go and stepped away. He knew he was acting brashly, but anger and bitterness was still boiling in his veins and he couldn’t let go of it this easily.

“I don’t know what game you’re playing at,” he growled.

“Just come along already. If we hurry up, we should be able to leave before anyone’s noticed we’re missing. I promise that once we’re home, you’ll be able to do all the yelling and shoving at walls you want.”

Zell had an idea that the “anyone” Seifer was referring to was Cecily, but he wisely chose to leave the interrogation for later and let Seifer lead him out of the building once again. To his surprise, the blonde led him through another small service door that gave into several flights of concrete stairs. Down and down they went, until darted into what had the looks of an underground garage. Sneakily, they followed the walls until they reached the last row of futuristic cars, where Seifer’s was parked. Compared to the other cars parked right next to it, it looked huge and rather shabby – Zell figured it was what passed as an old truck among Estharians.

“You have so much explaining to do,” Zell muttered as Seifer hit the ignition.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he answered airily. Now that they were in the truck and about to leave the underground garage, he seemed much more relaxed and oddly pleased with himself. Smug, even.

“Sure. So you went through all that trouble to smuggle me in and out of the building to avoid having me talking to one small chatty woman.”

“How well you sum thing up.”

“I thought you didn’t know what I was talking about!”

“I don’t.”

Seifer-!”

“Look,” the gunblade user said, “I’d rather Cecily doesn’t get her claws on you if I can help it. I know what she’s like. Things are bad enough without her getting a new toy to play with, trust me.”

Zell considered the blonde with a frown. Sure, Cecily was rather on the annoying side, but she hardly seemed a threat.

“Sounds more like you don’t trust me not to blow my cover and ask questions about you.”

“That too.”

He’s just being infuriating on purpose! Zell thought. Realising he wouldn’t get a straight answer out of Seifer tonight, he decided to let the matter drop for the time being. Sulkily, he glared at the pastel-lighted streets passing by the truck windows.

As they drove through Esthar, the humming of the engine got Zell feeling drowsy again. He realised he was a lot more tired than he had first thought. He must have slept at least six hours in that lodge, yet he wasn’t feeling any fresher for it. Perhaps Seifer had done him a favour after all by leaving him to nap in the lodge. He couldn’t honestly say he was disappointed to have missed the Madarake’s annoying music and snob clientele anyhow.

Zell inwardly snarled at his own chain of thought. Like Seifer would have gone out of his way to be nice to him! That was just sleep-deprivation talking again.

Right then, the martial artist made up his mind. His pride could be damned, he wasn’t sleeping on that couch with the cat ever again. Seifer could gloat at him all he liked, he was going to take him on his offer and sleep on the bed. A good night’s sleep would definitely be worth a little bit of bruised pride. And if Seifer started to make a fuss or make fun of him, he would just tell me to shut it, or else. He wouldn’t take ‘no’ for an answer and wouldn’t put up with any more funny business tonight and that was it.

As it turned out, he needn’t have worried about neither. When he came out of the shower, Seifer didn’t remark upon Zell’s form laying defiantly at the far side of his bed. Without a word, he closed the door and slid under the covers with him. For a while, Zell stood awkwardly still, feeling awfully conscious of the heat the other man was radiating from the other side of the mattress and of the nice spruce scent of his shampoo. Eventually, he became too tired to care and simply drifted to sleep.