Disclaimer: Squaresoft and a whole bunch of other people own these lovely boys. I'm just a harmless hentai. ^_^

The Art of War

By BlackRose

In victory, he almost glows.

I shouldn't be looking, but I can't help myself. He didn't fare any better than the rest of us; he's sweaty and bruised and singed, there's blood - not his - splashed across his gloves and arms and more blood - which is his - trickling down his cheek from a cut across his forehead. He's wiped his hands across the sides of his jeans, leaving dark stains, and his hair is wilder than ever and crackling with leftover discharges of static. But it doesn't matter - on him, none of it matters. Because he glows. Wild and untamed, it shines in his eyes and lights up his face with the almost primal joy of life and victory. To him, this is the ultimate high.

He turns and I guiltily look away. Beside me, for one moment, Squall catches my eye. There's nothing there - like polar opposites, light and dark, he is everything Zell is not. Cool and calm, he wipes down the edge of his gunblade, frowning slightly as he runs a light thumb across it before sheathing the weapon. His dark eyes, on mine, are the eyes of the perfect soldier - there is no elation there, no vibrant emotion, only the quiet satisfaction of a duty done. He regards me silently, only unbending enough to nod slightly. His tone isn't meant as encouragement, just a matter of fact statement. "You'll do better next time."

I can feel the blood rush to my cheeks. Angrily, I turn away from them both. The spent shells of the Valiant clatter against the rocky ground as I shake them out, my hands automatically slipping fresh ones into the chambers. Even that feels different, though, as if I hadn't done it a thousand times before, and my hands are shaking, my fingers clumsy. It takes me two tries to get the last one seated right and I'm sure I must be furiously red by the time I slam the stock back into place.

I botched this one. Badly. And there's just no excuse for it.

The blood souls had caught us by surprise. Ugly things - twice as tough as they look, and nothing but pure appetite with the teeth to match. I hate them, and the area around the Garden is infested with them. Can't get from there to the train station without running into at least one of them. I'll go through rounds of ammo on the fucking things - riddle them with holes and it still takes them forever to die.

But Squall was in a hurry, and when the direct route started taking too long he opted for another. He's the leader - we do what he says, no questions asked. I had been reloading when I saw him drop back and gesture for Zell and I to do likewise. I had thought, for a moment, he meant to try to run - I could have told him it was pointless, the smell of blood on us would have brought others out from under every rock for miles around.

But that wasn't at all what he had in mind. Zell had known it; they fought like one, cued with hand signal or the jerk of a head, no words needed. I was the third wheel, unfamiliar and unused to all of it. But especially to this.

It had been one solid, fluid motion, done in the blink of an eye. Zell had drawn back, pausing, and in that moment I had seen the glow begin, the light coming into his eyes. Between one breath and the next he had moved again, surging forward like a shot out of a gun, and I had fumbled the cartridge I was loading like some first year weapons student while I stood there with my mouth hanging open and my eyes ready to fall out. But I think, maybe, I could be excused just that once - I'd never seen a Guardian Force in the flesh, so to speak, and the last thing I had been expecting was for Zell to disappear right in front of me.

Galbadia doesn't use GFs. They're deemed too unpredictable and too dangerous - we learned about them in class, saw a few videos, so I at least knew the theory behind it all. But who wants to rely on something in battle that has a mind of its own and fucks more with your mind then most drugs do? But Balamb Garden uses them, and I'd started wondering how much of those rumored side effects were true the moment the Headmaster had told me my new mission.

I'd found out, alright. The moment I walked into the midst of a group of achingly familiar faces who looked at me blankly with the eyes of complete strangers. They didn't know me. Not even a glimmer of recognition at my name. I was nothing and no one to them because they didn't remember.

Which might have gone far to explain my reluctance when Squall insisted I take one of the beasts. I had a gun, I was a sharpshooter, this was an assasination mission for crissake - what did I need one of those fucking things crawling around in the back of my head for? But his decision was final, and I had tried not to flinch too hard as Selphie had cupped her hands around my temples and, with a comically serious expression on her face, transfered one of her junctions to me. In the end it'd taken all my courage not to pull away as her hands had flashed hot, almost burning, and a dull roaring rushed through my head.

A moment of dizziness, and then it had been over. I was still there, and still me... memories intact, and not even a headache to show for it. I had thought maybe the junction had failed but Selphie had flashed a bright kittenish grin and patted my shoulder. "Take good care of him!" she'd warned, joking.

It hadn't made me feel any better, but with no real symptoms of anything wrong I'd been able to put it out of my mind. Until those damn blood souls. Until Zell proved, in graphic detail, just what it was we were so negligently carrying around in our heads.

It was, beyond a doubt, the most astounding thing I had ever seen. Beautiful and terrifying, all at once. Zell had faded before my eyes, like a breath of smoke dispersed into the wind, and in his place rose the flames of the phoenix. I didn't have a name for it or anything to compare it to - too bright for the eye to look at, huge and towering, a bird of pure light and crackling electricity. The hair at my nape and across my arms had been on end, static flashing in air that smelled of burnt ozone as the creature reared up, pinions flared. It had struck with the deafening crack of thunder, a flare that had burned black across my eyes and an explosion that had knocked me down on my ass, deaf and blind with my ears ringing.

The Garden's right. And "too dangerous" doesn't even begin to sum those creatures up.

By the time I had recovered one of the blood souls was down, a little charred lump of flesh and teeth and good riddance. But the remaining two had still circling and Squall had been down on one knee, winded and dead pale against the white ruff of his jacket. Zell had been back and beside him and I had seen his lips moving. Cure spell, but in the meanwhile the blood souls were worked into a frenzy by the smell of blood and nearby death. There hadn't been time for thinking, or anything else. I had emptied my shotgun into one that was making a bee-line for Zell, knocking it back even if it didn't take it out. And then, while I had automatically reloaded, I started scrambling through my own head for the thing that would hopefully kill both of the remaining beasts before any more showed up to join the party.

They made it look so fucking easy. In the videos, in the lectures... and Zell. Dear god. So bloody fucking easy. Junctioned in, plugged right into the mind, ready and waiting - bullshit! I found it easy enough; the mantras for accessing a junctioned magic worked just as well for a GF. But instead of some passive energy just waiting to be directed I laid mental hands on a living thing - a thing with a will and direction of its own and the moment I had touched it I was damn sure of one fact: it didn't like me.

The blood souls and the others had all faded out a bit before my eyes. I had seen the thing Selphie had bequeathed me from the edges of my vision, all flames and fire and burning hell - shit, that girl always did have a warped sense of humor. Damn near burned my ass with a firecracker once and laughed about it. She probably thought that thing was cute.

It had a name - Ifrit. And it let me know with no uncertainty that I was fuck all nothing to it, a bug, and it didn't give a shit what I wanted. Sephie probably had it eating out of her hand, damn it, but I was a greenhorn and nobody had asked it if it wanted to be shoved in my head and it wasn't happy about it. Well, what the fuck made it think I was any happier about it?! It's in there making a nest for itself in the middle of my memories, shoving stuff out of the way to make room for itself... I had been swearing, the sweat pouring down my neck and back like I'd just run a marathon, and that stubborn bitch of a beast hadn't been going to budge a finger to help us out unless I shoved and pushed it all the way.

And I was fucking well going to show it who was boss. Irvine Kinneas is not whipped by his own weapons and that's what that thing was - a weapon, a really big fucking ugly fire bomb. It could damn well get over itself and act like it.

Dimly, I had seen what happened then past the veil of flame that thing was throwing at me while I wrestled with it. Zell's spell had gotten Squall up but he still looked more green than anything else, like his gunblade was probably heavier then anything he should have been trying to lift. Zell, bless him, never seemed to even slow down - he had been there, in front of Squall, when one of the blood souls charged them. He had whirled and met the thing in mid-leap, his heel smashing down on the ugly thing. I had seen it's blood splash across the muscles of his calf. He had followed the motion through in one easy twist, fist and then elbow and blood splattered everywhere, all before his feet hit the ground again and the blood soul collapsed on the dirt beside him.

The last beast had been insane with the smell of blood. It had swarmed at Zell, all teeth and gaping maw. I'd seen him twist towards it and had a half second of trying to untangle my mind from that damn GF so I could act - and found that was fucking harder then they'd ever old us too. By then, it had already been too late; Zell had flung up his hands to catch the blood soul, keeping its teeth from him, and in the next moment the lightning had flashed and crackled in flares around his fingers. It had knocked the blood soul back in a blast of ozone, leaving its body smoking on the ground next to the rest of its pack.

And fuck if Zell hadn't done all of it.

With the relative quiet in the minute after that I'd been able to shove the GF back into the corner of my head, throw closed the door and lock it shut and get back to being me. I felt wrung out, tired and filthy. Squall had sank down to the ground and I'd felt the dim rush as he cast another cure spell and the color started to come back to his face. And Zell... Zell hadn't been able to sit still. Bouncing on his heels, rocking back and forth, his hands wiping across his jeans and over his hair and anything just as long as he was moving somehow, the electricity still sluicing off of him in sparks and crackles.

And then Squall had to make that crack about doing better next time and my mood turned straight into sour. I'd fucked up - he didn't need to rub it in. I shut up, shove the Valiant into its holster, and start walking. There's still a way to the train station and unless we want a repeat performance we'd better move fast. Squall lets me take the lead.

It's a fucking quiet and filthy trio who get to the station to meet up with the ladies.

The hotel in Galbadia is nice. Squall and the others head straight or our rooms - I'm wondering if those rings under his eyes are always there, or if he's feeling the strain more then normal. He needs rest, in any case.

Me? Resting is the last thing I feel like doing. Every minute is bringing this mission closer, and I don't want to think about it. Or about that afternoon, or any of it. Which is why midnight finds me in the mostly empty hotel lounge, with a shotglass beside my hands that the bartender is nice enough to keep filling occasionally and I've lost track of how many times.

Comfort in the bottom of a bottle. Might as well keep the image intact, eh?

It's not helping much. I'm too wired, too hiped up on adrenaline to let the alcohol do its trick. I'm a little foggy, but that's all. I'm still more then aware enough to know when Zell walks in.

He doesn't see me at first. He'll looking at the lounge stage with its piano and an odd expression on his face. I don't want to talk to him, but he's between me and the door. No getting around it. I knock back another shot and set the glass down, motioning for another. Maybe he'll be smart enough to take the hint and not intrude on a man and his drinking.

No such luck. Bullheaded little bastard. He walks up to the bar and takes the stool next to me, resting his elbows on the counter. I feel his eyes on me as he watches the bartender fill the shotglass again and for one moment the drink catches up to me - I stifle a laugh, because suddenly the only thing I can remember is his voice when we were all children together and the oft repeated phrase of "I'm going to tell Matron!" God, he had been such a whiney kid. Desperate for approval, and willing to welch on all the rest of us to get it. The boyscout rule keeper, never a toe out of line.

But now... no Matron to go to now, and I'm not even going to start thinking about that. I toss back the shotglass again, letting the whiskey burn down my throat to chase the thought away. Zell's gaze is still on me and the slightly drunk part of my brain wonders if now he runs off to take accusations like that to Squall instead.

But he doesn't say anything, just signals the bartender for a glass of his own. The man's becoming a favorite of mine - big and silent, he just plunks a glass down for Zell without any question and fills it from the same bottle I've been working my way through. And damn if Zell doesn't just pick it up and toss it back with a flick of his wrist, though he comes up coughing after it goes down.

Sucking in a sharp breath, he pushes the glass out for a refill. "Shit, that's strong."

"Straight up whiskey," I tell him. It's the devil that puts the next words in my mouth, I think - I can't help digging just a little, to see if any of that wide eyed boy is still there somewhere inside. Have we all really changed that much? "Leonhart will skin us if we're hung over tomorrow."

Zell grins sharply. Picking up his glass, he clinks the edge lightly against mine. "So don't get hungover." He takes the second shot better, though he's still a bit breathless afterwards.

I realize my mouth is open and shut it with a snap. Shit, maybe we really have changed. Grown up, become other people. Sephie hasn't changed, I don't think she's realized she's grown up at all, but the rest of us... Quisty's become serious, all somber and by the book. Squall's grown into a real shut mouthed bastard. I know I'm not the boy I was. And Zell...

He still glows. Hours afterwards, cleaned up, showered, fed... he still glows with the rush of it. It's like a low hum around him that keeps him moving, keeps him always in action. He's tapping his feet against the rungs of the stool, the empty shotglass sliding back and forth on the counter between his hands. It's like Selphie's energy, but not as innocent. Hers is sheer childlike enthusiasm. His... it's more like the wound coil of a spring, a high from victory that just never quite wears off.

There's nothing left of the boy who was always afraid to do anything without permission. He's found his own feet, and I'm realizing I don't know this man at all.

"You nervous?" he asks suddenly. His eyes are on his glass, not on me, and his voice is lower then I've come to expect from his outbursts. "About the mission?"

I don't know what to tell him, so the truth slips out instead. "Hell yes."

Zell just nods, shrugging a little. "I get wired. Couldn't sleep at all before the SeeD test. Spent half the night doing laps around Garden."

It's the most civil exchange we've had. Amazing what late night hours and a bit of apprehension will wring out of a man. He'd been pissed at me on the train, after I'd exploded and pulled my little prima donna act. I'd been so damned rattled I'd let it get out of hand, poured it on thick, anything if they'd all just stop staring at me without any recognition in their eyes. Zell had been glaring at me when we got off at the Galbadia station, and we'd ignored each other the rest of the evening. It had almost been funny, how Squall spent half the time putting himself between us, as though afraid he'd have to break up a fight.

Zell seemed mellower now. And that little admission of his own nervousness could almost be taken as a peace offering. I just wish I knew what the hell to do with it.

In the end, it's more then half the drink talking. I've been turning that damn battle with the blood souls over and over in my mind all evening, trying to learn from it. Trying to figure what I did wrong, so I don't fuck it up again next time. And with him sitting there my mind just won't let go of the image - that one instant as he'd lunged forward and faded out and the brilliant electric flare of the Guardian Force he'd so effortlessly called up.

"How do you do it?" I demand abruptly, half turning towards him. At his blank look I spread my arms, mimicing the wingspan of the thing he was junctioned to. "The bird, this afternoon. How the hell do you do that?"

"Oh! You mean Quez?" It's my turn to look blank and he chuckles. "The Guardian Forces. Look, don't worry about it. Squall's right - it gets easier. You've just got to get to know 'em, get 'em to trust you."

"Get it to trust me?" I am not believing this line he's feeding me, and my voice is rising - I'm probably drunker then I thought. "I don't trust it!"

He grins, but it's not anything malicious. "Look, you're thinking about it all wrong. They're not 'its'. They're creatures. You work with them - it's not like just pulling out that gun you carry around. They're their own people, you know? You can bring 'em around by force - lots do - but if they trust you and like you they'll take good care of you."

My mouth is hanging open again but I can't help it. It's just so... so not what I'd expect Zell to say, and the realization that I don't know him gets pounded home again. "Like your bird?" I challenge.

"Quezacotl," he corrects. It's the strangest word I've ever heard but it rolls off his lips easily and in some strange way it sound like the thing, like there's a leftover taste of lightning on the syllables. "We've been together awhile. She used to be Squall's, but he gave her to me. She's saved my ass lots of times."

Fuck, he makes it sound like Balamb students trade those things around the way the rest of us trade cards. Hell, maybe they do. I scrub a hand over my face, hard, and push my glass away. It's probably time to quit. I look at Zell and tap a finger against my forehead. "This thing," I tell him, emphasizing the word, "doesn't like me. And I sure as hell don't like it. Give me a gun any day. They don't talk back."

He's laughing now and I'm about to get angry. But he waves me back, shaking his head. "No, sit down, Kinneas. I'm not laughing at you. Selphie gave you Ifrit, didn't she?" I don't say anything but the look on my face must have been enough. Zell laughs again, quietly. "Shit... should've warned you. He's a real bastard. Gave Seifer a run for his money too."

Saying that name seems to sober him down a bit and when he looks at me again he's serious, the grin wiped off his face. "Look, Irvine... if you're going to be with us, we need you able to fight. What if you miss your shot, eh? What if we do go head to head with the Sorceress? You need more then just a gun. Use whatever it takes - that's what being a SeeD is all about, right?" Shrugging, he leans back on the counter, one ankle hooked across his other thigh. "All I can do is tell you how I do it. The way I look at it, it's like getting and keeping any other friendship. There's an art to it. You can't expect them to just leap in and take the hits for you if you're a stranger."

Like he'd leapt in and taken the hits that afternoon, I found myself thinking. Whatever it takes... "Love and war," I mutter. Scooping my hat up from the counter, I slip it back on. "I'll work on it," I tell him firmly.

"That's all any of us do," he tosses back. Fuck, who knew late nights and a few drinks would turn Zell into a philosopher.

I slide off the stool and hesitate. "Zell." It's the first time I've actually said his name and he turns towards me, surprised.

I shrug a little. "Thanks," I tell him awkwardly. "I'll keep it in mind."

He smiles then and it brings all of the light back into his face. Squall's a classic beauty - I'll bet he breaks hearts right and left without ever realizing it. But Zell's something else entirely. He's not pretty. Cute, maybe, in a puppy-ish sort of way. But with that light in him, the glow in his gaze and electrifying every move he makes... it's like he wears the fringe of his GF around him, a little piece of Quezacotl that shines lightning through his eyes. And when he's not putting on the surfer boy act he's pure grace in motion, all condensed strength and sliding silk, like a big untamed cat.

I'm stopped in my tracks, looking down into his face, and I catch myself wondering if he purrs like a cat too. Fuck, I bet he looks good in SeeD uniform. I am so much drunker then I thought I was.

Zell gives my shoulder a light shove. "Go get some sleep, Kinneas. You've got the big part tomorrow." He mimes putting a gun to his shoulder and I try not to shiver and force a fake smile.

"Yeah." My voice sounds thin, even to me. "Drinks are on me. I'll pick up the tab in the morning."

He brightens. "Hey, thanks!"

"No problem. Just don't get hungover drunk. I'm not gonna save your ass from Leonhart if he wants a piece of it over a stunt like that." It's a weak comeback at best. To my amazement, a faint flush spreads over his cheeks. He doesn't look away, though - there's a fiercely proud spark in his eyes and he jerks his chin up, daring me to say anything about it.

Well, who the hell knew. Trust me to put my foot in it. Looks like Squall might be squad leader, but somebody else is holding the leash. Good for Zell.

I mumble a hasty goodnight and leave him there. I can't help but pause at the stairs to the lobby and look back, though - he's talking animatedly to the bartender now, and I hadn't been able to get the guy to say a word all evening. Fucking incredible. He's like an electric whirlwind that just washes over you. Squall must not have stood a chance.

I just hope he knows how damn lucky he is. Zell has grown into one singular work of art. I'm not going to worry too much about whether that fire breathing bastard shacked up in my head likes me or not... but Zell's right, there's some relationships you've just got to work at.

And if Squall drops the ball on that one, I don't think I'd mind being there to pick up the pieces.

I am far more drunk then I thought I was. Whistling softly to myself, I start up the stairs and back to our rooms.

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