Disclaimer: All boys, girls, etc belong to Squaresoft... I'm just playing around.

This is disk 3, after Tending Wounds.

Calm Before the Storm

By BlackRose

"He's so *cute*!" Selphie insists again. She's lowered her voice this time.

I sigh, pushing my hat back. "Sephie... he's old enough to be your father."

"Oh, poooh." She's cute when she pouts. Hell, she's cute all the time, but when she's got her nose all wrinkled up like an angry kitten and looks at you with those big eyes it's like a drop kick back through time and we're both four again. I lost more desserts to her because of that look. "You're just jealous, Irvine. Sir Laguna is the best!"

God save me from schoolgirl hero-worship crushes. Maybe she's right, maybe I am jealous - she's gone on about him for the last hour, non-stop. Or maybe there's just so much I can hear about the guy before I start banging the back of my head into a wall. She knows his entire life history, I swear... every article for every magazine that he ever wrote, the movie he was in, everywhere he traveled, everything he did. Not to mention those little time loop episodes Ellone kept arranging. She's asked me six times if I think it'd be all right to get an autograph from him.

She's pouting now, nibbling on her lower lip. "Irvy... you really think I should just go ask him for an autograph? I mean, he's the president now and everything! I don't want him to think I'm silly."


"You'd be flattering him," I assure her for the upteenth time. She's turning pink across her nose and I know what the next question is - I've already heard it. Several times. "And no, it's not too forward. You want an autograph, not a date!"

"Well, yeah!" she exclaims, but the pink is creeping over her cheeks and her eyes are fixed on the pilot controls and not meeting mine. "It's just... he's so brave and smart and he's really good looking, you can't tell how old he is at all... he must have girls tell him that all the time. I don't want him to think I'm just the same as all the rest."

"Selphie," I'm trying to sound reasonable but it's starting to be a stretch, "you're a trained SeeD and you're about to go save his country. He's not going to think you're some groupie."

"Well good!" she snaps hotly. "Because I'm not! But he's really famous and I just want an autograph." She paused for just a moment, then continued in a rush. "And a picture. Maybe him and me together, wouldn't that be cool? Then everybody would know I really met him!"

I have got to get out of here. I have got to have a conversation with someone about something other than Selphie's crush before I go insane. A good man knows the benefit of a quick tactical retreat. It's just us in the control room; everyone else is making themselves scarce. Time I did likewise. "That'd be great, Sephie. I'm sure he'd go for it. Look, will you be okay up here by yourself for a bit? I want to go see Squall, find out what he's got planned."

The tip of Selphie's tongue makes a brief appearance. "Of course I will! *I'm* flying!"

"Better you then me," I tell her, ruffling her hair just a little. She slaps at me but I sidestep and head for the door.

There's blessed merciful silence on the other side of it and no one is mentioning Laguna Loire's name. I probably ought to warn the man not to get stuck in a room with Selphie. Or... maybe with the way his friend's say Laguna talks I should warn Selphie instead. Oh hell. Forget it. I love Selphie to death, I really do, but she can be incredibly intense sometimes.

It's quiet on the lower deck, though I can hear the echo of voices coming from the conference room. Despite what I told Selphie, I'm really not in the mood to go over this half-baked suicide plan again. Go in, get our asses kicked, and if we're really lucky we'll get out again. Good enough for me and I'll let Squall's head, however messed up it might be, worry about the rest of it.

The sound of voices gets suddenly louder as the door opens and I quickly turn and head in the opposite direction. The hanger bay down below should be nice and quiet and empty; a good spot for me, and an open place where I can disassemble the Exeter down to its nuts and bolts and clean out the insides of it. We've all got our little pre-battle rituals, I suppose - making sure that thing is cleaned, oiled and as jam-proof as human hands can make it is one of mine. A man shouldn't use a gun unless he knows how to take proper care of it.

I'm thinking about that and the fact that I'm running a bit low on explosive shells and fumbling around in my interior coat pockets for the scraps of rag and thin rods I need to clean the barrel out; maybe that's why, when I step off of the lift onto the hanger catwalk, it doesn't immediately register that I'm not actually alone.

And once it does, all thoughts of cleaning and shell counting run straight out of my head in favor of just leaning over the catwalk guard rail and *watching*.

He told me once he gets nervous before big operations. Wound up. I guess we all do, and the first thing our thoughts turn to is our weapons. We live or die by those things. To me, it means sitting down with rags and oil and making sure every bullet I load into the firing chamber can slide down that barrel without a hitch. But to him... you can't even call it dancing. It's not.

It's flying.

He never stops. There's never a point when he comes to rest for a moment, there's no beginning or end. It's all just one continuous flow of controlled motion; a blur of fists and feet and the arch of his back as he twists, the surge through his legs as he leaps. His jacket is off in a heap by the wall and the dim lights of the hangar give a pale almost ghostly glow to his bare arms and turns the leather of his gloves into something blood soaked and shining. There's no noise beyond the occasional rush of his breath and the sound of his feet hitting the floor.

Zell is so fucking beautiful when he's in motion.

I've seen him in battle lots of times, but it still never really fails to amaze me. And I've never seen him like this, shadowboxing with himself, doing the moves just for the sake of motion and the burn of energy through his muscles. There's nothing in the hanger but him and the dance of his own shadow on the walls but you can still see it, pantomimed in every attack - the kick lashing out at the peak of a leap, taking down a T-rex, and the punch and twist and duck as one enemy falls and another is evaded. It's like he's fighting all of the battles we've already won, and if I look close enough I can almost see what he's doing - how that punch might have been carried through just a bit better and how finally on the fourth try he finds it, the perfect motion where every move is utterly right, and then he does it three more times just to burn the pattern of it into his muscles and mind.

I'm holding my breath. It's almost seems like sacriledge to watch, like an intrusion on something fundamental and ultimately private, but I can't pull my eyes away. He's taken something raw and deadly and made art out of it, out of the slide of skin across muscle and the leap of lines in his throat as his head whips around, his body following in one long smooth curve. Watching him, I can feel the heavy tension that's been building in the pit of my stomach begin to relax. I can't help but think that maybe we will make it out alive - because he will. Because a weapon that finely honed, that beautiful, doesn't fail.

A handful of minutes or more, just leaning on the rail and watching as he moves. When he stops its a surprise; a leap, a twist and then a kick, pivoting into the follow through and then the motion comes to a smooth halt. Zell leans over, hands braced on his knees, for one moment just perfectly still.

Two breaths and he's back in motion, but it's not the same. The moves are sharper, faster, snapped out and pulled back with a savage sort of intensity. It's like watching Squall, when his gunblade is already sharp enough to split hairs and polished to a shine, spending hours with a whetstone grinding out non-existant imperfections along the blade edge. Or me, when the gunbarrel is cleaned and oiled, and I still spend every last minute chasing down the one spot that I *know* I missed... even though I didn't.

Nervous energy. When the storm breaks, we pull it together and we're fine. It's the breaks inbetween that are killing us.

I lean the Exeter against the rail and as an afterthought shrug out of my coat, slinging it across the edge. Hat and boots follow and it's on bare feet that I pad down the steps to the hangar floor.

Zell catches sight of me coming and breaks off, meeting me at the base of the stairs. He's only slightly out of breath with a faint sheen of perspiration across his forehead, and I have a moment to consider the insanity of what I'm about to do.

"We there?" He says it all at once, in a rush, with the ends of the words bitten off. He's coiled tighter than a spring about to snap.

"No. Circling while they," I jerk my head in the direction of upstairs, "figure out the details." Reaching out, I hook two fingers in the shoulder of his black tank top and keep right on walking towards the open floor of the hangar, tugging at him to follow. "Come on."

"Wha...?" He could give Selphie a run for the most adorable expression when he's confused. I pull him to the center of the floor and give him a little shove, getting him to stand where I want him to. Stepping back, I stretch, feeling the warm tingle down my arms and up my neck.

"Irvine?" He's still looking puzzled, but there's a frown shadowing his brow and his eyes are starting to narrow. "What do you think you're doing?"

One more chance to back out. I know I'm going to regret this, there's no doubt in my mind about it. Pulling the tie from my hair, I rake the mass of it back and secure it tighter. "Giving you something to punch at beside air."

He does me the courtesy of not laughing outright, but his tone says it all. "You have got to be kidding me."

"Nope." Bend at the waist, put my palms on the floor - it's not quite as easy as I thought it would be and there's a tight burn up the back of my calves. I hold it for a count of five before pushing back upright. I keep my tone nonchalant as I work first one shoulder, then the other. "I'll be the first to admit I'm not much, but I took basic unarmed combat, same as everyone else."

Zell's face is an open book of his feelings, and the look on it now tells me just what a fool I'm being. "Come on," I wheedle quietly. "Just some basics, nothing fancy." I shrug just a little. "I'm all wound up in knots. Can't sit still."

That same expression tells me I've hit the target. I haven't mentioned it to them - the subject hasn't come up - but I'm a damn good gambler. All part of the image. The secret is all in making the bluff sound sincere.

He's still hesitating but after another moment he unbuckles his gloves and strips them off, tossing them towards his jacket. He kicks his shoes after them, leaving us both barefoot on the cold deckplates. It's a nice gesture on his part and it gives me the illusion of us being equal, even if we both know he'd be more dangerous stripped naked then I could ever hope to be.

"Just basic stuff," he confirms. No problem.

Under that punk exterior he adopts, he's a real gentleman. He lets me get in one good punch to salve my ego before he goes into motion, and then the entire world upends itself in a blur and the next thing I know I'm flat on my back on the floor with the wind knocked out of me and he's standing over me looking concerned. "You all right?"

"Yeah," I wheeze. I push myself up and struggle to my feet, waving away the helping hand he offers. "Sorry. I'm a little rusty. Try that one again?"

"You're insane," he tells me bluntly, but I'm game so he is too. And the world turns upside down again and the damned floor isn't getting any softer. My shoulders are going to bruise.

"Fuck," I manage to gasp after the fourth repeat of this little manuever. This is where my bluff gets called. Sure, I took unarmed combat, just like everyone else - when I was fucking fourteen years old. 'A little rusty' might be an understatement.

"Call it quits?" he offers, extending a hand down to pull me up.

It's a dirty move and sheer inspiration on my part. I reach up, grab his hand, and pull, hooking my knee around his ankles to drag him down. Zell yells, startled; there's no finesse to it and we end up in a jumbled pile with his weight mostly on me.

"*Now* we call it quits," I tell him, grinning just a bit. Levering a knee into his back I shove, pushing myself out from under him.

"Cheat," Zell accuses, but there's no sting to it.

"A man's gotta use what he can," I reply. The tie in my hair is digging into the back of my neck; I twist my head enough to pull it out and toss it aside.

Zell waves a hand slightly, dismissing my momentary victory. "As long as you don't start name calling, I can deal."

He's joking but I can remember when that used to be the bane of his life. Seifer always had some name for him, starting with 'crybaby' and getting more creative from there. There's lots of memories there, usually of Zell, round face screwed up as he tried not to cry, wide blue eyes red rimmed and watery.

And then another memory intrudes and the only possible reason I can give for what I do next is momentary insanity. Either that, or somewhere I'm a closet masochist.

I've seen him move, and I still never imagined Zell could jump as fast as he does when my fingertips find his ribs. Seems there's some things we never grow out of.

I've got the upper hand for maybe thirty seconds with the benefit of surprise. I grab a fistful of his shirt and get my hand up under it before he can bring his elbows down to protect his ribs. Zell's swearing inbetween gasped yells, wriggling like a mad thing fit to turn himself inside out.

But we're not kids any more and I can't just pin him down with greater body mass and tickle him until he's red in the face and screaming. Which is why, less then a minute later, one fist catches me beneath the chin and snaps my head back with a crack I can feel halfway down my spine. Something else slams into my chest and my breath is gone again, the deck plates scraping elbow and shoulder as I slide across them before collapsing, the ceiling spinning above me.

"Fuck! Irvine!" Zell scrambles to my side. He really does sound concerned. Like I said, he's a gentleman; I know damn well he pulled those punches. If he hadn't, I'd be nothing but a wet red smear on the floor.

No tricks this time. He helps me sit up, his fingers probing along the ache I can feel spreading over my jaw. "'S okay," I tell him. "My own fault."

"Hell yeah, it is." Once he's sure I'm not broken anywhere he sits back, hands dangling down between his propped up knees. "Stupid bastard."

I grin a little crookedly, my hair straggling all in my face. "Yeah. But you're not sparking any more."

That catches him off guard. "Huh?"

"Too tense," I clarify, having to shape the words a little carefully around the bruise I can feel forming on my chin. "Looked like you were gonna try to punch a hole through the wall."

He just stares at me for a minute, then shakes his head. "You... fuck. You're just insane."

"Yeah, I know." I reach out and tap a knuckle against the bare skin of his ankle. There's a paler stripe across the arch of his foot, the leftover remnant of some half faded sandle strap tan line; I resist the urge to run my fingertips across it. "Worked, didn't it?"

He considers, head tilted a little to the side. He doesn't need to answer, I can see it for myself. The fire's still there, in his eyes and beneath his skin like it always is, but it's not consuming him.

"You're still nuts," he tells me, grinning ruefully. He pushes himself up and offers me a hand with a slightly wary look. "Thanks."

"Welcome." I take his hand and let him haul me to my feet; he does it effortlessly, all arm muscle, like I don't weight a thing. He's got square hands, strong, clasped around my own in a warm grasp and I'm reluctant to let it go. He hesitates for a moment, not quite meeting my eyes, and I wonder if he feels it too.

There's good times to bring things up, and bad times. And then there's just no time, which is mostly what we've had. Neither one of us has said a word about it, and right now, when we're facing down a monumental battle, isn't a good time to bring it up. It's a fucking bad time, really. But I'm not always as suave as the image makes me out to be, and sometimes you just have to do what feels right in your gut.

His free hand catches my shoulder before I can complete the gesture I start. He doesn't push me away, just holds me there - that far, no further, our faces a hand's breadth apart and his blue eyes looking up into mine. "Irvine," he starts, his tone warning, and I shush him hastily. I don't want to hear whatever he's going to say. I don't want to hear the words that it's not right, or it's none of my business, or any of the other denials I can see in his eyes.

So instead I smile a little, wistfully. "Just one kiss?" I make my tone light, the offer just that - a harmless offer of some small token. "For luck?"

He doesn't refuse immediately, which gives me hope. When his fingers tighten briefly against mine I know I've won this hand. "For luck," he agrees, and then he leans up to close the distance and instead of being a restraining force on my shoulder his hand slides up to tangle in my hair as his lips close over mine.

Zell's not one for doing things by halves. He doesn't make any pretense at keeping it quick or light or 'just between friends'. It's open mouthed and warm and wet, a real kiss, while he's leaning into me and his grip on my hand is hard enough to hurt. There's nothing I want so much as to just wrap an arm around his waist and pull him close but I don't; I won't abuse what he's giving me like that.

He's a damn good kisser and sweet to the taste. And somewhere, on another level, there's the crackle of lightning on his lips and the dark, cool taste of earth and some feral flare of pure primal energy. I have to wonder if I taste of floodwaters and the green tang of desert cactus. He gives when he kisses, the play of tongue and lip has his full attention; it's hotter then hell and there's tingles going down my spine.

And fuck all if he doesn't purr. There's a low moan rumbling somewhere deep in his throat, all hunger and greed as he nips at my lower lip. If Zell's not one hell of a screamer I'll eat my fucking hat.

It takes us several long, slow minutes to break it off and I savor every single one of them. It really is for luck. For luck and hope, and fuck, if I have to go down then I want this memory to take with me. I want the image of him, eyes closed, lips flushed and wet and open, to be the last thing I see in my mind's eye before some bitch sorceress knocks me into the afterlife.

I press a soft kiss to his forehead, right where the curve of his tattoo arches over his brow. "For luck," I tell him.

"Luck," he whispers back, his hand tightening on mine and his voice has a huskiness to it that makes me shiver. He steps back, looking up to meet my eyes, but for once I can't read what's there. He presses my hand once more and then lets go, twisting his wrist away, and I let him.

For a moment something like his usual devil may care smile flashes, bright and dazzling, and the intensity of the moment is broken. "Come on. We'd better get back. Who's watching Selphie to be sure she doesn't fly this thing into a mountain?"

I manage a grin and head for the stairs to go find my own shoes while he gets his. It's a good memory, one I want to hold on to. It's enough for now.

And there will be a later. There will be. Because kisses for luck - those kind of kisses - don't fail.


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