Disclaimer: Squaresoft and a whole bunch of other people I can't remember own the boys, while I'm just a harmless hentai ~_^

Battle Grounds: Looking For A Cure

By BlackRose

The sunset was starting to fade, the lingering rays of dusk turning the waves to liquid white capped gold. Squall breathed out slowly, tilting his face up to the spatter of cool spray that arced across the bow of the ship as it cut over a swell. The smell of wet brine was heavy on the breeze, erasing the lingering scents of gunpowder and blood and rancid fear.

If he closed his eyes, it all started to seem a bit unreal.

And then an automatic shift of his weight as the deck rolled beneath him would bring back the sharp stab in his ribs and set his head to aching, like a sullen reminder that no, it was all only too real. Somehow, he had always imagined he'd be elated; his first real battle, the final test. One step away from the goal of graduation, wound up and waiting to find out if the past years had been in vain or if he had what it took to make SeeD rank in one fell blow.

But there hadn't been anything to be elated over. Only adrenaline, so strong he thought his heart might burst, and the bitter taste of fear in his mouth. He'd stopped thinking before they'd set foot on the Dollet beach, stopped doing anything but reacting long before they'd reached the city square. Automatic, like a machine, every move against every foe one he'd learned by rote in training and could have done in his sleep. But it hadn't been training, and he'd found that the feel of his gunblade cutting short a man's scream was something entirely different from battling off a hungry beast.

It wasn't horror, Squall decided. It wasn't even fear, not afterwards, though there had been more than enough during the mission and more than he'd ever anticipated in the frantic flight back to the beach with an all too real death nipping at his heels. It was... numbness. He'd expected to feel something as the SeeD ships streaked back towards Balamb, bringing the final judging closer with each second. Something strong, something to reflect how much he'd looked forward to this. But he didn't. He just felt numb and tired and sore, and the comforting oblivion of his own bed seemed to beckon far more temptingly then finding out what his final score in the field test had been.

The sound of footsteps behind him made him tense, the intrusion unwelcome. A glance back, darted beneath one elbow, showed standard boots and uniform trousers and he winced, gritting his teeth.

Zell dropped down to squat beside Squall, elbows resting easily on his knees. The blonde's hair was more disarrayed than usual, damp and half slicked back, as though he'd run wet hands through it. His trademark devil-may-care grin was in place, but it was, Squall thought, a bit paler than it had been earlier in the afternoon and it didn't seem to brighten the other man's blue eyes any. His cheeks had a pink tinge to them and he smelled of soap, but there was a thin trail of sand encrusted blood along the edge of his jaw that had escaped scrubbing.

"Thought I'd find you here," he remarked glibbly, but in a quieter tone than the one of over-exuberance which had been one of the many things which had driven Squall from the ship's interior to seek solitude on the deck. "You alright?"

There was no use ignoring him. Zell was nothing if not persistent. "Fine," Squall said shortly, turning to look back out over the water again. A sudden suspicion made him glance back. "Quistis sent you looking for me?"

"No." Zell grinned, the expression almost feral. "She's back down below, ripping Seifer for abandoning the squad."

Something like a small spasm shifted through Squall and the ache in his head redoubled its efforts, focused squarely between his eyes. "And you're not watching?" he asked, almost surprised to hear his own voice steady, even if it was flat.

The blonde made a face. "They're loud. Thought I'd come up here and see how you were doing."

"I'm fine," Squall repeated firmly, hoping the other man would take the hint and go. Instead, Zell just rocked slightly on the balls of his feet, swaying with the dip of the deck.

Uncomfortable, Squall stole another side long glance at him. The blonde was looking out across the waves, his seemingly habitual grin faded and a small, thin line drawn between his pale brows. Seen in profile, the cheek that faced Squall devoid of the distinctive tribal tatoo that graced its counterpart, Zell looked younger than his years. The breeze tugged at the spiked fringe of his bangs, sending them whipping across his forehead.

"Think we did alright?" Zell asked, but it didn't really sound as if he cared. For a moment, in the other man's voice, Squall heard the echo of his own numbness.

"We did what we were supposed to," he answered, the words tasteless in his mouth.

There was silence for a moment and then Zell gave himself a little shake, shrugging slightly. "Yeah. Guess so." He straightened, rolling his head back across his shoulders to the accompaniment of a series of crackling pops. Pushing himself to his feet, he held out a hand. "Come on. You can't sit up here forever. Come on back downstairs, get cleaned up. You look a mess."

Squall shook his head. "No. Later."

Zell groaned. "You are so stubborn! Come on!" Reaching down, he grabbed Squall's elbow, urging the other man up.

The sudden twist as he instinctively jerked away sent a stab of bright pain through Squall's ribs, turning his breath into a choked off gasp as he clutched at them. Zell let him go at once, dropping back down to crouch beside him as he reached out to steady Squall.

"I thought you said you were fine," he snapped. "Close mouthed idiot... no, sit still, let me see!"

Another stab of pain robbed Squall of breath and he subsided, gritting his teeth as Zell flipped back the edge of his uniform jacket to run light hands across his ribs. The other man had a surprisingly competent touch, blunt fingertips probing lightly. The small frown was back, Zell's eyes half closed as he gently probed the tender spots that drew gasped curses from Squall. "Busted up your ribs, didn't you?"

Squall swallowed a curse as Zell's hands found a particularly sore area. "On the beach," he said shortly. "They're just bruised."

Mention of their hell-bent flight back to the rendevous and the horrific mechanical beast that had dogged their steps all the way drained the color from Zell's face. Lips pressed thin, he dug his thumb into the point he had found, making Squall bite back a muffled scream. "That's not 'just bruised'," he said sharply. "Dammit, you should have said something."

"It's nothi... ah! Fuck!"

"Would you sit still?" Zell demanded. His tone was short but his hands remained gentle, warm against Squall's ribs through the thin material of his shirt. He cupped them there, across the worst of the throbbing pain, eyes closing.

"No," Squall insisted. "Don't bother..." But it was too late, the stream of Zell's soft whisper carried away on the breeze, the natural warmth of his hands swelling, augmented, as it sank through flesh and bone to soothe away the pain. Squall held his breath, then slowly released it, unwillingly relaxing as the healing spell eased spasming muscles and gently set fractured bones and torn flesh to knitting.

Zell had settled to his knees, eyes still closed in concentration. His hands painted slow streaks of warmth across Squall's ribs, from breastbone to hips, the absence of pain leaving its own sort of relieved pleasure in its wake. Squall caught his lip between his teeth, tasting the metallic tang of blood as a half scabbed split reopened.

They had both cast the same spell easily a dozen times that day alone. On themselves, on each other, on Seifer or Selphie or Quistis; hasty things gasped in a moment snatched during a fight, sudden rushes of warmth tossed in passing to bolster a faltering step or an attack hampered by a wound. They'd done it without thinking. It felt different, Squall found, with Zell's hands actually on him. Brighter, more intense, setting his skin to tingling and the warmth seeping in to pool in his stomach.

Zell leaned forward slightly, hands slipping around to skim lightly up Squall's back beneath his jacket, easing the hard knots of muscle that had formed across his spine. Squall let his own eyes fall shut, his breath slipping out in a soft sigh as he arched into the soothing touch.

The other man sat back, hands drifting across the breadth of Squall's chest and upwards, warming the taut lines of his shoulders and throat. Strong fingers slipped around the nape of his neck, threading into his hair as they drained the tension from his aching head. It was only as they curved around, a callused thumb stroking light across his cheek, the warmth seeping towards the dull pain between his eyes, that the tension surged again. Squall pulled away, reaching up to grasp Zell's wrists and push them back. "No."

The other man frowned. "It's going to scar."

"So? It's just a cut," Squall said flatly. "You don't waste a spell on something like that."

Zell's eyes narrowed. He twisted his wrists away, breaking Squall's hold. "Why not?" he demanded. His lips curled, something bitter and completely unfamiliar crossing his expression. "Because *he* gave it to you?"

Squall jerked slightly, the tight tension flooding back down his spine, erasing all of the relaxed warmth the spell had spread. "What do you know of it?"

Zell snorted. "Don't be stupid. The talk was all over the Garden before we left. Quistis called him on it in front of your class."

"It was a training accident," Squall ground out, teeth clenched.

"Riiight," Zell drawled. He looked away abruptly, his fist coming down hard against his thigh. "That bastard doesn't fucking deserve you," he hissed.

Stunned, it took the other man a heartbeat to gather a response. "That's none of your business!" he shot back, stung.

Zell glanced back, expression hard. "Of course not," he said bitterly. "It's none of my business if Seifer carves his fucking initials in your hide. It's nobody's business what that sadistic bastard does, or what you let him do." He uncoiled like a striking snake, without warning, swift and deadly. Squall reared back, one hand brought up to guard, but Zell only caught his wrist, his fingers bruising hard. His blue eyes, seen close, held a fire deep within their depths that had nothing to do with his usual lighthearted exterior. "But maybe I'm making it my business," he said, the words breathed soft between them.

Squall drew an angry breath but what he meant to say never emerged. Zell's lips covered his, swallowing his breath and a muffled yell of outrage. The blonde was stronger than he looked, his grip on Squall's wrist remaining firm, fingers dug into flesh as he drove the kiss home.

To Squall the moment seemed almost unreal, insubstantial, even as the startling clarity of it burned into mind and memory. The warm press of Zell's mouth against his was almost gentle. The other man drew against his lower lip, suckling, and the light scrape of teeth across flesh as he let it go made Squall pull in a slow breath.

Zell's tongue stroked, warm and wet, across his lips. He tasted sweet, of honey and just the hint of cinnamon, and Squall found himself opening to the taste. The feel of Zell's tongue sliding against his own in a slow caress made him shiver, the warmth of the other man's spell reawakening to pool, thick and heavy, in his veins.

Dazed, it took him a long moment to find his voice when Zell drew away. The words came to him dimly, the defensive protest sounding hollow even to his own ears. "He wasn't the only one who drew blood."

"No," Zell agreed, the quiet word brushing warm against Squall's face. "But you were the one who ended up in the infirmary." He let go of Squall's wrists, reaching up to cup his palms against the other man's cheeks. The fire burning deep in his pale eyes was still there, more serious than Squall could ever remember seeing him. "You might have hit him by accident, but you can't tell me that son of a bitch didn't mark you on purpose."

Squall didn't have a reply to that and finally dropped his eyes, feeling his stomach twist, Zell' words leaving a sour taste in his throat. The other man leaned forward again, his lips ghosting softly across the cut that streaked Squall's face from brow to cheek. "Squall," he breathed softly. "When he does that," and the tip of his tongue licked out, drawing a brand of wet fire along the new scab, "just remember this."

It was harder than the first kiss, as though Zell might leave his own mark in the bruise upon Squall's lips. Squall shut his eyes, breathing in the scent of soap and Zell's own skin and the hungry press of the other's mouth on his. When Zell pulled away, his hands dropping with one last caress against Squall's cheek, he found he felt colder for the loss.

"He doesn't fucking deserve you," Zell repeated, the whisper hissed angrily. Squall kept his eyes closed, hearing the rustle of fabric as the other man rose and the ring of boot heels against the deck. When he opened his eyes once more, he was alone.

Pushing himself slowly to his feet, he reached out to grasp the railing, leaning against it as the wind whipped his hair against his face. Unthinking, his hand rose to brush against the trailing edge of the cut across his cheek, then dropped, fingertips pressing lightly to his lips. Squall's eyes turned out towards the gathering dusk and the lights of Balamb, shining bright against the last lingering glow of the sunset, but nothing in either offered an answer to the unvoiced things inside of him.

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