WARNING: Contains shounen-ai (Seifer/Squall) and small amounts of swearing. Further chapters will contain violence and the story may be rerated for sex scenes and graphic violence. Oh, and don't read this chapter if you like Xu. I had to bitchify someone.
DISCLAIMER: Final Fantasy VIII and its characters belong to Squaresoft, not to me. I neither have received nor will receive any payment for mutilating the aforesaid concepts in the way set out below. (But if you want to pay me...)
Chapter Two - Of the Chairs of Virtue
"The logistics are such that there should be no contact points between the teams," Xu said, indicating a place on one of the reports on the desk in front of the four SeeDs and the headmaster. "As you can see, the financial situation -"
Xu pulled up mid-sentence and stared at Squall. "Commander?" She sounded like an instructor who'd caught one of her cadets taking the hidden chocolate from her desk drawer. Zell clenched his fists without realising it. That woman never remembered what she owed to Squall. It made him so mad sometimes.
"Xu Kurashima," Squall said levelly, "you have managed to fuck this up more badly than any mission I've ever seen. I don't care how much money you think we're making from the rebels; after deductions, it's barely enough to pay the SeeDs." Xu's jaw dropped open. So did Zell, Cid and Seifer's. Zell had never heard Squall swear in uniform before. Half in uniform, anyway. Squall ignored the looks and stabbed at a place on the contract from the Galbadian government: 'Garden will provide the Galbadian army with fifteen SeeD operatives for a period of one month to assist with the protection of the state and people of Galbadia.' "We cannot fight openly against Galbadia while this lasts; can I remind you of the penalties for breach of covenant?"
Xu pulled herself together. "We've negotiated two equally valid contracts. I agree that we can't break our agreement with Galbadia. I was trying to find a way of balancing the one against the other."
"This is impossible. Which fuckwit let it happen?" groaned Seifer, rereading the papers Xu had pushed into his hands as soon as he'd come through the door. Talk about undiplomatic. But lack of tact would never get in his way. He'd had it easy since he'd finally made SeeD, thanks to his combat skills and his proximity to the SeeD Commander. Zell visualised the moment when Seifer Almasy had walked back into Garden like he'd never left, with a smile on his face, Hyperion at his waist and a determination to relight his love-hate relationship with Squall shining in his eyes. Even then he'd made it very clear he wanted the boy.
Zell sometimes felt like Seifer had stolen the uncommunicative commander from the rest of his friends. When he was being more honest with himself he knew nothing like that had happened. Squall had walked away from everyone before Seifer had come back; he'd broken up with Rinoa, stopped talking to Laguna again, got into the habit of ignoring his SeeD comrades. Seifer had done his best to bring Squall back to them all.
Xu was continuing, "Commander Leonhart had right of veto -"
Squall slammed his hand onto the folder on the desk. "This was pushed into my pigeonhole at half past eleven yesterday night. The team heading for Deling City left at what time? Five this morning? And when your signature was on both papers -"
"This is getting a little personal," Headmaster Cid protested. Squall stopped talking, but his shoulders didn't relax and his eyes didn't leave Xu for a second.
"Yeah, cool it a bit," Zell advised, putting a hand on Squall's shoulder. Seifer's right, he thought. He is too much of a tight-arsed bastard. He's not handling her right. There're better ways of dealing with this mess than getting cold and stroppy about it.
"Commander," Cid said, trying to sound tactful, "do you have any suggestions as to how we could resolve the problem?"
"No. There is no 'resolution'. We have to cancel and pay severance to the rebels. We can't ask SeeDs to enter situations where they might have to kill each other."
"Who was it," Xu asked in just as chilly a tone, "who agreed that it would be better for Garden's image if we supported rebel factions over central governments some of the time?"
"The other team's already gone; we can't choose which contract to modify. It might have gone the other way -"
"Would it?" Squall's eyes invited her to add to the comment. She didn't.
Cid cleared his throat. "It's clear that there are some issues here that need to be addressed -" he stumbled on his words when Seifer chuckled - "but I'm sure you three will find a solution to the immediate dilemma."
"You're assigning us to this?" Seifer demanded, the smile leaving his face as quickly as if the Ragnarok had towed it away.
"No fucking way. I'm not going on any mission that sets me up to kill Quisty. It's not happening."
"And I'm already assigned," Squall added. Zell groaned. That leaves me picking up the worst job since suicide bombing got thought up, likely as not with a couple of raw graduates at my back. Hyne, I've got to get out of this.
"Assigned to what?" Xu fired.
"My father wants me back. Kiros mailed me this morning." Squall was one lucky bastard and no mistake. He'd been semi-permanently attached to Esthar a year and a half ago when Laguna had realised he wanted personal SeeD cover about half the time and that Squall's relationship with the President gave him an edge with the rest of the city's leadership. That was the kind of job Zell dreamed of. Cushy most of the time: he got paid SeeD wages to stalk Ellone and Laguna and babysit their two-year-old kid. He hardly ever had to crawl around in the mud killing things anymore. There had been that time he'd gone off into Esthar's sewers to smoke out a Behemoth...but that was a one-off. Right?
"If you will let me finish," Cid put in, "assigning you to the Galbadian rebels was not my intention. You were asked here to bring your expertise to bear on the situation." And you've been arguing instead of helping. Well done, guys. "Now, do you think they would accept strictly non-operational assistance?"
"They would have tried to hire secretaries for that, not mercenaries." Squall rubbed at the scars on his face, the old one Seifer had given him and the new cross-hatch design on one cheekbone that he'd picked up from a T-Rexaur a few months ago. "We might be able to make some sort of proviso, I suppose. We'll come up with a proposal inside an hour." Xu looked like she thought she'd won. She might have a surprise coming. Squall wasn't likely to find a solution that would help the rebel group any. "Permission to withdraw for discussion?"
"Granted." Cid waved him off absently. Squall rose and walked out without a glance at Xu. Zell and Seifer hurried after him.
As Cid's door swung shut Seifer opened his mouth; Squall reached up without looking and laid a finger across his boyfriend's lips. He didn't remove it till the three men were inside Squall's office, out of the way. Seifer looked almost angry enough to hit the retreating finger. "This is crazy."
"You're telling me," Squall retorted, sitting down and opening up the mission folder again. "There's bound to be direct conflict. And even if there isn't, the rebels could order our people to divulge the identities of the SeeDs on Galbadia's side."
Something was bothering Zell. "Squall, you're the Commander."
"You noticed, Chicken," Seifer said snidely.
Zell ignored the swipe. "So how come you get told which jobs to take? Cid was talking like he might have stuck you on this without asking first."
"I assign everyone except myself."
Seifer snorted. "Cid stuck him in a special category; Lethal Weapon of Garden, only to be touched in emergencies." Squall rolled his eyes. "When he's not in Esthar, Cid decides where to put him."
Squall shrugged. "He sees where my reputation helps things. I don't."
"I could tell you anytime, baby," and Seifer stroked his cheek. Squall glared at him, then went back to his report. "Can we have a look, or will you try and do it all on your own again?" The paper swung round. Squall went on reading it upside down.
Zell slid his eyes over the contract and the briefing notes. Hyne, but there was something wrong here... "Lemme see," he said, as a word caught his eye.
"What's up?" Seifer asked.
"That code phrase. About these guys' victory being eternal. I've heard it before."
"Probably in an intelligence report we put together for this group's enemies."
"Nah. I don't get to see the spy stuff; it's restricted. And I've never worked for or against the -" he checked the name - "Wilburn Freedom Fighters' Corps." He was so good at linking words and places. If he could figure out where he'd heard that stuff before... "Way south of Deling. Somewhere in the Protectorates. Not Nanchucket Island, or Winhill, or Timber. More like Shenandia. When the hell was it?"
"Before or after Esthar jumped in?" Seifer pressed, like he understood how Zell was trying to get himself to remember.
"Hyne knows. About the same time, I think."
"I'm sure it's not important," Squall cut in. "There's only so many possible code phrases in the world. Let's try and sort out this mess Xu's given us."
"OK," Zell shrugged. Let him be like that if he wanted. Squall had been in the Shenandia area at the time Zell thought he'd first heard Galbadia's enemies talking about an eternal victory. He'd been working for Esthar Intelligence. He would have heard the phrase too if it had been important. If he hadn't, it couldn't mean much. It had probably been copied from a book or something.
"Did Kiros say why you're wanted?" Seifer was asking Squall.
"Security issues. They've had leaks and they need someone trustworthy to help with co-ordination. He didn't say what I'll be co-ordinating."
Seifer doodled on the edge of the report with one of Squall's pencils. "Xu's going to be furious if you end up in the Protectorates again."
"Let her. It's none of her business. She just thinks we'd profit from a war down there. I'm not surprised she gets upset with the Estharian soldiers keeping the peace."
Squall was right, of course, but Zell could see why Xu didn't like what looked to be Estharian imperialism. Laguna was such a hopeless romantic that he wouldn't stand for overrunning the little city-states that were all that was left of southern Galbadia. He couldn't stand to let anyone suffer either, and when Galbadia had tried to stop any more Protectorates being created Laguna had diverted his army to help the tiny countries out of the goodness of his heart. That had left Esthar in nominal control down there. Galbadia complained, but Esthar wasn't getting much out of it except friendships that counted for nothing when you were adding up the number of soldiers that got put on a battlefield.
Zell focused on Squall, thinking about what Seifer had been saying the day before about the brunet. How he needed more downtime. How he needed his friends to take an interest and think about whether or not he needed help. "You'll get family time when you're over there," Zell said encouragingly. "That'll be good for you."
"Yeah, right," scowled Squall. "Seeing Ellone, sure. But Storm's hyper twenty hours a day and Laguna's impractical the whole time. They drive me nuts."
"Good," Seifer grinned. "You're human after all."
"That's not funny."
"Maybe you're just no good with children," Zell suggested.
"Do you mean my father or my brother?"
Seifer laughed. Zell grinned, partly at Squall's joke and partly at the warmth in Seifer's eyes. When Seifer had turned round and told him to look hard at Squall and say he was normal, Zell hadn't known what he meant. He'd thought Squall was just being his usual moody self. Then he'd looked again and had been so shocked to see what the Commander was doing. Near-complete silence and emotional self-neglect weren't normal. Hell, he wasn't sure the self-neglect was all emotional - when he thought about it he could remember times when Squall wouldn't eat or sleep and gave the stupidest excuses for his behaviour. And there had been the time he'd gone one on one with a Ruby Dragon - and the thing with the T-Rexaur - and that pack of Grendels...
Squall Leonhart was one unhappy bunny.
But at least he had Seifer. Looking out for him, teasing him, loving him.
"Maybe we should call Quis," Seifer suggested. "Tell her not to get involved with this group."
"What if the group's got an assassination plot organised?" Zell demanded. "What if she's bodyguarding the President? Dumbass."
"Yeah, well, I don't hear you offering any suggestions, Chicken-Wuss," Seifer fired back, looking moodier than he had in a while.
"What's up? Didn't you get any last night, or something?"
"Shut the fuck up." He turned the paper round to read it again.
"You got any ideas?" Zell tried.
"Squallie," Seifer sang, "wake up."
"Yo! Earth to Squall!"
"He ain't in there, Chickie. He must have gone off to Lunar Base. Now what?"
"You what?" Seifer and Zell said in unison.
Squall waved the contract at them. "We hold off for a month."
"To give the group in Galbadia time to finish up?" Seifer checked. "It's an idea. Nice. Now how are we going to persuade these guys to wait that long?"
"Ask Xu. It's her problem."
"You trying to give her a stress-related illness, honey?"
"Anything for a competent administrator." He stood up and headed for the door. "Back soon," he said over his shoulder, picking up his training kit as he left.
The door closed on him. "Y'know," Zell said, picking up the mission sheet again, "I thought he would stop that when you got him laid."
"What do you know?" snorted Seifer with a hint of his old attitude. But he wasn't scowling at Zell. The martial artist watched him steadily. Seifer suddenly groaned and covered his face with his hands. "I'm trying, Zell. Really I am. You know how hard it is to keep my temper? I'm holding myself in every minute, like he'll run off if I say a loud word to him. He acts like a - a wild bird sometimes. Like one of those robins we got in the orphanage garden. I would chase them because I wanted to hold one. They always flew off when I scared them. Then Quistis laid out a line of suet crumbs on the grass and sat herself down at the end of the row and the bloody birdies hopped all the way up to her and onto her knee just like that. Fuck, was I jealous."
"Squall ain't going to run to Quisty," Zell said uncomfortably.
"I know that," Seifer snapped. "I just don't want him to - I don't know. Fly off and get eaten by the cat, I guess." He shut his eyes. "He's different with me," he said quietly. "He has been for a couple of months. He says things without spending an hour thinking about them first. He relaxes. He even smiled at me a couple of days ago. Then we leave his room and he clams up again. It's like he's scared shitless of everyone except me."
"Aw, come on -"
"Watch him, Dincht. Try and sneak up on him sometime when he's alone with me. You watch him freeze over when he sees you. It's like there's two people in there, and only I get to see one of them." His face changed, just a little.
"What is it, Seif?"
"I'm a little out on that," he confessed. "He's not too bad around Elle, Quisty and Selphie. But he still isn't good with them. And everyone else, he acts like they're about to kick him and he's got to pretend he doesn't care when they do. And yes, that includes his kid brother. Hyne, is he sociopathic." He kicked at Squall's desk half-heartedly. "And he's talking about quitting SeeD."
"You heard. He hates all this fighting with Xu. Cid as well, half the time. I think he'd be happy enough if not for them. But they can't see they're driving him off."
This was getting more screwed up than he'd thought. "What're you going to do?"
"I don't know. Probably nothing now, not till he gets back from Esthar." Seifer sighed, then looked at the clock. "We've got that demo in half an hour. Wanna warm up a bit?"
"Sure." Zell looked down at the papers in his hand. "We got a little something to do first, though." Too bad Squall was going to miss this. Even he might smile to see the look on Xu's face when she got handed this to deal with. Zell for one couldn't wait.
(to be continued...)
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