I hope everyone enjoyed the comedy while it lasted. It’s pretty serious from here on out. Thank you, Nayu-san and Yuna-san, for the emails and such…I never realized how many people were actually reading this…I suppose I’ll have to work extra hard on it now. ^_^;;
Aa eien nan de hitsuyo na ikedo
Homoi da ni kimi wo tokikoneta ku nai
Maboroshi nan de ai se nai
Kimi wo dakishimetai no sa
-- Hideaki Matsuoka, Deja Vu
“Who the hell are you?!” Squall repeated as Zell—no, the stranger gave him an odd look.
Zell’s hands had always been oddly fascinating to the head commander. They were Zell’s weapons, as deadly as a gunblade could ever be…and yet, they didn’t look like the kind of hands that could snap a neck like a dry twig, the kind of hands that could bring a grown man to his knees with a few strategically placed punches. They had no scars along the knuckles, as many fighters are wont to sport.
They looked gentle. Soft almost.
Then again, Zell himself was a contrast. Once a crybaby, now a killing machine. Almost innocent-looking…until you saw the tattoo that laid claim to a whole side of his face, black tendrils spreading in an utterly captivating way that paradoxically didn’t detract at all from your first impression.
Zell did not have these rash, angry-looking scars across his palms.
“Squall, are you—“
Squall actually growled, a low sound deep in his throat before he swiftly leapt over the table and captured the stranger with Zell’s face in a headlock.
He may not have been the fighter Zell was, but from this position, it didn’t take any great skill to snap a person’s neck. A quick jerk was all it took. And if this man didn’t begin to give some answers…well, Squall himself had killed enough people. You grew numb after a while, telling yourself it was what you had to do. What was another one on your conscience?
He allowed the other man enough air so that he could answer his questions, but not nearly enough so that he could escape.
Squall Leonhart didn’t make mistakes, couldn’t afford to.
“It’s…me…” The stranger was actually trembling in his grip, hands limply at his sides. He wasn’t even trying to fight back. “Ze—“
“Wrong. Try again.” Squall murmured, icy cold, as he tightened his grip to the point that it was cutting off the other man’s airflow. “I saw your hands. Pretend that you’re Zell one more time and I will fucking break your neck right where we stand.”
“Let him go, Squall. Right now!” Squall allowed himself to glance up, only to meet a gaze as icy and determined as his own.
Rinoa brandished her Blaster Edge—her weapon of choice when she was teaching classes—at Squall. It was a good thing she had felt worried and had decided to come back and ask Squall if he needed to go to the infirmary. Zell’s eyes were nearly all pupil as he regarded Rinoa fearfully, breathing so heavily he was almost hyperventilating.
At first, she had been hesitant about knocking on the door, sure that she would be interrupting something rather private.
Either way, if this was foreplay, then it was the most twisted thing she had ever seen.
Squall looked as if he was actually going to kill the tattooed martial artist, brow furrowed darkly and a deadly snarl on his face. Rinoa had only seen her friend like this a few times, and all of them had ended with a dead body to dispose of.
Zell, on the other hand, looked as if he was already dead. There was a glassy dullness to his eyes that had her worried more than anything in this scene. She had seen Zell in action, knew he could throw off a grip like this as if it was nothing, and yet he stood there in Squall grasp limply…like a broken doll.
Oh Hyne…Squall, what the hell are you doing?!
“I said, let him go!” Her voice was raising, and she struggled to keep her ever-volatile emotions in check. Stay calm, stay focused…you’ve been trained for this sort of situation. Yes, but none of the scenarios played out by her teachers had ever included going up against Squall Leonhart.
Zell’s gaze was flickering, finally coming to life. Rinoa could only watch as his mouth moved slowly, as if savoring each syllable.
She saw it rather than heard it, heart pounding rapidly as she accessed the risk Zell was taking. If Squall figured out that a status change was being cast on him, then the last thing he would probably do before drifting off was snap Zell’s neck anyway.
Squall didn’t notice until it was too late, and Rinoa finally realized that she must have distracted him enough so that he wasn’t paying proper attention to Zell’s actions. To his credit as a well-trained SeeD, he did try to grasp at Zell’s neck one last time, hands slithering down in a motion that would have looked almost affectionate had the attempt been without its deadly intent, before he slumped to the ground, sleep overtaking him at last. Rinoa lowered her weapon and drew in a deep shuddering breath, feeling her body tremble in the afterglow of an adrenaline rush.
“Zell.” She managed to stumble over to the blonde man. Zell’s tattoo stood out even more on his suddenly pale face, like a swash of black ink against paper. “Are you okay?”
Zell looked up at her blankly, as if she was speaking a completely different language.
“Squall just fucking tried to kill me…” He whispered dully. “Do you think I’m okay?”
“Zell…Zell.” She pleaded, grasping his shoulders and rocking him gently. He was in shock, and Rinao didn’t want to have to slap him to bring him out of it, but if it came to that… “There’s something wrong…Squall’s sick. He—he must have mistaken you for someone else…”
Zell flashed a hollow grin, a force of habit. “Yeah. If you say so...”
“Come on, help me carry him to the infirmary.” Rinoa motioned to the comatose commander. “We’ll get to the bottom of this, I promise.”
Doctor Kadowaki came over to lay a gentle hand on Rinoa’s shoulder as she sat next to Squall’s cot. “You’ve been here for three hours; you should probably go to sleep.”
As soon as her classes were over, Rinoa had rushed over to the infirmary, not even bothering to change out of the standard SeeD uniform she wore on days when her usual attire wouldn’t cut it. She had been in the training room all day, mind elsewhere, and had almost suffered an accident herself when she had let her gaze drift from one of her newer students. As it was, the spell had just missed her, jolting her back into awareness. Had it landed properly, she would be suffering from third degree burns right now…
Zell hadn’t stopped by all day; it was the first thing she had asked Dr. Kadowaki, when she rushed in, hair flying in an attractive halo around her fine features as she ran into the front area, not caring who might see. Distantly, she wondered if Seifer would be angry to know that she was here. It was hard to say; oddly enough, she had discovered Seifer wasn’t really the type to get jealous, but it was one thing to check in on a friend, and another to spend the whole evening by his bedside, wasn’t it?
Oh well, she would try calling his room again when she got back to her own.
“All right…” She finally mumbled, sleep heavy in her sweet voice as she smiled at the kindly doctor. “Please call me if there’s any change, or if you find out what’s wrong.”
That was the thing that scared her the most. She had assumed that perhaps he had taken a spell from a mission that was just manifesting later, although, wouldn’t she have been able to sense it? The scans hadn’t revealed anything of the sort; Squall was in perfect health.
If you could call trying to kill one of the people closest to him “in perfect health” to begin with…
This wasn’t the way to her room; in fact, it was on the other side of the building. But she felt concern building inside her to an explosive intensity as she stepped out of the elevator at the office level. Polished wood and plush carpet around her, and yet, the atmosphere seemed empty tonight. Hollow.
She had to find Zell, make him understand somehow…
How was she going to make him understand anything, if she didn’t even know herself? Damn practicality. It didn’t matter; she had to try to mend this chasm before it became too big to be bridged.
Yes, she could hear the steady clatter of keys from here, as if someone was pounding on them with their fists. At any other time, it would have made her smile whimsically, half-amazed at how quickly the blond martial artist could type. That was probably the main reason Squall had chosen him to be his temporary secretary; a “provisional” job that had lasted more than four years.
Was it any wonder that Zell had gotten tired of it? He wanted to be out there, teaching as her and Quistis did. The students loved him, probably because he had a way of relaxing them when Squall called them into the office, with that grin that put even the most nervous of students at ease. It didn’t help that he had a sort of affinity for your average troublemaker; Squall tended to be rather verbal—surprising in and of itself— on how many of his disciplinary tactics were undermined with Zell’s grins and winks to the student in question.
Their current hand-to-hand instructor couldn’t hold a candle to him, and Squall knew it. Why then had he insisted so long in keeping Zell with him in the office? Refusing to even hear of Zell teaching the course, passing him over for missions that fit his description like a glove…he hadn’t been on a mission in over half a year. She couldn’t even begin to imagine the strain that might put on their relationship.
Rinoa had a feeling it was one of the few moments she had ever seen Squall Leonhart be truly selfish about something so near to him. Grasping and holding on with all his might, and not even realizing what he was doing at the time…
She stopped in the doorway, allowing her eyes to adjust to the dark office. The only light was a dim, almost eerie, glow from a computer screen deeper within the room. The clacking of the keyboard was overwhelming now, filling the office with a dry angry sound.
The broad-shouldered young man made no sign that he was aware of her presence, even though she knew the likelihood her sneaking up on him was practically nil. When one was a SeeD, your instincts were honed to a razor-sharpness that seemed almost otherworldly to outsiders. Par for the course, she supposed.
“Zell…it’s late. You should get some sleep.” She finally whispered, not even sure if the man heard her.
“I’m not tired.” The words were curt, perfunctory. “There’s a hell of a lot of paperwork to finish up here, and I might as well be productive when I can.”
“Zell, he didn’t mean it. I don’t know why, or what happened, but he would never try to hurt you.” Rinoa felt like an idiot as she stated what should be obvious, but wasn’t. “He would never try to hurt you?” Then what was going on today?! I’m full of shit… It was the only thing she could think of to say, the only way she could try to dam the hurt radiating from the petit blond in waves.
“Yeah, well, it wouldn’t be the first time.”
Rinoa resisted the overpowering urge to shake him; that wouldn’t help the situation one whit. “He didn’t know, Zell. You can’t tell me that four years hasn’t changed him at all in that respect; Squall doesn’t repeat the same mistakes over and over again…”
Zell stopped typing abruptly, turning to face the darkly beautiful woman. “Really? Then what the hell happened today?! Why was the sight of you enough to distract our commander in chief to the point where I could cast a status change on him?! I should be fucking dead right now, Rinoa!”
“I don’t know…” She admitted. “But I—“
“I know,” He cut her off with a discomfited expression. “It’s not that, you’re not like that…and I’m sorry for ever thinking you were.”
“It’s not your fault.” Rinoa dredged up the last of her wry grins and bestowed it upon the confused martial artist. “What’s past is past, and I think I would react the same way, if something like that happened to me…” Thank Hyne the past was past; those days of tension between her and Zell were not something she ever wanted to visit again, could she help it. His friendship had come to mean too much to her.
“Go to bed, Rinoa. Seifer was around here looking for you earlier, and even I could tell he was worried. He didn’t even mock me once the whole time he was in here, and I’ll tell you, seeing Seifer trying to make small talk was one of the damn scariest things I’ve ever witnessed. Don’t let it happen again, please.” Zell’s grin was lopsided, broken. But it was a smile, nonetheless.
“All right…” She finally said, subdued as she watched the other man turn back to his work. She wanted to ask him to go and see Squall, but inwardly knew it was the last sort of pressure he needed at the moment. “Take care of yourself.”
“He didn’t remember…” The words were harshly whispered, and Rinoa got the feeling that this was something she wasn’t supposed to hear. What else could she do but hasten her pace to the front door? Still, the darkly hurt and angry words trailed her out into the hall, as did a sudden, heart wrenchingly loud sound.
Rinoa didn’t have to be incredibly perceptive to tell it was the crash of a fist being driven through a computer screen…again and again.
“Seifer?” There was silence on the other end of the phone, before a petulantly groggy voice responded.
“Rinoa? What the hell? It’s two in the morning…wait, don’t tell me Leonhart is sending you out on a mission?! Dammit…”
She had to smile warmly at his tone, though she knew it wouldn’t improve his mood in the slightest if he had been there to see it in person. Seifer hated the thought of being patronized, and even after all these years, seemed to have trouble distinguishing it from affection.
“No, he’s not sending me out.” And then, she almost did chuckle at the obvious sigh of relief on the other end, before sternly collecting herself. “Squall can’t send me anywhere, he’s in the infirmary, under sedation.”
“What happened to our Mr. Sunshine?” Seifer said in his familiar dryly-mocking tone. “Are they finally going to surgically remove that stick from his ass? You should tell them it’s a lost cause.”
“Seifer, don’t.” She warned.
“All right, I’m sorry.” Seifer had a way of apologizing that made it sound as if he didn’t mean it in the slightest, probably because he most likely didn’t. “ So you just decided to call me up for nothing?”
“No. I’m leaving for Esthar tomorrow; I’m getting Selphie to fly me over on the Ragnarok.” She finally said. “I’ll see you as soon as I get back. It shouldn’t take long.”
“Mind telling me why you’re heading up to President Ditz’s stomping ground?”
“There’s something I need to do…for a friend.” No, it was the only thing she could do for a friend. The only thing she could think of... “I’ll talk to you later.”
Ending notes: My goodness, Rinoa is shaping up to be an even more major player than I had previously thought. A few of you will probably still be utterly confused, but I know a couple of you have figured it out by now. Hopefully this chapter still kept you slightly off-balance; I wouldn't want to spoil ALL the fun. Don't worry, the next chapter should be rather enlightening...
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