Disclaimer: Square Soft owns the characters. The story is my gift to you.


Chapter Nine

By Race Ulfson

Zell shifted from foot to foot outside of Squall's door. He muttered under his breath, "C'mon, C'mon." With a sigh, he knocked again, struggling with two large coffees and a sack of doughnut holes. "Open up, Capt'n, I gotcher breakfast here!"

Still no answer.

Zell tucked the sack in his armpit, only crushing a few pastries. He fumbled for the keycard that overrode Squall's lock. He hesitated a moment, weighing possible icey outrage against the possibility something was wrong. The heat from the paper coffee cups burned his fingers and made Zell's decision for him. "Maybe he's in the shower."

Squall was neither in the shower nor anywhere in his quarters, nor was there any sign that he had visited recently. Zell set the coffee down on Squall's faintly dusty desk, disturbing the screen saver. The message center was activated, indicating that Squall's cell phone was turned off. Zell noticed that there were 109 unretrieved messages dating from the 23rd of last month.

Zell rescued a doughnut hole from the bag and activated the message center. There was a way to bypass the recorded greeting but he never could remember how to do it.

"This is Squall Leonhart, Tuesday the 23rd about 3 am-"

The digitized voice sounded slightly off, but Zell could pick up the slur in the words. He crammed another doughnut hole, closing his eyes as he chewed, trying to analyize Squall's voice to determin exactly how drunk his friend and commander had been when the message was left. After four years, Zell could almost tell to the milligram. This sounded like Squall was well over the legal limit.

Zell stopped chewing and concentrated on the background noise. He barely heard the instructions of who to call at what numbers for Official Garden business. Was Squall in the car? Bad, very bad.

" - help you with whatever you need. I suggest you call her because... I don't think I'll be available."

Zell sat up, mouth hanging open, skin goosepimpling.

Just before the tone, whispered, was "Sorry, Zell."

Zell spat the sodden lump of dough into the wastebasket, too upset to even swallow. He paged the Admin office, knowing Quistis would be there, trying to get everything perfect for Squall's return.

"How was your vacation?," she answered.

The non sequitur startled Zell for a moment. Of course, it would show the call came from Squall's room. He responded with a non sequitur of his own, "Have you listened to Squall's voice mail greeting?"

"Zell?! What..." Quistis took a deep breath. "No, I always use pound star to bypass it - everyone does. ...should I?"

"No. Call Laguna. I'll start with the Police."

Zell sat with his chair pushed back as far from the desk as it could be and still allow him to rest his forearms on the polished surface. He rolled a coffee mug back in forth in his hands, resisting the urge to throw it.

Quistis was straining her diplomatic skills, keeping her voice polite while her knuckles went white. She dodged another question. "But you're sure Commander Leonhart did not get on the train?" At the muffled affirmative, she said brightly, "Thanks so much!" and disconnected. She shook her head at Zell.

"I heard." Zell ran his hands through his hair, inadvertantly styling it much as it had been in his younger days. "I wish..."

They turned as one when the vidphone from Galbadia Garden chirped. Selphie appeared, standing sideways to show off her expanding silhouette. She smiled impishly at their delighted greetings.

"Only 18 more days. Then I'm gonna make Irvine carry him for 9 months."

"Is that fair? He'll be a lot heavier." Zell felt the men should stick together.

"Irvy is a lot bigger than me, so of course it's fair." Selphie rested her hands on her rounded tummy and bit her lip. "I have news."

"Spill it, 'Elf, " Quistis said. Zell propped his head up with one hand and closed his eyes.

"Okay. There are no Leonharts under any spelling in any jail, hotel or hospital in Galbadia."

"I guess that's good news..." Quistis didn't sound convinced.

Selphie held up her hand. "But, Squall has a rare blood type. A John Doe with AB blood type was brought into Galbadia General with multiple fractures and, get this, amnesia, on the 23rd."

"Squall," Zell said. It wasn't a question.

"Description matches." Selphie nodded. "He was supposed to have been transfered to Charity Hospital on the 28th. He was never admitted."

Quistis' hand fluttered to her throat. "Then, where is he?"

"No one knows. I did find out the name of the ambulance driver who checked him out of Galbadia General." Selphie took a deep breath. "Guys, it's Seifer Almasy."

Zell sighed and brushed his bangs out of his eyes. What should have been a Garden Only investigation had suddenly become an international incident. He really couldn't blame Laguna for getting involved, but when he'd shown up the Galbadian government got in on it, and then the press. Now Zell was Chief Torch and Pitchfork Carrier at the Witch Hunt. Or, more accurately, the Sorceress' Knight Hunt.

Weirdly enough, it was Laguna Loire who was the Voice of Reason. "I feel better knowing Squall's with Seifer Almasy."

"Are you nuts? He tried to kill Squall. More than once!" Irvine was there, representing Galbadia Garden.

"Irvine! Are you a daddy yet?" Laguna captured the sniper in a quick bear hug. "How's my little fangirl?"

Zell rolled his eyes as Irvine flushed and stammered. He went back to reading the report the Galbadian Government had prepared on Seifer.

"Mr. President," Kiros said gently.

"Er, right. thing is, Squall already beat him once. And he's a known enemy. Much easier situation."

Reluctantly, Irvine conceded Loire's point.

"And according to the report, Almasy's been working and going to school. Even saving lives. So that's not -"

Trent, head of Galbadian Security, interupted. "With all due respect, president Loire, you yourself are a well known Sorceress' Knight -"

"Elle is NOT a -"

"- and I think your and Esther's participation in this is best kept to a minimum," Trent continued.

Kiros stepped in front of Laguna. "I don't believe that is your decision to make, Mr. Trent."

"This is a matter of Galbadian security-" Trent started.

"Galbadian GARDEN security," Irvine put in.

"He. Has. My. SON!" Laguna spat.

Zell ignored the quibbling and tried to control his own anger. He was seething over the report he'd just read. How dare he? How fucking dare Seifer live happily everafter when Squall was in such pain? Zell shook his head, trying not to let his mind replay scenes of rescuing Squall, guarding him, covering for him... watching him disintegrate.

Zell slapped the report down on the table. The noise made the other men start and turn, slightly guiltily, to the furious young man.

"Let's go," Zell said.

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