My Orphanage

Chapter Two

By Scarlet Fever

It was very early when Zell started stirring. But, he hadn't actually been able to really fall asleep. His mind had been too preoccupied with the likes of Daeva Aka-Manah, and Raef Emaissyl/Seifer Almasy. And, there was also the fact that Zell couldn't just forget he'd seen his former classmate. After all, his gloves were in Seifer's hands, and he needed them. He kind of missed them, actually. He and Selphie were going to set into Bridgeport this morning, so he thought he'd go pick up his gloves before she got going, since she'd probably want to come to the store if she was up.

Hey, what do I care? Zell asked himself. Why should it bother him if Selphie wanted to go to Archimedes, and just happen to see Seifer? But, Zell had promised. Even if it was Seifer, Zell didn't like to go back on his word. And, there was also the fact that he was getting a free weapons upgrade out of it. Zell got dressed in his workout sweats, and decided to jog to Alraune. It was a nice day, smelling fresh after the rain from the evening and night before. It was still very early, and most of the stores hadn't opened, also very few cars on the streets. Zell wondered if Seifer's store would even be open. Oh well, at least he was getting a good workout from it. And, it was also giving him time to think.

Seifer hadn't been the only reason that Zell had found it hard to sleep. He'd heard distant voices in his head, and felt a pull at the core of him. Ifrit. When someone was used to junctioning a GF, they just didn't hear the GF anymore, and were only distantly aware of them. For someone who had never junctioned a Summon before, it was quite the overwhelming experience. Zell had just wanted to separate himself from the GF for a while, at least until Ifrit settled down a little. But, seeing as how they were on SeeD assignment, that wasn't really an option. Perhaps it was just because Zell hadn't junctioned the Fire Beast in quite some time, so they were getting used to each other once more.

Zell came down Lord Chadwick Avenue, the buildings starting to look a little familiar to him. He came to the facade of Archimedes, and saw that the shop was closed, except that there was movement inside, signs of life. Zell felt suddenly, and a little stupidly, nervous. Why was he nervous? It was only Seifer. Yeah, the same Seifer that used to pick on you and made you miserable. Zell rapped on the frame of the door gently, his hands feeling naked without his gloves.

Seifer opened the door, looking a little tired, and Zell wanted to fucking kick himself when he couldn't help but noticed Seifer's tousled attractiveness, his utterly male sexiness. Jesus man, what are you thinking?!

"Very prompt, Chicken-Wuss." Seifer stared coldly down at the smaller man. "How unlike you."

Zell felt like stamping his foot and yelling at Seifer, but he calmed himself. "And, you getting up early just to see me in person? How unlike you."

"Don't flatter yourself," Seifer grunted with a scowl. "Who says I got up early?" He left the question at that, pushing the door open to allow Zell entry into the store. The truth of the matter was that Seifer hadn't gone to bed yet. He'd immediately gone to work on Zell's gloves, but he'd also worried. Seifer had never been a man, at least in his past, to get himself all worked up with worry, but he had been. He'd been worried that Zell would have run straight to Squall and spilt the beans. But, there was no SeeD onslaught, and there was no Squall softly knocking at the shop's door with a quiet smile of victory on his rather feminine lips. When Zell hesitated, Seifer snapped "are you coming in or not?!"

Zell made a face, coming into the store, having to duck a little under Seifer's arm. Once the door was closed, the gloves were immediately chucked at him, and the tattooed blonde had to act quickly to catch them. He glared at Seifer for a few moments, but it turned into a thoughtful gaze when he saw something in Seifer's peridot eyes change. Zell noticed that Seifer was watching his face intently, his scowl only thinly hiding a look of..... eagerness, hopefulness. Zell ran a bunch of nasty comments through his mind, but he came up with none when he actually paid attention to his new gloves. They felt light and familiar like his old ones, but he could also feel the strength in the Ruby Dragon skins. The blood red scales glinted in the lights of the store, shimmering with the mixture of Crystal Fangs put in them. Zell put the gloves on, and they felt like home, as if his old gloves had never touched any hands other than his own. Though they felt old and familiar, Zell could feel the new strength in them, the power. Zell knew quality weapons when he touched him, and anything Vidilic Arms had made couldn't come close to these gloves that so wonderfully encased his hands.

"Well?" Seifer asked. His voice was dull, but inside, he was hopeful. With each of his customers, he thought of how he would feel if someone had modified Hyperion on him, and done less than a perfect job. And, if he'd done a shoddy job on the gloves, Zell could just tell everyone at Garden anyway. On one hand, Seifer hated lying, but he was too used to it now, and on the other hand.... he didn't want his old life to come back, memories of his failure at Garden... memories of Her. He tried not to show his hopefulness, but the way Zell was staring at him, Seifer didn't think he was being very successful. The look in Zell's eyes wasn't one that Seifer was used to. He knew Zell, but it was a Zell Dincht from 10 years ago that he knew. This Zell was older, more mature, more thoughtful.

"How much?" Zell asked. He couldn't accept such beautiful weapons without paying for them. His mother would smack him for bad manners if he did. Zell was taken aback by the horror briefly displayed on Seifer's face. But, that handsome face relaxed to a somewhat hostile mask again.

"What do you mean? I told you.... You keep up your end of our bargain, and the gloves are free."

"I cannot accept these gloves without paying you, Seifer."

The now brunette pursed his lips. It had been a long time since anyone other than Fujin had called him Seifer. And, even she only did it when they were alone. And, no man in ten years had called him by his given name.... "I told you," Seifer replied stiffly. "Free of charge."

"These are too nice for me to just take without paying you. I'd feel like I was stealing."

"So... you like them?"

"I do," Zell whispered. "They're.... perfect."

"Well then, the compliment is payment enough." Seifer walked away from the conversation, going into his office. "You can let yourself out." He just wanted Zell to leave. That familiar tattooed face brought back so many memories that Seifer had been trying to leave in the past, right with his name.

Zell was left alone in the store as Seifer closed the office door. Silently, he dug into his pocket and pulled out a small stack of bills, leaving 400 gil on the counter by the computer register. He left the store, jogging back towards his new apartment, his new gloves so comfortable that he barely noticed they were there, that is until he looked at the scaled surface. Zell knew for a fact that Ruby Dragon skin was hard to work with, and also very hard to come by. He may have felt very disturbed about Seifer, but Zell had no problem praising Seifer's work. It was a weaponries masterpiece.

When Zell arrived back home, Selphie was already up and puttering around, still in her pyjamas.

"You're up early," she mused with a yawn, standing guard by the coffee machine, waiting for it to finish. She impatiently shifted her weight from one foot to another, the smell of the brew filling her kitchen. Zell sat down on the couch and started to catch his breath, putting the back of his hand to his forehead, feeling the Ruby Dragon scales against his skin. They felt very smooth compared to other dragon scales, more like metal armour that encased a knight instead of rough sandpaper. With the gloves this close to his face, he could smell the leather lining, but something else, too. Seifer. These gloves had repeatedly run through Seifer's hands, and now had the tall blonde's (brunette! ) scent engrained in it.

"Woooowww!" Selphie exclaimed, plopping down beside her friend on the couch, grabbing his wrist. "Are these your new gloves?" She examined them closely. "Is this Ruby Dragon skin?"

Zell just nodded, both physically and emotionally tired.

"These look awesome. How do they hold up?"

"Haven't tried them yet. I just picked them up."

"Wow, I'm surprised Vidilic made something this custom for you. It must have cost a fucking fortune."

"I didn't get it done with Vidilic."

"Really?" Selphie raised an eyebrow. "Where'd you get it done, then?"

Zell shrugged, standing up. The quality of the gloves made him feel even more loyal to his word about keeping Seifer's secret. "Just this place downtown. What time do you want to go to Bridgeport?"

Selphie's jade eyes were narrowed, but she shrugged. "Just give me an hour or so to get ready."

"Okay." Zell went to his own apartment, and had a shower. He washed away the sweat from his jog, but he couldn't wash away his thoughts so easily. His thoughts of Daeva Aka-Manah, and his thoughts of Seifer. The thoughts of Zell's old classmate were far more prominent. Thoughts of how the old Seifer was mingled with this new one that Zell couldn't really figure out. Thoughts of how scared he seemed to be, discovered by his past, thoughts of how attractive he looked, hair mussed up and pale green eyes bright behind his eyeglasses.... how he looked in eyeglasses. Thoughts like this made Zell's hands trail down his own body, and they became less about Seifer, and more just about men. Zell felt a tugging at his gut, at his heart and at his genitals, and it wasn't just a sexual pull. God, Zell was lonely. Thinking about a man's body, a man's voice talking to him as lovers do, a man's arms holding him, well... the thoughts were nice, but they weren't real. Zell wanted this companionship more than he wanted the sex. He wanted someone he could talk to, he wanted someone to fall asleep with every night, and wanted someone who knew all of him. Someone that he didn't have to lie to, since he had to lie to everyone else about this part of his life. Zell had always been a social person, and he'd always been surrounded by many friends, but had never had a real relationship. And, he wanted one so fucking badly.

Zell lazily jerked off in the shower, but he didn't orgasm with much force. It wasn't a sexual need that he needed filled, anyway. He started to get ready, dressing in casual clothes that bordered on grungy. Had to fit in with the Bridgeport Square crowd, after all. He covered his pale blonde hair with a black knit toque, and popped his pill into his mouth. After they'd all forgotten their childhoods, it had raised alarms about GF use and memory loss. So, scientists in Esthar had devised a pill to use in partnership with Junctioning. It combated the problem of memory loss effectively. When he was ready, he also saw that Selphie was ready.

She normally wore bright colours, but today she'd gone for drab, much like Zell himself.

"Ready?" She asked, watching Zell as he got his wallet and stuff like that, putting them in his pockets. Selphie wasn't head of SeeD Intelligence for nothing. She knew when things were going on behind the scenes, and there was something going on with Zell. She didn't think it was anything particularly bad, because something like that, he would have mentioned, but there was something bothering him, something he was keeping secret.

"Yeah." They left, and started walking, though Selphie noted that Zell was very preoccupied. As he'd gotten older, he'd lost some of his nervous chatter, becoming more serious and quiet, but this was quiet, even for him. "Selphie, have you noticed Cactuar being restless?"

"How do you mean?" She asked.

"I dunno. It's just that Ifrit kept me up last night."

"It's probably just because we haven't been Junctioning all that much in the past few years. It will just take some getting used to. I didn't really notice anything, but Cactuar is kind of.... a strange GF." She put her hands in her pockets. "He....she.... um, it doesn't really act the same as the others."

"Are you sure that's all?" Selphie asked, hoping that Zell would open up to her. He really did seem distracted.

He smiled, looking more like his old self. "Yeah, yeah... I'm fine. Just a little distracted. I guess I'm getting used to not having to be stuck at Garden."

Selphie smiled back, hoping that was really all. She started thinking about Irvine, wondering when he'd come to Timber, wondering how things were going in Trabia for him. Trabia meant a lot to her, but also a lot in her relationship with Irvine. When Trabia Garden was being rebuilt, Selphie had gone there often, Irvine going with her. It was the place where they'd first had sex, the place where Irvine had first told her he loved her. It would be nice to spend some time with him while they were here, for that could be for a while. Selphie watched Zell's profile as they entered Bridgeport Square. Is that what was bothering him? Was he lonely? Selphie knew that Zell hadn't had any sort of serious relationship in a long time, and she also knew why. After all, she was head of SeeD Intelligence. It was her job to know these things. Zell was carefully guarded about his homosexuality, and kept it a very tight secret, but Selphie had noticed. Noticed the way his eyes lingered over the photos in his martial arts magazines. That itself wasn't unusual, but it was the expression in his eyes that gave it away. It was the way he tried to hide when he noticed the attractiveness of a man passing him on the sidewalk, in the Garden hallways. It was the way he never got that same darkness in his eyes when he looked at a woman. It was the way he was always alone.... Selphie felt sorry for him, but it was an issue that she didn't press. After all, he would tell her if he was ready, and he obviously wasn't.

They didn't stop walking until they were in the very heart of the crime-ridden district. "Well?" Selphie asked, looking around lazily. She was wearing a bandana over her hair, her denim jacket ripped in places.

"I guess we can just dick around until dark, because that's when everyone will come out, anyway. But, we could find out where to be when it does get to be night."

"Sounds good. Wanna split up and meet back here in an hour?" Neither was too worried about getting into too much trouble. Even if they got attacked, each was a very capable soldier. Selphie just started wandering around, making mental note of which businesses were where. Selphie noticed a couple of sad looking men standing in the alley next to a hovel which was supposed to be some sort of bar. "Hey," she greeted quietly, shuffling up next to them. Trying to be friendly, but not too friendly. "What's goin' on?"

One, with a straggly beard and very dirty clothes, just kind of nodded at her. The other stared blankly. Selphie furrowed her brow when she heard someone saying something strange, but neither of the men's lips were moving. And, it didn't sound anything like Daphnic, the spoken language of Timber. Galbadian was their official language, but people didn't speak it. But, because Timber was such a hub city now, all the languages of the world like Balambish, Estharian, Galbadian, Capathic (Fisherman's Horizon's tongue), Centran and Trabica were all heard. However, this was something that Selphie had never heard, and it sounded like gibberish. She looked around, wondering where the voice had come from. Selphie, as well as all SeeD, had to be versed in every language in the world, but this was one that disturbed her.

She ignored it, and turned to the men again. "You know if... anything's happening later?"

"Anything?" One echoed, his expression so transparent that one of Selphie's hands immediately went into her pocket, fingering for some coin gil.

"You know what I mean," she murmured. "How's ten gil? For any information at all." She made her voice sound very desperate, and anyone passing would have thought her a homeless bum, looking to score some Blackball... just like all the other homeless bums around here.

"Ten gil....?" The one with the straggly beard echoed, his voice holding reverence, like that was a fortune. "Really....?"

She pulled out a handful of silver gil coins. "Twenty. Just... please man...."

The other one, who had been silent this entire time, licked his lips. "You want some too, don't you?"

"Reallll bad," Selphie panted out. "Real bad."

"There's a party tonight," he whispered, reaching out to touch Selphie, his hands shaking so badly. Selphie had to school her face not to feel sorry for him. "On Pival Street."

"Tonight?" She asked, making her lips shake, biting them in anticipation. She wondered if Zell was applauding her acting somewhere.

"Yeah. There will be some there."

Selphie sighed a sigh that, in real life, she would have only made after making love with Irvine. "Thanks, man." She put some gil in his hand, wishing that he would buy food or water with it, but knowing he wouldn't. "Maybe I'll see you there." She started jogging down the sidewalk. "See ya!" As she passed someone coming out of a crummy looking building, that voice whispered again.

Ek ipo pipappa. Ek ipo pipappa.

Selphie looked around again, but there was nobody around. She saw a couple pairs of eyes staring out smeared windows, but this voice hadn't belonged to them. It was a squeaky voice, and the language was so strange. As she kept walking, the voice did not appear. She spent a few hours wandering around, seeing so many sad faces. But, her job wasn't to pity them. A whistle sounded somewhere, and the part of the Square she was in was suddenly flooded with people. They were walking away from a building that was probably a factory of some sort. The work day was ending, which meant night would be soon. And, night meant they could finally have some purpose to being in Timber. Not that Selphie was complaining. This felt like a mini-vacation so far, and once they really started to get knee-deep in Blackball, that would change.

Selphie started jogging through the streets, trying to make it back to the central square with its dilapidated fountain. She wanted to meet up with Zell again before dark. He wasn't around when she got there, so she sat on the edge of the fountain and waited. When a couple people passed her, Selphie heard that strange whispering again.

Ek ipo pipappa.

"What does it mean?" She muttered under her breath.

"'Sup Selphie. What does what mean?"

Selphie looked up to see Zell, staring down at her with the question in his eyes.

"Nuthin'," Selphie muttered.

"Getting in character, huh?" He smirked at her as she stood up. "What'd you find out?"

"Let's go to Pival Street."

"What's on Pival Street?"

"A Blackballing 'party'. I'm not sure if it's actually a party, though."

Zell nodded and they started walking. The sun was starting to set over the tops of the hulking, bland buildings of Bridgeport Square.

"Zell....?" Selphie asked, shoving her hands into her pockets as the sun disappeared, and with it, the warmth in the air. It was getting cold, and quickly.


"Have you ever heard the expression 'Ek ipo pipappa' before?"

"Ek what?"

"I don't know. I heard someone say it a few times."

"Nah. What language is it? Doesn't sound like Daphnic, or even Galbadian."

"I know." Selphie sighed. She hated when things escaped her like this. She hated not knowing what the phrase meant, or who had uttered it. As it got darker, it gold colder, and more ominous. Selphie knew she could handle herself, but she still walked close to Zell. It wasn't a matter of it getting dangerous as soon as it turned dark, but it just made Selphie more aware that in the shadows of the factories there were less than friendly things.

"What time do you think it starts?" Zell asked.

"They didn't say." She looked around as they approached Pival Street, finding it a rather gross, ratty looking neighbourhood. Zell and Selphie contented themselves with waiting and mentally preparing themselves for just about anything. They'd read about the hallucinations that Blackballers went through, so dealing with them could bring many surprises. They also looked around the neighbourhood, familiarizing themselves with it, in case the shit hit the fan. Selphie's mind started to get occupied with the phrase she'd heard. Ek ipo pipappa. And, Zell's mind was thinking about Seifer. He felt bad for keeping this secret from Selphie, but he had to respect Seifer's wishes, especially when they seemed so desperate.

Eventually, people started to filter from all corners of the streets. Small groups of people who looked sweaty and hot, even though the wind was getting chilly. People whose eyes looked hollow, who if they weren't addicted to Blackball, then they were addicted to a more notorious drug like heroin or cocaine. Selphie and Zell looked at each other, nodding. They followed the small huddles of people, schooling their faces to look as desperate as all the others. They were all going into an apartment building that looked like it had been a nice old brownstone in years past, but now... it should have been condemned. Everyone was climbing the creaky, rickety stairs going down a hall. Selphie was a very light woman, but she was worried that her weight would collapse the staircase. Zell was also worried about such a thing. With each step, the steps protested. He may have been small in stature, but he was far heavier than Selphie because of his muscle mass, and he wouldn't be surprised if he fell through the rotting stairs.

They were all going into an apartment, the door not just open, but absent. Music was coming from inside, but it was just cacophony. None of these people were here to socialize. It was some sort of techno-ish music, but when Selphie and Zell came into the apartment, it wasn't the stereo that was giving the most sound. It was the people. They were panting and crying, and those who seemed to be lucky enough to have some fresh drugs in their system had smiles on their faces that were dreamy bordering on scary. There were people peddling the drugs in the apartment, which was now wall-to-wall with people, but both SeeD were sure that they were not the actual dealers, or even the manufacturers.

"Hey," Selphie asked quietly to one woman sitting on a dusty, stained couch. There was an awful smell coming from its upholstery. "Who made this batch?"

"Hmmm?" The woman lolled her head, her hair tangled and unwashed. "His voice is beautiful, don't you think?"

"Who made this batch?" Selphie asked again, her voice still a whisper, but there was more urgency in her tone.

The woman just started laughing and sang a song in some weird language. It was not the same language as the voice that had spoken to Selphie earlier.

Vi'kshatlatha Kollerurlah, dos meik u'sheikaram dahzi.

So'ulurha dos y'khexial xialiphi dos meikaka.

Vi'shak xillath xerthar dal akaxa doxapha...

Selphie looked around the room as a few voices joined her in this darkly beautiful and frightening song. Her jade eyes sought Zell, but all the people in the room had enveloped him. Zell was across the room, surrounded by people laughing at things only in their own heads. Their eyes glittered like black stars, staring into nothing, the sweat sheening their faces. Sweat was also beading on Zell's skin because of the heat of the apartment and the closeness of everyone around him. He felt a drop roll down his spine, someone writhing next to him, but not against him. A few people were moaning and writhing in a sexual manner, except that it was solely personal. This would not turn into a sexual orgy. It was all in their own heads, whatever was giving them pleasure. Demented laughter echoed throughout the crowded space, and bodies were falling to the ground, rolling around on it, laughing and singing along with some song that had filtered through the air. Zell wanted to find Selphie and stay close to her. He just wanted to get out of here.

A few people started dancing, but it wasn't to the music that was forgotten on the stereo. They danced slow and languid, completely opposite of the tempo of the tune on the stereo. Zell saw people pop the black spheres into their mouths, crying out in victory as they swallowed it. Zell had never seen anything like this. The people were so transformed that it was almost a religious experience, darkened and bastardized into this. Zell started searching all the faces, looking for the familiar one of Selphie. He pushed across the room, moving through the throngs of people, being banged by shoulders and elbows, slammed into by laughing, dancing addicts, so high and lost in their own head they didn't know where they were anymore. Zell could see that through the sweat on their faces, people were crying, and it made him want to vomit. All of these people had families, had once had jobs or studies at school, and now look at them. Reduced to this....

Someone cried out, and others cheered and laughed, clapping and conversing. It wasn't a cry of pain. It was one of a joy so large, it was agony. Zell watched as a small group of people conversed, moving their hands with their words, paying so close attention to each others' conversations. They talked and moved as if the conversation was about the meaning of life, was a talk about deep philosophy, and yet their words were gibberish. Zell had heard the dark language of the song a few people were singing, and while he hadn't understood a word, he'd known it was a real language from its composition and the formation of words. But, this... it was merely baby talk, and yet they acted as if it was the deepest conversation in the world. Zell was about to move on, but he was cemented to the spot when he saw the face of one of the people, talking utter nonsense.

He stared in horror, jaw dropping. He tried to call out to him, but no words could be found. How could this be?!

He laughed, throwing up his hands as he made a point in his anti-language. His eyes scanned around, and Zell gasped when their gazes met. Raijin's eyes had always been dark, but now they were like black matter, glittering with fervour and addiction. Raijin's eyes widened, and he stepped away from his nonsense conversation. The people he'd been speaking to kept talking as if he were still standing there. "Zell!" He exclaimed, voice hoarse. When Raijin's arms came around Zell's body, embracing him in a hug, all of the blonde's skin wanted to rip off his skeleton in disgust. Raijin had always been a healthy, burly man when he'd been at Garden. But, now he was so emaciated and skinny looking. His eyes were hollowed, looking dead and yet so alive with the glitter of Blackball. "Wow, ya know?!" He smiled so wide and looked so pathetic that it made a few tears trickle down Zell's cheeks.

"I'm so happy," Raijin whispered, kissing the tattooed side of Zell's face. "That you've felt him. Isn't it beautiful?"

"Oh, Raijin...." Zell shook his head. "What's happened to you?"

"What do you mean?" He asked, completely not understanding the question.

"Why are you doing this? Where's Fujin....? Where's....?" Zell stopped himself. He was about to ask where Seifer was. Did Seifer know about this?!

Raijin's face darkened, looking dangerous. "You don't know...." He shook his head. "You don't know his voice. But, you can...." Raijin gripped Zell's shoulders. Raijin was taller than Zell, but his body seemed so collapsed on itself that he appeared much smaller.

Zell took a big step backwards, banging into someone who didn't even seem to notice. "What happened to you, Raijin?"

Raijin's eyes suddenly flared angrily. "Dhaka vi'shaxaxr!!"

A deathly silence filled the room, and everyone's glittering eyes looked over to where Zell and Raijin were standing. "Zell...!" He heard Selphie shout from somewhere across the apartment.

"You're here to take it from us..." Raijin hissed. Addressing the whole room, he said loudly "he's from SeeD. You know what SeeD is, right?! They want to destroy our dark gift. They want to take Blackball from us. They want to take his voice from usssss!" His voice trailed off in a hiss.

Angry shouts started to grow all around him, and Zell balled his fists, preparing for a fight. Everyone looked hatefully at him, and so fucking desperate and crazy. Zell then realized that his hands were encased in a weapon made by Seifer, one of Raijin's best friends. What if this was all a horrible trap...? But, Zell didn't have a chance to find out. Raijin jumped towards him, trying to tackle the tattooed blonde to the ground. Zell's fist came out, and connected with Raijin's face. The dark-skinned man had always been a competent fighter, but he went down like a ton of bricks, and Zell felt power in his limbs that he hadn't felt with his old gloves. Suddenly, the blonde martial artist felt like he was in the center of a swarm of insects. Blackballers were attacking him from all sides, Raijin shouting "destroy them. SeeD will take his dark lament!!!" His words then started to mingle together with nonsense, until he was babbling incoherently.

It was hard for Zell to truly fight when surrounded by so many bodies punching and kicking at him, also scratching, biting and spitting. He heard Selphie shout, and heard cries of pain from somewhere across the apartment. Luckily, the cries weren't being made by the small brunette. Most of these people were just so weak and skinny, lost in their drug, that they put up zero fight. They fell against Zell's fists, which were enhanced by the gloves Seifer had made. The floor was littered with unconscious addicts, but Raijin had gotten back up, and he was glaring at Zell.

"You think you're so fucking high and mighty, don't you?" He snapped, punching Zell in the face. It wasn't a particularly devastating blow, but because of all the limbs askew on the ground, Zell lost his balance and fell backwards. Raijin was on top of him like a rabid dog, punching him and spitting obscenities in Zell's face, less than half of them making any sense. Zell tried to fight back, but many of the Blackballers had crawled towards them, and were now attacking Zell, too. Raijin was knocked upside the head by one end of Selphie's nunchaku. They then heard the shouts of someone outside the building. And, sirens. The Timber Police. Blackballers started screeching and left like rats abandoning a sinking ship. Raijin kept punching at Zell, but the blonde got the upper hand, connecting with a good combination. Raijin hissed like an animal and bolted from the apartment. Zell tried to get up to chase him, but he automatically went to the ground, covering his head when rapid fire filled the air. The police were shooting at the escaping addicts. Zell wasn't sure if they were using fake or real bullets. Real bullets disgusted something in him. Like shooting fish in a barrel. These people were so helpless, they couldn't fight anyone.

"You okay?" Selphie shouted over the gunfire, laying on the ground next to him.

Zell just nodded, not moving until he heard the footsteps of the police coming up the stairs. "Freeze!" They shouted. "This is a raid!"

Selphie raised her arms. "SeeD Captain Selphie Tilmitt!" She shouted. "Don't shoot."

"Identify yourself," one officer grunted, standing next to them. Zell and Selphie slowly sat up, pulling out their IDs and showing the officer.

"I apologize, Captains."

"No worries." Selphie stood and offered a hand to Zell, which he took. He wiped some spittle off his face, looking around. Most of the people had gotten away, including Raijin. "Listen, we don't want to interfere with your investigation, but after you're done questioning what people you could catch, can we have a run at them?"

"We have orders to go along with SeeD plans, so that will be fine." The Commander of the squad nodded at them, going into the apartment.

"What now?" Selphie asked under her breath as they went down the stairs. A few of them had collapsed under the stampede of the police and the escaping Blackballers. Zell jumped down to the bottom, his mind racing. They went outside and saw that the force hadn't been able to catch a lot of the people at the party. And, Zell didn't see Raijin's face at all. "Raijin's an addict?" She whispered into his ear, her eyes wide with disbelief. They both flashed their IDs to the police who were starting to raise guns to them. Zell pulled off his toque, shoving it in the pocket of his coat. When they were away from the police blockade, Zell whirled around to look at Selphie. "You find out who owns this building, who rents apartments in it, where they work, who their parents are, how many fucking pets they have, anything you can find. And, find out what language they were speaking."

Selphie nodded, but then cocked her head. "Okay, but.... uhh... where are you going?" She asked as Zell started moving rapidly up the sidewalk, more storming than walking.

"To find Fujin!" He shouted angrily, knowing exactly where he was going to start.

Edea stared out the window, the night sky illuminated in blue because of all Esthar's strange and futuristic machinery. Since she'd come to the city, she hadn't been able to give them any new information. With Odine, Laguna and Cid working from various angles, the Sorceress felt rather useless. And, of course her mind wandered to her child. To Seifer. And, also to her surrogate children, Selphie and Zell... somewhere in Timber where this dark magician lay in wait.


She looked up, gasping because she'd been surprised.

"Are you okay?" Laguna asked, coming into the dark room. The only light was from a few burning tapers on the table next to the raven-haired woman, and from the lights outside that were never blackened.

Edea stared up at the full moon. "The moon is dark tonight. A black moon."

Laguna sat on the window seat next to her, looking out the window as well. The moon looked the same as it always did to him. "Black?"

She sighed heavily, looking at his profile. "Not really. It's...."

"A Sorceress thing," Laguna finished with a smirk.

"Something like that." She curled her legs up close to her body. "I apologize, Laguna."

"For what, dear?" He looked at her with such concern and friendship that her heart moved with affection for him.

"Because I still can't tell you anything about the witch in Timber. Though...." She trailed off.

"Say it," Laguna urged. "You second-guess yourself all the time, Edea. Especially after Time Compression."

She just murmured under her breath.

"Spill it. You know... with Squall as my son, I can be very patient at getting people to open up."

Edea couldn't help but laugh, her golden brown eyes glittering in the dim light. "This witch is egotistical."

"Really?" Laguna asked, genuinely sounding interested. It was because he was. Edea wasn't only a great Sorceress, but she was a smart one. It was true that after the influence of Ultimecia, she'd started to question her own power, the correctness of it. But, perhaps that also had to do with what had happened with Seifer. Laguna knew she blamed herself for the whole thing, which he thought was ridiculous.

"She, or he.... is veiling themselves from identification, but not very hard. They want people in the know to be aware that they are in Timber, but just not aware of their identity. At least not yet."

"But, why?" Laguna asked. "If she was so egotistical, you figure she'd be screaming her name from the rooftops."

"There has to be a purpose for this. But, the power that she's giving off..." Edea trailed off, shrugging. "We don't even know that it's a woman. Perhaps that is why the power feels so differently. Male witches are rare, but they can exist."

"You don't sound too sure about that."

"I'm not," Edea admitted, turning away from the window. The candles were burning very lowly, their flames starting to flicker. "A Sorcerer wouldn't feel this differently."

"But, what would?"

"I wish I knew." Edea slumped, sighing in defeat.

"You'll figure it out."

Edea looked over at the President of Esthar. "You have more confidence in me than I do myself."

"I know why you don't have any," he said quietly. "Because you blame yourself for what happened with Seifer, and now you think that an incorrect decision by you will destroy someone." Laguna's brow furrowed. "When you don't even know that anything has destroyed Seifer."

"I do know it," Edea shot back, standing up in anger. She wasn't angry at Laguna, but at herself. "I should have been stronger against her. I should have protected him. No, not only him. All of them."

Laguna shook his head, also standing up. Edea's black satin nightgown and robe that covered it swished as she paced, floating behind her as did her dark, silky hair. He grabbed hold of her shoulders, and shook her firmly. "Yeah, Time Compression sucked, but it changed things. You can't take it back, Edea."

"I wish I could."

"But, why?" He asked angrily, shaking her again.

Her robe slid off her pale shoulder, and her eyes flared with anger. She shoved Laguna away from herself. "What, you don't think I should wish the taint of Ultimecia away from me? You don't think that I should wish her poison hands had never touched my child? I've lost him because of her!"

"And, look at what others have gained. There is always sacrifice, Edea! You don't know that Seifer is suffering. He could be living happily somewhere. Look at Squall and Rinoa. Look at everyone who bound together, making our nations stronger. Good things came out of Time Compression."

Edea put her fingers to her smooth forehead, the wrinkles that came with age and stress deepening around her eyes as she frowned. "I.... you're right, Laguna. I must stop feeling sorry for myself."

He put his hands on her shoulders again, comforting his long-time friend. "You're a kind, sensitive woman. You feel things very deeply. I know Cid would agree with me there."

She smiled sadly. "You're so wise, Laguna."

He laughed, hugging her to his chest. "Wow, that's something nobody's called me in a long time. Can you say it again in front of Kiros and Ward?"

She laughed as he kissed the top of her head. "Anytime, Laguna."

He pulled away from her, his face becoming serious once more. "No more doubting yourself, okay kiddo?"

"Yes, sir." She brushed some strands of hair out of her face, Laguna's fingers strong and warm on her shoulders. She then became very aware that she was only in her nightgown and robe. The robe covered the sheer black lace bodice, and saved some of her modesty, but Laguna was still very close to her. One of the shoulders of her robe had fallen off once more, exposing a lot of her white skin across the shoulder and her chest. It also showed the thin strap of the lingerie underneath, Laguna's fingers on her bare skin. She felt more hair tickling the side of her face, her own strands mixed with Laguna's own long, dark hair. He stared down into her eyes, seeing the beautiful woman that she was, feeling the warmth of her skin and smelling the faintness of her darkly beautiful perfume. It smelled the like the flowers that flourished around her orphanage.

Edea looked into Laguna's pale eyes, into his achingly handsome face. With Cid at Garden all the time and Edea in Centra, they often spent time apart, and Edea had begun to feel the pull of loneliness. She could see that in his eyes, too. He'd been without a woman for a long time, without a lover, without a companion. He understood how she felt, understood so much about her. He understood about Seifer, because of his situation with Squall. He seemed to understand so much about her, maybe even more than Cid.

Cid. My husband.

She pulled away from Laguna, closing her robe tightly around her body. "I....."

Laguna let out his breath, eyes trailing over how the satin clung to the mature, sensual curves of her hips and breasts. "I'll.... I'll see you in the morning." He quickly left, blood rushing out of his head and into other areas. How could he have thought such sexual thoughts about Edea? She was married, for Hyne's sake. She also happened to be married to his friend. He felt so dirty, like he'd betrayed Cid. But, he thought of her golden eyes in that darkened room, of the warmth of her skin and the way her breasts slowly moved up and down as she breathed, how like flowers she'd smelled. He loved women that smelled like flowers....

"Oh, Raine..." He trailed off, rubbing his forehead. He walked away from Edea's room, from that black satin that draped off her pale skin, off her womanly curves, how that satin would look falling away from her body..... "Why am I thinking this?"

Edea leaned against the door, hearing Laguna's footsteps receded down the hallway until she couldn't hear them anymore. She closed her eyes, chastising herself. What was wrong with her? Getting all hot and bothered just because Laguna had touched her bare shoulder?! She sat back down at the window seat, staring sadly out at the city. But, this time she wasn't thinking of the mysterious witch in Timber, or of Seifer. She was thinking of how she'd wronged Cid without even doing anything. But, the thoughts about Laguna like that had been so violent, so vivid. The thought of him ripping this nightgown right off her body, claiming her as his own, hands calloused from gun use running over her breasts....

She jumped when the door opened and closed, almost afraid that it would be Laguna. But, it was Cid. He smiled at his wife, pushing his glasses up his nose. "Hello, love. Still awake?" His blue eyes filled with concern. "Is something wrong?"

She tore across the room, flinging herself in her husband's arms.

"Edea?" He hugged his wife, but it was with worry. He looked into her eyes. "What's happened?"

"Nothing," she mused sadly, hugging herself to him again, so tightly. "I just missed you, that's all."

"That's not all...." He began, but Edea kissed him sharply, killing all the words on his mouth. He kissed her back, pushing the robe off her shoulders so she was just in the thin, sexy lingerie, as elegant and sensual as she was herself.

"Trust me that it is," she said quietly, the candles on the table having now burnt out, floating the room into deeper darkness, only the blue lights outside illuminating the room as Edea fell into bed with her husband, another man distantly on her mind.

Daeva sipped his expensive brandy, listening to the women he'd hired to sing along with his harpsichord player.

Vi'kshatlatha Kollerurlah, dos meik u'sheikaram dahzi.

So'ulurha dos y'khexial xialiphi dos meikaka.

Vi'shak xillath xerthar dal akaxa doxapha...

He smiled, hearing the distant words, hearing their real meaning, feeling the power of it being sang elsewhere, fuelling his fire.

"The rain falls this night, oh Evil Messenger,

Tears for your dark lament, song for the dead.

Give your beautiful blessing to their rotten flesh."

Daeva watched the women sing, Blackball heightening the power of their words. Their eyes glittered like black gems, and Daeva's power only rose. It filled him with warmth, like the brandy in the expensive crystal goblet between long fingers. He looked up angrily when his manservant, Ulurha-barely a man at 17, came close to him. Daeva had wanted peace during his little private concert, even from someone as lovely as Ulurha with his auburn hair and cupid's bow mouth. His mouth that worked wonders on human flesh, showing tricks learned from a childhood bred in prostitution, slavery and brothels.

"I'm sorry to disturb you, Master. But, there is a guest here to see you, one that... I believe you will want to see."

"Oh?" Daeva asked sharply. The singers faltered a little, but kept going when Daeva waved a graceful hand at them to continue.

"A man by the name of Etanin Alwaid, Master."

Daeva's pretty face paled just a little. He stood up quickly. "Get out," he commanded, pacing around his lounge. The harpsichord player stopped, but the singers kept going. "Get out!" Daeva shouted angrily, flinging some of his thick, lustrous hair over his shoulders. It looked especially black compared to his all white suit. "Out, out, out!!!" He screamed.

The singers screeched and fled the room, the harpsichord player not far behind. Ulurha bowed and opened the doors. "Etanin Alwaid, Master." He closed them once more, and Daeva knew his pretty little toy hadn't gone far. He knew not to, for if he strayed to where it took him too long to heed his Master's call, Daeva got displeased.

Mr. Alwaid came into the room, looking around with mild interest, his dark eyes bland. His brown hair was neatly slicked back from his face. He wore an expensive coat made of brown leather, and it swept the rugs as Etanin Alwaid looked around the room.

"You've obtained quite a lovely manor for yourself, Count. A pretty little manservant, too. Though, a little young, perhaps."

"My Lord." Daeva bowed, but looked up through a curtain of his hair at Bahamut. His eyes showed a little anger. "Whatever brings you here?"

"Cut the shit, Daeva." Bahamut's eyes narrowed as he gripped Daeva's chin, forcing the willowy man to look him straight in the eyes. Bahamut's human form was taller than Diablos's, so the Dark Messenger's feet were dangling a little off the rugs. "I know what you're doing."

"My Lord?" Diablos asked, eyes showing defiance.

The shadow on the wall behind Bahamut grew, showing the silhouette of a great dragon, though his body remained that of a human. Diablos's shadow also revealed his true form, while his human body kept the lie. "You didn't think I'd know from the very instant you came here?" Bahamut asked, cocking an arched eyebrow, eyes daring Diablos to interrupt him. "Don't be a fool, for I know you aren't."

"Then, why didn't you come sooner?" Diablos asked as Bahamut unceremoniously let go of him. He stumbled, but with the grace of his faerie blood, he regained composure beautifully, standing in the middle of his sumptuous room, lips full and blushed with the brandy he'd been sipping. He smiled at his King, but his teeth were sharp and rather monstrous fangs.

"You do enjoy your fun, Daeva."

"What do you mean?"

"What you are doing is harmless, Berith. I do get amusement out of your little games." He stepped closer to the Dark Messenger. "But, I am watching you. So, you better watch your ass." They spoke in a language so complex that no human could have ever possibly understood it, even with millennia of study. It was the language of Summons, a language no truly human mouth could even form.

"Of course." Diablos fell to his knees and clasped his King's hands, kissing them and pressing his forehead to them. "My King..." He looked up, chin resting on the backs of Bahamut's hands. The King took his hands away and stroked over the top of Diablos's lush black hair, then waved an arm, silently commanding the other to rise to his feet.

"You have to work on the phoniness of your heraldry worship."

Diablos laughed darkly and winked. "Care for a drink?" Diablos may have done everything and anything he could get away with in Bahamut's court, and even lied to his king, but the truth was that Diablos did love Bahamut, did adore and worship him with the reverence that a peasant worships a Lord, and the uglier truth was that though Diablos knew this, he also knew Bahamut knew it. And, he hated that. It was something that the King could always hold over Diablos's head.

"That would be fine." He watched with onyx eyes as Daeva poured some brandy. "You must be careful around the SeeD, you realize."

"Yes, I realize that!" Diablos snapped, angrily thrusting the goblet into Bahamut's hand. "I'm not an idiot!"

The dragon just stared at Diablos with human eyes, silent and angry.

"I apologize," Diablos was finally forced to say, hating to say it.

Bahamut smiled at Diablos's displeasure. "They do carry Ifrit and Cactuar with them. You're lucky you yourself weren't released by our former master to them." He laughed genuinely, sipping his drink. "You would have been... ah, as they say... fucked."

Diablos's too beautiful face showed his displeasure, then a dark smirk. "You could say that, though perhaps it would have also added a layer of amusement." His face darkened, showing uncharacteristic concern. "My Lord, there is a matter that..... I wonder if you're aware of...."

"Which would be?" Bahamut asked, running the fingers of his left hand through Diablos's magnificent hair.

"She is here."

"I know," Bahamut hissed, his hand gripping the crystal goblet hard enough that it shattered in his hand, which had transformed into a clawed one with slate blue scales. Wings flapped from his back with his anger, but they receded as the cuts on his hand healed before their eyes. Neither made a move to clean up the broken glass. That was a maid's job. "Have you contacted her?" He asked stiffly.

"No," Diablos answered. "I can't pinpoint her location. Even since I last felt her, she has weakened considerably."

Bahamut's upper lip curled into a sneer. "Stay away from her. That is my concern."

"Of course, My Lord."

A long silence stretched, where Bahamut's anger receded, leaving him totally with his human form once more, hand back to human shape. He gripped a handful of Diablos's hair and brought him in for a kiss, their mouths pressed tightly against each other. Their teeth grew into fangs, cutting the delicate skin of a human mouth, making the kiss bloody. Slate blue wings flapped out, mingling with oily black and red ones, draping around their bodies. Diablos's iron will faltered in his King's arms, and he was hatefully pliant and subservient. His human body's knees weakened with love and adoration, and he let out a small little moan, despising this weakness in him, and yet knowing he would have given his body to his Lord that instant if asked.

Bahamut pulled away, Diablos's body sliding to the expensive rug like liquid. The dark blue wings receded into Bahamut's back, and he licked his bloodstained lips. He did adore Diablos, heralding him above all the other summons, but he did enjoy weakening his pride like this. It left no doubt of who was still very much in charge. Diablos was panting, slumped on the floor, his wings around his human body, whip-like tail swishing.

"Remember what I said, Berith." Bahamut opened the double doors to the lounge, walking out into the hallway. Ulurha watched his master's guest leave, the regal man paying the auburn-haired young man no attention. Etanin Alwaid stepped out onto the sidewalks of Timber's Westphal district, then disappeared from sight.

Daeva collected himself, rising to his feet as he heard the King of Summons leave his manor. He put a hand to his chest, feeling blood dribbling over the curve of his lower lip. Oh, why hadn't he stayed and finished what he'd started? His love and lust for his King turned into anger. "So, you think you can weaken me with a simple kiss, do you?" Daeva asked the empty room in their ancient tongue. "Ulurha!" He called angrily.

"Yes, Master?" The boy asked, coming into the room. When his eyes met his Master's, everything vanished. Nothing mattered but those black and blue eyes, a hypnotic and dark ocean.... floating away for leagues..... no voices, only his.

"Do you worship me?" Daeva asked.

"Yes, Master." Ulurha's young and pretty face was so delectable, like a tender and ripe fruit.

"Then, do so."

His young little professional of course did as he was told, falling to his knees to perform fellatio on Count Aka-Manah. While Ulurha's method of worship was different than that of the Blackballers, the principle was the same. With everyone that worshipped him, worshipped his power, Diablos only grew stronger. And, with each passing day, that power only grew. It would only be a matter of time before the entire city would be his base of power, consuming all the lowly humans with his dark message.

Archimedes was closed for the night, but that didn't mean there wasn't activity inside. After hours, Seifer was always there, forging weapons. Today, he was doing it with distraction. He was thinking about the money Zell had left behind for the gloves. How dare he?! And, yet... there was something sweet about the sense of honour in the gesture. The gesture was much like Zell himself. It was infuriating on the surface, but rather sweet beyond that. Seifer smirked, thinking of all the times in the past that Zell had flipped out and gotten so amusingly angry at him.

Seifer looked up from the sword he was making when he heard a distant banging. He stopped the sharpener and heard it again. It sounded like someone was banging on the door. Maybe Gietzen or Xera had forgotten something. He went up the stairs from the basement smithy into his office. The banging got louder. He stepped out into the dark, locked shop, stopping when he saw a small, familiar person bashing on the door. Seifer strode over, opening the door. "Hey, Chicken-Wuss.... to what do I owe yet another visit?"

Zell pushed past the taller man into the shop. "You fucking lying bastard," Zell hissed.

Seifer raised an eyebrow, pulling Zell's money out of his pocket. "Want to talk about being a bastard?" He chucked Zell's money at him. "I don't need your fucking pity money." The bills fluttered to the ground around Zell's black sneakers. "Besides, you think 400 gil would even cover a quarter of what those gloves cost?"

"Tell me about Raijin."

Seifer froze, the angry look pasted on his face. Zell watched as that expression of anger crumpled into a dead one. But, Seifer's peridot eyes couldn't stay dead. Seifer looked as if Zell had slapped him.

"What about him?" Seifer asked, but his voice was subdued, without the acid that had been in it only moments before.

"Are you one, too?" Zell asked headedly, remembering that look in Raijin's eyes. But, it didn't seem present in Seifer's eyes.

"One what?" Seifer asked, putting a hand on his hip.

"A Blackballer."

Seifer again looked like Zell had slapped him. "No."

Zell narrowed his pale eyes. Seifer said that one word with such force that Zell believed him. And, his body showed none of the symptoms.

"You saw him...." Seifer trailed off, not making it a question.


Seifer's eyes closed, and he walked past Zell into his office, needing to sit down. "How.... uh.... what was he like....?"

"You should know," Zell snapped, standing in the doorway.

Seifer rubbed his forehead, his elbow rested on the armrest of his chair. "I haven't seen him in three years."


Seifer looked up at his former classmate, his eyes looking haunted. "Believe what you want about me, Zell. Everyone else did, anyway."

"Where's Fujin?" Zell demanded, finding it harder and harder to be mad at Seifer.

The now brunette looked up sharply. "She's not one of those fucking addicts, if that's what you're implying." His voice lowered again. "She works at the Aphorora Pub as a bartender. You can ask her all you want about Raijin, but she might beat your ass for it." There was no humour in his voice, though.

Zell came fully into the office, sitting in the chair right across from Seifer. The way the office was set up, the desk was against the wall, so it couldn't be between them. He'd stormed all the way across town to confront Seifer, but now none of that anger was in him. "What happened to him?"

"I don't know how it started," Seifer admitted, looking into Zell's pale eyes. "Neither of us do."

"You mean you and Fujin?"

Seifer just stared rather than nodding.

"Is she your wife now?" Zell asked, cocking his head.

Seifer threw his head back and laughed, but it wasn't a laugh of humour. It was a bitter, sad one. "No," he said with a smile. "Not even close. I'm queer."

Zell felt like he'd swallowed a butterfly. "You..... you.... y-you are?"

Seifer snorted, running his hand through his brown hair. "Yeah. But, being gay isn't as bad as being Seifer Almasy in most people's eyes, so what do I care if you know?"

Zell's mind was filled with a million quick images of him and Seifer on that desk in the corner, their naked limbs tangled together, mouths hungrily moving against each other. He shook them away, because this was Seifer of all men. And, because of what he'd seen tonight in Raijin's eyes. "He was speaking in a weird language. Do you know what it is?"

"," Seifer answered after a pause. "I never heard him use a different language. He spoke in gibberish sometimes, though."

"He was doing that tonight."


"Why haven't you seen him in so long?"

Seifer made an angry noise. "Because of that fucking drug. It changed him. It's all he cares about. He stopped sleeping and eating regularly."

"Yeah, he looked skinny...." Zell trailed off.

Seifer's eyes closed, and to the tattooed blonde, it looked like he was in pain.

"Why, though....?" Zell asked. A part of his mind just couldn't comprehend that someone he knew was really affected by this, a student of Garden could have been seduced by this drug. It made him wonder at how truly powerful the allure of Blackball really was.

"I don't...." Seifer paused, looking at Zell. "I don't know." He looked so much like the old Seifer, and yet so different. And, it wasn't his brown hair and eyeglasses that did it, either. It was the look in his eyes that was the most changed. What Seifer was telling him was important, but Zell's mind couldn't help but go back to Seifer's utterance of his sexual orientation.

"You must have some idea," Zell insisted.

Seifer suddenly rose to full height, looking very tall and imposing, anger flying across his face. "Don't you think I wish I fucking had, Chicken-Wuss?"

Zell frowned at the nickname. "Don't call me that," he insisted lowly, glaring up at his former (and current...?) adversary.

"Just go home, Zell. And, take your charity gil with you."

"What's so wrong with me wanting to pay for the weapons?" Zell asked, standing up as well.

Seifer then laughed, more of a bark than a chuckle. "Do you really think 400 gil would come even close to paying for those gloves?" He turned his back to the short blonde. "Just go. I don't have any answers to give you."

Zell opened his mouth to protest, but he knew it was futile. Seifer had clammed up, turned to stone. Zell just sighed, leaving. He stepped through the littered gil, but didn't move to pick any of it up. Instead of going back to his apartment, Zell made his way into old downtown Timber, all the buildings and train tracks bringing back memories from a decade ago. He walked down to the Aphorora Pub. It was crowded due to people waiting for the overnight train. He gently weaved through the chattering crowd, entering the Pub. The last time he'd been here.... God, he'd been too young to drink. A lifetime ago. He looked around the dimly lit bar. People were starting to leave, as the bar was doing last call. Zell's eyes swept the bar, and he saw a familiar face behind it, though she looked a little different, though not as much as Seifer. He supposed that Fujin couldn't really blend into a crowd, even if she tried.

"DRINK?" Fujin asked, not even really seeing Zell's face. She had that tired look in her eye that said she was only running on fumes. She still had her eyepatch, her visible eye claret red and glittering with her iron resolve and persona.

"INFORMATION," Zell murmured back to her, winking when she did a double take.

Her eye widened, and her blank expression briefly changed. "CHICKEN?"

Zell rolled his eyes, folding his hands on the bar. "Can I have a vodka tonic?"

Fujin wordlessly started to make the drink, her formerly silver hair still cut in the same manner as it had always been, shaggy and chin-length, but now it was black, making her look even more dark and mysterious, though it made her look a little less severe. She unceremoniously plunked Zell's drink order before him.

"You look good," he told her, taking a sip. It was good.


"A lot better than Raijin looked."

Fujin nearly dropped the glass she was polishing, her russet eye wide. "RAIJIN?"

"I saw him tonight."

"ALIVE?" Fujin looked into Zell's face, which looked the same to her as it had ten years ago, though age had given it more maturity. He was more handsome now than he had been as a teenager. In private conversation while they'd all been at Garden, Seifer had always heralded Zell's looks, saying he was very attractive, though compared to the likes of Squall, nobody had ever really noticed. Now that Zell was older, she saw that Seifer had been correct in his assessments. She tried not to show it, but even the smallest tidbit of information about Raijin stirred her. Seifer remained very silent on the whole situation, but she knew that her old friend missed Raijin, too.

"Yeah," Zell murmured into his drink, his stomach constricting when he thought of that awful, desperate look in Raijin's eyes. He was in Hell, and yet he seemed to want to stay there. "He's still alive."

Fujin turned to the bartender beside her. "BREAK."

The guy just nodded and started telling a man sitting a few stools away from Zell that he was too drunk and should take a trolley home. Fujin came out from behind the bar, and nodded for Zell to follow her. He did so, and she led them to the back door that opened to the alley that connected the Aphorora Pub to the Timber TV Station, which in this time of Timber's massive growth, was now an international multimedia company, and had expanded, absorbing some of the older buildings around it.

"Seifer wouldn't tell me anything about how Raijin got like that," Zell said, wanting to get that information out in the open. He knew Fujin's first questions would be if Zell had seen Seifer. "And, no... I'm not going to tell Squall."

She looked relieved.

"Are you hiding too.... like he is?"

"NEGATIVE." She shook her head, running her hand through her hair with a simple shrug. "CHANGE."

"Just wanted something different?" Zell asked hollowly.

She furrowed her brow, and they were silent for a while. "We tried everything to get him to stop."

Zell watched her, not used to her using complete sentences. As he and Fujin had been classmates, he'd often wondered what had caused her to speak in such a manner. "What happened?" He asked.

"Where was he?" She demanded, gripping Zell's shoulders.

"At some... 'party' in Bridgeport Square."

She dropped her hands, a defeated look on her face. "BLACKBALL?"

Zell nodded.

She turned and started to go to the Pub.

"Hey!" He called after her. "You didn't tell me anything!"

"What's to tell?" She asked bitterly, rhetorically.

"Fujin!" He called after her, but she went in the Pub and closed the alley door. "Shit," he cursed under his breath, kicking at a discarded paper cup from a popular local coffee and bakery shop called The Lonely Orchid. Finding out how someone with SeeD training like Raijin had fallen into Blackball would go a long way to finding who was controlling and manufacturing it. Zell started walking through the streets of Timber, defeated. He hoped that Selphie was having better luck than he was.

Zell looked around the neighbourhood, seeing what could become the next Bridgeport Square. Zell and Raijin had never been what one could consider good friends, but it hurt the blonde to see his former classmate like that. He looked around, and found himself on a familiar street in Alraune. It was still dark, still the dead of night, but there was still a dim light on at Archimedes. Zell stood on the sidewalk, hedging his bets. He could go back in and try to question Seifer again, using more force this time, or he could go back to Selphie and tell her everything, not meaning about what little information he'd gotten from Seifer and Fujin, but about Seifer himself, that he was in Timber, living under an assumed name, basically hiding from his past.

But, before Zell could make a move, the front door of the shop opened, and Seifer came out, bundled up in a dark, knee-length coat and brightly striped scarf wrapped around his neck. Seifer started walking up the sidewalk, and Zell followed at a distance. He didn't see the large shape of a gunblade anywhere on Seifer's person, but that didn't mean he wasn't armed. Zell thought that Seifer was going to wait at the trolley stop for a ride, and there he could confront the taller man once more. But, Seifer rounded a corner, and there was a small parking lot there, mostly empty now because all the businesses and shops were shut for the night. Seifer got into a car, illuminating the lot with the headlights. It wasn't a fancy car, actually a truck, and not the sort of vehicle Zell would have pictured Seifer Almasy driving. The truck started, and Seifer drove away. Zell didn't have a car, so he couldn't follow. Instead, he had to go back to his apartment with dejection.

He went to Selphie's rooms, sat in her living room and waited for his friend to return. He wearily rubbed the back of his neck, and started mulling Seifer and Fujin's reactions over in his mind. He knew that both of them were clear of the drug just from their appearance, but there had been outright anger in their eyes too. There was a story there, for sure. Zell also started to feel ill suddenly. The room felt warm, and Zell got dizzy. He wound up laying down on the couch, wondering where this dizzy spell came from. He put a hand to his belly when it felt like something was alive inside him, and his body suddenly flared like he'd had gasoline for blood, and someone had taken a match to him. It was Ifrit within him, restless and angry. The reaction of the Fire God in his body was so violent that Zell thought he was going to vomit, and even tasted the acidic bile in his mouth. And, that's how Selphie found him an hour later, still curled up on her couch, panting quietly through the pain. Ifrit didn't speak to him, but was definitely agitated about something.

"Zell!" Selphie exclaimed, coming into the room. "Are you okay?!" She put her hand on his arm, and snatched it away. He felt hot. "Holy Hyne, you're burning up!"

Zell groaned, looking at her.

"I'll call a doctor!" She bolted up, but one of Zell's hot hands encircled her wrist.

"No," he protested hoarsely. "I'm... I'm not sick." He sighed, shirt sticking to his sweaty torso. "It's Ifrit..."

"Ifrit?" Selphie looked at her friend with concern, but also with vague knowledge. She'd also felt this unrest within her, the desire to vomit something living out of her stomach. Though, Cactuar was a strange GF, so he didn't act with the same properties as a more traditional powerhouse like Ifrit. "I wonder why...."

Zell slowly sat up, hand to his forehead. "I'm a little better. Don't worry about me, okay?"

She nodded, knowing that when Zell said he was fine, he meant it. "Okay, I did what sleuthing I could, but so far I haven't gotten much. Right now, it's just waiting for people to get back to me." Selphie started pulling out equipment for having a video phone call to Garden. "The name on the lease for that building is a Mr. Talman Sinclaire, but I haven't found out anything about him yet. And, I have no idea where to start with that song they were singing, so I'm going to ask Rinoa." Mentally, Selphie added that she would look into the whispered utterance she'd heard earlier in the day. Ek ipo pipappa. "And, I also need to wait for Timber Police to call us before we can take a run at those Blackballers that were arrested." She cocked her head, looking at Zell. He looked flushed, but otherwise okay. "Any luck finding Fujin?"

Zell grunted. "Yeah, but she wasn't much help."

"Is she....?" Selphie's voice lowered. "Addicted...?"

"No," Zell said with certainty. "Even mentioning Raijin's name affected her. There's a lot of hurt feelings there."

"What about Seifer?"

Zell jerked. "What about him?"

"Did she mention him? I mean, they were all close when they were at Garden, so.... you think he's in Timber?" She started connecting the video system, dialling into the Balamb Garden network.

"I...." Zell closed his eyes, thinking of Seifer's pleas to remain hidden. He heard the chime of connection into the system, and then heard Squall's voice. He opened his eyes and saw Squall's attractive face and its sterile expression.

"What's your status?" Squall asked, not bothering to say hello or asking how they were settling into life in Timber. Or, even asking about Zell's health, since he knew he probably looked a little sickly.

"We made contact with some Blackballers tonight," Selphie said, getting things started. Zell let her talk, the connection between him and Ifrit still humming like a shorting electrical current. "The effects of the drug seems more encompassing than we'd thought. Unfortunately, we had an altercation when we came into contact with Raijin."

"Raijin?" Squall interrupted sharply, showing the first signs of emotion. "Explain...." Squall's pouty lips were turned downward in a frown.

"I found Fujin," Zell murmured quietly, wanting to keep his words to a minimum, because he felt like if he kept his mouth open too long, he was going to be sick. What had gotten Ifrit so hot and bothered? "But, she wasn't very talkative."

"She usually wasn't." Squall's face was so clouded, mimicking his name. "And.... Seifer?" He spoke the name harshly, in a way that caused Zell to not pay attention to his ill feelings for a moment. He looked into Squall's face, trying to read the emotion there. But, it was difficult.

Selphie shrugged. "We don't know. I can ask..."

"I'll try asking Fujin again," Zell interrupted. If Selphie tried to question Fujin, it would come out that Seifer was in Timber, and that Zell had also lied about it. "But, I wouldn't hold out any hope. I just know that something bad happened. Though, it brings up the troubling fact that Blackball can affect anyone, even someone with SeeD training." Zell closed his eyes, still feeling light-headed.

"Yes," Squall noted.

"When we're done, I need to speak to Rinoa," Selphie said. "At the thing tonight, some people were speaking a strange language, and maybe she'd know something about that."

Squall nodded and pressed a button on his desk. "Rinoa, can you come up to my office? Selphie needs you." He then folded his hands on the desk, looking at both of them again. "And Zell, when you speak to Fujin again, try to find out Seifer's whereabouts."

"If we can't get the answers from Fujin, do you think we'd really be able to get them from him?" Selphie asked, cocking her head.

"I... I would still like to speak with him." The way Squall said it again made Zell frown, and again made him think that Seifer was smarter for keeping himself hidden. Did Squall still have hard feelings toward Seifer for things that had happened over ten years ago? Squall never talked much about the past, so Zell wasn't sure. It also told a lot about his friendship with the other man. Zell was supposed to be Squall's best friend, and yet he knew so little of what Squall felt.

"I have a meeting now. You can get your information from Rinoa." He started to stand, but stopped himself. "Irvine contacted us earlier. He'll be in Timber in three days."

Selphie's face exploded with a huge smile that made Zell happy for her, but also quite envious. He didn't have anyone that made him that happy. Squall left the screen, and then Rinoa popped in, her face friendlier than Squall's brisk business-like demeanour. She greeted them, smiling brightly, and then her pretty face clouded. "Zell, are you okay?"

"I'm fine," he answered. "Ifrit's just being a jerk."

"Oh, that sucks." She frowned, and then looked at Selphie. "So, you have something for me?"

"Well, maybe." Selphie shrugged. "At the Blackball gathering we were at tonight..." Selphie trailed off and looked out the window. The sun was rising. "Or, last night I guess.... well, they were singing this song in a language I'd never heard."

"What did it sound like...?" Rinoa asked, pulling her hair back into a loose ponytail, pulling an elastic from a pocket.

"Well, I don't remember all of it, but there are some phrases. How about you?"

"I was too distracted by Raijin," Zell admitted.

"Raijin...?" Rinoa's eyes clouded. "He's an addict?"

They both nodded.

"Oh...." She pursed her heart-shaped lips. "Okay, well what do you remember, Sel?"

"Vi'kshatlatha Kollerurlah. I know that part for sure. It seemed the most important part of the song. The words were emphasized." Selphie's tongue tripped a little on the words, but she got them out.

"Hmm...." Rinoa wrote them down. "They're vaguely ringing bells, but give me a few days. I can probably dig some stuff up."

"And...." Selphie trailed off, holding up a finger. "I heard someone say something else strange. Ek ipo pipappa."

Rinoa frowned. "I've never heard anything like that before, but I'll look into it, too."

"Thanks." They talked a little more, tying up loose ends. Zell said goodnight to them as they started talking about their relationships, the room still spinning a little. He went to his room, moving towards the bedroom. He was going to just pop a few pills and hit the sack, but as soon as the pain within him came, in vanished. He was left standing in the hallway that led to the bedroom, confused and feeling disoriented. He was glad the pain was gone, and yet he wondered....why? He went into his bedroom with its new bed and paintings, laying on the bed and staring at the ceiling. He had to get answers about Raijin, and that meant forcing Seifer and Fujin to tell him about things that were obviously painful to them. Zell was a SeeD, and while he could be as ruthless as the rest of them, it didn't fill him with satisfaction to know he'd be purposely opening old wounds. He drifted off to sleep, thinking of what he had to do next.

After a few hours sleep, Zell went downtown. Selphie had stayed around the apartment, catching up on her sleep and waiting for her contacts to get back to her about the landlord of that building. Zell was once more in Alraune, standing in front of Archimedes. He went in, and saw a man at the counter, not the girl from before.

"Hello!" He greeted, eyes bored behind spectacles. His nametag said Gietzen. "Can I help you?"

Zell immediately pulled out his SeeD ID, frowning at the guy. "Is Sei.... Is Raef Emaissyl here?"

Gietzen boggled at the SeeD ID for a few moments, worry creeping into his eyes. "Uhh... am I in trouble?"

"No," Zell assured, his voice softening. "I just need to talk with your boss. It's important."

"He's not here," Gietzen told Zell. "He never usually comes in during the day, unless there's a staff meeting or something."

"I need his address."

"Um.... sure...." Gietzen got out a piece of paper, and started looking through the computer.

"You don't know his address by heart?" Zell asked.

"Mr. Emaissyl is very private." Gietzen started writing down an address, and handed the paper to Zell. "Is Mr. Emaissyl in trouble?" Gietzen asked, concern in his voice.

"No." Zell read the paper. 148 Obel Lake Road, Beech River, Mandy Bay County. "He doesn't live in the city...?"

Gietzen shook his head.

"How do I get there?" Zell asked, keeping the paper between two fingers, the scales of his gloves making him feel a little guilty for chasing after Seifer like he was a criminal.

"Just take Forest Avenue through town, and eventually there will be an exit just after the Orangewood Hotel. It will say Mandy County and Galbadia on it. Just go that way, and eventually there will be a turnoff that says Obel Lake. It's about half an hour or 45 minutes away."

"Thanks." Zell nodded and walked towards downtown, finding a rental car place along Forest Avenue, which was the main drag of Timber. He rented a car as Gietzen's directions ran through his head. He drove down, looking for the hotel the clerk had said. Zell eventually saw it up on the right, and took the exit. As he drove away from Timber, the trees densely lined the road, and Zell could catch their scent in the air, the evergreens smelling so purely like nature, and very different from the smell of industry that permeated the city. Zell found the Obel Lake exit, and as he got farther from the city, it was no longer paved. Zell turned on the radio and started humming along with the songs, finding an oldies station to his liking. The drive itself was actually quite nice, and it wasn't something he'd expected from Seifer, just like the truck he'd been driving last night. Zell had always pictured Seifer Almasy being most at home in the cosmopolitan atmosphere of Deling City, living in some downtown loft that overlooked the Presidential Palace, and eating at posh restaurants on a nightly basis. It was actually closer to an hour by the time Zell saw a sign that said 'Beech River'. In the other direction, it said 'Galbadia'. He turned right towards Beech River, seeing a few houses. There was a horse ranch up on the left, a farmer tilling a field on the right. Obel Lake Road finally appeared, just as Zell's windshield started to get dappled with rain. It only seemed like a few drops, and Zell paid attention to the radio, listening to the weather.

"It's 5 in the afternoon here in Timber, and we hope you're enjoying your work day. And now, here's the forecast," the female DJ said in a soothing voice. "Right now in Alraune, it's clouding over, the rain clouds moving in. The outer areas will start to see the rain now, and the precipitation will move into the city within the next couple of hours. Expect 2 or 3 millimetres. Temperatures will drop overnight...." Zell tuned out as he saw houses with a little more frequency. Though, they still each had large yards, nestled in among the forests. On the right, he could see the shining surface of Obel Lake peeking through the foliage. Because the houses were so far in from the road, their numbers were on their mailboxes, and he saw number 10, so he started looking for 14. He found it, seeing Emaissyl on the mailbox. Zell turned into the gravel driveway that wound through the trees, coming to a nicely situated house that was lovely looking, and again something that he hadn't pictured for Seifer. The truck was in the driveway, to Zell's enjoyment. It would have sucked to come out all this way for nothing.

He parked the car and got out, looking at the two story house. It wasn't huge, but it was bigger than his Ma's house in Balamb Town. It wasn't too big for just one person. Zell then wondered if Seifer lived out here with anyone. With Fujin? With a... lover?

He climbed up the sturdy porch steps, and knocked on the door. Seifer opened the door, wearing a grey T-shirt that was covered in paint splatters, and a pair of old jeans. His face showed shock. "Zell...?!" He composed himself, but it took a few moments. Zell waited patiently, feeling a few drops of water fall on the top of his head, being blown in under the porch by the wind. "What the hell are you doing out here?"

"I need to talk to you."

"About?" Seifer asked stiffly, still floored that Zell was on his doorstep.


Seifer rolled his pale green eyes. "Oh, that again?"

"Yeah. That. Again." Zell put his hands on his hips. "I came all this way, so you might as well let me in."

"Why should I?" Seifer countered.

"Because I could call Squall right up and tell him your address." Zell pulled the piece of paper Gietzen had given him out of his pocket. "14 Obel Lake Road..." He started to read.

"All right, all right," the taller man hissed angrily, opening the screen door.

Zell looked around, the house feeling like a real home. It reminded him a little of the nice houses in Winhill with their wooden staircases and mouldings. It was also nicely decorated, with a purely masculine touch. You could tell no woman had a hand in furnishing the place, and yet everything matched and suited each other. Not just a man's touch. A gay man's touch. "Nice place."

"Cut the small talk, Chicken-Wuss."

"Squall's interested in finding you," Zell said smoothly, taking off his coat.

"What?" Seifer asked, though he'd clearly heard Zell.

"Where should I hang this?" Zell asked, holding out his coat, smiling at Seifer's discomfort.

Seifer took the coat and threw it onto the stairs. "Did you see Fujin?"

"She wasn't very talkative."

Seifer smirked, but it was with anger. "What, you think she'd just open up to you? Gimme a fucking break." Seifer walked down the hall into a living room. There were books lining the walls, as well as CDs and movies. He sat in an armchair, glaring up at Zell. He waved one hand. "Well, you might as well fucking sit down."

Zell did so, staring at Seifer for a long time.

"What?!" Seifer demanded angrily. "Did you come here just to stare at me?"

"I'm trying to be delicate!" Zell shot back. "I don't want to open raw wounds, but you're not making me feel sympathy for you when you're acting like such a cunt."

"Who said I wanted sympathy from you?" Seifer asked under his breath.

"Raijin's your friend!" Zell exclaimed with emotion. "It must hurt you to know he's doing Blackball!"

"Of course it does!" Seifer yelled. "But, I don't want to talk about it."

"Can you at least tell me about the drug itself?" The tattooed blonde asked, hearing rain gently pattering against the windows.

"You actually trust my opinion?" Seifer asked stiffly, staring at Zell intently. Besides Fujin, Zell was the only visitor to have recently come to Seifer's house. It felt a little strange to be talking to another man in his living room when he'd been so solitary for so long. And, Zell's concern and curiosity did look very genuine. But, there was still the problem that Zell could just go running off to his precious Squall and Squall as a visitor was something that Seifer didn't want. Squall, everyone's fucking golden boy.

"Yes," Zell answered instantly. "You have the same training that I do."

Seifer smirked, shrugging. "Probably better. After all, nobody but Quistis got higher on the SeeD exams than I did."

"Yeah," Zell mused. "You just couldn't pass the field exam."

The brunette's expression soured. "I can't really tell you about Blackball. I mean, it's been around for a while, but compared to other drugs, nobody gave a shit. It wasn't until Timber got all fucked up with it that anyone cared, including myself."

"Do you even know how it's made?"

"Easily," Seifer muttered. "Anyone with a little item knowledge can cook it up. It's probably as easy to make as crystal meth."

"So.... anyone could be doing it, really." Zell sighed. "I was hoping for more leads."

"Squall getting on your ass for results?" Seifer asked, one pale eyebrow cocked. He may have had the dark hair, but Zell could still see the other man's blondeness. "But, I guess he can't be bothered to do anything about it himself."

Zell frowned. "Sounds like you still have bitter feelings...."

Seifer glared at Zell. "There could be a million people in Timber making Blackball. You'll never be able to track it by manufacturer. Believe me, I tried."

"You tried?"


"Because of Raijin?"

"Yes." Seifer closed his eyes, feeling the defeat as if it had just happened. "We tried everything to get him to stop."

"How did he start?"

"We don't know. Don't you think Fujin and me asked ourselves that over and over again?!" Seifer got up and started pacing around. "Don't you think we asked ourselves that when Raijin started stealing to pay for the drug, when he started losing weight and talking to himself? When he brought strange people back to his apartment, and didn't sleep for days on end?"

Zell didn't dare interrupt. Seifer was finally talking to him, so if he stopped, Zell wasn't sure he'd start again. And, he also didn't know what to say. Zell had seen a lot of Seifer's emotions growing up, but never this... helplessness.

"We tried to get him clean, we tried everything.... but, he just didn't want to stop."

"Were you ever curious.... about it?" Zell asked, hearing the rain getting a little louder.

"What, Blackball?"

Zell nodded, hands folded in his lap.

Seifer sat back down, flopping into the chair. "Even if I had been, seeing what Raijin had been reduced to because if it made me never want to touch it."

Zell thought of how horrible the formerly burly and healthy man had looked. "I know the feeling."

Seifer sighed heavily, the weight intense in his heart.

"I-I'm sorry," Zell stammered out.

"Fujin and Raijin were all I had," Seifer murmured quietly, talking more to himself than Zell. "To have to give up on him hurt."

Zell's brow furrowed, and he put a comforting hand on Seifer's knee, seeing how much pain this reminiscing was putting the other man through.

Seifer looked up, staring into Zell's eyes for a few moments, struck dumb by the feeling of another man touching him. It had been a long time... He then pushed Zell's hand away, snarling angrily. "I don't need your pity." He stood up, folding his arms over his chest.

"It's not pity!" Zell exclaimed angrily. "Can't you just accept some sympathy with some dignity or some fucking class!"

Seifer frowned angrily. "If you give any pity to Raijin, make no mistake that he'd kill you. He'd stab you in the back if it meant getting more Blackball."

Zell's shoulders slumped.

"And, you won't be fixing the problem. You think that you and Selphie can stop it? You think the ever-powerful Squall can stop it? Everyone may line up to praise him to the skies and suck his dick, but he's not Hyne reincarnated. He can't stamp out human nature. Especially when he knows nothing about it."

Zell's eyebrows raised as the anger in Seifer's voice when he spoke of Squall. "I didn't think you hated Squall this much, or that you hadn't gotten over things that happened a decade ago..."

"I don't hate Squall...." Seifer trailed off. "But, I have every right to think bitterly of him."

A light bulb suddenly went off in Zell's head. "Hey... um, if you're gay, what about your relationship with Rinoa?"

Seifer laughed then. "Relationship? What relationship?"

"Well, um..." Zell fidgeted a little. "She told us that one summer, you guys...."

"One summer?" Seifer's chuckles subsided. "Yeah, we hung out one summer, but it wasn't a relationship. Maybe Rinoa thought it was, but I sure didn't. I liked her and thought her interesting, but there was never anything between us." He became inwardly thoughtful. "Maybe in her own mind, she thought I was interested sexually in her."

"Really?" Zell asked.

"Yes, really!" The brunette snapped. "I wonder if Squall thinks I fucked his precious Rinoa, his shining angel. How they were meant to be together, and I'm just the dirty trash that tried to sully her good chastity." He made a disgusted, angry face.

The tattooed blonde thought of the bitterness in Squall's voice when he'd mentioned Seifer. Did Squall feel that same way about Seifer? Zell wanted to ask why Seifer felt so ill to Squall, but now didn't seem the time, since Zell was already walking a thin line with the other man. "Because you work at the forge, you know a lot about items. You must know what's in Blackball."

Seifer shook his head. "I wish I did. I've tried to crack the code, but...." He sighed. "I haven't tried in a long time, though. I haven't wanted to be anywhere near it." Seifer put his hands on his hips. "Look, I can't tell you anything about Blackball, Chicken-Wuss."

"Don't call me that!" Zell got up, glaring at Seifer. "Shit, Seifer. I'm not 17 anymore! I'm not Chicken-Wuss anymore!"

Seifer remained silent, though in his head, he did see this was true. But, Zell still gave him that same reaction that he'd always gotten a kick out of. "Why don't you run along home now..." Seifer trailed off, going to the door.

"You're not getting rid of me that easily."

"What more can I tell you?!" Seifer demanded, spreading his hands out. "Please. Just go back to being a SeeD, and let me live in peace."

Zell opened his mouth to protest again, but saw that Seifer was determined. He angrily took his coat when it was offered to him, and opened the screen door. Outside was raining pretty hard.

"Shit," Seifer cursed.

"What?" Zell asked. "It's only a little rain. The radio only said 3 millimetres."

"That's 3 millimetres for Timber, Zell." Seifer closed the door again, taking Zell's coat. "The 118 will be washed out by now."

"The 118?"

"The road you took to get here." Seifer rolled his eyes behind his glasses. "You're stuck here, man."

"What?" Zell whined. "No way!"

"Too bad." Seifer laughed bitterly, opening the hall closet and hanging Zell's black leather jacket up. "Only you, Chicken-Wuss."

"Don't--" Zell grunted under his breath. "You asshole." He stamped his foot. "What am I going to do now?!"

"The road should be back to normal in a day or two."


Seifer laughed again. "You really haven't changed all that much."

Zell gave the other man the finger, flopping down on the couch in the living room, defeated.

"Don't worry about it," Seifer said smoothly. "I have lots of food and hot water."

"You're not going to make me live in my car?" Zell asked dully.

"I may be an asshole, but I'm not that much of an asshole," Seifer murmured, going into the kitchen. "Want a beer or something?"


Seifer brought out two bottles of a good beer imported from Fisherman's Horizon. "You think anyone will be worried about you?"

"Yeah, Selphie will probably wonder where I am." Zell took a drink of the beer, nodding. "It's good." He looked around. "Where am I going to sleep?"

"You can sleep in my bed," Seifer said, staring out at the rain. "Hmm, seems like a bad one."

"Your bed...?" Zell squeaked out, feeling a flush go through his entire body, thinking of Seifer's hands all over his flesh....

"Oh, don't get so flustered, Zell. I'll be sleeping down here." Seifer rolled his eyes. "Just because we're both gay doesn't mean we'll automatically have sex."

Zell's lips parted in absolute shock, and he felt like he'd taken a blow to the solar plexus as Seifer got up, walking out of the living room. The other man's voice called from the kitchen. "You like pasta?" Zell's lips trembled, and he couldn't move. But.... how had Seifer known.....?! He got up, walking into the kitchen like a zombie. It was a very airy room, black on cherry finished wood. "What did you say?" Zell asked stupidly, staring at Seifer, and at the same time staring somewhere beyond him, his heart pounding in his chest.

"Oh, come on Zell. I could see it in you."

"See what....?" Zell cocked his head, not being able to bring in enough oxygen.

"That you were the same as me. I can still see that fear, that lie in your eyes." Seifer shrugged, pulling some things out of a pantry. "Because it's still in me. I don't mean staying in the closet, because after Time Compression, with everyone cursing my name... well, it's not like they could hate me any more than they did, so what was the point of hiding it? But, I can see you hiding it still."

"How long have you known....?" Zell chocked out.

"Always," Seifer said quietly, no malice or teasing in his words.

"What are you lying about, then?"

Seifer groaned. "God you're stupid, Zell.... about myself. I haven't gone by the name Seifer Almasy in a long time."

"People really hated you that much?"

Seifer narrowed his eyes. "Yeah, they did."

Zell and Seifer fell into an awkward silence as the taller man prepared dinner for them. They also ate it in silence, not finding much to say to each other. Both felt rather unsure, though Zell did comment that the pasta with its wild mushroom sauce was quite good.

"So, um.... why did you start the shop?" Zell asked, wanting to make small talk, wanting to fill the silence, and yet wanting to talk about anything other than Seifer's knowledge of his sexuality.

"Oh... about six or seven years ago. It seemed a good thing to do."

"Well, you did a good job on my gloves."

"Thank you." Zell could see that Seifer was pleased with the praise. He even blushed a little.

"What did you do before that?"

"Nothing," Seifer muttered after swallowing a mouthful of food. "I was homeless."

"You were?"

"Well, Fujin and Raijin let me stay with them... this was long before he got addicted to Blackball. Anyway, I couldn't get a job because nobody wanted to hire Seifer Almasy, the Sorceress's Whore." He spat out the word Sorceress like it was poison. He hated even the sound of that word now. "I couldn't even get an apartment. No landlord wanted my taint around. I mean, I couldn't stay with them forever, so I just started wandering. I would come back to Timber once and a while just so they knew I was still alive, but I camped out, and basically just drifted around."

Zell listened to Seifer's story with interest, not daring to interrupt.

"I had Hyperion, and I would kill monsters for food, and use their skin for blankets and warmth. And, I started keeping the items, just in case I needed them. I'd always been good at Alchemy in Garden, so I knew which items were good, and which were shit. When I would go back to Timber, I would sell of the items that I had too many of. It's not like it made me a millionaire, but even 10 gil at the time was a lot of money to me. Eventually, I started wandering to more remote places, and I started getting more rare items. I upgraded Hyperion, and it just seemed a natural next step. I would fix up Fujin's shuriken and Raijin's staff, and they started recommending me to Timber Police friends of theirs, as well as ex-Galbadian Army guys that they knew. It just snowballed from there. So, I run the shop, going in at night, and I travel around and get items."

"Sounds wonderful," Zell mused.

Seifer cocked an eyebrow, surprised. He hadn't meant to talk so much to Zell, but it actually felt nice. Nice to have the company of another man-of anyone, really. "Really?" He asked, a little surprised. "I figured you would think it was kind of retarded... I mean, it's nowhere near as glamorous as being SeeD, after all." He felt a little wistful. Continuously failing the SeeD exam had always been a sore spot for Seifer, especially the way he'd failed the last one. Everyone else had ridden his failure to glory, including Zell, and especially Squall.

"No, it sounds great. So free. You get to travel wherever you want, see the world. You're your own boss."

"What, you don't get enough excitement living the life of a mercenary?"

"Try a teacher," Zell admitted as Seifer cleared the table. They had another beer, sitting across from each other. "I teach martial arts and practical anatomy."

"Impressive," Seifer admitted.

"I guess."

"What, you don't like it?"

"I do," Zell said. "But, most students only take martial arts as secondary. Lots of them would rather learn gunblading."

"Really?" Seifer asked a little bitterly.

"Yeah. They all want to be like Squall."

"Of course."

Zell frowned. "What, you wish they wanted to be like you?"

"No," Seifer admitted. "It just pisses me off that all these kids want to be like Squall and learn gunblade, when he doesn't even have a passion for it. Sure, he's good at it, but he could have just as easily chosen a gun or martial arts or a sword. He only chose gunblade because it was difficult to master."

"And, you chose it because it felt right?"

"Exactly. Everyone pushed us into a rivalry because we were the only two who chose it as a specialty."

"I thought there was a rivalry because you hated each other."

"I don't hate Squall. Not too much, anyway. There are just a lot of things about him that... irk me." Seifer shrugged. "I guess I shouldn't talk about your best friend like that."

Zell sighed. "I guess he's my best friend."

"You don't sound too sure. With Fujin, I know she's my best friend, and I'd never doubt it. You should feel that way, too."

"I feel more that way about Selphie than Squall. Early this morning, we had a conference with Squall, and he didn't even notice that I was sick."

"You were?" Seifer asked. "You look healthy to me."

"Ifrit was acting up."

Seifer made a thoughtful noise.


"Oh, just that your GF is acting funny....."

"What?" Zell asked again.

"Just that mine's been a little restless, too."

"You have a GF?" Zell asked, surprised. The rain was still pounding against the windows, sounding like the starts of a real flood.

"Yeah," Seifer murmured. "I have to fight monsters to get items, Zell." He said it like it was obvious, and made Zell feel a little stupid. "You use a Fury Fragment as your junction item?"

Zell nodded. To junction a GF, one had to have an 'icon' item as it was called. An item that had been graced with the Summon's power. When that item was touched and the proper magic channels were opened through incantation, that's how the GF was junctioned to the user. In Ifrit's case, his icon was a Fury Fragment that his power had blessed. In Selphie's case, she had a Cactuar needle.

"I found a crystal in Trabia while I was hunting Mesmerizes there. When I picked it up, I knew it was an icon item."

"Which GF?"


"Tiamat?!" Zell echoed. "I didn't think it was a Summon. After all, it was in Ultime-"

"Don't say that name!" Seifer shouted. But, it wasn't out of anger. There was real fear in his eyes. "Please."

"I'm sorry," Zell apologized quickly.

"In... that time, Tiamat isn't a GF anymore, but that's so many millennia in the future. Now, she still is, though not a very powerful one. But, she serves my purposes, and is a good fighting companion." Seifer shrugged.

"Interesting." Zell got the distinct feeling that Seifer would have rather talked about Raijin all day long than even mention Ultimecia's name. He had no clue what Seifer had gone through while under her power, but Edea had only skirted around the issue, so it obviously hadn't been pretty. He looked out the window and saw it was very dark. "Holy shit, how long have we been talking?" He looked at his watch. It was around midnight. "So, I guess you can't go to the store tonight."

"That's okay." Seifer shrugged. "It will still be there, like it always is after a hard rain." Seifer stood, ushering for Zell to follow him. "I'll show you where you'll sleep." They climbed the stairs, and Zell felt a little nervous stepping into Seifer's bedroom. It filled his mind with images of what Seifer would look like in various states of undress.

Seifer opened a door in the hall, pulling out some towels and a few blankets. He gave the towels to Zell, and kept the blankets for himself. Now, he was regretting turning his second bedroom into a weight room, for his couch was nice, but wasn't meant for sleeping. The thought of a man sleeping in his bed did, in truth, make Seifer feel warm. It was true what Seifer had said to his houseguest earlier. Just because they were both gay, that didn't mean that they would fall into bed together. But, Seifer could still appreciate Zell's nicely muscled body, pale eyes and face that bordered between handsome and cute. It was also true that he'd always known Zell was gay. He'd seen so much of himself in Zell's eyes when the shorter blonde had tried to hide that he was staring at cute boys. Seifer had made fun of Zell for a lot of things during their time at Garden, but that had never been one of them. It would have been crossing a line. "The bathroom's just right in here. Help yourself. There are some disposable razors in there if you need to shave."

"... thanks," Zell stammered, looking at Seifer and feeling heat in his cheeks. Would it be too bold to ask Seifer to stay and fuck him? Just fuck his brains out, and make him feel desired just for a night? But, no... he couldn't. Seifer went back downstairs, and Zell went into Seifer's bedroom, sitting on the edge of the king sized bed. He took off his pants and socks, staying in his T-shirt and boxers. He had only gotten a few hours sleep earlier that day, so he was pretty wiped out. Zell lay in the bed, the large mattress dwarfing his... petite frame. The sheets smelled clean, and like home. Seifer used the same detergent as Ma. That wasn't really strange, since it was a very common and popular brand, but it was still nice to smell that familiarity. And, there was also the smell of Seifer there, too. Masculine and classic. He stared up at the ceiling, thinking of all that Seifer had told him, but his thoughts became jumbled, and he lost the ability to really concentrate. He couldn't even really remember falling asleep, because it happened so quickly.

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