My Orphanage

Chapter Four

By Scarlet Fever

Over the past week or so, Edea had become very restless with worry. Timber was now a powder keg of magical power, just needing a single spark to explode. And yet, she still couldn't figure out who was causing it. This was power beyond her. Edea was truly powerful, but there were a lot of things in the world she didn't understand, and this was one. This power exuding across oceans was ancient. Very ancient. Also, Odine was having little luck deciphering it.

While Edea wasn't trying to concentrate her powers, she was thinking of Seifer and Cid, and trying to avoid Laguna. She always thought of Seifer, but she was finding it hard to make up excuses to keep avoiding being alone with Laguna. And, she felt so guilty for it. After all, Laguna was one of her dearest friends, and he was helping her so selflessly. She worried about Seifer, having the feeling that he was in Timber. Something about Timber always made her think of her lost child. Maybe it was the resonance of Ultimecia that was speaking to her. Edea knew that when she was around Rinoa, it flared something of her power, because Rinoa had also been touched by the Time Sorceress's power.

She was also thinking of Cid because he was a very busy man, and what had almost happened with Laguna just reminded her that she wasn't with her husband as much as she would have liked. He always had Garden business, something that she completely understood, but it had put some distance between her and her husband. They'd even argued about it the day before, and things were a little strained between them, which only made the whole situation worse.

She was sitting at the window seat, staring over the sea of buildings that made up the grand city Esthar, when she heard the door quietly open. She looked over her shoulder, faltering a little when it was Laguna who knocked softy, and not Cid. "Oh, hello Laguna. I thought you were Cid." She stared back to the city.

She heard Laguna sigh. "C'mon Edea, what's up?" He sat beside her on the cushioned window seat. "You've been avoiding me like the plaque all week."

"You mean the plague?" She asked dully.

"Yeah, whatever." He flipped his salt-and-pepper hair over his shoulder. "You know what I mean, though!"

"Laguna, we almost kissed," Edea pointed out sternly.

"I know," Laguna replied, just as stern as her. "Believe me, you don't have to remind me." He stared at her for a while, at the way the blue night illuminated the indigo highlights of her long black hair. And, how she smelled like orchids now, a dark and mysterious flower. Women who smelled like flowers had been his weakness, but also the dark hair. Julia had dark hair, Raine had dark hair, and Edea had dark hair.... "But, that doesn't mean you have to run away every time you see me."

"I'm not running away," the Sorceress pointed out. "If I were running, that would deem that I was worried it was going to happen again."

Laguna scratched the back of his neck, the air in the room starting to feel uncomfortable, warm. "Well... uh.... ahhh, are you?" He asked. At least he was sitting down. That way, his leg wouldn't cramp up.

Edea looked away, eyes setting on a red blinking light from the Airstation across the city. From the Presidential Palace, you could see everything. "No, I'm not worried. I love my husband."

He patted her shoulder. "Well, good then. So, what's the prob?"

She looked over, giving her friend a smile. "Nothing, I suppose."

Laguna smiled. "That's the spirit, lady." He got up, and started to leave, glad that he and Edea had patched things up, at least a little. Nothing had happened, and yet there was enough guilt that something may as well have. "Oh!" He exclaimed loudly enough that it caused Edea to jump, bolting to a standing position.

"What, are you okay?!" She went over, and Laguna just laughed.

"Nah, I'm okay. Just forgot that I actually came here for a reason..." He trailed off, laughing nervously at the put-out expression on Edea's face.

"It's not nice to scare an old woman like that." She put her hands on her hips.

"You're far from old," he pointed out. "Because, if you're old... that makes me old. Yeah, right. I'm not ready to be old yet. Just... don't pay attention to my grey hair, and those wrinkles are not from old age. It's sun exposure, you know.....?"

She let out her breath. "So, what did you have to tell me?" She asked pleasantly, interrupting Laguna. He was starting to go off on a tangent.

"Oh, right!" He started pacing around, his hands in the pockets of his casually baggy pants. "I just heard from Squall a little while ago."

"How is he?" Edea asked casually.

"Good. The same." Laguna shrugged. "He's Squall."

"What did he tell you?" Edea asked, a little nervous. For, if Squall contacted Laguna, it probably meant something about Timber. Though father and son were breaching their gap, Squall probably would never be to the point where he would casually call his father in the middle of the night.

"He heard from Zell and Selphie in Timber. Irvine also recently arrived. Apparently, their GF are giving them some problems."

"Problems?" Edea echoed. "What sort....?"

"Making them ill. Apparently they were bed-ridden for a couple of days, Zell especially because of his high compatibility with Ifrit."

"Hmmm...." Edea slowly paced around. "That only makes things more complex. You think the magician there knows SeeD has come, and is targeting them?"

"Squall thought that, and so did Selphie and Zell, but they pointed out that they met someone in the city who carries a GF, and that theirs was acting strange, too."

"Really?" Edea asked. "Who?"

"A blacksmith or something...." Laguna put his hands on his hips. "So, it couldn't just be SeeD."

"No, I suppose not." Edea sighed heavily. "And, Odine hasn't come up with anything new? After all, para-magic is his invention."

"Odine's kinda been... backed up with that energy source blow-out to the C-block of the city. But, I'll get his ass in gear, don't you worry about that." Esthar's electricity was based on para-magic and junctioning Lightning magic to the turbines, so the magical scientist's skills were needed to fix the problem.

"I hate the idea of him finding out what the problem is, whereas all my powers can't come up with shit." Edea angrily turned on her heel, glaring out the window, not really staring at anything. She was just so frustrated with herself. This Sorceress in Timber was taunting her, Edea knew this much.

Laguna put his hands on Edea's shoulders from behind, feeling the velvet of her black blouse. "Well, I hate Odine period."

Edea couldn't help but laugh. "Yeah, you do."

"Chill out, Edea." He squeezed her shoulders. "This news about the GFs is good news. I mean, it's more than we knew before, right?"

"It is..."

"You'll figure it out." Laguna wrapped his arms around her shoulders, giving her a friendly squeeze. But, it became a lingering embrace, his arms around her shoulders, his head bowing forward and smelling orchids in her hair.

"I fought with Cid," Edea admitted, feeling tearful.

"About?" Laguna whispered into her hair.

"How he's always away. I helped him start Garden, and yet.... it's foolish of me to be resentful. After all, I have my orphanage."

"It's not the same," Laguna said, knowing he should pull away from her, but he couldn't. It seemed like this sexual attraction to her was just coming on so quickly, but that was far from the case. He'd known Edea for a long time, even before he'd known Squall as his son. This was the woman that he'd put Elle and Squall in the care of. This was a woman he trusted implicitly, and a woman that was beautiful, no doubt about it. And, a woman who he shared much with. He knew her fears about her broken relationship with Seifer, because he had that same experience with his own son. He knew Edea's loneliness when Cid was away so much, because he also felt loneliness so acutely. It had been so long since Raine had died.... and Edea's skin was so warm. "And, you know it."

Edea closed her eyes, leaning against Laguna's chest. She was thinking the same things he was then. Thinking about how she'd actually spent more time with Laguna in the past five years than she had with her own husband. Did Cid really understand the alienation she was feeling from their child? After all, Cid had gotten to see Seifer every day when he'd been a student at Garden. Edea had not. But, Laguna knew. He'd been locked away from Squall, separated by Esthar's walls of secrecy, just like Edea was locked away from Seifer by a wall of secrecy, but this one was of her own making. Her hands came up, fingers twining with his. She felt the calluses of a lifetime of using a gun. And, they stayed that way for a while, Edea's face having turned towards his, their cheeks nuzzling together. It was a fragile, sad embrace. One full of longing and so much guilt.

"Laguna...." she whispered. "We really shouldn't be doing this."

"I know."

And yet, as they both protested, their mouths moved closer and closer, until they were touching. Until, despite their mental protests, they were kissing. And, though they both knew this shouldn't be happening, their mouths were eager against each other. Somehow, instead of pulling away, Edea wound up facing Laguna, their kiss full of passion and desperation. No, no.... they couldn't be doing this. Cid could walk in any second! But, neither wanted to break the kiss, not when it felt so good, and so right. Laguna's arms were strong around her, and stirred up passion that she hadn't felt in a while, not even with her husband. His hands swept up her back, felt the silkiness of her hair and the warmth of her skin. Her breasts were crushed against his chest, their tongues filling each other's mouths as his hands moved to the front of her body, feeling her womanly curves.

Their kiss was broken by the sound of a telephone ringing. Edea gasped, looking up into Laguna's face with tears in her golden eyes. They stared at each other, shocked about what had just so easily transpired between the two of them. Edea disentangled herself from Laguna's embrace and picked up the phone on the table nearby. "Yes?" She asked, trying to control the shake in her voice. She briefly cast her eyes to Laguna, but had to look away again, the blush of shame rising in her cheeks.

"Edea, it's me." Cid's voice just made Edea feel even lower. "I'm on my way to the Airstation right now," he said in a clipped tone. She supposed he was still angry about their argument earlier.

"Airstation?" She echoed.

"Yes." She could hear traffic noises in the background, that unique noise of teleporters and magically powered cars that could only be heard in Esthar. "I have a Headmasters meeting at Galbadia Garden with Martine and Bellerose." Bellerose was the Headmaster of Trabia Garden. "I'll be gone for a week or so. I also have business with Squall and Quistis."

"....Okay," Edea whispered. "I wish you could stay, though." There was more meaning in those words than Cid could have ever known of.

"Edea, you know I have to go."

"I know." She slumped into one of the plush armchairs, her bones feeling heavy. She put a hand to her forehead, elbow resting on her knee.

Cid sighed in the other end. "We'll talk when I get back, okay dear?" He said, his voice softening. "Besides, you'll have Ellone and Laguna to keep you company."

Edea let out a choked little laugh. "Cid...."

"The ship is taking off. I have to leave. I'll talk to you later, okay?" He hung up, and Edea sighed shakily, looking at the receiver as if she'd never seen one before, as if it was just now that phones started working again, instead of a decade ago after Adel's death. She hung it up, staring at her pale hands, which were balled into tight fists.

Laguna crouched in front of the chair she was sitting in as she spoke. "He's going to Galbadia Garden for a Headmaster's conference. He'll be gone for a week...." Edea sniffled, wiping her cheeks with badly shaking fingers. "Oh, Laguna..." She shook her head, looking at him. "What have we done?"

He pursed his lips, not having an excuse, and yet not really wanting to give a bunch of excuses. Kissing her had hurt Laguna because of the repercussions where Cid was concerned, but yet... how could he deny something that felt so right, despite all the wrongs surrounding it? And, from Edea's expression, he knew it was yet something else that they had similar ground on. Laguna took her hands in his own, squeezing them. He didn't try to kiss her again, but the way he held her hands to comfort her as she silently cried was more than enough. It had the same connotations as a kiss, the same feelings behind it. While the air was thick with guilt, neither moved to break the contact of their hands. It was comforting, which is what they both needed.

Edea sniffed in her breath, regaining composure. But, when she looked into Laguna's eyes, she couldn't muster any more of it, and they fell into another embrace, knowing it was so very wrong, but not being able to help themselves. Her hands ran through his long hair, and his fingers traced the curve of her hip and the swell of her breast. They kissed passionately, the sin of it seeming to make it all the more steamy. Laguna made a tortured noise against her full, delicious mouth, breaking their kiss. He held her tightly against his chest, both of them making noises of frustration and shame into each other's hair. And yet, they didn't let go of each other.

Seifer tapped the bar with his index finger, then pushed his glass towards Fujin. He was sitting at the bar in the Aphorora Pub, knocking a few back to drown his sorrows.

"DRUNK?" Fujin asked, cocking her eyebrow over her black eyepatch.

"No, I'm not drunk," he muttered as she poured him another tequila. "I'm not allowed to have a couple drinks?"

She narrowed her eye, but still gave him the glass. "CHICKEN?"

The brunette made a snorting noise as he took a swig of his drink. "What do you mean? What about him?"


Seifer frowned at her, glass in his hand. "What are you implying, exactly?" He asked very carefully.

Fujin leaned across the bar. "You're lonely, Raef. And, you like being around him. So, what's up? He hasn't come and bugged me again about Raijin..." She trailed off painfully. "And, you haven't been talking about him."

"When did I talk about him?" Seifer asked defensively as Fujin went over to another customer, pouring him a Screwdriver.


"What do you know, anyway?"

"STUPID!" She exclaimed angrily. "I see it in your eyes when you talk about him." Her expression softened. "You like him."

"What?" He asked, frowning. "You're crazy."

"Deny it all you want," she murmured. "But, I think he likes you too. After all, he came back to visit you again, didn't he?"

"He just wanted answers," Seifer pointed out dully.

Fujin just groaned. "Fine. Don't see it then. Be alone forever then." She frowned at him, going across the bar to tend to other customers.

Seifer just made a face, drinking more of his tequila. He looked around the bar, wondering if Fujin was right. Did Zell... like him? Seifer hadn't seen the other man since the night where Selphie had come to accuse him. That had been a little over a week ago. Seifer wanted to go talk to him, but kept thinking of excuses not to. He wanted to see Zell's face again, to hear his voice. It made him feel connected with his past in a good way, and yet there were so many things different about Zell. Just like there were so many things different about himself. They were like creatures, and actually always had been. Seifer remembered the last time he and Zell were both in Timber. That day where he'd acted like a total fucking idiot and run to Timber to help the Forest Owls. It was the day that had begun the ruin of his life. The day that Edea had taken him to be her Knight, and destroyed him for years to come. It was also the day that Zell had opened his big stupid mouth and told Deling that they were all from Garden. Those two men seemed like different people, and so like children. Well, they had been children. This Seifer had learned to be humble, having to pay so much to glean that lesson. And, this Zell was more quiet and thoughtful. A more serious individual.

Zell and Selphie hadn't bothered him since that day, though he was sure that they wanted to. Was it Zell that was preventing Selphie from knocking at Archimedes's door again? Seifer didn't want to get involved in SeeD business, but he wanted to put a stop to Blackball, he wanted to help save the addicts, like Raijin.... And, information about Tiamat could help that. And, he wanted to help Zell, too. Seifer didn't give a shit about helping SeeD and Squall, but helping Zell... that was different. At least with helping him, Seifer would be seeing him again. And, Fujin was right. Seifer was lonely, and what had happened with him and Zell just made him all the more aware of it.

Seifer looked over his shoulder when he heard someone laugh loudly. Usual drunk laugh. There was a group at the table in the corner, all laughing and being rowdy together. Seifer just turned back to his drink, their laughter still wafting through the bar. Seifer's blood went cold when he heard one of them shout something in a language he'd never heard before. It sounded dark and menacing, and also familiar. He noticed Fujin behind the bar, her face paler than usual. It made Seifer look over his shoulder, and he saw that among the group of rowdy drunks was a dark-skinned man. Raijin. They weren't drunk... they were Blackballers. For a moment, Seifer hadn't recognized his friend. Former friend. Raijin looked so different, so skinny and almost ghoulish. Raijin's eyes moved across the Pub, and landed on Seifer and Fujin. Even from across the bar, Seifer could see Raijin's eyes glittering like onyx. Raijin always had dark eyes, but now they looked like Dark Matter.

"Raef!" Raijin exclaimed, actually vaulting over the table and sauntering across the bar. He was followed by the Blackballers with him, and Seifer felt dread go through him. When a group of Blackballers got together, things were always messy. One of Raijin's eyes had the remains of what would have been a rather nasty shiner around it. Zell had mentioned that he'd gotten into a fight with Raijin... "Well, well!" He looked over at Fujin. "If it isn't my dear friends...." He started laughing, and the people with him laughed too. They all had black glittering eyes, and all looked so skinny.....

Seifer swallowed, his heart breaking. How had Raijin turned into this?

"LEAVE," Fujin said darkly, her fists balled on the bar top.

"Leave, ya know?" Raijin echoed. "Why? I don't wanna." He laughed again, followed by his little coven of addicts. They all then started talking among each other, but it was complete nonsense. Gibberish. "So, how are ya....?" He sighed dreamily, staring off into space.

"Hey, get out of here!" The owner shouted, coming from the back room. "I don't want scum like you in here."

A few of the women started singing a strange song, and Raijin hummed along, starry eyes turning to Seifer. "Oh, Raef... you don't know what you're missing." Raijin stepped forward and touched his former friend's arms. "This voice..." He trailed off, singing along with the strange song. "It makes everything better."

"Don't touch me," Seifer hissed, pushing Raijin away. No, this wasn't the Raijin he'd known. This was a stranger.

Raijin's blackened eyes grew angry. "Oh, you think you're so pure, Seifer?" He hissed. "You're the fucking Sorceress's Knight. A witch's whore, a murderer."

Seifer jerked as if he'd been slapped.

"So, don't you act like I'm dirty, kithu'sxa."

Seifer frowned at the insult, uttered in a language he'd never heard. "Get away from me."

"You have to try it!" Raijin insisted, grabbing Seifer's coat in tight fists.

"Hey!" The Pub owner shouted again, pushing a few of the women towards the doors. "Stop harassing my clients! Get out of here!"

One of the women punched the owner in the face and dove on him as he fell, hands immediately going into his pockets, searching for his wallet. The bouncers dove into the fray, and it quickly became a brawl. Raijin kept whispering to Seifer, and when the brunette shoved his former friend away, Raijin attacked him. Seifer's gut wrenched when he punched Raijin in the face. It was hard to get a hold on Raijin, since both Blackballers and bar patrons had jumped into the fight. Seifer was knocked to the ground, limbs tangled everywhere, and people shouting in Daphnic, as well as the strange language that the drug addicts were using.

In the fray, Seifer then heard shouts and gunfire. The Timber Police had arrived. Blackballers started to scatter, and Raijin tried to get away, but Seifer was trying to hold him. Seifer was kicked in the side of the face, and lost grip on Raijin's coat. He saw stars, and heard more shouts. He blinked a few times, face to face with the floor, face stinging. The floor was littered with small blood splatters, a few cigarette butts, some coin gil, and a black orb that had rolled under a stool. A Blackball. It must have fallen out of one of their pockets in the fight. Seifer caught it in his palm, and a shudder went through his body. Seifer was very well versed in items, now actually a world-renowned expert in alchemy (Garden had even written him once, asking him to be a consultant for alchemy classes for cadets, but he'd thrown the letter away), and he knew this feeling. Was this the secret behind Blackball?

Seifer rose to his feet, looking around. Fujin had come out from behind the bar, and went over to him. Seifer put the Blackball in his pocket without anyone noticing. "Are you okay...?" Fujin asked. She then said under her breath "he called you Seifer....."

"I know," he muttered. "But, what do I care?" He asked bitterly. "I can't hide forever." The Timber Police started questioning everyone, and then asking them to leave. The bar had gotten messed up in the fight, so they were going to close it, and look at the crime scene. Seifer knew he could be arrested for possession if they decided to search his pockets and found the solitary orb. The police took Seifer's name down, or rather Raef's name, and sent him on his way.

"OKAY?" She asked, touching the side of his face. Seifer winced when she did. "SORRY."

He covered her hand on his cheek. "You know me, babe. I'm always okay." He kissed her forehead and started to quickly leave, knowing just where to go.

"Where are you going?" She called. "To see Zell....?"

He just waved a hand and left, going into the cool night. It felt like another rainstorm was brewing. Fujin sighed as she watched him go, feeling like she was going to cry, but she willed herself not to. She looked around the bar, putting her hands on her hips. One of the bouncers was righting a table, but the place was a total mess. They would probably be there all night cleaning up. "Raijin...." She whispered under her breath as she went to find the mop bucket.

Seifer, on the other hand, caught the first trolley he could find that was heading anywhere near South Timber. He put his hand in his pocket again, fingers brushing over the hard surface of the drug. It again sent a chill down his spine. He also started to feel ill, like something was in his stomach, and was trying to claw his way out. The side of his face was also throbbing, so it made for a sickening combination. He got off the trolley at a stop in Zell's neighbourhood. Seifer knew the address from when Zell had placed his weapons order.

As he climbed up the steps to Zell's floor, Seifer's heart started racing. Perhaps this was a bad idea. He could just go directly to the police. Because, if he got involved in SeeD business.... But, no. After seeing Raijin so alien and emaciated, Seifer knew he couldn't just let his cowardice control things. He wanted to put a stop to Raijin ruining himself, and he also wanted to stop running. He was tired. So very tired....

Zell sighed, flopping on the couch. He, Selphie and Irvine had been at the Police Department, but left when half the squad was called away to the Aphorora Pub for some big fistfight. They'd been looking up Talman Sinclaire, the landlord of the building where the Blackball party had been. But, according to the City and Country of Timber, there was no Mr. Sinclaire currently living there.

"Well, what now?" Irvine asked, tipping his hat so it was covering his eyes. He slumped beside Zell as if he were going to have a quick nap.

Selphie was pacing, throwing an orange up in the air and catching it. "I'm not sure. We keep running into brick walls."

"Well, what about archives?" Zell offered, feeling weary. "Sometimes people use the names of dead people to hide themselves."

Irvine made a shooting motion to Zell. "Good plan."

Selphie cocked her head, sitting on Zell's other side, looking at his tattooed profile. "Something wrong.....?" She asked him at the look on Zell's face. He just looked so.... sad.

"I'll call the archives right now." Irvine got up and went across the room. He started talking to someone on the phone, and Selphie patted Zell's knee.

"It's about him, isn't it? Because you haven't seen him in a while..."

Zell shrugged. "It's not like he's my boyfriend or anything...." He said this very quietly so Irvine wouldn't hear, and he felt so sneaky about it. Spending time with Seifer since coming to Timber made Zell want to drop the charade. He was tired of lying.

"I think you want him to be, though."

"This is Seifer we're talking about, Selphie!" He insisted quietly.

"I know," she whispered back. "But, I can't ignore the look on your face when you think about him. You've been miserable this past week. Maybe he has been, too..... Besides, he's not the same person he was then. Neither are you. Neither are any of us. We were just kids then."

"Well, Timber archives will send us some information in the morning," Irvine announced as he hung up the phone. "Oooh, what are you talking about?" He asked, frowning. "You look so serious." He winked at Selphie. "You're not having an affair behind my back with Zell, are you?"

Selphie pursed her lips, and Zell just stared at his friend, and Irvine's frown deepened.

"You aren't.... are you?" He asked, starting to get nervous over Selphie and Zell's seriousness.

"No, no..." Zell insisted quietly. "Irvine, sit down. I have something to tell you."

"Zell...." Selphie said in an uncertain tone. "Are you sure?" She knew that Zell was going to out himself to Irvine, and while she knew that Irvine was a compassionate man behind all his flirty bravado, she didn't know how he would react.

"I'm sick of lying."

"Lying about what?" Irvine asked, sitting in the chair perpendicular to the couch. He was really starting to get nervous. Whatever Zell was going to tell him, it was heavy. "I don't like the sound of this... did someone die?"

"No," Zell said quietly. "I'm just so sick of lying and pretending."

"Pretending?" Irvine asked blankly, looking over to Selphie for answers, but she was keeping her face relatively blank. She knew what Zell was going to say.

"You're my friend man, so I just think I should tell you, especially since I don't want you to find out some other way.... I, um...." Zell looked down at his hands, hands that were gloved in the weapons that Seifer had made for him. It wasn't Seifer alone that was making Zell take this huge step forward. It was just that.... talking to Seifer they way they were made Zell want to be able to date any man he wanted, without having to sneak around. And, he saw how miserable Seifer was, lying about his identity. "I'm gay," he said before he could back out.

Irvine blinked a couple times, looking from Zell to Selphie back to Zell again. "Wha...?"

"I'm queer," Zell said. "I like men, I suck dick."

"Ummmm...." Irvine took his hat off and scratched the top of his head. "Since when?"

"Since always."

"And, you knew?" He asked of Selphie.

She nodded.

"Since when?"

"Always," she echoed. "I am SeeD Intelligence, after all." She tapped her temple, but it was without her usual humour.

"So, ummmm, why didn't you say anything before?"

"Because of Garden's rules on 'promiscuity'," Zell muttered, a little angrily. "Because I was afraid of what people would say..."

"People like me?" Irvine asked. "Like Squall?" He snorted. "Yeah, I guess Seifer would have had a field day with it."

Zell sighed heavily. "He wouldn't have, actually."

Irvine frowned deeply. "Well, um.... You've shocked the hell out of me, Dincht. I'll give you that."

"He's still the same person," Selphie pointed out.

"I know that!" Irvine exclaimed, glaring at her. "What, you think I would just stop being his friend because of it?"

"So, you're not freaked out?" Zell asked, cocking his head.

Irvine shrugged. "Your life, man. But, ummmm.... have you ever... you know...."

"You know?" Zell echoed.

"Uhhh, thought of me like that....?" Irvine looked a little worried.

"No," Zell assured. "Never."

Irvine sighed in relief. "Well, uhh... good, I.... I guess. That could have been a little awkward."

"I think I need a drink," Zell muttered, getting up.

Irvine sat in the chair for a while, running his fingers over the brim of his hat. He quickly got up and went to the kitchen where Zell was mixing himself a vodka and tonic. "So, why not?"

"Huh?" Zell asked, looking up into Irvine's periwinkle eyes.

"Why didn't you ever think about me like that?" Irvine asked, tossing his cowboy hat onto the table.

Zell shrugged.

"No, why? I'm a good-looking guy. I'm tall and got a good body..." He spread his arms out to show himself off.

Zell frowned, laughing a little. "What, are you offended that I never wanted to fuck you?"

"No..... Well, maybe a little."

Zell smiled genuinely. "Well, because you're straight."

"Hey," Irvine pointed out, poking Zell in the chest. "You could do a lot worse than me, bub. I can kiss like nobody's business."

"I'll take your word for it." Zell handed Irvine another beer. "So, we cool?"

Irvine patted the top of Zell's head in a teasing manner. "You know it, Dincht."

Selphie sighed in relief, sprawled ungracefully on the couch. "I'm just glad that you two are still okay."

"Why wouldn't we be?" Irvine asked, sitting beside his girlfriend. "You don't give me enough credit, Sefie. I'm a progressive guy. I mean, if I can accept twin lesbians wanting to have sex publicly, then I can more than accept Zell liking guys."

"Twin lesbians....?" Selphie echoed sourly. "You're not starting up that petition again, are you?"

Irvine slapped Selphie's inner thigh. "You know, if you had a twin sister who was into cunnilingus, I'd find you a lot sexier."

Selphie gasped, taking a pillow and smothering Irvine with it. He gasped, arms flailing out as she pressed it hard into his face, laughing as she did. Zell felt relieved as he watched them. So, everything was back to normal. Zell started thinking about Seifer again, wondering what he was doing right now. He was probably on his way to the shop, or he was off on another item trip. Zell was so envious of his lifestyle, the freedom of it. Irvine wrestled himself away from Selphie's pillow, and got her in a headlock. "Come on, Zell. If you want to sucker-punch Selphie, now's the time."

"Ack!" She screeched. "Ewww, my face is near your armpit, you smelly bastard!"

"Come on, Zell!" Irvine said between laughs. "One punch in the butt! She deserves it."

"A-ha!" Selphie exclaimed, trying to struggle away. "He doesn't like girl butt."

"Ehhh, but you're not a girl. With that skinny little boy body of yours..... ow!" He exclaimed, letting her go. "You bit my armpit."

"And, got a mouthful of body lice." She laughed as Irvine threw his hat at her. She put it on her head, prancing around the apartment.

"I could find a better girl than you," Irvine pointed out, winking at Zell.

"What, twin lesbians?" She asked with a snort, whirling around to face the door when there was a knock on it. "Pow..." she whispered, finger-shooting.

"Nice shot," Zell muttered. "The door didn't know what was coming." He opened the door, and his smile grew wider when he saw Seifer. "S'up!" He greeted casually, though his heart was pounding in his chest. "What are you doing here?" Zell asked, feeling a little light-headed.

"Ahhhhh!" Zell heard Irvine exclaim behind him. Oh, right.... that was another thing he should have told Irvine. "What are you doing here?" Irvine exclaimed, pushing past Zell to stare at Seifer like he was a space alien.

Seifer mockingly bowed. "Raef Emaissyl, at your service."

"Raef.... Emaissyl...." Irvine looked at Zell and Selphie. "Well, you guys are just full of secrets tonight, aren't you?"

"What happened to your face?" Zell asked quietly, opening the door wider so Seifer could come in. "Are you okay?" Zell reached out and touched the bruise on the other man's cheek.

Seifer winced and craned away. "Raijin kicked me in the fucking face."

"Raijin?" Selphie exclaimed, standing on her tiptoes to examine Seifer's bruise. She poked it, and he smacked her hand away.

"Him and a bunch of his druggie friends crashed the Aphorora Pub."

"That was them?" Selphie exclaimed, looking at her fellow SeeD. "We left the police station because they all left to go there."

"Yeah, well... they trashed the place." Seifer pulled the orb out of his pocket. "I believe you'll be interested in this."

All three stared at the Blackball in Seifer's palm. "Where did you get that....?" Irvine asked, looking at Seifer with suspicion. But, Zell and Selphie both seemed unafraid, so he took his cues from them.

"One of the Blackballers must have dropped it in the fight." Seifer frowned darkly. "It's an icon item."

"What?" Zell asked. "Here, let me cast cure on you or something... that bruise looks really bad."

Seifer waved his hand, looking into Zell's eyes, struck numb. "I'm fine, Chicken-Wuss."

Zell smacked Seifer in the stomach, which caused him to groan. "Shit," Zell cursed. "I'm sorry..."

Irvine watched the way that Zell and Seifer talked to each other. There was none of their arguing and bickering like there'd been in the past. Was Seifer the reason that Zell had come out to him?

"Okay, okay... what do you mean icon item?"

Seifer cocked his head, still looking at the orb in his palm. "Do you trust my opinion as an alchemist?"

"Yes," Zell answered. Selphie just nodded, and Irvine did nothing, because he didn't know what to do.

"I can tell you with certainty that this is an icon item. That, every time someone takes Blackball, they're junctioning a GF." He groaned under his breath when he felt something curl in him, and he swayed a little.

"Really?!" Selphie exclaimed. "Holy shit.... are you serious?"

Zell put his hand on Seifer's back when he noticed the taller man wobbling. "You're not okay, Seifer. Sit down, okay?"

"I'm fine, okay?" Seifer grumbled, but he still sat down anyway. "I think when I touched the icon item, Tiamat got unruly. I haven't junctioned more than one GF since.... God, since I was still at Garden."

Selphie rubbed her forehead. "Oh, yeah... about Tiamat... we sort of had to tell Squall that we knew someone that had a GF here."

Seifer looked momentarily stricken, but then calmed himself. "Oh? And, what did ole Squall say about it?"

"We didn't tell him it was you," Zell pointed out. "But, fuck that. What are you talking about, icon item....? Do you know what GF it is?"

Seifer rolled his eyes, elbowing Zell. "Come on, you moron... you're smarter than this, so act like it. It's in the form of a Steel Orb, so it's more than likely Diablos."

"But, I don't get it...." Irvine trailed off, staring warily at Seifer. "Why would Diablos want to have a ton of people junctioning him?"

"Power reasons?" Selphie wondered aloud. "So, Seifer... you will definitely vouch for this being an icon item?"

Seifer nodded. "I'd bet my life on it. Though... I can't be sure that it's Diablos, and I have no clue where to begin finding out why he would do this, but I do know items." He suddenly looked at the three SeeD. "I remember back when...." Seifer trailed off, obviously remembering ugly memories. It caused his whole body to shudder. "Back when I was under her control, that you guys used Diablos against us once. Do you still have control over him as a Summon?"

Selphie nodded. "Yeah. The icon item is back at Garden. I personally never junctioned Diablos.... Squall always did."

"I did a couple times," Zell pointed out.

"You think you would remember what he feels like?" Seifer asked, holding out the orb between his thumb and fingers.

Zell pursed his lips, looking into Seifer's eyes. He gingerly took the potent drug from the other man, taking off his gloves so he could touch it fully with a bare hand. He felt Ifrit flare in him, and he groaned. But, he rode the fiery discomfort, feeling the drug. "I'm not sure...." He sighed, putting it on the coffee table, not wanting to touch it anymore. "Sorry."

"Well, this is like... awesome!" Selphie exclaimed. "We finally have something to tell Quistis and Squall..." She trailed off, looking at Seifer. "Oh."

The tall man shrugged. "Let me tell Squall myself."

"What....?!" Zell exclaimed. "You can't be serious!"

"I'm very serious," Seifer said with conviction. "After seeing Raijin tonight.... I... I want to stop Blackball any way I can, and if facing Squall is how, then so be it. Besides.... I'm tired."

"Tired?" Irvine echoed, crossing his arms.

"Of hiding," Seifer replied, staring at the cowboy. "Must be odd for you to see me again."

Irvine pursed his lips. "Yeah, it is... But, Selphie and Zell seem to trust you, so that's okay by me. I'm easy."

"You can say that again," Selphie muttered under her breath, sticking her tongue out at her boyfriend. "Look, Seifer... you've really helped us out, so you don't have to do this, you know? We can just tell Squall that Raef Emaissyl helped us."

Seifer frowned. "Yeah, but that would have Garden want to start contacting me again. I'm screwed either way, I think. This is the perfect time to stop being such a coward."

"Well, if you're sure...." Selphie nodded and went over to set up their communication equipment.

"Raijin said something to me in that strange language. At least I guess you know it's Diablos's language," Seifer pointed out. "Each Summon speaks various languages.... They speak the language of their master in order to communicate, they speak the language they spoke before becoming human, and I guess they speak some other Summon language when they talk to each other. I know that Raijin wasn't speaking Summon Tongue, because humans can't."

"How do you know this?" Zell asked, cocking his head.

"It's called research," Seifer muttered sarcastically, but he had a sad yet resolved look on his face.

"You don't have to do this," Zell whispered as Selphie and Irvine tried to disentangle the wires for the hook-up.

"I want to," Seifer said. "I can't.... I can't pretend anymore."

One corner of Zell's mouth turned up sadly. "I know what you mean. I told Irvine I was gay.... just before you got here."


"He seemed okay with it."

"Yeah, he didn't flip out at seeing me, either...." Seifer looked across the room at Selphie and Irvine. "I don't think I'll be able to say the same for Squall, though."

Zell ran his hand down Seifer's arm. "You do realize that once Garden knows where you are, they'll tell Matron."

Seifer took his breath in sharply. "I know. I'm.... ready, I guess."

"Seifer, I...." Zell stopped himself.

"You what?"

"I kinda... missed you, eh? I thought of going to the shop so many times...."

"Oh, really?" Seifer cocked an eyebrow over the frames of his glasses.

"I wanted to talk to you."

"What, about Tiamat?" Seifer tasted his heartbeat when Selphie got the communication screen set up.

"No." Zell folded his hands in his lap. He heard a gust of wind roll past the windows of his apartment. "Just to talk."

"I guess I know what you mean," Seifer said quietly. "My house seems kind of empty without you blathering on and on."

Zell popped Seifer in the shoulder, and then they fell into a deep silence. Seifer pursed his lips because Zell's playful punch really hurt, but that was secondary. This was it... he couldn't go hiding into a rabbit hole anymore...... As soon as the Balamb Garden logo came on the screen, Seifer quickly got off the couch, moving away from the screen and out of its sights. He lost his fucking nerve. Zell was looking at him with concern, and a shiver went down Seifer's spine when he heard Quistis's voice from the screen.

"Guys, good to hear from you," Quistis replied smoothly, Seifer closing his eyes across the room. Her voice just brought back so many memories. How would he feel when he had to hear Squall or Rinoa's voices? Or Matron's...?

"Man... we have super-big news!" Selphie exclaimed, throwing her hands out to emphasize her words. "We found out what Blackball really is!"

"You did?" Quistis asked, peering intently at the three of them from her office in Balamb. She noticed that Zell wasn't looking at her, but something out of her line of sight, something off camera. "Well?" She asked, excited.

"It's an icon item." Selphie picked up the orb and showed it to Quistis. "We got a sample of it tonight, and a professional alchemist's opinion!" Selphie's eyes briefly went over to Seifer, urging him to come forward and take credit for his finding. After all, without Seifer, they'd still be sitting on their thumbs, totally at square one.

"Professional opinion?" Quistis echoed. "Whose professional opinion?"

"Raef Emaissyl, the blacksmith. He's really quite good with items...." Again, Quistis noticed Selphie looking off camera, at the same place Zell was staring.

"Yes, I know. Garden has tried to contact him about a teaching position."

Seifer rolled his eyes, leaning against the wall.

"So, if it's an icon item, who is the GF?"

"Diablos," Irvine answered. "Well, we aren't 100% on that, but since it's like a steel orb, that's the educated guess. And, because Squall always junctioned Diablos, we aren't really familiar with how he feels."

"Diablos?" Quistis asked, surprised. After all, what was the point of a GF acting like this? "Hmmm, let me get Squall in on this."

"And, there was another Raijin sighting. Again, he spoke in a weird language. But, if this whole Diablos thing is true, I guess it's Diablos's language," Selphie pointed out.

"Any sign of Seifer....?" Quistis asked, noticing a reaction.

"What about Seifer?" came Squall's voice from the screen. Seifer stiffened up completely, feeling like he was going to hyperventilate.

"They saw Raijin again. But, never mind that." Quistis started to fill Squall in on Zell, Selphie and Irvine's discovery, unaware that Seifer was listening to every word she was saying. Squall was very silent, but when he spoke again, Seifer slammed his eyes shut.

"Strange. I suppose we should thank this Mr. Emaissyl for the help."

"Check the icon item. Maybe we can get Diablos to appear to us, and question him."

"Good luck," Seifer muttered under his breath.

"Is someone there with you guys?" Quistis asked, hearing the sound of a person's voice, but not the words.

"Just the TV...." Selphie lied, her voice trailing off nervously.

Quistis frowned, sensing there was more to it than that. Squall had left the screen to search for the steel orb that was Diablos's icon item. When he brought it back, there was a perturbed expression on his face that Zell knew was confusion.

"This is just an ordinary steel orb." He rolled the thing around in his palms, taking off his gloves so he could touch it again. "I don't understand."

Seifer snorted angrily. "God, SeeD can be so stupid sometimes. I don't know how you became world-renowned mercenaries."

Quistis and Squall both heard Seifer's voice again. "Okay, that is not the TV," the blonde woman said angrily. "There's someone there with you. This is a private SeeD meeting, you guys..." She stared at them with warning eyes.

"Yeah, um.... Raef Emaissyl is here," Irvine said. "We figured since it was him that gave us the info, it was only fair."

"But, he isn't SeeD," Squall pointed out, voice bland.

Seifer growled angrily in his throat, storming over to the couch, sitting between Zell and Selphie. "Yeah, well... I may not be SeeD, but I guess you didn't get any smarter after passing that exam, eh?" Seifer asked angrily. Squall's voice had sent fear through him, but also so much bitterness and anger. Hyne, it had been a decade, and yet Squall still riled Seifer up so much. "Hello, Instructor Trepe."

Both Squall and Quistis were staring slack-jawed, neither moving a muscle.

Seifer flourished with his hand. "You wanted to meet Raef Emaissyl? Well, here I am."

Squall's bewildered look turned to one of anger, and Quistis still looked beyond perplexed. "Seifer...." she breathed out. His hair was dark, he was wearing glasses, and he didn't have his scar anymore, but that face would always be the same. She then rolled the name Raef Emaissyl around in her head, and realized that it was simply an anagram. Seifer's name had been under her nose so many times when they'd been looking for consultants to teach cadets alchemy.

"What is he doing there?" Squall asked stiffly, looking to Irvine, Selphie and Zell. Why wasn't Zell flipping out over Seifer sitting right beside him?

"I have a name," Seifer spat out. "And, I am an expert on items, after all." He frowned deeply at them. "Well, I guess ten years hasn't changed anything there."

"Seifer..." Quistis trailed off, her full lips still parted in surprise. "Have you been there all this time? Matron's been looking for you."

Seifer frowned. "Yeah, here I am.... still alive. Sorry to disappoint you."

"That's not what I meant," Quistis said quietly, but Seifer wasn't looking at her. He was glaring at Squall, and Squall was glaring right back.

"Well, whatever you meant, Instructor.... my professional opinion of Blackball is offered to Zell, Irvine and Selphie's mission. After all, I was the one who got the sample for you."

"You have a bruise on your face," Quistis pointed out.

"Really?!" He gasped mockingly, but calmed himself. No, he would rise above this. "Yeah, Raijin gave it to me."

"He did?" Quistis asked. "But..... how can we trust you?" She asked. "After all.... it was you that started the Garden War."

Seifer looked away. "You don't have to remind me, Quistis."

"And, you and Rinoa...." Squall trailed off angrily. His lips had gone white with rage.

Seifer started laughing. "Me and Rinoa what?" Seifer asked between chuckles. "If you're going to say were a couple, please don't. Why don't you ask your lovely wife exactly about our relationship?" Seifer asked, cocking his head and giving the evil eye to his former rival.

"I don't need to ask her to know you took advantage of her. Or, that you gave her to Adel."

Seifer's expression became sad. "I was under Ultimecia's possession...." Her name was the hardest word he'd had to say. "I may be a bit of an asshole, but I wouldn't have willingly killed her. And, as for taking advantage of her... only if she had a dick."

Squall's brow contracted in a frown, and he looked confused for a while, mouth opening and closing. Quistis seemed to clue in much faster, blinking her large sapphire eyes. "So, anyway. This conversation is boring me. Do you want me to give you a professional alchemist makeup on Blackball, or not?"

"We don't need you," Squall said, voice clipped. "We can get someone from Galbadia. From anywhere," he hissed.

"Fine," Seifer muttered, standing up. "It will just be a second-rate job, and will take twice as long, since I'm actually in the same room as the fucking thing."

"Wait!" Quistis exclaimed. "Um, perhaps you're right."

"No," Squall told her quietly. "Besides, he might be addicted," he whispered.

"Fuck you, Squall!" Seifer exclaimed angrily. "I have more reason in the world to want to get rid of Blackball than you, or even they, ever could!" He pointed to the three SeeD on the couch. "Blackball is just a mission to you. It's an order from Timber, just a contract. You didn't have to watch your best friend waste away and destroy himself. I'll do the research, but only for them, not for you, up on your goddamn high horse, even after a decade. Must be easy to judge when you stay locked in a gilded tower."

Squall didn't reply, only silently fumed. Seifer just grumbled under his breath, and got up off the couch, disappearing out of the room. He went into Zell's bedroom, for in there, he wouldn't be able to hear Squall's blank voice anymore. He sat on the edge of the bed, holding his head in his hands. He breathed out, his whole body starting to shake violently. It wasn't because of tears. It was just from jangled nerves, from the fact that he couldn't go back now. He'd shown his face to Squall.... he couldn't go back to lying, to being simply Raef Emaissyl, blacksmith. He breathed out, wondering if Squall was going to catch the next train to Timber with gunblade out. Nah, he'd probably take an airship. It was faster. He'd come storming in, wanting to settle their old scores, wanting to defend Rinoa's chastity. The thought made Seifer snort into his palms. He stayed like that for a long time, eyes closed and holding his head. Suddenly, his heart constricted, and his mind kept asking What have you done, Seifer?

He stayed like that for a long time, back bowed, slumped in defeat, his world coming crashing down around him all over again. This time, there were no angry mobs out for his dead body swinging from a tree.... at least, not yet. He sighed when he felt hands on his back, then strong arms wrapping around his shoulders. The online meeting must have been over. Seifer wrapped his arms around Zell's trim waist, pressing his sore cheek against Zell's warm stomach.

"What you did was brave," Zell praised, heat rising to his cheeks as he ran his fingers through Seifer's brown hair.

"It was stupid," Seifer whispered against Zell's abdomen. "He's probably on his way to Timber now...."

"He isn't," Zell replied, letting out a shaky breath as Seifer squeezed him firmly. "At least not yet. As long as we promised to keep an eye on you for suspicious behaviour. The mission comes first for him, after all." Zell's heart fluttered when he felt Seifer's warm breath through his shirt. "It started raining while we were talking to Garden. I don't think you could get home."

Seifer looked up as Zell pulled away, and then sat on the edge of the bed beside him. "You can stay here, though."

"Thanks," Seifer muttered, lightly tapping Zell's knee in a gesture of appreciation. "I shouldn't have..." He stopped himself.

"I think you've been looking for an excuse to become Seifer Almasy fully again, and this was it. Just like I was finding an excuse to finally tell people about myself... about being gay."

"Does Squall know?" Seifer asked bitterly.

"" Zell pitched forward, resting his temple against Seifer's muscular shoulder. "But, it was you that made me want to stop lying."

Seifer wrapped an arm around Zell's shoulder. The gestures between them were thick with sexual possibility, and yet they were chaste gestures of people who just desired human contact at the same time. "I guess it was you that made me want to stop lying, too."

"It just seems too weird," Zell admitted, whispering against the side of Seifer's neck. "Us... like this."

"I dunno," Seifer said. "There's always been camaraderie there... even if we were too busy fighting to notice it." He made an amused noise. "Seems like a lifetime ago."

"It was a lifetime ago."

Seifer didn't feel the need to reply, and Zell didn't feel the need to say anything more. Both were silently introverted, for each man had begun themselves on a new sort of path in life, with one simple action that night. And, that they were doing it in each other's company seemed to make it less frightening.

While it was another dreary, dark and rainy night in Timber, Dollet was having a beautiful night, the stars shimmering in the sky, the air that perfect balance between crisp and balmy. Count Aka-Manah walked the streets of the former Empire, watching all the people around him. Timber was still his stronghold, and he would be returning there in the morning, but it was fun to travel, to see other cities that he could confetti with Blackball. Blackballers were popping up in various places around the world, but not with the same force as Timber. Daeva wanted another explosion before he set the second phase of his plan into motion. And, how hilarious it would be....

Daeva sat at a table under an awning at a sidewalk bistro, overlooking Dollet's harbour and the black, night-time waters of the Dollet Ocean. There were merry strings of lights dappling the awning of the cafe as Daeva ordered a fancy coffee, watching all the people around him, all ripe for picking.

"Is this seat taken?" A dark-haired, familiar man asked, sitting anyway. He didn't need an invitation.

"Checking up on me, My Lord?" Daeva asked, stirring his coffee, black and icy blue eyes scanning the crowds.

Bahamut didn't reply.

"Well, you don't need to answer," Diablos murmured with a graceful shrug. "You're becoming quite predictable, you know?"

"And, you aren't?" Etanin asked, raising a dramatically arched eyebrow. "You're looking for another city to pepper, old friend."

"You're so clever," the disguised demon cooed sarcastically. Though, under the table, his foot had started to move up Bahamut's leg, winking when it found its target. But, Bahamut showed no reaction. "You're also no fun." He put some gil on the table, and stood up. Bahamut also stood up, staring blankly at Diablos, seeing the demon under the veneer of humanity, his pretty and androgynous human face, but the body of a definite man. "Speaking of fun..." Daeva mused, looping his arm through Etanin's as they walked down the street. "Mr. Alwaid, would you like to come to a little party I'm throwing?" Dollet was a very liberal city, so two men walking arm in arm didn't so much as bat an eyelash. "It will be quite the shindig. Half of Westphal will be there. The others of the court are welcome, too. Even Alexander," he added with a rolling of his hypnotic eyes.

"What sort of party?"

"Well, you'll just have to show up, won't you?" It was said in a very light and playful manner, but the tone was dark and predatory.

"Those SeeD are starting to close in on you," Bahamut pointed out darkly. "Djinn has reported to me...."

"Blah, blah, blah..." Diablos interrupted. Djinn was Ifrit's human name. "It's not like I'm hiding very hard. If those SeeD don't find me, then that Sorceress in Esthar will." He stopped as they walked down the old cobblestone streets of Dollet's downtown. "Why did you really come here, My Lord?"

Bahamut remained silent as they continued to walk, slowly heading down to the white sands of Dollet's posh beaches. There were a few people around as Daeva kept trying to flirt with his King, whispering things in ancient languages against the side of Etanin's neck. They kept walking towards the shore, where a solitary figure was standing, waves gently lapping at bare feet as he threw pebbles into the water. Each one skipped forever, disappearing from sight, not falling into the waters. The figure was that of a child, a boy of only 13 with silver hair and eyes that were bluer than anything human could have possibly been.

"You're late," the child said in a sweet, innocent voice as Bahamut and Diablos stopped at the shore.

"I doubt you minded, Manannan," Bahamut answered, speaking to Manannan mac Lir, known more famously to humans as God of the Oceans, Leviathan. "You had the ocean to keep you company."

"Hey, kiddo!" Diablos greeted, patting the serpent god on the head in a condescending manner. "Aren't you adorable?" He pinched the child's rosy cheek, getting his hand slapped away. Diablos just laughed, loving to tease their pint-sized companion.

"Don't call me that," Manannan hissed, putting his fists on his hips, little tough guy. Leviathan may have eternally been a thirteen year old boy with an adorable face and apple cheeks, but he was the oldest of all Summons. Before entering the new court that Bahamut had started over a million years ago, Manannan had long been worshipped as a God of the Seas, under various names as ages passed. But, with each passing age, people believed in different things, and his powers had started to fade. But, Bahamut had offered him a place in this ancient court, and doing so had revitalized Manannan, and he forever became known as Leviathan.

"So, this is why you're in Dollet?" Diablos asked, arm still looped with Bahamut's.

"Jealous?" Leviathan asked, smiling brightly and teasingly at the demon Summon.

"You wish, kid." Diablos crossed his arms, but he actually was a little jealous. "Are you here to keep an eye on me, Manannan?"

Leviathan made a face. "Don't be so egotistical. There are things in our worlds that do not concern you."

Diablos made a rude noise. "Well, have your meeting then. I don't care." He pulled a card out, dropping it in the pocket of Bahamut's brown leather bomber coat. "Here is my room number at the Dollet Hotel, if you want to have some adult company tonight," said the demon with so many different meanings.

Leviathan paid no attention. Harsh words and taunting was what Diablos was best at, and he loved when people took the bait, and Leviathan was rarely one of them. He wouldn't foolishly fall into Diablos's little games like Alexander did. But, he also knew that it meant something sexual. When in human form like this, even Summons felt old human pulls such as those, and it was no secret in the Ancient Courts that Diablos and Bahamut had a very.... personal relationship. The way that the two Summons in very human bodies stared at each other for a moment made Leviathan briefly jealous. Not because of them directly, but because since he was trapped in a child's body for all eternity, only young girls and pedophiles seemed to be interested in his human body sexually.

Diablos just cut his hands through the air, as if washing himself from the whole situation. It bored him. He raised an eyebrow at his Lord and started to walk back towards downtown. As he did, somewhere in the recesses of his mind, he heard someone singing.

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

So'ulurha dos y'khexial xialiphi dos meikaka.

Vi'shak xillath xerthar dal akaxa doxapha...

And, this voice was coming from Dollet. From a house in the neighbourhood known as Mountainview. It was a woman singing, her voice beautiful and mournful, and it filled Diablos with satisfaction and power. Each word she sang made him stronger, and when a few voices joined hers, he felt the swell in the core of him. Diablos closed his eyes, humming along with the tune being sung across the city, wondering if they would sing so beautifully after he was done with them.

Zell stirred, light hitting his face from the crack between the blinds. He looked around, but Seifer wasn't there. They had planned to just sleep in the same bed, like they'd done at Seifer's house. But, the other man wasn't there. Zell noticed that there were Triple Triad cards littered in the sheets. He and Seifer had played a few rounds and talked... Zell must have dozed off.

He sat up and rubbed his eyes, stretching and letting out a big yawn, a little disappointed that he wasn't waking up next to Seifer. If Zell was looking at Seifer as a potential lover (which he was), they were going about their relationship in a very backwards way. Normally, you didn't just plainly sleep in the same bed as someone until after the sex had gotten dull, or even before you'd even kissed. Zell got up and stripped off the clothes he'd fallen asleep in. He didn't bother closing the door, because he was hoping that Seifer would indeed walk in on him. Zell went to the bathroom and had a quick shower, thinking all the while. When he thought about Seifer like this, it quickened his heart, but it also made him hesitate. After all, this was Seifer. This was his childhood bully, this was the former Sorceress's Knight, this was a man that Zell had not only disliked, but had despised. How could someone he'd hated so much before now be such a source of emotional connection now? As Zell brushed his teeth and half dried his hair, he considered that it could be because Seifer was a mix of his old, disagreeable self, and a totally new self that was just so different. Zell himself was also guilty of this juxtaposition. Seifer still had some of his fiery old self in there, but it had been humbled by his new, more mature and thoughtful self. Those words exactly could have also described Zell. He wondered if Seifer also wondered about this stuff... if they would make a good couple, and about the reasons why they shouldn't get into a relationship. Like the fact that Zell would be going back to Balamb, and Seifer would stay here. Like Garden's 'promiscuity' laws. Like the dislike for Seifer within Garden.

But, Zell didn't really want to think about those reasons not to. He only wanted to think about how good he felt merely talking to Seifer, how Seifer challenged him mentally, how Seifer still had a sharp tongue, but it was softened around the edges by the compassion he'd learned over the past decade. Zell sighed, putting on a t-shirt and a pair of jeans, keeping his feet bare. Maybe Seifer didn't even think of him like that at all. Maybe Seifer only saw him as a new friend, and not as a mate in the least. He shrugged, going out into his living room, seeing Seifer sitting at the table, a small kit of tools laid out around him.

"Where'd you get the tools?" Zell asked, picking up a miniscule knife.

Seifer took the small scalpel back, shaking his head at Zell who had picked up a glass slide for the small microscope he'd also brought. "Just leave it..." He rolled his eyes. "You're like a six-year-old." Seifer sighed, stretching his arms over his head. He took his glasses off and rubbed his tired eyes. "I went back to the shop after you fell asleep and picked up my toolkit. I figured I'd do it here, so I could tell you as soon as I found anything out."

"And?" Zell asked, pulling up a chair to sit beside the other man. "You've been up all night?"

"I usually am," Seifer muttered, cracking his back. "And, no. Not yet."

"Well, I guess I can start to look into what happened with Diablos... since he kind of left Garden's icon item. I didn't know GF could do that...." He trailed off.

"There's a lot about GF that we don't know, I think. We only ever really see them as big magic spells, but there has to be more to it than that."

"Me, Selphie and Irvine could find out about Talman Sinclaire."

"They probably won't be up for a while. They were still up after you went to sleep. Irvine was the one who drove me to Archimedes. My truck is still parked at the Pub."

"He did?" Zell asked, a little surprised Irvine had been so generous.

"Yeah," Seifer answered, frowning. "What, you figured he'd shoot me in the head as soon as you had your back turned? I don't think you give him enough credit. Though, I think it was just an excuse for him to hit the all-night newsstand across the street from the shop. I think he bought his weight in porno."

Zell said nothing.

"He's level-headed. Always has been, even since the Orphanage."

"You remember that?" Zell asked, a little wistful. "I mean, we take the GF pills, but it doesn't help with things we'd already forgotten. I remember most of the orphanage, but there are still holes." Zell narrowed his eyes. "Do you take the pills?"

Seifer nodded. "Yeah. I have them delivered from Galbadia Garden."

"They didn't recognize you?"

"They never saw my face. I did it all through online purchase. Because I'm a certified alchemist, that's reason enough for me to carry a GF without investigation." Blacksmiths and other such professions that readily used items had degrees for alchemy. They had to study through a school in order to learn methods and such. There were two schools of alchemy, one in Balamb Town that often certified SeeDs who wanted their alchemy degree, and a school in Deling City.

"What rank are you?" Zell asked, staring intently at Seifer's face, thinking about how lonely he would be when he went back to Balamb when this mission was all over. And, it looked like it was going to be over soon.

"Master Level A," Seifer answered, a little smugly. That was the highest rank an alchemist could receive. "You know..." He trailed off, punching something into a handheld sort of device. "Selphie's a pretty good guitar player."

Zell raised his eyebrows. "Huh....? First Irvine drives you to the shop, then Selphie plays guitar for you? I'm glad that they aren't flipping out around you, but I'm still surprised. Pleasantly so," Zell added hastily.

Seifer shrugged. "Well, everyone changes after ten years, I don't care who they are." He looked over at Zell. "Even you've changed, Chicken-Wuss." Seifer reached out and ruffled the front of Zell's hair. "I guess I can't really call you that anymore, what without your rooster hair."

"Bastard!" Zell exclaimed, swatting the other man's hand away. But, blood was rising to his cheeks. "So, did Selphie get you to try and join her band?"

"Who says I didn't join it?" Seifer asked, looking into the microscope, his glasses still off his face. "Tambourine player number three." He looked over at Zell with a sad smile. "I'm not getting anything yet. I guess I have to wait for the chemical reading to finish up." He gestured to the electronic device in his hand.

"How long does that take?" Zell asked as Seifer got up and sunk down on the couch, yawning. Zell followed, sitting beside him, close enough that the lengths of their legs were pressed together.

Seifer shrugged his broad shoulders, slumping back with his long legs stretched out in front of him, head resting against the back of the sofa. "An hour... a week... I don't know. With something this complex, I really can't guess."

Zell curled his legs under him, looking at Seifer's profile. His glasses were in his hands, but he didn't put them back on his face. It made Zell think of the old Seifer, the sheer passion of their fights. Seifer had known how to push all his buttons and get him angry, every single time. Now, he seemed to be doing it again, without having to say a word or raise a finger. However, they were totally different buttons that Seifer was pressing now. The way he smelled, the curve of his lower lip, the broadness of his chest and the flatness of his belly under his long-sleeved red shirt. "Seifer...?" Zell asked quietly.

Seifer's peridot eyes opened, looking over at the blonde. "Hmmm?"

"Do you think....?" Zell trailed off. "Nah, never mind."

"No, what?" Seifer asked, one arm draping over the back of the couch, fingertips resting on the nape of Zell's neck.

"Do you think... it would work out between us?"

"What, as a couple?"

Zell nodded, a lump rising in his throat. He felt like he'd swallowed a basketball.

"From a logical standpoint, probably not. After all, our past is a huge point against us, and the fact that you'll be going back to Balamb eventually, and I don't even want to set foot in Garden ever again. Plus, Squall would rather see me dead than with his best friend."

Zell nodded, Seifer vocalizing all the things he'd been thinking himself. He sighed heavily, looking into Seifer's pale green eyes. Their foreheads pressed together, Zell leaning towards the other man. Their noses brushed together, then their cheeks. "I used to hate you so much," Zell said quietly, even as he continued to nuzzle against Seifer, their cheeks rubbing against each other. They took in each other's scents, breathed against each other's skin, revelled in the feel of another man. Their lips hovered over each other, not kissing and yet so close to doing so.

"We shouldn't do this," Seifer whispered, breath mixing with Zell's. They were breathing into each other's mouths, a shiver moving down Zell's spine. Seifer's words vibrated against his chest.

"I know," Zell whispered back. Their lower lips brushed together, and then they were kissing. It was a very still kiss, only the sound of rain hitting the windows filling the room. It occurred to Zell that he was kissing Seifer Almasy of all people, and it occurred to Seifer that it was Chicken-Wuss that he was feeling so strongly for at that moment. He tasted Zell's top lip between his own, his heart painfully constricting in his chest. How long had it been since he'd felt this way? Years. They didn't really move their mouths in a real kiss, both a little unsure and very nervous. After all, there were too many reasons to count why this was a bad idea, and a messy situation waiting to happen. But, the fact that it just felt so right was impossible to ignore.

They both let out shaky breaths, Zell thinking the exact same things as Seifer, and knowing that he was. He was thinking of all the years he'd been so lonely, and how right this felt, how right discovering a friendship with his former bully felt. Zell pressed his lips harder to Seifer's, and they started kissing slowly. Zell didn't care about the trivial reasons not to. He only cared about the emotional reasons that made the kiss so beautiful and fulfilling. Seifer gingerly wrapped his arms around Zell's smaller frame, pressing them closer together. Zell draped his arms around Seifer's shoulders, testing the kiss by slowly pushing his tongue into Seifer's mouth. He wondered if deepening the kiss would end it, and push Seifer away. But, that wasn't the case. Seifer kissed the other man back in kind, their tongues winding together, nimbly yet slowly tasting each other.

Zell and Seifer were in their own little world, so Selphie and Irvine waking up and coming through the connecting door meant nothing to them. Irvine and Selphie made no noise, not wanting to intrude.

"Who'd have ever thought we'd ever see this?" Irvine whispered, quietly enough that only his girlfriend could hear him. "Zell and Seifer of all people." He put a hand on Selphie's shoulder. "Let's go to the Lonely Orchid for breakfast."

"Yeah...." She murmured under her breath, peeking around the doorframe at them. She'd known that Zell was starting to feel something for Seifer, she'd been able to see it in his eyes. And, after last night talking with Seifer and getting to know him again as Zell had slept, she'd seen it in his eyes, too. Their conversations had started out a bit awkward, Seifer awake because he was always up at night, and Selphie and Irvine up because they were also night owls. After a while of thawing out around each other, it had felt like old times. After all, they'd grown up with Seifer, just as they'd grown up with each other, just as they'd grown up with Quistis and Squall.

"Come on," Irvine hissed quietly, pulling on Selphie's upper arm. "Let's leave them alone." He started to pull her along, but she was holding her ground. For such a small woman, Selphie was rather strong. He rolled his eyes at her, seeing a look in her eyes that he knew very well, for it was in his own eyes often. Desire. "You old pervert..." He murmured playfully. "You're getting off on this."

She swatted him away, still staring at the two men embracing across the room, curled up together on the couch. Their lips broke apart, but they were still pressed together, lips hovering together. They then hugged tightly, not caring about anyone else in the world, and that was obvious even to Selphie as she watched them. Selphie allowed Irvine allowance in his fantasies about lesbians because she herself had her own fantasies about two men. She'd never actually seen two men kiss in person, only in movies or in magazine spreads. The fact that Zell was one of her oldest friends, and she's also grown up with Seifer didn't seem to matter. She kept staring, even as Irvine picked her up around the waist from behind, and dragged her away.

Seifer and Zell hadn't even noticed Selphie and Irvine coming and going, only caring about each other. Screw Selphie and Irvine. Screw Raijin and the Blackballers. Screw Squall and Garden. "I should go," Seifer whispered into Zell's hair as they hugged tightly.

"Go?" Zell asked, brow creasing in confusion. "Where?" He asked, a little fearfully. Perhaps Seifer was second-guessing what had just happened. Zell's heart was still beating quickly. "The roads to your place are probably washed out...."

"To pick up my truck, and stop by the store," Seifer answered, sweeping Zell's hay-coloured hair off his face. "I'll be back, though." He stood up, and started to put on his coat, pulling his umbrella out of the urn in the corner where Zell's also was. Umbrella stands and urns were as important as ovens and fridges in rainy Timber. He kissed Zell's forehead before leaving, slipping his eyeglasses onto his face.

Zell pursed his lips as the door closed, still tasting Seifer's kiss. He flopped back on the couch, staring up at the ceiling. Part of Zell had wondered if he and Seifer would have had sex, right here on the couch. The erection growing in his pants had more than wanted that, but his heart was satisfied. He didn't think they were ready for that. They were still too unsure around each other. Still tasting Seifer on his mouth, Zell was content, though he wanted more. It wasn't a sexual want, but a want for emotional completion, for the feeling he got when he talked to Seifer, when he looked in his familiar and fiery peridot eyes, the way he felt just being in Seifer's company. He wanted to feel those things for more than a few brief moments. Now that Zell had found what he'd wanted for years, he didn't want to turn his back on it. He didn't want to get a call from Garden saying to come back to Balamb, that their mission in Timber was over, that he would have to leave Seifer behind. He didn't know if he would be able to...

"Mornin', Mr. Emaissyl!" Xera greeted from behind the counter as Seifer walked into the shop. "A little surprised to see you at this time of day." She turned down the radio that she had under the counter. She gestured to the counter. "Mail came."

Seifer nodded, shaking some rain droplets out of his coat as he picked up the mail. Bills and such things, as well as a few catalogues from item dealers around the world, and some sort of envelope personally addressed to him. "Xera, is everyone here?" Seifer asked distantly, opening his office door and turning on the light. He put the mail on the table, ripping open the personal letter with his gloved index finger.

"Everyone?" She echoed.

"Gietzen and Tev," he murmured. Tev was another of their clerks.

"They're upstairs sorting out the storage area."

"Can you all come here for a moment? I need to discuss something with you."

"Right on." She left as Seifer read his letter. It wasn't actually a letter, but rather an invitation in calligraphy. Seifer pursed his lips as he read, tasting Zell still. It made him smile. The invitation was for a party in Westphal, being held by Count Aka-Manah. For Raef Emaissyl and 'guests'. It was a party, but also a benefit for the new children's wing on the Forest Owl Hospital, named after the resistance faction that started the wheels in motion for Timber's freedom from Galbadia a decade ago. The name always brought up bad memories for Seifer, and thoughts of if Rinoa was proud to have a hospital essentially named after her. Seifer knew that General Caraway put a lot of money into the Hospital, maybe a way to mend fences with his long-estranged daughter. Seifer had no idea how their relationship was now. He'd always thought she was a bit selfish when it came to her thoughts on her father. Back when they'd first met, she'd been vocal on the subject of General Caraway, how much she'd disliked him and disagreed with him. Seifer had always listened with a bit of hostility. After all, he didn't have a parent to get angry with. Sure, it sucked that her mother died when she was so young, but at least she still had her father. She didn't know how good she had it. To have a father that loved her, and to just turn her back on that like a spoiled princess.... it never sat well with Seifer.

He shrugged, keeping the invitation handy. Maybe Zell would like to go to the party with him....

"You wanted to see us?" Xera asked, hovering in the doorway of the office as Gietzen and Tev, a girl with pale blonde hair and a sturdy frame. She was a good worker, though rather silent.

"Is something wrong...?" Gietzen asked. "We already had our staff meeting this month."

Seifer waved his hand, sitting on the edge of his desk. "No, nothing. It's just... well, there's going to be a change around here."

"What sort?" Xera asked. Her gaze briefly went to the store, keeping an eye on things.

"Nothing that really concerns you. Raef Emaissyl will no longer be your boss."

"You're selling the store?" Tev asked.

"No!" Gietzen exclaimed.

"I'm not selling the store," Seifer murmured with a roll of his eyes. "I'm on my way to Town Hall to change my name."

All three employees stared blankly at their boss.

Seifer sighed, but willed himself to continue. The taste of Zell on his mouth was enough reason to keep going. He wasn't going to hide anymore. "Raef isn't my real name. I changed it about 8 years ago. But, I'm changing it back."

Again, he got blank stares.

"I changed it for some.... rather ugly reasons, but I'm sick of pretending. I changed it because of a part of my past I'd rather forget."

Silence, but all their eyes were transfixed on him.

"My real name is Seifer Almasy. I don't know if that will ring any bells with you."

After a lengthy pause, Xera murmured "Seifer Almasy.... the Sorceress's Knight?"

Seifer sucked the inside of his cheek, frowning. "Yes," he finally replied. "I'm not proud of it, but I can't run forever."

"Is that why those SeeD were here?" Gietzen asked.

"No. They were here asking questions about Blackball. They came back because of who I really am. I grew up at Garden. I know all of them."

Xera shrugged. "If people can forgive Sorceress Edea, I'm sure they can forgive you. Nice to meet you, Mr. Almasy." She winked.

Tev stood up stiffly. "My brother died because of you and the Sorceress. He was at Trabia Garden."

Seifer sighed heavily. He'd known this wasn't going to be easy. "I wish I could take it back, Tev. I think about all those people every night, but nothing I say can come close to an apology for what I did under... the Sorceress's control. But.... I am sorry."

Her mouth was a thin line, and she walked out of the office. Seifer put his hand to his forehead wearily. "I'll talk to her," Gietzen offered. "She's just shocked, Mr. Emaissyl. I mean... uh... Mr. Almasy....?"

"Don't worry about it, Gietzen. She has every right to be angry. If Tev doesn't want to work for me anymore, I won't hold it against her."

Gietzen and Xera started talking about issues in the store, almost like Seifer hadn't said anything at all. "That cooler for the ice items keeps leaking around the rad," Xera pointed out, writing some stuff on a small pad of paper.

Seifer looked at them for a while. "I thought you'd be angrier, like Tev."

Gietzen shrugged. "No offence, Mr. Ema... Almasy. But, people forget easily. It's been ten years. Nobody really cares anymore."

Seifer really wondered if that was true, but he would take whatever the populace could dish out on him. He'd been a coward, hiding from everything for a long time. He'd been a coward for so long... he'd been a spineless coward under Edea/Ultimecia's tutelage, and he'd been cowardly for the last decade, hiding. It was something he didn't want to be anymore.

Return to Archive | next | previous