My Orphanage

Chapter Eleven

By Scarlet Fever

"What happened in here?!" One of the Esthar soldiers asked, voice angry from behind his face-mask. He had his gun trained right on Zell's face.

Zell didn't know what to say, so he remained silent, keeping his hands up. His heart was thundering in his chest, but it was more because he was worried about Seifer than because he had an angry guard all up in his face.

"Odine.... was performing an experiment on the three of us. It got out of control."

"Where is Mr. Almasy?" The head guard demanded angrily.

"Gone....." Rinoa trailed off, giving Zell a wary look. "He...."

"Odine brought it on himself," Edea interrupted, giving Rinoa a rather deadly look that silenced her. Edea didn't want Zell's sacrifice to go to waste if Rinoa let out what happened. "The experiment he started was not what we agreed to." She then looked at Zell, who was staring straight ahead. She had noticed that Seifer and Zell had seemed to become friends while Zell was on mission in Timber, but from their interaction just now, there was much more to it than that. So much more.

"And, yet.... he ran? Not something an innocent person would do."

"Would you have listened to him if he were here?" Zell asked angrily. His eyes went to the door when Kiros came in, followed by Laguna. Laguna's eyes met Zell's, and the President had to turn away in shame.

Kiros and Laguna both saw the mess that had been Odine, and both looked rightly shocked. "What on earth....?" Kiros looked around, eyes resting on Rinoa. Kiros had easily seen that there was something emotional happening between Edea and Laguna, so he also saw that there was something growing between Seifer and Zell. And, Edea was Seifer's mother. Rinoa was the one who would give him the most truthful version of events. "What happened?" He asked.

"Odine..." Edea began.

Kiros pointed a long finger to Rinoa. "Her. She'll tell me, not you."

"I don't know what Odine started doing...." Rinoa said after a very long and nervous pause, the Esthar guards still holding guns on them. "All I know is that.... it hurt...." She reached up and touched her chest, her arm feeling like lead. "And, I could hear her voice... Ultimecia's." Rinoa looked up to Edea, silently searching for some sort of guidance. "We all could. Odine was whispering something to Seifer, and...." She shook her head. "Seifer was screaming 'shut up, shut up', and then blood was just everywhere...." Rinoa had been trying not to look at Odine again, but mentioning the blood made her eyes automatically go over there. "He just.... he killed him."

Kiros shook his head and muttered under his breath. He said it quietly enough so that nobody other than Laguna, who was standing right beside him, could hear it. "Why am I not surprised?"

"Kiros...." Laguna hissed quietly. "Please...."

Kiros just raised an eyebrow at his old friend, gripping him by the elbow and leading him out of the main lab, out into the waiting area. Zell, Rinoa and Edea were still being held at gunpoint by the city guards. "You knew I didn't trust him. He had a choice, and he chose to work for Ultimecia. He could have turned his back on her."

"You really think so?" Laguna asked seriously, his normally jovial voice lowering a couple of angry octaves. "Maybe you'd feel differently if you'd been under her control."

"If it weren't for Edea, would you feel this same way?"

"Edea has nothing to do with being compassionate, Kiros."

Kiros sighed heavily. "Why do you always make me be the bad guy, Laguna? Someone has to think about the welfare of the city and its citizens. And, that includes Dr. Odine, even if you didn't like him."

"You didn't like him either!" Laguna looked back into the lab, his eyes resting on Edea and her worried, beautiful face.

"My feelings don't matter in the face of the law. I'll have to arrest Seifer as soon as he's found. I'll also have to put Zell and Edea under watch, because I think they let him escape."

Laguna's eyebrows raised. "You're willing to arrest the world's most powerful Sorceress and a highly-decorated SeeD officer?"

"I'm not arresting them. I'm just going to question them. But, you know Esthar's laws, Laguna. You know that this could mean execution for Seifer if it's put to trial."

"My wanting a democracy has shot me in the foot again," Laguna muttered angrily as Kiros went back in the lab. Laguna was very against the death penalty, something left-over from Adel's reign, but the people voted year after year to keep the law implemented. Even if he was President of the most powerful nation in the world, he could only watch as the guards escorted Zell, Edea and Rinoa out of the office, guns still raised. He gave a helpless look to Edea, who stared back at him with her golden brown eyes that made him feel like he was falling from the tallest mountain.

"What's going on in here?" Squall demanded, actually shouting. He came running into the waiting area, straight for his wife. "I heard that something had gone wrong from one of the guards. Are you okay?"

Rinoa nodded shakily, but then collapsed against Squall's chest, sobbing when his arms wrapped around her.

"Squall, everything's under control now...." Laguna stopped talking when he noticed his son wasn't even meeting his eyes. He could also see colour staining his son's cheeks. He was still embarrassed, as was Laguna. He also noticed that Zell kept staring straight ahead, not meeting his eyes, either.

"What happened?" Squall demanded so sharply that Laguna flinched.

"Seifer killed Odine," Rinoa whispered against Squall's chest.

Squall wasn't sure he heard her correctly, but looked past the guards into the labs, and saw it was bright red with blood spatter. "What....?" Squall's eyes immediately went to Zell, who was staring straight ahead, his hands smeared with Odine's cooling blood, his mind elsewhere.

And, Zell's mind was only on Seifer. He didn't care what happened to him, only caring about Seifer's safety. For, he also knew the laws of Esthar. Probably knew them as well as Laguna did. Zell knew that murder was punishable by death, especially if it was the murder of someone with Odine's stature in the city. The guards probably would have shot Seifer first, and asked questions later. Especially with his past track record where Ultimecia and Adel were concerned. He also knew that Esthar couldn't really do anything to him, since he would be under Garden's jurisdiction no matter what he did.

Just get as far away as you can, Zell mentally urged, the guards already starting to hammer him with questions as he, Edea and Rinoa were dragged towards the Palace.

Seifer had wound up getting his hands on a rental car. He supposed the clerks hadn't heard what was sweeping through the city like wildfire by now; that Dr. Odine had been murdered. By Ultimecia's Knight. He was out of the Great Salt Flats by the time he stopped, hands tightly around the steering wheel. His whole body was shaking from whatever Odine had done to him, and when he stepped out of the car to the Horizon Bridge station, his legs didn't really want to work properly. His heart was beating erratically in his chest, and he was sweating even though he had a chill. He was sure he looked a wreck to the people all around him. At least he'd wiped the blood off his hands and face. He silently bought a ticket to Fisherman's Horizon, searching his pockets for the right amount of coin. As he handed the ticket agent the gil, he noticed something odd. The window between him and the woman was fogging up, then ice started appearing on it. Maybe a cold wind from the Salt Flats was causing a flash frost.

Seifer looked around, feeling dizzy by the quick movement of his head, and saw that there was ice caking on the trains that were stopped at the station, and it was even forming on people. They all had looks of pure confusion on their face as the ice crawled up all over them, making audible cracking noises, freezing them in their surprised poses like ice sculptures. All except Seifer. "Sir, are you alright?" He asked, touching the icy slick shoulder of the man who had been behind him in line. Icicles were dripping from his elbows, as if water had been poured from the sky and had frozen in contact with every surface except Seifer himself. "Sir?" Seifer asked again, his heart aching in his chest because of the cold that was now in the air, and because of Odine's experiment. His breath was now coming out in thick clouds, and his fingers felt chilled.

There was a thick fog coming from the ocean, due to the extreme temperatures hitting each other. Through that cold fog, Seifer could see the silhouette of a form coming towards him. There was loud cracking because the ice was now thickening on the surfaces of the bridge itself, and the figure kept coming closer, the only thing that was moving besides Seifer himself. He immediately felt danger, and reached up under the sleeves of his shirt, pulling out the hunting knives that had been strapped to his forearms.

You cannot win this fight, a voice spoke in Seifer's ear. Tiamat's voice.

Seifer opened his mouth to say something, but he felt like his vocal chords were frozen in place. It wasn't Shiva's human form that came through that dense fog. It was her true form, her body nearly nude and skin frozen solid. The icy tendrils and yellow ribbons of her hair billowed in the gentle, yet biting cold wind. With each step, her foot froze to the bridge. And with ease, she lifted her foot and kept walking, ice cracking as she tore her foot away from the metal bridge. She stopped a few feet from Seifer, and gave him a mocking bow. "Seifer Almasy, Knight of the Time Mage Ultimecia. We meet again."

Seifer found he could move, but his limbs didn't want to work. He felt a magical tug within him; Tiamat forcibly summoning herself. She also appeared in true form, not bothering with human guise. Her great wings cast a shadow over Seifer, and she snarled at Shiva.

"Out of the way, Tiamat!" Shiva exclaimed angrily in the language of the Summons. To Seifer, it only sounded like some exotic song, all humming and musical noises. "This does not concern you."

Tiamat angrily flapped her wings out, blocking Shiva completely from Seifer's view. He knew that this wouldn't just end with a discussion amongst GF, so he tried to will his body to co-operate with his mind. His hands were shaking quite badly, and he felt empty at the core from guilt and worry and whatever Odine had done to him. He could still hear that musical noise of Tiamat and Shiva talking.

"And, anything to do with the Court does concern me?" Tiamat asked with a snarl. "I barely exist to you all."

"You're turning your back on your own kind!" Shiva exclaimed, the dragoness's wings starting to ice up. Smoke billowed from out of Tiamat's nostrils, and flames licked from between her fangs. "For a human!"

Tiamat angrily let the flame breath escape from her deadly mouth. It melted the ice around her, and crawled up Shiva's cold arms. She hissed and jumped backwards, her eyes looking past Tiamat's wingspan, as if Shiva's ice blue eyes could see through them. "Get out of the way so I can kill him, Thuban!"


"No?" Shiva asked, almost gently. "Why?"

"Because this human, a word you all say so scornfully, is the only loyal being to me. You all turn your backs to me as if I don't exist, all because of Father and that demonic whore of his."

"There is nothing I can do about that, Thuban. Now, get. Out. Of. My. Way." Shiva thrust her hand outward, icy wind and shards like glass shooting out from her palm. The ice cut Tiamat's scaled hide like it was wet paper against the blow of a sledgehammer. The bulk of her weight was flung backwards, slamming into Seifer. He sprawled backwards, sliding along the ice slicked ground. Shiva kept her arm straight out in front of her, raining ice down on Tiamat, who gave a monstrous growl and shot flame from her fanged mouth. Shiva gracefully sidestepped, and Tiamat's body started to fade away.

I'm sorry, but she's too strong for me. You should run. She'll destroy you.

I can't run from her, Seifer mentally replied. Even if I wanted to. She'd just find me.

She'll kill you! Tiamat warned, even though her body was barely visible now. She disappeared with a pop, the air filled with icy glitter where she'd been. With great difficulty, Seifer rose to his feet. He slid around a few times, for he was unable to find his footing on such a slippery surface.

"Are you ready to meet your fate?" Shiva asked calmly, though her hands were shaking with her anger at this human. This human who had stolen her heart.

Seifer stared at her for a while, shivering because of the ever-growing cold. The hilts of his knives felt fused to his hand in all this chill. His mind was racing, while his motions felt sluggish. Think Almasy, THINK. He stared at the Ice Queen, and she stared right back. The patience in her eyes frightened Seifer. She'd seen more ages and years than Seifer could even imagine. He was a gnat compared to her vastness. He thought and thought of ways he could get out of this mess. At one point in his life, Seifer would have just let Shiva roll right over him, but he had a reason to live now. And, it wasn't just because of Zell. It was because of the way Zell made him feel about himself. He felt more complete, more like himself, than he had in a very long time. He suddenly felt lucky that he was latently strong with fire magic. It would be a saving grace. All he could see was a blur in the crystally fog that told him Shiva was on the move. Seifer just trained his mind to think of this as just another battle. Shiva was just another monster that he was going to forge items from. But, he forgot that when he felt like he'd gotten hit by a concentrated winter blizzard.

Seifer was sent off his feet as Shiva's body slammed into him. He could feel the cold of her burning his skin where she touched him. He sliced out with his knives, but she'd already moved away again. The fog off the ocean was thickening, so Seifer could barely see in front of him. When Shiva had tackled him, Seifer's eyeglasses had gone flying off his face and shattered on the now deserted tracks. Things were now blurry because of his bad eye sight. It had also started snowing, the flakes building up on the shoulders of the frozen people waiting for their train across the bridge. Seifer knew his eyes would fail him now, so he relied on his hearing. It was hard to hear her in the winds, which were starting to whistle as they stung Seifer's cheeks to the point of tears. He was crying because of the cold and harsh wind, but the tears were freezing on his cheeks. He heard some sort of whoosh from behind him, so he sent a fireball from his palm. He heard Shiva hiss, but she was no longer on that spot. He'd merely hit her in passing.

Seifer turned when he heard a noise at his back, but then the nape of his neck was smashed by what felt like one of the Horizon Bridge trains, but had actually been Shiva's elbow. It left Seifer's vision black, and left his head spinning. He fell to his knees, blinding pain shooting across his face from that spot on the back of his neck. He then felt himself being slammed into again. This time, Shiva had tackled him. It raised him up off his knees, and sent him flying backwards against the guardrail. Shiva was then on top of him, and Seifer's blurry vision could see the cold, dead anger in her eyes. And, he knew that she wouldn't stop until he was dead. Seifer could hear the metal rail creaking behind him. The fog was still coming up heavily from the waters far below him, and Seifer willed himself not to look over his shoulder to see the watery death that waited for him below. Shiva's icy hand was now around his throat, choking the air out of him as the rail bent around Seifer with the force she was using. He felt the unforgiving metal grinding against his spine and ribcage painfully. Her hands were so cold that they burned him, that it brought tears to his eyes that froze as soon as they tried to trickle down his cheeks.

Seifer grit his teeth, willing himself to take some action. He was greatly outmatched, but that didn't mean he was defeated yet. The ground under Shiva's feet started to smoulder in the shape of a cross, and Shiva let out a scream as the flames enveloped her. Seifer shoved her away and stabbed one of his knives into the spot where the center of her collarbone met her throat. The blood that shot out was crystal clear, and froze against any surface it touched, including Seifer's blade, his hands and his face. As she clawed at the stab wound, Seifer put his palm right in her face, fingers digging into her cheeks and forehead, and he called forth a fireball from his palm. Shiva screamed in agony, but wasn't down for the count. She kicked out, and Seifer went flying backwards. He slammed into a parked train, icicles dripping from it. Seifer's head glanced off the metal, and he felt the hot stickiness of blood rolling down the back of his neck, but it quickly froze to his skin. His extremities were starting to feel heavy and tingling with the beginnings of frostbite. But, every time Seifer felt like giving up, like Shiva was just too much of a match for him, he thought of Zell back in Esthar. Zell who had immediately put himself on the line to give Seifer a chance to escape. It seemed wrong for Seifer to waste such a gesture, to give up when Zell had such confidence in him.

Seifer used the train as cover when a blast of ice shards, snow and cold wind came his way from the dense fog. "You think a little fire will make me give up?" Shiva called in her cold voice that was dripping anger and heartbreak. "I won't give up until you're dead!"

"It's not like I set out to kill Odin!" Seifer called back, closing his eyes and letting a few firaga spells land in thickness of the fog. One of them must have hit Shiva, because he heard her grunt in pain. His words had come out disjointed because of the chattering of his teeth. "He would have killed me if I hadn't defended myself!"

"You should have let yourself die!" Shiva screamed, the air around Seifer so cold that he felt he could reach out and touch it. He saw a blur of movement coming towards him, and ducked out of the way just as one of Shiva's fists left a large dent in the side of the train. "Your life, a human life, is meaningless to his."

"Wasn't he human once?!" Seifer asked, slashing at her with a knife, cutting her arm. "Weren't you human once?! Do you think when Odin was human, he would have stood back and let someone kill him? Would you have? No, you would have defended yourself, just like I did!"

"I loved him!" Shiva bared her teeth in a sneer. "And, you stole him from me."

"Odin was a warrior. He knew the risks of a fight. And, so do you."

Shiva paused, standing before this shivering, bleeding human. He was so weak and frail against the vastness of her powers, and yet he was still standing, still with a will of iron. And, his words spoke truth to her. The anger that Daeva had riled in her, that had blinded her, was being curbed by the rationality of his words. Mercredi had been human once. Shiva had fallen in love with him while he'd still been human. He had been a warrior, and had known the risks of mortality. "I want him back...." Shiva trailed off, sounding so very lost to Seifer. On one hand, she was this being with immense power and age, but on the other hand, she still had her frail, human emotions, and those emotions seemed all the more fragile when in comparison to her other less-than-human qualities.

"I'm sorry that I killed him," Seifer said quietly. "I'm sorry that you lost him, but it can't be undone."

Shiva slowly walked towards him, the ice forming around her feet with each step. Seifer raised his weapons, staring at her warily, trying not to show how hurt he actually was. His head was spinning, his back and ribs ached and everything was blurry because he'd lost his glasses. Shiva's hand came out lighting fast, slapping Seifer across one frozen cheek, then across the other. The slap was intensely strong, and he fell backwards, landing hard on his ass. He looked up to see Shiva extending one pale hand. "Apology accepted," she said in a shaky voice.

Seifer stared at her hand for a while, then slowly extended his own, allowing the Ice Queen to help him to his feet. He kept looking at her warily as she turned her back to him, the fog starting to disappear. She put her hands on the bend guardrail, and stared out to the ocean.

"Just like that?" Seifer whispered, uncertain.

"It's been ten years since Odin's death. For our kind, that isn't a very long time at all." She kept staring out to the ocean, the ice that had built up on the rails starting to melt slowly. "But, since his death, it's the first time in millions of years that I've noticed the time. I've felt every day of those ten years." She looked over her shoulder at him. "And yet, I never came after you until today. I hated the sound of your name, or even the mere mention of Ultimecia's Knight, but I never came. Because I know what you say is true, that's why."

Seifer tentatively went over to the rail, but kept a safe distance from her. The other passengers were still frozen in place, ice sculptures with looks of surprise frozen on their faces.

"I let Daeva talk me into his dirty work, because he said things that I wanted to hear, and yet I knew were wrong."

"Diablos....." Seifer trailed off.

"Oh...." Shiva let out a small sigh. "Mercredi, you would be so ashamed of me right now." Shiva looked over at the human beside her. "I've always prided myself on my rationality...."

"Love sometimes makes us crazy," Seifer said, feeling a little odd at that moment. He felt like he was boding with Shiva, a powerful Sorceress who only minutes ago was trying to ruthlessly to kill him.

"Yes, you are in love with Ifrit's master. You know what I speak of."

"I'm not...." Seifer began to protest weakly about his feelings for Zell, but Shiva gave him a look that read his soul.

"Diablos will stop at nothing to destroy both of you."

"But, why?" Seifer asked. "What did we ever do to him?"

Shiva kept staring out to the ocean. "I know not. Daeva has rather mystical powers that involve clairvoyance. He sees things. Futures, maybe. It is not a perfect magic. Perhaps he saw something relatively harmless, but held onto it with pettiness. One thing that we Guardian Forces are is petty most of the time."

"But, how can I beat him?"

"I don't know. No Summon other than Tiamat will help you against him. Even if we disagree with Daeva at times, we will not take sides against him."

"Which would mean also taking sides against Bahamut."

Shiva made a thoughtful noise. "Thuban told you of her father's relationship with Daeva, I take it."

Seifer nodded, still shivering. "And, Tiamat's too weak to take on Diablos and her father."

"This is true. Even I am not strong enough to have Bahamut as an opponent." Shiva turned to face Seifer, putting a cold hand on his shoulder. "Our King is not your enemy yet, but I'd be careful if I were you." She then dropped her arm, looking out to the sea. "If you go towards the city of Fishermen, I will not follow."

Seifer stared at her for a while.

"You can trust my word, child of Sorceress Edea." She gestured towards the distance. "The continent of Trabia is just beyond these waters. That is where the old kingdom was that Mercredi lived in. I think I'll stay here for a little while longer."

Seifer looked over to the frozen people waiting for their train.

"Don't worry about them. Just go. I'm sure your little episode in Esthar will bring their lawmen soon."

"You know about that?"

Shiva just raised an eyebrow, her skin started to turn to dark mocha, the true form of her power being guised in her former human form. Her long black hair blew in the warming wind, her pale skin turning dark, her body covered by a sari in expensive bright orange material. She just stared back out at the water, her body language telling Seifer that their conversation, and their fight, was over. Seifer put a hand on his throbbing ribs and ran down the tracks towards Fisherman's Horizon.

"Where is he?" One of the Esthar guards asked angrily, jabbing Zell in the gut with the muzzle of his gun. Zell barely flinched, and kept staring straight ahead. "He killed Dr. Odine, and you're covering for him! That's an arrestable offence."

Zell remained silent, just staring ahead.

"If anyone decides his punishment," a voice said, coming into the small room in Esthar's detention center. "It will be Garden." The voice belonged to Xu. It had been about 12 hours since Odine's death and Seifer's subsequent escape. The Esthar guards had been trying to get answers out of Zell, but he wasn't talking. It was foolish of them to think they'd be able to get anything out of him. After all, Zell had been trained to never give up secrets. All SeeD were trained to suffer through the worst torture imaginable rather than give up secrets. And, Zell would never give up Seifer. Never. Not even to Xu. Especially not to Xu.

"Odine was an Estharian citizen," the head guard pointed out as Xu swept into the room, followed by Squall and Quistis. Zell just stared defiantly at them.

"You may do what you wish where it concerns Odine's death," Xu said diplomatically. She'd been called to come to Esthar as soon as Zell had been put under arrest. Edea was also sort of under arrest. 'Sort of' meaning that none of the soldiers dared arrest such a powerful Sorceress, but they were asking her to stay and answer questions, which she was evading just as Zell was. "But, you may not do as you wish where one of Garden's own is concerned." Xu crossed her arms over her chest. "Please leave us."

"I don't take orders from you," the guard hissed angrily from behind his mask.

"But, you do take orders from me," Laguna said, coming into the room. Cid was beside him, and the Headmaster immediately took Xu aside and whispered a few things to her. He then went over to his wife, enveloping her in a hug. She held him back tightly, her body shaking with fear for Seifer, and also with the same guilt that held her every time she held her husband.

Under Laguna's orders, the guards left. Squall gently ushered Rinoa out of the room, until there was only Zell, Edea, Cid, Xu, Quistis and Squall left. Zell knew what was coming, but he didn't care. Xu was going to press him for answers about why he let Seifer escape, and where he could have gone. Zell was pretty positive that Seifer would go to Fisherman's Horizon, but wouldn't say that. He wouldn't say anything. While Cid was headmaster, it was actually Xu that held most of the power in Garden. She was his deputy, his right-hand, and also head of the Garden Tribunal and law system. Zell had personally never had a problem with Xu, but he did know how much she still disliked Seifer. There had always been bad blood between them, and her ill feelings hadn't vanished in the past decade. She was suddenly an enemy to him.

Xu pulled up a chair and sat across from Zell, smiling at him, trying to be friendly, but to be truthful, she was confused, and a little angry. Why, why would Zell want to help someone like Seifer Almasy?! "Zell, why did you let Seifer escape?" Xu asked. "I just don't get it. I know you hate Seifer just as much as I do."

Zell's icy eyes slid over to her from the spot on the wall he'd been staring intently at. But, he did not reply. Edea watched Xu staring at Zell, knowing that she was so very wrong. She didn't exactly know the extent of Zell's relationship with her son, but she knew that it definitely wasn't hate between them. She knew it was friendship at least, but wouldn't be the least bit surprised if it was more than that. She'd seen the look in their eyes when they stared at each other.

"They have been spending a lot of time together lately," Squall pointed out, leaning against the far wall with his arms crossed over his chest. He said it with scorn that Zell could hear, but didn't know if anyone else could.

Zell again remained silent, staring at a spot on the wall that was beyond all of them, beyond even time. He wasn't in this place speaking to these people. He was in a place far away where they couldn't touch him. As Zell had been going through training for moments just like this, he'd wondered if this how Ultimecia had felt when she'd tried to achieve Time Compression.

"C'mon Zell," Xu coaxed. "Why are you trying to protect a murderer?"

At this, Zell spoke. But, his voice didn't show any emotions. His voice showed no worry, no affection for Seifer, no remorse for Odine's life or fear for his own position within Garden due to what he was doing. He looked at Edea rather that and Xu, Quistis or Squall as he spoke. "I'm not covering for a murderer. Circumstances occurred that could not be helped."

"Why are you covering for Seifer?!" Xu asked, standing up in her anger. The chair she'd been sitting in toppled to the floor with enough noise that it caused everyone in the room to jerk. Everyone except Zell. "Tell me, god dammit!"

Zell stared at Xu for a very long time before he even considered replying to her. With each passing second of silence, Xu's face got paler and paler with anger. There was a vein at her temple that was throbbing that Zell's eyes couldn't help but stare at. "You know Xu, I never thought of you as this petty before. It's been over ten years. You'd think you'd have let go of some childish rivalry."

Xu sputtered, taking a step backwards. She stared at Zell as if she'd never seen him before. "You'd fly in the face of Garden law to protect some murderer that you hate anyway?"

Momentarily, Zell did consider what Xu was saying to him. He did consider the shocked looks on all the faces around him, save for maybe Matron's. Cid looked as bewildered as the rest, though he did have relief on his features. After all, it was his son that Zell's silence was protecting. He did consider Xu's warning that protecting Seifer would indeed put him in some very hot water, but one thought of Seifer being handed over to the unforgiving Esthar guards is what stayed Zell's hand.

Xu was clenching her jaw so tightly that her teeth could have shattered. "Well, Captain Dincht. Perhaps a night detained in Esthar's cells will make you reconsider. Also, the thought of facing the disciplinary tribunal might help speed things along."

"Now, Xu...." Cid began.

"Headmaster!" Xu interrupted, holding up a hand. Normally, she was a very calm and collected woman, but her anger was making that hand shake. "We all know the personal connection you have here. While you may still be in charge of Garden, I would highly suggest that you distance yourself from this situation." Xu quickly turned on her heel, but before she left the room, she looked over her shoulder. "Since you're so keen on protecting Seifer, tell him this for me; that he won't get away. He shouldn't have gotten away ten years ago, and he won't get away this time."

"Sorry, Zell...." Quistis trailed off. "But, Xu does have a point. You will have to be detained until we can get some answers about what happened here tonight." Quistis cocked her head, seeing the darkly challenging look in Zell's pale eyes. "I'm not saying I think Seifer did it on purpose, but we do need answers." She stepped across the room and put a friendly hand on Zell's shoulder. "Garden will make sure they don't try to do anything to you. Laguna will make sure of it, too." Quistis began to go get the guards, but Squall stopped her with a strong hand on her elbow.

"Quistis," he said lowly. "Let me escort him."

"Squall, I don't know....."

"Let me," Squall asked again in a way that was more of a demand.

"No funny business, Squall." But, Quistis just nodded, knowing that where Squall Leonhart was concerned, there was no such thing as 'funny business'.

Squall stood beside Zell's chair for a while, looking down at him. The others started to file out of the room, and eventually Zell rose to his feet, staring straight ahead as Squall walked beside him. The blonde tried not to show it, but he was nervous about being locked up in Esthar jails. He'd heard awful stories about them, relics from Adel's rule of the city. A place of nightmares and horrors. Laguna would have gotten rid of most of the awful implements of inhumane torture, but they had to have something to put the fear of Hyne into criminals retained. And, since Kiros was the one who handled some of those things rather than Laguna, Zell was sure he wasn't going to enjoy even a brief stay.

Squall and Zell walked in silence, until it was only them and a couple of masked Esthar guards walking at a distance behind them.

"So," Zell muttered as they went deeper and deeper into the bowels of the Presidential Palace, far under the city. "Out with it."


"You want to say something. I know you, Squall."

"Why?" Squall demanded loudly enough that his voice echoed off the poured cement walls. The underground of the Palace was far different than the clean steel and glass of the rest of Esthar. This was grungy, dirty. "Damn, Zell. Look what's happening. Look where you're going!"

"I know very well, Squall. You don't have to tell me."

"It seems I do!" Squall pointed out defensively. "Zell, this is fucking serious. I don't get it."

"You don't need to," Zell muttered.

"What did Seifer tell you? Is he brainwashing you or something? How can your feelings about him change over night?"

Zell spun on his heel. "It isn't over night!!" He shouted angrily enough that the guards came running, grabbing his elbows. "It's been ten goddamn years, and I think I'm the only one who sees that. You and Xu are so fucking...." He hissed his breath in. "You know what? Fucking forget it."

"Zell....!" Squall put a hand out to touch Zell's shoulder, but let his arm drop at his side instead. Zell was dragged away by the guards down an ominous looking hallway. Squall was left there alone, as confused as everyone else to Zell's motives. He silently walked back up to the main floors of the Palace to find Xu and Quistis. He knew he should probably check on Rinoa, but Zell's siding with Seifer against Esthar authorities brought up a lot of Garden red tape that he knew he'd have to help sort out, even though he despised that sort of thing. When he came to the conference room that Garden used in the Palace, he saw that Quistis was trying to talk Xu down, and that Xu was pacing. No, stalking around the room. She was pissed.

"Why?" Xu demanded. "With all the shit that's going on now with Diablos, and now with Odine, why would Zell want to involve himself in the train wreck that's Seifer's mess of a life?"

"I.... I don't know." Quistis shrugged, looking past Squall when there was a gentle knock on the door. It was a page who brought Quistis a stack of mail and various other things.

"Squall, did you get anything out of him?" Xu asked, finally sitting down.

The brunette shook his head. "Nothing. He was very defensive with me." Squall's voice didn't show the worry he was feeling for his friend.

"Well, I'm stumped." Xu ran her hands through her hair. "You think maybe Seifer does have some sort of magic powers, and he's manipulating Zell somehow?"

"I even brought that up. Zell didn't seem to care much for that inference."

Xu and Squall's conversation was going into Quistis's brain, and she processed their words, but it turned into white noise when she opened an envelope from her assistant back at Garden. There was no note inside, but there didn't need to be. "Well...." Quistis trailed off, looking at the cover of the magazine that had been delivered to her. "I think we just found out Zell's reasons for protecting Seifer." Quistis was surprised to see the cover of the Timber Inquisitor. It was a trashy tabloid, but the picture on the cover didn't lie. It was a rare sunny backdrop of Timber by a trolley stop, where the photographer had clearly captured two very familiar people embracing the way that lovers do. That day after Seifer had found out that Edea and Cid were his parents, the day after Diablos had almost killed them, they'd thought they'd gotten away with a kiss without anyone seeing them. But, the photographer that had been following around the Sorceress's Knight had been watching, and it was now page one. There was also an insert from Esthar. Quistis recognized it as just outside Odine's labs. Another moment where Seifer and Zell had thought they'd been away from prying eyes.

Quistis was surprised to see two former hated rivals kissing deeply, and yet she wasn't surprised at the same time. She had noticed the change in their relationship, the change of emotions in their eyes when they'd looked at each other. It was so very different from ten years ago. She turned the magazine around to Xu and Squall could see the cover. Xu's chin almost dropped to her chest, and Squall's blue eyes widened so mostly whites were showing.

There was a very heavy silence for a very long time. "But.... it's the Inquisitor. That's a piece of trash," Xu pointed out haltingly. "It could be a fake."

"It looks real enough," Quistis pointed out rationally. "And, it would explain all of Seifer and Zell's behaviour."

"But.... but.... but....." That was the only word that Xu could get to leave her lips. Squall barely moved a muscle, completely frozen in shock.

"Maybe there's an article...." Quistis trailed off, flipping through the pages and through other useless stories about ridiculous things.

"What's the article going to tell you that the picture doesn't?" Xu asked, her voice chilly. She was finding herself again, and that anger was also returning. "So.... I guess Zell's decided to betray Garden for him."

"Now, Xu please." Quistis found the article that went along with the story. Xu had been right. It didn't tell anything that the picture on the cover didn't. "He's not 'betraying' anyone. What would any of us have done in his shoes? What would Squall have done if this was Rinoa? What did he do when it was Rinoa?" She asked, thinking back ten years to when Rinoa had been taken to the Sorceress Memorial.

"This is different," Squall said quietly. "Rinoa didn't kill anyone."

"She did free Adel, though." Quistis closed the tabloid and put it down on the table.

"This is different!" Squall shouted, rising to his feet. "Rinoa's a girl!" Squall closed his mouth after saying that, a slight flush coming into his cheeks. "Why would Zell have lied about being... you know....?"

Quistis narrowed her sapphire eyes behind her eyeglasses. "Maybe because he was afraid this was the sort of reaction he'd get from people who claimed to be his friends."

Xu also stood up, and started pacing again. Squall stared across the table at Quistis, a little anger in his eyes at her harsh words to him. Quistis stared right back, disappointment in Squall written all over her face. "But... Seifer Almasy of all people? Well, I guess I shouldn't be surprised that Seifer is a queer."

"Xu!" Quistis exclaimed. "What is wrong with you two? At least now we know why Zell is protecting Seifer. And, I for one understand. Sure, we all may be very surprised, but that's no reason to be hateful."

Xu took in a deep breath. "Well, perhaps Zell was afraid to tell the truth because of what his friends would say, but maybe he also knew that it could cause problems."

"Problems?" Quistis asked.

"Not only has Zell assisted in breaking Esthar law and defying orders of disclosure from a member of the Garden Tribunal, but now.... well, Garden has a strict code of ethics, rules that are set to give our younger students examples on how to live as a soldier. Rules that even SeeD have to follow."

"You would sanction Zell for falling in love?" Quistis wondered. "Especially on such a loophole rule?"

"Rules are rules, Quisty. You know that."

Quistis made a disgusted noise in the back of her throat and went to the door. But, before she left, she looked over her shoulder. "I hope you realize that I'll oppose you on any sort of punishment based solely on Zell's personal life, especially when it has nothing to do with punishing Zell at all, and everything to do with punishing Seifer."

Xu let out an angry noise as Quistis stalked from the room. "Damn you, Seifer...." Xu hissed under her breath. "Look what you've ruined just by being anywhere near Garden again." She also left, leaving Squall alone in the room, his eyes unable to look anywhere else. How long had this been going on? Since Zell, Selphie and Irvine were assigned to Timber? And, did Selphie and Irvine know about it? Squall rubbed his forehead, a tense headache now pounding behind his eyes. Now that his shock had worn off, Squall could start to ask himself questions, hoping to straighten this all out in his head.

So, had Zell been lying this whole time? Rinoa had commented quite a few times in the past how lonely Zell must have been. They'd only ever known of a girlfriend once, and it was that girl from the library that had always had a crush on him. But, for the past decade, he'd kept to himself, always been solitary. But, had he always been solitary, Squall wondered. Or, had there been secret lovers that only Zell knew about? Did Zell think that he couldn't tell Squall the truth? Was Squall really that closed-minded?

He slowly looked over at the magazine again, laying so harmlessly on the table, and yet commanding so much attention. Would Squall's shock be less if it were any man other than Seifer Almasy? Maybe. Maybe not. He just couldn't seem to wrap his mind around the fact that Zell liked men, and more importantly, the man he liked was Seifer of all people.

It was a fact that Squall and Zell hadn't seen each other much due to Zell being in Timber, but Squall had noticed a change in him. He'd seemed... happier. Squall had just chalked it up to Zell enjoying being away from Garden and actually having an assignment, but he guessed that wasn't the whole picture. So, it was Seifer that had brought that kind of smile to Zell's face, a purpose to his actions? So, did this picture of them kissing mean that Zell and Seifer were.... sleeping together? It just seemed so far-fetched. Squall didn't even want to think about it, and yet his mind would let him think of nothing else. Even more far-fetched... were Seifer and Zell in love? Squall sighed and left the room, folding up the magazine and taking it with him. What a strange last couple of days. First he finds out that Laguna and Edea are sleeping together, then he finds out that Zell and Seifer have some kind of relationship, too. A relationship that would make Zell risk everything to protect Seifer.

Maybe Squall could understand that much. He thought of what Quistis said, about wanting to do anything to protect Rinoa, so why was it different for Seifer and Zell? Squall felt a little ashamed of what he'd said about Rinoa 'being a girl'. He wasn't homophobic or anything. It just.... he never thought he'd have to deal with the idea with anyone he knew, especially not his best friend. Instead of going back to his room, or to his office, Squall walked back down to the prison compound. The cells didn't have bars on them, but rather were bullet-proof glass with air holes drilled into them. Squall stood on the other side of the glass from Zell, just watching him for a while. Zell hadn't noticed he was there, and was sitting on the cot, staring at the wall. Squall could see the worry etched on Zell's face. Worry that wasn't reserved for himself at all.

Squall pulled up a chair, and the legs scraping against the concrete floor got Zell's attention. He looked over at Squall and frowned. "What, did Xu send you back down?"

Squall silently passed the magazine through the slot that was used for food delivery. Zell gave Squall a confused look, then picked up the magazine. When he saw the picture, he blushed and pursed his lips. But, when he looked up to meet Squall's eyes, there was no shame there. "I guess I don't have to think of a way to tell you now."

"But, why didn't you ever tell me?!" Squall demanded quietly.

"You're a hard person to confide in," Zell said.

Squall's mouth opened, but he either couldn't find the words, or thought against them. "I would have understood."

Zell stared at Squall for a long time, the glass between them as more than a physical barrier. "I think you know that's a lie."

"Why Seifer?" Squall asked sharply. "Maybe..."

"Maybe if it had been anyone but him?"

"But, you hate him."

"He's not the same person anymore. Neither am I."

Squall frowned, crossing his arms. "If he isn't the same person, he has a funny way of showing it."

"That was because of Ultimecia."

"It's always because of her, isn't it? She must be a nice excuse to fall back on."

"It's not an excuse."

"And, you're in here because of it." Squall gestured bitterly to the glass.

"He never asked me to do this for him. In fact, he's probably pissed off that I did. You know, I'm kinda surprised that you're so dense about him, Squall. I mean, when we were in Garden, you knew him better than his own friends knew him, but you're totally clueless too."

"How is it clueless that I don't trust him?" Squall stood up angrily. "Maybe you being stuck in here will teach you not to trust Seifer."

Zell shook his head. "Why can't you just let it go...?"

Squall just angrily stood up. "I hope you learn your lesson out of this, Zell."

"What lesson would that be?" Zell's voice called as Squall walked away. "About trusting Seifer, or about liking men?"

Zell sighed, running a hand through his hair, finding that his fingers were shaking. On one hand, he was angry at Squall on Seifer's behalf, and angry at the fact that Squall finding out about them went exactly as Zell feared it would. But, on the other hand, Zell still considered Squall his best friend, and it made him sad that Squall had to find out about him and Seifer from the cover of some tabloid. And, that Squall was angry with him for wanting to protect Seifer. If Zell hadn't had every bit of complete trust in Seifer, he also would have been angry about being locked up for something he had nothing to do with. But, Zell believed that Seifer was just as much a victim as even Odine. so didn't regret his decision. But, that was the only thing he wasn't feeling regret about. Squall had deserved better than finding out from a magazine. He felt very conflicted, and also stuck right in the middle. Squall was being very stubborn about Seifer, but Seifer was also being very stubborn about Squall. Zell wasn't afraid of the Esthar guards, knowing his SeeD status would save him. But, he was worried about how Xu's long-standing grudge with Seifer would affect him.

Rinoa sat in front of the elaborate and antique vanity in the room that Laguna had provided for her and Squall. He always gave them the nicest room in the whole Palace. Rinoa figured it was a small way of Laguna trying to make up for not being there when Squall was growing up, not being there when Raine needed him most. She felt weary because of what Odine had done to them, and what she'd seen Odine reduced to. Her whole body felt like jelly, as if everything inside her turned to liquid. She just stayed sitting at the vanity, even though she'd brushed her hair too much already. Rinoa just didn't feel that her legs could support her weight. But, apparently she was fine, according to a doctor. A little weak and out of sorts, but otherwise healthy. And, another little gem of information. She was pregnant.


At first, she was just surprised. She took the pill, but she guessed she was that minuscule 1% that it didn't work for. Then, she'd been scared. She'd brought up the idea of children to Squall before, and he'd always replied with a cold shoulder. Children wasn't something he was interested in, at least not now. What would he say? Then, she'd been happy. A baby. A baby with her husband, a man she thought of as her Knight, as her true love. She was sure that Squall would love the idea too. Eventually. The problem was actually telling him. She'd also been scared that Odine's experiment could have done something to the baby she'd only just found out about. But, the doctor had said no worries. She just needed rest.

Yeah, a nap might be nice, Rinoa's conscience told her. A voice that normally would have just been her own mind telling her what to do. But, she was tired enough not to notice that the voice in her head wasn't her own. It was a soothing male voice. One that was lulling her into a deeper feeling of fatigue. A nap might be nice.

Rinoa went over to the bed, deciding that she could just tell Squall after she had a quick nap. After all, her husband often disappeared for long periods of time, doing his own thing, or different business for Garden. As soon as she closed her eyes, she was asleep, off to dreamland. Normally, Rinoa may not have dreamed, but that same soothing male voice that had lulled her into a nap took her to a place that she often dreamed about. The flower field where she and Squall had promised to find each other.

Congratulations on your pregnancy, my dear.

Rinoa looked around, wondering who was talking to her. Maybe it was Squall. After all, she dreamed of him and this place often. But, in place of Edea's familiar orphanage was a cathedral in an architectural style that Rinoa had never seen before. She felt very serene in this place, and sat among the flowers as she usually did in her dreams, waiting for her Knight to come.

This place is quite beautiful, isn't it? Blessed with the earthly beauty that Sanviar has bestowed upon us.

Rinoa furrowed her brow and looked around. That didn't sound like anything Squall would say. She saw a man in black standing behind her, but not close enough to invade her personal space.

I didn't mean to startle you, he said without his lips moving. He slowly walked to where Rinoa was sitting among the daisies, dahlias, marigolds, amaryllises and peonies. He smiled down at her with a friendly, open smile that put Rinoa at ease. She felt a curling in her stomach though, as if she could already feel the baby inside her. May I join you?

Before Rinoa could respond, the man sat beside her. She noticed that he was dressed in black because he was wearing a vicar's frock. He casually put his hands on his knees, smiling at her.

"Who are you?" Rinoa asked quietly.

Just a friend, he answered, again his lips not moving. You must be very happy. A child is a wonderful blessing.

"Yes...." Rinoa answered at length, tucking some hair behind her ears. "Yeah, I'm really happy."

You're worried about how to tell your husband. The priest smiled at her, his golden hair shining in the sunlight.

"Maybe a little."

You shouldn't be. He is cold, but he is full of love.

Rinoa smiled at this. It was something she'd personally thought about Squall almost since she first met him. "I just wonder if we're ready."

You are. You know you are. But, there could be things that will halt your happiness.

"Things?" Rinoa asked casually. "What things?"

Evil presences.

Rinoa's eyebrows raised, and she couldn't help the feeling of panic that was starting to rise within her. She thought about what had happened in Odine's labs, about hearing Ultimecia's voice, and Seifer losing control and killing the doctor. She actually looked around the quiet flower field, almost expecting to see Ultimecia standing there.

Do not worry. That sorceress isn't what I speak of. The priest leaned in close to Rinoa, and whispered something in her ear. If Rinoa would have ever wanted to repeat it, she wouldn't have been able to. As soon as the words were audible, she was unable to remember what they were. But, she could remember the feeling of them, wrapping around her like a warm and comfortable blanket. She could hear the priest's voice in her mind, feel his warm breath against her ear and the side of her face. But, she couldn't understand or remember what he was telling her, what these beautiful words were. They lulled her into a sleepy state, the smell of the flowers starting to become heady and overwhelming. She lay back against the grass and flowers, eyes becoming heavy. Rinoa yawned and fell into a dreamless sleep, her body and mind now both back in her room in the Presidential Palace.

But, the priest stayed sitting where he was, Rinoa's familiar flower field not really hers at all, but a recreation from ancient power. Alexander sighed, contented with himself as he rested his chin on his knees. With his mind and his power, he kept whispering ancient incantations into Rinoa's subconscious like a lullaby. She would never remember the words, but the residue of them would remain, and would help Alexander in his task. A human like Rinoa Heartilly-Leonhart was so below Daeva's radar that she was the perfect weapon against him, and Alexander intended to use her for just that purpose.

Seifer was sitting in a dingy little restaurant in Fisherman's Horizon near the train station. His hands were shaking around a mug of surprisingly good coffee. His legs still didn't seem to want to work, and every time someone walked by him, he'd look up expecting them to the be the Esthar guards. He was also still so very cold from his fight with Shiva. But, it wasn't cold that was making him shiver. It was worry for Zell, and shame at himself. Here he was, running again. But, there was still too much fear in him to instantly get back up and take the next train back to Esthar. But, he felt too restless to stay in this dive of a cafe. He got up, his head pounding. Why had he let this happen to himself again? Ultimecia's sway had made him kill again, and it had made him run again. He was just so tired of it. As he passed a news stand, he smiled a little at a picture of two people kissing on the cover of one of them. It made him think of what it was like to kiss Zell. But, his already shaky legs nearly gave out from under him when he realized that it was indeed a picture of himself and Zell kissing. He reached out to pick up the magazine, all his breath leaving him. But, he snatched his hand away quickly, stumbling away from the stand.

Had someone been watching them? The realization that Garden would have seen this hit him like a fist in the gut. Shit.... that meant Squall knew. That meant that Cid knew. Seifer didn't care what his 'father' thought, but he did care what it meant for Zell's career as SeeD. Squall and that bitch Xu were probably waving that tabloid in Zell's face, asking him a million questions, demanding answers. The shakiness in Seifer's muscles vanished with his new resolve. There was no fucking way he was going to hide out in Fisherman's Horizon while Zell dealt with the fallout for everything. Seifer would not run again. He wouldn't hide behind a new name and let himself be berated and spit upon anymore. But, before he went to the train station, he stopped at a shopping center and picked up a few things, deciding to come back in a style fit for a Sorceress's Knight. If everyone wanted to keep thinking of him like that, he would give them something to think about.

He got on the first thing smoking towards Esthar and watched the ocean move past him. He still felt a chill in the air when they passed the spot where he and Shiva had been fighting. Hyne, he was lucky to still be alive. But, his fight with her did make him put things in perspective. It made him give Diablos a lot more credit, and the fear that his powers deserved. The train arrived in the city quickly. Maybe too quickly. It didn't really give Seifer a chance to back out, to hide again. After all, what was he going to tell the authorities? He couldn't tell them what he didn't know. All he knew was that he heard Ultimecia's voice, her mocking laugh and her taunting words, and then Odine was dead. Getting off the train, he saw another news stand, but this time picked up the tabloid that had his rather private moment with Zell plastered very publicly all over its cover. Seifer didn't just stroll through the streets once he arrived in Esthar. No, he wanted to walk into the Palace on his own terms, not under arrest by guards. He actually found it quite easy to evade the patrol. Just like sneaking out of Garden when he was a kid.

He found the whole thing really easy, which sort of disappointed him. He would have been even more disappointed if he wasn't so worried about Zell, and about himself. He knew that coming back was the right and only thing to do, but he was still shit scared. He found his way into the Presidential Palace easily enough, but then came across the problem that he didn't know where Zell was. He first had to find his way into the cells, which took a lot of crazy paths and Seifer having to wiggle through spots that were much too small for his tall frame. But, when he thought again of just turning back, all he had to do was think of how blue Zell's eyes were, and the fact that he was locked up in this hellhole for something that was Seifer's fault, all to protect him. Seifer found himself on a catwalk that overlooked a cement hallway that was very different from the rest of Esthar. This was dark and grimy and dirty. Befitting of a prison.

There was a guard sitting at a table, and lucky for Seifer, he was shirking his duties. He was reading a magazine, the long hall of glass cells left unwatched. Seifer was sure there were cameras everywhere, but he didn't mean to run away. He just wanted a few minutes alone with Zell before they caught him, before they put him in one of these cells. He just wanted to tell Zell that he was sorry, that he didn't mean to kill Odine. Maybe now that Zell had some time to stew, he thought against risking everything to help a murderer escape.

Seifer slowly and silently crawled down the scaffolding of the catwalk, wincing when his feet scraped against the cement floor. But, the guard didn't seem to notice, because he didn't move except to flip a page in his magazine. Seifer kept to the shadows as he looked into the cells. Most of them were empty. Esthar after all did have a rather low crime rate. Must have been nice in comparison to Timber. But, Seifer supposed that most of the recent crime was Diablos's fault. The few prisoners that were locked up were sleeping, and Seifer's heart constricted when he saw Zell reclining on a cot in one of the cells. He hated to see Zell locked up like this. Like an animal, when it was Seifer himself that was the animal. He walked up to the glass, pressing his palm to it, not saying anything. Now that he was back, he couldn't really think of what to say.

Zell sighed. The guards had come and told them it was 'lights out', but he hadn't been able to sleep. Zell was thinking of the last time he'd been jailed. Back ten years ago, when Edea had been possessed by Ultimecia. It was always her, always Ultimecia. Now, it was Ultimecia that had dictated Seifer's actions. Hyne, Zell hoped that he was okay. What if the Esthar guards had gotten overzealous and just shot Seifer on sight? Laguna would never allow that, but they could have said it was an accident. What if.....? Zell noticed movement out of the corner of his eye, and casually looked over to see someone staring in the cell. He blinked a few times, thinking that he was in a dream or a memory. But, the memory was whispering his name.

The small blonde sat up, getting off his cot. He slowly walked over to the glass, putting his hand up to where a blonde Seifer had his hand pressed, only the glass separating their fingers. Seifer's brown hair was gone, back to the blonde that Zell remembered from their childhood. He was also wearing a pale grey coat, similar to the one that had been his trademark, but not exactly. He also wasn't wearing his eyeglasses. "Seifer....?" Zell whispered. "What....?"

Seifer ran a hand through his hair in such a typically Seifer Almasy motion. "Gotta always make an entrance, Dincht. You know that." He smirked, but around his eyes was tight with worry. "Are you okay?"

Zell nodded, smiling at the gentle concern in Seifer's voice. But, then he frowned angrily, glaring up at the other man. "What the fuck are you doing here? Why didn't you escape? I stalled them so you could get far enough away...."

"I'm not going to let them punish you for what I did. I can't run away again."


"No," he interrupted. "Look at what they're doing to you because of me."

"It's not like you forced me. I did it because I l--" Zell let out his breath, not finishing his sentence.

Seifer stared at Zell for a few moments, thinking about how Shiva had looked right into him when he'd tried to protest feelings of love for Zell. Like she'd been able to see through the lie. "I know, Zell."

"You should run," Zell begged quietly. "The guard will come soon."

"Let him," Seifer insisted. "I'm not leaving."

"Seifer!" Zell's hand that was against the glass balled into a fist. "They aren't going to be easy on you...."

"I know."

Zell shook his head. "Your hair...."

"You don't like it?" Seifer furrowed his brow a little, wondering if his old blonde hair would give Zell ugly flashbacks.

"I do...... but, why?"

"I want to stop running. And, that means.... leaving Raef behind for good, too."

"Did... did you see the tabloids?"

"Yeah," Seifer whispered, forehead now pressed to the glass. "It was a nice picture of us." He looked into Zell's icy eyes. "What did Squall say?"

"Not well," Zell answered bitterly.

"Why am I not surprised?"

"Hey, HEY!" The guard shouted, finally having looked up from his magazine. "What are you doing over there?"

"Seifer, please....."


"Hey, it's you!" The guard shouted, tackling Seifer to the ground, who didn't try to fight back at all. The guard started speaking into a communicator within his uniform.

"Stop it!" Zell shouted. "He's not fighting you back!" Zell slammed his fists against the glass, stupidly trying to break out or something. He knew he couldn't, but he hated just having to stand there and watch this guard assault Seifer, who Zell knew could have utterly destroyed his opponent, but who wasn't fighting back at all. Two more guards came out of nowhere, talking quickly into their communicators for backup. They also fell into the one-sided scuffle. Zell flinched when he heard some sort of crack, and saw blood shoot out from the mess of flailing limbs. "Stop!" Zell shouted again, slamming his palms against the glass.

"That's enough!!" A voice shouted. Laguna came running down the hall, his long hair trailing behind him. "STOP!" He yelled in a way that Zell had never heard Laguna yell before. The guards must have been surprised too, for they jumped back, but still held Seifer's arms, dragging him painfully to his feet.

"Are you okay?" Zell asked when he saw the blood running down Seifer's cheek from his nose, dripping onto the floor.

"Yeah," Seifer muttered, wiping his chin with the back of his hand.

"Shut up!" The first guard hissed, elbowing Seifer in the back of the neck, which made him crumple to his knees.

"Didn't I tell you to stop?" Laguna yelled. He grabbed the front of the guard's uniform and shoved him away. Laguna crouched in front of Seifer. "You okay?"

Seifer just nodded, looking up at Laguna. Yes, Laguna had intervened for him, but he couldn't stop thinking about what he'd seen him doing with Edea.

"Your hair is blonde again...." Laguna reached out as if to touch the top of Seifer's head, but pulled his hand back again.

"I won't run anymore. And, I won't let them punish Zell for something he didn't do."

"You got him?!" A familiar voice to Seifer shouted up the hallway. He heard running footsteps as he struggled to his feet, his ribs protesting. He'd already been sore from his fight with Shiva, and the assault from the guards hadn't helped matters. Seifer's upper lip curled into a sneer when he saw Xu, followed by Squall and Quistis. Squall looked at Seifer's hair and seemed taken aback. Quistis was looking at him with a blank expression, but Xu's face wasn't blank. It was showing anger and victory. "You aren't as good as you think you are, I guess...." Xu muttered.

"I turned myself in. On my own terms." Seifer just smiled meanly at her, letting the blood drip down his face, hitting the ground with audible plops.

"To protect your little boyfriend?" Xu asked, not even looking at Zell. She had all her attention on a man that she despised. Xu was normally a very calm and even-tempered woman, but Seifer Almasy brought out the worst of her temper. They'd never gotten along as children. Xu had always hated how Seifer had never tried, never studied, and he'd always gotten higher grades than her. She'd hated how easily everything had come to him, how popular he'd been. But, his attitude had held him back, whereas Xu's had let her ride the ranks up to Garden Administration. Seifer had been a bully, even Zell would agree to that, and he'd teased Xu mercilessly when they'd been young. Xu had never forgiven Seifer for his humiliating words, words that while very painful, had that ugly ring of truth to them.

"Yes," Seifer answered calmly. "I won't let them punish Zell for something I did."

"Esthar won't be punishing Zell. He is under Garden jurisdiction."

"I won't run," Seifer stated. "I guess that's where we differ, eh Commander?"

Xu flinched as if Seifer had slapped her. Xu and Seifer, as well as Quistis, had taken their first SeeD exam all in the same year. Seifer and Xu had been on the same squad. Their assignment had been to go to Deling City and subdue a criminal syndicate that was selling illegal arms to Fisherman's Horizon anarchists. Quistis had been on the squad that went to Fisherman's Horizon to head off a shipment, whereas Seifer and Xu had been assigned to Deling along with a couple other squads to cut off the company at its home point. It had ended in a rather bloody gunfight where all the syndicate had either been killed or arrested, but it hadn't been an easy road. Xu had been the Captain, and they'd been ambushed by some of the gang, and she'd had a moment of total fear, of realizing that she herself was just a child and she was facing death in a situation that most adults couldn't even handle. She'd ran out of the room, but had left two of her men behind as guns had been pressed to their temples. Xu had wound up finding the leader of the gang and bringing him in by herself, but running away as two men had been shot was something that Seifer had seen. He'd seen her run, he'd seen the men shot like animals while Xu turned her back on them.

Garden had called it casualties of a mission, but Seifer never let her forget that her rise to the top was splattered with blood. Perhaps Xu hated him so much because he was a face that reminded her of her past failure, reminded her of the dead bodies she'd left behind.

"But, you did run," Xu answered. "You ran when Ultimecia made it convenient for you to turn your back on Garden."

It was Seifer's turn to flinch. "Doesn't help that Garden pushed me away."

"That's irrelevant now," Xu snapped. "You may release Captain Dincht." Xu looked at Laguna, who was glaring at his guards. "President Loire, will you make sure that he's detained properly? Mister Almasy has a way of escaping."

One of the guards went over to a control panel and opened Zell's cell. He quickly came out and went towards Seifer, but the taller man was jerked away hard enough that he lost his footing and stumbled. He was rewarded with a jab to the breadbasket.

"Seifer...." Zell whispered just under his breath.

"I'll be okay," Seifer whispered back, quickly reaching out and touching Zell's chin. His arm was yanked away and he was dragged down the hallway.

"Always lovely to see you Commander," Seifer mused as he passed Xu, spitting out a mouthful of blood, which just missed hitting her in the face. Seifer looked at Squall as he passed. "Is Rinoa okay?" He asked quietly. "I know that my legs still won't work right from after the session with Odine."

"Shaddup," one of the guards slurred, pushing Seifer along.

Squall just nodded, watching as they took Seifer away.

"I expect to see you at Garden two days from now," Xu said to Zell, barely turning to look at him. Seifer's little comment stung her, and looking at the tattooed blonde only reminded her more of Seifer. "You will have a Tribunal hearing on the sixth of October."

"A hearing?" Zell echoed. "But, what about Sei--?"

"That no longer concerns you. It's in the hands of the Esthar government. You should be more worried about what repercussions your actions will have on your position at Garden."

"But...." Zell began.

Xu raised a hand, finally turning to look at Zell, her dark eyes blazing. "No protests, soldier. It would be wise not to show insubordination now." She spun on her heel and left.

"Come on," Quistis said quietly, putting a hand on Zell's shoulder. "I'm sure you want to bathe and rest...."

"You know what I want," Zell said smoothly, glaring at Xu's receding back.

"We'll see what we can find out from Laguna."

Zell just nodded, his gaze meeting Squall's. Zell saw the crease in Squall's brow, knowing it meant that Squall was thinking deeply. He sighed, and let Quistis lead him back towards the main floors of the Palace.

Seifer lay back on the cot of his cell, trying not to think about Odine's death, or about Xu. Xu.... what a cunt. Yeah, she was good at her job, Seifer would even give her that. She was tactically brilliant, but he couldn't ever look at her the same way again. Watching someone get their brains blown out as their Commander turned her back and ran was something that Seifer had to live with his entire life. She didn't even see it happen. They'd been silently crying, not wanting to show weakness by outwardly weeping. But.... maybe he was just like her. He'd run away too. His hate for her was built the same was as Xu's hate for him, because they were a mirror of each other. Seifer had run and left dead bodies in his wake, too. He wouldn't do that again.

Instead of thinking about all of that, he decided to think about Zell. It would have been nice to wrap his arms around Zell, to feel the strength of his muscles and smell the scent of his skin. He would have liked to have felt Zell's fingers run through his hair, or feel Zell breathe against the side of his neck right about now. He wasn't even thinking about fucking Zell. Thought that would have been nice, Seifer was desiring more the small embraces he wanted more than anything. He just wanted to touch Zell's skin and look into his eyes, because that would have made him feel calm. And, he wasn't feeling calm right now. He was actually feeling pretty shit-scared. Esthar wasn't known for being forgiving, even if the President was banging his mother.

Did Edea know he was here? Seifer was sure he wasn't allowed visitors, even if she wanted to come. And, what about Cid? What would he do about Zell? Seifer knew that Zell would see some sort of punishment from Garden. Xu would probably want to cut his dick off, just to spite Seifer. That worried him. That Xu would want to punish Zell just as a way to punish Seifer. Maybe if Seifer got jail-time for Odine's death, it would be.... better for Zell. Look what happened to Raijin and Fujin. Fujin could have had a life at Garden, but her loyalty to Seifer made her turn and run, just like him. Such a fucking coward he was. And, Raijin.... Raijin was dead. Dead by Seifer's hands. What if Seifer wound up hurting Zell, too? He'd hurt Zell hundreds of times in the past, when they were kids, but now.... Zell was the only one who believed in him. Zell had risked his future for Seifer. Fujin and Raijin had done that for him, and he supposed that Edea did as well, protecting him from Ultimecia as best she could, but this was a little different. Zell was his....lover.

Seifer groaned, putting his hand to his stomach. The guards had done quite the number on him. He could have easily ripped them apart, but he knew that would have made things much worse. Breathing was even a task. He was now dressed in a black jumpsuit that was issued for Estharian prisoners, his feet bare and his watch confiscated. Laguna said he'd do everything he could to help Seifer, but they hadn't talked past that. They were both still rather embarrassed about the whole situation between Laguna and Edea. The air felt heavy, like an anvil on his chest. He used the heel of his hand to pound at his breastbone, his lungs trying to get air. What was happening....? It felt wrong.

He looked up and saw what could have been his reflection in the glass, but it wasn't. Someone was watching him. Seifer had to take deep, painful breaths to get air into his body, seeing the man watching him still, putting his fingers to the glass. His face was classically handsome with an air of dark mystery and power to him. His hair was brown and brushed off his face, and somehow he looked familiar to Seifer, but he was sure he'd remember someone who exuded power like this. Even Edea or Ultimecia didn't feel this powerful, this ancient, this... inhuman. The pale fingers traced along the glass, leaving pale violet trails in some sort of abstract pattern. Seifer slowly got off the cot, his legs still not wanting to work properly. As he got closer, he saw that the random picture that this mysterious man's fingers were tracing wasn't random at all. It was an arcane image, what looked like a rune. When the image was complete, the heavy feeling in the air lessened, and Seifer was actually able to breathe. He took in huge gulps of air, putting his hands to the glass, which vibrated with magic that shook Seifer's nerves.

The man stared back at Seifer, just watching him with dark, dark eyes. Seifer felt like he was being sucked into a black hole, the oxygen leaving him all over again. Only when their gaze was broken was Seifer able to breathe properly again. The man walked down the dark hallway and out of sight, his shadow strange. Not human. When Seifer saw the shape of his shadow disappearing along with him, Seifer knew why he'd looked familiar. He'd never met this man before, but he had met his daughter. There was a family resemblance between Tiamat and Bahamut. The shadow had been in the shape of the dragon, and the power had been millions of years worth of magic in the air.

Seifer touched the glass where Etanin Alwaid's fingers had traced the violet rune. An electrical current went through Seifer's fingers, and he stepped back. Any magic that one didn't understand was potentially very dangerous, so Seifer went and sat on his cot, far away from the rune. Though, he'd touched it.... He nervously looked at the tips of his fingers. What had Bahamut meant with the rune, and why had he been there? Was it as part of Diablos's plan? But, from what Shiva had said, and even Tiamat, Bahamut wouldn't be Diablos's lapdog, even if they were 'close'. So, that just made the visit all the more strange. Seifer lay back on the cot again, still able to feel the magic tingling in his fingertips.

Diablos watched Nha'zora dance in her human form. He liked forcing her to stay in human form, liked the weakness it gave her, and the power it gave him. He was in his true form, sitting on a low-backed throne that allowed room for his massive wings. He was watching her curvaceous human form, but his mind was elsewhere. On Shiva, wondering what was transpiring there. His clairvoyance wouldn't show him the events. Diablos felt power in the air, but it wasn't anything to be concerned about. It was the power of Siren.

Viaxhar dy-kur a'varxqua. Siren came into the room in a flurry of gold dust, using an ancient greeting. Formalities. She was here on Court business.

What do you want? He watched as Nha'zora hesitated. He could also feel Ulurha stirring on the grand bed, in his full Varuna form. "Keep dancing," he commanded angrily of Nha'zora, pointing a long black claw at her.

Delivering a message, Daeva.

Isn't that my job?

Siren kneeled beside Diablos, her feathers brushing his arm, glowing against the blackness of his scales. Lord Bahamut sent me.

And? Diablos's monstrous face didn't show his worry that Etanin just didn't come himself.

He's put up barriers so you cannot attack your human foes again. Ancient runes of Scharvka.

Oh.... Diablos shot up out of his throne and shoved Nha'zora without warning. She went toppling against the wall, snarling angrily as she became her true Varuna form. She snarled at Diablos, swooping towards him. "Kuth xharvar!!" He shouted at her, which caused her to shrink back and slink out of the room. Ulurha stayed where he was, though.

Shiva didn't kill Seifer Almasy. She thought better of it, and Bahamut isn't pleased that you tried to use her to get your way.

She couldn't even finish a simple task.

I'm here to give you a warning, Daeva. Watch your step.

I don't need direction from you.

Shiva's pretty face drew together in a frown. "Whatever you say," she muttered, leaving in the same cloud of gold dust that she'd arrived in.

Diablos carefully sat back down on his throne, blank eyes looking over to Ulurha, whose sulphuric yellow eyes were watching him carefully. "So, what do you make of this mess, Ulurha?" Diablos asked in a demonic language that he used to speak with his Varunas.

Ulurha glided across the room, draping very long arms across Diablos's broad shoulders. He whispered in his master's ear, fangs bared in an evil smile.

Diablos made a contented noise, stroking claws over the spine of Ulurha's wing. "Hmmmm.... quite the thoughtful idea. Bring me the necessary items."

Ulurha nodded, leaving on silent wings. Diablos stared into nothing, anger rising in him. Shiva's rationality did put a damper on things, but what hurt more was Bahamut's intervention. All for humans?? Diablos gave a come-hither motion with one clawed finger to a gold bowl in the corner. It floated towards him. Inside was water, and when Diablos breathed over it, the water smoked like fog over an ocean's surface. He stirred the water with a fingernail, waiting for Ulurha to return. Bahamut had used an ancient rune of protection on the humans, meaning that Diablos's hand couldn't touch them now. But, the demon still had tricks up his sleeve, and it was time to reveal them. Ulurha returned with various bottled items, and Diablos added them to the smoking water, which turned an ugly shade of red. Diablos gave a fanged, victorious grin to the bowl of magical water when the reflection of a face surfaced to the claret surface. The face of one who had helped him in the past, and failed. One that would help him again.

The face of Raijin.

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