Chapter 18 - N.p.s.N.g.s., Part I

<no pains, no gains>

By YuriNigasa

Squall wrapped his arms around Seifer one last time, reassuringly, then followed him out of the cabin and onto the deck. The gangplank was down and secured against the deck. He could tell Seifer was scanning the crowd for Zell, but Squall saw Zell first. Giving Seifer a nudge, he gestured towards where Zell was waving enthusiastically. Seifer raised his hand in return and began to steer toward Zell with Squall dogging his heels as the shorter blonde half-jogged to join them.

"Seifer!!!" Zell yelled, bouncing up to grab Seifer around the neck in some bizarre hybrid of hug and choke hold.

Seifer discovered that he didn't have time to be uncomfortable around Zell. All he could do was drop his bag and hug Zell back, his subconscious praying that he'd be released before his airway was completely constricted and damned if Squall didn't just stand there and smirk. Just as suddenly as it had started, Zell released his hold on Seifer and grabbed Squall by the hand, pulling him in for a hug.

"Oh sure," Seifer remarked, "him you hug, me you asphyxiate."

Zell arched an eyebrow provocatively, "Jealous?"

Squall gave Seifer credit for recovering quickly, even if Squall had to choke down a snort of humor.

"Not on your life, Chi..."

Seifer didn't even make it to the second syllable. Zell grabbed him in a headlock and Seifer suddenly found himself trying in vain to pry Zell's arms from around his neck.

"Tch, I still owe you for that message. Eight years it's been and you still have no manners. Time to get schooled, baby!" Zell's sharpened canines lent a maniacal air to his ear-to-ear grin.

"Eight years and you haven't increased your vocabulary."

Zell squeezed tighter.

"Okay, okay! Let go already!"

"Say the magic word."


Zell was laughing so hard that Seifer seized the opportunity to slip from his grasp, never doubting for a moment that had Zell really intended to hold him, he couldn't have escaped no matter how amused Zell was. Of the three of them, Zell was obviously the one who hadn't let his training falter.

Squall stood surveying the scene with a bemused look, then held up his hand. "So I take it I get to be the adult today?"

Zell wrinkled his nose. "Hey, he started it!"

Leaning over to pick up his bag, Seifer whispered in Squall's ear, "If you're the adult, does that make you 'in charge'?" He winked as he slung the strap over his shoulder.

Squall blanched noticeably.

Zell cocked his head to the side and peered at Squall. "You okay man?"

Coughing to cover his shock, Squall replied, "Yeah, just swallowed the wrong way or something."

"Ah, okay. You guys got everything?"

Squall nodded affirmatively and Seifer agreed. The three men split up the bags so they each carried two, and began the walk up the road from the harbor. Balamb had changed, Seifer discovered. He hadn't been back to Balamb since that last time he'd been here with Raijin and Fuujin. They had left town soon after he had run off, which had been fairly immediately, meaning they had spent a grand total of about two weeks in Balamb before they moved. He had never come back. Like most of everything, Balamb had grown into more than just a train station, gas station, harbor, and hotel. It was still a small town, but there were new houses located around what had once been the outskirts.

Zell's home was one of those recently built. It impressed Seifer as very practical, a trait he'd never really associated with Zell. Somehow he'd been expecting something more along the lines of the 'Dorm Room' Closest to Hell. Zell opened the door and lead the way into the livingroom. Seifer tailed him until Zell stopped dead and it dawned on Seifer that there was already someone in the room. Squall nearly ran into Seifer before he figured that, like Zell, Seifer was staring at the middle of the room. Unlike Zell, Seifer seemed to be staring in shock.

"Zell! I hope this isn't too much of an inconvenience. The door wasn't locked, so I let myself in. I really wanted to see Seifer before the commotion set in."

Seifer was frozen in place. He had prepared for this moment a thousand times, but there was no way running through it in his mind could touch the reality of the situation. The hair was down, the makeup removed, the clothes subdued, but there on the couch sat the woman Seifer really only remembered as his Sorceress.

Squall could tell by the look on Seifer's face that it probably hadn't been the best idea to go about things this way. Raw, naked, emotion played across Seifer's features and Squall could tell that Seifer wasn't seeing Matron, he was only seeing Edea. Squall didn't want to leave Seifer alone, but neither did he want to leave Zell gawking in the middle of the livingroom. He reached out to touch Zell's wrist and beckoned him to pick up the bags and take them to the guest room. Zell frowned at him, nonverbally asking why he should go when Squall was obviously hellbent on staying. A singular glare that Zell knew well took care of the issue. As quietly as he could, Zell took Squall's bags and left the room.

Seifer fought a sense of panic as Matron stood up. His heart was pounding and every single conscious thought in his mind screamed that he was being absurd, but he couldn't lock out the overriding presence of terror that gripped him. He was an idiot to do this. He wasn't ready, not now, maybe not ever. He couldn't run but he didn't want to stay. Ultimecia's true legacy to him had come full circle. Seifer couldn't differentiate between the woman who had helped raise him and the Sorceress who had left him in failure. Seifer's reality was slipping and all he could feel was the mist around his body. All he could see reflected in Matron's eyes was a serpentine amber glow. Somewhere between his subconscious and his lips, a scream tore through him and Seifer collapsed.

Squall scrambled like hell to catch Seifer before he hit the ground. It wasn't easy considering it was pure deadweight, and Squall didn't quite manage to hold Seifer up so much as slow his descent. He wasn't sure what exactly had just transpired. He cradled Seifer in his arms as Edea knelt beside him.

Drawn by the sound of commotion, Zell raced into the room only to find an unconscious Seifer, a worried Matron, and a Squall that appeared more frightened than Zell had ever seen in his life.

"What the -?" was all Zell could get out.

"I don't know Zell. Fuck it. He just stared at Matron and then dropped like a stone. For all I fucking know it was some warped thing Ultimecia left in his mind."

"Shit, calm down. You're the last person I'd expect to get hysterical so just chill! Let's get him to the bed, then figure out what to do."

Zell bent down to pick up Seifer's legs as Squall relinquished his hold on Seifer long enough to stand up and pick him up under the arms. They carried him into the bedroom and laid him down. Edea stood in the doorway, her expression a mixture of confusion, calm, and determination. Squall sat down on the bed and took Seifer in his arms again, not really caring if anyone thought it strange. The night before seemed an eternity ago. Squall didn't know what was wrong, and even though he logically told himself there was no relation between Seifer's collapse and Rinoa's, he couldn't help but worry that he would lose Seifer all the same.

Seifer's stomach wretched and he fell to his knees, his body wracked with dry heaves. He turned his head up only to be met with a sharp crack against the back of his skull.

"Failure," a serpentine voice spit at him. "You kannot eskape me, Knight."

Seifer tried to turn his head again, only to feel another sickening blow. The last thing he could remember was staring at Matron, only it hadn't been Matron, he had seen Ultimecia's eyes.

"Did you think he kould protekt you? That he had truly beaten me or that you would ever truly be released from my grasp? I kannot die, Knight of mine. You keep me alive!"

It was true, all of it. He couldn't let go of her, no matter how long it had been. There were places in his mind that she had been that he had shut off, thinking that it was as good as abolition, but somehow every single seal had been broken and he was here and she was here and this time there was no way anyone could save him, no matter how inadvertently.

"Kome here, child. To me."

Seifer crawled along the desiccated ground until he reached the hem of her robe. As he had so many times before he lay his head in her lap, the humblest of servants. He felt a long nail trail down his cheek and under his chin. She lifted his head and then he was caught in those eyes. They glowed as she was shrouded in the mist, eerie beacons that reflected light where none existed.

"I must say that I didn't ekspekt to be remembered so... fondly. You were my one great failure. I knew you weren't man enough to serve, but it was so tragikally heroik, how you sought in your own pathetik way to reskue them. All they did in return was loathed you for it." She laughed. "And they kalled me a monster?"

For Squall it was all too achingly familiar. The only difference this time was that instead of being forced to care, he genuinely cared of his own volition. He and Rinoa had never discussed what exactly she had experienced on the Station. Squall had always held the opinion that she probably didn't remember. He wished now that he had asked. Even in a best-case scenario he knew Seifer was suffering from shock induced by extreme mental trauma. As Squall thought, he paced an exacting pattern across the livingroom. Edea was trying to reach Esthar. Zell was sitting on the couch, twitching with anxiety. Squall felt powerless, a feeling he loathed. Rare was the situation where he felt out of control, but as he had discovered, when it came to Seifer, control was a near impossible thing to maintain. Edea came into the room, and touched Squall on the arm.

"I spoke with Ellone."

Zell perked up and raised an eyebrow, "What'd she say?"

"She's on her way. We discussed the options and all I can say is that she's going to try, Squall. Unless Seifer manages to come out of this on his own before she arrives, there's not much we can do until then. I just can't believe I was so careless. I never though that something like this could occur, but I should have known."

"It's not your fault. You know that. I should have known too, but I didn't. Seifer didn't even expect anything like this. He was nervous, but..." Squall shrugged helplessly.

"Squall, you should know Laguna is going to be accompanying Ellone. They'll be arriving on the Aesir sometime before midnight."

Zell shook his head dejectedly, "Somehow, when we planned for a reunion, I don't think this is what any of us had in mind."

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