Chapter Twenty

By Scarlet Fever

Botany drummed his fingers against the table as he watched Odine and his assistants busy themselves with some sort of experiment. He didn't really want to know what the eccentric Scientist was working on, so didn't bother asking. He wasn't in the mood to hear Odine go on and on about his inventions. He was here to do his job and protect Esthar and Edea Kramer.

It's not like Botany even knew Edea Kramer, and he'd been born and bred in Deling City, so he didn't have any loyalty ties to Esthar, but it was his job to help. And, he didn't want Adel and Ultimecia to tear the world apart. He also felt some sort of loyalty to Squall. It was the least he could do for a one night stand. Honestly, Botany hadn't thought he'd see Squall again, and had been okay with that. But, he now knew that Squall was involved, and he sort of would have felt like a cad if he didn't help. Botany didn't have any urge to try to get Squall in bed again, even though he was a good catch. Squall was beautiful, and was obviously rich and powerful, but Botany didn't really feel like there could be anything between them. If he had felt that way, he would have tried to close that breach in Deling City. And, despite what Squall had said about Nida, Botany knew that there were sparks between them. Even if they wouldn't admit it yet.

Botany sighed, looking at the maps of the Continent of Esthar. He began thinking about Nida. If Squall didn't want to be with him, maybe Botany would give a go with it. Nida was very cute, and had a cute body. But, Botany was sure it would only end up being a one night stand.

As Botany looked at the map of the Grandidi Forest, he also checked his watch. He had to report to Xu and Fujin in five minutes. So far, he hadn't heard shit from his officers. They were just bored. And, that was a good sign. Botany nearly jumped out of his chair when his radio crackled.

"Yes?" Botany asked, sort of nervous that the frequent report would actually be different than the other ones, that there would be bad news.

"I'm in the Kashkabald Desert, and there isn't anything here...."

Botany narrowed his eyes. There was some sort of static in the background, and the soldier on the other end sounded really far away. "What's going on?" He asked. "There's some sort of break-up. Why do you have such a bad connection?"

"Because I'm in the desert..." The Soldier answered, his voice sounding very bland.

Botany nodded, feeling kind of stupid. "Okay, fine. Report back in half an hour."

"... Will do...." The connection was severed.

Botany narrowed his eyes further. There was something about the tone of the Soldier's voice that sounded off. But, Botany knew he was probably just his imagination because he was actually truly frightened of what could happen to them all. But, the crackling had sounded somewhat unnatural. He rubbed his head, which felt a bit sore. Must have been getting a headache from boredom. He'd only read briefings about Ultimecia, and knew the horror stories about Adel from the first Sorceress War. He sighed, propping his chin up on his fists, deciding to think about Nida again. Nida and Squall. Nida and Squall together. Nida and Squall having sex together. A grin spread over his face. At least it was better than thinking about his own doom.

Xu picked up her communicator when it rang. "Yes?" She asked lazily, waiting for another report from Botany or Fujin that everything was fine. Quistis and Squall were dealing with Adel and Ultimecia. Xu's heart kept leaping in her throat when she thought about it. Genuine fear for Quistis made sweat beads trickle down her spine.


Xu's breath caught in her throat. It was Nida's voice. And, he sounded so small and faraway. Her heart raced with fear. Nida was like a little brother to her, so she was greatly worried for him. And, since he sounded so fragile over the crackling radio, she was terrified.

"Nida?!" She cried, standing up. A couple of the soldiers in the command area with her looked over, worried. "What happened?!"

"..... It's a long story, Xu..... We're coming back now...."

"We?" Xu asked. "Who's 'we'?" She looked around wildly. "Can you please step outside?" Xu asked of the soldiers with her. They nodded and left silently. "Nida? Is Quistis okay?"

"She's alive......" Nida sighed deeply. "We aren't okay, Xu....."

"Where are you?" She asked hastily.

"In the water....."

"Huh?" Xu blinked. "I don't understand, Nida...." There was some murmured talking on the other end. Xu strained her ears to hear it. "Nida...?"

"Quistis and Squall are giving the order to forbid any people from coming to Centra. Strictly enforcing it."

"I don't...."

"Do it!!" Nida snapped. "We need someone to send a ship for us. Ours was destroyed. And, one that can hover. It can't settle on land."

"What the Hell is going on there?!" Xu yelled into the communicator, frustrated and terrified.

"Oh, Xu....." Nida whispered. "Just tell them. Please? It also needs to be able to hold some... Livestock."

"Huh?" Xu furrowed her brow. "I'm going to need more information than that. What sort of Livestock?!"

"Chocobos and Tonberrys."

"Nida, please tell me..."

"Not now...." He whispered. "Please...."

"You did rescue Selphie, right?" Xu asked.

There was a long pause. "Just send the ship, Xu." Nida cut off the communications.

"Shit...." Xu cursed. She placed her hands on her hips in frustration. What had happened? Why couldn't anyone go on Centra land? It was very confusing. But, the tone of Nida's voice warned Xu to listen to him. She pressed a button on the communicator. "Botany?"

"Yeah...? What happened?" There was a tinge of fright in his voice. "I was about to contact you at the appointed time...."

"I have to go back to Esthar," Xu said, interrupting Botany. "I just got contact from Nida."

"Oh, shit... What happened?"

"I don't know...." Xu sighed. "I'll contact you from Esthar, as well as posting someone here in my place. And, just continue to contact Fujin and the Commander here with regular posts."

"Actually, I should just report to you now, then. I just received word that everything was fine in Grandidi, as well as Kashkabald, but...."

"But, what?" Xu asked, already gathering some files and maps, preparing to give a briefing to the next highest Commander. "Tell me."

"Well, it's nothing. Just some static I picked up from the Desert. Is it normal to get interference with Radio Waves out there?"

"I'm not sure...." Xu trailed off. "I mean, it's a fair distance, and Kashkabald is pretty famous for its high winds and sandstorms. Maybe some wind was picking up..."

"Or, could something in Centra have affected it?" Botany asked.

Xu paused. "I really don't know, but it's a feasible explanation. Look into it, and contact Fujin.... I have to go."

"Right," Botany answered, ending their conversation.

Xu sighed deeply. She left the communication office, which was set up in the Horizon Bridge Terminal just before the Great Salt Lake. "Commander Yeats? Can you come here? I need your help..."

Nida sighed deeply, putting the communicator back in the pocket of his coat, glad that it was waterproof. They were still in the shallow water of Centra. It was cool because Shiva was still around, keeping an iceberg for the Tonberrys. The waves were lapping gently around them, and they couldn't do anything. They'd swam to another area near the coast of the Continent because of the baby Chicobo. The Mother had whined and tried to get back on land, and they just couldn't keep looking at the small body, the waves hitting its bright yellow feathers.

"What did Xu say?" Quistis asked, her voice quiet. They were all pretty subdued after getting out of the Centra Ruins. "Did she listen to you about not letting people on Centra...?"

"I think so. But, she was confused. I just didn't want to discuss it over the radio..." Nida sighed deeply. "There's a homing beacon in this thing... I know that Fujin can pick it up from her position in Esthar, so they'll at least know where we are..."

"We're all going to catch cold, or get hypothermia," Raijin pointed out. "I hope they come soon."

"How could they do this?" Quistis asked, her voice bland, barely above a breath. "They aren't Seifer and Zell anymore...." Quistis rubbed her back. "At least the cold water is helping some of our injuries."

Raijin closed his eyes. "How are we going to tell Irvine about Selphie...?"

They all remained silent. There was only the noise of the ocean between them, as well as the occasional chirp from a Chicobo, and the Tonberrys, who were making impressed noises. One of them was examining Raijin's beads with his small green hands. The Chicobo in Squall's arms had fallen asleep, and Squall had silently refused to let go. He'd been silent since they got to the water. After he'd cried himself out on Nida's shoulder, he'd slipped into a silent melancholy. Nobody bothered to get him out of it, because they all felt it. Their bodies were also sore and needed medical attention. Raijin felt woozy, and knew he probably had a concussion. Nida's body was sore and stiff, and his mind felt like jelly. There were also deep gashes on his arms and painful bruises on his body from the Omega Weapon. Squall's bleeding had clotted from the cold water, but he was still cut badly from the Ruby Dragon's attack, and some of his cuts felt itchy and infected. He also thought he had a concussion, and maybe a few bruised ribs. And, none of them could cast magic. It was like with Seifer and Zell's spell, they'd put up a magical barrier.

"We're going to freeze to death soon if they don't come," Quistis pointed out, giving a sad look to Shiva. "It's not your fault."

"I'm sorry, Mistress...."

"No, it's okay," Raijin muttered. "I don't think Tonberrys can swim anyway."

Shiva nodded. She was far weaker than she usually was because of the magical barrier. Only her presence in the water was making it cold. She couldn't cast spells. She was only still around because Quistis couldn't call her back because of the barrier. "I'm sure your friends will come for you..."

Nida closed his eyes, pressing his fists into the mud underneath of him. The magic all around them was stealing his own strength away. He also felt scared. Now, Ultimecia and Adel knew that he could borrow magic from a nearby enemy or ally. His life was in more danger than it was before. He let out his breath slowly when a wave of nausea overtook him.

"How much longer do you think this spell will last?" Raijin asked. "Nida, will you know?"

Nida paused, not wanting to open his mouth for fear of vomit coming out. When the nausea passed, he looked at Raijin. "Yes, I should sense it. I wish I could cast Float and go to the Ship...." He sighed deeply. Maybe there's an island nearby...." Nida turned around, looking to the horizon. There were cliffs beside them. In front, it was all water. "Maybe there's something on the other side of those cliffs...." He began walking deeper into the water. When it was up to his neck, he began swimming.

"Nida!" Quistis called. "Come back...."

"It's okay..." Nida treaded water. "I'll be okay. The farther I get away from the land, the stronger I feel... And, I'm not going far." He swam towards the cliffs, his clothes feeling heavy from the salt water.

Quistis sighed. "Oh, Selphie...."

Squall's arms twitched around the Chicobo, and he turned around, watching Nida swim away. When he couldn't see the Asian anymore, he just stared out at the sea. It looked the same as it always had, as it always would look. He felt so tired, and just wanted to go to sleep. His body hurt more than his facial expressions were letting on, and he knew that his cuts were getting infected. The salt in the water was stinging him horribly. It was the only thing keeping him from total numbness. And, he just felt cold all over. Nida's arms had been warm around him, but now he was just cold again.

Squall narrowed his eyes when he saw something floating on the top of the water. It looked small. Too small to be a monster. It was laying over the surface of the water. Fabric. Then, he saw a shadow move just under the surface. Long and sinewy.

Quistis turned her head when she heard the water splashing slightly around Squall, who hadn't really moved at all. He was walking a little into the water, staring intently at something. "Squall, what is it?"

"What sort of monsters are local to the ocean here?" He asked. "I can see something swimming...."

"Sea Serpents aren't uncommon, ya know?!" Raijin answered. "But, they're docile..."

"Even if Ultimecia is controlling them?" Shiva asked.

Squall peered closer, and found out that it was Nida's coat. He walked further, until he was waist deep in the cool water. Nida had disappeared around the high cliffs to their left, so he couldn't see him anymore. And, because of the lapping waves, it was hard for him to hear if Nida was still swimming. He kept walking until the water was chest high, so that the Chicobo's neck and head were still above the water. The coat washed closer, and Squall reached out with one arm, picking it up. It was heavy with water, and the back was torn.

"Squall?" Raijin called. "What is it?"

Squall looked down at the black garment in his hand, and his other arm convulsed around the Chicobo, causing it to squeak quietly. It, however, didn't struggle away from his grip. He squeezed the fabric in his fist, and water came splurting out of it. He saw that his own hand was shaking. The pain in his stomach, coming from his scratches, seemed to only intensify. He just looked down at the torn coat, and felt something stinging at his eyes. Tears.

"Squall...?" Quistis called out, sloshing through the cold water towards him. "What is it?"

"Nida's coat...." He whispered. "I saw something swimming in the water... His coat....." Squall had to stop talking, because a choking lump was forming in his throat. "His coat is torn..."

Quistis put a hand on Squall's shoulder. "We would have heard him scream, right?"

"Not, if it pulled him under, or swallowed him," Squall answered glumly. He pressed a part of the soaking wet coat to his cheek, and let out a scream into it. Quistis's hand on his shoulder tightened, and he just wailed until it broke off, cracking in his throat. "Nida...." He whispered, his whole body shaking in pain. Not just physical pain, but emotional pain. "How many people have to fucking die, Quistis?"

"Until Ultimecia and Adel are happy?" She asked. "Everybody. There isn't enough death to fill their quota."

"Nida...." Squall whispered again. "He saved my life.... So many times...." Squall bit his lower lip, mostly to prevent it from quaking. "And, I never told him I appreciated it. I didn't even remember he graduated SeeD with us...."

Quistis opened her mouth to reply, but gasped instead when something popped out of the water. She saw Nida take a deep breath.

"What's wrong?" Nida asked, his eyes worried and large. "I heard you scream... I swam back over as fast as I could..." He panted for air, looking at Squall. It was only then that Squall realized that he and Nida were exactly the same height. "What happened....?" He looked down at Squall's hands.

"You fucking bastard!" Squall spat out, his arm tightening again around the Chicobo. It gave Squall an annoyed look before it fell asleep in his arms again. "Don't ever go off like that again, and that's a fucking order! You scared the shit out of me..." He squeezed the coat so tightly that his wet gloves creaked.

"Oh... I took it off because it was getting too heavy... Must have gotten snagged on some rocks or something..."

Squall frowned, his eyes dark and stormy. "I order you not to go off like that again."

Nida cocked an eyebrow. "Fine, Commander." He used the word slightly harshly. "Don't you want to at least know that there's an island just beyond the cliffs, and there are no monsters on it. It's too small. But, it's big enough for us to go on and not get hypothermia..."

"How long does it take to swim there?" Quistis asked.

"Not long... Maybe a couple minutes." Nida's body shook slightly, and he had to close his eyes.

"What?" Quistis asked, pushing some wet blonde hair off her face.

Nida shook his head, walking towards the shore of Centra. "I think the barrier went away...."

"You think?" Squall asked, his voice low and quiet. "But, you're not sure?"

"I felt the magic disappear...." Nida was nearly to the shore. "Maybe we don't have to swim at all..." He blew up into his damp bangs, which were dripping in his eyes. He would be glad to get out of the water, and he knew the others would agree with him. The salt was doing a number on his cuts.j

"Was the spell affecting the island?" Raijin asked.

"I didn't go on it... "Nida trailed off. "But, I couldn't pick up a magic signature. I was going to go on it, but Squall screamed, so I swam right back..."

"I screamed because I thought you'd fucking gotten eaten by a Sea Serpent or something..." Squall muttered defensively.

"They only eat Plankton," Nida pointed out.

"You still shouldn't have fucking gone off alone!" Squall said sharply. "What if something had happened to you?!"

Nida spun around to face Squall, but lost his footing in the shallow water, and fell backwards. Quistis, Squall and Raijin all held their breaths, waiting for Nida to hit the ground and die, right in front of their eyes, just like Selphie had. Squall let out a gasp, and Quistis turned her head away as Nida hid the sand with a thud. Raijin just blinked, while the Tonberrys just looked at him. The one Tonberry continued to play with Raijin's beads.

As soon as Nida hit the ground, his heart stopped in his chest with fear. He felt his body shake, waiting for death. He waited a few seconds, wondering if there would be any sort of pearly gate, or fiery Hell. He'd almost expected the Hell. But, he was just staring up at blue skies. He breathed in, and felt his heart racing in his chest. He was alive. He touched the sand with his open palms, and felt it sticking to his wet skin and clothes. He was alive. He sighed deeply. "Yeah, I'd say it's gone...." He laughed nervously, so relieved.

Squall sighed deeply, walking to where Nida was splayed out on the beach. He sunk to his knees, putting the Chicobo down beside him on the sand. The Chicobo chirped, but didn't stray far. It seemed to really like Squall, and nuzzled against his knee. Nida blinked, looking up. The clear blue skies had turned into the stormy blue of Squall's eyes, looking down at him. He could see the strain in Squall's eyes, as well as the tears forming there.

Quistis sighed with relief, and picked up a couple of Tonberrys. The grown Chocobos walked onto the ground when their reigns were released, and the second Chicobo went to examine a rock of some sort, pecking at it slightly with its beak. When all the Tonberrys had been put on land, Quistis called Shiva back into her body. Raijin collapsed on the beach, shivering and hoping that an Esthar ship would come for them soon. He just wanted to go home, and wrap his arms around Fujin. Quistis sank down next to Raijin, patting his shoulder. He covered her hand with one of his own large ones, and they both just looked at the Tonberrys.

Nida looked up at Squall, and sort of flinched when a tear fell from Squall's eye and hit his own cheek. He reached up, and wiped the tears away from Squall's eyes. The other man closed his eyes, and nuzzled his cheek into Nida's palm, his whole body moving with a great sigh of sadness, tinged with relief. Squall's eyes slowly opened, and he pulled away, pink embarrassment tinting his cheeks after he realized what he was doing.

"Did they say how long it would take to get here?" Quistis asked. "I don't really feel like staying here much longer...." She sighed sadly when Raijin's arm came around her protectively. She patted his arm with appreciation, but wished that Xu was there. She hoped that Xu would come personally.

"I don't know... I don't think she was in the city. But, knowing Xu, she'll come as soon as possible."

Quistis smiled distantly. "Captain Reliable, at our service...."

"Wasn't I Captain Reliable?" Nida asked.

"No, you were the flying Homo."

Nida rolled his eyes, sitting up. "Oh, yeah... How could I forget that...?"

Squall regarded Quistis and Nida silently. They had a friendship that Squall didn't even realize was there. Well, all during the Garden days, Quistis, Xu and Nida had always been on the bridge together. And, Squall had barely even noticed him. What Nida must have thought of him.... And, Squall knew he deserved it.

Nida looked over at Squall, who was looking at the Chicobo beside him. He tried to catch Squall's gaze. It had felt nice to touch Squall in such an intimate manner. Very nice. But, Squall had shied away. Why? Before he could meet Squall's eyes, he heard the distant noise of a ship approaching them. An airship. He stood, brushing some clumping sand off him.

Quistis shielded her eyes from the sun, seeing a ship approaching them quickly. She waved her arms, seeing that it was an Esthar ship. It hovered near the surface of the beach, and a hatch was opened. Xu's head popped out. "Come on!" She waved with an arm. "Is it safe to land?" She yelled over the hum of the engine.

Nida nodded, and the door closed once more. They watched as the ship landed, the sand blowing all around it. Quistis closed her eyes, feeling sand hitting her face. Tears trickled down her cheeks, and she knew it wasn't all from the dust and grit of the sand in the air.

When the ship had landed, Xu came out, looking at the four people in front of her, who were also surrounded by Tonberrys, two Chocobos, and their two Chicobos. Xu looked around, not seeing Selphie. "Where's Selphie?"

Squall shook his head. "Just get us back to Esthar, Xu." He picked up the Chicobo that was following him around, and got in the ship, brushing past the Asian woman.

Xu just blinked. "Uh... What about the Tonberrys?"

"We'll take them with us. They're the last ones...." Raijin muttered, picking up a few of them.

"What?" Xu shook her head, totally perplexed. "But, Tonberrys are plentiful..."

"Not anymore," Quistis said darkly. "We'll explain everything on the way back. I just want to get far away from here...."

"My God..." Xu trailed off. "What happened here?"

"Xu," Quistis pressed. "Please...."

"Okay...." She picked up a few Tonberrys, and her, Quistis, Nida and Raijin brought them onto the ship. The Chocobos and the other Chicobo followed them in. "But, where are we going to put them all?"

"Can this hold Chocobos?" Quistis asked. "Since we only have two, the Tonberrys can go in a couple of the stalls...." She picked up a Tonberry, who was making squeaking noises of wonder as he looked at the mechanics of the ship.

When the Chocobos went towards the stable, Quistis tried to take the little Chicobo away from Squall, but he refused to let the little guy go. Quistis just shrugged, then went up to the bridge so she could sit with Xu.

Raijin sighed deeply. "I think all our cuts are probably infected, ya know...." He grimaced, running a hand over his arms. "I just want to wake up and find out that this was all a horrible dream." He leaned back in his seat, yawning. "I hope Fujin's okay, ya know?!" He closed his eyes, tilting his head towards the ceiling. He opened them again when he heard someone shuffling around him. It was one of the Tonberrys. "What are ya doing out, ya know?!" He frowned. It was the same one that had found his beads so fascinating. Currently, it was looking around at the seats, mesmerized by the seatbelts and all the metallic shininess. "Okay, you're going back, ya know..." He picked up the turtle-like monster, grunting in discomfort from his injuries. "I'll be back, ya know..." He muttered to Squall, who barely even noticed that Raijin was there at all.

"Okay, start explaining..." Xu muttered, coming out of the bridge with Quistis. She looked hard at Nida and Squall. "Where did Raijin go?"

"To put a Tonberry back," Nida muttered, examining a few infected cuts on his hands. He squeezed on of them, making a disgusted face when some pus came out. "Okay, where should we start?"

"Seifer and Zell fucking killed Selphie right in front of our eyes because we wouldn't tell them where Matron was..." Squall muttered bitterly, his voice caustic like acid. "We looked right into her eyes while she was suffering, and didn't do anything to help her."

Nida sighed deeply, shaking his head at Squall. "We couldn't help her.... Even if they had let her live..." He closed his eyes, his breath coming out jagged. "She wouldn't have lived long..."

Quistis's lower lip trembled as Xu's hand came to rest on the small of her back. "Quisty, what happened?"

"We went into the Ruins, and Raijin and I got separated purposely from Squall and Nida. There was this... Blackness...."

"Magical?" Xu asked.

Nida nodded. "It was like a wall. Quistis and Raijin went on ahead, but there were monsters in the Ruins that shouldn't have been there. Like Ruby Dragons...."

"And, the Omega Weapon," Squall interjected, gently petting the downy feathers of the Chicobo in his arms.

"The Omega Weapon? How....?" Xu shook her head. "Never mind. So, what happened when you saw Selphie? Was she still alive?"

Quistis nodded, rubbing at her eyes, which were filling with tears again. "She was tied to a stake...." Quistis had to stop talking because a lump formed in her throat.

"They impaled her, right through the rectum," Squall finished, his voice devoid of all emotions. "They ripped her insides up, and all we could do was fucking watch while she screamed."

Xu's face paled, and her other hand fluttered up to her lips.

"Okay, that's enough," Nida said quietly. "What are we going to tell Irvine?"

"Did we do the right thing?" Quistis asked, her voice quivering. "Selphie....." She turned away, and flopped in a chair beside Squall. She winced, some of the cuts on her body still stinging.

Xu just stood in place, her chest rising and falling rapidly. For the first time since Quistis and Nida had known her, Xu was at a total loss. Her face was paper white, and she was staring off into space. "How could they do this....?" She whispered. "How could Seifer and Zell do this?"

"It wasn't them, ya know..." Raijin said, coming back into the seating area. "It was all Ultimecia and Adel. Zell came out of it for a little while...."

"Seifer almost did, too..." Nida whispered. "But, then... I guess Ultimecia and Adel are getting too strong for them...."

Xu put her hands on her hips, regaining her composure. "Okay, so why did you tell me I couldn't land on Centra land?" She narrowed her almond shaped eyes. "You were on the land...."

"When we contacted you," Nida said, sitting down. "Seifer and Zell had cast a spell that was like a wave of... Anti-Life. I've never seen anything like it. Anything that it touched, and anything touching Centra land afterwards, would cease to live... Monsters died everywhere...."

"So, that's why there are no more Tonberrys?" Xu asked.

Nida nodded. Pain shot behind his eyes, echoing throughout his entire body. "There's... A difference in the air now...."

"Difference?" Quistis asked, her voice rising. "What, are Seifer and Zell coming after us?"

Nida shook his head. "No.... It's like they vanished."

"Dormancy...." Squall muttered, not looking up from the Chicobo in his lap. "Seifer and Zell have become themselves again...."

"Should we go back?" Raijin asked. "I mean, maybe we can help them, ya know?!"

"I'm not risking it," Xu muttered. "It could be a trap. Right, Nida?"

"Yes...." He sighed sadly. "But, I still feel like we're abandoning them...." He winced when his back pressed against the chair.

"I'll get on the radio and contact Dr. Sunde and his technicians in Esthar. You guys are pretty messed up. I'll cast Sleep on you all...." Xu closed her eyes. "This way, you can rest...."

Raijin tried to keep his eyes opened, not wanting to fall asleep, not wanting to risk dreaming about Selphie. But, Xu's powerful Status Spell won, and he fell into a deep, dreamless sleep. Xu patted Quistis's shoulder, and ran her palm over her wet golden hair before going to the bridge with the pilot. Before Nida fell asleep, he looked over at Squall, who looked like he was in a trance. The sleep spell had also affected the small bird that Squall wouldn't let go of. He drifted off, for once, not feeling magic all around him. Just the gentle blanket of Xu's spell.

Squall blinked his eyes, looking at everyone. He was strong against Status magic, so it was taking longer for the Sleep spell to talk control of him. The Chicobo was sleeping happily in his arms. Squall didn't want to let it go, because it seemed like the only thing that was preventing him from losing his mind and screaming out in terror and agony. What he'd seen Seifer and Zell do to Selphie wasn't really hitting him, even when he'd described it gruesomely to Xu. He didn't want it to hit him. It was just beyond comprehension. As Squall's eyelids got heavier and heavier, he thought of the feeling of Nida's hand against his cheek, of Nida's arms around him in the cold water as he wept. It had felt nice. Comforting. Like Home. He looked over at the other man, who was sleeping soundly, his face free of the discomfort that always seemed to follow him. Was it painful for Nida all the time, even when he was physically healthy? If there was magic around him, did it hurt him? Squall wondered this as he blacked out.

Seifer smirked, looking down at the rest of the Centra Ruins from a balcony. There were dead monsters all around. He knew that the spell hadn't worked against Squall and the others, but that was okay. He left them with something as nice as killing them himself. Terror, and mental anguish. The memory of the look in Quistis's eyes as she watched Selphie being tortured would stay with them forever.

"Those kunts got away," Seifer muttered as he sensed Zell coming up behind him.

Zell rubbed his cheek, and a sore spot from when his lover had slapped him. "We could have killed them, Ultimecia."

"I know... This is more fun. We tortured them as much as we tortured Selphie...."

Zell splayed his fingers out in the air, and the monster corpses around them began to dissipate into dust, and then into nothing. "The smell was becoming a bother." He cocked his head at Seifer. "So, what now? We didn't find out where Edea was.... And, we're getting weaker."

"That spell took a lot out of us, I agree, but you doubt my resourcefulness, Adel."

"So, tell me. What are we going to do?"

Seifer reached out, touching the spot that was bruising on Zell's face. It disappeared under his touch. "Well, because of Odine, we can't use magic, but the old fool is still human...."

Zell snorted. "Barely. I should have killed that asskisser twenty years ago." A horrible smile spread over Zell's face. "What are you thinking, Ultimecia?"

A frown came over Seifer's handsome face. "Nida Nomura is going to become a big problem...."

Zell barely nodded. "He borrowed our powers. Yet another fucking reason why I feel so weak."

"It was foolish of me to think he was merely empathic."

Zell nodded, laughing slightly. "Maybe this is the first time he's used that sort of power. Maybe Nida didn't know he could do it."

"I don't believe that. He did it well enough to make me believe that he's honed that ability. It could become a real problem...."

Zell bared his canines. "And, if we torture Nida, it will hurt that Slut Leonhart."

"Your obsession is almost unhealthy...." Seifer muttered. "First thing is getting rid of Odine. And, then, we can take over Esthar, and everything else will fall into place."

"Soooo!" Zell exclaimed impatiently. "Tell me! What are you planning!"

"I'll tell you after we rest.... I still don't know exactly how I'll go about it, and I'm feeling very weak."

Zell nodded. "I'm sure they won't be happy with us." Adel's voice was ringing loud and clear through Zell's mouth, and held no sympathy for her son.

"Does it matter?" Ultimecia asked, closing those burning amber eyes. When they snapped open, they were wide, and aquatic blue, frightened and terrified.

Zell gasped, swooning against the railing. His hands reached out, gripping the crumbling stone. He breathed heavily to try and catch his breath, his icy blue eyes flying open.

"Seifer....?" Zell whispered.

Seifer nodded sadly, looking around him. It was too quiet. There were no monsters, no noises from monsters. There was also the horrible smell of blood in the air. Blood and something that smelled like feces.

"What's that smell?" Zell asked, his voice sounded small and child-like. "Seifer, what did we do now....?" He trailed off, remembering flashes of Seifer slapping him, and the horrible, familiar sounds of screams. Zell's hand raised to his cheek. "What did we do?" He turned around, looking into the darkened chamber. He suddenly did not want to go in there. "Oh, God..." He slammed his eyes shut, remembering something briefly. Blood, just flowing everywhere. He could see Quistis's eyes, shimmering with angry, frustrated tears. "I remember Quistis crying...."

Seifer reached a hand out to touch the side of Zell's face, his lower lip trembling as the other man flinched away. He couldn't stop the tears from coming out. Zell didn't want Seifer's murdering hands touching him. He put his hands back on the railing of the balcony, balling them into fists. The tears that were meandering down his face splattered onto his gloves. He looked over his shoulder when he felt Zell's arms come around his waist from behind.

"I'm sorry..." Zell whispered. "I guess Ultimecia and Adel are successfully dividing us..."

"They aren't coming to help us...." Seifer whispered. "Squall and the others. They won't help us." Seifer sighed deeply, shakily. "Nida knows that Ultimecia and Adel are resting..."

"I can't say I blame them," Zell whispered sadly. "They'd just be putting themselves in danger... I mean, we can't control when they control us or anything..."

Seifer sighed deeply. "What have we done?" He looked into the shadows. "I don't really want to go in there..."

"It stinks..." Zell buried his face between Seifer's shoulder blades, trying to get rid of the stench of death in the air.

"I'm sorry I slapped you," Seifer whispered, staring out at the desolate Ruins.

"It was Ultimecia...."

"But, you shied away from me," Seifer muttered.

"I know," Zell held the taller blonde tighter against himself. "I'm sorry." He looked back into the room again, and pulled away from Seifer. "I have to see what we've done..."

"I don't think that's a good idea...." Seifer reached out to stop Zell, but the smaller blonde was too fast, and disappeared into the shadows. "Zell, wait!" When Seifer caught up with Zell, it was too late to pretend that both hadn't seen what had been the product of Adel and Ultimecia's time. Seifer put his hands on Zell's shoulders, just blinking and shaking his head, not really registering what he was seeing. He could feel Zell's shoulders shaking under his hands, and the blond fell to his knees in front of Selphie's body, perched high on her stake, and bleeding down to the ground.

"God..." Seifer choked out, not even getting that one syllable out tangibly. He felt shivers moving over his entire body. They did this? Seifer and Zell caused this to happen to Selphie? For what? "For what?!" Seifer exploded verbally. "For what?! To find out where Edea is? Because you were weaker than Squall? You didn't even get Edea! And, Squall is still alive! What was this for, Ultimecia?!" Seifer screamed, his throat hoarse, and his angry words bouncing off the walls.

Zell looked at the ground, not wanting to look up. But, even looking away from Selphie's body, he could still see the gore of her blood on the ground near his knees. He flinched with every word that Seifer screamed, and just wound up crying. They were the same sort of pathetic sobs that he used to make when he was a really small child and had hurt himself. Zell turned himself away from the blood, and curled up into a ball on the ground, weeping bitterly. Seifer remained locked in his standing position, his own disgust with himself and Zell's weeping making his skin crawl and move with guilt. Seifer kneeled beside his lover, but couldn't think of how to even begin comforting him. Seifer placed a hand on Zell's hip, and curled up beside him, but knew that it would offer no salvation.

"Why are you doing this to me?" Zell asked. And, Seifer didn't know who Zell meant anymore. He closed his eyes, wishing that things could just go back to the way they were. It seemed so long ago that he and Zell were living in Balamb with Irvine, happy, the only dark clouds being when Squall came over and complained about Rinoa. Seifer planted a gentle kiss on Zell's temple, but didn't feel worthy enough to do so. He and Zell were now tainted. They weren't really Seifer and Zell anymore. They were just Ultimecia and Adel's puppets, their lackeys, pawns. They were nothing but horrible murderers. Zell was crying for their lost Innocence, for their guilt, for their lives, which could never be reclaimed. Seifer, however, couldn't even muster that. It was all over. What was the point of crying now?

Fujin jumped when the radio buzzed beside her. She picked up the communicator. "Botany?"

There was crackling on the other end, and then a calm reply. "Still nothing. I don't know if they're going to come. How's Xu?"

"I don't know," Fujin answered. "I haven't heard from her. She left Commander Yeats in charge. Have you heard from him?"

"Yeah... Everything's normal on his end, too...." Botany coughed.

"Are you okay?" Fujin asked. "Your voice sounds a little hoarse."

"I'm fine... Just a little thirsty, I guess. Okay, well, keep me posted when Xu comes back."

"Will do," Fujin stated, cutting off the conversation. She hoped Xu would get back soon, or at least contact her. Fujin was going crazy with worry. What if something really terrible had happened to Raijin. She needed him now more than ever. She couldn't raise a baby by herself. And, he didn't even know about the baby. She gasped again when the radio buzzed once more. "Yeah?" She asked.

"Fujin? It's Xu. We're in Esthar Air right now. We'll be landing at the Airstation shortly. I've already contacted Sunde and a medical team."

"Medical team?" Fujin's eyebrows shot up. "What happened?"

"They'll live. We'll have a complete briefing once Squall and Quistis are up to it. But, I'll give you the details when I get to the Palace."

Fujin didn't like the way that sounded. "Okay... You come find me as soon as you can, alright? Oh, Botany and Yeats have reported no change. But, there's radio interference on Botany's part."

"Yeah, I know about that... Kashkabald has a lot of wind storms..." Xu trailed off.

"Yeah, but he's at the Sorceress Memorial. Do you think it could be Adel and Ultimecia?"

There was a pause on Xu's end. "No. Nida said that he felt them go into Dormancy. But, I mean, he's under a Sleep Spell right now, so they could have woken up."

"Sleep spell?" Fujin asked.

"Yeah, I put them all under a sleep. They're in pain. The salt water did a number on cuts that they had, and they're all exhausted, mentally and physically. Raijin's fine, though."

Fujin sighed in relief. "Good."

"Okay, I'm landing in the next couple of minutes. I'll come find you after everything with Sunde is straightened out."

"Good." Fujin turned off the radio. She placed it on the table, and her hands went to her belly. "When Raijin wakes up, I have to tell him about you..." She whispered. "I wonder if he'll be happier than I seem to be...."

Hands on his body, touching his flesh. Squall could tell he was nude, and their hands were touching him in all the places that he wanted to be touched. It was like they were linked telepathically to his mind, and knew exactly what he wanted, how much pressure to apply, how to move their fingers. Seifer and Zell were touching him everywhere that he dreamed about being touched. Their mouths were so warm on his flesh, and their saliva so wet. He could also tell that they were nude, too. Nude flesh pressed against him from both front and back. He could tell that Zell was in front of him, and Seifer behind him because of the height difference. He opened his eyes slowly, and saw the plains of Zell's chest and shoulders, accentuated in the pale blue moonlight. It wasn't the false light of Esthar, but real moonlight. He wondered where he was. Squall tried to catch Zell's eyes with his own, but the small blonde's head was bowed, and he took one of Squall's nipples into his mouth. As Zell did that, Seifer's mouth closed over Squall's earlobe, while his hands moved over Squall's hips and waist.

Squall tilted his head back, lolling it on Seifer's shoulder, murmuring just under his breath as Zell's tongue played with the hardened peak of his nipple. And, Seifer's breath was washing over his ear, causing Squall to shiver with delight and anticipation. He wanted to be fucked. Sure, the foreplay was nice, but it would be nice if Seifer just bent him at the waist and dove right in. Squall let out a moan when both Zell and Seifer's hands moved to his rapidly hardening shaft.

His breath came out more high pitched, faster, when their hands started working on his cock. He arched to the touch, revelling in the feeling of their mouths still on his body, moving over his chest and shoulders. When Zell's mouth moved up towards Squall's face, the scarred SeeD opened his eyes. He smiled at Zell, who tilted his head upwards, and stared at Squall with those horrible blood red eyes, so angry and bubbling with hate. And, without having to look at Seifer's face, he knew that it was Ultimecia's eyes that were boring into the back of his head. And, he was trapped between them again. Zell's mouth moved over his skin again, but instead of the warm saliva on his flesh, Squall could feel the hot stickiness of blood. He wasn't sure if it was his own blood, or if it was coming out of Zell's mouth, but the same trickle of blood was coming from Seifer's mouth, and it was all over Squall's body. He tried to push Zell away, but his hands slid off Zell's flesh, which was also slick with the claret liquid. It was everywhere, and Zell and Seifer seemed to be leaking it, and disappearing, covering him with blood. In the distance, he could hear tortured whispers. The voices sounded familiar. Female voices.

You're such a slut, bathing in my blood.

Is this all you care about? Your hard dick?

I thought you were supposed to be my Knight...

We were comrades!

You said you loved me....

You said you were my friend.

Don't you care what they've done to us?

Didn't it hurt you to watch us die?!

How could you do this to me, Squall?

How could you do this to me, Squall?

You're nothing but a whore, Squall.

You're such a slut, Squall. A dirty fucking slut.

All you care about is getting hard....

You're a horrible human being....

I thought you loved me.

You promised to protect me....

I hate you, Squall....

I hate you, Squall.

I hate you.

Squall gasped, standing nude, covered in blood from head to toe. He could feel the ugly words around him, slapping him like a winter wind from Trabia. The ugly words of Rinoa and Selphie. Seifer and Zell had caused their deaths, right in front of Squall, and yet, here he was.

How could you let them do this to us, Squall?

Squall opened his mouth to reply, but found that it was full of bitter tasting blood. He wanted to scream that he was sorry, that they shouldn't have died because of him. Rinoa and Selphie were dead, and it was his fault. He should have helped them. Adel and Ultimecia wanted revenge against him, not them. He tried to step forward, towards the swirling voices, which were as flimsy as the air. But, a hand restrained him, resting on his shoulder. Squall wasn't afraid, because it was a different hand than Seifer's. It ran down his arm, and where it touched, the blood vanished. Squall didn't know who was standing behind him, but the hands moved over his body, and the blood vanished, too, as if the hands were anointing him, cleansing him from the blood of his sins, and the blood of Rinoa's and Selphie's words. Squall heard a steady heartbeat echoing around him, drowning out the whispered accusations. He turned his head to see who was his salvation, and saw that it was 10:30.

Squall blinked a couple of times. 10:30? He must have been dreaming. He had no idea if it was night or morning, or what day it was. The last thing he remembered was Centra. Selphie... "Oh, God..." He whispered, covering his eyes with his hands. He winced at the movement. His body was very stiff. He remembered the horrible, infected, painful cut on his chest. Squall's fingers gingerly moved down, touching it. He noticed that he wasn't wearing a shirt, and the cut wasn't bandaged anymore. It still felt tender to the touch, but it was healed sufficiently enough. But, he was still in pain.

"I deserve it..." Squall muttered, slowly sitting up. "I deserve to be in pain..." He knew it was nothing compared to the agony that Selphie had suffered. Squall swung his legs over the side of the bed, wondering how long he'd been sleeping. Maybe he would set foot outside his room, and the Palace would be in Ruins. He turned on a lamp beside his bed, at least glad that he was in his own room. His eyes hurt from the light, but he quickly got used to it. "I wonder what happened to everyone else..." Squall shook his head, a brief flash of finding Nida's coat floating in the water. "Nida...." Squall closed his hand into a fist. Was Nida the one in his dream that had wiped the blood away?

Squall got out of bed, and quickly changed his clothes. He wore a simple pair of loose black pants and an emerald green polo shirt that was a bit too small for him. He didn't bother putting on shoes, because the palace was so clean anyway. He just put on a pair of socks, and opened his door. He almost expected to come face to face with an Esthar Soldier, telling him to get back in bed, but it didn't happen. There was nobody around. He walked slowly down the hall, not really sure where he was going. He crossed his arms over his chest, wondering if they were right. Was he really just a dirty whore who only thought with his dick? Did he really just disregard Selphie and Rinoa, for the sake of his desire for Seifer and Zell? No, he wouldn't be like that. He wasn't that cruel. He wasn't like Adel and Ultimecia. So, why was he still having erotic dreams about both men?

He sighed deeply. He saw a few Officials walking around. They would merely nod at him, and say "How are you doing, Mr. President?" Squall just waved them off and continued his walk. Where were Quistis and the others? He stopped outside the door that led to his father's room. There were a couple of guards posted, but they moved out of the way for Squall. He stood in the doorway, just watching his father sleep. Kiros wasn't around. Squall wondered if he was meeting with Xu and the others, and he wasn't invited to their little planning sessions. He didn't really care either way. He leaned against the door, just watching Laguna sleep. He couldn't be President. How did Laguna expect Squall to take his place? He would never be able to run Esthar, let alone save it from Adel and Ultimecia. He needed Laguna back. But, the only way to get his father back was to defeat Adel, which meant destroying Zell. Squall sighed deeply, turning away from the door.

"Sir, are you going in?"

Squall looked up sadly to the guard. "No...." He turned and continued to walk down the hallway.

Quistis woke with a start, hearing Selphie's screams ringing in her ears, feeling the cold terror gripping her heart, smelling the blood and ranker things, seeing the blood, pooling everywhere, dripping on the stake, seeing the pain in Selphie's eyes, the hatred in Adel's, and the calm sadism in Ultimecia's. She saw Seifer and Zell, trapped into doing horrible things, tortured as much as Selphie was just before she died.

"Quistis?" Xu asked. The Asian woman sat on the bed beside the blonde. "Are you okay?"

"Where am I?" Quistis asked, her voice high and jittery. She whipped her head wildly around. "Adel....?"

"You're in the Esthar Palace," Xu said, her voice soothing. "You just woke up..."

Quistis's breathing gradually calmed. "How long...?"

"Just a day...." Xu whispered. "Your wounds should be mostly healed by now...."

Quistis moved to stand, finding her legs wobbly. She smiled thinly when Xu offered her hand. She took it until she could steady herself. Quistis waved her lover away, then went to the bathroom. Xu sat on the bed, her hands folded patiently in her lap as she waited for the blonde. She bit her lip nervously.

When Quistis came out, she seemed to have her wits about her once more. She brushed her hair with her fingers, and sat beside Xu on the bed. "Xu.... What's happened since I was passed out?"

"Not much," Xu muttered. She looked into Quistis's sapphire eyes. "And, that's the problem."

"What do you mean?" Quistis asked, putting on her glasses. "There's been no sign of Seifer or Zell?"

Xu shook her head, tucking her hair behind her ears. "No, there's been no sign of them. Nida woke up about six hours ago, and, he said that they're still dormant."

"Which... is a bad thing...." Quistis whispered. "The longer they're dormant..."

"The longer they have to charge their powers," Xu finished. "Irvine didn't take the news about Selphie very well...."

"Oh, you talked to him?" Quistis's eyes filled with sadness. "And, how's Matron?"

"They're all physically fine. But... Irvine was shattered. I mean, I know he was a bit of a Playboy, but he really loved Selphie... I mean, we all cared about her."

"I know...." Quistis reached for Xu's hand. She squeezed her hand around Xu's fingers. "God... He must be going through Hell...." Quistis laughed quietly.

Xu reached her finger out, brushing some of Quistis's hair off her elegant face. "Tell me what you're feeling..."

Quistis looked over at her girlfriend. "Oh... Xu...." She sighed deeply. "I just wish.... I don't know.... There are so many things I wish. I mean, I could have told Seifer and Zell where Edea was. I could have even lied about it.... I could have said she was in Balamb or something...."

"But, they would have killed Selphie anyway, and destroyed Balamb...." Xu pointed out, her voice very quiet.

"I know," Quistis echoed pathetically. "You're right. I just... I feel so responsible! Maybe it should have been me in Selphie's place. But.... I mean, I'm glad it wasn't. She was in so much pain, Xu...." Quistis pursed her lips, trying to hold back a sob. "I didn't think that humans could make that sort of noise... But, Selphie was screaming. No human should have had to suffer through that. And," Quistis took a deep breath. "It's not only Selphie who suffered. We all had to watch. Zell and Seifer had flashes of consciousness. They knew what Ultimecia and Adel were making them do...." Quistis laughed bitterly. "And, I know that they won, at least a little bit... Because, I'll never be able to forget it."

Xu sighed. "Quistis, honestly... What do you think our chances are?"

Quistis's brow crinkled with a sad frown. "Xu... I'm supposed to be the questioning one right now... But, I don't know... I really don't know." Quistis squeezed Xu's hand harder. "I mean, right now..."

"It seems so helpless...." Xu muttered.

"And, I know that Squall feels the same. Just by seeing the look in his eyes in Centra. I think if Nida weren't there, he would have broken down completely."

"Nida's liked Squall for a long time."

"I know," Quistis said. "Without him, right now, I think we'd be in a lot worse of a position. And, Squall would probably be dead."

Xu frowned darkly. "Squall better not do anything to hurt Nida."

Quistis smiled sadly. "You were always so protective of Nida. I'm sure he would resent it. He's not a child. And, it's not like he's been pining away for Squall. He's just got a little crush on him." Quistis looked towards the window. "And, I think Squall has feelings for Nida, too."

"You do?" Xu cocked her head, her voice laced with scepticism. "Do you think that Squall is up for being President of Esthar?"

Quistis shrugged. "I don't think it really matters. If Adel is defeated..."

"Which means Zell's death," Xu pointed out, sternly interrupting Quistis.

"I know that! But, once Adel is gone, Laguna will probably wake up, and he'll run Esthar again. And, Squall will either defeat Adel, or die, so it's really a moot point."

"And, if Squall dies trying to fight Adel and Ultimecia?" Xu asked, already knowing the answer to her own question.

"Then, we die, too." Quistis's voice was very quiet. She looked at Xu, and felt tears prick just under her lashes. "I just want to be normal for once. Why does everything have to be a War?" She asked, her voice shaking. Her wall of resistance crumbled when Xu's arms came around her. Quistis gripped the front of Xu's SeeD uniform, and wept. Xu's hair moved comfortingly through Quistis's long, golden hair, and her voice was quiet and soothing in Quistis's ear. Quistis let her body be lowered to the bed, and she sighed through her tears when Xu lay beside her, still running her fingers through Quistis's hair, still speaking in soothing tones to her blonde lover.

"Why are we always at War?" Quistis whispered into Xu's coat. "Why is this happening to us?"

Irvine sat outside the door to Edea's chambers. He still was staying guard, not wanting anything to happen, but he couldn't be in the same room as anyone right now. He was still in shock, and couldn't even find tears to shed for the woman who he'd actually wanted to be with forever. Irvine knew that Xu had left out a large amount of detail pertaining to Selphie's death. But, maybe that was for the best. From the way that Xu had talked to him, he knew it had been very ugly and grisly. He also knew that Squall, Nida, Quistis and Raijin had been injured. He almost resented them. He was glad that they were alive, but why couldn't Selphie still be alive?! She was so energetic, so full of life. Irvine couldn't believe he would never see her face again, would never hear her laugh, never have to tell her to shut up because she was talking too much.

Irvine knew that Selphie had died because Quistis and the others wouldn't tell Seifer and Zell, or better yet, Ultimecia and Adel, where Edea was. Irvine knew it was the right thing to do tactically. But, it didn't feel right. He was glad that the others were okay, and that they prevented Ultimecia from getting to Edea, but was it all worth Selphie's life? Irvine shook his head, resting his chin on the end of the barrel of his shotgun. He could just pull the trigger right now, and the pain would disappear, but that would leave Edea open for attack. And, if Ultimecia got all her power, everyone would end up like Selphie, suffering until the end.

He shook his head. Why couldn't he cry? It hurt more than anything. Maybe because Selphie would have wanted him to be strong. He would protect Edea, and get revenge on Adel and Ultimecia for doing this to the woman he loved. It was true. He had loved Selphie. He had loved a lot of women, but never been in love with them. Selphie was the only one he'd actually fallen in love with. And, now she was gone. Selphie, I won't let you have died for nothing....

After wandering around aimlessly, Squall had decided to follow the smell of food cooking. His stomach greatly agreed with the decision, and he walked towards the kitchen. He couldn't pick out any one smell, but at that moment, cooking dog food would have smelled decent. He could smell fresh vegetables, and something sweet. Baking products of some kind. Squall was practically drooling when he got to the kitchen. He was willing to go down on the chef if he could have some food. And, that thought really didn't leave his mind when he looked into the very large kitchen.

Nida looked up from a pot, and smiled sadly at Squall. "Hello...."

Squall cocked his head, coming into the kitchen. Nida was the only one around, except for one Tonberry, who was chopping vegetables, and seeming to be having the time of its life. Nida was taking some of the vegetables that the Tonberry was chopping, and putting them in a big skillet. He pulled out a bottle of herbed oil, and covered the vegetables. It looked very colourful and good. There were carrots, green onions, cucumber, water chestnuts, zucchini and mushrooms. When the oil was heated, Squall sighed. It smelled so good.

"What are you doing in here?" Squall asked. "Where's the Chef? And, why is that Tonberry in here?"

"The Tonberry is in here because I couldn't get him to leave until he could chop some stuff, so I decided to kill two birds with one stone. He's actually very good at it. And, the Chef is... Somewhere. I asked if I could make some food, and he was really happy. He left really fast." Nida bent slightly at the waist to look in the oven.

"What smells so good?" Squall asked, popping a piece of raw carrot in his mouth, which caused the Tonberry to give him a reproachful glance.

"Cheese filled Tortellini, with these stir fried vegetables and sauteed chicken on top. And, Banana Chocolate Chip Squares..."

Squall's eyes widened. "Sounds good...." He bit his lip.

"Want some? I've made plenty. I'm also baking bread."

Squall breathed out. "God, yes, I'll have some. It all sounds fantastic....." He sighed deeply. "I haven't been very hungry lately."

"It's understandable," Nida muttered. "Okay, that's enough vegetables...."

The Tonberry gave Nida a sad look, and continued to chop at the already cut pieces, making them smaller. He also looked over at Squall and Nida, seemingly interested in their conversation.

"So, why are you cooking?" Squall asked, putting some eggplant in his mouth.

"It helps me deal with stress. I always cooked. I used to make cookies all the time when I was a kid. I had a cookbook that was all really easy recipes for children."

Squall cocked his head. "So, it's like an escape?"

Nida nodded. "Yeah... It makes me feel... I don't know... Better, more useful."

"It's at least constructive. I deal with stress by shutting off my emotions..."

Nida snorted. "Better than drinking yourself into a stupor." His voice was dark and harsh. He looked over when an oven timer went off. He took a pair of oven mitts, and opened the oven. Squall almost drooled all over himself when the smell of the Banana Squares filled the kitchen.

"Damn, those smell good...."

"They're too hot right now...." Nida said, putting it on the counter. He looked at the Tonberry. "Don't touch."

I'm not stupid, you know.... The Tonberry muttered sarcastically into Nida and Squall's mind.

"You sound bitter..." Squall said quietly, turning his attention back to Nida. "Did someone in your family drink?"

"My mother," Nida answered, beginning to stir the grilling vegetables. "I think she didn't really want to marry my father when she did. She was young... She had family pressures."

"Do you still see her?" Squall asked.

"Once and a while," Nida muttered, turning down the heat on the Tortellini. "I'm closer with my Dad. He's the one that got me interested in planes. He also taught me how to cook. My mom was usually too drunk or depressed to cook a lot."

"Must be nice..." Squall mused. "About your father, I mean," he amended. "I wish I could have done things like that with Laguna. I would have probably been a different person. Maybe that would have been better."

"Don't say that," Nida mused, looking into Squall's eyes. "There's nothing wrong with the way you are now." Nida cocked his head. "Everyone looks up to you...." Nida went to a cupboard, and pulled out two large plates. He also pulled out a big strainer, and poured the Tortellini into it, draining the water away from it into the sink. "I mean, you have natural leadership qualities, you're smart...."

"Maybe I would have been... Friendlier...?" Squall mused, making it a question.

"Just because you don't talk a lot doesn't mean you're mean."

Squall sighed. "Nida, I'm sorry."

Nida looked up from putting the Tortellini on the plates. He put the pot back on the now cooled element, his face a mask of confusion. "What for?"

Squall stepped a little closer, wanting to be closer to the smell of the food. He also noticed that as he got closer to Nida, he could pick up the scent of the other man. The mixture of his shampoo, soap, and some sort of gentle aftershave made for a really sexy mix. It was very subtle, and was nowhere near overpowering, like some other men, but it smelled really nice. Sort of exotic and mysterious. "I'm sorry because I've treated you so badly all through school, for as long as we've known each other. I mean, you saved my life so many times at the Ruins. If it weren't for you, we would have been killed by the Omega Weapon. And, all those times you piloted the Garden when we were fighting Ultimecia for the first time..." Squall took a breath. "You've saved my ass so many times, and I never thanked you. Not even once. I mean, I didn't even remember that you graduated with us...."

Nida smiled gently. "You remember now, don't you?" Nida began putting steaming vegetables and chicken pieces on the pasta. "But, it means a lot to me. Thank you."

"What's it really like being empathic. I was wondering if it hurts you...."

"Hurts me?" Nida echoed. "What do you want to drink? White Wine?"

Squall's eyebrows went up. "Sure...." He cocked his head. "Are you trying to liquor me up or something...?"

Nida blushed deeply. "No.... What, you usually don't have wine with a nice dinner?"

Squall snorted. "I don't usually have nice dinners."

Nida began tearing up some parsley, and put it on for garnish. "Squall...." Nida shook his head. "Never mind."

"Nida, how long were we sleeping?"

"Just over a day. And, I know what you're going to ask, and no, I don't feel Adel and Ultimecia, and no, I don't want to talk about it, okay?" Nida turned his head away, but Squall could tell that he was thinking about what they saw happen to Selphie. Nida brushed his hands free of the parsley, and began to busy himself with something else. But, Squall caught his wrist.

"Nida.... Stop...."

Nida looked at Squall, strain tugging at the corners of his almond-shaped eyes. "Squall, I don't want to talk about it right now, okay? I don't want to think about it at all. It'll be plaguing my nightmares for a very long time, so I don't want to picture her any more than I have to." Nida balled his hands into fists. "I can still hear her screaming."

"I know...." Squall whispered. He kept his hand on Nida's wrist, and rested the other one on Nida's shoulder. He pressed his forehead to Nida's temple. "It's my fault.... Seifer and Zell want revenge on me and my father. And, Selphie's dead because of that...."

Nida pulled away gently, looking in Squall's eyes. "You really think that you're to blame? Adel and Ultimecia did this. They were the ones that attacked Selphie, they were the ones that mutilated and tortured her. It is not your fault, Squall."

Squall sighed deeply. "You can make me feel better all you want, but it won't make the dreams go away..."

Nida cocked, his head, and brought the plates to the table in the small nook of the kitchen near the window. "This is a really nice kitchen. I wonder how big the Industrial one for the Soldiers is downstairs..."

Squall sat down, noticing Nida's attempt to change the subject. He complied. "It's pretty big." Squall looked at Nida as the other man sat down. "Nida, I'm sorry."

The Asian man grumbled. "Would you stop apologizing?" There was a pause. "They told Irvine about Selphie."

Squall nodded sadly. "After meeting with Xu and the others, I'll have to give a notice of War..."

"So, you have decided to...."

Squall nodded, tasting some of the vegetables. He closed his eyes. "Wow...." He forked some more into his mouth, relishing the herbal taste. "This is really good."

"I'm glad you like it..." Nida whispered, tasting some of his own. "I should have added some more spices to the chicken...."

"Why? It tastes fine the way it is..." Squall said, taking another large mouthful. Now that he was eating, Squall didn't know if he would be able to stop before he got sick. He didn't realize how hungry he was until now.

"You know, you don't have to inhale it," Nida pointed out after a few minutes of silent eating. He took a drink of his wine. "Your teeth are there for a reason...."

Squall smiled sheepishly, looking down at his plate, which was now almost empty. "God.... I was hungrier than I thought...." Squall popped a grilled piece of red pepper into his mouth. "You should really take it as a compliment. That was the best food I've had in a long time..."

Nida turned his head away, but Squall could tell the other man was blushing from his compliment. "Thank you... But, it's not like I've done anything spectacular..."

"Compared to what Rinoa used to try and cook for me, it was a masterpiece."

Nida smiled distantly. "Was she a bad cook?"

Squall laughed, getting up as Nida did to help him remove the dishes. "Oh, the worst. Well, she could sort of cook, but she always added just... Stuff. She thought it wasn't really cooking unless you threw in a whole bunch of crap. And, it always made it taste really funny, like it had been thrown in a compost heap first."

Nida cracked a grin. "You were really happy with her once."

Squall's smile faltered. "We had a lot of problems.... But, it wasn't all bad. I guess I'm a better person because of her...."

"Do you miss her?"

Squall stopped, and it caused Nida to bang into him. Nida put the dishes on the counter so he wouldn't drop them. "I'm sorry, that was stupid of me...." He apologized hastily, turning his attention to cutting the Banana Squares.

"No... It's okay...." Squall whispered, turning around after he'd put his plate on the counter. "I mean, I haven't really thought about it. I mean, Rinoa was the first girlfriend I ever had... The first anything. Of course there were good times. She was the first person I kissed, the first person I had sex with..." Squall cocked his head, looking at Nida intently. "You don't want to hear about my relationship with her, do you?"

Nida stopped cutting, his whole body stiff. "Why does it matter to me?"

"Look at me," Squall commanded gently.

Nida laughed, briefly looking at Squall before lowering his eyes again. "We don't have to talk about Rinoa anymore if it's too painful for you..."

"Her death was horrible, but it doesn't hurt me to talk about my relationship with her." Squall reached his hand out quickly, gripping Nida's chin. He forced Nida's doe brown eyes to meet his own. "It's you that doesn't want to talk about it...."

Nida shrugged, craning his neck away from Squall's touch. "Why wouldn't I want to talk about it? Maybe because Zell broke her neck right in front of my face!" Nida offered Squall a square. "Just because I don't wail and cry about it doesn't mean it didn't affect me."

Squall sighed, taking a bite. He closed his eyes, and felt like he was having an orgasm in his mouth. "This is the best thing I've ever tasted!" He licked his lips and savoured the chocolate and banana flavour in his mouth. He frowned at Nida. "I know how you feel, you know...." Squall took another bite. "Rinoa was my girlfriend at one point. We may have had problems, and I may have slapped her, but I still cared about her." He polished off his square, and crossed his arms. "But, we weren't talking about Rinoa's death. We were talking about my life with her, and that's what you don't want to talk about."

Nida snorted, and began wrapping up the leftover food. "I honestly don't know..."

"I don't get it," Squall interrupted. "I mean, does my relationship with her hurt you in some way? Are you jealous because you don't have a relationship like it? I don't think that's it, because you aren't that shallow."

"How would you know?" Nida asked defensively. "You didn't even remember I graduated SeeD."

Squall inhaled his breath sharply. "Look, I know I was an asshole, okay? But, I know that you can't be jealous because you wanted Rinoa, because I know you're.... gay....." Squall trailed off, the last word coming out as a mere whisper. "Oh...."

Nida said nothing, putting the fresh bread in a paper bread bag. He purposely turned his face away from Squall, because he could feel the hot, embarrassed flush coming across his cheeks. He opened the fridge, putting the pan of Squares in it.

"Do... Do you have a crush on me?" Squall asked quietly, watching the spot between Nida's shoulder blades. He narrowed his eyes when Nida didn't answer. He saw that Nida was going to try to leave. "Nida..." Squall said in a stern voice.

Nida turned around quickly, and Squall could tell that he was embarrassed. His cheeks were stained pink, and his eyes were glittering. Squall thought he actually looked very cute. "So what?" Nida asked hotly. "I mean, you're good looking. I'm sure I'm not the only one who thought about you in a sexual way at one time or another...."

"Do you still think of me that way?" Squall asked.

Nida fidgeted nervously, not responding.

"Nida..." Squall trailed off. He bit his lip, feeling very awkward. He and Nida just stood there, Squall looking at the other man, biting his lip, feeling his cheeks grow warm with a blush. Nida played with the hem of his shirt, keeping his eyes glued on his hands. He couldn't find the strength to look at Squall. He'd found the strength to look at Selphie, and the horror that she had experienced, that she had become, but he couldn't bring himself to meet Squall's gaze.

Squall took a couple steps forward. He reached his hands out, stopping Nida's fidgeting fingers. "Nida...." Squall whispered. "How long....?"

Nida laughed shakily, feeling his throat closing up. "Does it matter?" He asked, raising his head, finally meeting Squall's eyes. He felt a little comforted in the fact that Squall was blushing as well. "I mean.... It doesn't mean anything, right?"

"You're lying," Squall whispered. "I can see it in your eyes. Just tell me." He cocked his head. "How long have you liked me?"

"I honestly don't know. Maybe since I knew what sexual desire felt like... I mean.... It's not like I was pining away for you.....You were always this fantasy that I could never reach...."

"You could have said something..." Squall whispered.

"No, I couldn't have," Nida answered quickly. "You didn't even remember my name. And, you would have just brushed me off. You did that with everyone who tried to be your friend..."

Squall flinched. "Ouch...." He shook his head. Those words made him sound very ugly. "But, I guess it was true."

"Can we just forget this whole thing happened?" Nida asked nervously, trying to pull his hands away from Squall's grip. But, the other man was holding him fast.

"No...." Squall trailed off. "We can't forget about it. I wouldn't be able to forget it happened, even if I wanted to...."

Nida blinked. "Huh?"

Squall blushed, finding it hard to search for the words that he wanted to say. He sighed deeply, and just decided to blurt it out. He always over-analyzed everything anyway. Why couldn't he just say what he wanted to? Rinoa had always tried to make him be more open. "Maybe I like you, too...." He said, spitting his words out quickly. After he'd said them, his face flushed as crimson as Nida's.

Nida made a small noise in the back of his throat, one mixed between surprise, shock, confusion, and delight. He couldn't fathom why Squall would have said it. Maybe because Squall wanted to let him off the hook. Did Squall actually... like him? "Squall...I...."

Squall titled his head in, deciding that since he'd already not listened to his brain by blurting out that he felt an attraction to Nida, as well, that he would keep ignoring his brain. Nida's words drifted into nothing as Squall's lips landed on his own. It was a very gentle kiss, of just flesh pressed against flesh. Nida felt like he was going to swoon, mostly from just confusion. Squall was kissing him? And, his lips were so soft, and he could taste the chocolate still hanging on them like a sweet ghost. With their lips still touching, just barely pressed together, Nida moved his hands out of Squall's, whose grip was loosened. Nida gingerly moved his hands to Squall's chest, laying his open palms on Squall's pectoral muscles. Squall felt Nida's hands on his chest, and wondered if Nida was going to push him away. But, Nida opened his mouth against Squall's, taking the scarred man's lower lip in between his own.

With their kiss deepened, Squall's hands moved around Nida's trim waist, and pressed their bodies closer together. Squall could feel Nida's heart racing against his own chest. Squall's own heart was matching the hurried pace, and he felt the breath leaving his lung, being sucked out by Nida's soft, warm lips. And, as Squall suckled on Nida's upper lip, he realized that the other man smelled even better this close than he had earlier. Squall's arms tightened around Nida as the Asian man's teeth gently nibbled on Squall's quivering lower lip. One of Nida's hands moved up Squall's chest, and cupped the side of his face, which was warm with the flush in the scarred man's cheeks. His other hand worked over Squall's shirt, touching his nipples through Squall's tight green shirt.

Squall purred low in his throat, and poked at Nida's lips with his own tongue, trying to part them. Squall's hands moved up from Nida's waist, and tangled in Nida's hair, which was so soft against his fingertips. Squall pressed his lips further against Nida's mouth, mashing their lips together. He kept probing at Nida's mouth with his tongue, moaning when Nida's arms wrapped completely around him. It caused Squall and Nida's hips to press together, and Squall felt his cock twitch in his boxers. He couldn't help rocking his hips against Nida's. Nida moaned gently, a very delicate sound, and pulled away from Squall ever so slightly. Squall nipped at Nida's lips, while the Asian man's tongue snaked out of his mouth, and moved over Squall's lip.

Squall smirked, gently catching Nida's tongue between his teeth, which caused the other man to gasp in surprise. Squall brought Nida's tongue into his own mouth, his eyes rolling into the back of his head when Nida began using his tongue to taste the inside of Squall's mouth, running it over all the inner surfaces. Nida also rocked his hips against Squall's, his penis gradually getting hard. He still couldn't believe this was happening. He was actually kissing Squall Leonhart. This was like a teenage fantasy coming true, but far nicer than he could have even ever imagined. Squall tasted so good, and he was so warm. He sighed into Squall's mouth when the other man's tongue probed into his mouth. As they French kissed, their tongues moving together in a feverish dance, Nida was afraid that he was going to be slapped awake, and this would all just be another dream of his.

Squall groaned, his own growing erection bumping against Nida's trapped hardness. It had been so long since he'd experienced a kiss like this. During the last part of his relationship with Rinoa, they hadn't really been passionate, and any kiss he'd shared with Botany had been only a hasty prelude to faceless fucking. The closest thing had been the imagined kisses he'd shared with Seifer and Zell in his dreams, but this was so much better, because it was real, and it was shared. Nida was throwing just as much passion into the kiss as Squall was. As Squall's tongue lapped at Nida's, he was already thinking of taking this to a more private area, and he could tell by the way Nida's arms were tightening around him that he wasn't the only one with more involved things in mind. As Nida began sucking on Squall's tongue, he furrowed his brow, hearing the sound of someone clearing their throat. He knew it wasn't Squall, because he was standing so close to the other man.

Squall also frowned in confusion, pulling reluctantly away from Nida. They looked at each other, and sensed that they weren't alone. Squall looked over, and saw the Tonberry staring at them with interest. Squall rolled his eyes, looking back over to Nida with anticipation, wanting to keep kissing him. He tasted so good, and was such a good kisser. It seemed that Nida had more talents than being able to fly a plane. Squall's eyes narrowed when he saw Nida looking towards the door. He followed the other man's gaze, and he blushed furiously, stepping away from Nida.

Squall stammered, his face flushing horribly. The blood rushed away from his face when he realized who he was looking at. Dread and sadness overtook him. "Oh, hello, Mrs. Dincht...."

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