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mind games - chapter five

Title: Mind Games
Rating: R (for language... for now, at least.)
Pairings: Seifer/Zell (FFVIII)
Genre: humour, romance, action
Disclaimers: standard disclaimers apply, unfortunately.
Summary: It's been four years since the war, and friendships have dissipated. Yet, some have become even closer. A story about how Zell and Seifer cope with feelings they never had time to realize when they were young.
Word Count: 8,081/33,212 (chapter/total)
Notes: I'm just posting this here for archiving purposes. I've been posting it over at seiferzell for a few months now. I won't do it all at once, and spam up people's friend-pages.
one, two, three, four

“Alright. Uh-huh.” Quistis nodded, mostly to herself as the person on the other end of the line couldn’t see it, squinting up into the midday sun. “Understood. See you,” She finished, snapping shut the mobile phone with a quiet sigh. She tossed her hair into the warm, salty breeze sweeping in over the beach, and then turned around and ambled lazily across the boardwalk to the pavilion where a cluster of little tables sat under a lopsided awning, pulling out a wicker chair across from the other young woman waiting there. “Well, they should be arriving within the hour. Nida’s just made contact with the advance from Timber.”

“Right on schedule,” Rinoa hummed, sipping from a tall glass of lemonade. She gave a contented sort of sigh, leaning back in her seat. “Good old Nida.”

Quistis laughed. “Good old Xu is more like it, isn’t it? That boy would never get anything accomplished without her there kicking his arse to do it.”

“Yeah, true.” The brunette chuckled in response, casting her gaze out over the promenade, a few dozen other locals sitting out at the various cafes and restaurants that dotted the pier and enjoying the weather, her eyes lingering on the small gang of toddlers kicking around a weathered ball in the surf. Smiling fondly to herself, she went on, “I guess some things will never change, no matter how long I’m away.”

The instructor offered an appreciative chuckle, and they both lapsed into silence. Quistis spun her phone round on the tabletop idly. She had never felt particularly close to Rinoa - not as close as she felt to the rest of their gang, with the bond that they all shared - and she couldn’t be entirely comfortable knowing just how much unseen power lurked beneath the other girl’s airy exterior, kept in check only by a few skillfully crafted trinkets of Odine’s. Not to mention she’d always found Rinoa somewhat, well, annoying - although, despite the little she’d seen of the young sorceress over the past few years, she could tell that Rinoa had matured a great deal in that time - both circumstances that didn’t much encourage any affection on the blonde’s end. However, she was beginning to regret that she hadn’t made any effort toward friendship in those years now, as she sat in awkward silence with the other girl, racking her brain for a conversation topic. Luckily, just a few moments after she had given up, Rinoa spoke again, sitting forward but with her eyes still lingering on the group of children playing on the beach below.

“So… how’s the gang?” She chirped, her question laced with the merest hint of forced jollity, which Quistis cheerily ignored - she couldn’t, after all, fault Rinoa for not liking her when she herself had spent the better part of the past five years determinedly ignoring the fact that Rinoa existed.

“The gang?” She repeated quizzically. Rinoa cocked her head to one side, thoughtful.

“You know. Everyone,” the brunette shrugged. “Squall?”

Quistis gave a soft chuckle. “You probably talk to him more often than I do, don’t you?”

“Well, yeah, but it’s not like he really… like… tells me stuff. You know how it is,” Rinoa said, heaving an exasperated sigh, and the elder’s smile widened just a bit. Yes, she knew how it was - and it was somewhat refreshing to find that even Rinoa hadn’t managed to break Squall of his reticence; it was reassuring, somehow, to know that his gruffness was universal and not directed solely at any particular individuals. She nodded knowingly.

“And, what, you think he’d tell me stuff?”

“Well… no,” The sorceress laughed, brushing a stray lock of dark hair from her eyes. “I guess not. Are things running smoothly, at least?”

Quistis shrugged. “As smoothly as they ever have, I suppose. All the students really look up to him, though, so there are never any serious problems.” She paused thoughtfully. “Except…”


“No, nothing.” Except Seifer, the instructor thought to herself, but she shook her head and Rinoa seemed content to drop it. It wasn’t really an appropriate subject for such a casual meeting as theirs, anyway - just something that had been on Quistis’ mind lately… indeed, something she hadn’t been able to get off her mind for quite some time. It’s not like she was exactly worried, or anything, but there was definitely a note of concern to be had, which was one of the reasons she had suggested letting Seifer go to Esthar for a few days, hoping that a brief vacation might just cheer the gunblader up a bit - Hyne knows she wasn’t the only person who was sick of seeing him brooding around the Garden in that perpetually gloomy state of his. Not that Seifer had ever been a particularly cheery sort of person, of course, but after his return at the end of the war, his depression had more or less plateaued, until a month or so ago when his mood seemed to have taken a turn for the worse. And if Quistis wasn’t worried about Seifer’s mental health, she could at least be worried about the safety of the rest of Garden; docile as he’d been over the past few years, she wasn’t entirely certain he was to be trusted.

She couldn’t help but wonder what Seifer really was doing at Garden… she’d assumed he only came back after the war ended because he had no place else to return to, but it was painfully obvious that he didn’t want to be there, so why stay? Because no one else will have him, she concluded glumly - that was one of the reasons Squall had in the end decided to give him a place in Garden; the other was mainly a security issue - damage limitation, as the commander had so diplomatically put it - Seifer needed to be kept under supervision, he needed to be somewhere neutral, where he wouldn’t be condemned for his past actions, so that maybe he could heal and grow. At least, that’s what Quistis tended to tell herself; the bottom line was that as long as Seifer was going to refuse to cooperate with their efforts to rehabilitate him, he was going to remain a prisoner of Garden, and that would certainly make anyone depressed, wouldn’t it?

But lately… Quistis sighed, her thoughts turning over and over in her mind. Lately, something was going on. She was sure of it. Seifer was up to something - and Zell was in on it, whatever it was. She didn’t honestly think the two of them were sleeping together - the very idea was too strange to even consider - but they were most definitely hiding something, and she was going to find out what it was if it killed her.

“Selphie?” Rinoa interrupted her train of thought suddenly with this inquiry, and it took Quistis a minute to return to reality. She shook her head to try and clear her mind, as if to dispel any thoughts of Seifer and Zell and any schemes they might be plotting behind her back, and tried to focus on what Rinoa was saying now - what was she saying again?


“I asked how Selphie was doing?” The brunette repeated.

“Oh,” Quistis blinked. “Fine, last I heard. You know how she is, never a bad day.”

“Yes, I suppose,” Rinoa laughed. “Well, what about Zell?”

“He’s…” The instructor stopped, frowning. She had been about to say that he was fine, but now that she put some thought into it, she was fairly certain that he wasn’t. The last few times she’d seen him, he had looked distinctly melancholy, despite the valiant effort he put into keeping up a front. Was it possible that that had something to do with Seifer, as well?

“He’s not fine?” Rinoa prompted when she failed to continue. Quistis bit the corner of her lip in misgiving.

“Well, I’m not entirely sure, to be honest,” she said with a short chuckle, giving a shrug. “Now I think about it, out of all of our little group of friends, Zell is the person I see the most, and yet he’s the one about whom I know the least.”

“But that’s not your fault,” the young sorceress replied. Quistis cocked an inquisitive eyebrow at this declaration, and Rinoa added in explanation, “Well, Zell keeps things pretty close to heart, doesn’t he? Personal things, that is.”

“I… I suppose he does that, yeah. I never…”

Rinoa sipped her lemonade, sitting back in her chair, dark hair fluttering in the warm breeze. “It took me a while to figure it out. He seems like he’s very open, doesn’t he? Always acting real cheerful and cool.” She stirred the melting mass of ice cubes in the bottom of the glass with her straw. “But the things that really bother him, he keeps them hidden. He’s very guarded, don’t you think?”

No, I never had thought, Quistis agonized to herself, but she drew out a tepid smile. “Yes, that’s true. I just wish I did know what was wrong. I haven’t the heart to ask him outright and ruin all that hard work he’s put into appearing cheery.”

Rinoa gave a small, bubbly chuckle. “So there is something wrong?”

“I think there is.” A quiet pause. “I think he’s lonely, actually, but it’s not really my place to…”

“It’s not? Why not?” The brunette scratched her arm absently, finally breaking her gaze from the troop of toddlers playing down on the sand to meet Quistis’ eyes full on. “You’re his friend, aren’t you?”

Quistis was silent, biting down on her lower lip in lieu of an answer. She was that, wasn’t she? It had been a long time since she’d last thought of Zell as a friend - a coworker, a colleague, a fellow SeeD, yes, but when had she last been a friend to him? No wonder I don’t know shit about his personal life, she thought morosely. She sighed softly, but before she could even begin to offer up an explanation for this heinous error of judgement on her part, Rinoa sat forward, leaning over the table with a coy smile on her pink lips, and she said, “Listen, there’s going to be a big party on the boardwalk tomorrow night. I’m helping to host it. Why don’t you bring Zell along? There’ll be lots of SeeDs coming, and it might cheer him up a bit… and if all else fails, you can get him drunk and try to force the truth out of him. What do you say?”

The instructor frowned, a note of censure in her tone as she began, “Well… I dunno…” She mulled it over momentarily, weighing her distaste for such unseemly behavior as going to beach parties and getting drunk against her liking for the idea of getting Zell out of the Garden and meeting new people (and possibly squeezing some information out of him after he’d had a few drinks.) The chance was certainly not likely to come up again any time soon - Garden events were generally quite formal; nobody had fun at those parties, and being an instructor, Quistis didn’t tend to get invited to any of the students’ illegal, after-hours keggers. And after all, who ever said a teacher couldn’t break the rules and have some fun every once in a while?

“Dana! Goddamnit!” Rinoa jumped up from her seat, striding over to the edge of the boardwalk and leaning out over the railing. “I told you not to go out into the water like that! Get back here!”

The little redheaded girl giggled, scooping up her ball from the water and trudging back toward the rest of the group, while Rinoa watched, snorting in mild frustration. Quistis bit back a smirk as the brunette, satisfied that her young charges were minding her warning and staying out of the water, returned to her seat, rolling her eyes. “I swear, those kids. They won’t listen to anyone except Clara. Drives me fucking nuts. I don’t know why I’m stuck watching them, they like Watts way more than me.”

“Mmm,” Quistis hummed, rising from her chair and pushing it neatly back under the table, gathering her handbag from the deck by her feet and tucking her mobile into one of the pockets. “Well, listen, I’ve got to head back into town, I have to be there when Garden arrives and they probably won’t be more than a half hour. Can I give you a lift back?”

Rinoa shook her head, swiping flyaway strands of dark hair out of her eyes as she peered up at the other woman. “Hm, no, I’ve got to keep the kids out all day. The Owls are having a meeting at Clara’s house, and I’m stuck playing babysitter.” She scoffed, as if she thought it was ridiculous that the leader of a principal resistance group should be reduced to watching a bunch of toddlers - not that any of the factions that were still around had much to do in Timber anymore; since the Galbadian forces had been removed from the city over two years before, their work mostly entailed quarterly meetings with Galbadian officials to ensure that things stayed that way. Quistis only smiled, twirling her key ring around and around on her finger.

“Well, we’ll see you tomorrow night, then.”

“Oh!” Rinoa stood up, her spirits visibly brightened. “You mean you’ll actually come?”

“You sound like you’re expecting me to flake out.”

“Well, I…” the brunette shrugged. “I didn’t figure you’d go for the whole beach party thing. It doesn’t really go with your image, does it?”

“Hmm, well,” Quistis seemed thoughtful for a moment, walking the other way, toward the end of the esplanade where the truck she’d rented for the week was parked, and casting a cheeky grin back over her shoulder at Rinoa. “Maybe I’m going for a new image.”

“I don’t suppose you plan on telling me what the fuck you’re up to.”

Seifer barely glanced up from the very bland novel he’d been pretending to read while they waited for the train. “Fuujin, my dear, I’ve no idea what you’re talking about.”

“Mmmmm,” She nodded, stretching her disbelief out into two long syllables. “Tell me why I don’t buy that.”


“You’ve been acting weird the whole time you’ve been here,” she went on, swinging her foot impatiently, gearing up for what Seifer predicted was going to be a long, loud nag. “You’re spacing out. You’re always smiling at strange moments.”

“I’m not allowed to be happy?” He interrupted, shutting the book. He didn’t even know what it was, had just grabbed it off a pile in his room before he left, but it was obvious Fuujin wasn’t going to let this go, so there was no point in continuing to feign interest in reading. She stared at him with one red eye, her gaze promising violence if he didn’t cut the bullshit.

“You’re not happy. You’re…” she trailed off with a frustrated sort of sound. “Gleeful. You’re plotting something, and I want to know what it is.”

Why do you need to know?” Seifer countered, staring out past the terminal at the ocean beyond. His companion clucked her tongue.

“So I can decide what I need to do. Try and stop you, try and help you, or stay the fuck out of it.”

“You want my advice?”

“Damnit, Seifer, don’t be glib,” She snipped, tossing her hair out of her eyes. “Don’t forget that I do outrank you now.”

“Are you fucking serious? You’re pulling rank on me?” Seifer sat forward, all traces of humor vanished. Narrowing his eyes, he went on quietly, “Even if I am plotting, it has nothing to do with you. So I suggest you just stay the fuck out of it.”

He sat back, and they both were silent for a few minutes as the sound of a train clattering in the distance gradually moved closer. Fuujin pursed her lips, and said, at length, “I’ll find out sooner or later, you know. You can’t keep silent forever.”

“Hm,” Seifer grunted in response, studying his fingernails. He glanced up. “Speaking of silent, what’s Raijin’s deal? He hasn’t said two words to me at once since I’ve been here,” the gunblader frowned, peering down to the far end of the bench where Fuu’s partner was dozing, his head lolling to one side. She pursed her lips, clearly not thrown off by Seifer’s skillful evasion of the subject she’d been pursuing.

Eventually, she shrugged, and answered, “Every time we go abroad, I threaten that if he says anything stupid or incriminating, I’ll Silence him. He’s been heeding it rather well after the first few times, I gotta say.”

“I should have guessed,” Seifer sighed with a disinterested nod. That was patently the sort of thing Fuujin would do if she felt that anything, say, a careless comment at the expense of a foreign leader, should threaten her cushy job. Seifer snickered at the mental image of Raijin cowering from a chakra-wielding Fuu - not a novel idea, by any means; he’d always been afraid of Fuujin (well, weren’t they all?) but it had never stopped him from acting like a retard before, and Seifer felt a small surge of pride on his best friend’s behalf for having finally found something that worked to curb her partner’s propensity for blurting things out without thinking about them first. She did not, however, appear to appreciate this any, still giving him the stony eye, clearly not about to give up her henpecking just when she’d got started.

“Yes, it’s working quite well,” She went on pointedly, seeming nonchalant although Seifer knew she was anything but. “I’m considering adapting the strategy for other situations as well - many people, for instance, can be goaded into giving up information under threat of Pain…”

“First you pull rank on me, and now you’re threatening me?” The gunblader snorted. “And here I thought the world had turned upside down, but you haven’t changed a bit.”

“I’m offering you my help here, Seifer.” She replied quite softly, folding her arms across her chest and staring away at the train that was rolling to a stop at the end of the platform. “If you don’t want it, fine, but I’m offering it all the same. I’ve stuck with you through a lot of things, and whatever you’re scheming now I’m sure I can handle. So.”

Seifer was pensive. “Ah, the guilt trip. I was waiting for that.”

“You know what? Fine. I don’t give a shit what you do,” Fuujin announced tersely, standing from the bench and staring determinedly away from Seifer, clearly angry with him, but he knew it wouldn’t last long, it never did - Fuujin’s anger was like a gale; wild and destructive, but brief. She kicked Raijin viciously on the shin, and he awoke with a yelp, quickly wilting when he saw his partner towering over him with the look of death in her eyes. She turned, shooting Seifer with a sharp, piercing glare, and added, “But don’t you ask for my help later when you end up fucking yourself over, Seifer. I’m going to fucking enjoy watching you make an arse out of yourself.”

“Oh, I’m sure you will, Fuu,” Seifer replied calmly, rising from his seat as the three of them made their way over to the train, waiting for the small crowd of passengers exiting the platform to dissipate, Fuujin stalking ahead of the other two, Raijin limping behind alternately hopping on his good leg and massaging what was sure to be a brilliant bruise on the other. “I’m quite sure you will.”

“Hey, don’t I know you?”

Zell jumped in surprise, clutching his plastic cup of beer to his chest as it threatened to spill. Holy fuck, where did she come from? he wondered, eyeing up the young girl in a cobalt tube top who had just appeared seemingly from nowhere in front of him, a drink in each hand, two strawberry blonde pigtails bobbing up and down as she bounced. She didn’t look familiar to him, and she certainly wasn’t one of his students. He hoped she wasn’t one of Rinoa’s ditzy friends sent round to try and hook him; she’d been directing girls his way all night long, for what purpose he couldn’t fathom (besides simply to satiate her need to interfere in everyone else’s business, hopeless snoop that she was,) but it was sure getting annoying. However, in response, he simply said, “Sorry? I don’t think we’ve met.”

“Your name’s Zell, right?” She chirped, sparkly pink lips stretched into a tipsy grin as she wavered from side to side, her feet sliding in the sand. Zell swallowed a sigh. “No, I mean, you don’t know me, I… but I know you,” She went on. “You fought against the sorceress, didn’t you?”

He gave a short nod, taking a drink of his beer. The girl gave a small whoop of laughter, waving one of her drinks at him excitedly. “I thought it was you! I’m from Galbadia Garden, I was there when you guys fought her! I was an underclassman then, so, like, they would let us go in the fight, you know, the invasion. But I remember seeing you. I’m Nelthilta, by the way,” She ended with a slightly drunken titter, and then drained one of her drinks, tossing the cup behind her into the dunes so that she could extend a now-free hand to Zell, who took it reluctantly, forcing a smile.

“Nice to meet you…” he mumbled, and she chuckled again, appearing to be completely smitten with him - wonderful, he grumbled to himself, just what I need, drunken girls falling all over me. Really, how shameless could Rinoa be? And where the hell was Quistis when he needed her? If anyone could scare away all these bimbos simply by being at his side, it would be his fellow instructor, but she had vanished almost immediately after they had arrived at the party, despite the hours she had spent earlier that morning goading him into going to it. He wanted to go look for her so that he could leave already, but the thought of the scolding he would surely receive for disappearing without her was beginning to look like a sunny stroll in the park compared to having to stand around here any longer, drinking piss-warm beer and waiting for Rinoa to run out of friends to send over his way. Nelthilta was teetering from side to side, watching him blearily.

“I think I’ll have this,” Zell declared, plucking the drink out of the poor girl’s hand and dumping it in the sand. She gave a hugely exaggerated pout, now completely divested of alcohol.

“I was drinking that.”

“Yes, well, you’ve had about enough,” He said gently. She didn’t appear to be particularly angry with him, however, and suddenly leaned in close to his ear, her long, soft hair sweeping over his shoulder.

“Hmm, you know…” she murmured, placing a hand on his chest for balance as she swayed in the sand. “My friends and me rented a hotel room in town, but, umm, they’re all, y’know, out right now… so maybe you could, like, help me find my way back?”

“Uhh…” Zell faltered. Was she proposing what he thought she was proposing? Don’t be a dolt, Zell, of course she is, he mentally berated himself. He backed away a few steps, trainers sliding in the dry sand, and Nelthilta pitched forward without anything to lean against, catching herself just in time to keep from going face first into the side of the dune. Zell stammered, tossing about for a reply; she was obviously expecting a favorable one - wait, why the hell was he even thinking twice about it? This should be a no-brainer, just say sure, head on back to her room, and spend the night having hot, delicious, drunk sex with a very pretty girl. Hell, wasn’t this exactly what he had been looking for for the past week?

Nelthilta was certainly pretty, petite with a sylphlike face and pale green eyes, slender limbs and one hell of a rack. As far as looks went, she was just what he usually went for and more. But something about her, Zell couldn’t even begin to place what, but something appealed to him on a deeper, more subtle level - and he had a feeling it had little to do with prettiness. It was something, he thought briefly, something more latent, and he couldn’t quite grasp it yet. She was too… too… familiar

“Oh, shit,” he moaned as he suddenly realized what dark, appalling thought was lurking at the back of his mind, and he all but leapt backward from the confused young girl, who tumbled into the sand with a yelp. It couldn’t be. No, that was too messed up even for Zell, who considered himself only slightly better off than Squall in terms of messed-up-in-the-head-ness lately, to be thinking. There were plenty of viable reasons not to sleep with this girl, besides the fact that she was roaring drunk and, Zell was inclined to suspect, not particularly of age - if she’d been an underclassman five years ago, she would barely be eighteen now, if that. But despite the fact that, even if this girl was a legal adult, it would still be exceedingly wrong to sleep with her given the circumstances, there was a small part of him that wanted very much to, even as he realized where he had seen eyes like hers before.

She was making an effort to climb to her feet now, her front crusted with sand which she attempted to dislodge from her cleavage with awkward swipes. “What the,” She began, pausing to hiccough as she gave a small sob, “Fuck d’you think you’re doing?”

“Sorry, I’m sorry,” he stammered, backing away. “I, um, I can’t…”

“Damn right you can’t!” She barked back, stumbling in the other direction, but making little headway as she continued to lose her balance in the unyielding sand. “You can fucking forget about it, fucking jerk!” she shouted back over her shoulder, snuffling as she clumsily made her way down the dune. Zell stood rooted in place, lost for words. Well, at least she’s leaving, he mused bitterly.


“Oh, thank fuck you’re here,” Zell breathed in relief as Rinoa came jogging up, beelining to intercept her inebriated friend, and shooting a half-curious, half-peeved glance up at him on the way. She laced an arm around Nelthilta’s shoulder, speaking softly to the young girl as she led her away toward the bulk of the party, leaving her in the care of a group of girls relaxing around a bonfire. The brunette then spun around and shot straight back up the beach, charging toward Zell, but he had already turned and fled the other way - not quickly enough, however; she caught up with him at the drinks table, her dark eyes promising unpleasantness.

“What the hell do you think you’re doing, Zell?” She crowed, looking only slightly angry on her friend’s behalf, and more like she was only irritated that he’d run away from her - not many people dared. She went on, “You made Nelthilta cry!”

“Well, where the fuck do you get off sending all your dopey girlfriends over to me like I’m some kinda fuckin’ charity case?” He spat back, ladling punch (or what looked like punch, at least,) into a plastic cup. Rinoa’s glare sharpened, and then melted again, and she leaned against the rickety table, lithe arms folded over her chest.

“First of all, I didn’t send Nel anywhere - I don’t know where she came from and I ran over to try and distract her as soon as I saw she was bugging you,” the young sorceress began to explain, her tone a bit too miffed for Zell’s liking - he never did like knowing he was the cause of someone else’s annoyance, especially Rinoa, who, though perhaps a bit flakey, had always been a fairly sweet girl. He took a swig of his punch (which, judging by the taste, was approximately nine parts liquor to every one part juice, but that certainly wasn’t going to stop him from downing it,) and he was trying to think of some kind of witty retort to serve back at the piqued little brunette, when she continued, “And pardon me for being worried about you! You looked like you were having a terrible time, so I just thought I’d-”

“Meddle?” Zell interjected, stopping her short in the middle of her tirade. She gave a slight pout.

“Listen, I’m not the only one who’s concerned,” She defended herself, at least having the grace to look sheepish as she stared determinedly away from Zell. “Quistis is afraid you’re lonely.”

“Yeah, she’s almost as bad as you when it comes to that whole meddling thing.”

“Now, this is just what I mean,” Rinoa said, a note of exasperation lacing her would-be nonchalant tone, and she peered over at the blonde through her eyelashes. “I know we don’t see much of each other anymore, but even I can tell there’s something off about you. You’ve never yelled at me before.”

“Well, I’ve never been as annoyed with you as I am now,” he replied flippantly, but it was only after they’d both gone silent again that her words fully sunk in, and they stung more than he’d expected they would - if even Rinoa, whom he only saw for any length of time once every few months, if that, could tell that he wasn’t feeling himself, then who knew what Quistis or anyone else had figured out by now? Was he just completely giving himself away? Perhaps Rinoa was simply more perceptive than his other friends - no, the idea just wouldn’t keep. He must have looked as dejected as he suddenly felt, because her expression went very soft, and she gave him an encouraging sort of pat on the shoulder, a touching - if slightly awkward - gesture.

“Well,” she began at length, snapping a cheerful face on as quickly and easily as slipping into a new tee-shirt. “You’re welcome to come to me any time you feel like spilling the beans - I know you won’t,” she then added, and Zell had to give a little chuckle only because it was true. “But I’m just putting it out there. I know you’ve got to be careful with what kind of stuff gets out in a place like Garden, especially with you being an instructor. I can’t imagine you have anyone you can really confide in there…”

“No shit…” Zell sighed in response, finishing off his punch and turning to fill the cup again. Only after he’d guzzled half of it down did he begin to wonder if maybe Rinoa wasn’t just what he was looking for - not a good lay, but a friend to whom he could divulge certain things that just weren’t tolerated at a military acadamy; an impartial observer, a bystander. Except for the fact that she was dating Squall, and Zell didn’t know how tight they were… she seemed like the kind of girlfriend who would tell him everything about everything, no matter that he probably didn’t give a shit. Besides, what would he even tell? Well, Rinoa, I feel like I’m going batshit insane with paranoia lately, and oh yeah, I’ve been having lots of homoerotic thoughts about a guy I’ve spent a good part of my life hating with a vengeance, have you any advice for me? That was sure to go over well.

“Zell?” She prompted after a few long moments of silence, the quiet punctuated by the breaking of waves over the sand and the dull roar of the winding-down party they’d left behind. Zell mused over his punch, declining to answer. Rinoa had once dated Seifer, a brief chapter of her life which she declared to this day had been merely the result of a silly teenage fancy (although she was no longer a teenager, but only marginally less silly.) She might understand - there was something about him, a sort of charisma, that made attraction impossible to resist, and Zell was only now beginning to realize and accept its presence.

“It’s really nothing big,” He replied eventually, forcing an acceptable amount of nonchalance into his voice and hoping that it would fool the young sorceress, but he couldn’t read anything of her expression in the dim flickering glow of the firelight. He shrugged and continued, “But I appreciate the offer all the same. And I’m sorry I was short with you.”

“Oh, please!” She chuckled, slapping him hard on the shoulder. “That’s already forgotten. I just want to be sure you’re alright.”

“I’ve already said, it’s nothing,” he reiterated, cracking a weak grin as Rinoa nodded and smiled and then excused herself back to the party that was tapering off further up on the beach, leaving him mercifully alone for the first time that night. He gnawed pensively on the corner of his lip as he watched her go, pale yellow sundress billowing out in the breeze. At least, he thought to himself, a grim smile creeping over his lips, it’s nothing a few more cups of punch can’t fix...

Seifer tossed away the stub of his second-to-last cigarette into the grass and was contemplating lighting up that last one when he began to hear someone approaching, and he sat up, cursing quietly to himself, to find someplace to hide; he’d taken a big chance having a smoke (or five) right outside the main entrance to Garden, but since all the other open-air areas of the school were guarded at night, he’d had little choice - and considering that this was the first time he’d heard any sign of another human being passing by in the hour or so he’d been laying there in the grass, he felt pretty lucky. But at this time of night, this intrusion upon his solitude could only be Garden faculty or a security guard making rounds, and he certainly didn’t need to be caught red-handed committing a double felony - smoking on school grounds and being out-of-bounds in the middle of the night. He swept the half dozen cigarette butts littering the ground around him into a nearby flower bed, and then crouched behind a clump of bushes, taking great care not to be visible from the entryway.

What would my posse say if they saw the once-great Seifer Almasy, hiding behind a bush like some kind of juvenile delinquent? he thought bitterly to himself.

The footsteps coming up the path were getting closer, but slower - and uneven, sometimes shuffling and stumbling, and Seifer sighed. So it wasn’t a faculty member, just some drunk student trying to sneak back in the middle of the night instead of doing the sensible thing and waiting until morning, when it would be easy to blend in among the rush of kids and teachers going back and forth to town. He almost left his hiding spot, annoyed that he’d had to do something so undignified as to squat behind a bush to avoid being caught, but then decided to stay put; it was still better to go unseen, even if whoever was staggering around out there was so tanked they couldn’t even see properly, let alone identify him.

He waited impatiently for a few long minutes, fighting against the urge to just peek his head out and see who the poor sot was - what could it hurt, really? He peered through the branches, smirking to himself at the unfortunate individual who was now trying with admirable determination to navigate the stairs, clinging to the railing for dear life. Seifer stared; something was familiar about that student… except it wasn’t a student at all, it was…

“Chicken-wuss?” He said incredulously, standing up before he’d even realized what he was doing; Zell spun around at the sound of his voice, toppling in surprise back down the few steps he’d managed to ascend.

“Speak a’ the fuckin’ devil!” Zell yelled, his expression gathering storm clouds as he recognized Seifer strolling leisurely toward him. He looked utterly wasted, the gunblader decided with a smirk, clutching the railing with a white-knuckled grip just to keep upright, his hair and clothes in total disarray, heavy-lidded blue eyes glaring up at Seifer with nothing less than pure loathing reflected in their glassy depths. “I was jes’ thinking about you!”

“Dare I wonder why?” Seifer replied coolly, glancing around just to double-check that no guards or students were loitering around the area, and he barely managed to dodge the punch that Zell threw at him the next moment; slow and sluggish though the younger boy was in his drunkenness, he was still a force to be reckoned with, and Seifer wasn’t all that sure he wanted to test whether or not he could take Zell in a physical fight. He backed a few paces away, crouching a dozen or so steps above the other boy, who was venturing to climb the stairs again now that his immediate target had moved out of range, muttering something that sounded very much like, “I fuckin’ hate you, fuckin’ hate you,” over and over under his breath. Seifer might have found the sight pathetic, if he hadn’t been so amused by the martial artist’s plight.

“I’d give up if I were you,” he suggested after Zell’s third failed attempt to make it to the top of the steps; he seemed to take Seifer’s advice, and sat down heavily halfway up, leaning against the rail for support. He shot a bleary glare over at Seifer, but he said nothing, rubbing his eyes tiredly. The elder reclined where he sat a few steps up, still glancing over his shoulder from time to time to make sure they wouldn’t be happened upon by any of the Garden faculty members, but enjoying the situation too much to really be worried about what might happen if they were. The tables had been turned; Zell was the wasted one, and Seifer was in control now, and he was sure as fuck going to take advantage of this beautiful opportunity that had been dropped into his lap.

“So what are you doing out here?” He asked calmly.

“What are you doin’ here?” Was Zell’s retort as he half-turned to shoot a menacing glare up at his nemesis.

“Watching you make an arse out of yourself, and I’ve gotta say, it’s a lot of fucking fun.”

“This is all your fuckin’ fault, Almasy!” The younger boy shouted suddenly, and Seifer bolted down the stairs, clapping a hand over his mouth before he could raise any unwanted attention to the two of them. Zell was shocked into complete silence by this abrupt action, swatting wildly at Seifer’s hand in an attempt to remove it from his face, fortunately able to keep quiet even after he was released. Seifer knelt next to him and tried to pull him to his feet, with no assistance from the martial artist himself, who seemed determined to refuse any help and was only gradually making his way to his feet, swaying slightly in place.

“What th’fuck do you want, Seifer?” He slurred angrily, but at least quietly, sending another halfhearted swing Seifer’s way and almost toppling over from his own momentum. The gunblader growled under his breath, grabbing Zell’s arm to steady him, but he wasn’t particularly angry; how could he be, with such hilarious circumstances as these?

“Right now I’d really like to get the hell out of here without rousting the whole Garden faculty, so why don’t you shut your big fucking mouth and concentrate on getting up the goddamn stairs?” He murmured in a venomous tone of voice, hauling the inebriated younger boy up the steps one at a time.

“I hate goddamn stairs,” Zell grunted.

“I’m sure the feeling’s mutual.”

“This is all your damn fault, y’know,” he went on drowsily, jabbing Seifer in the shoulder to emphasize exactly whom he was talking about. He swayed back and forth but they managed to ascend the stairs without incident; Zell stopped for a moment at the top to regain his balance, leaning heavily on the taller boy’s shoulder. “Fuck, I hate you.”

“You’ve said that already,” Seifer said.

“It’s all your fault.”

“You’ve said that, too,” The elder sighed, heaving Zell upright again and pulling him onward through the main entrance and down the corridor. He seemed to be faring slightly better now, and shuffled along on his own, leading the way although he didn’t appear to have a very good idea of where he was going. Twice Seifer had to steer him back on the right path before he wandered off into the parking lot or tumbled over the partition into the still pools of water twinkling below them in the dim fluorescent light. They did, however, eventually reach the dormitories (and without encountering a soul, Seifer mused briefly; he sure was lucky today,) and this was where Zell collapsed again, slumping down in the corner behind a pillar with a rattling sigh, looking as though he might be sick - not that either of them would be surprised if he were.

“Why the fuck’re you even helping me, anyway?” He growled accusingly, as if assistance was the very last thing in the world he wanted, and Seifer was sorely tempted to just leave him where he lay if he was going to be so ungrateful. It’s not like I’m doing this for your sake, he thought to himself, but to tell Zell that would raise suspicions over his motives that he really didn’t want to deal with right now, when there was still a rather large chance that they could be stumbled upon by security or some other Garden faculty member, or even a student who happened to be out of bed or heard the noise they were making and came to investigate. No, better to try and get Zell back to his dorm first and deal with the questions later - there were sure to be some once the younger boy figured out what Seifer was up to.

“Because,” he started tersely, grabbing Zell by the elbow and yanking him back to his feet, draping the other’s arm over his shoulders to keep him steady, “You may not have a curfew, but I do, and if you hadn’t noticed, I happen to be breaking it right now. And you’re making a whole hell of a lot of noise, so I’d like to get someplace safe before anyone hears it and finds us out here. Is that quite alright with you?”

“No!” Zell slurred, struggling wearily as the gunblader tried to get him walking again. “I got another question!”

“Can you at least walk and talk at the same time? Or are you incapable of multitasking?”

“Fuck you!” Zell said, rather too loudly in Seifer’s opinion, and swung another easily-dodged fist at the older boy, but refused to move from his spot. “What the fuck are you planning, and why can’t you jes’ leave me the fuck alone?”

Seifer didn’t think it would be worth the argument to point out to the other that he had asked two questions, and he stepped away from Zell, folding his arms over his chest with a frustrated sigh. This was certainly going to be much more difficult than he had anticipated - but then, when had anything dealing with the martial artist ever been easy? “I could just leave you out here to stew in the corridor, if you want. It’ll make a good show in the morning when security comes to haul your drunken carcass down to the council for a hearing.”

“She was gorgeous, y’know,” Zell said next, picking up a new topic as if they hadn’t just been discussing something completely unrelated, and throwing his arm out dramatically to emphasize the point he hadn’t gotten to yet. “Well,” he continued angrily, “Not gorgeous, but she was pretty. But I… man, I couldn’t do it. I fuckin’ couldn’t.”

“What the hell are you babbling about now, Dincht?”

“I just couldn’t do it,” The younger boy mumbled, and then was silent for a moment. “She had some fucking nice tits, you know.”

“That’s why you couldn’t do it?” Seifer snarled, growing increasingly impatient with Zell’s drunken antics - whatever the fuck he was talking about, Seifer was quite sure he didn’t give a damn. The martial artist was still glowering at him with glassy eyes, his hands balled into tight fists and half-cocked in front of him; the boy was clearly spoiling for a fight, and Seifer was very determined not to give him one - not just yet. He took a few steps back to give Zell some space, waiting - hoping - that he would cool down and let the older SeeD guide him back to his dorm; a good deal of Seifer’s plan depended on just that.

“She looked just like you,” was the next thing Zell said, which made absolutely no sense to Seifer, not that anything the instructor had said in the past few minutes really did. He sighed again, too annoyed with the fact that Zell couldn’t seem to grasp a hold of what he wanted to talk about to be curious about what the blue-eyed boy was thinking about. Then again, maybe he was always like this, drunk or not - Seifer never really bothered to pay attention to anything he said, usually very focused on tuning him out, nearly always a futile endeavor.

“Sorry, Dincht, you lost me between ‘she had nice tits’ and ‘she looked just like you’,” He replied, taking Zell by the wrist and heaving him back onto his feet - he appeared to be sobering up a little, which might or might not be a good thing; Seifer needed him quite drunk for what he was scheming, but not so much so that the boy couldn’t even make it back to his dormitory; he needed to be sentient, but not lucid enough to be able to defend himself. It was a delicate balance, and Seifer had a feeling his window on it was closing fast; if he let Zell stand around here drying out any longer, he was going to lose his chance. He pulled the martial artist down the hall once more, Zell now subdued and quiet - thankfully - following obediently like a puppy on a lead.

“Where we goin’?” Zell murmured after a minute, hobbling along steadily as Seifer shepherded him through the winding hallways into the instructors’ wing of the dorms.

“To your room, Dincht.”

“Huh,” he said, not a question, but an affirmation of what Seifer had just told him. “What’s the point of this?”

Seifer smirked, and had Zell been able to see the expression on his one-time bully’s face, he might have run away in fear for his own safety. But Seifer only said, “Oh, that’s for me to know and you to find out…”



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